At a young age, Arlene de Castro knew that she wanted to become a lawyer. It’s a dream she achieved while discovering new passions along the way. Balancing her roles as an entrepreneur, corporate lawyer and HR practitioner is a truly impressive feat. In the last few years, she’s been empowering small and medium Philippine enterprises through innovative backend HR and business solutions as Sprout’s Chief People and Customer Officer. She shares the highlights of her unconventional path and imparts insights from her success in the people space.
Discovering a Passion for People
Arlene’s first job was in outbound sales. It was a departure from her background in political science but she was a natural. Within 3 months, she became one of the company’s top salespeople. Impressed, the company’s president took notice. Asking about her career aspirations, Arlene shared that she wanted a career that inspires people. “You're a perfect fit for HR", he concluded as he ushered her into the space.
Monitoring Motivation, Not Compliance
“HR has been traditionally linked to compliance and the mundane tasks like timekeeping and attendance.” Breaking from the mould, Arlene forged her own path in this field by focusing on people experience.
How are you doing? Are you still happy here? What motivates you? Arlene typically asked these questions of her team, to the surprise of her colleagues. But the strategy paid off. In the span of three years, she became a HR Director with 1,000 employees under her wing. Her people-centric approach remains a cornerstone of her management style.
Putting Purpose at the Core of Culture
Not one to rest on her laurels, Arlene wanted more. She set out to learn more about other industries. Coming from a business process outsourcing background, she explored opportunities in firms specialising in architectural and financial services. She set up a beauty and wellness business before establishing her own corporate law practice, De Castro Law Office. These diverse experiences led to one key learning that has shaped her career: “HR is generic, culture is never static.”
Culture matters. Arlene is quick to recognise that having the wrong one is a quick way to show people the door. In contrast, good culture anchors people to organisations even when there are storms to weather.
While positivity and inclusion are important, Arlene draws attention to a core aspect of Sprout’s culture: a strong sense of purpose. “For us, it's really impacting the lives of every Filipino by improving business in the Philippines.” Imbibing that inspires ownership over work and even spurs gratitude from the team for the opportunity to participate directly in a deeply meaningful and transformative project. Catching this vision allows them to grow deep roots and commit to the company for the long haul.
Shedding Self-Limiting Mindsets
Philippine colonial history has had the unfortunate side effect of instilling deep racial insecurities - the white man effect - Arlene calls it. Regrettably, some still default to thinking that other countries are better, or more capable. In many cases, women still find it difficult to break free from cultural expectations that force them into traditional gender roles.
Doing away with these self-limiting mindsets can ignite the drive to excel and inspire global competitiveness. Realising their own ability to impact lives, Arlene sees this as a necessary step for Filipinos to elevate themselves and their countrymen. It lines up well with her personal mission:
“I envision myself to be this person who can inspire other women to be in leadership roles, to be in tech roles. Again, not confining themselves to being just housewives, not confining themselves to the typical standards of the world. I want to inspire these women and I want them to make an action as to their personal and professional life.”
There’s a popular myth that culture is set almost exclusively by founders. “Driving culture shouldn't come from the top. It's always a process of involving people from bottom to the top”. Arlene typically takes the temperature by engaging people at different levels in the organisation. Rank and file employees, middle managers and executives are asked about their understanding of the company’s mission vision and the current state of corporate culture. “Most of the time these different levels would have different interpretations of what the culture should be like.”
“If you don't have the buy-in from the ground up, then chances are, your culture building initiative will fail.” Finding a way forward is about consensus. Arlene invites various people within the organisation to participate in the process of codifying culture, ensuring that each department and level are represented. Ideas are exchanged, collated and voted on. “It's a democracy.” Individuals must be able to see themselves in the culture to commit to it. When it resonates, it sticks.
Seasonal Culture Changes
“Changing culture over and over again is actually a good thing.”
It’s the transition between each iteration that tends to be troublesome. There’s a lot of effort that goes into adjusting corporate culture. “We just have to be adaptable to change because change is the only thing that's constant in the world. If we don't adopt the change then we can never build that one culture that we want for a very specific period of time.”
Unforeseen events can cause major disruptions but they also present opportunities to work collaboratively on culture. This concept has been proven time and time again as the world responded to the COVID19 pandemic. Sprout’s culture manifesto changed thrice last year.
Recalibration was necessary. Arlene and her team were careful to communicate the rationale behind the changes but even then, they faced a degree of resistance. Adding grit to their culture, some interpreted this in a way unintended, thinking management just wanted them to work more. Clarifying that this aspect was meant to be time-bound, Sprout was able to get the support of the team across the board. Once the situation was under control, the organisation, as a whole and on an individual level, reaped the rewards of exercising grit.
Culture-building is an interactive and evolving process. Healthy work cultures are sensitive to people and their changing operating environments.
- In what ways can you help your team actively contribute to shaping your organisation’s culture?
- What aspects of your culture may need to change to help teams adapt to their current challenges?
- How might you help your reports recognise the significance of their work?