A pivot from FMCG marketing to pioneering People & Culture in diverse organisations
Kitty: How did you end up in HR, people and culture and was it what you expected?
Michael: I actually graduated in Communication Arts (which isn’t related to HR at all!) My early career was in marketing as Consumer Insight, so research. Then I switched to HR and spent almost twelve years in FMCG. I had a chance to grow from being a junior recruiter to step up and generally touch on L&D as a HR business partner. I also got a chance to oversee regional HR, taking care of multiple countries.
I’ve been privileged to be part of setting up the company in Bangladesh and had exposure leading Nepal, also led Australia, New Zealand and recently (prior to my current job) was part of JD Central, the tech startup between Jinjong Group JD.com China and Central Group of Thailand. I’ve been a member of the pioneer team in the early stage until the last stage of the company. Now I'm with the only unicorn from Malaysia which is a marketplace pre-owned platform. So I’ve had diversity in terms of culture, working in different product categories and industries.
Regarding how it’s different from what I expected, it's a big difference because (as I mentioned) I switched from research to HR to avoid numbers! But alas, as soon as I touched higher levels, it’s numbers every day…
Kitty: So much of HR is making those data-driven decisions. Because your impact is so much bigger than just a marketing campaign. It touches the entire organisation, so it's always more confident having numbers behind the decisions.
To lead change, HR needs to be backed by systems that are ready with the right data
Kitty: You've been all over different geographies, different markets, different industries as well. When it comes to startup HR and in Southeast Asia, what resources or support do you wish you had more of when it comes to restructuring or other kinds of change management?
Michael: The common challenge for startup HR in terms of transformation is the readiness of the system. Although we have so much software and technology in place, in terms of the software or tools HR have (if you compare to sales marketing) we are still much less advanced. That's why most of the time, we’re still spending time on manual work. When HR is leading a transformation or change we need to spend more time with people, but we’re being pulled in to do paperwork or manual work. This is what I’ve experienced, whether it’s at big well-funded firms or startups.
When HR is leading a transformation or change we need to spend more time with people, but we’re being pulled in to do paperwork or manual work. This is what I’ve experienced, whether it’s at big well-funded firms or startups.
I had a short period with Line. It's a big tech company, right? I've been with JD Central, which is purely tech ecommerce. When people look from the outside, you’d “think this is tech” so everything should be very automated and much less hectic. But if you look at what’s making HR’s life difficult, the number one is the system because we need to have the numbers behind all the metrics. On some metrics, it's difficult to quantify the number. There’s a classic quote shared recently on social media: If the CEO comes to us and asks what is the ROI of spending on training staff, that is a classic case of HR being challenged when doing engagement, L&D, or any OD activities, it cannot really translate into dollars and sense. We need to really work to come up with why we’re doing these things and how to make it efficient.
In the ten years I've been in industry, I can see evolution. But in HR, we still have difficulty with our systems. For example, HR still does payroll manually. We still have a hard time training people to use the system properly.
How HR can be less transactional and be a true partner to the business
Kitty: Things backstage always look different from the front stage experience, and getting that stakeholder buy-in for some of the decision support systems you guys need.
Regarding the relationship between the business side and HR: you've come from the business side, from marketing. Do you have any thoughts on how HR people can be more strategic or work better with the business? Especially after a restructuring or some kind of transformation, is there some opportunity to be more integrated in how to work together?
Michael: This is a big gap, how to make HR become more of a strategic business partner. From the beginning, HR was very transactional, like operations. That’s why people have the perception of what HR does: you pay salaries, annual leave, vacation, medical insurance, recruitment, interviews, contracts, employment, and so on.
After 5-10 years, now there’s the concept of a “HR business partner”. It's a nice name, but how to make HR become a true business partner? We have to accept that for this transition to happen, HR needs to move beyond HR KPIs. I still have my HR KPIs nowadays but when we interact with a business partner like sales or marketing, we need to start with the business rather than HR.
It's a classic case in every market that whenever the numbers don’t come (e.g. there’s no sales growth) then the hiring manager says, “HR, you need to find more good people, you need to fill more vacancies”. From the HR point of view? Yes, this is my KPI. How many days to fill the position? How much volume to fill? Get good people, candidates with a good pedigree, good education background, from big firms. Then at the end of the day, it doesn't really work out. This is a common mistake. It's not their fault, it's our fault.
To become a business partner, you have to put the business first and start questioning while giving advice to internal clients.
To become a business partner, you have to put the business first and start questioning while giving advice to internal clients. Sales isn’t growing and they’re asking to add more people? The question is, do we have the right size for the business? Do we have the right sized team? What exact skill set is missing? Sometimes it's not about having enough people or good people, but maybe it's about the communication, synergy between the team, the collaboration, transparency and information floating around the organisation. Sometimes to fix something, it doesn't always come with a very traditional approach.
HR’s role in advising on ‘routes’ to get to a certain destination
Michael: Some of the young HR folk in my team who have been business founders are very good because they can step away from traditional HR. They're still doing HR jobs, they help recruit, think about promotions and incentives. But they're starting from the business need, the pain point, then the solution is not just a principle or from a textbook. I always convey this approach to my youngsters. Don't think about HR, think of another world: let's say you are a Grab driver. Your clients call you, yes, Michael, please come. And then I pick my clients and ask them where to go. If they cannot tell me where to go, then I cannot help.
But if they tell me, “Michael, I want to go to a shopping mall”, then I can give them options. Okay, you want to go there? What do you want to do? If there are other choices with a faster, easier way, or using less resources, or if you want a specific mall, then I can change the route and still reach the destination, but via a different approach. This is something we should practise. Before you are constrained by our function, start by understanding the inside, the real need of your internal clients and find out what exact outcome they expect.
This is the art of human communication. Sometimes they say, “I want this”, but technically they don’t. They might imply other things because they're not confident or comfortable to be really transparent. “Okay, yes, Michael, I cannot deliver the numbers and the only excuse I can tell my sales director is I don't have people. In fact, I have people already, but they cannot perform. The line manager doesn't have a good relationship with the team.” So you want to add a new face to help him to turn around the team? If we can build that kind of trust, relationship and understand the pain, we’d realise it's not about adding people, but how to make the whole team work.
Helping the business be more intentional with promotion and leadership development
Michael: With line managers, we have to accept one thing: when we graduate, we start as a first year, as junior officers, and then we perform. We hit KPIs and then we get promoted to become supervisors. Then you have the people, but you've never liked managing the people before. You might have been managed, but it doesn't mean that you know how to manage.
This is another classic case: when I was with a pharmaceutical company, we had a huge team of sales people on the field. We had one person who was a very high performer who could hit 120%, 150% of their KPIs, the highest was almost 200%. It was crazy, even the sales director could not do that! Then the sales director comes to me, “Michael, you have to promote this person because this guy delivered double the other sales people”. And I’d say, “Yes, he can perform. But how will you ensure that this person can be a people manager?” This kind of thing always happens.
It's about how HR gives advice, how you elaborate what should be done. Of course it's not just saying no or telling them this isn’t the way to do it. But you have to educate them, help them understand and try to give them the best resources. These are things any HR should aim for, to evolve into a business partner. You need to understand their plans, you need business acumen to know exactly what the business needs.
The last is the application. If you understand your client’s needs, what the business needs, then you can create the bridge to build this collaboration, trustworthiness, partnership and then your success.
If you understand your client’s needs, what the business needs, then you can create the bridge to build this collaboration, trustworthiness, partnership and then your success.
Kitty: That was a great example because we’ve seen that scenario you described time and time again. People getting promoted prematurely, especially in startups. Because before the recession, talent was so hard..
Michael: Early in my career at big well-funded FMCG firms with everything structured, the process was there. There were very few promotions without any preparation. But when I jumped into a tech company, it was another story. I always tell my OD manager that promotions in a tech company are like a circus, because everything can be a surprise(!) Somebody can get a raffle and be promoted, whereas somebody might work crazy hard, but still not get promoted.
This is the challenge for HR jumping into a startup. First, you need to build yourself in strong fundamentals. Second, you need to build relationships and trust with your clients. Then you need to identify the right approach for managing talent. Then educate your partners on the right thing to do.
One of the tips I learned from my past six years of tech experience is that when you come from a well-funded company, you learn a lot of good structure, good processes and frameworks. But in a tech startup, you need to put that to the side. You can’t use every framework in a tech startup because you need to be more realistic about what’s needed now and what is nice-to-have.
When you come from a well-funded company, you learn a lot of good structure, good processes and frameworks. But in a tech startup, you need to put that to the side. You can’t use every framework in a tech startup because you need to be more realistic about what’s needed now and what is nice-to-have.
At an early stage when I was with JD, I referred back to my processes in my previous company and believed JD should do the same thing in Thailand. But after two months I realised that wasn’t going to happen. With the speed, the demands, the expectation from the business and the resources, I could not do everything. I needed to pick what was important, what was a must-have. For the nice-to-have, I just put it aside and that was okay. When I have more space or more luxury, then I can bring it back but I need to complete the must-haves first.
Kitty: Yes, we need to prioritise and pick our battles because things change every week in startups.
So you talked about how the business side often comes to HR with the solution even though they don't know what the problem is or they won't admit what the problem is. And a common symptom is they want to buy the competencies and skill sets from outside rather than developing it from the people we already have.
Fast-moving startups can develop their employees by focussing on the fundamentals: people management competencies and crafting culture carefully
Kitty: Where do you see the role of learning for a startup? Because startups have limited budgets and would rather throw budget at dev or product, but maybe not so much at L&D. What would you say to a startup that's trying to understand how much to allocate to people development?
Michael: It's very important to allocate some investment to people development. But the approach may need to be different compared to other industries which have very strong fundamentals already. You cannot copy and paste what top Fortune 500 companies do to a startup because it requires a lot of time, systems, and a lot of investment which is not going to happen. But in terms of fundamentals, we know the business needs to go fast for a startup and although we hate it, we need to embrace change.
For people development, just focus on the fundamentals. Start from what exactly people managers should be. As a startup, people think about process, some will think about what training you need to provide. I get this question a lot, some startup company CEO or founder will text me on LinkedIn, “Michael, you have experience, I want to invest something on training. Can you suggest some?” Actually my answer is, before you jump into training needs, just start from what you expect from the company and working culture. On people development, don’t think about only functional competencies. Start from very basic, the people management competencies. Because this is how you craft your company culture.
Culture is not something you create by planning. Culture is the result of the behaviour of the people in the organisation. The founder, the top management, the leaders are the ones creating that ripple to become the culture.
Culture is not something you create by planning. Culture is the result of the behaviour of the people in the organisation. The founder, the top management, the leaders are the ones creating that ripple to become the culture. At the first stage, there’s no need to think about fancy things like Strengthsfinder or doing a lot of assessments. Go back to basics: what exactly is the way of working that you want for the company? What is the belief, what is the vision and mission of the company? Then from that vision and mission, how does it come to behaviour? From that behaviour, who can we promote, who can be role models? Then invest in your people managers or leaders first. Then when the leaders walk the talk, the youngsters will look up to them on how we do things, how we think about and solve problems, and how we prioritise. When we have conflict, this is how the leaders sit together to come up with solutions and move forward.
Yes, we need to send people for data science training and so on. But you need to build the fundamentals of business continuity and craft the right culture because nowadays, we're talking about Toxic Stars or Superperformers who can kill the company culture. It's a dilemma for the business if you have a Superperformer who is against the values of the company or way of work. How do you decide whether to keep someone who contributes 80% of the company or just keep filling roles for people who leave because of this person?
For an early stage startup, it's easier to craft culture first and then address functional training or competency training later (it's still needed). Go back to basics, to the variables and attributes under the iceberg first. The way we talk, when we have conflict in the organisation, this is how we go through that. You don’t want people to just show up to work and end up with a culture that’s really mixed. Startups often have difficulty with their culture because rather than building the talent now, there’s a trend of buying talent from outside. But when you buy the talent from different sources, they come in from different companies, backgrounds. How can you make sure they work as a team?
Startups often have difficulty with their culture because rather than building the talent now, there’s a trend of buying talent from outside. But when you buy the talent from different sources, they come in from different companies, backgrounds. How can you make sure they work as a team?
Kitty: Exactly, one person can really tip the scales of the culture and especially because startups are less established, there's less formation of the culture. Your first hundred hires can change the culture so much.
Personal growth comes from helping others be even more successful than ourselves
Kitty: Speaking of learning, what about you? What's in store for you for the year ahead? I know it's halfway through the year now, I can't believe it's June. How would you like to grow professionally?
Michael: After 13-14 years in different geography, industry, different working cultures, for me, I plan to grow myself. Actually, it still remains the same because I recently moved to a new firm. It's a completely new industry, I’ve never been in automotive before. Also a different dynamic in terms of the industry.
It’s more about how I can contribute. Bringing all of my complimentary skills from the previous exercise to put it in a new home. Back in 2010, when I switched to HR, what I really aimed for was to grow myself, to get a bigger role, I thought about when I would become the country head of Asia or whatever. Now I’ve completed my goal which I set in 2010.
My career aspiration is no longer about getting a promotion or pay rise. Of course I still want to get a pay rise, but something that motivates me every day as a professional is sharing my successes. I want to really share my learning, my knowledge, my experience to the next generation. It was more of a challenge for me back in 2010 when I had my goal and worked hard to find a way to reach the destination I wanted. Now I’ve completed it.
I want to be part of helping other people have similar, or even more success than me. This is really the value you're giving back, this is the real value of being a professional. It's not about what you get, it's about what you give.
this is the real value of being a professional. It's not about what you get, it's about what you give.
One of my juniors at high school, he's not good at English, he's not good at studying, he's not good at maths. He always said he doesn't have a good career and would end up with a difficult life. But I was his mentor for a decade. Now, he’s already marketing director for a local brand in Thailand. He came to me last February and said that without me, he would never have reached this point. I feel like this is true value.
I’m looking forward to contributing to this, helping young people learn from me (whether they are in my team or not in my team), spreading my knowledge even outside of the community. At the end of the day, I'm already 30-something and sooner or later in the next 20 years, I might retire. But the next generation, they're still in the business so if they learn from what I have learned, then my legacy continues under them. That is my aspiration.