How HR Leaders Can Lead Changes

May 19, 2017 6 Min Read
Citibank’s Lee says they need to be agents of change

Last week, a group of us drove up to Penang, excited with the opportunity to meet top human resource (HR) leaders from the north.

Every quarter, our team at Leaderonomics would gather the HR fraternity from various parts of the country – Klang Valley, Penang and other areas – just to meet, sharpen each other’s minds with new ideas and understand some of the key challenges facing the HR organisations in those regions.

The Penang HR network was themed around how HR professionals could become agents of change by helping to grow and drive their business to the next level of greatness.

I was pumped up for the session as I have always learnt great nuggets of wisdom from previous HR networking sessions.
This session was somehow different. Instead of HR leaders speaking, we had two prominent chief executive officers (CEOs) sharing what they believe HR should do to truly become agents of change.

Citibank Bhd CEO Lee Lung Nien along with Roshan Thiran, CEO of Leaderonomics shared deep insights into – as well as frustrations with – the HR function, and provided specific advice and tips on how HR could evolve into business partners and become agents of change themselves.

Roshan Thiran, CEO of Leaderonomics.


The session kicked off with Roshan briefly sharing about his frustrations with the HR function that led to him moving into the function to “try to sort it out” many years ago.

HR is a function that many employees get agitated with. In fact, less than 10 years ago, many HR leaders believed that their goal was to pay employees and keep the company out of court.

Imagine how uninspiring that would be, if your role was to make sure your own employees don’t sue the company they worked for. There are many other reasons why employees tend to get upset with the HR function.

Some HR professionals may have excellent HR competencies but may not necessarily know the business, resulting in them being unable to connect and fully appreciate issues and situations.

Worse, HR is often viewed as policy-crafters and blockers and not truly problem-solvers. These issues give HR a bad rapport.

Lee Lung Nien, CEO of Citi Malaysia

Lee reinforced this notion that HR leaders need to be agents of change in whatever organisation and position they are in. He challenged them in the audience through a variety of creative exercises and activities to internalise leadership, and instil the idea of them becoming a leader of influence in the organisation.

In many organisations, HR is relegated to the role of an administrator to manage payroll and key office services.

While Lee pushed HR leaders to do that role efficiently, he emphasised on leveraging technology to eliminate non-productive or non-value work out from their day to day roles.

He knows many HR leaders are functional experts within the organisation when it comes to people matters. Yet, that is not enough.

It is key to be competent in the people space but Lee’s challenge to each HR leader present was to move up a notch and become a strategist, or even up another level to become a trusted advisor to stakeholders within the organisation.

He cited an example with culture. Many times, HR leaders are thrusted to drive culture for the organisation.

They however, barely take a strategic view to partner and collaborate with the CEO and line leaders in enabling every employee to know the company’s vision, let alone directly develop intentional processes and rituals to embed the organisational culture to drive results.

HR has to move away from just using gut feel to leveraging big data and digital tools to drive results in the organisation. Only then can they truly become trusted advisors and “earn a seat at the table.”

This might interest you: 4 Takeaway Lessons From Lee Lung Nien, Citi Malaysia CEO


Adversity quotient

Another big area where Lee felt that the HR function could improve, was in cultivating grit. To him, nothing in this world happens by chance. It takes significant effort and continuous perseverance to overcome obstacles and adversity that will be at every corner of your journey.

HR leaders need to be resilient and have the courage to take risks and push themselves.

In fact, he advised HR leaders – when recruiting new hires – to not only look for IQ (Intelligence Quotient), EQ (Emotional Quotient) and DQ (Digital Quotient) in the interview process, but also seek out AQ (Adversity Quotient), which is essentially the ability to get knocked down and get back up again, when hiring someone.

His final point to all HR leaders was to do a reality check. Like the Michael Jackson song Man in the Mirror, HR leaders (and all heads of departments) need to do a hard reality check to see if they are truly reflecting characteristics of an agent of change, or merely pretending to be one.

A “go-to”, “can-do” attitude and healthy dose of the “Likability Quotient” (LQ) can be more important than just having high technical competency – as it effects your ability to influence and lead.

Every HR leader needs to look at oneself in the mirror and know our strengths and weaknesses, in order to truly be an agent of change.

Constantly self-examining by writing down goals, personal aspirations and development areas, can significantly help grow your ability to inspire.


The digital HR Leader

Whilst Lee drove home the importance of being a strategic HR leader, Roshan shared one way for HR to truly influence businesses in Malaysia: by being competent in the digital space.

With the Fourth Industrial Revolution changing physical, biological and digital realms, HR can make a huge difference by taking non-value work out through digitisation and realigning the organisational structure for productivity and growth.

Read also: Are You Employable For The Future?

A simple way to do this is to map the “employee experience” touch-points. He shared that most savvy marketers use sophisticated tools to map each touch-point in the “customer-experience” journey.

They then ensure that each customer touch-point is managed in the most optimal manner to ensure a “wow” experience for the customer.

HR needs to do likewise for employees. By mapping the “employee-experience” journey, HR can focus on ensuring a “wow” experience for each part of the employee journey.

He added that HR professionals could also focus on the employee experience before they are hired and, manage the “rejected employees” experience. Most organisations have to reject some applicants but instead of making it a bad and painful experience for many candidates, HR has the power to turn this process into a positive experience.

He cited how the HR team at Virgin managed the rejected candidate experience so well that it yielded them US$7mil in new revenue.

This was crucial in this new era where employee engagement is critical for the retention and productivity of your employees. Roshan shared another simple tip: most employees care more about their children and families than they do their work organisations. HR needs to understand that.

As such, engagement with the employees’ family and children is critical to win the “hearts and minds” of the employees.

He shared some examples of how Leaderonomics has helped organisations run leadership camps for employees’ children and how this created deep family engagement with the organisation, even leading to better engagement scores and retention.


My final thoughts

I never realised how much I can garner from CEOs who shared their take on what the HR function should focus on. I am personally committed to learn at least 20 minutes a day about digital initiatives and how HR can leverage technology to make a difference in organisation; just check out this HR software in Canada

With the advent of big data, I have promised myself to be a more analytical HR leader and champion innovation in my own organisation.

At this HR Network, I was challenged to step out of my comfort zone and truly “be an agent of change”. So, I am taking that to heart and will be striving to make a difference in everything I do. I urge you to do likewise.

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Khoo Hsien Piao is the CEO and leader at Suka Chemicals. Previously, he was the head of media at Leaderonomics and had a career in finance and accounting before migrating to movie making.

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