Home Away From Home: From Fondue To Laksa

By Leaderonomics|28-06-2014 | 1 Min Read

Photo caption: The Seiler family


Late one afternoon in Mutiara Damansara, I had the delightful pleasure of meeting Marc and Hélène Seiler who had arrived in Malaysia with their young family in 2008 after living in the United States for 13 years. Marc was to be the chief financial officer of Nestlé Malaysia, and Hélène light-heartedly referred to herself as the “trailing spouse”.

Marc recalled how warm and welcoming Malaysians have been. He said,

It’s a big positive. People here are keenly interested in who you are.

And Hélène added,

There is no ‘end game’. Here, people just want to get to know you.

With regard to our avid interest in food, Hélène quipped,

That’s similar to the French culture!

Armed with her BlackBerry and a car, Hélène immediately set her mind to developing a Malaysian chapter of the human resources (HR) consultancy firm she had set up before moving here. And while she faced some challenges, she also received good advice on how to establish her business.

People development

At work, one of Marc’s early memories came as a bit of a culture shock as he recounted how everything he said seemed to be taken as the golden rule that was accepted and abided to. Rather contrary were Marc’s previous experiences in the United States and France, where teammates would challenge him and engage in a more animated dialogue on issues.

It took time for his team in Malaysia to feel comfortable and Marc invested the time and energy to building relationships. With mutual understanding, trust and respect, his team gradually started to engage more.

How did he do this?

“Invite them for lunch! Interacting with people, sometimes outside the office, was a great way to bond,” he shared.

Marc is also greatly involved in mentoring and coaching, as Nestlé has a strong culture focused on learning. The emphasis on HR tools and methodologies is important, with a greater expectation placed on senior leadership to provide input and support to their teams.

“It has been rewarding being able to share, develop and see people grow as a result,” said Marc.

Hélène has also been involved in developing Malaysian companies through coaching, with a focus on developing conversations, increasing engagement, having direct reports interact with each other more, and breaking down silos.

Coaching wasn’t mainstream initially. But gradually, companies realise that it saves time. The leadership of some companies have started to let go of their control, and delegate more.

More recently, Hélène has been working on coaching women leaders who aspire to reach top management positions. She is actively involved in helping support the Government’s efforts to retain women in the workforce in Malaysia. Hélène’s experiences across different markets and companies help her offer a slew of ideas and solutions to women.

“It is so rewarding,” she says.

Another fascinating area that Hélène supports companies with is through building relationships between expats and local leaders, by learning to adjust to one another.

Challenges faced?

“The notion of time,” said Marc with them both nodding in unison. In the beginning, they found it difficult. While waiting for workmen to come to their home, they got the “I’m on my way” phrase we all have heard before.

“Although the workmen arrived really late, he also stayed till past dinner time to fix the problem. And he didn’t accept any food either,” Hélène mused.

Marc and Hélène also agreed that they have experienced a drop in security over the years. Their two young teens find everything fantastic,

But we couldn’t let them roam around as they did in the United States. We hear more and more about crime.

Making friends

Hélène went on to say,

Being exposed to so many cultures in one country co-existing, has been fascinating. As the Government has lifted quotas for Malaysians to join international schools, our kids have been enriched by the opportunity to interact with and make local friends.

“My daughter has Malaysian friends, and knows everything about local politics, religions and cultures,” said Hélène.

“This diversity at school has really helped us understand our host country better. As part of the school choir, she can sing the Malaysian national anthem!” exclaimed Marc.

The people of Nestlé

People development is a key pillar to the long-term business strategy of Nestlé. Each business unit has a HR partner serving as an enabler to ensure its success. There is a great emphasis on engaging the right people with the right mindset, and much is done to develop their technical, functional and leadership skills.

“Many who joined Nestlé as management trainees have stayed loyal for 20 years; some have stayed 30 to 35 years. Loyalty to the company and loyalty to the brand have been astonishing,” Marc said with pride.

“It brings me back to the very positive Malaysia Boleh spirit. People want to be a part of something that works – with an emphasis on teams and not individuals. I believe the key for success is people development with exposure in and outside of Malaysia. In addition to exposure within our wide operations in Malaysia and Singapore, our employees can take part in exchanges with other Nestlé sister companies. We have exchanges within our geographical ‘zone’ across countries in Asia, Oceania and Africa but also with our head office in Switzerland. These exchanges involve working in a specific role for a few years or on a shorter period basis. The new developments through TalentCorp can facilitate this international mobility.”

Making connections

Hélène spoke of the strong relationships she has formed here in Malaysia, and wanting to still be around part-time after they leave one day. Marc chimed in that his previous boss who worked in Malaysia as the managing director still comes back to visit, and the managing director from the late 1980s continues to live in Malaysia till today.

From her circle of friends, Hélène knows that expats stick around and that the Residence Pass facilitates this. In schools, Hélène shared that expats are very engaged – with an army of volunteers and in providing assistance in the management of charities. Working with the UNHCR, expats teach, help the population educate themselves and support urban refugees, amongst others.

As the treasurer of the Swiss Malaysian Business Association, Marc has also had the opportunity to get involved in developing ties both ways, i.e. helping Malaysian businesses discover opportunities in Switzerland, as well as introducing Swiss companies to Malaysia.

What would you miss?

“The climate!” Hélène replied immediately. “Running, swimming every day. And certainly the smiles,” she continued.

“Food! Sarawak laksa,” said Marc.

Roti canai!” added Hélène.

Message to Malaysians

“Malaysians appear to be overly self-critical. They have so much to offer – people, natural resources, ability to speak English, central location in Asean, halal business opportunities and options for tourists. Malaysians should believe more in themselves,” said Marc.

Finally, Hélène advised,

“Don’t be afraid of people from abroad and don’t be afraid to engage. Don’t feel that you are not good enough. On balance, I believe I learned more during my consultancy work than my intervention imparted. Engage, exchange and collaborate. Malaysians have a lot to offer, just be a notch more daring. You’re moving in the right direction.”

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