Interview: Shahzad Umar

Shahzad Umar
Human Resources Executive Director, Nestle Malaysia Singapore

"I enjoy seeing people achieve on a personal and professional level. For me, witnessing the change and progression is the most fulfilling part."


From engineering to HR

Shahzad doesn’t hold any qualifications related to HR. In fact, he holds an engineering degree and started his career at Nestlé as a trainee engineer in 2001, and it is at Nestlé where he has spent his entire career. When asked about whether he would recommend taking a similar career path, he remarks that he doesn’t recommend the practice of ‘job hopping’. However, movement across job families surely supports in broadening one’s horizons and gaining a better understanding of the value chain.

Very early on in his engineering trainee program, he accepted his first HR related position where he assumed the role of a Technical Trainer for a factory. After completing his first year in the company, he was transferred to another location and was tasked with the objective of setting the HR function for this factory. Not many people will consider making a switch from engineering to HR, but Shahzad enjoys what he is doing. “I especially enjoy seeing people achieve on a personal and professional level. For me, witnessing the change and progression is the most fulfilling part.”

Shahzad mentioned that understanding the business is important. However, at the same time it’s equally important to know the context within which the business operates and the dynamics of an organization, as these factors play a significant role in determining the HR strategies of the organization.

Pakistan and Thailand

After two years as HR Manager of a factory, Shahzad moved over to the Corporate Office of Nestlé Pakistan and headed the Recruitment & Organisational Development team.

Then in 2008 he was sent on a one year mission to Thailand as Compensation & Benefits  Manager for Nestlé Indo-China, covering five countries: Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.

In 2009, Shahzad was transferred to Malaysia and took charge of the Organisational Development and Training & Learning Department for Nestlé Malaysia & Singapore.

He stayed in this role for three and half years. In late 2012, he returned to Pakistan, where he was appointed HR Head for Pakistan and Afghanistan and stayed there for another few years.

Reflecting on his overseas assignments, he believes that these experiences outside of his home country, Pakistan, have been extremely beneficial for his career. “Working abroad helps with self- reflection, obtaining experience in a wide variety of scenarios and nurturing your own skills. My role in Thailand in compensations & benefits was actually a step down with regards to my job grade and total package but, as I needed the experience in the C&B domain, it was a very meaningful exposure for me.”

After three and half years into his role in Pakistan, Shahzad received a call from his manager asking him to come back to Malaysia and become HR Director for Nestlé, an offer which he duly accepted.

Understand inner workings

Shahzad wouldn’t necessarily advise aspiring HRDs to follow a similar path or build up their skills in a similar way. “There is no definite way to reach HRD, as there are so many different paths to achieve your goals.”

One of the more difficult tasks for an HRD is to balance the interests of the C-suite and board with those of employees. In order to do this, he believes that it is very important to be an insights advocate. “You must learn the skills to effectively convey the messages of what the organisation is thinking and how you can communicate those thoughts to the employees. You have to know how to gain consensus from both parties.”

Understanding the inner workings of running a business is essential in this, and he believes that for any HRD this is the most important thing one has to understand. He is wary of the situation that most line managers would consult Google for people issues rather than talking to HR managers, because they think HR is not practical enough and doesn’t understand fundamental issues. By having a thorough understanding of the inner workings of running a business and an organisation, an HR professional can instill confidence.

Be observant

While most HRDs enjoy networking, Shahzad hasn’t done much of it in his career. He believes in different ways of reaching your goals. “Aspiring HRDs must think of employability from the sense they are marketable. They must have the willingness to learn, be it from observations or from books or by meeting people.”

He believes in different ways to build up the necessary skills and experience that would make you a suitable candidate for HRD. “The way I built up my profile and the necessary skills needed was by gaining those critical experiences that any organization would value for sure in an HRD.”

He believes that any HRD must have good communication skills, while also being able to know how to inspire the organisation. He adds that any HRD also needs to know how to convince their peers and what’s more, they have to be observant and have the ability to self-reflect.

Advice for aspiring HRDs

Working as an HRD means putting in long hours. Shahzad doesn’t believe in having a work-life balance; instead, he believes in a ‘work-life blend’ and “everyone has his/her own blend”. “Time has to be utilised according to your personal needs.”

He also shares some insights others once have given him. “A piece of advice that I have been given during my career is that ‘done is better than perfect’. I feel that continuous improvement is an important mindset to have and one should always look for opportunities to improve themselves.”

As a final word of advice to people starting off in HR, he wants to share that “you should really know yourself”. “All experiences are individual in nature. Any aspiring HRD or for that matter any person in general should focus on being the best at what they do and the opportunities to grow and progress will come.”