The DNA of an HRD – career advice from Asia’s top people leaders

The DNA of an HRD
Career advice from Asia’s top people leaders

Understanding the business “inside out” and actively looking for learning opportunities instead of getting comfortable are essential to reaching a senior HR role, according to top HRDs interviewed by recruiting experts Hays.

Building and leveraging a strong network and mastering the balancing act of considering the needs of individual employees with those of the employer are also essential to success.

These are some of the insights shared during a series of in-depth face-to-face interviews with five of Asia’s top HR executives and published in the Hays report, ‘DNA of an HRD’, along with the findings of an extensive survey of 570 other senior HR professionals.

The five HRDs profiled are:

  • Xiaoguang Sun, VP Human Resources, Youku, Alibaba Entertainment Group, Mainland China
  • Ricky Long, Director, People and Performance Asia, Colliers International, Hong Kong
  • Ai Miyakawa, Head of Human Resources, Cisco Systems, G.K., Japan
  • Shahzad Umar, Human Resources Director, Nestlé, Malaysia and Singapore
  • Wendy Montgomery, Head of HR Asia Pacific Red Hat, Singapore

No one way of reaching HRD

Each executive reached his or her current role via a different pathway. Ai Miyakawa studied psychology before embarking on an HR career that has spanned HR operations, payroll, compensation and benefits, HR Business Partner and Head of HR.

Shahzad Umar studied engineering and took on an HR-related training role as part of his engineering trainee program and found he was hooked “on seeing people achieve on a personal and professional level”. His roles across several countries include organisational development, compensation and benefits and training and learning.

Xiaoguang Sun studied HR, which was at that time, a fairly new discipline in Mainland China. He has worked for a number of large multinationals in roles starting off in training but quickly turning to senior HR roles ranging from strategy, talent acquisition to workforce planning.

Wendy Montgomery started her HR career in the British Army. She has been involved in delivering vocational qualifications and in recruitment, before landing her first HR Manager role and forging a senior path to her current role.

Ricky Long started his career as a management trainee in the hospitality industry. He has gained experience in industrial relations, learning and development, executive leadership development and senior HR roles across hospitality, manufacturing, telco and the property sector.

HRDs are business savvy

“To be a great HR professional, you need to understand the business you support,” says Wendy.

“It’s not enough to just be a specialist in HR. HR associates must know how each of the different departments’ supports the business whether it’s finance, product, or marketing. Knowing this will enable you to be a competent and strategic HR business partner that the profession calls us to be.”

Xiaoguang concurs: “By fully understanding the business inside-out, HRDs can do their job better and set and design strategic programs. They are also in a better position to participate in strategic planning if they have expertise in other functions within an organisation.”

Gaining a thorough understanding of the business was the top piece of advice given by 51 per cent of the survey group.

International experience

International experience was recommended as a way to gain knowledge of different people and company cultures, labour laws and even achieve self-reflection.

Shahzad has worked in Pakistan with added responsibility for Afghanistan, in Thailand with five country responsibilities and now in Malaysia. Wendy has worked in Gibraltar, Germany, the UK and Singapore and Ricky in Hong Kong and Canada.

Of the 570 senior HR professionals surveyed, only 29 per cent had worked outside of Asia at some point during their career but 45 per cent consider working overseas a must for career development and 47 per cent are currently considering a move outside their country.

Balancing act and personal attributes

Ai says senior HR executives must care about employees and at the “same time, care about the overall company success.”

“Ultimately, you need to understand how HR functions work and be open to different ways of thinking but what is most critical is the mindset that you are not just HR, but a business leader,” says Ai.

Wendy concurs: “It’s important to maintain a neutral viewpoint and establish what is fair and respectful for both sides. I would also advise you to think of yourself as a business person who is an HR professional.”

Xiaoguang says HRDs must have the courage of their convictions so they can make unpopular decisions when needed.

He explains that those that want to appease everyone struggle to make needed changes, “which is likely to curb your professional development”.

Network and consider sharing your knowledge

Most of our interviewees recommend networking to hear about new trends and opportunities and to gain technical knowledge whether that is by attending events or using social media. Several executives also give back as a way of staying connected.

Ricky has volunteered with professional HR organisations, Xiaoguang is a visiting professor at Sichuan International Studies University and Wendy recommends volunteering to speak at events.

“You can start small to gain confidence. It’s important to network and meet other like-minded HR professionals so that you can learn what they are doing in their organisations,” she says.

Networking was nominated as the top career development tool by 56 per cent of the Hays respondents. Of those, 73 per cent prefer networking events while 57 per cent use technical events to keep up with changing trends.

Social media was used to network with HR peers by 41 per cent of respondents with 88 per cent nominating LinkedIn as their social channel of choice. A further 47 per cent use Facebook and 40 per cent WeChat. Of the respondents from Mainland China, 91 per cent are on WeChat.

Final words of advice

‘Done is better than perfect’ was a piece of highly valued advice Shahzad received early in his career.

“I feel that continuous improvement is an important mindset to have and one should always look for opportunities to improve themselves,” he says.

Shahzad also advises looking to a wide range of experiences to help you develop professionally.

“Aspiring HRDs must think of employability from the sense they are marketable. They must have the willingness to learn, be it from observations, from books or by meeting people,” he says.

Xiaoguang tells HR professionals to be curious and “observe, study and ask questions from those around you” – something he still does himself learning from the outstanding entrepreneurs he works with at Alibaba.

Ricky also tells careerists to be curious but also to look for roles that allow you to gain hands on experience and develop HR technical skills and knowledge.

“To build up the necessary skills you need to put in hard work, be proactive, learn on-the-job, be agile and adaptive in taking on different challenges and be dedicated,” says Ricky.

Some of the best advice Ricky ever received was, “You cannot be strategic unless you know the technical work.”

Wendy advises careerists to “keep up-to-date with technology and what new trends or products are being launched”.

“It also pays to get a mentor so you can learn from their knowledge and insights and what has made them successful,” she says.

The best piece of advice Ai ever received was to take risks and never let fear stop you taking on a new opportunity when it is presented.

“You may make mistakes as I do, but you get the opportunity to learn and grow from the experience, which is the most important thing.”

Other findings of the Hays’ include:

  • 97 per cent of respondents hold a bachelor’s degree. Of those, 31 per cent hold a business, commerce, finance or economics degree and only 16 per cent a bachelor’s degree in HR;
  • The majority of respondents (36 per cent) reached HRD level after working 11 to 15 years in HR;
  • 86 per cent had more than 10 years’ post-qualification experience in HR when appointed HRD of which, 24 per cent had more than 20 years experience in HR;
  • 30 per cent of respondents had more than 16 years experience in HR before reaching HRD and 12 per cent secured the role with less than six years experience in HR;
  • Depending on the size of the organisation, most (40 per cent) respondents reached HRD in two to three promotions, 35 per cent in four to five and 12 per cent six or more promotions;
  • 53 per cent of respondents nominated strategic planning as the most important skill aspiring HRDs must possess followed by stakeholder engagement/influencing (43 per cent), people management (41 per cent), commercial acumen (39 per cent), communication (30 per cent), and change management skills (26 per cent);
  • A proactive nature was nominated as the most important personal attribute HRDs must possess (59 per cent of respondents);
  • Other important personal attributes including being adaptive (47 per cent), goal focused (41 per cent), ethical (41 per cent), collaborative, influential, credible (all 39 per cent) and resilient (37 per cent.
  • Women comprised 59 per cent of respondents with 71 per cent aged between 36 and 50 at the time of the survey and 26 per cent aged 41 to 45.

“The DNA of an HRD report represents the generosity of hundreds of HR professionals including the significant contribution made by our five in-depth interviewees,” says Tom Osborne, Regional Director of Hays in Malaysia.

“Most HRDs taking part in our research are happy with where they are and would choose to embark on the same career if they had the opportunity to do it all over again, which is a real testament to a profession that is increasingly critical to the success of any business,” says Tom.

“I recommend DNA of an HRD as a must read for anyone looking to build a career in HR.”

The DNA of an HRD is the third in the Hays DNA series in Asia and follows the DNA of CFO and DNA of a CIO.

An online version of the report can be accessed here.