ProspectsASEAN talked to Dato’ Norashikin Ismail, Director of Human Resources, Asia at Synthomer to learn about her remarkable professional career journey. The industry leader made history when she joined Japanese technology conglomerate Sony by becoming the first lady promoted to hold a managerial position.
With 30 years of experience in Human Resources (HR), Dato’ Nora now helms Synthomer’s HR division for Asia. As a bold visionary leading the charge to produce world-class leaders at the international chemicals company, she shares with us her insights from her profession, how she’s helping transform Synthomer’s human capital framework and consequential advice for young professionals.
1. With the rise of Industry 4.0 and disruptive technologies across business functions, how do you see HR evolving in the next 10 years to adapt to the future of work?
With new technologies disrupting the industry, experts are speculating whether or not HR’s functions will be transformed and displaced by machines. It is crucial that we at Synthomer view Industry 4.0 as bringing humans and machines together to successfully navigate the field and take on different roles. As smart systems begin to automate certain HR functions, employers need to upskill their workforce and instil a ‘digital mindset’.
In becoming more digital-centric, the importance of having new roles such as data strategists and data scientists in the HR function will gradually become more apparent to employers.
At the same time, HR departments across various industries are rapidly changing their perspectives regarding how they treat their employees. Today, it is crucial for employers to frame HR as a function that deals with human experiences as a whole. Many senior management teams around the world – including Synthomer’s – are taking HR more seriously and are studying how human capital plays a vital part to building the foundational success of their businesses.
2. In 2018, you were awarded the HR Leader Award for your remarkable contributions in HR. What has been the most impactful initiative you have introduced to a company?
A game changer for me in my career in HR was when I really took the time to listen to and understand the needs of a business, because all companies have different aims and DNA. At Synthomer, I led the transformation of the human capital agenda by placing HR as the central support system of the company.
On top of covering the basic talent management elements, I went a step further and successfully linked the human capital aspect across Synthomer’s various departments. I wanted to ensure that it supports the company’s business priorities. Once you unlock the full potential of human capital, the rest of the puzzle pieces fall into place. The results you yield will be much more impactful – and will translate to the organisation’s overall success.
3. During your years with Sony’s HR department, you made history by becoming the first woman to hold a manager-level position across all divisions. What challenges did you face navigating a male-dominant industry and how did you successfully overcome barriers in your career?
For me, it was about earning the trust of my colleagues and having the confidence in myself to deliver the best I could. I pushed back against many stigmas that were rooted in stereotypes such as ‘women are less mobile and flexible’. I remember one night when a company-wide payroll issue occurred. We had to extend our work hours past midnight to mitigate the situation and ensure everyone received their pay checks on time. I rolled up my sleeves and got the job done – and the results spoke in my favour.
Nonetheless, I think what satisfies me more than being Sony’s first woman manager is to know that I left behind a legacy that benefitted others, as many more women rose to manager posts and even more senior positions. I still keep in touch with some of my ex-colleagues and some of them still come to me at Synthomer for advice to this day. It is indeed a privilege to witness how my work has genuinely impacted other people in the long term.
4. In 2017, Synthomer rolled out its Asian Graduate Programme to help fresh graduates accelerate their career progression. How has it positively impacted Malaysian talents and how do you hope to enhance it? Are there any new initiatives under development?
We launched the Asian Graduate Programme in 2017. As a proud Malaysian working in a multinational company, it was one way for me to give back to my country. A key aspect of Synthomer’s programme is to expose candidates on international assignments for a period of 6 months – as we speak, one of our graduate trainees is attached to the UK Synthomer office for his international assignment.
Three years into the programme, I can say that it is uplifting to see how they represent both Synthomer and the country. They are testament to how Malaysians can thrive and exceed expectations in international working environments to contribute to societies beyond our borders.
5. When looking for jobs in the past, professionals prioritised job security and attractive employee benefits. However, Millennials today are looking for other elements such as great company culture and professional mentorship. How is Synthomer enhancing its work environment and culture to changing demands?
Talent development is one of the initiatives we’ve integrated into our human capital framework. We have a programme called Leaders in Transition, which focuses on executive level staff with potential. Through comprehensive reviews, we identify employees who show exceptional leadership abilities and further cultivate those skills in a structured setting.
That being said, our employees go through the 70-20-10 Model for Learning & Development: 70% of their learning comes from experience, 20% from collaborating with others and 10% from formal education events. By immersing themselves in this model, combined with a dynamic work environment, our talents are pushed to discover their full potential.
6. Women empowerment has become a significant topic of discussion in recent years. What plans do you have to ensure Synthomer Malaysia champions women’s leadership and gender equality?
As of today, 30% of women in Synthomer’s Malaysia office are managers (and above). That’s a healthy statistic as it shows that we’re on the right track in terms of giving women equal opportunities to advance their careers. Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind that we don’t promote people to higher positions solely due to their genders. We consider various factors and it’s all about whether or not the person is highly capable and qualified.
I think it’s important that you earn your place at the table. Looking back at my years in HR, I wasn’t concerned about doing well simply because I am a woman. I had a personal desire to succeed and set high standards for myself. And I think all women should have that mindset – when you are able to deliver and keep to your promises, you will no doubt be rewarded.
7. Due to the evolving nature of the workplace and globalisation, the job market is becoming more competitive than ever before. What are the top 3 qualities you value most in young professionals and fresh graduates today?
- Agility: There is a lot of ambiguity in the world today. I believe it is important for graduates to be on their toes and effectively deal with problems quickly and efficiently.
- Curiosity: Professionals today should proactively seek knowledge and expand their skillsets. In the workplace, you should always ask yourself how you can improve your work and challenge assumptions.
- Integrity: As workplace principles shift, integrity is one trait people continue to hold in high regard. When you are a leader and want to rise through the ranks, you need to have a moral compass and stick to your beliefs.
Ultimately, I have learned over my career that people don’t remember what you say and what you do. Rather, they remember how you made them feel. Go out there and inspire others to do their best and help nurture them – you’ll be making a lot of difference to people’s lives.