ProspectsASEAN talked to Puan Norlida Azmi, Group Chief Human Capital Officer at UEM Group, to discuss some of her greatest achievements at UEM – which includes how she is transforming talent management and championing the women empowerment agenda not only in UEM, but also the national workforce in Malaysia. Puan Norlida also sits on the 30% Club subcommittee in Malaysia, a group of chairmen and business leaders who are committed to bringing more women onto Malaysian corporate boards.
Having worked abroad for a span of almost two decades, she talked about the similarities and differences between young professionals across the globe and what can be done to ensure talents in this region remain competitive. To conclude her interview, she imparted some words of wisdom for young talents on how they can remain relevant in today’s rapidly changing working landscape.
1. Prior to joining UEM in 2014, you spent about 17 years in the banking and finance sector in various countries abroad such as Singapore, London, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Abu Dhabi. What was your expectation of the workplace landscape and industry when you returned to Malaysia?
Having worked with mainly multinational and private organisations throughout my career, I never thought I would be working with a major government-linked corporation before I came back to Malaysia – so that has definitely steered my career towards a different path. As I was away for over 17 years, I expected pockets of similarities and differences in the working landscape.
The first on my list was how I anticipated the young talents to be as capable and enthusiastic as they are in other parts of the world. Working hard has always been worn as a badge of honour for many Malaysians, and I expected the intellect and capabilities of our graduates to be at par. In fact, when I was working in Singapore, I discovered that the general perception of Malaysians does conform to this.
Compared to the Western society, Asians are very respectful of our elders and generally have defined hierarchical structures that place much emphasis on seniority in the workforce. As such, the main difference I expected was for the level of innovation here to not be as widespread. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with respecting the seniors at your workplace. However, I believe that the young talents here need to learn to be more assertive and courageous in pushing the boundaries, while maintaining our culture of respect.
2. It is widely known in Asia that sometimes, in order to be successful in your career, it depends more on “who you know” rather than “what you know”. Have you found this to be true from your personal experience? And what advice would you have for young professionals who work abroad for several years and return to Malaysia?
I believe that “what you know” and “who you know” are pretty much on the same plateau. When I first came back to Malaysia, I had many career conversations with people I know (such as ex-colleagues) and engaged head-hunters as well, as an attempt to reconnect with the industry back home upon my return.
Let me illustrate my point with a story. Several years back, my daughter was on a train in New York, and seated in front of her was a gentleman reading the newspaper. Half way through the journey, they initiated a casual conversation and coincidentally, he was working in the organisation that she was planning to apply. To cut the long story short, she managed to get her CV through to the employer after the train ride directly to the appropriate personnel.
What I’m trying to say is that sometimes you have to learn to use all channels available if you want to land that dream job of yours. Be resourceful and proactive.
For those who are working abroad and planning to come back, my advice would be to consistently stay up-to-date with the relevant social, economic, and political issues back in Malaysia, maintain your friendships, and proactively reconnect with relevant people in your industry, especially within the last 5 years before your return.
3. As Group Chief Human Capital Officer of UEM, what has been your greatest achievement in shaping the talent management of UEM’s workforce?
The Group Managing Director of UEM, who interviewed me when I first took this job, had a very transformational human capital agenda for the organisation. However, as I did not come from a traditional HR background, I was considered a lateral candidate for the role of Group Chief Human Capital Officer. Thus I believe that one of my greatest achievements is how I was able to elevate the HR functionality at UEM to sit at the business level and work hand-in-hand with the MD and strategy team.
This enabled me to effectively shape my talent management strategies, which include bringing in more leaders with the right mind-set and also developing our existing workforce at the same time.
We also recently started embarking on a culture reignite, which involves having conversations about what we can do to bring together the people in the workforce – both existing employees and new talents. I truly believe that it is important to create a positive organisational culture at our workplace. This is because our people spend many hours in the office in a work week – and when they are happy at work as a result of the cultivation of a great culture, quality work will follow naturally.
4. Women empowerment has become a significant topic of discussion today. What plans do you have to ensure UEM champions the agenda of workplace gender equality and women in leadership?
Recruitment Quota: While it is important to ensure there are enough female talents in our workforce, I believe it is the candidate with the right skills that should get the job at the end of the day. We shouldn’t push women for the sake of meeting a defined quota as I believe that talents should be assessed and hired for their merits, instead of their gender or ethnicity.
Working Arrangements: In our efforts to develop a more holistic work environment at UEM, we have already implemented flexible working hours and staggered lunch breaks. Additionally, we are currently exploring how we can also introduce more flexible working arrangements that will ultimately benefit not only the working mothers, but everyone in the workforce as well.
Mentorship and Skills Development: Beyond having a conducive work environment, I also want the women to develop more confidence in their technical capabilities and personal skills. I am encouraging more people to step up and mentor the women on a professional basis – and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a women-to-women mentorship. We are happy to pave way for men who are comfortable with mentoring women to get involved as well.
5. There has been a common perception that millennial talents are entitled and lack the sense of commitment at work. What are some of the major challenges you face in leading millennial employees and what has been your strategy in ensuring they are well managed?
When you are building a multi-generational workforce, it is important to focus on what they’re good at and maximise their individual strengths. I find the millennials in my workforce to be very innovative – so it is important that I allow them to express their innovation and assign the more experienced managers to guide them and steer their creative ideas to meet corporate parameters.
From my experience, I don’t think that millennials are as entitled as they are generally perceived. In fact, I believe that the millennials’ sense of accomplishment is far easier to establish, more so than the other older generations. What’s important is that we communicate to them their sense of purpose in the organisation, give them constant feedback, compliment them when they are right, and guide them when they are wrong.
6. Given that you have worked with talents from across the globe, how different are the youth in other parts of the world compared to that in this region? And what can be done for us to improve and remain competitive on a global level?
As there is very little geographical boundaries across the globe today, it is important for our young talents to keep pace with the latest technological trends and regional developments in order to remain competitive.
The co-existence of both local and international companies in the ASEAN nations is also important as it is a natural way for us to have transfer of knowledge and talents. I believe this will be the key for us to enable young talents to continuously upskill in a holistic manner.
A few words of advice for young ASEAN talents who are looking to differentiate themselves from the rest of the talent pool:
- Learn to own your own career and be proactive.
- Consider areas of work that nobody wants – as there is less competition in new fields, the odds that you will succeed will be higher.
- Personalise your engagement styles, instead of using a one-style approach in all your interactions. Be smart and shape your conversations based on your audience to derive maximum value from your engagements.
7. On top of academic achievements and leadership experience, what qualities and habits should young talents develop in order to remain competitive and relevant in today’s rapidly changing talent landscape?
Five things should come into mind, especially for those new into the workforce:
- Be very proactive
- Be confident
- Build strong communication skills – both written and verbal
- Continuously learn – not just work-related, learn about everything in life
- Have a well-balanced perspective on life
When I interview young talents, I will always look at their hobbies and what they’re reading. Why? Because it usually speaks a lot about the person – more so than by just looking at their CV and resume. When assessing a candidate, I believe that it is important to also look into elements that are lateral to their working portfolio.