Asia's top HR leaders share the secrets to their success

Five people leaders shared useful career advice with budding HR directors in Hays' 'DNA of an HR Director' report.

Understanding the business “inside out” and actively looking for learning opportunities instead of getting comfortable are essential for talent management practitioners to reaching a senior HR role, according to top HR directors interviewed recently 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 HR Director, along with the findings of an extensive survey of 570 other senior HR professionals.

The five HR directors 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 HR director level

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 programme 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.

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

Wendy Montgomery started her HR career in the British Army. She was 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 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 Montgomery.

“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.”

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

Indeed, gaining a thorough understanding of the business was the top piece of advice given by 51% of respondents in the report. 

International experience

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

Umar has worked in Pakistan with added responsibility for Afghanistan, in Thailand alongside five country responsibilities, and now in Malaysia. Montgomery has worked in Gibraltar, Germany, the UK and Singapore, while Long was previously based in Hong Kong and Canada.

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

Network and consider sharing knowledge

Most interviewees and respondents also recommended networking as a great way to learn about new trends and opportunities, as well as gain technical knowledge, whether that is by attending events or using social media.

In fact, networking was nominated as the top career development tool by 56% of those surveyed. Of those, 73% prefer networking events while 57% use technical events to keep up with changing trends.

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

Montgomery urges individuals to speak at industry events and conferences.

“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,” says Montgomery.

Final words of advice

‘Done is better than perfect’ was a piece of highly valued advice Umar 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.

Umar also advises looking to a wide range of experiences for HR practitioners to develop professionally.

“Aspiring HR directors 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.

Sun 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.

To Long, careerists should be curious but also look for roles that allow them 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,” he says.

The best piece of advice Miyakawa ever received was to take risks and never let fear stop one from 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,” she shares.

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