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Nora Abd Manaf, Maybank
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Q&A with Nora Abd Manaf of Maybank

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Banking on a new way of working

With humanisation as her personal and professional mission, Nora Abd Manaf, group chief human capital officer, Maybank, diagnoses the challenge all HR leaders are grappling with, and predicts HR’s role evolving to become a “chief resourcing officer” in the time to come.

Vital stats: Nora Abd Manaf has led Maybank’s people transformation programme since 2009, and is responsible for the human capital centre of expertise which develops and implements group policies.

Before joining Maybank, she was with Standard Chartered Group for more than nine years. She has worked with several MNCs and large local organisations across sectors, including telecommunications at Maxis and semiconductor at Intel.

Q. What got you started in HR?

I would be lying to you if I said it was passion from the beginning, or that it was planned – because it wasn’t. I qualified as a chartered accountant, and soon started working with Intel. But I suppose I was always more right-brained than left-brained.

I got into HR thanks to an offer by the deputy chairman of one of our client companies for an HR role, requiring localisation of workforce. That opportunity presented itself because I was in a job that I was blessed to be in, thanks to the post-Asian economic crisis in 1998, where the demand for corporate training took off.

That was my entry into corporate consulting. I did some soul searching, and the right-brain in me made the job proposition sound very interesting. For the longest time, HR had this not-so-attractive reputation and I was guilty of that as well. So I wanted to change my own impression.

Q. So it was a personal motivator?

Yes and that is reflected in what I do. I speak at a lot of conferences, not to promote myself, but to confront issues the HR community faces.

We can’t demand how people look at us just by changing our names from personnel and admin, to human resources to human capital. How people perceive us is a result of how we behave and what we bring to the table.

Q. You have always been part of this industry, even before joining Maybank in 2008. What is the charm it holds?

The entry into this industry was also not by design, but more about where I was in my life at the time. I was in telecommunications then and enjoying it. I was supporting the company in various joint ventures, learning like crazy, and having frank, and tough conversations with the CEO.

But we go through different stages of life. At that time, an offer from the BFSI sector, along with a package that would have helped me when I was just starting a family, getting a new house, was something that pulled me away.

Not very noble, but those were my priorities then, but I stayed in Standard Chartered Group for nine-and-a-half years, which says a lot about what the organisation offered me in terms of development and growth, and I suppose what I contributed back as well.

For the longest time, HR had this not-so-attractive reputation and I was guilty of that as well. So I wanted to change my own impression.

Q. I am glad you say we can put our personal aspirations forward as much as our professional ones. Maybank had a transformation mandate underway when you joined, driven by business expansion. What were the first 100 days like?

I got a call from the CEO telling me how the expansion was about carving a name as a leading institution in the region, besides just being a country champion.

The transformation programme was launched a few months before I joined. He said he needed to attract the right people to drive it, but because we were not very attractive as an employer back then, it was a catch 22 situation.

So the first 100 days were pretty scary because everything was banking on us, the Executive Committee (ExCo) members, to lead the transformation. But that was also good because we attracted others who engaged with us on values rather than the brand.

My challenge was in getting the right leaders on board so they could then pull the right people in.

I went into this organisation thinking I knew it all from an MNC standpoint, but it really is tougher because Maybank started from scratch, taking on the financial giants who had been operating in Malaysia for 100 years before us.

When I spoke to Maybankers in 2009, I used a football analogy – we were champions of the Football Association of Malaysia league, and now we wanted to play the Premier League, so we had to do some things differently.

We had some great players, some that would not make it, and we had to import some players.

We knew that for things to move at the early stage, we ExCo members needed to drive things ourselves, starting with communication in the remotest branches where no other management team member had been before.

That’s why we chose humanisation as our mission. We felt like we were making a difference to the people in the remotest branches, to make them believe we could play in the EPL. In that sense, for me it became more than a job, it was a calling.

Q. Where do you stand today on your number one human capital challenge?

I feel like most of us in the HR fraternity have not yet got our head around the big changes in the environment. For example, I questioned my team about the last time we approached training differently.

If you Google how credit decisions are made, you’ll get plenty of information immediately, much of which is the syllabus for a basic 101 class. Courseware hasn’t changed much to reflect this fact. Those are the kind of things I’m grappling with.

I hate it when people look at HR as a back end function. Organisations with great strategies won’t be able to execute them without the people, so why would people come last?

I want HR teams to look at every aspect of what we do and understand how to leapfrog to leave the competitors behind.

If a manager can expect, and encroach in a staff’s nine to five, which is 9pm to 5am, to respond to work needs, why is it that family crises cannot encroach into 9am to 5pm?

Another example is in recruitment and sourcing, where I visualise we are going to be using people based predominantly on skills. So job titles will be very different.

Think how consulting firms pull teams together to deliver on an outcome from a people database based on their skills and experiences.

The one word that describes the current environment is hyperconnectivity. When people are hyperconnected, you can’t box them in. If things have changed and we have not started thinking about how to get around this, we are not doing the organisation justice.

Besides this one big issue, I also face the challenge of productivity like many others. But, quoting Einstein, how can we expect different results when we are doing the same things over and over again?

The good thing is we have invested in the selection of our ExCo members. Every organisation needs a core team that not just works well together, but is made up of like-minded experts who are open to trying new things, and trust each other to do that.

Last year, for example, we were one of the few organisations that have done away with performance ratings. When I presented this idea to the ExCo, the CEO said: “I don’t understand fully, but let’s do it, I trust you.”

I told them, even as far back as when I first joined HR, people have been talking about the issues in performance management, central tendency or ratings, and not about having good conversations.

When it comes to ratings, very few, if any, are trying anything different. So I showed them three organisations that have done away with ratings and moved purely into conversations.

I told them, we will be trying something different, which will require us to delve into how agile we are in learning. To be confident yet humble to admit if any part doesn’t work and quickly enhance it.

We don’t have full consistency and the perfect culture yet, but we have data to show our accelerated progress, and more importantly, enough mass in the workforce now who can walk the talk.

This is the second year of the no-rating policy and we’re still learning, but we don’t label people anymore, we assess and provide feedback. If you give people a rating and label them, that is the start of all evil. Because then everybody fanatically wants to defend a particular number.

What should go into the database is the narrative about the performance. To support this, the system disallows the manager to proceed to the next field if the comments sections are left blank. It will keep prompting them to put in important messages about the person’s performance.

This initiative was a calculated risk we took in a time when people want perfection and answers. It takes an authentic team to say: “We don’t know everything, but if we find something that is not working well, we’ll change it immediately.”

All along we were, and are, tracking the change initiative, we are a bank after all! Tracking is a discipline in Maybank now, especially during the transformation, you have to track and be able to defend, inspire and communicate traction.

Q. How did you show value on this new way of measuring performance?

We had validations from people who turned around after being branded as non-performers, following their managers having a real performance conversation with them.

In the second year, we have ironed out some kinks from a process perspective, but now the focus is on cracking the nut on its link with rewards.

For an organisation with 47,000 people, it’s tough, compared to the earlier organisations that have attempted this.

I hate it when people look at HR as a back end function. Organisations with great strategies won’t be able to execute them without the people, so why would people come last?

Q. How big is your HR team to help support such a large workforce?

We are a very productive team especially from an Asian standpoint, with a ratio of 1:150 for each employee, while Asia’s average is about 1:60. So we are lean in that sense.

The group team sits in Kuala Lumpur, while country HR heads double up as industrial relations and local law experts.

We also set up an HR shared service centre in 2009, but we are getting quite a reputation for it being more than that. Because shared service centres typically are like BPOs in terms of the employee churn and how low they can bring down those costs.

But for us, the centre in KL is built on humanising the customer (staff) experience, together with speed and low cost.

Q. You’re at a stage where Maybank is one of the most coveted employers in Malaysia as well as the rest of ASEAN. How do you ensure your brand promise remains authentic in really providing what employees expect before joining?

Humanisation is not just a word, but we really have to act it. You can’t tell people to do unto others when things are not done unto them.

We have a number of pillars of humanising from a staff’s standpoint. We pride ourselves on authenticity. Not for a minute do we say we are consistently perfect on all points as an employer, but we say you can check if we are really acting on these five pillars at any time.

Respect is the first one. If at any point of time anyone feels disrespected, it’s not what we intend, so they must make a noise about it – that’s what I tell them during induction. Within that pillar, we define what respect means to us, by giving trackers of what we do to make sure they are being respected.

An example of the tracker is an email address we’ve set up which goes direct to my team member managing employee engagement. No one else has access to it and there will be no repercussions for people to be afraid.

Another pillar talks about fairness and transparency. We show, for example, how many applications we have received for internal job ads, and we actually have a target of filling eight out of every 10 vacancies internally rather than externally.

When we make that commitment, we open ourselves to being audited again.

We spend more than 100 million ringgit every year to train employees to show that we mean what we say. For any other aspect as well, I’ll have the data to show what we are doing.

We are not perfect, but we know where we are going and many organisations cannot give you that.

Q. So everything you do for employees across functions, translates into these pillars?

Yes, and we make sure they know what the intended outcome is and they can influence it. That’s my calling every time when I speak to a candidate: “Now that you’re clear in terms of what we want to be, you know where we stand, come join us.” More often than not, they love it.

We are a very productive team especially from an Asian standpoint, with a ratio of 1:150 for each employee, while Asia’s average is about 1:60. So we are lean in that sense.

Q. How do you see your role evolving in the next one year? What will your job description look like?

There are many fancy titles out there right now, some of which are very progressive.

Like me, they are trying to figure out that something needs to change in the world of HR. Because the landscape has changed and most of us are just living on borrowed time.

For me in HR, everything else pales in comparison to resourcing – so maybe we will become chief resourcing officers! When I say resourcing it’s all encompassing, putting people in the right role and knowing how to do that in a connected world where long-term maybe just a month.

Maybe it could be about understanding and bridging expectations across the organisation, because there is disconnect right now in terms of what is needed and what HR leaders are doing – so maybe, chief bridging officer?

We have to also understand what people governance is going to look like in the future. I am one of those who does not switch off, I work 24/7.

When I first graduated, my lecturers told me to leave my personal stuff behind when I enter the office. Today, that notion is ridiculous. Because if you’re a mother, you don’t have a switch which says you are no more a mum when you enter the office.

This is even more prevalent now because you have to stay connected. We need to think many things through. An example is – what really are the working hours of today and the future?

If a manager can expect, and encroach in a staff’s nine to five, which is 9pm to 5am, to respond to work needs, why is it that family crises cannot encroach into 9am to 5pm?

So my team is working on this – how we will govern in the future. People will baulk and say this is going to be very disruptive, but disruption is now the norm.

Before all of us are out of a job, doing everything that nobody wants, think of the next two to three steps you need to do.

Image: Kimberly Ong – kimberlamb.com (hello@kimberlamb.com)

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