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"The challenges businesses and leaders are facing right now across all levels are multi-dimensional. From their ability to navigate the business operations’ challenges so they not only survive, but thrive – to leading, engaging, and motivating their people to stay healthy and win," Handi Kurniawan, Head of Leadership & Academies Learning, Group Human Resources, Jardine Matheson tells Bridgette Hall in this exclusive interview with HRO. 

Q: Tell us about yourself.

My background was in finance, business planning, and business development before I transitioned to HR, and these blended experiences really help in my current job at Jardines – Group HR – because I need to deal with multiple stakeholders and multi businesses.

I think all of these experiences and exposures make me more agile, as the current research shows that multi capabilities are beneficial in careers in this ever-changing world.

Before Jardines, which has very diversified businesses, I worked at General Electric (medical system, lighting, capital, corporate), Standard Chartered Bank, and Sinar Mas (Indonesia conglomerate that also has diversified businesses from agriculture and property to telecommunications). So, I’m accustomed to a complex business structure.

Also, I’m blessed to have had opportunities working in different countries. That’s beneficial to appreciate people from different backgrounds, and the ability to work well with the best talent from around the world within the company.

Q: Before moving to Hong Kong, you worked across the world, but especially in APAC (Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, China, and Taiwan).  Tell us about your experiences working in these countries. Could you share the challenges and opportunities in these markets you think are not being recognised?

Each country has its own uniqueness and similarities. Human beings are the same, we all have dreams, ambitions, and needs, but each individual is unique.

We can’t generalise and stereotype people, but some insights from Geert Hofstede remain useful. For example the five dimensions along which cultural values can be seen: individualism-collectivism; uncertainty avoidance; power distance (strength of social hierarchy); masculinity-femininity (task-orientation versus person-orientation); and long-term orientation.

These help to understand people when you work with people from different cultures. People also have their own values and personalities. By understanding all the factors, we will be able to work better with people.

APAC is huge and each country has its own dynamics. In the countries I worked in, the Indonesia market is definitely growing. With a population of 275mn, digital is on the rise. More start-up companies such as Gojek-Tokopedia (GoTo) have been tapping not only Indonesia, but also other neighbouring countries. Singapore continues to drive innovation, and in Hong Kong, we need to tap the potential of the Greater Bay Area.

These countries, of course, have their own unique challenges. From the HR perspective, the challenge is all about upskilling and reskilling talent, wellbeing issues, and the overall employee experience.

What I love about working in different countries is seeing different cultures, visiting wonderful places, and tasting so many different foods!

Q: Tell us more about the Jardines Learning Academy that you helped establish, as well as the other several functional academies.

Jardines appointed Peter Attfield (pictured below), Group Chief Talent and Learning Officer, in June 2018 who played a pivotal role to develop and implement an entirely new learning strategy that would address unmet business needs across the group.

I joined Jardines almost at the same time in April 2018, so since day one, we have worked very closely to analyse the existing programmes, meet with various internal and external stakeholders, and then come up with new recommendations. I’m very lucky to work alongside experienced and transformative HR leaders such as Peter, and our visionary Group HR Director, John Nolan.

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[Photo caption: Peter Attfield, Group Chief Talent and Learning Officer, Jardine Matheson]

What we found was that we needed to rejuvenate the previous learning strategy that was no longer relevant in delivering the impact expected of a conglomerate such as Jardines.

Despite being a group with annual revenue of US$ 90.91bn and 403,000 employees today, including some 18,000 at managerial level back in 2018, learning opportunities were available only to a ‘select few’, and Jardines’ spending on L&D at group-level was significantly less than the global industry benchmarks back then.

Jardines developed a new learning strategy to address key issues such as lack of scale and visibility of group-led L&D programmes; conventional programme design and delivery; linkages to overall business priorities; and a talent development strategy.

We transformed the whole of Jardines Group’s L&D curriculum, and in 2020, we rebranded our function as Jardines Learning Academy. Our mission is to enable lifelong learning through access to world-class learning programmes and digital content libraries, developmental mentoring/coaching, and subject matter knowledge/expertise.

This includes opportunities to:

  • Help people perform better today (learner-centric and personalised).
  • Build people capabilities (skills and competencies) for the future (strategically aligned, and aligned to career development road maps).
  • Integrate learning with work (learning in the flow of work).

Our learning solutions are now range from the flagship leadership programmes to functional academies such as the Digital & Innovation Academy, HR Academy, and Finance Academy, and we’re enriching the learning options with various high quality digital learning.

We’re grateful that our strategy has paid off. Internally, more staff across the group participated in our programmes. We saw a 40-time increase in the number of participants from where we started in 2018, but Jardines is so diverse that we still need to do our homework to better communicate our programmes.

Q: What currently are the greatest challenges that you’re seeing to middle-senior leadership development in Hong Kong, and the wider region?

I remember back in 2019 before the pandemic, the word VUCA (volatile, uncertainty, chaotic, ambiguous) was used a lot to describe the economy in general, and business landscape specifically. But the pandemic, without the end in sight, is the true VUCA, and test of human resilience.

The challenges businesses and leaders are facing right now across all levels are multi-dimensional. From their ability to navigate the business operations’ challenges so they not only survive, but thrive – to leading, engaging, and motivating their people to stay healthy and win.

For the business challenge, it’s about TESP (technology that’s really disruptive, economical, social, and political). For people management, the whole employee life cycle from recruitment to retirement is really disrupted.

Globally, the trend of the ‘great resignation’ or ‘great reshuffle’ is happening. It’s an unprecedented phenomenon that companies are struggling to find talent and workers, and at the same time, many people are looking for a job. We need a new equilibrium, and this is the challenge of leadership.

In the past, people looked for leaders to give them stability, direction, and a sense of security. During the pandemic, leaders are facing lots of challenges, including their own personal issues. So, they need to immediately resolve their challenges as people have natural certain expectations of their leaders. Those who are the most resilient and can provide clearer direction will win the game.

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Q: With you being responsible for all the leadership and capabilities academies across the full learning portfolio and operations, what is the role of data and technology in your strategy and decision making?

Data and technology absolutely play important roles. The role of data and technology in the business is not new, but we now live with an abundance of information and tools. The questions are how to simplify, integrate, and leverage them.

We’re fortunate enough that as part of our new strategy, we experimented with new learning modalities. In early 2019, we tried several learning modalities that have proven to be quite transformational, especially during the pandemic, so we had a relatively smooth transition from conventional face-to-face learning to blended learning, bite-sized, and fully virtual learning.

A blended learning approach that would encompass face-to-face learning, virtual online learning, and on-demand online learning, emerged as a clear solution to democratise access to learning – instilling the belief and demonstrating Jardines’ commitment to ensuring that personal and professional development is for ‘the many’ rather than ‘the few’.

We’re also implementing LXP, which enables a learning culture by giving access to learning anytime, and anywhere, and which is curated and personalised on any device. This means partnering with world-class learning partners with deep expertise and learning portfolios that can meet a range of learning needs in multiple formats.

The role of data and analytics is also crucial for us to monitor and analyse learning effectiveness, like how business monitors performance. We do this both internally as well as in collaboration with our learning partners. Some of our learning partners have some sophisticated learning analytics.

Q: What do you believe will be the single most important L&D trend in the coming decade?

Learning technology is booming, but if I may pick one trend for the coming decade, I predict it will be ‘meta learning’ or ‘metaverse learning’. What this means is the high fidelity of learning technology, which not only simulates real-life learning, but also enhances the entire learning experience, and hence, creates more visible impact.

This meta learning will integrate all existing technologies such as conventional learning, blended, pervasive, AR/VR, and AI, which can be felt and immersed with a human’s five senses. So it’s like real learning with a heightened experience.

But L&D trends are not for the sake of trying new tech. It’s to enable our organisation to win. So it’s not about how cool learning tech is, it’s about the application back to the business, otherwise, our CEOs and CFOs won’t buy in.

Whatever we do in the L&D space needs to align with business priorities and enable people to perform their job today, tomorrow, and beyond.

Q: Aside from L&D what do you think will be some of the most defining employee engagement strategies for the next generation of talent?

There are many dimensions, but I must share three dimensions that defining employee engagement strategies will revolve around:

  • Employee wellbeing, for example, psychological safety. Although it sounds back to basics, it is true. Health and safety, psychological safety, people want to work in companies that can provide these.
  • Employee experience, for example, the talent market. As global mobility has become more challenging and limited, an internal mobility strategy will need to be strengthened, and in Jardines' case, this would be our unique value proposition because we have many business units.
  • Hybrid working. Knowledge workers demand more flexibility while frontline workers and ‘desk-less workers’ who need to deal with real customers and sustain operations also want hybrid working. Companies and HR need to think of different strategies to tackle this.

Q: How is the pandemic going to affect the HR role in the future?

HR has shifted a lot from industrial times where HR was seen as an administrative role, and more to now becoming a consultative role. Of course, HR still needs to perform administrative duties such as ensuring smooth payroll, remuneration and benefits, but HR will need to perform much more value-added roles such as being true business partners, people and culture consultants, and more.

People are at the heart and forefront of every organisation so HR’s role, whether through people policies or HR initiatives, such as learning, talent management, etc, will immediately bring impact to the business.

HR leaders, whether heads of HR, HRBPs or centres of expertise HR leaders, have a special role to play as strategic internal consultants to their internal stakeholders. During this pandemic time, we need to emphasise the ‘human’ part of HR more than the ‘resources’ part. For example, focus more on employee wellbeing, engagement, and productivity.

Q: Describe your management style.

I’m a result-oriented person and value productivity, but I don’t like to micromanage. Normally, once I set outcomes, I will let the team accomplish them in their own ways. There are many ways to accomplish stuff and I love to see creativity. I believe this way people will also be happier because they are being trusted that they can accomplish tasks in their own way, and sometimes, the results are better than what you expected.

Of course, this may not be applicable during a crisis mode where as leaders you need to guide and make decisions fast. And when you have junior members, you need to guide them. And that’s why I like to plan well. I’m from a school of thought that by having better planning, you have accomplished 30% of your tasks upfront. The rest is better execution.

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[Photo caption: Kurniawan flanked by his team, Dorcas Lai, L&D Assistant Officer (on the left), and Joyce Chan, L&D Assistant Manager (on the right)]

I have learned to listen more and I love people sharing their thoughts and ideas. I’m pretty good at leveraging people’s strengths.

For example, I’m a morning person. I wake up at 5:30am and my brain works from 6am – 6pm. Between 6am and 11am is my prime time that I normally use to think, plan, or have important meetings for decisions. For my younger team member, her mind is most active from 10am and can last until late evening so I know how to leverage her brain to support the team. My other teammate, she is a detail-oriented person so she plays a role in checking all the details that we need in the team. I also believe in leading by example. You can’t expect people to work harder, if you yourself do not work hard. 

QWhat’s the most important lesson you were given by a mentor that you try to instil in your own team?

Self-confidence. My mentors and best managers always gave me trust and used every opportunity to instil confidence that I can do my job, that I can do great things, and what I do matters. This is what I always instil in my own team, that what they do matters, and that they have the capabilities to do their job well, and have my support.

Q: Jardine Matheson is huge global company with more than 400,000 employees. What are some of the HR interventions it has used in the past 18 months to help its employees get through the challenges of the pandemic?

The pandemic has exacerbated the importance of employee wellbeing, and we evolved from a focus on physical and mental health to a more holistic approach.

Our wellbeing programmes span the entire cross-section of interesting wellbeing initiatives designed to inspire employees to stretch themselves to achieve health goals. Physical health initiatives include the aspirational ‘steps challenge' which requires Jardine employees to climb 48 storeys to the top of our iconic office building in Hong Kong. The feat has been attempted by many, and this year, this step challenge activity was creatively done virtually.

MINDSET is our charitable organisation founded in 2002 with the aim of making a positive and sustainable difference in mental health. With operations in Hong Kong and Singapore, the company collaborates with a number of mental health organisations and NGOs, advocacy groups, and corporate partners, with the aim of raising awareness and changing perceptions of, and attitudes to, mental health. The mission is to de-stigmatise mental health through the education and empowerment of individuals by enabling them to share and support others.

Workplace wellbeing has become central to our human capital strategy with the tag line Key2Wellness. Psychological safety training is emphasised heavily in our L&D programme. Employees are encouraged to speak up courageously, and managers are trained on being inclusive of diversity, and more open-minded about alternate perspectives.

Jardine recognises the extreme importance of the universal accessibility of wellbeing and learning. The importance of wellbeing must be reinforced at the highest level in order for any programmes to gain credibility and drive adoption. Our CEO John Witt is deeply committed to holistic wellbeing and is a great champion of the initiatives that we roll out.

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Q: Tell us about your books.

I have written four books. The first two – ‘Go Global – Guide to a Successful International Career’, and ‘Global Career’ – were about how to get and manage a global career. The third one is about leadership. They are in Bahasa Indonesia as my mission initially was to help Indonesian talent achieve their career goals. The books have been welcomed, and readers have been inspired by them.

I thought I could contribute more to people in the APAC region, so my fourth book ‘Great Advice’ is in English which I co-authored with a former GE and J&C CLO. It gives great pleasure when your creation gives meaning to people’s lives.

Q: Looking into your crystal ball, what will the future of work, and the workplace, look like in 10 years time?

Nobody sings ‘Que Sera, Sera – Whatever Will Be, Will Be’ anymore because the new trend is human-centred design. And I think it’s a healthy thing that we do our best to shape things that we have control over.

Humans will use their consciousness and science to make livelihoods better. For example, in the area of sustainability that’s now emerging as a very important topic, as we don’t have a planet B option.

It’s important at the country level and company level that businesses need to play a role in the sustainability agenda. And this will bring impact to the technology.

Digital and innovation will continue to play a role in the future of work. There will, of course, be more automation and more apps, but I predict there will also be a new awareness in the younger generations that technology that does not serve a purpose will not be used.

And lastly, human beings need to be loved, to be recognised, and to be healthy and happy. When people are elevated, so too, will their employee experience also evolve.


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Photo credits for Handi Kurniawan: Art Direction: Julia Li; Photography: Anakin Yeung @ Planar Studios Limited 

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