This HR veteran's positive outlook, ready-to-learn attitude, and humility belie her 30 years in HR that have been spent passionately challenging stereotypes, getting to know people all across the ranks, and more.
In this exclusive, Priya Sunil catches up with Grace Chan to uncover everything about her journey over the past over 30 years:
- How she upskilled herself from a solely-L&D role to a full HR role;
- Three key attributes she believes high-potentials should have to move up the ranks;
- Her plan for life moving forward, and her views on continuous upskilling.
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As a young professional back in the day, HR veteran Grace Chan’s (pictured above) career involved L&D – starting off as a training officer for a finance company, then moving on to train in various companies across Asia—including China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Malaysia.
Along the way, she was headhunted to take on an HR position – but she turned it down. Little did she know that decades down the road, she would be leading initiatives as an HR leader – from the transformation of the HR department, to the implementation of one-day medical leave without a medical certificate, thus saving the firm significant costs, at Malaysian conglomerate Berjaya Corporation.
Chan’s last role was as Senior GM of Group HR & Administration, Berjaya Corporation before she retired from working life in August 2021 to take on other opportunities, including her zest for continuous upskilling.
In this exclusive interview, Priya Sunil catches up with her to uncover everything about her journey the past over 30 years—and her inspiring life lessons along the way.
Read on for the interview excerpts below:
Q Do elaborate on how you got into HR – when the headhunter first reached out to you.
I was in L&D all the while, so I actually turned down the interview with the headhunter when I was told it was for an HR position. Why? Because my view was that HR is very administrative – all about doing payroll. And that was not what I wanted. I wanted a very dynamic role. I like to see changes and to learn new things.
However, what attracted me to this role was that the headhunter said the CEO wanted to be able to do succession planning and talent development. He was also looking at establishing, developing, and inculcating a performance-driven culture - which involved KPI setting and a performance management system. The third thing was that the CEO wanted to build branding, for the firm to be an employer of choice.
Those were what attracted me and pushed me to go for the interview, and the rest is history.
I have received feedback that because I'm from an L&D background, I am able to look at HR from a very different perspective, and what it can do for the company and the employees.
That is why I do things very differently, and I would say in an unconventional manner.
Q On that note, going straight from L&D into a holistic HR role, what shaped your experience?
For me, it’s about my passion, which has been in people development. That's why I was in L&D for quite a while. I enjoy training and developing people, and seeing them improve after the training. And later on, you see them moving up from a junior role to a managerial role, and to a head role, and more.
So I enjoyed conducting training and sharing my experiences. I also enjoyed receiving feedback to enlighten me on how I can improve further as a trainer. For instance, if I received a lower score from some trainees, I would reflect on what I’ve not done, and how to better the experience for them.
The other thing would be the risks involved in moving from one industry to another, the confidence I had, and the belief I have that when given the opportunity to learn, I must grab it.
I’m always a very positive person. I don’t mind going on the ground and getting my hands dirty to learn.
Just to give you an example – I was once in the insurance industry. I’d entered with no idea of what it was all about. But I went to the floors, from the front office to the receptionist office, department to department, to learn what was it like to be a customer service staff, or to answer phone calls.
I picked up the understanding so that when I conducted my training, I could relate to the experience. So it's not just about coming up with training modules to train employees, let’s say on customer service, but rather, you need to experience yourself what customer service is like—What challenges may arise, and what the agents may face. Only then, can you provide suggestions for them to improve. I even interviewed some employees to understand their experiences and challenges better, so that in my sessions, my case studies were real-life case studies, and not copied from the books.
Through it all, I got to know most of the junior staff, the security guards, even the tea lady – as I believe in respect. No matter what their ranking is, they are all employees of the company. And you know what, sometimes it really comes back to you when you are polite to people, people know you care for them, and without you calling them, they will be there ready to help you.
To me, the most rewarding thing was to be able to see people improve. To become better, to enjoy the training, and to even give feedback about the sessions.
One of the most rewarding times of my career was also back in AIG, where I was able to attend training in Hong Kong and even a training & development conference in San Diego, US. Overall, it was a really rewarding experience whenever my services and my performance were recognised back there.
I also always believe in working hard. I work very hard. When I do things, I will do them with 100% of my efforts—I will not compromise on quality. That is me because I have very high expectations for myself.
That’s why I believe, Priya, in continuous improvement. If you were to look at my CV, I have a lot of certifications. I was certified as a coach, I was certified as an NLP practitioner. I even studied part-time to get a diploma in human resources, because at that time I was contemplating whether I should go into HR, so I took about one-and-a-half-year, part-time studies.
I also took my MBA when I was in HR at Berjaya. My colleagues say, “Grace are you crazy? Are you not busy enough as a head of HR, and you still want to pursue your MBA?” I had to attend my classes twice a week, do assignments, take exams. It was a crazy almost-two years but after all that, I felt free.
I want to thank my family for their support. Without the support of my husband and my daughter, it would have been very difficult for me to study part-time while in my role as Head of HR in Berjaya.
Q If you could do all that—juggle your studies and family life while holding such a high position— that’s truly inspiring!
Yes, that’s why I always challenge people. I say if I’m so busy as an HR head, if I can do it, you can do it.
You just have to manage your time and do proper planning. I admit I've felt overwhelmed at times, sleeping late at midnight, 1 am or even 2 am when I had assignments to submit. There were also times my assignment deadlines coincided with my meetings or issues popped up that I had to handle. But really, I say, thank God that I managed to overcome it. With sleepless nights and all that, I managed to complete my MBA.
Q Coming to your move up the ranks— having gone through different roles over your career, and moving on to GM of HR at Berjaya, I'm sure there are some key attributes that would stand out for someone to move up like you. What does it take for up-and-coming HR leaders, or other high-potentials, to take on bigger roles throughout their career?
I think you must know yourself— what your competencies or capabilities are; whether you're able to pick up the job or the role that is given to you.
For example, when I joined Berjaya, because of the three mandates that were given to me, I was confident that I could take up the role and these mandates. I was also quite honest in telling the CEO that I may not have the full perspective of IR or full experience for the role, in terms of HR operations. I only had experience in recruitment, L&D, and a few more. He told me not to worry, as he just wanted me to focus on the three mandates, because they had someone who would already be taking care of the HR operations. I did not have to worry about payroll, the IR, and all that.
So I was quite blessed going in, and of course, it was a good learning experience for me to learn about various aspects. I learned to equip myself with more experience in payroll and IR, and picked up a lot of knowledge and best practices in HR in those years.
Therefore, my advice is to equip yourself. One of the ways I liked to do so is to read and keep myself abreast of what was going on in the HR landscape, even by attending conferences.
Whatever I could pick up—be it in data analytics, or communication, and more, I then tried to see how they could be implemented in Berjaya at that time.
For instance, we used to have the challenge where when an email was sent to the head, at times, the message would not be cascaded down to their staff or juniors.
We thus developed an application that everyone could download on their mobiles, so whenever there was an announcement by the CEO or by HR, they would receive them on their phones right away.
This is something that we did differently to connect with our employees.
We had a lot of engagement programmes, such as recognition for special days, and we felt that these little things that we do, had managed to increase the engagement with the employees.
We’ve also been recognised as an employer of choice for the transformations implemented in HR at Berjaya, for instance, digitalisation, performance management, and engagement. When I’d joined the firm, HR there had 16 different systems—but we managed to consolidate them into one system for all.
As an HR professional, when you join a company, always think about how you can contribute to the company and add value to the company, or to the employees, very specifically. For me, I asked myself how I could make that change with the power given to me as an HR head. What can I do? The mindset of challenging the status quo, accepting change, is also very important.
Another thing I believe in: you need to upskill yourself.
Q Keeping in mind everything you’ve shared, if you were to choose three key attributes high-potentials should possess, what would they be?
It depends on the role that you're in as well as the company, but I do think that one of the most important skills you must have is communication. You must be able to communicate – the what, the why, the how, and so forth. For example, when we wanted to implement change in Berjaya, my boss always believed that we needed to have a dialogue session. We needed to have a town hall meeting to inform the heads on why we wanted to implement this change, what this change was about, what was so important about it. You must communicate the changes that you want to make, to get their buy-in.
If they do not align with you or there is some resistance, then listen to what their concerns are and see if you can address them If you can, think about whether you can tweak the policy. While you may not get 100% buy-in, if you get a majority agreeing then that’s when you can take the next step in action.
Therefore, to me, communication is really an important skill that we should have.
One thing I’ve also learned from my Toastmasters journey is the importance of confidence in delivery when presenting to your stakeholders.
Another key attribute is an understanding of the business. You need to understand the business. If I were to share an instance—Berjaya covers various industries, from F&B to hotel, property, and more. So, in my first month with the company, I made it a point to visit quite a number of our subsidiaries, tried to understand their business, the challenges they were facing, and how much HR could be of support to them.
I also had to understand aspects that may be helpful to me and the business, for instance in improving something. Say you want to improve a certain benefit— you’d need to conduct a market survey and with the data analytics collected, you will know how much the changes and implementations will cost or impact the company.
To share how this was applied at Berjaya in my time—we used big data and analytics to implement a system of taking medical leave without MC (medical certificate). This was part of our employee engagement and about a trust culture.
When you are unwell and want to rest, you would typically go to a doctor and get a medical certificate. And it costs money to pay for that piece of paper, just so you can rest at home. On average, one MC costs RM80. And each year, it may cost a company like Berjaya (with 12,000 employees) about half a million.
To tackle this, we used data analytics and calculated—if we were to give just one day’s leave without an MC, it will actually help to save the company at least half a million. We were able to use that data to convince the management, to say, ‘okay if you're not well, I give you one day.’ You just tell your supervisor that you need a break, and you need to take an MC.
From there, we implemented the system of medical leave without MC, and it was something that I did very differently. We know that other companies have implemented it as well, but the challenge lies in convincing the management. It’s about building trust. The leader can either give their staff the go-ahead, or request an MC still.
Q What advice would you give not just to your younger self, but to many up-and-coming HR leaders who look to you as a career inspiration?
Keep doing what they believe in - focus on what you are passionate about, and don’t give up on whatever you believe will be able to help the employees. Be it to make them better people, or help make the company a better place to work in.
Continue to do it, to implement it, and to engage different stakeholders to implement what you want to do for your employees because to me, I always think about my employees when I do things. Of course, there is a balancing act between the management and the employees because HR is always caught in between. So, we need to balance our role as HR - you cannot side with the employee too much, or be too much on the management’s side either.
That’s why in my role, I was always careful when it came to implementations. I always put myself in both the management’s and the employees’ shoes to see how they would respond, what they would think, and so on
If I could meet my younger self – well, when I look back at how I started my career I did not regret what I had done, or where I am now. I found it a very fulfilling and rewarding career for me for the past 30 years. In fact, I'm not in retirement mode! I believe I still have the energy to contribute to the industry. My passion for people development is still there.
So, rather than my advice to myself, I would like to share my plan forward.
I always say I must equip myself. I believe in attending training and getting certifications. For example, I trained myself to be a coach. I also trained myself to be an NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) practitioner. It will help me to set my goal and to achieve my goal.
One other thing I truly believe is, in whatever you do, if you're coming in with very good intentions and positive intentions, good things will happen to you. The law of attraction really works. That's also one of the things that, when I look back allow me to sleep with peace of mind. Why? Because I know my conscience is clear, and everything I do is for the betterment of people.
Overall, I will continue working on myself and training myself, to keep on contributing where I can.
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