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How unconventional career paths create strong leaders in Asia
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How unconventional career paths create strong leaders in Asia

Coming from a mindset of “one should be open to multiple pathways,” HCLI’s CEO Doris Sohmen-Pao believes in devoting attention to designing one’s life.

Doris Sohmen-Pao's (pictured above) career has taken her across industries and geographies, wherein she has worn many hats – working on various boards, leading human capital at Bain & Company SEA, and serving as a founding leader of Yale-NUS College and Singapore Management University's MBA Programme.

Today, she wears the hat of Chief Executive Officer at the Human Capital Leadership Institute based in Singapore, a centre of excellence dedicated to accelerating leadership and strategic human capital management capabilities in Asia.

Reflecting on the most memorable aspects of her career, the leader shares: “I have been so fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet talented people from all ages, industries, and backgrounds. This has been a common and meaningful element in all my different roles.”

doris sohmen pao hcli provided

Her “somewhat unconventional career path” has also taught her that one should always be open to multiple pathways, she adds. “On many occasions, things that I 'planned' to do never happened, but other unexpected paths opened, and they were just as good...if not better.”

Armed with this mindset, along with her experience, Sohmen-Pao tells HRO all about her learnings through the years, milestones she’s enjoyed in her time with HCLI, and more.

Taking development to new heights

The team at HCLI is driven by what Sohmen-Pao calls, a very simple mandate: developing leaders and leadership in Asia. She says, “Not enough attention has been put on soft skills in Asia and HCLI is trying to play a role to help rectify this. We do this through programmes, research, and community building.”

Over the years, HCLI has achieved a fair share of milestones on this journey. Among these, are the development of Asia-focused content such as simulations, cases, and research and programmes that have reached over 2,500 leaders across the APAC region.

“We’re also very proud to manage and run the Singapore Leaders Network (SGLN) - a community devoted to preparing Singaporeans for global leadership roles. We see this as an opportunity for us to lead an ecosystem of trainers, coaches, and thought leaders, to achieve this common goal.”

One of HCLI’s most recent milestones is its partnership with the Designing Your Life Institute, a non-profit that aims to help individuals design fulfilling lives. Co-founded by Bill Burnett and Mark Wee, the Institute has its roots in the New York Times best-seller ‘Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life’ and the corresponding popular academic course at Stanford University.

So, what’s the idea behind this partnership? Sohmen-Pao shares: “In Asia, we have room to grow in terms of accepting the concept of multiple pathways and design-thinking. Asia’s school systems have centered on rote learning and model answers at the expense of creativity and innovation.

“We are excited about the 'Design Your Life’ (DYL) methodology because it creates a thinking process and capability in the workforce which empowers and enables us to take ownership of our career paths.”

HCLI has already piloted the DYL curriculum in the SGLN workshop with HR professionals, where Burnett walked the audience through the DYL model, and the attendees practiced reframing and redesigning their work lives. The institute has also incorporated segments of DYL tools across multiple existing programmes including its ‘Young Leaders Programme’, ‘Leaders Programme’, and ‘HR Leaders Programme.

Looking ahead, Sohmen-Pao says the institute is keen on tailoring the course for diverse audiences – from professionals looking to reinvent themselves, to HR professionals seeking to increase employee engagement and retention in their organisations.

How HR can leverage design thinking to engage and retain talent

While an avenue like DYL can equip HR teams to better engage and retain their workforce, leaders must keep in mind the many challenges plaguing the labour landscape.

While companies today are pre-occupied with the war for talent, individuals’ attention span and tenure in their roles have become increasingly limited as they hope to seek greener pastures elsewhere. As such, how can employers and HR leaders improve engagement and retention of employees to risk-proof the business?

One key to this is to invest in your people, Sohmen-Pao tells us. “You can have a great strategy but if you don’t have people to execute, the strategy goes nowhere.”

“For companies, it’s critical to put human-centric HR thinking into the tool kit of all business leaders. HR needs to rely on each team leader to deliver human-centric leadership skills. Business leaders [also] need to create learning opportunities and cultures intentionally within the organisation.”

In large organisations, rotations can be an effective way for leaders to develop breadth and learning for their employees; while in smaller organisations, leaders can create the opportunity to learn by providing employees earlier responsibilities and the ability to work outside of a predefined scope, she explains.

“Every company needs to actively think about their Employee Value Proposition (EVP), especially as employees have more mobility than ever before,” she stresses.

At the same time, employees themselves have a role to play in remaining relevant now and in the future – it’s about having a mindset of learning and curiosity to be better prepared for it, Sohmen-Pao tells us.
"Knowledge and information are interesting and part of the equation but, moving forward, it’s going to be more about connecting the dots and creating insights.”

Keeping abreast with the times

Across the horizon, Sohmen-Pao reveals the biggest opportunities and threats that both HCLI and Singapore’s manpower ecosystem should stay on top of when planning for the coming years.

Starting with the challenges, she cautions leaders and individuals about becoming “overly obsessed and reliant on tech”, thus forgetting how to think for themselves. “Without human connectivity and talent, growing businesses in a sustainable and human way will be problematic,” she points out.

Ending on a positive note with the opportunities, Sohmen-Pao sees that Asia is “an important global region for business.” According to IMF, Asia is projected to contribute to 70% of global growth in 2023.
"There is a huge opportunity for HCLI to help build leaders who can steward and helm this growth," she notes.

Photos: Provided

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