Talent & Tech Asia Summit 2024
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Q&A: Merle Chen, chief talent officer, The Lo & Behold Group

Vital Stats: Spearheading one of Singapore’s leading hospitality brands, Merle Chen, chief talent officer at The Lo & Behold Group (the brand behind staples such as Tanjong Beach Club, Odette, and Loof) embodies the group culture of being young, vibrant and dynamic.

With its mission of “passionate people creating awesome experiences”, she leads a HR L&OD team of 10. Hear what she has to say to Wani Azahar on designing a competency framework for a growing local company with more than 350 full-time employees.

Q You joined The Lo & Behold Group (TLBG) in 2017. What would you say was the highlight of last year?

Looking back at 2017, we achieved quite a lot in conceptualising, designing and implementing new frameworks – TLBG leadership and core competency framework, performance management, compensation, a learning curriculum and refining programmes for orientation and onboarding. All while managing business operational needs such as talent acquisition, talent and leadership development, and workforce planning for the opening of three new concepts.

Moreover, we embarked on a technology-led transformation journey with the view to elevate the employee experience as well as enhance the effectiveness and value of HR to the business. I guess, in short, the highlight was the fact we were able to architect and orchestrate this within a short six-month time frame from July. I’m really proud of the HR L&OD team – how far we have come and their passion and drive for the journey ahead towards achieving our vision and goals. I’m also cognisant of how this wouldn’t be possible without the strong support and trust of management and our colleagues.

Q Let’s talk about designing the competency framework. Could you share a little more about the business need behind this initiative?

When I first joined in February 2017, we were thick into our performance appraisal cycle. Sitting through most of the performance appraisals, I found that most of our employees came out of those sessions unhappy and/or confused with the outcome as goals or expectations were unspoken and not made clear, or were made clear, but not tracked against achievement.

Our performance appraisal was based on values which we coined as P.A.S.S.I.O.N, but did not line up against key performance results. This made it almost impossible to know our employees and corresponding interventions such as learning, career planning and development or similar that would help elevate their strengths and support their continuing development. As a business, this meant we were less able to plan for and support the development of our talent, and build future leadership bench strength critical to our continuing success.

Hence, we embarked on codifying the competencies – skills, mindsets, behaviours – required for success in operations across all employee levels, departments (culinary, service, sales and events) and roles such as cooks, chef de partie and sous chefs.

We envisioned the TLBG competency framework as a starting point for robust performance feedback and development conversations that would serve as a roadmap to enable employees to take greater ownership over their career journey with the group and professional development. At the same time, we also redesigned our performance management framework encompassing three areas, including goals tied to business objectives; competencies; and values, that is, how an individual goes about their work in alignment with the group’s values.

I remember telling my HR team that the number one priority for the project is to make sure every employee who walks through the performance appraisal cycle comes out very happy – knowing of the expectations and then over delivering on them. Or, at the very least, content – as they will know exactly where the gaps are and are happy on how they are going to be supported. With the impetus on us embarking on that journey, we started to codify the necessary skills for each position.

Q Before this, how did TLBG identify the skills and competencies needed for the various roles?

Much like those in F&B, it was dependent on the experience of the manager – generally from having learnt through experience either from previous employment or a rough sense-making and interpretation of management’s expectations. As for the formal process itself, it was done via a 360-feedback that was based on values. I actually kept that in its place, albeit, it has a very strong tenet that you don’t (just) measure on what people do (the goals), but also measure against how they go about doing it.

And when you measure how the goals were achieved, it’s about the values. You will be able to answer questions such as: Do you live the values? When you delivered a great experience, were you approachable or did you upset everybody just to get your goals met? It’s a very important tenet for the competency framework.

And when you measure how the goals were achieved, it’s about the values. 

Q How did the staff react to this change in the competency framework? Are there any changes to look forward to?

We are just undergoing our appraisal cycle using the new frameworks and tools. Thus far, feedback has been positive. Other than the overwhelming reception of having much shorter appraisal forms, managers shared that it makes their conversations with direct reports easier – as they are now able to clearly define not only the expectations of the current role, but for a level above, and thus, can discuss corresponding development plans. HR takes a rapid prototyping approach to the design and implementation of HR frameworks, processes and initiatives, and with deliberate thought and planning.

As part of that process, we will continue to take in feedback and refine the framework accordingly. We’ve managed to rapidly implement it, so we take it that a review process has to happen quickly. Once this performance appraisal cycle is complete in March, we will be reviewing the framework and approach. In 2018, we’re also looking to bring this online, hence, we will definitely need to refine it as the look and feel will be different.

Q As welcoming as staff were to the change, it’s safe to say there’s bound to be some challenges introducing a new initiative. What were they for you?

Introducing a new initiative – in this case our competency framework – is akin to learning a new language. One first has to understand the form and basic tenets before being able to articulate meaning. As I wanted this initiative to be of shared ownership, we took the time to validate the framework with our managers and chefs during the design phase to ensure the competencies were appropriate and described the right skills, mindsets and behaviours for each role and level. Basically, we asked them: “Is that what success (that is, good performance) looks like?”

Taking in the feedback, we further refined the framework. And because they could accurately describe what a good employee looked like, and correspondingly what someone else on the other spectrum looked like – we could then codify it. The framework also needed to be simple in order for most of our employees – on the ground and up to management level – to relate to and understand. The team’s guiding principle to anyone reviewing the framework was: “If you don’t understand the descriptors in the first read, then the language is probably too complicated.”

There’s a whole spectrum of roles, and if your language is over the top, no one can understand. Talking about getting people to understand, we also included links in the framework to help employees comprehend some terms better. This helps to create a certain standard in terms of interpretation, and more importantly, for all to come to an agreement. Thereafter, the next challenge is in socialising the change – having managers and employees start practising its use in performance appraisals, career conversations, assessment and selection of potential hires. This is still a work in progress for us.

Merle Chen, TLBG

Q With TLBG having different concepts for every establishment – from fine dining to casual – how is this delivered to maintain the identity of each concept?

The framework was designed to centre on and articulate what is deemed as core skills, mindsets and behaviours for each level, role and function that would apply regardless of the type of concept, whether fun casual, semi-fine, fine-dining or hospitality. We wanted it to be (first) simple and (second) scalable. These broad competency buckets – product knowledge, guest centricity, business acumen, etc – were to form the standard baseline for consistency of application across the group. Detailed descriptors for each of those competency buckets would then cater for the identity and uniqueness of each concept.

From there, we took a look at our learning curriculum to develop the adaptation. This includes workshops and courses, be it internal or external, to help support our staff’s transition.

Q With the new framework, what are the top objectives you aim to achieve?

In short, that would be to better support employees and enhance their experience in their career journey with us; recognise and reward employees more accurately (and transparently); and to build leadership bench strength. The group places a strong emphasis on internal mobility, where our employees move across concepts; developing both depth in terms of skills as well as breadth from the diversity of cuisine and concepts.

Having a clear framework in place that identifies the core competencies required for success in a role will help us better identify our high potentials (HiPos) and specialists and allocate resources and the right level of intervention to support their development.

For instance, we should be able to successfully figure out the resources to deepen their expertise when it comes to specialists. Additionally, we hope to be able to scale and elevate the experience for our HiPos. As we continue on our trajectory of growth and are continually opening new concepts (approximately one to two every year), our goal is to build a strong pipeline of talent and develop the next generation of hospitality leaders to manage and lead these new concepts and further contribute to the growth of the industry.

Q What would you say are the key drivers that contributed to the success of the campaign?

It’s one thing to design a framework and another to ensure seamless execution in effecting change, especially where there are roadblocks or challenges. For that, it is imperative to maintain the energy level of both employees and the HR team at a medium to high level.

When you are managing change, there can be a lot of fear and confusion from the team. This is why I am always sensitive in keeping the energy level medium to high. It could be as simple as taking the team out (of the office) for a nice meal just to take their mind off work. We usually head to one of our establishments. It’s not only a time for gathering and bonding, but it also gives us a chance to interact with the team at our concepts. The other is to actively listen and continually be open to feedback.

When you are managing change, there can be a lot of fear and confusion from the team. This is why I am always sensitive in keeping the energy level medium to high.

Q It’s safe to say that employee engagement is of a high priority in the culture of TLBG. However, what would you say is your personal HR mantra?

I do believe in embracing a growth mindset. One that seeks to learn, unlearn and relearn so as to stay relevant – the heart of learning. Engaging employees goes beyond an initiative or two. For us, it is about architecting and creating an awesome experience for our passionate people (to come full circle to our mission of “passionate people creating awesome experiences”).

Yet, it must remain aligned to the broader organisation’s strategy and vision. As vision and strategies change as the business grows, employee engagement strategies initiatives must transform to remain relevant. If you think of the business vision as the head, HR would be the body that is responsible for creating and ensuring the architecture is well-positioned to execute.

However, if your bones are out of alignment, and you’re structurally unsound, then you can’t execute it right to get the outcome you wanted from the vision. On that note, a company culture is the heartbeat of an organisation. HR needs to have an open and growth-oriented mindset (as opposed to fixed) which involves a constant evaluation of our current state in comparison to the envisioned future state; horizon scanning of developments – political, economic, technology, socio-cultural – that may have impact on the business and thereafter; taking the appropriate interventions or plans where it comes to employee engagement; and the broader spectrum of HR, learning and organisation development.

However, if your bones are out of alignment, and you’re structurally unsound, then you can’t execute it right to get the outcome you wanted from the vision.

Q Being one of the local F&B leaders in Singapore, what can you advise other companies when it comes to employee engagement in the competitive hospitality market?

There will always be fads and trends when it comes to interventions and tools. It is no different in the HR function. However, not all are good for the business. Hence, my advice would be to forget about following fads and trends. Rather, be deliberate in considering what outcomes you would like to achieve and then go from there to determine what tools/interventions or initiatives will be relevant to achieving the overall goals and outcomes.

Art Direction / Mohd Ashraf and Shahrom Kamarulzaman Photos / Noor Hazmee, Prologue Pictures Makeup & Hair / Michmakeover using YSL beauty Singapore; Hairdo by Style You Pretty team using Bedhead by TIGI

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