“HR has a crucial role to play in providing different insights to different stakeholders, and in order to do so, they need to keep abreast of what’s happening and stay in tune with the business,” Olivia Chua says.
Olivia Chua, Jebsen & Jessen Group’s Chief Human Resources Officer, is a hustler.
To reach where she is today was not by sheer luck, but by pure grit, grind, and (a lot of) planning. When Chua graduated from university, she already had the experience of eight jobs – across industries such as F&B, retail, and sales & marketing – in her portfolio, credit to stepping into the corporate world at the age of 15.
Her next step of personal (and professional) growth was then to “join a firm where I could learn how to be a professional”.
“I sought to learn the ethics around being a young professional and learning how to conduct myself,” Chua tells Lester Tan. “My thinking was that this would open a lot of doors for me. So, I applied for jobs at major multinational companies (MNCs), as well as consulting ones.”
With that, Chua landed a role with Accenture, and was placed in-charge to take care of graduate recruitment for Asia – which kickstarted her journey in the human resources space.
“This is where I got to travel to different countries, like the UK, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, so I got a lot of exposure even in a junior role. This was something I treasured greatly at the start of my career, and it sparked my interest in going deeper into human resources,” she shares.
Subsequently, Chua secured positions at Korn Ferry, the Sunway Group, and WTW – where she managed to learn the fundamentals of HR and development – before settling down at Jebsen & Jessen Group.
“To anyone contemplating making a change, I would strongly encourage to plan first. Planning helps to reduce risk and make changes more palatable. Also, don’t be afraid to fail, know that everything that happens is part of the learning process and it will help us make better decisions in future,” she says.
Continue the conversation below as Chua dives into her HR life and responsibilities such as the hardest decision she had to make as a leader, the specific projects that she and the management work closely on, and more.
Q What was the most innovative HR campaign that you've worked on, and what was your biggest learning from that?
In my first corporate role, at Sunway, organisational development (OD) was not very well-known in Malaysia at that time, and Sunway was one of the first to introduce OD, so I was kind of a pioneer in that space as I helped to set it up.
Beyond talent management, succession planning, etc., I went deeper into designing systems. I am not an IT person but I designed the workflows and worked with the IT people to do the programming. I don’t like admin work and am always looking for ways to shorten the process or time taken to do something, and since the company wanted to create a bespoke platform, I was game for this. So, I would say this is the most innovative project I’ve worked on.
When I started moving from consulting to corporate, I found that many HR people are afraid of changes and are stuck in routine work. The problem is, when we are so used to routine, we tend not to want to change, even if there are improvements that can be made. What I learned during the OD project I mentioned was that because the system was completely new, it made the change management easier. Moreover, I discovered how important it is to offer support; to sit down and share the load with HR team members. This is where you can really spark some innovation and get people excited about changes.
My message is similar to the one I mentioned previously: don’t be scared of changes or of failures, remember you are not alone, and that the journey is more important than the outcome.
Q On the other hand, what is the hardest decision you’ve had to make as a HR leader?
Personally, the hardest decision I’ve had to make was to leave a company because I could not condone their ethics. I’ve had to do this twice in my lifetime so far. The first time I was only in my 20s and I spoke up to the owner. I felt there was discrimination happening, which I decided to speak up against and I was prepared for the consequences. I didn’t get fired but I decided to resign. I felt an immense relief after doing so.
Some people may think: why don’t just leave as you know nothing is going to change, but I don’t believe in that. If everyone believes in this, then nothing in the world will change. And I did this for my own conscience and that’s good enough.
Q How closely do you work with the CEO, and what are the specific projects that both of you work closely on?
I would say that on most projects I work independently. There is a great deal of autonomy entrusted at Jebsen & Jessen, and the Chairman and Group CEO on the executive board are a great sounding board.
If there is a significant project on which we can both bring different things to the table then we work very closely. For example, we were working together on a management excellence programme. The topic was on managing the employee lifecycle and corporate governance, so this is where Per Magnusson, the Group CEO gave a lot of input and it was very enjoyable working on it together.
Another current example is designing and implementing flexible work arrangements now that we are coming out of the pandemic. It is a complex issue which will impact the way we work and may gradually change the culture of the organisation if we are not careful, so it makes sense to work very closely with the executive board to ensure we find the best solution.
Q Who is the one person who has inspired you the most in your career, and why?
Larry Yap, the Executive Director while I was at Sunway Group, who has sadly passed away since. He was my first corporate leader who is also a business leader. I was very inspired by his management style; he was all about brainstorming, finding new ideas and making us feel like nothing was impossible. He saw possibilities rather than problems.
Q How would you describe your leadership style, and how has it worked out for you so far?
I have tried different styles, but most people would say that I am democratic. I also make sure I delegate well, but I also believe you need to provide a lot of support while delegating. As you move up the ladder, you come to a realisation that you cannot achieve things on your own, especially when expectations become higher, and you can only do this through managing others. I admit there are times where I am more autocratic, in situations where I feel urgent decisions need to be made and instructions need to be clear.
Q With today’s rapidly evolving environment, what do you believe is the top way that HR can add value?
I would say being an advisor or business partner. HR people are important advisors in the areas of structure, employee development, employee engagement and retention, talent attraction etc. People are really the greatest asset to any company. So, beyond the administrative part, I’ve seen how much value and insights HR can add in other areas of interest for stakeholders; they are often great listeners and can provide a different perspective.
For instance, during the pandemic, we saw how many people struggled to cope with the situation. It became a struggle for managers to navigate, and this is where HR came in to provide them with different ways of managing these challenges on employees.
Q Is there a mentality that you believe HR professionals should do away with? And what should they replace it with?
The mentality of HR professionals who believe they have nothing to say and their strength is only in admin work. What they can do instead is ask “how can I understand this business better?” and not forget to learn. HR professionals are typically the ones organising the trainings, but they often forget about their own development.
Like I mentioned earlier, HR has a crucial role to play in providing different insights to different stakeholders, and in order to do so, they need to keep abreast of what’s happening and stay in tune with the business.
Q Before we conclude the interview, we’d like to ask: since Jebsen & Jessen always finds its way in a changing world, let’s bring this to the HR context – what's the one thing you wish to see invested in HR’s future to ensure it will be more impactful to guiding the business function, talents, and the workplace towards their "true north", and why?
I would love to see investment in HR systems to make them more automated; to allow more time to be spent on business partnering. Manager and employee self-service became even more apparent during the lockdown where workflows and approval process could be further automated. With automation, we must be careful not to let systems take over conversations; this is where HR plays an important role to bridge that gap as conversations and connection will always be more crucial to human engagement.
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