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Moving from insurance, FMCGs to digital consulting to semiconductors, Kristine Neo, VP, HR, Asia Pacific, Zimmer Biomet shares why being in HR in the medical device industry "connects deeper" with her.

“You always have to like your job, love your job,” says Kristine Neo, Vice President, Human Resources, Asia Pacific, Zimmer Biomet, gently yet affirmatively. “If you don't, if you cannot smile, if you cannot be cheerful, this is not the right place for you.”

Given her over 25 years as an HR professional, it was intuitively thought that HR was a natural career choice for Neo. But, surprisingly, she says “no”.

“I did a lot of part-time jobs during my school holidays to pay for my university education. I did fast food, hotel, and manufacturing; I even worked in factories and then shipping,” she shares. “After graduation, I did office and expat admin, and insurance underwriting, reporting to our HR Director at the time, Mr Yap. He was my mentor and a good leader. He exposed me to different HR projects.”

That was where Neo started dabbling in HR work. “That was how I saw I can make a difference through training, compensation and benefits, and employee engagement, and it resonated with me.”

Though she refers to it as a “natural career at the latest stage”, being in HR has now become a lifelong passion for Neo, especially in the medical device industry. She sees it as the one which connects deeper with her, where there is an opportunity to really help people and give back to the community.

In this walkabout interview with Tracy Chan, Neo shares her journey in Zimmer Biomet, and the meaningful difference she has made to her team members.

Q With more than 20 years of experience serving companies in the medical sector in Asia, what do you see as the key trends and challenges in terms of managing talent in the medtech sector?

Medical devices is a very tough and competitive industry. For example in equipment sales, if you lose an opportunity, you have to wait for a few years for the resources to come in again. We have to focus on winning to create that sustainability.

People in this industry are always forward-looking, resilient, and agile. They need to be professional and well-trained. It’s about personal learning agility and being on your toes to support doctors. We need to teach our medical sales representatives how to communicate, and a lot of soft skills for them to connect and work well with the doctors and nurses.

Integrity and business ethics are also important. Our mission is to help people around the world alleviate pain and improve their quality of life. We need to be responsible to our patients in an ethical way. We put our team members through serious and vigorous training. But it takes a quite long time to train and qualify staff like this.

What spurred your interest in joining Zimmer Biomet?

There are three reasons for me to join Zimmer Biomet.

First, leadership and culture. Mr Sang Yi, our Group President, Asia-Pacific, is one of the reasons. I worked for Sang between 2011 to 2013, a short time period, but his leadership left a deep impression on me. He is a tough leader, but fair and intelligent, an engineer by training. I always need to have a lot of data before I can convince him. But that is good in that it pushes me to think deeper and come up with recommendations.

And then the culture. I did my due diligence and asked about how the leadership team interacts. Leader behaviours are very important to me, because they form a critical aspect of the culture. To Sang, it’s about building a collaborative culture. We call our employees ‘team members' and we win as a team. It's not a one- person thing.

Secondly, it is the medical device industry. I find working in this sector an honour. This is my third device experience, the first in ophthalmology, followed by cardiovascular, and then now orthopedics. The medical device mission really connects deeply with me. I see an opportunity to help people through our people. As my mother always told me: "Don’t be afraid to do more. Just do everything and help people in whatever you can and the returns would come later."

The third reason is the role. The job here is the same as what I have done previously – to support the business in its delivery through the people. But the role is very different, in the sense that here I have my own team, which allows me to put my passion of developing people to good use.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I call myself a nurturer. I really enjoy developing and nurturing people, empowering, delegating to, and coaching them. If you pick some team members I have worked with, they will tell you I throw them into the water to swim. That's the only way to learn, in my view.

I use a lot of frameworks, like a 70-20-10 model. So the 10% is really through concepts, workshops and trainings; 20% is having a mentor and a coach to help you progress; and 70% is about doing it, taking up projects, and raising their hand to do more. The learning comes from actually doing something.

I push my team members a lot, but I'm also a fair leader. I always encourage them to do something, do more and go with a partner if they need help, and I support them from behind.

I find it very exciting to do HR work. We have to balance different dynamics.

Leaders’ emotions and feelings are contagious, in that they affect other people. We need to detach our emotions, especially the negative ones, so that people are confident we are leading them in the right way.

It's always about partnerships, and that's also very much aligned with Sang’s (way of doing things).

What is the most memorable HR campaign that you've worked on, and what was your biggest learning from that?

When the pandemic first hit, nobody knew anything about it. As a medical device company, most of our people work in hospitals. To us, their safety is our number one concern. Business is important, so is the safety of our employees. So we engaged a disease specialist to talk about the virus and how they can protect themselves.

During that time, working from home became the default. However, we could not leave our employees to function “normally” because they did not know what was happening. To bring a sense of normalcy, I worked with our Education Director to create an intensive programme of 11 modules to connect and engage our employees, five for people managers, six for medical sales representatives. We delivered these virtually and very quickly for 11 weeks from April to July.

We tried different things like engaging speakers for Q&A, running a panel, and providing external training. Employees across the Asia-Pacific region stayed engaged and learnt something at the same time. So I'm very proud of the programme.

COVID has accelerated the evolution and adoption of virtual training and changed people’s acceptance to virtual training. In the past, certain types of training were not considered possible to be done online but due to the restrictions in travel, trainers have since exploited different methods in engaging audience through virtual training.

One of the advantages of virtual or online programmes is that you can leverage experts from all around the world without asking them to travel. Also, you can break programmes down into shorter, smaller and bite-sized sessions, which are easier for people to digest and retain, which leaves them with ample time to do other work. They also allow us to bring in diverse teams together. People from China, India, Korea, etc. can partner with each other in group discussions.

On the other hand, what is the hardest challenge you had to deal with or the hardest decision you’ve had to make as an HR leader?

I never look at difficulties as threats. I always look at them as opportunities to improve and to be better. I like to be positive and like challenges, in that I do not take no for an answer.

The most difficult thing for me is seeing employees leaving the organisation, be it voluntarily or involuntarily. Don’t get me wrong. While everybody needs to think for themselves, when employees leave, I always think about what we could have done differently. Is there something that we did not know about that drove them to leave the organisation?

True HR professionals will always try their best to support those who are leaving with empathy, respect, and treat them with dignity.

Treat others how you want to be treated. That's the golden rule. The platinum rule today is treat others how they want to be treated. I'm glad that I manage to keep a lot of relationships even after they exit the organisation.

With an APAC-wide remit, how do you keep consistency in terms of company culture and values across different markets?

In Zimmer Biomet, our mission ties us together tightly. “Patient safety, quality and integrity” is very important to us. Our mission is to alleviate pain and improve the quality of life for people around the world. To reinforce our commitment to our mission, we always start our meetings and presentations with our ‘Commit’ slide where our team members may share patient stories or how our team members go over and above to ensure our patients are well served.

That is how we connect our people, and remind ourselves of our mission, and why we are in Zimmer Biomet.

Talking about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), at Zimmer Biomet, we have different patients and customers, as well as team members. That is where the diversity piece comes in. We have implemented a lot of commitments to ensure that we stay connected with our employees. We need to have all their very diverse voices. We also need to listen to our people, respect them, and motivate and encourage them to speak up.

Our people go through mandatory ‘Culture Wizard Inclusion’ training, which serves as a tool to help them understand people have different styles and behave differently.

In APAC and globally, we do have metrics for DEI. However, setting the metrics is one thing; the key is all about what we do. If we do the right things, the results will come and we will achieve the metrics.

There are many activities we undertake. We have an APAC DEI Council where our senior leaders are represented. We leverage our employee resource groups (ERGs) to attract diverse membership to address team members’ interest. We have an Asian ERG, Women Inspired Network called ‘WIN’, and the Young Professionals Network to appeal to different segments of the workforce.

In APAC, we also have our ‘Empower Every Voice Month’ in August, in which we organise activities around DEI, including having our leaders champion the need for diversity, making time to speak to our people, and listening to all the diverse voices. We just launched our ‘Global Diversity Awareness Month’ in October. It all starts from the top.

In terms of equity, it’s about equal opportunity in terms of attraction, retention and development. Everyone gets an opportunity to be developed.

We have put many different activities to appeal to different people, as well as enable, teach, and make them more aware of and embrace diversity.

However, diversity is just a piece of it, inclusion is very important too. You and I, we are diverse. But if I am not listening to you, if I am not giving you an opportunity to speak up, if I am not listening to what you value, we are not reaping the best. This is the same no matter if you come from HR or not.

No question is a stupid question. We run a lot of communications sessions like town halls and fireside chats to create opportunities for our team members to ask questions and voice their opinions.

How are you and your team supporting female leaders in the workplace and encouraging women to consider a career in the medtech sector?

At Zimmer Biomet, we encourage the advancement of female leaders. The advancement of women as well as inclusion are two important keys in our DEI strategy this year. We have our senior leadership team, meaning our Chairman and CEO, and his senior leaders making a huge commitment to mentoring women.

We participate in women-in-tech activities, as well as regularly invite female speakers within Zimmer Biomet to encourage and show the younger female leaders how to lead. Our male leaders sit down with our female employees and have conversations. It's a very open environment and our leaders are very transparent. Female team members are given the opportunity to voice their perspectives.

We also encourage male employees to participate in the same activities because they are part of the ecosystem. They need to support and make sure that their female colleagues feel comfortable and safe in the work environment as well.

In some countries like Japan, Korea and India, because of the societal environment, it will take time. The good thing is our leaders have committed to embracing the development of diverse leadership.

How does Zimmer Biomet support employees’ wellbeing across APAC? And how do you take care of your own wellbeing?

There's no one size fits all. At Zimmer Biomet, we have implemented a lot of wellbeing activities comprising four aspects – physical, mental, social, and financial.

Every location has different expectations, so we customised the activities according to the local needs. At the APAC level, we have an APAC wellbeing committee, chaired by our leaders to review and roll-out activities from the region perspective.

We have implemented 'No Meeting Fridays’ for Friday afternoons; a flexible workplace, where 50% of our employees work remotely today; and, a simplification project, as we want to simplify, digitalise and automate processes and procedures for employees. This started as an APAC project two years ago and it has become a global project since June this year.

Financially, we have paid up incentives despite the business challenges. We did not cut any salaries. We are also enhancing team members’ financial literacy, like how to prepare for retirement.

One very interesting programme is the ‘Hundred Days Challenge’ in India, where team members focus on their wellbeing for 100 days through a daily objective, for example, they have to say thank you to the shop owner one day, and the next day, they have to do physical exercises. The experiences and photos are shared in our internal networking platform to encourage others to follow suit.

When Shanghai locked down earlier in April this year, 10 of our employees volunteered to work in the warehouse so we can still serve our patients. They could neither go out nor go home. They had no shower facilities and had to make their own beds using carton boxes during a cold period. Fortunately, through tapping on some of our networks, we were able to deliver groceries to them and to all our other employees in Shanghai.

To take care of my intellectual wellbeing, I am always thinking about how I can plan the next thing, and how I can engage leaders because every leader is different. All these things get me excited.

I meditate every morning to help myself focus. I do a lot of walking even when I travel. That helps with my physical wellbeing. Family and friends are my pillars of strengths and that takes care of my social wellbeing.

How do you see the HR function evolving, and what can HR leaders do to prepare for that?

We need to collaborate and inspire one another to move forward. Time and tide waits for no man. Digital adoption and transformation are making a lot of organisations feel a deficit in knowledge and skills. We are moving into a skill-based era. We cannot do things the way we did in the past.

How do you help people build their skills and capabilities, and manage their emotions? Change management is very important because companies must evolve. When customers and governments are already digitalised, we all must adapt. How do we take all people through the journey? It's a transformation journey, not a transition.

One question I get a lot is, will HR work be overtaken by robots? The truth is it is already happening. There is no need to be afraid. Fundamentally, our job will not change. We still must support the business through our people. Having a growth mindset, agility and resilience in such situations are important.

All organisations are going through some form of transformation, it is about how we support our leaders through the transformation journey. Data analytics will be big. You need to have those to drive decision-making.

The medtech industry will continue to evolve. How do we work with our peers and regulators to ensure we are able to bring advanced products and better outcomes to patients? Skillsets are going to be very different. Once you have a growth mindset, you will be able to look at challenges as opportunities.

Employees also have differing expectations from HR. They want HR to be their partners, coaches and advisors in their career development.

HR is taking on a very different role. Embracing technology is helping us to focus on real strategic HR work.

Concluding the interview on a funny note, if not in HR, what is another career would you have chosen?

Image consultant. I like to make people look and feel good. I used to cut my sister's hair and do the make-up for them for their parties. And it is not just about the outlook. I try to teach people about communication, and how they carry themselves. It is very important because when you present yourself well, that's confidence coming from you.


Images / Provided (Interviewee, Kristine Neo, Vice President, Human Resources, Asia Pacific, Zimmer Biomet)

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