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Suite Talk: Robert Woolfrey, Millennial Media

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Talent management skills are integral not only for the aspiring HR professional, but also for any CEO willing to lead an organisation effectively. Akankasha Dewan talks to Robert Woolfrey, managing director of Millennial Media APAC, on what HR needs to do to get a seat in the boardroom.

How did you get to where you are today with Millennial Media?

I have always believed in pushing one’s own limits to achieve more in life and business. Let me explain.

Two years ago, I was Millennial Media’s first employee in Asia Pacific. While I was originally hired to cover Southeast Asia and build the team here, whenever I saw an opportunity to push the limits, enter other markets like Australia or India, I took it. Earlier this year, I accepted the role of managing director for all of Asia Pacific, including Japan.

In addition to pushing your limits, success is also achieved with the support and teamwork of your colleagues. I’m very thankful that that is at the heart of Millennial Media’s culture.

How would you define your leadership style?

In one word – passionate. I have been living and breathing mobile since its inception, and I am determined to give our organisation my best every day. I hold my employees to a similar standard as we work together to shape our own future and that of the industry.

Over the years, my leadership style has matured and I’ve grown into an individual that trusts in his team, believes in their capabilities and supports their decisions.

I work towards choosing the smartest and most relevant people for the job, and allow them the time and space required to make their mark at work, determine the best course of action, and to make their own mistakes.

If there is a requirement for me to get more involved, I step in to take a more hands-on approach, coach staff at the entry level, participate in brainstorm sessions, etc – whatever the need or hour it may be.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

One of the most satisfying things about my job has been the opportunity to watch people grow as individuals, as well as in terms of their own skill sets. For instance, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to mentor someone who has never travelled outside of Singapore and Malaysia, but now works across all of Southeast Asia and has travelled the region extensively. I love watching them take charge and achieve their potential. It is very satisfying.

Personally, I also enjoy being at the cutting-edge of technology and could not have found a better industry to support that. Mobile is at the centre of consumer behaviour and the thread by which all advertising is connected.

Robert Woolfrey, Managing Director, APAC, Millennial Media

What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make as a boss, and what did you learn from it?

One of the more challenging components of my job is to initiate change and restructure the business whenever the need arises. While change is inevitable in any organisation, our industry’s high-growth trajectory means we have to continually grow and, at times, reinvent ourselves. When that means reassigning a certain project or diverting resources from another, there is bound to be some friction. That is because we empower our staff to take ownership at work and seek success for both themselves and the organisation.

It is essential to be patient, spend some time understanding concerns, and never fail to recognise the significant contributions our employees make to the business.

When you’re struggling with stress or a bad day, how do you unwind?

Cooking and sharing a meal with my loved ones is my favourite way to unwind. I believe that a meal turns out well only when you put your heart into creating and executing the recipe. As such, cooking forces you to concentrate on the task at hand and, for the moment, let everything else go.

Barbecuing is one of my favourite pastimes, and I am fortunate to have a large terrace, which enables me to fire-up the grill whenever I want. My wife and I love entertaining whenever we can and it gives me the opportunity to hone my skills. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll become Singapore’s version of Bobby Flay!

Aside from cooking, I think Singapore’s Botanical Gardens is a wonderful spot, and I enjoy running there either in the mornings or evenings. I also try and head home to Canada at least twice a year to see my family and friends.

How do you engage and motivate staff when they are stressed?

I believe a leader needs to show their passion, enthusiasm and optimism for the job every single day – and even more so on the tougher days. Your vision has to shine through, and you should be able to articulate the end-goal at any given point. Each person needs to know how they add value and help the company inch closer to the collective goal.

I believe the team should miss every colleague who is out sick or on leave. That’s a test that everyone is aware of each individual’s value.

How do you achieve that sort of attitude in an organisation?

All our senior team members have an open door policy and we encourage our teams to identify problems and come to us before they escalate and become unmanageable. I feel that by taking a genuine interest in people, their work and their goals, we are able to foster the trust that is required for people to come up to us even in tough situations.

To keep the momentum going in the office, we also encourage members of the team to identify, engage and develop initiatives they would be interested in.

For example, a few members of the team get together regularly to put together an APAC company newsletter, which they called Synergy, to share updates with everyone. That is an example of a simple way of lighting up a colleague’s inbox and also contributes to staff wellness overall. They weren’t tasked with it, they just took the initiative and did it.

I believe the team should miss every colleague who is out sick or on leave. That’s a test that everyone is aware of each individual’s value.
Robert Woolfrey, managing director, Millennial Media APAC
Do you think HR leaders today have what it takes to become CEOs?

CEOs require a diverse range of skills that give them the ability to function in a complex environment. This includes a bias towards action, an ability to take risks, market and customer familiarity, an understanding of profit drivers, and a strategic long-term outlook. HR leaders need to demonstrate their business acumen and be trained to look at HR as a strategic business function that drives end results before they can sit at the head of the table.

That said, CEOs need to have excellent talent management skills, which is a natural part of the skill set of an HR professional. The innate ability to build relationships, cultivate and mentor people, be inclusive in their decision-making, create an environment of support for those working with them – these traits are not only invaluable, but essential at the CEO level.

How can the HR function become more strategic in your opinion?

Human resources needs a seat in the boardroom. Aligning more closely with the overall company vision and what needs to be done to get there, is the only way the function can be more strategic. HR is not just about putting people in seats, but future-proofing the business by finding the right people.

HR managers need to understand the company’s business challenges, and the long-term direction so they can find the people with the right skills sets, education, intellect and outlook that not only satisfies where the company is now, but those that can help the company reach new heights. Once the right team is assembled, it is about keeping people in the organisation by providing opportunities for them to grow.


What’s the best thing about HR in your organisation?

The honesty and integrity with which we deal with our people is what makes our HR policy stand out. We truly care about our staff and are committed to their wellbeing throughout their time at Millennial Media. We want our team to be able to achieve their full potential and we stand behind them from the beginning.

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