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Suite Talk: Tim Kelsall, Kantar APAC

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Tim Kelsall, CEO, chief client officer, Kantar APAC and CEO, Kantar Consumer Insights, Malaysia, reveals why he thinks HR leaders are 'underleveraged' and the secrets behind overcoming today's people challenges.

How did you get to where you are today with Kantar?

I started off my career as many people do, straight from University and joining the graduate programme at Millward Brown. I quickly rose up the ranks of client management, leading some of our top client relationships around the globe for the likes of Unilever, PepsiCo, GSK etc.

Then I moved into a Kantar HQ role, to head up our client strategy team managing relationships across all the 12 operating brands for our top clients and then more recently leading our Malaysia businesses.

During that time I have always been proactive in putting myself forward for new opportunities to round out and stretch my skills and learning -  be it taking secondments with clients and working on site, spells in R&D developing client solutions and most importantly, taking assignments to our international network and leading teams in Asia, Europe and North America.

This has all given me a truly global perspective of the business as well a macro view from across different functions.

The main lesson I have learnt is to seize the opportunities that you can, as well as having a clear vision of what you want to achieve in your career and making sure those opportunities and experiences help to get you where you are heading.

How would you define your leadership style?

Purpose, determination and passion.

I think having clarity and vision for where we need to head and what we need to achieve is critical for business as well as personal success.  This then has to be backed up by practical and tangible strategies for achieving goals to enable us to make it happen.

Most of all though, I think having passion for what we do is most important.  This is passion for our people, the business issues that our clients are solving for, and a passion for the business and its future direction. It creates energy that I think is infectious and helps galvanise everyone behind our common goal.

Having worked across the different continents, did you have to tweak your leadership style to fit each continent? If so, how did you adapt your leadership style?


I think the main adaptation has been to truly understand the culture and people that you are working with, which is true wherever you are in the world. This takes time and I don’t think there are short cuts.  I think the best way to do this is by immersing oneself with our people and our clients in a market and invest the time.

I think it’s also really important to respect local ways or working, but also share new perspectives from other parts of the world.

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

Decisions are tough if you don’t have a clear idea about the options and the rationale.

So whether it's a decision I am making for the company, our clients or myself, I learnt a long time ago the need to weigh up the options and have a clear point of view.  Having clarity and purpose is key.

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

In my spare time I love sport and race Triathlons, Ironman, Marathons etc and I learn a lot from the people I train and race with.  It’s about setting stretching race goals, developing a plan, training hard, getting the right balance with work and having fun.

How do you engage and motivate staff when they are struggling with work?

I am a big believer in having a stop and think and getting an outside perspective from the team.  I apply the same learning to myself.  If I am struggling with a business issue or problem there is no better way to solve it than by getting perspectives and energy from other people.

Do you have any advice for employees on keeping a good work-life balance?

You have to make some time for yourself – even if it’s just a short amount of time each day.  It’s important that you re charge, re-energise to keep a healthy mind and body.  It’s so easy to become burnt out or run down without the balance.

What is your view of human resources as a business function? And, did you notice any differences in the function across the various continents?

In our business, our people really are our most important asset.

Our people make the magic happen for our clients. They are our competitive advantage especially in our business where our clients are looking for expertise to help them solve their business issues be it strategists, cultural insight specialists, marketing scientists or creative story tellers.

People with specialist talents work best and contribute more when recruited, trained and inspired in specialist teams and companies.  They can really focus and flourish and harness their talents.  I see this the world over.

How can HR contribute better to organisational goals, in your opinion?

The world continues to change and evolve at such a rapid rate through the changing consumer power.  People are growing in affluence, have access to more technology and have overwhelming choices of brands and products.

Here is Asia we have witnessed amazing growth, but all businesses from the global giants to the small local companies are facing one common challenge – formidable competition and the key to survival is retaining and growing the right talent.

The young people who join our businesses today and are our future are motivated and have a different set of values, goals and ways of working.

We need to figure out how to ensure that we can really understand and adapt our organisation to this generation and the generation that will follow.

This means embracing new technology to transform job content, new reward mechanisms in tune with their aspirations and values;putting in pace greater flexibility in terms of ways of working and finally ensuring we provide people with choice of opportunities to grow and develop. We need to make this happen fast.

Could many HR leaders make it to a CEO level? Why/why not?

I believe they should and it’s certainly possible.  I think one of the reasons they typically don’t, is that they are seen as specialists in just one area of the business.  However, they have such a strategic oversight of the business and touch every aspect, that their knowledge and understanding is unique and underleveraged.

Therefore I think gaining hands on experiences outside of the function is crucial to develop those critical learning experiences in other commercial functions that can demonstrate their potential and ability to make it all the way to the top.

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