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Bernard Cruz, group HR director at Jebsen & Jessen SEA, looks back on an interim management posting, and the lessons learnt.
After being based in Malaysia for a while, I decided to head back to Singapore for a break. But things have a way of working out differently from whatever you planned. I got a call from a consultancy about helping a company set up its HR systems.
The office was near enough, a plus point to me at the time as I wanted to also spend more time with family. This was a European company and it was ramping up its orders and I was being brought in to handle two things. First, I was tasked with managing recruitment alongside two other staff and second, I had to create a set of policies and procedures for the company, in line with its corporate culture.
I thought to myself, “I’ll do this for three months and then, I’m out of here”. In my mind, this sort of role was something I used to handle 15 years ago and it wasn’t something I wanted to spend a long-term basis on.
It seemed a good fit for where I was at that point in time and it was interesting enough. This was my first foray into interim management. So I worked on it, in the three-month period and just as I was leaving, the chief executive called me in and offered me the global HR lead role.
I was a little wary about how this was going – I had other offers at the time and it really wasn’t something I had expected to get into. I think me proving myself, familiarisation with the laws and regulations, having that generalist background and that level of familiarity with the Asia Pacific market is what led to this offer. It looked to be a management decision and truth be said, the global role did indeed pique my interest. And so, I accepted.
An interim management role is one that calls for broad-based experience in management and human resources.
I believe the person who takes on a challenging role such as this must go through the mill and develop the experience and expertise in general management and human resources.
I believe a key strength is firstly developing business skills and really coming to grips with the business environment. You need to learn the business and the financials. Of course, there are all the other areas you need to include such as training and development, employee relations, learning and development. Maybe that’s why this sort of role is not very common here in Asia. I believe that people here don’t have the necessary ambit as opposed to those overseas.
However, in the Asian culture, we tend to think of things like interim management towards the tail-end of our career. We look at securing our jobs, working till we’re 50 and then maybe, just maybe, we may consider interim management. At that point, you don’t need that level of job security. At that point, you also are able to bring that experience to bear. But I don’t think like that.
Moving forward, what kind of advice can I give you? I would say, learn the business, understand the financials and be a part of the business. Don’t step outside and watch what’s happening from the perimeter. Why should you know about EBITDA and P/L statements?
You need to see what’s really happening. You need to put things in context.
I have always believed HR people should go to courses on finance, like a course on finance for non-finance personnel. When I join an organisation, I have two fundamental “must do’s” with it always.
First, I want to spend time with the sales guys, perhaps for two months. Then I would spend a further month with the chief financial officer. This lets me get to know the business and the financials and it will really begin to make sense when you start to work with them as you’ll see the relevance, connection and context.
Fundamentally, HR has always been a reactive department and always a cost centre. You’ve heard the cry in any downturn: “Let’s cut down on training.” But if you really think about it, it’s the best time to hone in on that one area. Bring the good people in and when things get back on the up and up, you’re ready to rock. I can’t stress enough the need to bring credibility to yourself and to your game. The days of HR in the backseat are over and we are increasingly going to be seen as the CEO’s right hand. The next generation will see this happening.