The CEO Series with Shandel ONG, Ron Thomas, Strategy Focused Group

The CEO Series EP 9: Leadership Conversation with Shandel ONG

Shandel Ong, currently the HR Director for SEA & Pacific at Bühler has over 10 years of HR experience across the APAC region in healthcare and mechanical engineering industries. Prior to Bühler, she was with Roche Diagnostics as an HR generalist before moving on as a Regional HR Manager, specializing in Learning & Development as well as Talent Management.

In this episode of The CEO SeriesShandel ONG, Regional Human Resources Director at BUHLER, shared with us among many others, the main goal/role of Human Resources within a business.

We hope you enjoy her insight!

What initiative(s) are you most excited about?

I believe in challenging the status quo and enjoy driving change initiatives with the ultimate goal of a better future. Every time I see a business need or a business challenge, I develop an HR strategy, an initiative, or a project out of it. The success at the end gives me an immense sense of satisfaction and motivation to move to the next project. For example, I established the Center of Excellence (COE) concept two and a half years ago at the regional HQ to strengthen the HR function as the region was growing exponentially.

I am currently driving an organization development project which includes leadership and HR transformation. The company, particularly in my region is in a growth phase. We were rather small in terms of resources, scale, and the volume of business activities that we did seven years ago when I joined as the first HR professional to set up the HR function and manage it across the region. Today, as a region, we have tripled our business turnover and grown seven times in organization size. To continue with such great growth and further breakthrough in our business, we have to do things differently – in the way we lead, work together, recruit and develop people. The strategic role that regional HR plays is even more pertinent than before.

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What’s your favorite part of your job? Least favorite part?

I love the diversity in my role of managing the HR function. As a natural solution provider, I enjoy the business partnering piece – listening, asking questions, challenging how we can do things differently and finally working on an HR solution to overcome the business challenge. As a sparring partner with the Head of the Region, we discuss a lot and exchange opinions. We do not (have to) always agree with each other as I think it is very important to give honest opinions and feedback because this means having trust in each other to speak openly and it also helps us to become better.

Some people think that HR is a thankless job as we strike a balance between the employees’ needs and emotions as well as the business and the company’s well-being. I think this is especially true for HR professionals managing compensation and benefits (C&B), whether as a specialist or generalists. Think about it, how often do employees thank their HR Manager for a good salary increase, or the company appreciating the HR personnel for maintaining good internal equity and not bending C&B policy, even if it means having to go through difficult discussions with employees? More than often, if they do well, we think that it is part of their job.

People are normally more emotional when it comes to salary and benefits since there are a whole lot of implications including the feeling of unfairness, personal expectations, and family needs as compared to other HR topics such as recruitment and training. So for me, if I really have to choose the least favorite, this would be it. Ironically speaking, I spent a considerable amount of time on C&B topics as I believe that the first step to reducing the feeling of unfairness and for people to understand why we do what we do is to ensure we have strong as well as fair C&B policies and we take time to educate managers and employees alike.

What was your first role In HR?

I studied Sciences throughout my younger days of education and graduated with a Degree in Life Sciences, majoring in Biomedical Science and Biology. After three years of working in related fields including a Clinical Research role at a Hospital and Regulatory Affairs in a Healthcare company, I decided to take a leap into an entirely different field – Human Resources and never looked back since!

I considered my first true exposure to the HR role at Roche Diagnostics Asia Pacific. I started off as an HR Generalist where I did everything from end-to-end recruitment, payroll, compensation, benefits, performance management, personal tax reporting, stand-up training, etc. In that role, I was exposed to many global, regional, and local initiatives. I was lucky to join during that time because Roche was consolidating the global HR function and had quite a few global initiatives, which I was responsible to roll out in Singapore-based APAC offices such as new Performance Management as well as Recruiting systems and processes.

The most amazing thing was that I had not really any prior HR experience but my boss back then entrusted me to drive many change initiatives such as reviewing and changing payroll software and insurance broker, spearheading and rolling out an E-leave platform company-wide, introducing flexible benefits, etc. With all regional Heads sitting in the same APAC office, I had my first elementary HRBP experience working directly with senior managers. My tremendous exposure to business leaders, and global and regional HR teams, as well as the amount of regional and local projects I have done in Roche, set a very strong foundation in my career, for which I am very thankful today.

What advice would you give someone just starting out in their career?

Don’t be afraid to try anything new! The first years of working after graduation are the best years to explore and find out what you like and what you don’t. This is also a time when you can make mistakes (be forgiven) and learn from them. You do not have to change many companies to experience different things. You can speak to your manager to ask for additional responsibilities or volunteer to take up new projects when you see something that can be improved. If your company is big enough, look out for internal job postings, opportunities for overseas assignments, or be part of a task force for global or regional initiatives. The best way to learn is through experiential and exposure learning. Nothing is too hard or too much. You will be thankful that the extra hours you have put in when you are younger will pay off later with a richer experience and a more rounded person.

In this digital era, there is nothing you cannot find on the internet. Still, it is also useful to speak to people who have walked through those shoes to share their experiences, for some advice on what is good and what you may want to avoid. Ultimately, you have to experience them yourself.

My last piece of advice, if you are contemplating an opportunity to work overseas, go for it! You may enjoy the experience and may develop to become better in what you do or overall as a person. Even if you do not like it, at least you know what it means to work abroad. I can assure you that you will have something to take away at the end of the assignment. Do it when you are still young, before family commitment, physical well-being, and all other possible reasons make it harder for you to do so.

From your experience, what would you say is the main goal/role of Human Resources within a business?

The key to the role of HR is really to act as an “Integrator” for the business and the organization. This is because HR interacts directly with employees and managers, across all functions and business areas and has an overall view of the entire business operation. Having access to such a rich amount of information puts HR in an excellent position to provide valuable input for the organization to make the best possible decision! As an “Integrator”, HR is the bridge for functional and business cooperation, breaking down the wall of silo-mentality that exists in the largest organization.

How do you envision HR in say 10 years and what role do you see it PLAYING?

I believe that many CEOs have recognized the importance of strategic HR and how a true HR Business Partner (HRBP) can contribute to the success of an organization. An HRBP is not one that only interfaces with the business leaders and HR Specialists or HR Center of Competence but a sounding board and a sparring partner who listens, analyses, and gives concrete solutions to enable the business. An HRBP is also one who has the courage to give honest feedback and alternative perspective to senior leaders (especially when everyone else does not). HR has the best overview of people and organizations to become a trusted HRBP.

In this sense, I believe that the mindset shift of HR folks from “order takers” to business partners is fundamental in the journey of transformation of the HR function. Some HR roles may eventually be replaced by artificial intelligence e.g. data maintenance in HRIS but I believe HRBP is here to stay (at least for the next 10 years!). You do not have to have the title of an “HR Business Partner”. By using the business partner approach to help leaders solve a business challenge and enable the business would make a real difference, whether you are an HR Generalist or a Specialist. This is the same message I have preached to my team of HR Managers and Specialists “We are all business partners”.

How has your management style evolved throughout your career, and how has that evolution impacted your career?

A good leader should be able to flex his/ her leadership style, depending on the team’s dynamics, profile, and situation. The key is the ability to learn, unlearn and adapt accordingly. I believe very strongly in open communication and working as a team. I share information and give feedback on a regular basis, expecting the same in both directions. The reason explained earlier is that HR often receives a lot of information while interacting with employees and business leaders. Such information is valuable for solution-providing and decision making so I always encourage my team to exchange and share information not only with me but amongst themselves.

I am currently working with a relatively young team (both in terms of age group and in the role), with direct and indirect reporting lines. My style is less directive but involves more discussion and coaching. I would normally agree on a general framework with my team, and empower them to define the details before we sit together again for final alignment. There is more involvement from my side when we are working on something new and subsequently, they run more independently as I also believe that a strong sense of ownership is what drives people in the quality of their work, not the boss.

Can you tell us a bit about a crucial moment when a mentor provided you with a great perspective?

Strictly speaking, I do not have a mentor (or at least have not met someone) where we both see it as a mentor-mentee relationship. However, I feel fortunate that I was able to meet the right people along the way whom I either have key learnings or was able to draw inspiration from.

The Head of HR for APAC at Roche back then whom I reported to was an inspiration as she has always been in the business and took up such a big role despite having no HR experience. I learned that you do not need to have expertise in the topic but with strong leadership skills and the ability to select the right people in the team, it is possible. Despite being very challenging and feeling defeated many a time, I think her high expectations of me/ my work shaped me and accelerated my personal development.

Another person who has inspired me a lot is the current President for International Operations and an Executive Board Member of the Bühler Group. Since I started my career in Bühler, I have worked closely with him in his capacity as the Head of the Asia region, for he is the only constant while I have changed four direct bosses. At such a senior level with remarkable accomplishment, he remains humble, very hands-on, and puts in 200%. His acute insights, speed in decision-making, and unwavering support in entrepreneurial-ship, as well as trust leadership, have inspired me.

What three experiences would you recommend to an emerging HR leader who aspires to be in your shoes one day?

Enrich your HR experience – I was asked when I first started out in HR if I want to become a Generalist or a Specialist. There is no better or worse to be one or another nor right or wrong in the order. However, I feel that it is important to have experienced both to allow you to have a better understanding of the HR function and decide finally which one pulls your heartstring more. Especially when you are in the first few years of your HR career, do not limit yourself. Try to find opportunities to move from recruitment to C&B to L&D to business partners. A good way to experience all would be an HR Generalist role.

Business experience – Here, it is a big plus to have been in a commercial or non-HR role to experience what it is like on the “other side”. If your company supports job rotation, consider applying for it. People from the business often say that HR folks are too process-driven and too “HR”. Having been in the business helps HR folks to think differently and from the business perspective, rather than being too hyped up in our processes and policies.

Create your own persona – Every leader is different, with his or her own unique leadership style. While we may have leaders whom we look up to, and who may influence our beliefs that ultimately form the guiding principles for leadership, we cannot be exactly the same. We depend on our experiences in life. So be bold to get a rich experience professionally in the HR journey and at a personal level.

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