Ani Arvind meets Aravind Karthigesu and speaks on why he made the switch from HR to a business function, how he strategized the switch, and how networking pushed his successful role transition.

 

TRANSCRIPT:

Producer  0:07

Hi. You’re listening to Single Steps, a podcast by Hatch Asia Consulting, inspired by Lao Tzu’s, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

 

You’ll be hosted by Ani as he meets Aravind Karthigesu.

 

Anirudh Arvind  0:18

It’s really nice to have the extremely charismatic, obviously very plausible Aravind Karthigesu with us today. Aravind, so you had an awesome career: ex-MD of Assa Abloy for the ASEAN region, multiple leadership roles within Alstom and you know and then worked across Singapore, Thailand. Also, I think you’re pretty you’re pretty manic on the skip ropes man. I’ve seen you do some incredible stuff there too. So, thank you very much for spending time with us today and kind of you know walking us through your career and how you actually made the switch from HR into business. I really appreciate you taking the time. But, before we carry on, man, like what’s the level of sanity you’re keeping during the MCO [Movement Control Order], man?

 

Aravind Karthigesu  1:05

Yeah. So look, I think you know, being locked down like this, we get spend a lot of time at home. I think it’s valuable to spend that time with the family and having, you know, good time with the family. I mean, there’s a lot of talk about mental health during this time and I don’t understand what the big deal is. What I enjoy is having these deep meaningful conversations at home. You know, just the other day, yesterday, I was having a conversation with my microwave oven and toaster. Fantastic deep stuff, you know?

 

Anirudh Arvind  1:37

Yeah, yeah. What were you guys talking about man?

 

Aravind Karthigesu  1:39

So you know, we’re just ganging up on the washer and the dryer. You know they’re not working very well. So you know, we’ve got these fractions in the house and you know, we’re just keeping it together.

 

Anirudh Arvind  1:51

Yeah, look at that man. Home politics at its best right?

 

It was quite funny. The other day, so you know how everybody’s kind of like working out in their balconies right? So I’ve got a little balcony which I can now- I’ve got a state of the art gym there, right? Basically, have one kettle bell and a skipping rope. And for the first time I’m seeing a neighbour. I’ve not really seen my neighbour. So was like, “Mate, way to go flattening the bellies while we flatten the curve here.” And he never spoke to me after that. So you know, I guess-

 

Aravind Karthigesu  2:26

You’re a natural at social distancing.

 

Anirudh Arvind  2:30

Yeah, exactly. Man, I was, absolutely. You hit the nail on the head.

Thanks a lot for taking the time out. It’s always a pleasure catching up with you. Before we go into, you know, your fantastic career and how you drove that switch, what was early life like for you?

 

Aravind Karthigesu  2:45

Alright, so born in Penang, Malaysia. Beautiful place, beautiful island. I would encourage anybody to come and visit us after this lockdown. And spent some early days of my life not in Asia. I moved to England at the ages of 8, 9 and 10. My father went to do his PhD in Leicester, England. And I think that formed- going to school in England formed a lot of my initial early perspective in life. Came back to Malaysia, continued secondary education and then did my degree in human resource management. Did two years in Malaysia, one year back in England and then came back in 1997 to start my working life and nineteen ninety-

 

Anirudh Arvind  3:33

Perfect time to come back, right?

 

Aravind Karthigesu  3:35

Perfect time, in the middle of the financial crisis at that time. And here’s the lesson in terms of networking, right?

So, when I got back and there was not many jobs out there. And I started to network with my father’s friends, some you know, high posts people, whichever context I could get in the business world. I tried my best for three, four months, nothing happened even zero interviews. Then a friend of mine— I was 21 at the time— a friend of mine who was 17, she said, “Hey look, my auntie works in Hilton Hotel. She’s the front office manager in Hilton Hotel Kuala Lumpur. Go ahead and have a chat with her.” And so she made the introduction. I went ahead and chat with her auntie. And lo and behold, got my first job. You know, the training, the training and personnel manager of Hilton Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, my first big break. So it just goes to show networking is something that is key no matter what levels we’re talking about. Never underestimate the opportunities you can get by just networking.

So that was my first job, Hilton Hotel, then to Schindler Lifts and Escalators, moved on to the Alstom all this in human resource. And then very quickly made a switch into business process improvement, and then P&L management, right, across Alstom, General Electric, and then after that, Assa Abloy.

 

Anirudh Arvind  4:55

Well, when you made that switch right here, HR into business improvement, what inspired you to make that switch? You know, randomly one night you just woke up and said, Hey, I’d done with HR, I don’t want to deal with people anymore.”

 

Aravind Karthigesu  5:09

No, no. Not that, not that. I don’t think. So I think I’ve always been focused with regards to where I want to be in my career. And that is basically profit and loss management, right? Profit and loss responsibility. And the business process improvement was a stepping stone in doing that. So my motivation in life, my motivation, up until now is two things, two folds. One is dealing with people. I love dealing with people. The second one is making money, whether it’s for the organization or making money for me.

 

Anirudh Arvind  5:40

Good motivation, good passion to have.

 

Aravind Karthigesu  5:44

And so the objective of getting to profit and loss management was to keep those two motivations alive. And that’s what P&L management gives me, right.

 

Anirudh Arvind  5:53

Awesome. And, I mean, I guess to make a switch like this, you would have had to have, you know, some deep level inspiration, some might have been, say, a couple of role models. So I guess this is a two part question: What inspired you to make that switch? And were there any role models that you wanted to emulate?

 

Aravind Karthigesu  6:11

Right, right, right. So I would say- let’s start with the role models first. I think the first person that comes to mind when I talk about role models is my dad. And he, at a very early age as well, he made switches in his career. He was a Tamil news broadcaster in Radio Malaysia. And he switched to an education line as a professor in University Science Malaysia. So he made a very agile switch in terms of his career. He’s been very geographically mobile as well. He had worked in America. He had done- he’d worked and studied in England. And so he had been very geographically mobile. And that was an inspiration for me. He had been always encouraging, you know, being agile. So that’s my dad. Number one.

 

Number two is I think, Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi from India. At the age of nine years old, I think this was nineteen ninety-  1984, sorry, I watched this movie Gandhi.

 

Anirudh Arvind  7:11

Ben Kingsley

 

Aravind Karthigesu  7:13

And there you go, Ben Kingsley. Great movie. And that really inspired me how this small, humble, unassuming man could lead millions towards the objective of independence, right? And so that lit a match in me. That was so inspirational. And I- and you know, fun fact, I share the same birthday as Gandhi as well.

 

Anirudh Arvind  7:34

It’s meant  to be. It’s written in the stars, I guess.

 

Aravind Karthigesu  7:37

Meant to be. Gandhi has been a great role model. And I think finally, this modern day, the person that I look up to is Lewis Hamilton in Formula One. Now, this guy is just compulsive. Performance up, he has this hunger and appetite to win. He’s a go getter. And I think that inspires me. This is like a modern day role model for me to look after- I look up to. So those are the three people, man, that come to mind when I think about role models.

 

Anirudh Arvind  8:08

Yeah, I mean- I mean, it’s funny how you mentioned, I guess, obviously, your dad yours- there’s a connection there. With Gandhi, I mean, what he’s done is phenomenal in terms of leading that movement. And like you said, Lewis Hamilton. I think with him, it’s always kind of raising the bar, right? You know, he never kind- , I guess it’s never enough.

 

Aravind Karthigesu  8:31

It’s never enough.

 

Anirudh Arvind  8:33

And he’s one that he’s got such a pivotal game plan, which I really think sets him up for success, which I guess quite nicely leads into the next question I was gonna ask is, when you kind of decided that, Okay, I’m gonna make this switch. I’m pretty sure you have to kind of strategize and sort of figure out how I’m going to make this happen, right? What’s the routine? What are some of the aspects of reinventing myself? So what was that game plan for you? What was that strategy for you?

 

Aravind Karthigesu  9:02

Okay, so I think, you know, at an early age, when you’re 17, 18, you’re just trying to see, you know, what’s your passion at that point in time. And I chose my degree. And the degree was in Human Resource, because I knew at that early age, I wanted to deal with people. And it was either between dealing externally in an organization or dealing internally, generally could be sales and marketing, internally human resource. I chose human resource. And that started off like, I would say, the first strategy, right, or building block.

And then once you get into to working life, the objective changed a bit. And then became this P&L sort of hunger to get into a P&L role. And so very quickly realizing that people skills alone is not going to cut it. So that’s why I did my second thing, which was an MBA in finance, and your numbers were gonna be important. And therefore I needed to get a good grip of numbers. So I did an MBA in finance. And then after that, realizing that that’s just not enough, so people and finance, you still need products and processes within an organization. [Absolutely] So you need that, and especially in organizations that I’ve dealt with. Very technical products, technical processes, you need a deeper understanding. So when I had the opportunity to do a Six Sigma Black Belt in my company, at the time, I grabbed that opportunity, because it gave me a sage way into products and processes. And so with that Six Sigma Black Belt that was another stepping stone.

I think the final stepping stone is nothing to do with experiences or courses. I think it’s networking. It’s about who you talk to, and everybody you talk to needs to know that hunger to where you want to get to. And I just had conversations after conversations with people know that that’s where I want to get to P&L management. So it’s, you know, you can be the best person in the world, the best fit for a particular job. But that doesn’t mean anything if nobody knows who you are. So networking is huge and important. So I think that’s the way I planned it out.

 

Anirudh Arvind  11:14

And it’s funny how you circle back to the significance of networking and how it accelerates, you know, your transition, or even if it’s your visibility, right. So here you are, you were doing your MBA in finance. At the same point of time, you were, you know, collecting further experiences, doing your Six Sigma. How did that networking, I guess, really propel you into these roles? And what about that networking, kind of maybe even smoothened into your transition into some of these roles?

 

Aravind Karthigesu  11:45

Right. So networking, I think it’s about formal conversations and informal conversations. So you’re putting in time of course, at work in those formal conversations. But outside of work as well, a teh tarik [Translates to “pulled tea”], a beer after work, just a pop into an office and see how you’re doing. And all this leads into all those kind of areas whereby people know that, although you’re formally looking, and you’re networking, you’re informally putting in the time as well. All these builds into a person’s perception of you. And perceptions counts for everything, really. So I would say those- while you put in all those formal building blocks, the networking seems to be like the- so you got the bricks, but the networking forms the cement that seals the bricks together. And that makes it entire house that you will have, right? For me that’s the importance of networking and getting that stuff done, right?

 

Anirudh Arvind  12:43

Fair enough. Well, it sounds like a lot of work to make a transition, right? I mean, because you hear a lot of a lot of you know, different talents, you know, they they’re probably doing very well. They’re in a good position. Let’s just say you know, there may be a vice president of finance, but then you have some something just kind of says, “Hey, I want to try something else. I want to try, you know, my hand at a different function or a different industry.” But then there’s always that kind of anxiety associated with that venture, right? Because you don’t know if you’re going to have to, you know, endure a pay cut, you’re going to have to endure a different kind of lifestyle in order to make this transition. So the question that I had was, when you- so you did all of this, you kind of reinvented yourself. But how did you kind of balance that personal life at the same point of time, ensuring that you know you’re achieving all these things at work? Because it sounds like a lot of work for someone to do.

 

Aravind Karthigesu  13:40

Yeah, yeah.

 

Anirudh Arvind  13:43

So how did that happen?

 

Aravind Karthigesu  13:43

Well, let’s talk about first of all, as you say, that there’s fear, the anxiety that people face right. Here, I faced all those fears, all those anxieties. I put myself out there. And you know, although you know, you did a very nice present- let’s say introduction of the career that I’ve had, but it’s not been all smooth sailing.

Let me give you just an example of a disappointment that I faced. And this was in 2007. And I was, I made the transition between human resource to process improvement. I was therefore the process improvement champion for Southeast Asia at that time for my company. And in 2007, the human resource director role- so my boss’, my former boss’ role came vacant, moving up to a higher role. And this prestigious job you know, the member of the executive board, 500 people at that point in time in the organization came vacant. And here I was saying, I’ve done my time in human resource. Everybody in the organization knows me. I put myself out there to learn the processes and the products and the business, you know. So I’m much more formed person right now. So I said, that’s my job. I’m putting my name in the hat. So the company said, “Okay, look, but we have to evaluate. And we will look at external candidates as well.” So, Aravind, at that point I said, Okay, I’m going to do my networking. I went and started talking to all the stakeholders, and made known that I’m right for the job. So they did all the evaluation. And guess what? They gave it to an external person.

 

Anirudh Arvind  15:25

Right.

 

Aravind Karthigesu  15:27

And I was devastated. Knocked out, because I tried my best. And I’ve done everything that I just told you to do: building blocks, networking, I did everything. But- so I started looking out externally in the, you know, outside to find another job, I was so disappointed. But then my big break came about six months after that to get into P&L management, right? So there was a silver lining.

But what did I learn? What did I learn from that, right? Number one was, let’s talk about tactically what I did wrong. So I put myself out there, I networked, but I did not network enough with the two decision makers. They were going to make the call there.  The one was the country president of the organization, one was a P&L, a large P&L holder. And although I interviewed with them and I made known, I did not do a lot of informal networking. I did not do any much personal interaction with them. I didn’t do it enough. So I think that’s my lesson learned. You can network as much as you want, but choose your priorities correctly. It’s number one.

Number two is I- although I was devastated, I can tell you, man, you know, it was like the worst time in my career. I never let my professionalism or my performance drop. And that allowed me to get my second break, which was a P&L management role in Singapore. Now, when I reflect on that, had I led my professionalism dip and my performance dropped, I would have never got that opportunity. So I think, you know, you just got to keep your chin up and keep going.

The third thing I would say is, you know, setbacks happen, hundred percent. Hundred percent. There’s nobody out there, they’ve got a perfect career without any disappointment. I think our job is just to stay the course, set your objectives, whatever you want. Understand that setbacks are going to happen, take it on the chin, keep positive and just keep forging ahead, right.

 

Anirudh Arvind  17:29

There you go. I mean, like you said, I think everybody can do is that level of setbacks or failure, whatever you want to call it, but it’s the learnings that you take from these experiences that kind of then allow you to bounce back up and deal with the adversity, right. But it’s quite interesting how you said you did everything that you thought was right, and you did- and you didn’t end up in a position that you wanted to be in. But I guess that happens, you know, you hear a lot more about the sometimes I think you hear too much about the success stories and less the failures. And what it takes to kind of get there, right? But was when you kind of went through that downtime, was there a particular kind of activity or something that you did to kind of ensure you know, you had your eyes on the prize? Because at that point, it’s easy to kind of fall in and you know, kind of give up. But you know, so what exactly do you think you did, which kind of kept you going?

 

Aravind Karthigesu  18:25

Yeah, so I think here’s where we all need help. And I would say that, you know, no matter how confident you are— and I’m a very confident person, there are gonna be times whereby your confidence is rocked. And it’s important to have confidants near to you, right. People you can rely on. And I’ve maintained this from that experience throughout my career. So number one is, a person that you can confide in and talk to about anything. And that number one is my wife, right? So she’s a tiger in the relationship. She bites my head off. [Cool] But yet, you know, I can confide in her in everything and she’s my number one sounding board. So you need a person that you can trust to be close by to talk about anything.

Number two would be a person that keeps you positive. So in this day and age, you know, it’s easy to just get into a downward spiral with regards to negativity. You need a person that’s always bubbly and cheerful and happy that it sort of bounces you up and keeps that perspective of positivity, alright. So I would recommend that second kind of person to keep close by.

The third person as well as equally important is the devil’s advocate. The person that will challenge your thinking, the person that will give you a different perspective. You have- you’ve been born with a certain type of perspective which evolves through your experiences. But this person who you should be able to trust will give you different perspective, something that you never thought about.

I would say my bunch is made up of those three sort of people. I keep in touch with them regularly. So not just during disappointing times, but just keep regularly in touch. I see my wife almost every day. But-

 

Anirudh Arvind  20:18

Thank God for that.

 

Aravind Karthigesu  20:21

I don’t know, I’m not bored or what not. But the other two people, I make sure I build in a rhythm with them. Every three months, we either having a Skype call, or a coffee or a beer, and not just through disappointing times, but also just to have a chat, because then, again gives you great perspective to just keep a steady course.

 

Anirudh Arvind  20:43

Yeah, I think the role of a sounding board, like you rightfully said, is extremely crucial in these times. But you know, like you said, you have you have someone who’s a confidant, you have someone who you can bounce off ideas, someone who kind of cheers you up on your down days, and you have someone that’s, you know, someone that can throw a punch or two, and kind of be a sparring partner at the end of the day. But how do you go about identifying who these folks are? And you know, building that sounding board in a career? What advice would you give to those who are trying to do the same?

 

Aravind Karthigesu  21:16

Right, I think, with me, having now a career of almost 25 odd years, you build up your networks, and therefore you identify who those trusted partners are gonna be, trusted sounding board is going to be. For people who are still new in their careers, and you may not have those kind of trusted connections, you know, ask for recommendations. Ask them a friend of a friend who you know, you could trust to give you those recommendations. There’s a lot of- I guess, social media, like LinkedIn is an example, where you can get out there and just identify people. And you’d be surprised the amount of people that will be happy to be a coach for you, happy to be a mentor for you. And therefore support you in your career. I think it’s hu- because every human being is different. Everybody’s going to have different chemistry with different people. So it’s up to you to choose who you would be a good fit for, you know, a good fit.

 

Anirudh Arvind  22:20

Yeah, that makes perfect sense. I think actually, you’re right. Now I mean, there’s actually a lot more access to individuals that can help you now, with these different mediums. It’s easier to connect and digitally, you’re able to kind of increase your visibility and footprint.

 

Aravind Karthigesu  22:35

Absolutely, absolutely.

 

Anirudh Arvind  22:38

Makes perfect sense. Aravind, thank you so much for sharing such valuable insights, you know, I really appreciate it. And I think it’s good for different people now to kind of have access to the likes of information such as this, because I guess today everybody’s going through some kind of uncertainty, and some people are just scared to kind of, you know, open up to their vulnerabilities. But in some capacity this way, I believe this would be extremely insightful. But before I let you go, you know, back to your oven and your toaster. What’s the advice you would give someone that’s, you know, looking to make that switch or looking to kind of make that transition, especially in today’s climate?

 

Aravind Karthigesu  23:19

Right, right. So I would say. First of all, reinventing yourself is not easy, right? I think reinventing takes some time. But you got to be, I guess, having the objective in mind where you want to go, but putting those little small building blocks, and it is also changing habits and patterns. So I’ve spoken about those bricks, like your degree, your MBA, the experience you get. But it’s smaller things as well. For example, subscribing to Bloomberg magazine, which keeps me up to date of what’s happening in the world and trends that are happening. Subscribing to the Time Magazine, and then having a look at. Setting an objective of reading leadership book or a business book every month. Now you can set those objectives, you can make those subscriptions. But you’ve got to change your routine. And as an example, I spend a lot of time with my regional role. I spend a lot of time on the flights. And when you’re on an aeroplane, what I used to do is I used to goof off a lot, watch a lot of movies, check out the stewardesses. But now-

 

Anirudh Arvind  24:25

All good things to do, man.

 

Aravind Karthigesu  24:27

All good things. Now I discipline myself by making sure that half that flight, 50% of that flight is meant for me reading up with those magazines and reading the book. You got to change your routine. You got to discipline yourself. So I think that’s number one. Identify where you want to go and pulling- putting this small building blocks or big building blocks to plan it out. The final thing that I would say is look, be brave. Be brave. Put yourself out there. If I had never put myself out there, I would have never have had this enriching and fantastically fun career that I’ve been through. And the journey is not stopping now. It’s still gonna continue, right? So you got to put yourself out there. And you got to just understand that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. So so be brave. Be brave. I mean, that’s my advice, man.

 

Anirudh Arvind  25:20

Cool, man. Positive wisdom right there. And I guess on the contrary, now, how would you kind of flip that up- flip that and sort of say, to organizations that are hiring, you know, that are looking at talent. And today, when you know, so much uncertainty is kind of looming, how would they kinda look at talent from multiple backgrounds, you know, at different experiences? How should they approach hiring in today’s day and age?

 

Aravind Karthigesu  25:45

Sure. If you look at the world, and it’s not just now. You look at 20 years back in the history of how much change we’re going through, right, it’s a constant change. And I think when you look at leadership, and the way I look at leadership in my corporations as well, is to look for people that have agility. So you want a person that is not just stuck to a particular career, and a career path. I mean, I think that’s good, it gives you depth. But what the world is demanding for leadership right now is agility, somebody that has skipped around in their careers. And I’ve seen different perspectives, right, I think that’s number one. That’s important. So I would really encourage organizations to look at a CV and look for agility. That’s number one. Number two, my advice would be that a CV, when you look at a CV, it is about what the person has done right in their career. It is a great view of successes. What it doesn’t give you is failures. And that the person has dealt with failures. So we got to find a way of having a conversation about what went wrong. And how did you deal with that? And how did that how did you turn that out? What was your personal feelings of it and how did that come through? I think identifying failures is important. And I think it comes back to the fact that if a person has been agile with their career and moved a lot, they would have faced so many different predicaments in order to then forge a successful career. So a lot of failures as well. So I think, look out for failures, and how did people learn from them, as well as look out for agility. I think that’s what I would ask corporations to look out for.

 

Anirudh Arvind  27:30

Fantastic, man. Look out for failures, agility. Noted.

 

Aravind Karthigesu  27:34

There you go, there you go.

 

Anirudh Arvind  27:35

You mentioned that you do a lot of reading, right? So I guess everyone’s got a lot of time on my hands now. Everyone’s at home, or I don’t know, back to back calls. Is there a particular book you would recommend, you know, for everyone to read to kind of keep them sane at this point?

 

Aravind Karthigesu  27:50

Yeah, yeah. I think one that comes to mind that I recently read was, How Will You Measure Your Life? How Will You Measure Your Life? by an author called Clayton Christensen. And so it gives you a great perspective of not just career, but on the balance you just, you know, you asked about, about life, children, wife, hobbies, family, health. And then it goes into even compliance and integrity. So it’s a great book that gives you perspective, right, in life. I think there’s another book that comes to mind which is a 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. This author I forget, is a Israeli author that gives you great perspective of what the future holds for us. It’s an amazing book as well to just, you know, keep your mind active and thinking about what the future could hold. So those two books I would highly recommend.

What I’m watching right now is Ozark on Netflix.

 

Anirudh Arvind  28:58

Ah, Netflix. That’s it.

 

Aravind Karthigesu  29:01

I’m a sucker for these mobster, narco, kind of, you know, movies and series. And so Ozark is great as well.

 

Anirudh Arvind  29:10

So man, I think that’s good. Yeah, thanks for that. I think it’s always good to kind of figure out some new reading material and also, I guess, binge worthy watching material. So yeah, thank you very much for that.

 

Aravind Karthigesu  29:24

And make sure you watch it with all your loved ones, right? So don’t forget the toaster and the microwave oven. They make great companions.

 

Anirudh Arvind  29:31

Yes, yes, I’m going to again try, you know, having a conversation with my neighbour on the balcony this evening. But let’s see, I think I’m really getting good at this social distancing game. I’m really, really getting.

 

Aravind Karthigesu  29:41

You’re a natural.

 

Anirudh Arvind  29:43

Natural, exactly. Thank you so much for your time, Aravind. I really appreciate it. Have a good one. Take care.

 

Aravind Karthigesu  29:48

Thank you.

 

Producer  29:49

Thank you for listening. We hope this podcast can help in your learning journeys. Check us out on our LinkedIn page, Hatch Asia Consulting. Till next time, keep growing.

 

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