Ani speaks to Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli, the Chief People Officer at UEM Sunrise Berhad on how her background in finance has helped in her career in human resource and how her vast experiences across regions and industries has changed her understanding of people. Zulfa also speaks on relooking into personal motivations when one is striving for a CHRO position.
You’re listening to Walk the Mile, a conversation where we spend time walking in the shoes of inspiring leaders to learn their unique career journeys and how they’ve each built successful careers.
Anirudh Arvind 0:19
Good afternoon, Zulfa. Welcome to Single Steps. We’re truly very, very excited to have you here. For everyone listening to Single Steps, Zulfa is the CHRO of UEM Sunrise. Has had a glorious international career where she’s worked across multiple organizations, such as BP, Shell, worked across South America, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore. So really, really excited to have you on the show, Zulfa. Talk to us about your wonderful career and how you become the CHRO. But, before we break down into that, how are you and how things on your side?
Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli 0:55
Thank you so much for the invite. Thank you so much. It’s great, really great meeting the two of you. Huge honor to be invited and to participate in this session. I think how I’m, I’m glad- well, firstly, I’m glad it’s 2021 and it’s no longer 2020. I think all of us have gone through the wringer in 2020. HR community, not the lea- among the least of the ones being impacted. Therefore, it is- but 2021 does have a feel of things are looking up and things are becoming better. People are more positive. I’m more positive, and truly looking forward to great stuff for the community, for the country, for my company, and the industry and so on. Thanks again.
Anirudh Arvind 1:44
Fantastic. And you just said that you’re- you’re- you yourself are a lot more optimistic in ‘21. And Zulfa, have you kind of looked at that- what’s kind of led to that change, that renewed optimism? What do you feel is kind of contributing to that?
Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli 1:58
So there’s a few things. I think in 2020, a year ago, almost for Malaysia, at least, we have just passed our anniversary of our first lockdown.
Anirudh Arvind 2:10
Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli 2:12
And there was a lot more of uncertainty and fear and concern, and just break neck speed change. I think in most countries around the world, we were- then a year ago, we were coping with differing SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures), differing regulations, differing country and government regulations. So that was going through. I think for many of us and me included, looking back on the last 12 months, we are- I am definitely optimistic, because I am very, very pleased that we all survived. Very, very pleased that some of my constituents, my beloved staff, my beloved line managers have shown a strength, a resilience, and resourcefulness, and optimism in the last 12 months. That was unset you know. It is a crisis that we’ve become stronger, we become bolder. All those things will put us in good stead in the year and beyond.
Anirudh Arvind 3:15
Fantastic. Yeah, it’s really nice to see how we’ve, we’ve all kind of hunkered down and really kind of, I guess, dealt with the change. And like you said, emerge stronger, right? Really interesting to see. Very cool.
Zulfa, you’ve obviously had quite an interesting background. But before we go on there, what kind of really prompted you to take up a career in HR? What kind of led to that? Because if I remember correctly, you’ve- you’ve done a degree in finance. Is that fair for me to say?
Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli 3:43
Yes, yes. And this is a bit of a cheeky story. My CFOs always hate this story. Because yeah, I think that was my first love. Where you know, I was one of those geeky nerdy kids who has always had a flair for numbers. And therefore, a background in finance and accounting seems to be the natural step. However, I went to Universiti Utara Malaysia and they allowed me to take extra credit for lots of things. And for so many, some of my extra credits then went into organizational behavior. So when it came to after graduation, and upon looking for a job, I was fortunate to be invited to be part of the Shell Graduate Trainee Programme. And they asked me, do you want to go into the finance program? Or do you want to go into the HR program? And that was the beginning of my choice. And like I said, my finance colleagues always hate it because I was there thinking, “hmm, finance and number seems so easy, how then I go into HR where there is no guarantee that two plus two is four.” So that was that was the- that was the story. And it has been challenging all the way through the way I wanted it.
Anirudh Arvind 4:59
And would you say that, you know, with you kind of being trained in finance being pretty good with numbers, obviously a complete different ballgame in HR. You’re dealing with people, right? Obviously, a lot of variances there. How did- how did that understanding of numbers help you at that initial transition? Did it add any value, do you think when you think back?
Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli 5:21
Well, okay. This is, this will date me, of course, this age. Of course, I started my profession last century. And I like saying that the ‘last century’ is just to remind that, you know, there’s a difference with the last century and this century. And when I first started my role, most of my colleagues do not seem to consider that having a flair for numbers as a strength in managing HR.
Anirudh Arvind 5:44
Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli 5:46
So that, now of course, it’s a given, because you gonna manage headcount, you gonna manage data you gonna manage analytics, you gonna be initial HR IT, and so on. So it was not, in the beginning, it was not very clear to me that my background in finance would have been any use, or would have given me that advantage. The focus at that point in time was managing a lot of employee relations. As one of my ex bosses describe it, when you enter a room, you must have a sharp enough antenna, to get a feel of how everybody is feeling. Get a feel of how everybody would wait- think people would sway in terms of certain decisions. So, that sharp antenna in terms of judging assessing people was much more valued. Of course, it’s stilled valued now. But my financial background and fled, of course, I’ve nowhere near as good as I was when I first graduated. That’s how it went. Came later, when, especially when dealing with the specific technicalities of compensation and benefits, when you start dealing with pension funds. Okay, when you start developing a balanced scorecard across 11 countries.
Anirudh Arvind 6:59
Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli 7:01
So that, those- that came into play a bit later in my career.
Anirudh Arvind 7:01
Fantastic. No, it’s really good to see how it complements the role. And it’s, you know, the whole story kind of made some of these initiatives that you’ve driven, I wouldn’t say easier, but I guess it’s been able to assist you in kind of navigating those waters. And obviously, you’ve- you’ve grown an interest with org behavior. I think you’ve pursued more, I guess, tertiary education in that space. You went on to do a Master’s and even a doctorate of management. What kind of pushed you in that in that direction? And I guess it’s a two pronged question. How did that help you in your HR career as well?
Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli 7:36
I think, so- as I progress in my career, and as you progress, you look for role models. You look at what is what success- what is success defined for you. You look at your bosses, and your boss’s bosses, and your other mentors and role models, and you decide what works for you and what doesn’t work for you. So I think- so for- after some time, I have crystallized that my core values would be competence, integrity, and objectivity. So one of my key core values is competence, meaning that we better be good. I better be good at what I do. So hence the drive to learn more and more; hence the masters; hence the doctorate, ensuring that I keep abreast of all the development, all the research in my profession. And then make sure that I am also the best HR professional that I can be.
Anirudh Arvind 8:38
Fantastic. And, Zulfa, you’ve obviously have- held multiple roles, right? You’ve been with Shell, you’ve been with BP and you moved to Air Asia. And then, you know, multiple different organizations and industries. But out of the multiple roles you’ve held, which do you think was the most contributing role for you to end up in that CHRO role that you are in today?
Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli 9:00
Okay… I would categorize that into two buckets.
One is the straightforward technical skillset bucket. I think, when I had planned my career, and I knew that if I were to be a CHRO role and the best CHRO I could be, I wanted an experience in all the major functions of HR: from resourcing, from talent acquisition to talent management to comp and ben (compensation and benefits) to systems and processes. And my career has reflected that as I moved from both generalist and specialist roles, and through that- so, that was deliberate, moving from generalists to specialist roles, developing the technical skill sets to enable me to be- to be a competent CHRO.
So the second bucket is the grit, the emotional resilience, the inner well-resolve to be able to operate at this level. It’s one thing of course to have the skill. You know it’s different whether you actually have the guts to do it.
Anirudh Arvind 10:00
Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli 10:03
That came also, I think, from various, various challenges that I have had. I think in my profession, and this is, this is wearing my heart on my sleeve a bit. I think in my profession, there were only two times that I cried.
The first one when it was when we were going through, it was- it was a role in Shell, when we going through major global outsourcing. It was a tough two year and it was because you have to maintain the operations while still keeping staff morale. And we will almost so close when there was a development that happened that pushed us back a couple- back. And so I had to go somewhere and cry. I think that was- I remember we had completed outsourcing, we had awarded the source. And then Hewlett Packard announced they bought EDS, which was one of the companies that we had chosen as our suppliers. And that meant redoing everything again in terms of the offer and in terms of persuading people to be outsourced to EDS. So that was hard.
But which is nothing compared to the next time I cried, which was when I was in Air Asia when the unfortunate plane crash happened. And I was a Group Head of People at that point in time. And I had oil and gas background, meaning crisis management is part and parcel of the role. But that was the first time in my life, in my career, that I was dealing with a crisis with paid customers, not employees. And that feeling of helplessness and that feeling that I’m there to support my staff who are supporting the customers, or the next of kin of our customers, it’s rabiyah- That, that was hard. That was very, very, very hard. And we held each other together, we helped as much as we could— fantastic group of people! I think we all held each other. So these are not, these are not easy, or these are not pleasant things to experience or to go through. I wouldn’t wish them on anybody by choice or by not. But I have to put hand on my heart, they helped me make the person that I am. They have helped me become a more rounded and much better CHRO now than if I had been, if I had not gone through those experiences.
Anirudh Arvind 12:38
Right, right. Yeah, well, I guess those are not easy experiences to go through. And I think when you’re, when you’re dealt with, a hand of such complexity, navigating that crisis would have would have itself been such a challenge to begin with. But I want to come back to something that you said, right. You said you know, functional competence is obviously essential, but after a certain point, it’s about you know, tenacity, grit, your ability to be kind of resilient, and manage, you know, different stakeholders. So when you go through an experience like this, at that point, how did you kind of, I guess, when you probably when you look back at it now, how do you think it’s kind of shaped you as an individual in your current role or as a leader now?
Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli 13:29
Yeah. I think what has worked for me, what has worked for me is understanding is, is ensuring that I continue to improve my self-awareness: that I understand who am I, what are my strengths, what are my development, what are my core values, why am I here, and why- why am I doing what, why am I doing what I’m doing now. In one of the OD jobs that I did, I think as we went through it, and as you move, as you become an internal OD consultant to lots of stakeholders, one of the things I learned is to clearly understand why you are doing what are you- what is it, what is this for? And a lot of times when you’re doing consulting or when you’re doing stakeholder management, you listen to what the person says, you want to listen. Are you here for your client or are you here so that you don’t make yourself look stupid? Which is two very different things.
Anirudh Arvind 14:31
Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli 14:33
So that has worked for me: the clear understanding and the brutal objectivity in evaluating what are my intentions in that particular moment in delivering that role. And I’ve often shared this with my protégées, my mentees, my coachees is that now it could be that your intention may not be the most pure of intentions. But you need to admit it, recog- acknowledge it and deal with it rather than blind yourself to it. And that has helped me in terms of being- dealing with various stakeholders, various levels of the organization, because you want to be authentic and know what it is. People can only accept you once. If you’re inauthentic, then they will remember it from then- from then on.
Anirudh Arvind 15:25
Got you, got you. Zulfa, you’ve obviously held multiple roles. And I guess the big thing is, you’ve also worked in so many different regions, right? You’ve done North America, you’ve done Hong Kong, you’ve done a bit of Singapore, Malaysia, Europe as well. How have these international experiences really helped you in your leadership role, or just you know, in your career, thus far?
Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli 15:46
I think, when I was moving around, cultural diversity and diversity and inclusion was already a big deal. And then, and people were learning how to adapt that and how to implement it. And one of the examples or things that I would like- I like to emphasis wherever I go is, at the core of things, everybody wants the same thing. It is manifested differently. But everybody wants the same thing. And I give this very, very specific example. And I’ll just use an example because I was happen- I happened to be at Shell at that point in time. Now, everybody wants to be treated with respect. But it’s manifested differently. Now, in the Malaysian culture, if I respect you, I’m not going to call you out upfront. I’m not going to, but I will- I will probably say a quiet word for you, etcetera and so on. In the Dutch culture, if you respect the person, you will give that feedback right upfront to the person’s face- with respect. The core premise is the same, wanting to be treated with respect. How differs from culture to culture. So when- when people- we have friction because of that, you need to come down to the core, what exactly that people are looking for. What people are manifesting is only at the top.
Anirudh Arvind 17:02
Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli 17:04
So that is my same message. I- everywhere that I’ve gone around the world, everywhere that I have worked, at the various levels of organization, it comes down typically to two- to three things: people want to be treat- people want interesting work. People want to be able to progress and develop and learn, etc. And people want to be treated with dignity and respect.
Anirudh Arvind 17:25
Got you, got you. Zulfa, listen, it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you and learning of your experiences. But before I let you go, I would like to ask you one question. What’s your advice to, you know, aspiring HR talents that look to be the CHRO, you know, at some point and have it as an end goal? What would be the advice you would give them in terms of how they can make that happen for themselves?
Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli 17:51
I think I’m influenced by the fact that becau- I chose this profession, I am passionate about it. So I didn’t fall into this. And I’ve worked hard to be the best that I can be, as much as possible, to be good in this profession. So therefore, my other- okay, and it goes back to my core values as an HR professional. The competence is one, the other is integrity. Because the decisions that you make influence people’s lives and careers. As HR, you do have the power whether you like it or not, as a CHRO to influence, to impact people’s lives and careers. And that’s not a power to be taken lightly. The third part of my value is objectivity: the ability to evaluate without being entangled emotionally, and politically. Be able to say no consistently and so on. So I think if a person wants to be CHRO and this role comes with certain power and obligations, one thing I would recommend, of course, you know, I’m- I want the best CHROs possible in the community, is one- is you need to understand your motive in doing things. Because again, as HR people, you if you assume- you will influence people’s lives and careers. It’s not a responsibility to be taken lightly. And your integrity must be absolute, as much as possible. That is- the skillsets: you can acquire, the skillsets: you can polish. But, your core integrity, your core deliver- you core delivery and intentions has to be in the right place.
Anirudh Arvind 19:46
Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli 19: 48
Maybe it’s too deep. Sorry about that.
Anirudh Arvind 19:50
No, that was a powerpacked response. So thank you very much for that Zulfa. And I think, like you said, it was a well thought out response. Obviously I could see you thinking through what you were saying. So thank you very much for that. So, really appreciate it. Listen, Zulfa, thank you so much for spending time with us. We really, really appreciate it. And thank you for sharing such a wonderful insights.
Zulfa Ashida Zulkifli 20:14
Thank you so much again for the invite.
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