Leadership and HR in Asia

TO: HRM Specialists; Training Directors; Sonny Duong (Training Director of Sacombank)
FROM: Dr John Vong
RE: HRM Lifetime Achievement Award (an extract from HRM Interview)

  1. What did the HRM Lifetime Achievement Award mean to you?

It is indeed an honour to be a recipient of the award for a 25-year contribution to developing human resources. More so, from my perspective, I was just doing what comes as a matter-of-course, rather than expecting a reward for it.

Developing people should be every manager’s mandate because people are the driving force of an organization. And good people drive an organization better to achieve its stated goals.

  1. Why do you think you were recognised in such a way?

I am still awed by the achievement, because I haven’t finished my lifetime race yet. I believe, I still have many more years to go.

  1. How important are industry events such as the HRM Awards for the profession?

The HRM awards are important in that it encourages HR professionals and the profession itself, since HR has always be seen as a backroom job, playing a support function rather than at the front line of action.

  1. Why did you embark on a career in HR?

I was trained in finance and IT and have worked for top financial institutions in frontline roles. But I felt a tug to take on HR projects within my heart, and I followed my heartbeat.

  1. Can you tell me about your role with the UNDP?

I advise governments on approaches to achieve better governance. That means a government that can bring about improved livelihoods, safer communities, greater democracy and transparency, and governed by rule of law. All these can be achieved through building capacities in skills and knowledge, systems and processes, and increased commitment in public administration.

  1. Can you tell me about your project with UNDP in Timor-Leste?

The Project HRM formulated in October 2001, funded by the Government of Finland and UNDP, captures the essence of building a sustainable government. Three immediate objectives of the Project are:
 To develop the capacity of the Civil Service Academy so that it can efficiently and effectively provide support for the development of human resources in Timor Leste’s public administration;
 To strengthen policy development capacities within the civil service and introduce personnel management regulatory frameworks and policies to promote the establishment of a professional, competent, service-oriented, accountable and efficient civil service, in which appropriately skilled people are appointed to the right jobs and in which outstanding performance is rewarded and encouraged;
 To improve HRM skills within the civil service through capacity building of selected target groups and improved support systems.

  1. What were some of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of this project?

The challenge lies in that the country has emerged not only the ravages of war, but also suffered a history past of slow development and that the human resource has low capacity to organize itself to respond quickly to economic development and integration to trading without borders.

The most rewarding aspect is that the Project through the diligence and commitment of the team members, consisting of both national and international staff, has achieved major milestones.

  1. What did this experience teach you? Were there any valuable lessons that are translatable to HR in everyday businesses?

Absolutely. There are many valuable lessons learnt. Most institutional strengthening projects focus on building human capacity, usually taken to mean improving skills and knowledge. But that is not just it. The work environment has to be shored up with systems and processes that are conducive for the application of skills and knowledge, with a certain level of commitment. This takes on a change management approach and usually starts with the leadership.

  1. Where do you see the importance of HR in the development of emerging countries such as Timor-Leste?

HR is important because it is the basic driving force of a national development plan. A plan is just a document, if nothing is done. It’s the people that will get the plan into action. Consequently a human resource map need to be drawn up at the start of a capacity building program to check what can be done quickly with its present human resources and what may take longer.

On Leadership and HR in Asia

  1. Can you give me an insight into your take on leadership development? What are some of the key factors to be considered when addressing leadership development? How important do you think this is for both businesses and for developing governments?

This a tough question. The truth is that leadership development is not in the front boiler of most Asian organizations despite the rhetoric. The MNCs has a better record.

Firstly, it takes time to develop leaders. Because of the need to produce immediate results most companies will employ senior managers to produce. Leadership development is not seen as something worth doing and not usually given priority in its budgets. For that reason not many senior managers attend external courses. There are a variety of in-house training courses, but usually targeted at producing results, not developing a strategic thinking ability. Having an opportunity-search mindset is extremely important in leadership, especially when breaking into greenfields, but many senior managers are risk averse to even think outside the box.

Secondly, leaders should be rewarded for taking risk to think. I am talking leadership at the highest levels. But not many organisations encourage that. Instead leaders end up as administrators of processes. The systems and procedures shackle them. In some industries and job functions, being risk averse is a good thing, but not many.

Finally, not many companies are investing in human capital for the future. The short term result reporting system override most investments that take on a longer to mature. It is a concern.

  1. What do you see as some of the highest HR priorities for businesses in Asia? Can you identify any key issues and challenges that business leaders are or will face in terms of human capital?

There is something happening in these days of globalisation. There is a feeling that organizations may not be able to use the same approaches, that led their companies to their initial success, in the near future: precedence may not and should not be the battle cry to resolve future challenges. So new approaches have to be found. This leads to the question: how do we develop leaders to solve tomorrow’s challenges, that are as yet unseen.

HR professionals should alert and remind the top management of this possibility. I hope the top is keeping the ears to the ground.

Governments should be encouraged not to only allow private enterprise to grow, but should be actively encouraging home grown enterprises to compete globally. There are many ways of doing this and many examples can be found in the first world. In turn these enterprises sees a longer term view on developing its human capital and there is continuity.

Your career

  1. What skills do you have that allowed you to cross over from the private sector to government agencies?

I have always being interested in performance management. An ability to think strategically of ways to make organizations achieve higher performance, whether financially or provide greater customer satisfaction. I found that it must start with the human capital and then providing an enabling environment for human capital to unleash the power. Many governments and governmental agencies are now aware that they have to perform to better serve their citizenry. So it was timing that provided an opportunity. The skills can be used in any organization.

  1. Have you found it more rewarding to work for one sector over the other?

I found it more fulfilling work in a sector or a project in a particular sector where my contribution can make the greatest impact to improve an organization’s performance, irrespective of the sector.

  1. What of the future for you and your career?

As I have said earlier, I still have some way to go. I will continue to do what I do best, in an environment where I know I can make a difference.


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