Straits Times
4 November 13
Down the rabbit hole for lessons in management

HR veteran shares tips in her book, styled as a classic fairy tale
By Fiona Chan

Ms Caroline Lim, the global head of human resource and corporate affairs at PSA International, launched Wonderland on Oct 26. The book, also illustrated by Ms Lim, discusses HR matters in the setting of the children's book, Alice In Wonderland. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF CAROLINE LIM

Click here to view a scan of the actual newspaper article.

A WHITE rabbit with a coat and briefcase leads a human resource executive down an airplane toilet and into a world of "cold and utilitarian" bureaucracy. There, she encounters the tyrannical Black Queen, who oversees her staff of fairy tale creatures with iron-fisted management techniques, while her erstwhile co-chief executive, the Red Queen, has been sidelined into heading the counselling division.

MS LIM'S Wonderland book contains more than 30 boxes outlining tips, tools and traps that HR professionals should be aware of. We reproduce three below:

TRAP: HR pitfalls

I HAVE encountered three pitfalls that the HR function may sometimes be guilty of:

  • Designing HR policies to regulate the 10 per cent of employees who might exploit loopholes or break the rules, which becomes overly constraining on the other 90 per cent of employees;
  • Over-engineering HR solutions with bells and whistles, introducing unnecessary complexity;
  • Running HR programmes of short-term impact and treating them as the answer to long-term needs but failing to create real sustainable improvement.

Instead... HR could follow three simple principles to overcome the pitfalls and be more effective:

  • Nurture an HR philosophy of trust and design HR policies on the premise of self-discipline in employees while ensuring the appropriate level of accountability;
  • Keep things simple. Look for straightforward, fit-for-purpose solutions;
  • Sustain, sustain and sustain, for lasting impact. Conceive of each HR programme not as a project but as a journey.

TIP: A brave few

I BELIEVE every organisation needs at least a few good men and women who value doing what is right above keeping their jobs or getting ahead in their careers.

Leaders can look out for such qualities in individuals:

  • Adherence to integrity;
  • Having a mind of one's own;
  • Speaking the truth to the boss versus apple-polishing;
  • Not "swaying with the wind".

Such corporate "renegades" might be the brave few to protect and preserve company culture, especially if they see the culture under threat of being eroded.

In fact, these "renegades" could even be considered corporate stalwarts for their loyalty to the company at large.

TOOL: FISH!

I FIRST used the FISH! Philosophy from Charthouse as a common cultural language in a merger and acquisition exercise between a predominantly American culture and a European one. FISH! espouses teamwork, customer service, excellence and passion via four simple principles: Be There, Make Their Day, Choose Your Attitude and Play.

When creating a common identity, I found it useful to bear in mind four keys, easily remembered and quite neatly encapsulated using the acronym, FISH:

  • Flexible: can be tailored to local conditions during implementation
  • Integrated: easy to integrate conceptually to accommodate diverse employee profiles
  • Sustainable: should not be viewed as a one-time event but applicable daily
  • Hearts: engage not just the mind but also the heart

But little do the female executives realise they are being manipulated by a malevolently ambitious up-and-comer: the devious Humpty Dumpty, who is looking to seize power for himself.

Luckily, the human resource heroine steps in to save the day, by facilitating communication and improving workplace morale.

This is Alice's Wonderland, as re-imagined in a corporate setting by Ms Caroline Lim, the global head of human resource and corporate affairs at PSA International and a multiple HR award winner.

In her authorial debut, titled Wonderland and launched on Oct 26, Ms Lim has created what she describes as a "management guide book with a difference": "An allegory with corporate messages".

The aim is to share her "experiences in transformational HR" - gleaned from her over 30 years of experience across organisations including Apple Computer, DFS and Ernst & Young - with organisation leaders, HR practitioners, and "anyone with an interest in culture change".

"Throughout my career in HR, I have come to realise that two things can make or break an organisation - the first being its culture and the second being the quality of its leadership," she told The Straits Times.

"While many people are aware of this, I have also come to realise that not many have first-hand experience in transforming organisations."

Plenty of books on organisation culture and change have been penned by HR veterans, but probably none with such a whimsical narrative as Wonderland, and certainly none as beautifully illustrated by the author's own hand. That is perhaps the most surprising revelation of the book, which is also peppered generously with catchy HR insights.

Ms Lim drew the book's fanciful personages herself after the illustrator she hired failed to meet her standards, in the process embodying one of the mantras in her book: "Change begins with me."

She also sold some of her illustrations at her book launch, raising $40,000 for charity.

Ms Lim's passion is obvious in her profession as well. HR was a natural choice for her as she has "always been a 'people person'".

"Knowing that I am directly able to make a significant difference to the well-being and lives of employees gives meaning and purpose to my work," she said.

Ms Lim, who is 57 and married with a son, said the book is intended as a "source of encouragement to those who are fighting the good fight" by trying to improve their company culture.

"Going against a company's culture is akin to salmon swimming upstream; while very arduous, it is not impossible and occurs at some cost to the individual. It takes great courage, stamina and resilience to change culture for the better," she said.

Asked about the most common HR problems faced by Singapore firms, she said one issue is that managers tend to be either "too nice or too harsh" with their staff.

"By 'too nice', I mean that they shy away from hard truths and needed confrontations. The alternative is when a manager dwells only on fault-finding and forgets to offer deserved praise for jobs well done."

To strike a balance, managers need to "focus on the positive", by being aware of and acknowledging their employees' contributions, and also "address the negatives", by highlighting undesirable behaviour and using this to coach individuals.

Finally, they should "set high standards and challenge others to do the same", while also balancing the workloads across teams. Only thus can they exemplify one of her favourite quotes: "Brains can be bought, but hearts and minds have to be won."

 


Source: The Straits Times ©Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

Click here to view a scan of the actual newspaper article.

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