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15 minutes with Petrofac’s regional HR director

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A biochemist who also had a teaching job in hand when she took up the post as a personnel executive, Soorya Themudu, regional HR director at Petrofac IES, SEA, says she has been fortunate to have had plenty of mentors throughout her career.

What was your first HR job?

I was the personnel executive for a consulting firm and I was exposed to the basic fundamentals of personnel management, which includes payroll and benefits administration, and performance management administration. Though the job scope was quite monotonous, I understood that if one wanted a long and prosperous career in a specific function, it was essential to get the basics right. Hence, I just took on any task assignment given to me in the spirit of learning and to execute them well.

Why did you choose HR as a profession?

In all honesty, I didn’t. I am a biochemist by training and during my final year, all I knew is I didn’t want to be a biochemist, so I started applying for management trainee-type positions. I came from a poor background and the only objective I had was to secure a job and earn a living to support myself and assist my dad. I had two offers in hand before my final semester ended and I chose HR over teaching – that’s how it started.

How do you think the HR function will evolve in the next five years?

The HR function has already evolved at a spectacular rate from a personnel function to a strategic and influential function. I am a living example of the evolution so far. Without a doubt, with technology advances, changing demographics, global challenges and other factors, the demands for HR have been evolving too. To name a few:

  • Datafication of HR is the buzzword now. HR departments capture enormous amounts of data, but these are typically stored in various systems and rarely used for strategic purposes. There will be an increasing use of this data for decision-making processes in talent retention, recruiting effectiveness, performance, total rewards and employee movements.
  • Hiring based upon “social credibility”. Social credibility equals reputable social networks plus personal brand plus expertise. Companies will increasingly source and recruit new employees based upon their social credibility.
  • The utilisation of social media, video games and simulations for learning and development in organisations. Corporate training as we know it today is transforming into a nimble, social, fun and highly interactive experience.
  • Work-life integration will replace work-life balance. Work-life integration reinforces the view that there is no such thing as work time and home time. Instead, the workforce will aspire to have the flexibility to manage both work and home lives.
  • Your mobile device will become your office or classroom. With mobility and migration on the rise, employees will no longer be limited to working in one country. They will be able to work from everywhere.
  • The HR focus will move from outsourcing to crowdsourcing. Outsourcing of administrative human resource activities will drive improved business results; however, HR leaders who want to be in the forefront of change will also create an innovative agenda leveraging the principals of crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing will be used to reinvent human resources and corporate learning.
In all honesty, I didn’t [choose HR]. I am a biochemist by training and all I knew is I didn’t want to be a biochemist, so I started applying for management trainee-type positions.

Based on your experience in HR, what can be done to enable HR to contribute better to organisational success?

Good question. In my opinion, we could do a lot more. However, one thing that would be on top of my list is to ensure we remain close to the business and understand every part of the organisation and offer our services to help meet business objectives.

This includes creating an inclusive culture that is sensitive to culture, ethnicity, race, age and other differences; being technologically connected and developing corporate communications using a range of social media and tools to connect employees and enable collaborations, and personalising the employee experience by developing a systematic approach to deliver a unique, customised experience. This includes offering a wide range of choices so employees can self-select benefits and services to match their unique needs.

Which HR function do you like best and why?

HR business partnering and organisational talent development, but if I had to pick one it would be HR business partnering. Business partnering involves many challenges and issues from the model itself, stakeholder relationships, performance and the tensions that go with the role. However, if the challenges and issues are dealt with appropriately they will almost always reveal opportunities.

In addition, I love to stay close to the business, and HR business partnering gives me just that. It enables me to align people strategy closely to the business needs and also contribute to a higher level of forward-thinking and advice, especially in the critical areas of talent, performance and change.

What is the best career advice you have received?

Many, and I am probably gifted with having many mentors and coaches throughout my life. Some of the things I have learnt from them include:

  • Continuous learning. This is true. Your level of effort and your passion for continuous learning becomes a critical part of your personal brand. I remember during my stint in GE, the chairman and CEO, Jeff Immelt, reminded us that we’ve got to keep learning, keep changing and reinventing ourselves, but be ourselves. Take my example, if I did not choose to constantly learn, I would have been stuck in the “transactional HR world”.
  • High say/do ratio. If you want something in life or your career, be prepared to work for it. You have to earn those opportunities by working hard, delivering results and keeping to your commitments. When you say you’ll do a dozen things, make sure you do the dozen and more. Build a reputation as someone who can be counted on.
HR leaders who want to be in the forefront of change will also create an innovative agenda leveraging the principals of crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing will be used to reinvent human resources and corporate learning.

Can you describe a regular workday at your company?

I live in a small town in Kajang, just outside of Kuala Lumpur. My day starts at 6am and I am woken by my iPhone, which is my official alarm clock. I hit the road anytime between 6:30am and 7am to avoid the traffic.

Typically my day consists of meetings which focus on the people agenda. I hold both formal and informal meetings with my team and heads of departments to address both strategic and operational issues. I also interview candidates and analyse HR performance data. A key passion for me is developing young talent and as such, I do spend a lot of time with my team’s younger generation. I try to get time away from the office for lunch or coffee whenever I can.

I also try to exercise or play sports at least three times a week after work and try to watch my diet, but I do admit to having a sweet tooth. I typically try to hit the road between 6pm and 6:30pm to be home for dinner with my boys. If there is a need (which is typically the case), I am online after my kids go to bed around 9:30pm for a couple of hours.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I am very passionate about what I do. What I enjoy most about my work is seeing employees moving to greater heights through the talent management and development programmes that we put in place in the organisation.

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