An interview with Norlela Baharudin. MIA, FCPA Australia, a board-ready talent. She talks about the lessons in life that made her persevere and the roles she played as change agent in her organisations.
Could you share with us your journey to what you are doing now? What were some of the most memorable moment in your last 15 years serving at senior management level? I grew up amongst 5 siblings in Malacca where we found that moving from one small town to another is a norm as required by my late father’s job, a serviceman. Despite the house moves, my parents retained me in the same school from primary to secondary level; a decision I thanked them for till today, as it taught me to persevere the daily early morning rise to travel on the school bus to school some 13 km away but also the chance to be exposed to learning and speaking English in an English language medium missionary school. Till today I have developed my passion for the language by taking a short certification for Teaching English and have put it to good use too, on part time basis.
I had a chance to experience residential school where life taught me discipline in time management and planning. By 10.45 pm, its lights off and you could not see a thing if you have not completed all your tasks. I realised my dream to study overseas when I was offered a full government scholarship for a 5-year Honours degree in Accounting and was sent to the far flung and cold country of Canada. Here, I learned to ice skate till my knees turned blue black from the many stumbles; right in front of the Toronto City Hall’s frozen fountain.
Upon returning to Malaysia, my first exposure to working life was in the banking industry with an international bank. The bank was embarking on automating its banking functions and I was part of the transformation team. Little did I realise then that history would repeat itself in almost every organisation that I was attached with. Subsequent work exposures were in the leasing industry and a regional role in quality inspection and certification industry; the latter landed me postings in Australia and New Zealand for five years.
My senior management roles of the last 15 years of my professional career were with the O&G giant Shell and The chemical company BASF; the latter had given me the opportunity for not one, but two overseas postings, in Hong Kong and in Tokyo, Japan. My final 2 years in senior management, was as the MD of the global advertising organisation WPP where I was responsible for the new set up of the Asia Pacific business service centre in Kuala Lumpur whilst transforming the centre and agencies in incorporating the global ERP system and processes.
It was during these demanding roles that I pursued my professional education to gain qualification with CPA Australia and thereafter with Malaysian Institute of Accountants (MIA). The perseverance was worth it as I saw myself adding value to the organisations through my professional training. I would advocate to women out there – you can have a successful career whilst balancing family and children and at the same time elevating yourself through the corporate ladder by embarking on part-time advance study.
I have truly enjoyed my overseas stints, in particular, working and living in Japan; experiencing the unique work culture of Japan, which is something you only read about, but living it was another. I have instilled the spirit of collaboration with my teams in Malaysia and Japan, created work life balance by setting the example of clocking off at 7.00 pm (vs the Japanese normal culture to work beyond 9.00pm) and to give my Japanese team a safe space to use English in their daily conversations; whilst I pursued my love for language by taking up Japanese lessons.
Back in Malaysia it was a also a momentous time when my team doubled in workforce strength as we gained more traction with a scope expansion which proved our mettle by even supporting cost management accounting for the region; something the Regional Business Units were holding on close to their hearts for long time.
Finally, in my role as part of the Regional Talent Committee, satisfaction came when I got to see my teams and other finance and accounting junior talents spread their wings into cross regional and global roles.
“In these situations of high uncertainties, it’s important for the leader to be visible and show that he/she is in charge and is riding the change together with the employees all the way.”
You are an expert in change management. Businesses are going through an unprecedented change right now. What would be your advice to them? I was responsible for Change Management in Shell during the ERP transition as well as its accounting process transformation. Rolled out in stages in Asia Pacific countries, it allowed me to manage phased release of the change impact to one country whilst other countries were prepped up for the next roll out. At the completion of the country’s roll out, I held post-mortem discussions with stakeholders to ensure the next country benefited from the lessons learnt.
Similarly, in BASF, I was involved in early to mid-discussions in formulating process changes and impact to the work processes and to the teams. These were global process alignments across all service centres which allowed all process owners to review and assess impact to their respective regions and to prepare ahead of the roll out.
At WPP, in a similar initiative, I was responsible to communicate, engage and collaborate with all agencies, country by country, on the global process transformation by deploying AI tools for document/invoice recognition and built-in workflow routings for segregation of duties and process ownership.
In all these changes, a key success factor is to impart the plan through close and clear communication via detailed sharing to the stakeholders of the change impact as early as possible. It is almost unavoidable that you will encounter issues along the way be it in systems or design wise, or lack of user training. At that juncture, I had stepped aside to assess the situation from a root cause analysis and impact, then worked through solutions, sometimes drawing resources from various experts.
Well prepared and forward-thinking boards will have ensured that the organisation has a BCP in place. This as part of the organisation’s well thought of and documented Risk Management Framework. In comparison to the global health and economic crisis we are facing today, there are definitely more uncertainties that come into play and how exactly the crisis will evolve; becomes almost fluid on daily basis. In these situations of high uncertainties, it’s important for the leader to be visible and show that he/she is in charge and is riding the change together with the employees all the way. Regular communication engagements should be held with key stakeholders explaining what will happen and what role each party needs to play. Along the way, as issues arise- and there will be many- leaders need to be on top of the issue; to come down to 3,000 feet, to be visible and to review and lead for solutions. Regular check-ins from the top right down to ground level must happen. This is where Boards need to closely provide oversight in managing the situation and set clear strategic directions for management to guide the teams.
For companies to thrive, all stakeholder groups, be it, shareholders, employees or customers, must be given equal priority. What are your thoughts on that? And how can companies ensure that all groups are well represented and accounted for? In the current era of VUCA, and with the scale of change that the crisis has engendered so far, it proves to be very challenging for leaders in business and for Board of Directors to deal with all issues almost simultaneously. Stakeholder primacy and engagement are key for boards to manage; not only the shareholders interest, but the interests of all stakeholders.
The welfare of the employees who are required to support the business through the crisis must be addressed early on. There must be in place a mechanism of communication and feedback to ensure employees’ health and welfare are properly managed; be it WFH tools and policies that facilitate team collaboration even if they are not together in the same location; or when an employee is suspected to have been exposed to the virus.
Communication lines to Customers and Suppliers must also be clear despite the confusion. Assuring them that the organisation is keeping a close eye on its deliverables but also to open the channels for negotiations of open commitments or where disruption in supply chain can lead to uncertainties. The Operations must be led by a Crisis Team to ensure not only day-to-day deliverables are met but to also consider innovative ways to manage the business during this unpredictable situation.
It is during crisis that we see more companies undertaking social activities to support the noble cause of critical frontliners and affected groups due to economic displacement. Is this a one-off initiative, window dressing or will we see strong corporate support embracing the pillars of ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) as the new norm? Many case studies have proven and supported the finding that organisations that have a strong DNA of ESG tend to be more valued, outperform their peers and are more sustainable in their long-term financial performance.
Boards are continuously challenged to align to the interests of various stakeholders; customers, suppliers, shareholders, employees, the management, the community. The current crisis is a good example of this where serving all stakeholders is difficult and confusing. However, for sustainability of the organisation in the long term, Boards must uphold leadership in all areas and balance the interests of all stakeholders. This is an excellent opportunity to leverage on the competencies of a diverse and multi-skilled board.
“It’s leaders who make decisive and clear decision with empathy and shows our human side that makes employees feel empowered to deliver their part in the best and most efficient manner.”
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us are working from home and have to change the way we work and communicate with our colleagues. How are you and your team coping with the transition? As a leader, what steps are you taking to ensure your team stays motivated? At the beginning of the crisis, there was uncertainty how long the situation will persist; ”..do we manage for the short-term measure only or beyond the 2 weeks..”. Soon enough it became clearer that we needed a longer-term solution for work practices.
At Shell, as the key contact person/owner of the BCP, I worked closely with the internal organisation as well as cross business units to synchronise the working arrangements of the team, be it at the back-up centre or from home, ensuring they have access to tools and procedures of WFH. A set of clear communication plan to all stakeholders were deployed at different stages. Communications included not only to the teams, but also to customers, suppliers, statutory bodies, corporate units and the community. In fact, during normal operations, we have encouraged teams to WFH on a regular basis, and for the management, there were deliberately unannounced WFH sessions. Such work practices are not new for organisations with a well-prepared back up plan.
However, no amount of planning and drills had prepared us for the situation facing us today. As its impact is global and pervasive affecting supply chains, customers behaviour, financials, the health support systems, community welfare and so on. What is even more unnerving is the extent it will last not to mention the scale of change that comes with it. However, it will have to come to an end and organisations need to anticipate what lies ahead and prepare plans for the new norm.
On a smaller scale, at the language centre where I teach on part time basis, we have rolled out online classes, reviewed the pricing strategy, conducted regular team check-ins, marketing strategies for new classes by creating new demands for new products and using tools like Zoom and Teams to conduct classes online. We managed to turn the sceptics who favoured face-to-face interaction to believers of online lessons by offering trial sessions and competitive online lesson rates, to finally join online classes.
As a leader, it is important that you engage with your teams at all stages for them to feel they can trust the leader’s messages and intent. One major concern is employee mental health during this period and how one adapts to the situation. Not all employees are comfortable with WFH; they may be facing challenges to perform at home with having young children around without day care, school kids who need to attend online lessons, and their spouse may also WFH, or their spouse may be supporting essential services, hence are not always around to assist around the house. Faced with different needs, teams need to feel that they can reach out and raise their concerns and work preferences/conditions to the leaders and in turn be given flexibility in their working arrangements. It’s leaders who make decisive and clear decisions with empathy and who show our human side that make employees feel empowered to deliver their part in the best and most efficient manner.
Finally, in all proven change management strategy, companies should sharpen the saw by reviewing all key impacted areas; what went well vs what did not go well and take away lessons learnt for improvement.
Lastly, what can we look forward to post-crisis? What should companies look out for? How is your organisation preparing for this? With the curve looming ahead, we need to look beyond and align to the mid- and long-term plans as well as, set a clear path to navigate to the next normal. Leaders will need to undertake a review of their business strategy for any deviation/change/pivot. It is highly unlikely businesses will return to the old norms or BAU, hence leaders need to take an in-depth look as to what will change and how the change should happen in the medium to long term.
One silver lining to look at is the role that Technology has played during the crisis. In fact, the crisis has accelerated the future of how Technology and Innovation can bring about operational excellence. If during the crisis, companies had to send their HR staff to the office to run the monthly payroll and risk exposure to the unwanted elements, this is the ripe time to automate many of the processes and adopt tools to route processing to approver to payor via hand-off workflows. Robotics and analytics should be on the agenda to be deployed in financial processes and management dashboards; hence the call for upskilling/reskilling at all levels of the organisation from top to bottom. To make this happen, Boards need to have a future focused mindset and embrace IT deployment.
During the crisis it’s inevitable that businesses would have seen changing customer habits and product demand; online businesses are seeing a boom, and logistics and delivery business have never had it so good. Companies therefore should take a close look at the data trends and patterns to identify (new) key customers and product lines/mix/pricing strategy.
For organisations that have repurposed their assembly lines to produce high-in-demand items during the crisis e.g. PPE and sanitisation products, they will need to undertake a feasibility study of the new product lines, whether what is needed is a potential future production expansion or product replacement/complement.
On the people front, companies should undertake a review of HR policies and employment terms, incorporating new working arrangement policies and health SOPs. A good practice is to gauge the employees’ sentiments on potential WFH as an operational routine. There may be those who prefer flexible arrangements e.g. a 3- day in office and a 2- day WFH/outside office. Question the need to maintain a large central office vs small office hubs. Companies should only consider employee layoff as a last measure.
Finally, in all proven change management strategy, companies should sharpen the saw by reviewing all key impacted areas; what went well vs what did not go well and take away lessons learnt for improvement. This exercise builds further resilience into the organisation to weather the next storm/crisis. This new mindset will be the beacon in how we live, work and think. Welcome to the New Normal!
Norlela Baharudin is the former MD of WPP Business Services, a UK based media company. She also served on the Executive Board. She was involved in transformation of the front to back processes and had held Change Management and Strategic Transformation roles in Shell and BASF. In her current free time, she teaches English to foreign students. She is also a volunteer of the 30% Club Malaysian Chapter as its Mentoring Programme Manager.