3: HR Director Tang Li Chow on The Future of Human Resources

The Future of Human Resources

In the world of HR, rules are being rewritten. What was right and “standard practices” may not be relevant today. As our talents are our greatest resource, all HR professionals need to keep up with the latest trends and stay ahead of the curve.

In episode 3 of Agile Leaders Conversations, Tang Li Chow, an HR veteran leader, shares his views on the future of HR, leadership agility, and paradoxes in the post-COVID era.

Connect with Tang Li Chow at https://www.linkedin.com/in/lichowtang/

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Li Chow Tang: Agility is really being in control. Feeling at peace with yourself, with what you’re doing, because you have the bigger picture, exactly how you should be adjusting to different situations. To be honest with yourself. Like, what’s good about the process. What’s not so good about the process. What can I learn from this mistake? And then adjusting myself to better meet future situations.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Welcome to agile leaders conversations. Today, I’m so happy to have Mr. Tang Li Chow with us. Li Chow is an HR director in the pharmaceutical industry. I’ll handover the time to Li Chow to introduce himself.

Li Chow Tang: Hi everyone. I’m very happy to be here. Like Chuen Chuen. I was also a computer engineer by training and by a twist of fate, I ended up in HR.

Li Chow Tang: I’m very passionate about agility and how leaders develop, because I think leaders have a massive impact on the organizations that they lead. And, I’m happy to share my insights, happy to share what I know. And hopefully I can learn from all of you as well.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Well, for some of you who don’t know my background, I was a computer engineer by training same as Li Chow. Then, through a process of discovering, we eventually land up doing whatever we are doing right now. And it seems like Li Chow you’re having a lot of fun and passionate about this area.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Human resource is definitely a key area, especially right now in a COVID situation. We’ve gotta take care of our people.

Engineering vs. HR

Li Chow Tang: Yes. One of the things I like to talk about in HR meetings is, when we talk about our backgrounds and how we ended up in HR, I would say that, I like HR because I think it’s more challenging than engineering.

Li Chow Tang: In engineering, we have formulas. We have algorithms, and we can get to the answer very easily or maybe not easily, but there is a systematic way to get the answer. But in HR, we don’t have such formulas and in my opinion, that’s very intellectually stimulating. Which is why I’m still in HR after so many years.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: That’s great to hear. So Li Chow I acquainted over LinkedIn and he was very supportive and got a copy of my book. And this is also a little something that some of you may not know, there was actually an earlier version released sometime in March this year (2020). So Li Chow had the honor, to read both versions one and two, and he would be able to see that there’s actually a huge difference between the two.

Li Chow Tang: Yeah, I can’t exactly tell you the difference. Although I like the writing style. I only know that I like the second version better. I think the writing style was more crisp, more straight to the point. And it was a fast, smoother read. So I would really encourage everyone to go get the second version , which is available now on Amazon.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Right. I’ve taken down the first version. I really have to thank Li Chow. The first version, being written in a much more colloquial way, he was still able to draw the essence and his review of the book was a huge encouragement to me at that time. Anyway, I’m a first time writer, everyone goes out and does something new and it’s so scary. So afraid of failure, right? I was no exception. So it was really a pleasant surprise one day, when Li Chow very kindly responded to one of my posts on LinkedIn and then we connected. So Li Chow, having read the book twice, what are your general thoughts of the book?

Thoughts on 8 Pardoxes of Leadership Agility

Li Chow Tang: The first thought I can tell everyone is that I think Chuen Chuen’s engineering roots probably still is very clear. I think the book is structured in a very logical manner. And the eight paradoxes. So many leadership books that I would read, the author would sort of mesh everything together and when somebody reads it, they may like, huh, what’s he trying to say? And the framework is not very outlined not in a structured manner, not clear enough. So you won’t have that problem with reading Chuen Chuen’s- very clear. Another thing that I would say of the book is that you have two main parts, right? The front main part is the theoretical portion. And then you have the later part, which is the details for each of the cases in each of the paradoxes. And those are very good for people who don’t like detail like me, the front part is necessary because other books, they would jam all the chapters with too many details, and I would switch off. But you have done a very good job to separate them, and so you would appeal to two kinds of readers. Actually, you appeal to all readers because those who would like details, they would go on to read the second part. And that will reinforce their understanding of your paradoxes.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: It’s so nice to hear my intentions, but you articulate it. Because this book was written like a mini textbook, maybe like a mini guide book and a workbook. So the workbook section would have details for people who would love to dive into certain paradoxes, and there are also the companion pages where you can write down your own reflections. So I think that you capture that intention really well is to bridge the gap between theory and practice. I didn’t wanna put a book out there and then make people go to sleep because it’s so heavy going. I wanted to be light and quickly help people implement it in their daily lives.

Leading vs. Following

Chuen Chuen Yeo: So was there a paradox in the book that resonated strongly with you?

Li Chow Tang: Yes. The leading versus following paradox resonated a lot with me for two reasons. One is many of the issues I have faced as an HR practitioner would be leaders not delegating and not empowering their people enough. They just need to lead for everything, or they just need to lead for areas which are really important for the business or areas where their direct reports may not be very strong. While direct reports are the ones who do the work but when they bring it to their boss, the boss would pick it apart and say, let me take over and let me direct you. Let me tell you what to do, and they end up leading rather than following. And the second reason is because I’m guilty of this problem, myself. It’s really hard. Because when we want managers to be entrepreneurial, we treat our departments business as the business, so we have a lot of stake in it, and it’s very hard for me personally to approve not so good work. So I ended up not following when I should. And so that paradox resonated a lot with me.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: What you are saying is also a common challenge. Among the professional coaches- there is this discussion about the outcomes are important, but we cannot be overly attached to the outcome because, coach and coachee partnership, the outcomes are owned by the coachee. We cannot be responsible whether they get promoted. Whether they get the pay rise, so it’s trying to balance between these two. It is important, but not be overly attached to it.

Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset

Li Chow Tang: Yeah. You just reminded me of the model of fixed mindset, growth mindset. I think, being too focused on the outcome and wanting to take over something. When my direct reports aren’t doing a good job, that’s really encouraging the fixed mindset, right? People will be very focused on getting the results. But, I think as leaders, what we probably need to do is to work on the process. Helping our people think better, helping our people do things better.

Li Chow Tang: And, it should generate good results sustainably over the long term.

Li Chow Tang: And I think that’s the struggle that I see in myself, and the leaders that I work with. Which is why this paradox is the one that resonated with me the most.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Sure. I’m just stretching it a little bit here. So after reading the book, were there occasions where you handled leading versus following differently?

Li Chow Tang: I think one thing I thought about was that, you probably think about leading and following too simplistically. Like, whatever I’m doing in my company for COVID is purely an HR endeavor? Something that HR needs to take full leadership and everyone else follows. Probably not. I think HR should be leading in certain areas. Like for example, formulating the policy. Formulating the work from home guidelines. Formulating everything to do the employees. But does HR have the domain expertise in the business? No! How do we deal with business continuity? How do we deal with logistics? Supply chains? I think HR would need the collective expertise of everybody. So I think if I could reframe my mind into thinking that. For some areas I would lead. For some areas I would follow. And figure that out clearly my mind. I think it would establish mutually helpful relationships.

Collaboration within organizations

Li Chow Tang: I’m a fan of Edgar Schein’s helping mental models. To create strong teamwork within organizations, we should establish that mutually helpful relationships or mutually beneficial relationships. And that would require all of us to lead and follow in different ways. And I think that’s probably what reading the paradox helped me to think more about.

Li Chow Tang: Paradoxes in my opinion is not about either this or that. I think it’s this and that. That’s probably how I think about how to navigate our paradoxes.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yeah, I think you are right too. I had this analogy that there are various shades of white. Everything is correct. Some are maybe slightly more correct than others but like embracing the multiple pathways to success or to reach the outcome. There are a thousand and one ways. So who are we to say that, which one is the best? And we cannot make a decision for people. So what if I do this and that as well? I like this.

Leadership Agility from the Lens of an HR professional

Chuen Chuen Yeo: There was also a definition of leadership agility in the book. So I’m wondering, how do you see leadership agility from the lens of an HR professional?

Li Chow Tang: Yeah! First let me share my thoughts about the definition you have in the book. I think the last two keywords was, how do you navigate uncertainty with ease? If I got it correctly?

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yup yup!

Li Chow Tang: Ease and authenticity. I think there are people who would claim that they themselves are agile, but what they’re really doing is senseless responsiveness. It’s when something crops up they would rush to respond to it. And is there a pattern to it? Is there a logic to that response? Would they feel that ease in their hearts I’m not so sure. But I think agility is really being in control. Feeling at peace with yourself, with what you’re doing because you have the bigger picture.

Li Chow Tang: You know exactly how you should be adjusting to different situations and having the authenticity to be honest with yourself. Like, what’s good about the process. What’s not so good about the process. What can I learn from this mistake? And then adjusting myself to better meet future situations. So, I agree with your definition of agility.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: I noticed that the word you use is at peace. That peace of mind. The feeling that I can go to sleep properly tonight. I wouldn’t have like nightmare. Oh, I made a decision today. Is it correct? Will I regret? And I think you rightly pointed out that it is not about just being quick and be the first one to respond. It’s not about that. It is about being in control. And if I need more time, I need more information. I’m gonna find those. I’m gonna take my time to find that critical information instead of jumping into the situation and act out of impulse. That’s a very good way of explaining the agile is not being number one.

Li Chow Tang: Yeah. And actually you reminded me there is another model, (Lominger) and that’s learning agility. It’s one of my favorite mental models. I think the ability to learn from mistakes, from experiences and quickly applying that learning back to future work. I think that’s gonna be very important for everyone in the world, especially going forward post COVID. I’m sure there are a lot of overlaps with leadership agility, and I think that’s what’s needed.

Li Chow Tang: How do we be authentic with ourselves? Be honest that, what went well and what didn’t go so well, and then drawing that take away back into whatever we do going forward. I think to me that would be the the ultimate in agility.

Humility in Learning Agility

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Right. One more thing that came up strongly was I don’t know if humility is the right word to describe it because there is that, I will own up to the bad choices.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: If I have made a not so good choice or in the process, I’m gonna own up to it. I’m gonna take a responsibility. I’m gonna take this learning test and fail fast. I’m gonna take this learning and I’m gonna make it better the next time. So there’s no pride involved, which I think is kind of a big thing, especially in our Asian society. And if we work in organizations with very thick hierarchies, a lot of levels.

Li Chow Tang: And I think that goes back to the leader versus follower paradox as well. When there is that leader versus follower kind of hierarchy there will be some lack of humility involved. I think once we become humble and we see things as well. I do know, quite a few things, but my direct reports or my peers also know quite a few things. And how can we all work together and leveraging each other’s strengths to get the best result for the organization overall. I think that’s where humility plays a very important part.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: So it’s not just a competency thing. It goes much deeper than. There is the values, personal values. And when you talk about whether you are at peace with the decisions. A lot of time, it’s whether it sits right with a set of values or not. So we really need to address that as well.

How COVID-19 is the Greatest Reset for HR

Chuen Chuen Yeo: So I’m wondering, in these special times how is the COVID 19 situation changing the way you conduct your business as an HR person and leading teams, or even meeting the various needs?

Li Chow Tang: I’m not sure whether I have the answers, but one thing I’m glad about COVID is that I think COVID whacked away all past legacy structures, past mental models. It’s allowing us to start on a clean slate. How many times have we tried to drive change and transformation? And then people say no, that’s not how we do it here. You’re going to, disrupt a lot of things. You’re going to mess up everybody’s work arrangements, emotions. But COVID gave us this reset, and then we’ve had such a long period staying at home. So, whoever had notions of how business should be conducted. Whoever thought that HR should be done in a particular way.

Li Chow Tang: I think they probably don’t hold onto those traditional thinking that much now. So that’s one thing I’m glad because that allows us to start on a clean slate. And so I’m going to take advantage of that because that allows us to be agile, right? That allows us to be very focused on what our customers really need or what the new normal is, and then adjusting the organization. Adjusting our practices in an agile way to respond to those new situations. So that’s how I think about agility in the new normal.

Employees of the Future Need New HR Thought Processes

Chuen Chuen Yeo: That’s good. A lot of optimism looking out for the opportunities in this period. And how do you think the needs of teams, of employees have changed in this situation?

Li Chow Tang: That’s a good question. I think there are a lot of people who never wanted to work from home. Now, wanting to work from home. There are many people who thought that it was good to separate work from personal life. Now probably thinking that, Hey, maybe there’s a chance for that integration or that blending to happen. And they probably want more of that. And there will be people who wanna work virtually like what we have seen in Twitter’s case in Facebook’s case, that could be an up surge in employees wanting to just not come into office because they could work from the comforts of their home or be close to where they want to be.

Li Chow Tang: So I think that’s going to put an immense pressure on HR practitioners like myself to rethink. How do we work? What does the office of the future look like? How would supervisors measure the contributions of their direct reports, and how does that impact their performance reviews? How do we build teams when there are groups of workers permanently located elsewhere. I think those are very interesting thought experiments or challenges for me personally.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: It’s sounds very exciting. Humans have shown that we are able to be resilient and that we can be accountable, we can do our jobs without showing up in the office and telling everybody, Hey, I’m here to do my job.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yeah, we can be more in control of our own time, our attention, and still be responsible to all parts of our lives.

Li Chow Tang: Yeah, and going back to what I just said is one of the biggest problems that leaders have, right? Which is delegating and empowering. In such a situation, we have no choice, but to delegate more. Empower more. And then for employees to discover how they manage themselves for their bosses not to be just next door. I think that would’ve brought very different mindset to many employees, and I think that’s good. I think it’s good.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: So sounds like you are happier with the changes.

Li Chow Tang: Right now I’m only seeing the positive side. I hope I am not missing on the negatives.

An Advice to Aspiring Leaders: Welcome Paradoxes as Enablers

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yeah. So I want to ask you, what’s your advice to veteran and aspiring leaders out there. Well, probably those in the HR field, looking at reality for the next, I don’t know, two years.

Li Chow Tang: I can share my perspective, what I hope to do myself and what I hope my HR team would do together with me. And goes back to your book, agility and paradoxes. I think one thing that’s really important is to welcome paradoxes. Rather than to see as it’s so hard to balance between two extremes, but to welcome and see them as an opportunity for me to transform myself.

Li Chow Tang: This is an opportunity to raise my game to a higher level. How can I figure out how to manage that paradox, navigate that paradox? I think if we have that mindset, we would end up being very agile. Doing the right thing for our customers. Doing the right things for ourselves, actually also. And, that’s what I intend to do with myself and with my team.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: You pointed out one thing that is key, actually, it’s a mindset shift. We need a mindset shift instead of seeing paradox as the enemy, how about seeing paradoxes as our enablers, our friends, that we should be excited. Oh, wow! That’s another possible way of doing things, and it’s right as well, and let’s take a look and be curious about it.

Li Chow Tang: Yeah. Yeah. Oh you mentioned the word curiosity. I think that’s one of my favorite mindset or qualities. I think if we are humble and curious, we would go very far and that will help us learn, adapt to the new normal.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Sure. Li Chow, because you talk about mindset shift, right? How do you intend to shift mindset of those whom you work with.

Li Chow Tang: I think what I would probably do is going back to Edgar Scheine, one of my idols to not think about how do I shift the mindset, but think about how I can help. I think if I feel strongly that if I start that place, I would figure out how to probably achieve my agenda of shifting mindsets as well as helping them and ultimately that’s the best for both of us. And so, I think that would be where my starting point, think about how I could help.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: I feel very much for what you just said. It is that strong intention to serve others, right? Yeah. Yes. I’m not converting people. I’m not trying to prove that they are inferior or whatever. It’s not a competition, but how do I shift that mindset by having a true heart to serve?

Li Chow Tang: Totally agree. I think that’s a good word to sum what I’m thinking.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: That’s wonderful. Thank you, Li Chow for sharing your insights with us. It was indeed a great conversation. And thanks again for your support.

Li Chow Tang: Oh, thank you for having me. Thank you for having written the book, because I think it’s given me some things to think about. Some ways to reframe my mind. And thank you for having me on this conversation, because I think you have just reinforced what I’ve learned from the book. Thank you.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Thank you. Let’s stay in touch.

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