22: Learning and Development Professional, Syukri Azman on Trust and Human-Centered Leadership

This is a new series on Leaders People Love, where we continue to speak to diverse leaders from across industries and experience levels.

Being laid off is tough emotionally and financially. It brings uncertainty and instability. It’s crucial to cushion oneself during this disruption by building a support system, focusing on personal development, and exploring new opportunities to adapt and thrive in the face of change. In episode 2 of the Leaders People Love series, Syukri Azman, a Leadership and Development Professional, emphasizes the importance of being human-centered as a leader, connecting with people on both a professional and personal level.

Connect with Syukri Azman at https://www.linkedin.com/in/syukriazman/

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Syukri: One day you ever lead your own big team, beyond the numbers, beyond the processes, beyond the policy, connect with the people that you lead through their heart and mind, irregardless. I know it sounds very cliche, but having worked with so many leaders, having the privilege to have conversation with various organizational leaders outside of my work space, it’s always about how do people feel about you when you leave the room as a leader? Do they feel, oh! Thank God he left. I wouldn’t want to be that person.

Chuen Chuen: Welcome to agile leaders conversations. This is a podcast where we invite human centered professionals and leaders to share what it means to lead in today’s workspaces. From their personal stories, find out the greatest learning that guides them through disruption and forge a better way forward. Their insights will maximize your leadership potential and unlock possibilities for a better future.

My name is your Yeo Chuen Chuen. I’m the author of Leaders People Love, a guide for agile leaders to creating great workplaces and happy employees. I’m delighted to have you listening today.

 My guest today is Syukri Azman, head of learning and development. Syukri is also a content creator as Syukeats, whose mission is to help brands grow in their brand awareness and engagements through simple and sustainable content creation.

Welcome, Syukri. Tell us about yourself, your name, what you do, and why you do what you do?

Syukri: Thanks Chuen Chuen. People would know me as Syukri Azman. If people see me on other social media platform, people know me as Syuk Eats.

So it’s a different persona on different platforms. On a professional level, I’m a learning and development trained professional. What I do is that basically, I worked with organization partners, build up their learning and development framework, run training program. Anything in learning and development related.

But also, I call it a pet project. Something I enjoy doing on the side is I have my own channel where I talk about food. Yes! Anything about food? Initially it started off during covid. I call it an accidental content creator. So yeah.

A learning development professional by train but a content creator by interest.

Chuen Chuen: This is where we need to push our lives towards, right? We can have a day professional identity and then something that is driven by passion and interest. You are accidental content creator. I’m an accidental podcaster.

Syukri: That makes the two of us.

Chuen Chuen: Yes. It’s such a rewarding journey because I’m sure you learn a lot of new stuff along the way. Something I never imagined before.

Syukri: Initially, I started off because people like my personal content, why not you keep it public. Anyway, I started doing it for public. I realized that people are actually biting. People actually consuming those content. Then I realize that it’s quite fun. And then, I don’t only produce content, but I can actually train people how to produce content. So that’s something that I actually do with some of the companies. I actually train them to create their own marketing materials.

So it’s kinda blended a bit, right? I do learning program, professionally. And I try to create some programs like this for creative works. So, usually the unplanned thing that has quite a beautiful outcome.

Chuen Chuen: The opportunity to gain skills and discover the potential. You are right. Like being in L&D, we are about growing people, right? So when we grow people, give them different exposure so that they can have different skills.

Let’s say personal branding for leaders. How can you blend your professional image and personal persona. And how you have demonstrated as the L&D professional or Syuk Eats. The personal persona now made public? The blending of the spaces can create a lot of potential for us.

Syukri: That’s where it gets interesting. Initially was like, would it actually cause a bit of disruption to the branding, but I realize sometimes we think too much. Let’s just do it with the clear intent. Individually, professionally, what’s my intent on putting myself out there? And on the creative side, what’s my intent on putting myself out there?

Chuen Chuen: We can have our professional identity, personal slash public identity. Can it be symbiotic helping each other or will we make it disruptive? And I think for the listeners tuning into the podcast, this probably will be a very interesting topic. Because nowadays we see the workforce changing.

People are no longer staying in the same job for a very long amount of time. It’s about evolution. It’s about pushing yourself, challenging your limits. Bringing new skill set, new perspectives into the picture. Then we become more and more unique. There are multitudes of identities that can come together and create magic or create disruption. So looking forward to the rest of our conversation today.

Content creators are also leaders in their own right, and also looking for L&D perspective. Whatever you educate your target audience about, it also shapes their leadership identity. This whole series of podcasts is talking about how leaders can make workplaces better by becoming a leader that people will love.

So I’m curious Syukri, who is the first person that comes to your mind when I talk about a leader people love?

Syukri: Before I go to that, I just wanna say that your podcast focus, it’s something that’s much needed in this age and time. Because a lot of time, as people climb the ladder, people are so focused on certain things like, how can I make the organization work? And then they forget the element of leaders that people love.

Going back to your question, the person that comes to my mind, is someone that I worked with, that I report into. I have never called him boss actually. He’s my manager. He is my leader. A very good friend. It’s Ian Choo. If you search him on LinkedIn. He’s a leader that turned out to be a good friend after.

The way he carries himself, people always call him the Minister for Foreign Affairs. He needs to keep peace with everyone. So naturally that makes him loved by everyone. Oh, this person is very nice.

Chuen Chuen: So the way he carries himself, I can see how you speak about him fondly. He’s the leader turned friend. I have some leaders who are like that too. Of course, I call them boss, but I call them boss fondly. So I’m curious, in this case for Ian, what was it about him that turned him into a friend?

Syukri:  It is just being human. If I were to quote some example. The kind of conversation that we have. The kind of understanding when I say like hey, I probably need a bit more time with my work. Sometimes my reason might be the most illogical reason why I need more time. And he would just, ah, yeah, I was there. Don’t worry about it. But please just make sure you… so the conversation is just very real. And on top of that, he understands that you are probably struggling a bit with your work. Instead of trying to impose more timeline, he’s the kind that will say, is there anything I can help with?

And I feel that’s something, if I work for anyone, just a basic gesture. Not because I need that help, but sometimes it’s good that the leader is there for me.

I think another layer would be the fact that we don’t just talk about work. We have our after office, our kind of chill session. I think things just blend in very well for us. So we are in sync in that sense. We are just lucky that we are in sync.

Chuen Chuen: Beautiful experience. How Ian has left an impression is very simple- just be human. Like leaders, managers in the workplace. You do not need to be Superman, super woman. You can bring your emotions. And what I hear so clearly is that kindness. And also trusting you that even if the reason is quite illogical, that’s okay. Okay, I hear you. So what can I do to help? And there’s no blaming. Trying to thumb you down just because he’s the boss.

Believing that whatever you have promised, you’ll deliver. And, that’s a complexity in all our lives, right? We all have different circumstances in our lives. And sometimes we cannot always be like 10 out of 10 performance every single day.

Syukri: Exactly.

Chuen Chuen: And when those things happen when you have the courage to let him know that, Hey, I don’t have the best reason for you, but I’ll get it done. So there’s that trust. There’s that trust and that message that he has your back.

Syukri: You highlighted the word trust. That’s something that really left an impression on me. That I told myself, I am gonna be here for a while. In my context as a millennial, a while can maybe two years, three years. I’m not talking about 10 years.

The word trust, as an L&D professional. Just to give a bit of backstory, my past experiences in L&D has always been moving around different industries. I was doing L&D in EduTech, and then I went to logistics. I was doing L&D in startup. So when I went to Under Armor, when I was working with Ian, that was my very first stint in working in retail customer service oriented L&D.

So it’s very new to me. I never used under armor product before. I wasn’t a sporty person. The keyword is wasn’t, so technically, I wasn’t the most passionate person when it comes to the product, to be very honest. About three months into the job, logically speaking, still very raw because I’m technically new to the industry of retail and sports.

The first two months was a lot about building material, shadowing and all that, so I haven’t really conducted my own session. Even if I did was more of core facilitating the session with Ian. We were supposed to be traveling to Malaysia for my first overseas training for the Malaysia team. At about 2:00 AM, I receive a text from Ian. We’re supposed to go in at about 6:00 AM. He will be picking me up. He texted me, Hey, Syuk, can you go by yourself? I need to bring my wife to the hospital because in labor. I can’t say no.

First, he needs to bring the wife to the hospital. Second, is it a test for me? I’ve never done overseas training. Technically, I’ve never taken a training on my own at that point in time for under armour. Then I told him, look, lemme just do this. Lemme just handle this. And then he was like, is there anything I can support you with? Despite being at that particular moment that he should just focus on his wife. He was like, is there anything I can support you with? And I just told him, Ian, you just focus on your wife. I will handle everything. And at that point in time, all the logistics for the training was inside his car. So I have zero materials with me because I don’t drive. I got no logistics. I got no materials at all. And even the training assessment, all was inside his car.

Then I’m like, how am I gonna do this, man? And it was about 5:00 AM by then. Then I’m like, you know what, I’m gonna wake up early, take a taxi down to the custom. I went to the Causeway custom, crossed over. I sat at a early morning because it wasn’t open yet, but the seats was outside. I sat there, opened up my laptop. I created 10 survey questions on Google form for the assessment. So I created my own set of assessment on Google form. The next thing I need to figure out, how do I get to the training location? I get to the training location. The staff and the teammates were all waiting down there, all on time.

I conducted the training. And then after that, I came back and all he said was, I’m pretty sure it went very well for you. And what strike me the most was, he did not dive too deep on the details of how was it being done.

Because to me, it’s a way for him to show “I trust you”. Despite whatever happened, I’m pretty sure you can take and run with it. Of course another perspective where people will see it as, oh, he just literally throw you in the middle of the sea for you to survive.

 The power of trust is very critical, and when it comes to trust, it’s not just about talking. Walking the talk and make them realize that you really trust them throughout the entire process.

Chuen Chuen: Yeah! Not only saying that he trusts you, he also assures you that you got this. After that he doesn’t go into the details. Forget all the micromanaging because nobody can thrive under the micromanager. I’m curious, in the moment where he called you at 5:00 AM. Syuk, you need to do this on your own. My wife is in labor. Was there a moment of self-doubt?

Syukri: A little bit.

Little bit right? I’m sure- a complete nightmare for a trainer. What happened to that? To the self-doubt?

The moment I left home. And the moment I sat down at KFC in the morning where it’s super silent, I’m like, you know what? They do not know what they do not know. And they do not know what I’m gonna deliver as well. So I’m just gonna focus what I know and just make it work. And I told myself, regardless of what happens, I took the opportunity to create relationship with the people rather than focus on the materials. So, I took that one and a half hours rather than so fixated by, if I don’t deliver this, they’re gonna feed back me as a very bad trainer.

I forget about all that. I focus on the fact that I’m gonna be there. I want to know more about them. That’s it.

Chuen Chuen: So there is that switch in you. Why I ask this question is a lot of the professionals I work with, they have self-doubt. I think it’s part of our DNA. And I believe in that moment when you knew you were entrusted to go to Malaysia on your own as a three month old newbie in L&D, just being trusted alone. And you knew that there’s only one outcome, which is you must succeed. And that puts self doubt in second place. And immediately you got into a resourceful mode where you looked at, if Ian trusts me, I’m sure I can do it.

And what’s my strength? My strength is build relationship.

Syukri: Exactly.

And I can see you have this winning personality. We have never met in real life, but you’re so easy to talk to.

Chuen Chuen: I also had a personal experience with it before because as a kid I have low self-esteem. So it was very difficult for me when I started my business. And this year I met a trainer. He’s like a mentor. I never expected that they would approach me to do other programs together with them. I was a participant in their program and they invited me to join their team. I went into the program with zero agenda. I just wanted to get better in what I’m doing. And then he said, oftentimes we see potential in people before they even see in themselves.

And that is what leaders need to do more of. Trust your people to know what is the best thing to do. Of course, I think your prior training, your first three months with Ian, give him confidence that you got this. So just tap on your existing strengths, your resources. You can make it happen. Don’t micromanage because I think it will stifle the life out of people.

Syukri: You mentioned about sometimes people around us see the value in us even before we see it on ourselves I like to touch on that point a little bit. I graduated from my secondary school, 2011. A very young secondary school boy who did not so well. A lady by the name of Michelle Au reached out to me and she was like, do you wanna be our freelance facilitator for a youth program? This was that pivoting moment for me that kicked off my entire journey to be a trainer today. Because at that point in time, nobody in the right frame of mind, any training company would engage a 16 year old boy to do a youth training program to coach other youth.

So, she engaged me and she was like, Hey! Come on board. We’ll train you, and you can partner with us. You can do those youth camp. 10 years of my experience doing training in all sorts of organization all started from that very pivoting moment when Michelle trusted my ability.

 I’m quite thankful even till today. She was my mentor. She was my boss. She was my colleague. And we are friends till today. So, someone that sparked the opportunity. Someone that realize your potential before anyone else. Where I’m today, I would say I got to give her the most credit. 

Chuen Chuen: Did you ever ask her what did she see in you to offer you the job?

Syukri: So the funny thing , when I was in secondary school, she was a trainer that was engaged to train us back in school. I was a student leader that was trained by her.

Maybe at that point in time she realized that this guy, he’s a student leader. He can do the job. I can’t remember exactly, so maybe that’s a good question I need to ask her. But she realized the potential in me, and at that point in time I was like, part-time job, extra money, right? But I didn’t realize the part-time job turns out to be a career today.

Chuen Chuen: And that shapes your career, your life path, and who you are as a person. And for listeners, this is such an important moment. Because one of my pet peeves is hearing managers who are still trying to figure their way out say things like, oh! It’s okay to make mistakes. We will learn. Yeah, there’s truth in that. But not every mistake is recoverable. That one we must be very careful everything we say, or do, or we imply to the people whom we lead can change somebody’s life. And in this case, Michelle Au saw the best part of you through your growing years. She knew that you are a person who can do the job. Who has the potential. Who is teachable. And you see now your career path is so different all because of her. And I suspect, it’s also the same strength that allowed you to go to Johor Baru to deliver the program on your own. The ability to build relationships.

So, I’m curious, what’s something you have learned about leadership that you try to pass on in everything that you do today?

Syukri: This gonna sound very cliche, but something that I hold very dear to myself. I told myself, if one day you ever lead your own big team, beyond the numbers, beyond the processes, beyond the policy, connect with the people that you lead through their heart and mind, irregardless. I know it sounds very cliche, but having worked with so many leaders, having the privilege to have conversation with various organizational leaders outside of my work space, it’s always about how do people feel about you when you leave the room as a leader? Do they feel, oh! Thank God he left. I wouldn’t want to be that person.

I wanna be that person, where I’m in a room with my people that they feel very comfortable. So it’s that human relationship. I think that’s very critical for me. Whether that trait is a hindering trait for anyone to climb the ladder.

Chuen Chuen: Whether being very human centered hinders us from climbing faster. Let’s put that aside. I want to unpack a bit more about what you said earlier. Full of gold. This metaphor about what happens when you leave the room.

In my work, when I coach leaders to improve their personal brand, a lot of times things start off with the 360 feedback that they are not very happy about. Saying, oh! Why are people misunderstanding me? They think, I’m so bad. I’m micromanager. So I’ll put them through a leadership branding exercise. What would people say about you when you’re not in the room? And they come up with three adjectives. And now you give me new ideas. It’s about being consistent. Showing up as a human being. Connect with others in their hearts. There’s this very famous line. People will forget what you say to them, but they will never forget how you make them feel.

Now the second point. Being human centered. I feel then this is where leading with relevance needs to come into the discussion. The old script that I’m observing is that people feel like we have to be very task oriented. It’s all about numbers, it’s all about results. And by hook or by crook, we will bulldoze over these people if we have to squeeze the results out of you. And that is a script that is not serving leaders today.

The leaders I speak with, they’re uncomfortable about leading with vulnerability. They seem to think that if I show it as a full human, it will hinder their career progression. But what I’m wondering from your perspective as a younger millennial, as a connector who can help leaders bridge the gap and connect with the Gen Zs, what is your take on bringing your full self to work? Would it hinder your career?

Syukri: I don’t wish to put any negative or positive connotation to any generation. Whoever we are leading will then take advantage of our human-centricness. Because for some people, probably they’re very new to the workforce and then they see, my boss or my leader is like a friend to me. Okay, I can play around with certain things. Because that’s how the culture is. So it’s a friend thing. Because of this whole friend thing. They can go beyond certain limits and boundaries, but for those leaders who wanna focus on human-centric leadership, their intent is, how can I strike that balance without people stepping on the boundaries or line? I feel that to your question. I don’t have an answer to it, but I think it boils down to, are we making it clear that while we are being nice, we are also being clear on what is the organizational goals that we are trying to achieve together? There’s a difference between a friend and human-centric leader.

Chuen Chuen: So some people will say, I’m your boss. I’m your leader. I’m your friend. Some will say, I’m your boss, but I’m not your friend. I’m just a very friendly boss. It’s okay as long as it works for the people that you’re leading. So understanding what drives and motivates your workforce is very important. You are right. There are people who might take advantage of our kindness and being kind doesn’t mean that we are soft.

I want to get your assessment from L&D, from the other work that you are doing now. What do you feel is the state of the workplace?

Syukri: From a learning organizational perspective, there’s a lot more emphasis about mental health, about mindfulness amidst layoff, amids t restructuring. More emphasis about the mental capability of the organization.

Chuen Chuen: Mental capability. This is also where I feel all leaders, no matter what your function is, not just HR leaders. Everyone has a part to play. We are in an ecosystem together. I also love that you mentioned learning organization. The world is learning together, right? We’re in this constant state of flux, structuring, restructuring, lots of uncertainty, trying to optimize, reoptimize. And organizations then need to pay more attention. Have they built their mental capacity to keep up with the pace of change?

From your observation, do you feel the mental capability of organizations is high, low, medium, or it varies?

Syukri: I think it varies. Nobody knows when such downtime’s gonna happen because all of us would think that, okay, I got my job and I’m gonna be here. But when such things happen, it’s probably the first time ever for the senior leaders or the middle managers even. So I think they are equally impacted. But it’s an ongoing process, and I feel certain structure needs to be in place to support this to cushion the impact. There’s only so much a leader can do. When such things happen, what are some of the things that organization could do to cushion this so that the impact will not be so detrimental for anyone? The impact is gonna be there.

It’s gonna be painful, regardless. There’s no such thing as zero impact. The impact is gonna be there. But it’s how to cushion it to reduce it to the very bare minimum.

Chuen Chuen: Yeah. Would you be open to share how you cushioned your experience?

Syukri: Yeah sure. The funny thing was this, we received an email in Singapore at midnight, because it was sent from the US site. I dunno why was I even checking my email. I was just playing with my laptop. Then the email pop up.

So the email was like, you’re gonna receive an email from the CHRO. It will be titled either you’re impacted or you’re not impacted. If the title says you’re impacted means you’re laid off. If you’re not impacted, means you’re not laid off. So, I got an email a couple of minutes after that. I’m impacted.

And it was a very fast process. So when the whole thing happened, to cut the story short, we were informed with regards to what are some of our severance package. On top of that, they worked with couple of organization to manage the impact.

For example, for us in Singapore, they actually partnered with WSG to have a career support. So you can just reach out. It’s a collaboration. And I was quite surprised that happens. And then they partnered with a private entity where this organization supports us in a lot of ways. First, a free corporate photo shoot, a free resume reviews. A lot of things. There was a lot of support.

But beyond that, there were another layer of support within the people themselves. And it was initiated by those people who were impacted. They created a private channel, and then they rally all of them were impacted into that particular channel,

and then we input all our job experience, and then they put it into one Excel spreadsheet, and then we circulate this Excel spreadsheet to whoever HR out there. So any organization can just look at the entire list. Who are the engineers, and if they wanna hire, they can reach out directly.

So that was one layer. There was a very strong support system within the people themselves. But personally, beyond external support, how I cushion my own impact? To be honest, I told myself, I’m not going to look for a job immediately. It was a period where there were so many people being laid off. Meaning, my competition is very high, right? HR will have a lot of options out there. The last thing I want is to go into an organization being low ball They’ll say, ah, yeah, I can pay him any price. He will gonna accept it because he needs a job.

 Secondly, I wanted to take the time to build something that I enjoy all my creative work, which I put a pause. So I told myself, maybe it’s a time for me to go back to my creative work, grow my channel again, connect with more people.

 So I went back to doing my creative work. That’s where my Syuk Eats channel, I accelerated a little bit. Then I partnered with other organization to manage my own emotional wellbeing as well. 

Chuen Chuen: That’s very wise as well. We don’t want to make the wrong move in the time where it hit you when you didn’t expect. Why the email came out at midnight? I also cannot fathom. It’s like going for a diversity and inclusion talk at 4:00 AM my time. It’s not very inclusive. I understand the various time zones. If we know the target audience and you’re expecting them to show up, cater a more decent time. I’m sure after you read the email, you didn’t sleep.

Syukri: Yeah. Everyone was messaging each other. And then my ex-colleagues in the UK and the US side was already like, Hey, let’s jump on a call among themselves, but of course not me. Their assumptions is I’m already asleep.

Chuen Chuen: I’m glad you spend time on your creative side because that fills you, right? That fills up your energy. Explore different opportunities. When you know it’s the right moment then it’s time to embark on that new chapter in your career, which is full of possibilities. And we never know what life can offer.

Okay, this movie is probably too old. Have you heard of Forrest Gump? Is it not your era?

Syukri: No!

Not your era.

So Forrest Gump…

What’s it about?

The actor is Tom Hanks. So he acted as a boy who has some disability, and so he has to wear like a leg brace. He cannot run. So then he’s being ostracized in school. And then he said, oh, why are people so bad to me? That sentence made famous by this movie is, life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.

Because he was like eating chocolates with his mom, and people don’t like him. He can’t find happiness because people are unkind. Then his mom always encourages him. Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna find.

 I’m hoping I can watch. Let me go ahead and check it out.

It helps you reflect on your life. And I feel in certain way, you experiencing a layoff would also make you more resilient towards the many more restructures, the changes that will happen in the workplace. Because the first thing that stops us from letting go of the past, focus on the present and move towards the future, it’s the mindset. Why is it happening to me? Life is so unfair. I don’t want this to change. And the longer we cling on to a past that is no longer true, the harder it is for people to move ahead to a brighter future, like a box of chocolates.

I think one can blame everything and anything out there, at the end of the day, it’s already in the past. You blaming it, it’s not gonna change anything right now in the future.

As hard as it is, if you need a little bit longer, take that time, but never stay put at that particular spot.

Chuen Chuen: That’s a very sound advice. So talking about leaders who can make the difference, what’s one simple thing you think every leader can do everyday to make a difference to someone?

 It’s a very simple repeatable action. I believe there’s a great leader in all of us. And it all starts with small actions.

Syukri: That’s a very good thought provoking question. I think it’s more on how do you wanna be treated? And end your day, generally check on your people. How are they doing if they need any of your support? Because most of the time, people are not willing to open up unless you step forward to extend your hand.

Chuen Chuen: That makes sense. We want to feel that we matter, right? Being in a caring, safe, supportive environment is very important. Imagine going to work every day and you’re afraid of making mistakes or, getting yelled at, or at best, maybe ignored. People cannot grow this way. And it’s a very simple thing. How are you doing? What do you need help with? Or how can I help you? I like the one you saying think about how you want to be treated. I think that applies if I go to work. That feeling of safety is probably the most important.

Syukri: Exactly. The whole idea about psychological safety. How do they feel being in that conversation with you? How do they feel when you say, you can trust me. You can open up.

Chuen Chuen: Wonderful, Syukri. It’s so good to have this conversation with you. I learned so much. I have so many new metaphors in my mind now. I’m gonna share them with my clients when I talk about the room. Thank you so much for being here, and I appreciate your honors through full sharing.

Thank you. It’s been great. Love your energy. Love your vibe. And thank you so much for this time. Thank you.

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