Q&A: “Asian multinationals won’t succeed without strong HR”

21 January 2016

Author: Kate Whitehead

Q&A: “Asian multinationals won’t succeed without strong HR”

Knowing where decisions should be made is the key to going global, says Shanthi Flynn, former Walmart HR leader turned consultant

It’s a rare HR leader who can bring two radically divergent perspectives to their work. But Shanthi Flynn’s career bridging both east and west – as well as her experience of several very different businesses – means she is already in huge demand, just months into a fully fledged career as a business consultant and academic.
Flynn spent a decade working for Ford in its flagship British plant in Dagenham, where the UK’s equal pay movement was famously born. She focused on succession planning, organisation development and industrial relations in a notoriously tough environment, before spending seven years at retailer Boots in an international HR director role. After moving to Hong Kong to serve as HR director for AS Watson Group, she joined Walmart as senior VP for HR in Asia and today runs her own HR consultancy, as well as leading an executive education programme at Ivey Business School and undertaking a range of directorships. People Management found out how she thinks HR has grown over the past three decades, and where she sees it going next.

Becoming more strategic is seen as the holy grail for HR. How does it get there?
HR’s role is partly about support and partly about being a leader of thinking. Too often, HR professionals see themselves as purely offering support when in fact they are strategic decision makers. When I worked for Ford in the 1980s, I was a business partner even then, at a very early stage of my career, because nothing happened in a car plant without it coming through industrial relations first. You felt you were at the front end of the business all of the time. Having been brought up with that, I’ve never thought any other way.
How well is HR doing at moving away from the purely functional?
You have pockets of brilliance – companies where HR is a key strategic player, and the HR director is making a contribution to the executive team. That can come in part through taking on responsibility for other functional areas such as communications. I find the Mandarin Oriental Group interesting because it is an Asian group born in Hong Kong that has expanded out of Asia. It has realised that, to expand a multinational from an Asian base, you’ve got to have HR at your strategic centre.
Having spent 13 years in Asia, how would you benchmark HR capability here against others parts of the world?
You’ve got a lot of multinationals here that have brought with them considerable amounts of HR expertise, and you’ve got many local companies that have learnt quickly from some of the older practices that have come out of the developed markets. But in many ways it’s still a mixed bag.
What brings it all together is that organisations without HR at the centre of their expansion will fail. HR understands that where and how you make decisions is vital. Do you globalise everything? Do you give your markets complete autonomy? What’s interesting now is that, if you look at growing local businesses, they don’t go hell for leather, storming around in the way that western multinationals have tried to in Asia.
Are HR professionals also sometimes guilty of neglecting their own development?
If HR sees itself as a support function, it will only invest in itself as a support function. If it sees itself as part of the strategic machinery of an organisation, it will invest in itself to oil the wheels. If you value your strategic contributions to an organisation, you understand it really well – this is how the business makes money, this is how the people drive that revenue and this is the part that HR plays in helping those people drive that revenue. If you don’t understand those connections, you are never going to make it big.
How do HR directors make themselves more essential to their businesses and ensure leaders understand the value of HR?
I’ve been growing leaders for 20 years in Asia and Europe. When I put the HR executive leadership programme [at Ivey Business School] together, it was mostly out of frustration. Most of the people I’ve taught had developed functional technical knowhow that they were relying on to succeed. What they needed was to improve their leadership skillset so that as they became more senior they understood how they play a part in the holistic running of an organisation. When a lot of functional leaders hit the C-suite, for example, they don’t know enough about strategy or finance, how to make decisions around P&L or how that connects to the strategy of a company.
Is there a single leadership style that works every time?
I recently worked for one of the best leaders I’ve ever come across – I won’t mention his name. What made him successful was that he immediately engaged with the front end of the business and knew the organisation inside out and upside down. There wasn’t anything that could get past him – he had such an enormous business knowledge. There’s been a bit of a fad over the last 10 years to appoint CEOs with no business knowledge in a particular sector, but it rarely works.
Another component of success for me is what I call authentic integrity – a true value system that ties in with the organisation. Doing the right things in the right way. CEOs who are operating and working as hard as they expect their people to work have to get some balance. They often work too hard, get stressed and become erratic. The best leaders are balanced, objective, inclusive – they will take a view before they share it. The worst will talk incessantly and not ask a question of someone else. It’s important that they listen before speaking, so they know that when they make a decision they’re making it with all the data.