Partho Chakrabarti 
Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, Executive Vice President, Human Resources, Sime Darby

Towers Watson client Sime Darby is a Malaysia-based, multinational conglomerate operating in six industry sectors: plantations, property, industrial, motors, energy and utilities. Zulkifli Zainal Abidin has been with the organization for 24 years, serving as an HR executive in various Sime Darby companies. Educated at Ohio University in the U.S., he has also participated in the Harvard Senior Management Development Program.

Through Sime Darby’s rapid expansion in recent years, what has been the organization’s top HR challenge, and how are you addressing it?

It has been identifying and then placing the right people in our businesses around the world. This has been particularly challenging in emerging markets, including Vietnam and Indonesia, and in countries with fragile economies, such as Liberia, where capacity constraints are tremendous. However, we can face such challenges in developed markets like Taiwan, even with a larger available talent pool.

We are taking a two-pronged approach: filling vacancies with external talent to address the resource shortage in the short term, while working to position Sime Darby as the employer of choice for the long term.

We’re also working on succession planning to strengthen our leadership bench, as we identify our top talent at all levels. We develop our young, high-potential employees via job rotation, project exposure, coaching and classroom training. Getting our talent agenda right is key to our expansion.

How has the HR function changed during your 24 years with Sime Darby, and which change has made the greatest impact on the organization's success?

HR has evolved from being a function that merely kept records and provided administrative services to being a strategic partner in addressing the organization's business needs. Now, human capital is seen as a key to achieving our strategic business goals and sustaining growth.

Our greatest change was the 2007 merger of conglomerate Kumpulan Sime Darby with plantation giants Golden Hope Plantations and Kumpulan Guthrie. The merger of the three entities — with a combined total of more than 400 years of operations — was a transformational journey for all. We had to build a new culture and align policies, procedures and systems. We had to create one entity from three and hit the ground running, and we had no option but to succeed — quickly.

In light of the size and complexity of the post-merger organization, we realigned and reorganized our HR functions into three core components: HR Centre of Expertise (COE), HR Business Partner and HR Global Services Centre (GSC). These are interrelated and aligned to enable our HR team to work effectively across business units and functions.

We're also midway through a five-year HR transformation with three goals: foster strong individual and organizational performance; focus on talent and leadership development; and effectively identify, attract and retain needed talent.

The transformation program is supported by a string of initiatives designed to drive change and improve performance. They include a new performance management framework and competency model, talent and succession management programs, a new reward philosophy, and a learning and development program that addresses competency gaps and aligns with business needs. Capitalizing on post-merger economies of scale, we've also introduced a global shared services center and an integrated talent management system.

These initiatives have equipped the group to face the challenges of strategic and aggressive growth and expansion, and we aim to strengthen our contribution with further improvements in HR practices. We're on target to reach the major milestones of our HR road map: becoming a high-performance organization, using analytics-driven HR strategies, having a strong leadership pipeline and, most importantly, positioning Sime Darby as the employer of choice.

Sime Darby's tagline is "Developing Sustainable Futures." How have you incorporated sustainability in your people strategy?

Sustainable HR means human capital strategies and practices that enable us to build a skilled workforce, with employees who live the core values and are motivated to achieve sustainable success for the organization.

HR's greatest contributions toward developing a sustainable future for Sime Darby are:

  • Leadership development. We place strong emphasis on developing our people at all levels. Our high performers and high potentials have developmental opportunities that include classroom training, coaching, job rotation, project exposure, international assignments and more.
  • Executive training. We train our leaders in sustainability orientation, one of our seven leadership competencies. We would like every leader, from the most junior to the most senior, to participate in a sustainability project. And we're expanding this program to include our offices in Indonesia, China, Hong Kong and Thailand.
  • Succession management. We have a rigorous succession management program that includes a robust, transparent process of assessing talent to ensure we have the right people in the right position at the right time.
  • Recruitment. We recently launched our employment brand, based on our employee value proposition (EVP), which anchors our resourcing program.
  • Reward. We have revised our reward philosophy so that our average total reward/remuneration is at the top percentile of the market. It is a balanced, competitive reward program.
  • Performance management. Our performance management framework, which we call Ensuring Performance Sustainability (EPS), is used throughout the organization. The components of EPS are the alignment and linking of key performance indicators and competencies to strategic business goals, the calibration of performance against a fixed performance curve and differentiated total rewards for top performers.

How do you expect Sime Darby's employment brand to evolve over the next five years?

Our employment brand is based on our EVP attributes of growth, recognition and sustainability. These are the pillars of our HR communication and branding activities. Given that we operate in various industries, we've designed division-specific customizations of the EVP. Within the next five years, we expect that our EVP will be deeply embedded within the organization and will help us attract the kind of talent Sime Darby needs.

How does the company manage culture-related risks in its operations in various countries?

We typically seek a local person to lead the organization in each country. When we can't find the right person locally, we deploy a Malaysian leader to take the helm in the interim, and we fill the workforce with local talent as we continue our search for a local leader.

We place great importance on ensuring that the local culture and ethos are understood and respected. And we expend a considerable amount of resources to ensure that local values and norms are integrated into our organization's core values.

We're also implementing diversity and inclusion initiatives to improve our employees' awareness of the various cultures and values of the countries where we operate. We're launching these initiatives in stages, focusing on the areas of most significance in each country.

As the HR leader of a conglomerate with more than 100,000 employees, how do you ensure that your team members are effective in their roles?

We use several approaches. At the group level, we focus on developing group-wide HR frameworks, processes and policies. We solicit feedback from the various HR business partners, and we iron out issues as much as possible before implementing programs.

The professionals in our three HR components have periodic dialogues, which are vital to keeping all teams aware of any derailment in practices and sorting out impending HR operational issues. Also, the HR business partners have a matrix reporting structure to the executive vice president of Group HR. This provides both visibility and alignment between group and divisional HR practices.

We're working on up-skilling our HR team by requiring executives to attend a course on the entire spectrum of Sime Darby's HR operations. They will attend specific HR modules that are relevant to their roles. We're also identifying HR certification that will deepen our COE employees' understanding of their areas, so they can better serve as internal consultants.

What advice can you offer HR practitioners in Malaysia and around the world to help them ensure that their HR function remains effective as the business world changes?

There are several important characteristics that HR practitioners need in order to be effective.

They need to have a good understanding of the business in order to prescribe practical HR solutions, and they must be able to demonstrate clearly how HR operations affect the business. This enables HR practitioners to be trusted advisers and to help propel the organization forward. Also, they must be knowledgeable about HR practices both globally and locally, so they can tailor their advice and solutions to the local context.

HR practitioners should be able to interpret the broad range of HR data available. By analyzing trends revealed by the data, HR professionals can explore new ways of improving workers' effectiveness.

And HR must engage with the business community, proactively communicate with the businesses and seek to understand their operational issues. This is necessary in order for HR to deliver value-added services. My advice: Formulate good working relationships with the business folks.

Which of your experiences has contributed the most to your personal growth?

Without a doubt, it has been the merger of Kumpulan Sime Darby with Golden Hope Plantations and Kumpulan Guthrie. It was the largest merger ever in corporate Malaysia.

Integrating and harmonizing the different cultures and practices were key to the merger's success. I learned that perseverance and patience — along with plenty of communication with people at all levels of the three organizations — were crucial.

The merger required us to apply not only technical HR skills and knowledge, but also softer people skills. Without good people skills and effective communication, you will not be able to drive transformation. People typically resist change. To accept it, they need to know why actions are being taken, and how the actions will affect them and the organization as a whole. They also want assurance that things will be better.

This is true in any merger. The technical know-how is critical, but so is the approach one takes, particularly when 100,000 people are involved.

What aspect of your career has been the most satisfying?

Growing with Sime Darby over the last 24 years has been the most satisfying journey of my career. I'm very grateful for the opportunities I've had. It's been a challenging journey, but also very rewarding. It's very satisfying to see how much the organization has grown and to know that Sime Darby is now on par with some of the world's leading multinational companies and is one of the top employers of choice in Malaysia and the region.

How do you maintain work/life balance?

For me, it's about managing time well and setting the right frame of mind.

Time is the ever-scarce item for a corporate leader, and it's important to make time for things outside of work that are rewarding. For me, coaching and mentoring junior employees and seeing them unleash their potential is rewarding. I consider these activities as part of my work/life balance.

Of course, spending quality time with my wife and kids is important, too. When I'm able to manage my time — to fit in work, play, rest and spending quality time with my family — all things fall into place.