Workforce management during transformational times

Lim Zhi Rong, Regional HR Business Partner at Unilever, shares strategies and practical tips on how HR can drive commitment during transitional periods.

Transformation seems to be the latest buzzword in the corporate scene.

In a speech that Minister of Manpower Lim Swee Say made at the International Management Action and Singapore Management Consulting Awards in October last year, he said transformation was an important process in the life cycle of any organisation, industry and economy. Only through transformation can we ride the waves of opportunity, instead of being submerged by the waves of change. This way, we prevent stagnation and decline in the shorter term, and sustain growth in the longer term.

The government also announced the Industry Transformation Programme during Budget 2016.

This is an initiative that seeks to transform more than 20 sectors in Singapore to help drive productivity and innovation, invest in skills and promote sectoral manpower planning.

In March 2016, I participated in the HR Network Forum held at LinkedIn’s Asia-Pacific Headquarters office alongside other progressive HR thought leaders. I made the point that companies don’t go through restructuring today. They go through transformation for tomorrow.

Business partnering during transformational times

In light of this context, it is critical for HR to build up capabilities in “Transformation Business Partnering”.

HR leaders can ask themselves some questions, including: Is the company at a stage of focusing on accelerating growth and investing heavily on previously untapped markets?

Or, is the company going through a turnaround business situation to save a business that is not delivering against targeted top line revenue growth?

Understanding the “latest business status” is key to comprehending what kind of business partnering is required.

In an accelerating growth scenario, the focus could be on identifying talent strategies for entering new markets, scaling up recruitment and integrating new employees for the following year.

In a turnaround scenario, the focus could be on rallying employees’ morale and supporting business leaders to undertake difficult decisions on personnel.

HR needs to stay abreast of the latest business status to be a vital and relevant part of the organisation.

Transition coaching

During transformational times, companies are likely to make a significant number of personnel changes and talent appointments. Some examples include: Did the company promote someone internally to take on a larger role? Did the talent acquisition team recruit an external director for a commercial leadership role? Are selected employees taking on regional roles for the first time due to the transformation? These are classic examples of career transitions for employees going through an organisational change.

HR can proactively map out and identify the individuals who are going through career transitions, and provide specific coaching for them. Business leaders who are going through career transitions tend to fall into an action imperative trap and look at solving only low-hanging fruit problems in the early stages of their moves in a bid to establish credibility quickly.

They react quickly because they think it is perceived as decisiveness, especially when speed is of the essence to win in the marketplace.

However, it is important for HR to counsel business leaders that it is more important to understand the new ways of working, and invest time to know the team and think for the long haul.

In such instances, HR can be a trusted transition coach, partnering business leaders and coaching them on the common pitfalls for anyone going through a career transition as well as the positive actions one can take to accelerate learning.

This is in-house executive coaching with a huge impact!

Driving commitment

I read the book by Price Pritchett entitled Firing up Commitment during Organizational Change with great interest, and I love the part where the author explains that in times of organisational change, loyalty can be outdated and high morale may be unrealistic.

What companies need and can do is to drive commitment. Employees may go through the change curve during transformational times and experience denial first, then fear, and then acceptance before arriving at “commitment”. The good news is that business and HR leaders can help employees arrive at that commitment stage faster.

Firstly, businesses have to need their people. Let your staff know and feel that they are valued even more so in times of transformation. These are times when people can shine, demonstrate their agility, and prove that they are able to contribute in a fiscally challenging macroeconomic environment. It adds to their learning and their résumé. It is akin to a badge of honour; a feather added to their caps.

Next, it is important for leaders to have and demonstrate empathy during such times. Feel what your employees are feeling as though their feelings are your own. Leaders with high empathy are able to see the world through employees’ eyes and share their perspectives. Leaders can help employees find the right phrases to express their feelings and give them a voice to express the support they need at work.

Last but not least, be the safety net for your people. Build trust by letting your people know that they should continue to have the courage to act and innovate. Transformational times call for people to step up, rise to the challenge and push for innovation to break the bottlenecks of limited resources.

Choose to invest efforts and promote commitment with your workforce during any organisational change. Business and HR leaders can lead the way to generate that much needed dose of commitment.


I would like to end with this great quote from Price Pritchett: “Some quit and leave. Others quit and stay. Their names are still on the payroll but their hearts don’t come to work. Re-recruit everyone you have decided to keep. Generate commitment”.

We can grow together in transformational times.

About the author

Lim Zhi Rong is the Regional HR Business Partner at Unilever. He was previously the Regional HR Business Lead for the Asia-Pacific region with Mondelēz International, the world’s largest global snacking company and makers of Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolates, Oreo Biscuits and many other global brands.

Prior to Mondelēz, Lim first started his career with Singapore’s state-owned investment holding company, Temasek Holdings, where he was the HR business partner for the Investment Group. He subsequently joined The Linde Group where he took on a Regional Talent Management role in Singapore and a Country HR Leadership role in the Philippines. Lim was also shortlisted as one of the finalists in the Best HR Leader category during the 2016 HRM Awards.


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