Career Path

A league of her own

by Ivan Cheung

Ivy Leung, director, intellectual capital and quality
Langham Place, Mongkok, Hong Kong
Photo: Lewis Wong

Highly mobile despite being seven months pregnant, Ivy Leung was on a train to mainland China for business. "My boss was worried," she says. "I wasn't."

At the time, Ms Leung was head of human resources for a petrochemical's corporate office in Hong Kong, managing a hectic schedule that covered human resources management, staff training, administration, insurance and taxation as well as issues from the company's engineering and transportation departments.

"As part of a de-centralised operation, we had to cascade directions to a cross section of factory managers in many mainland cities," Ms Leung says. "I learnt that the best way to build leadership is by offering staff my service. I consider myself a tool. As a leader, you need to show your people that you're on their side and that we are all working towards the same goals."

Nobody expected an HR practitioner to shoulder this much responsibility but Ms Leung has always had her own agenda: "HR is not a business partner, but part of the business."

Early aspirations

Ms Leung's career dates back some 30 years when she was a introverted teenager. It was this bashful disposition that drove her to take up part-time jobs at the front line, one after another. She explains that it was the experience she craved. "I must have done a dozen different jobs, from convenience store assistant to shoe sales, pager operator and factory worker. I knew I wouldn't be able to try as many jobs when it was time I entered the employment market for real," she says. "I simply love to meet people from all walks of life."

For the same reason, she chose to study hotel management at university. She found it stimulating but no more so than an internship stint at the Kowloon Hotel where an intensive job rotation schedule gave the young Ms Leung exposure to every hotel outlet and department. "It was tough," she concedes. There were tears but no thoughts of letting up. "The moment you join a company you become part of the team," she says.

Rainbow's end

Soon after graduation Ms Leung signed on with Eaton Hotel (now part of the Langham Hotels International group) as an assistant training officer — a job title that reflected her ranking but not her capability.

"In spite of my junior position, I was bold enough to pore over the AM's (assistant hotel manager) log and scrutinise departmental practices. I might have touched a nerve somewhere at times but if people allow themselves to yell at me for my assertiveness, they should also have the guts to admit to unsatisfactory practices and the courage to rectify them," she remarks. "Why should anyone feel intimidated by people of a higher rank anyway? Even when I was in primary school I had learnt to challenge orthodox practice and break hierarchical constraints."

In less than four years, Ms Leung rapidly rose up the ranks and became assistant to the hotel group's HR director. Naturally, she was not content to rest on her laurels and so she left for a job with a fast-growing broadcasting network. However, it was her next appointment with the petrochemical firm that gave her the biggest thrill.

"After only a few months on the job, I was sent to Chengdu to help restructure the company's joint venture into a fully-owned subsidiary," she recalls. "That brought upon the mainland staff a dramatic change and we faced a great deal of uncertainty."

"Challenge orthodox practice and break hierarchical constraints"

Before long, Ms Leung gained support from the staff by showing respect for their concerns and offering assistance. She attributes that to her summer jobs where she developed superior communication skills. By the time she left Chengdu, she had made many friends. "I still miss my mainland colleagues," remarks Ms Leung, recalling the many wonderful evenings she and her colleagues spent over hotpots in dai-pai-dongs.

Human intelligence

Ms Leung joined Langham Place Hotel in 2004 as a member of the pre-opening team. Over the past five years, the hotel has won numerous local and international awards in human resources management, total quality, training and knowledge management.

"One of the key reasons for the hotel's success is our open culture. We respect every colleague as a knowledgeable and talented individual," Ms Leung stresses.

Ms Leung remodelled the hotel's people management infrastructure into Hong Kong's first "intellectual capital (IC) and quality" mechanism. "Our hotel doesn't consider human resources as physical objects but rather as intelligence. My priority has been to unleash the potential of individual staff in a continuous pursuit for growth," she notes. "There will come a time in Hong Kong when corporations include IC in their balance sheets like some of their European counterparts already do."

A TQM advocate, Ms Leung never buys into management concepts without questioning them. "For instance, why promote staff empowerment when you can boost job ownership?" she states. "Under the current economic climate, the tide can turn anytime and it requires a great deal of mental agility," she emphasises. Already, Ms Leung has initiated an ambitious process reengineering project that enables the hotel's staff to leverage every opportunity to drive revenues.

Aside from work, Ms Leung was a keen newspaper columnist, a member of the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Training's business course validation panel, and an advisor to the Hong Kong College of Technology. She is also an examiner of the HKMA Quality Award and the Civil Service Outstanding Service Award.

All these put her time management skills to the test and she is one who wastes no time. Every Sunday for the past four years, she has taken her elder daughter to piano lessons. One day, she decided her time could be better spent while waiting for her there and subsequently took up violin lessons.

Ms Leung gave birth to her second daughter a few months ago and had a well-deserved chance to put her feet up for a change. "But I would be lying if I told you I didn't work from home," she adds.

Taken from Career Times 13 March 2009, p. B11
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