For years, the human resources (HR) departments of large companies were relegated to the ranks of administration. However, following recent global economic woes, the role of the HR executive is becoming increasingly demanding. No longer simply processing payrolls and shuffling through resumes , the HR executive of the future needs to be able to embrace a challenge, accept and champion change and present innovative ideas and solutions.
Charles Caldwell is currently HR director for Asia Pacific with Juniper Networks, but his journey to this point has been unusual, to say the least. While many of his classmates spent their weekends folding tee shirts at Gap, the then 16-year-old Caldwell set up a yacht maintenance company in his native Canada. Shortly afterwards, he set up a second company, this time providing business consultancy and training services. In 1992, he attended a revolutionary personal development course called The Landmark Forum, which changed the track of his career irrevocably when he accepted a position with the company as branch manager.
Five years later and with a Postgraduate Diploma in Asia-Pacific Management Studies under his belt, Mr Caldwell moved to Hong Kong to work for training and development firm Achieve Global. His interest in HR clearly ignited, in late 1997 he joined Rockwell Automation as HR director, where he stayed until he accepted his position at Juniper earlier this year. He laughs, "People often ask me why I am not an entrepreneur, but if the truth be known I always wanted to race sailboats."
"It is imperative that HR practitioners shift to being strategic value-creators"
Mr Caldwell's role today is highly indicative of the changing face of the profession. Responsible for overseeing all HR activities across Asia, his and his team's responsibilities are two-fold. First, he must ensure that his team are on top of traditional HR activities such as recruitment, compensation, benefits and payroll, much of which is outsourced. In addition, he is responsible for the ongoing development of the staff and for assisting their progress up the ladder.
"We take a highly proactive view of career development here at Juniper," Mr Caldwell explains. "We look carefully at what each member of staff brings to the table, find out where their strengths lie and build on them. We prepare that person for the next level by tailoring a career plan for them that is fully in sync with the company's requirements. There are few career roadmaps. Everything is situational to the employee and the organisation's development."
Mr Caldwell insists that the role is extremely rewarding, especially when it comes to helping people reach their full potential in the workplace. He also maintains that the process of resolving conflicts and creating solutions that make it easier for people to do their jobs is exciting and fulfilling. "Juniper Networks is a fast-paced, dynamic company. Supporting the team successfully in our high-speed environment is both exhilarating and fun."
Unlike in many other countries, you do not need a degree in HR to practice here in Hong Kong. Almost any undergraduate degree can provide an inroad, although a business-related discipline will give you the necessary understanding of organisational development and management processes to prepare for the corporate environment. You should possess strong communication skills and have a basic grasp of maths in order to understand complicated compensation packages and financial drivers. Finally, you should be a good listener and not be afraid of confrontation.
The role of the HR executive will continue to evolve over the next few years. The business leaders of today expect HR divisions to provide answers and solutions to problems before they even arise. And, as technology streamlines traditional HR functions, executives need to be increasingly proactive if they are to maintain their jobs. Mr Caldwell says, "It is imperative that HR practitioners shift to being strategic value-creators, otherwise a valuable corporate role could become extinct."
Mr Caldwell adds, "Today's workforce is highly career-minded, very much project-driven and no longer expects a job for life. That makes for fierce competition and creates unique retention issues for employers. One way to get ahead is to take an entry-level job in a sales role, instead of working your way up through traditional HR channels. This will give you a strong insight into the people you are going to interact with on a daily basis and allow you to look at problems that might arise from a different angle."
As mainland China opens its doors to the West, opportunities are becoming available for HR executives to make the move to the mainland, but you have to have the right mindset to work for a Chinese employer. The managers of previously state-owned enterprises are not as accustomed to innovation as their Hong Kong counterparts, so it can be frustrating.
Mr Caldwell says, "The trick to succeeding in China is to identify ways to successfully manage employee expectations. People need to understand they are now part of a global workforce where performance matters." If you decide you are up to the task, bear in mind that salaries are lower, taxes higher and rents on a similar level to here for expatriates.