Human capital vital to business success

Chairman of Shell firms here learnt first-hand in her varied career the importance of good HR

Ms Goh Swee Chen, who chairs the Institute for Human Resource Professionals, says "business leaders should see human capital as a crucial element for success of their business".
Ms Goh Swee Chen, who chairs the Institute for Human Resource Professionals, says "business leaders should see human capital as a crucial element for success of their business". ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Oil industry executive Goh Swee Chen has worked all over the world in a range of industries but her 1990s stint in the Japanese city of Kobe was by far the toughest.

She had to care for her one-year-old daughter in a foreign country while managing career demands at a multinational firm.

That would already have been difficult enough. Then came the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which hit while she was five months pregnant with her second child.

Ms Goh, chairman of Shell companies here, emerged shaken but unscathed from the earthquake, which claimed more than 6,000 lives. But her Kobe experiences - combined with the challenges of a global career spanning three decades - convinced her of the importance of good human resource management.

Ms Goh, 57, is also chairman of the Institute for Human Resource Professionals (IHRP), a body set up earlier this year by the Manpower Ministry, National Trades Union Congress and Singapore National Employers Federation to implement a new national certification scheme for HR professionals.

She says she jumped at the chance to chair the IHRP because of the pivotal role HR has played in her own career.

Born in Malaysia, Ms Goh has lived and worked in Singapore, the Netherlands, Australia, the United States, Japan and China.

She started her career in the IT industry, working for IBM and then Procter & Gamble before joining Shell in 2003, first in IT before eventually moving to run the company's Asia-Pacific lubricants and commercial fuels business.

Taking on multiple global roles over the course of her career stemmed from "a desire to keep pushing boundaries", says Ms Goh, who became chairman of Shell companies in Singapore three years ago.

"What enabled me to do what I do - to have a career that is extremely diverse - has always been a foundation of strong human capital and talent," she adds, noting that she has worked with diverse teams comprising more than 27 nationalities. "People make it happen. It has always been my belief that it's important to focus on developing people in order to achieve desired outcomes, which is why HR is so important."

A posting with Procter & Gamble in Kobe drove this home. "We were living in Malaysia then and my husband chose to remain behind because of work," says Ms Goh. "As a family we decided that this was an opportunity I wanted to try.

"Japan is close enough - a 61/2 hour flight. We thought we could make it work. But I insisted on having a family member with me - my one-year-old daughter."

Japan in the 1990s "wasn't very encouraging for a working mother", recalls Ms Goh, now a mother of three.

To make matters even more challenging, the Kobe earthquake hit in 1995, when Ms Goh was five months pregnant with her second child. Thankfully, her daughter was then back home for Christmas.

"I wouldn't have changed that experience, even knowing what I went through. But it points to the importance of a supportive company and, of course, a supportive husband," says Ms Goh of her stint in Kobe.

She adds that a sense of optimism also kept her going throughout the three years she spent there.

"You know it won't kill you. You're going to have battle scars, but the experience makes you much stronger, to position you for the road ahead."

Developing this resilience is essential for those keen on global careers, says Ms Goh.

"Learning skills and competencies - that's not the problem. It's all of these other survival and life skills that are critical when you push yourself to the limit and do something that you are not 100 per cent certain will succeed," she adds.

"You can learn only by going out and being in the middle of it."

This is where good HR comes in. Throughout her career, HR has been "a very critical piece of allowing me to do what I do" - creating a supportive environment and providing assistance when needed, Ms Goh notes.

"The combination of the business leader and HR saying they will take a bet on me despite personal circumstances - that goes a long way towards developing an individual."

That is precisely what IHRP aims to encourage. Its certification framework - which has three levels - aims to enhance competencies of HR professionals and create professional developmental pathways.

"HR professionals should be strategic partners with business leaders," says Ms Goh.

"Business leaders should see human capital as a crucial element for success of their business.

"At the master level, we want HR (professionals) to be industry leaders as well. We want them to have a voice that champions the development of human capital."

IHRP is working to get as many HR professionals in its certification programme as possible, while developing a platform for the industry to share best practices. The organisation also wants to ramp up engagement with business leaders.

"Our goal is for business leaders to recognise the importance of HR in developing their human capital. We want to help them develop a progressive workplace environment and draw out the best in their talent, in order for their businesses to succeed," says Ms Goh.

"Leaders (should) create that environment for people to try things, be curious and innovative, as well as opportunities for them to learn how to handle failure."

This support includes helping employees juggle work and personal demands - which Ms Goh has had to do for most of her career.

"There are many like me who are in much more difficult situations," she says. "My advice to people who juggle professional and personal life is that you can have your cake and eat it too.

"It is the willingness to get to the table to negotiate and discuss a win-win solution."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2017, with the headline Human capital vital to business success. Subscribe