People

Secrets of a people person at work

Ms Sheela Parakkal said that besides the key factors of luck and having enough support, one should not be afraid to ask for help. She said: "It's not a sign of weakness but that of an enabler. Enrol the people in your life. I enrolled my helper to be
Ms Sheela Parakkal said that besides the key factors of luck and having enough support, one should not be afraid to ask for help. She said: "It's not a sign of weakness but that of an enabler. Enrol the people in your life. I enrolled my helper to be the best helper possible."ST PHOTO: Desmond Foo

HR veteran tells how she juggles personal life and work demands

Ms Sheela Parakkal is the quintessentially professional woman who has it all - a fulfilling career forged while raising three beautiful daughters. But Prudential's chief human resources officer, 46, is candid about how tough that journey was for her at times. "I had moments where I questioned myself - could I really have it all? Sometimes I overcompensated to prove to myself that I could do it all."

It was in fact one such moment, while she was still at her first job as an auditor at accounting giant PwC, that led her into the HR field.

"About nine years into my job, I was two years away from becoming a partner at the firm. I was also a mother of two then, but I felt I was 'half-baked' at everything," she said. "Professionally, I was very engaged. But as a mother of young children and given the time demands that involved, I felt I wasn't doing justice to my clients. I still had parents to care for too."

At around that time, an opportunity arose for her to become the HR business partner for PwC's audit division, which meant essentially a switch from auditing to HR.

Ms Parakkal decided then to make what she described as the scariest decision of her life and took the plunge. "A large part of auditing, aside from the work related to technical standards and audit reporting, is engaging with stakeholders - team members, bosses, clients. That was a part of my job that I'd really enjoyed and it had kept me going for nine years," she said.

In her years at PwC, she had also been involved in internal training and development, which she had discovered was something she was passionate about. "That's probably why they thought I would be interested in the HR role. I have to thank my then boss for seeing that I could add value to the role, despite not having any formal HR background."

TREAT YOURSELF WELL

Be kind to yourself. I wish someone had shared that with me when I was younger... We all have certain standards that we aspire to, but there are certain stages in life when you have to moderate your standards and modulate your expectations of yourself.

MS SHEELA PARAKKAL, on her best advice.

With the career switch, she found herself immersed in a new role. "I don't think I'd worked as hard as I did during the following two years," she said. "I was trying to show credibility and trying to get people who had worked with me for nine years to see me in a different role."

But HR turned out to be the perfect fit for her. "What kept me going," she said, " was the fact that the role allowed me to contribute to people's development, which in turn contributed to the organisation. To this day, I remember the people I hired who are now partners - it's almost a maternal thing."

She stayed on in the role for eight years, until another scary move, this time to a clean energy start-up, as its regional HR head. It was her first job outside PwC, and marked a big shift from working within a large multinational to working in a start-up. "In the first few days, I was emotional and there was a period of adjustment, but by the end of my three years there, I knew it had been the best move for me - it was a fascinating experience," she said.

After three years, she thought about retiring so she could spend more time with her children. But her daughters were sceptical about whether this would happen - and for good reason. When PwC heard that she had left the start-up, it offered her a role to be the regional head of HR for the consulting division. She took on a one-year contract, thinking she would help the firm out as it was absorbing some acquisitions. By the end of the year, she was in fact ready to sign a permanent contract.

Then Prudential came calling. She celebrated her second year at Prudential last Friday .

Given her success at juggling work and motherhood, it comes as no surprise that young women often ask her how she managed it all. In fact, Ms Parakkal will be sharing her thoughts on managing diverse employees when she takes part on a panel at the "Break the ceiling, touch the sky" conference today, an event focused on women in leadership.

Among the advice she has shared with others is: "Be kind to yourself."

"I wish someone had shared that with me when I was younger," she said. "We all have certain standards that we aspire to, but there are certain stages in life when you have to moderate your standards and modulate your expectations of yourself."

She also cited luck and having enough support as important factors. "I've been blessed in that I've always had one parent live with us, to help look after the children. And I had great support from my husband. Whenever I have self-doubt, he gets me back on track."

Ms Parakkal met her husband Thanabalan when they were both auditors at PwC. Now the head of finance at the Singapore Exchange, he has always been her pillar of strength, she said. "He's always there to listen and spur me on to achieve greater heights in all aspects of my life. An amazing father to our girls, he has always viewed me as an equal whose career aspirations are no different from his."

Finally, Ms Parakkal advises, ask for help. "It's not a sign of weakness but that of an enabler. Enrol the people in your life. I enrolled my helper to be the best helper possible."

Having juggled motherhood and full-time work, Ms Parakkal is proud of the policies that she has helped to implement at Prudential to support other working parents.

In December last year, the firm increased maternity leave to 24 weeks, but backdated the policy to January so all the women who had given birth from the start of 2016 could benefit. It also increased paternity leave to three weeks.

The firm has also been encouraging staff to embrace flexible work arrangements, allowing them to work from anywhere, with the assurance that their work will be assessed on results, not their physical presence.

More importantly, it has encouraged staff to embrace change, given that technological disruption is threatening to upend the financial industry. She said: "It's about a willingness to learn, unlearn and relearn. A lot of us struggle with this, and this is what Prudential has been going through in the past year."

Ms Parakkal reckons this era of rapid change and upheaval can take a toll on the working professional, whether he or she is young or old.

Drawing on her own experiences and her knowledge as an HR professional who manages people's careers and professional relationships every day, she says resilience is one fundamental characteristic that keeps a person in good stead through it all. "We will all face challenges. You have to believe in yourself, and always surround yourself with good friends who will not take nonsense from you," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2017, with the headline 'Secrets of a people person at work'. Print Edition | Subscribe