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Michael Page's Leading Women series, featuring Normalis Mohammad-Sharif, Danone's Human Resources Director, who shares her insights into human resources (HR).

As part of our Leading Women series, we want to highlight the professional challenges and career aspirations of the women we work with here in Asia.

In this feature, Normalis Mohd Sharif, Danone's Human Resources Director in the India-Southeast Asia Region, shares how staying true to her values helped her flourish in her career. She also highlights her insights into the evolution of human resources (HR), how HR teams adapt during COVID-19 and the best strategies for female leaders to rise and succeed.

In this video, Kristoffer Paludan, Regional Director of Michael Page Thailand speaks with Normalis Mohd Sharif, Danone's Human Resources Director in the India-Southeast Asia Region, to find out about her success formula and her insights on HR.

Q: What would you say is your defining trait as a leader, and how does that impact how you lead?

For me, it is leadership from the heart. I've done a lot of cultural implementations, and one of them is in Danone. We identified that we need to have conscious leadership. This really resonates well with me because when you are leading from the heart, you think about what's best for that situation.

It makes you think, beyond the silos of your function, about your department, your business unit. And in my case, it's even beyond the country that I'm in because I work across different countries. So you are actually contributing to a bigger population and for a bigger purpose.

Related: How to be more confident at work according to Asia's female leaders

Q: Over the past 20 years, were there barriers you had to overcome to achieve the excellence that you've achieved?

It's not so much of a barrier, but more of the challenges of managing the responsibilities at work and the family. When my son was growing up, I was actually already holding leadership positions. And most of them required quite a substantial amount of travelling. So, my husband and I tried to plan our work travels so that we don't [travel] at the same time, but sometimes that cannot be avoided.

I've been lucky in the sense that my parents and my siblings are nearby, so they've been a good support system for me. So it's not actually a barrier; it's more managing the priorities you have in life.

Q: How do you think aspiring females professionals can differentiate themselves from others?

From my experience, it's about standing by the choices you've made and also making those choices work for you. But you stand by those choices and deliver what is it that you promise you would deliver.

And I would also say, you don't have to do things the way men do, because you know, women and men, we are different. Yeah, we think in a different way, and we come to conclusions differently. So be comfortable in being the woman that you are and whatever rules that go with it.

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Q: It is about being true to yourself, your ideals and values on what is important to you as a female leader or a leader in general?

Yes, I would say exactly that. Because if you are not being true to yourself, it's very hard for you to excel. And to make a mark in whatever you do. So I think it's more important that you know yourself, and the things you can do best. So that's how you can set yourself to succeed in your career.  

Q: Have you feel that you've been true to yourself in your career? Would you have done anything differently in those 20+ years that you've been running the HR business?

Honestly, I think I have been because I do love working in HR. Actually, I graduated in international relations, and I was supposed to be a diplomat. But I found that I like working with people; I like coming out with policies and strategies for people, which is why I stuck with HR.

And I've been fortunate that I've had, you know, quite a good career journey. I mean, of course, there are one or two experiences, which were not so great. But I must say that those are the ones that give you a lot of learnings for you to take into the next part of your journey.

Related: Leading Women: A leader with a mission

Q: What do you feel has been the biggest changes that HR has gone through as a profession over the years?

Yeah. So what I feel is that in recent years, HR business partnering has played an increasingly important role in contributing to business decisions and business strategies. When I first started work more than 20 years ago, HR was more of an administrative function.

But now, it is an essential function to business performance and business success. So as HR leaders, I would say that we need to be business savvy. We need to keep abreast with the developments in the markets that we are working in. We need to be able to design people's strategies that will contribute to the deliverable of your business strategies.

And in the past, of course, you know, HR is, you know, the function that usually safeguards the company's policies. I wouldn't say that has changed. But what I say would be good is that HR professionals become agile to adapt and advise our stakeholders on how to make the policies work for the business instead of the other way around.

That's how I see his HR has evolved. And by right, yes, in most big companies, HR is actually a very important business partnering function to the business leaders.

Related: 5 ways to improve equity in the workplace

Q: What keeps you up at night?

Okay, I don't think it's a surprise if I say it's the COVID situation, right? Because my role covers 10 countries. The situation with COVID can fluctuate very much between the different countries in a few days. So, [in regards to] the COVID situation, how we keep our people safe, vaccination arrangements for all the employees.

You're in lockdown in one country, semi-lockdown; you get out of lockdown and get back into lockdown. So those sort of things. Because it also has, it has an impact on the energy of people in the organisation.

And of course, I think a lot and pay a lot of attention to the energy level of the HR teams in all these countries, because they've been managing this situation for more than a year, on top of their normal work, so I talk to them often to offer any support I can give them from where I am, because I'm also in one place and see how we can make it work together.

Q: As we get out of lockdown and back to what we would call normality, what are your views on flexible working?

Globally, in all the different countries we have already introduced flexible working. In fact, in India, Southeast Asia, we actually came out with a proposal, and it has been approved [and] we have shared it. It is just that most of us have been in lockdown. So we couldn't implement it, we are at home, instead of being in the office.

So the arrangements we have proposed – there is a mixture between working remotely, and also working together in the office. [This is] because what we find important is also to establish the relationship, the connection you have with your colleagues because when you work remotely, you need to trust that people will deliver what they need to deliver.

And you also need to have them trust you. So that's why it's a combination that we have put together, in terms of the framework, that you work remotely, but also come back to the office so that you can connect with the whole of the team. and not lose that connection. 

Q: What have you learned in the past year?

Well, in the past, I wouldn't have thought that working remotely for a long time would work. I mean, working for short periods of time remotely would work.

But I think what we have learned in the last year is that we are put in a situation that we need to find ways to make remote working for an extended period of time work for us. And it brings me back to what I said about the investment you make in relationship building with people; you work with is very important, because this is where your trust comes in.

Q: Are you a call- or email-type person, and why?

Well, it depends on what it is. So if it is giving information and we're working remotely, they also require a lot of approvals online. So for those, it would be email.

But if there are issues, or there are matters that we need more clarification on and need to settle, I would instead pick up the phone and call the other party. Because when you have things to sort out, you would have questions, you want to understand how, the point of view of the other party. And they will have the same for you, and if you're in a video call, you can also see expressions, and the 10 to 15-minute call would have saved one week worth of email going back and forth. [So] I think there are also times that we may misunderstand the message in the email.

This is one of the many stories in our Leading Women series. For more inspiring stories of women breaking conventions and taking the lead in the Asia Pacific, visit the official Page Executive blog below:

Read more:
Leading Women: Progress by taking calculated risks
How remote work widens your recruiting pool in healthcare and life sciences
The value of mentorship and sponsorship, and what it can do for your company

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