Down the rabbit hole for lessons in management

PHOTO: Down the rabbit hole for lessons in management

A white rabbit with a coat and briefcase leads a human resource executive down an airplane toilet and into a world of "cold and utilitarian" bureaucracy.

There, she encounters the tyrannical Black Queen, who oversees her staff of fairy tale creatures with iron-fisted management techniques, while her erstwhile co-chief executive, the Red Queen, has been sidelined into heading the counselling division.

But little do the female executives realise they are being manipulated by a malevolently ambitious up-and-comer: the devious Humpty Dumpty, who is looking to seize power for himself.

Luckily, the human resource heroine steps in to save the day, by facilitating communication and improving workplace morale.

This is Alice's Wonderland, as re-imagined in a corporate setting by Ms Caroline Lim, the global head of human resource and corporate affairs at PSA International and a multiple HR award winner.

In her authorial debut, titled Wonderland and launched on Oct 26, Ms Lim has created what she describes as a "management guide book with a difference": "An allegory with corporate messages".

The aim is to share her "experiences in transformational HR" - gleaned from her over 30 years of experience across organisations including Apple Computer, DFS and Ernst & Young - with organisation leaders, HR practitioners, and "anyone with an interest in culture change".

"Throughout my career in HR, I have come to realise that two things can make or break an organisation - the first being its culture and the second being the quality of its leadership," she told The Straits Times.

"While many people are aware of this, I have also come to realise that not many have first-hand experience in transforming organisations."

Plenty of books on organisation culture and change have been penned by HR veterans, but probably none with such a whimsical narrative as Wonderland, and certainly none as beautifully illustrated by the author's own hand.

That is perhaps the most surprising revelation of the book, which is also peppered generously with catchy HR insights.

Ms Lim drew the book's fanciful personages herself after the illustrator she hired failed to meet her standards, in the process embodying one of the mantras in her book: "Change begins with me."

She also sold some of her illustrations at her book launch, raising $40,000 for charity.

Ms Lim's passion is obvious in her profession as well. HR was a natural choice for her as she has "always been a 'people person'".

"Knowing that I am directly able to make a significant difference to the well-being and lives of employees gives meaning and purpose to my work," she said.

Ms Lim, who is 57 and married with a son, said the book is intended as a "source of encouragement to those who are fighting the good fight" by trying to improve their company culture.

"Going against a company's culture is akin to salmon swimming upstream; while very arduous, it is not impossible and occurs at some cost to the individual. It takes great courage, stamina and resilience to change culture for the better," she said.

Asked about the most common HR problems faced by Singapore firms, she said one issue is that managers tend to be either "too nice or too harsh" with their staff.

"By 'too nice', I mean that they shy away from hard truths and needed confrontations. The alternative is when a manager dwells only on fault-finding and forgets to offer deserved praise for jobs well done."

To strike a balance, managers need to "focus on the positive", by being aware of and acknowledging their employees' contributions, and also "address the negatives", by highlighting undesirable behaviour and using this to coach individuals.

Finally, they should "set high standards and challenge others to do the same", while also balancing the workloads across teams. Only thus can they exemplify one of her favourite quotes: "Brains can be bought, but hearts and minds have to be won."

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