As Sandeep Khanna takes on a new role as Managing Director, Asia-Pacific, WDHB, he shares with Aditi Sharma Kalra why it’s vital to know your strengths early on and prioritise continuous development as you grow in your role.

Former Facebook and Grab executive, Sandeep Khanna, has taken on the role of Managing Director, Asia-Pacific at WDHB, a global firm specialising in the design and delivery of strategic learning programmes. He continues to be based in Singapore.

Denver-based WDHB has offices in Paris, Shanghai, Singapore and Zurich, and has been in the L&D market for over 30 years, pioneering the learning expedition and other immersion-driven formats. The hire of Sandeep Khanna shows promise to present WDHB’s experiential and sustainable product offerings to a wider office in Asia-Pacific.

In a statement exclusively to Human Resources Online, Sandeep shared: “I am so excited and privileged to be given this opportunity to further grow WDHB within the Asia Pacific region and enhance its reputation as the pioneering and disruptive thought-leader for experiential learning.

“I am looking forward to building the brand and business by helping clients experience this immersive learning approach that is sustainable and proven to deliver results - alongside a truly global and talented team spread across US, Europe and APAC.”

In addition to growing WDHB’s business in APAC, Sandeep will be responsible for developing an excellent team who meet their clients’ high expectations.

On the appointment, WDHB’s President & CEO, Sunil Narang, said: “With over 30 years of experience, WDHB is committed to help organisations develop their people and strategies with its unique offering of experiential learning from the past, present and future.”

“To extend our commitment to Asia Pacific, we are very excited to have Sandeep join us as the Managing Director – APAC. With his great knowledge and experience in Learning and Development, we know Sandeep will be an excellent partner for our clients, use his tremendous experience to grow WDHB and build a great team to support our clients.”

This announcement comes soon after WDHB announced its acquisition of Experience to Lead, LLC, effective 2 October 2020. Both companies offer experiential learning programs for people and strategy development, with which they serve Fortune Global 500 clients.

HRO took the opportunity to catch up with Sandeep to delve deeper into his varied career journey, and learn some career reinvention secrets that will benefits CHROs and the rest of the C-suite alike. Interview excerpts below:

Q In the past two decades, you've had an exciting career, having worked all across Asia (SG, PH, VN), and taken up a range of roles to complement your skill sets. Tell us some of the milestones of your journey.

Thank you for rekindling a very exciting phase of my career. That was a time when I transitioned from being a strategy planner in advertising to a full blown marketer. 

The first milestone was moving to Vietnam to head Marketing for ICI Paints locally. I had to learn many new things as the role was very different from the regional role I did earlier in Singapore. I invested time in understanding product development, local culture and ensuring marketing and sales worked as one. I am very proud of what we achieved as a team. We helped grow the business by over 40% and we built a very powerful brand as well.

The second milestone happened soon after in Philippines for Nokia where I helped add some richness and colour to a very mature and successful brand. Again it was all about brand relevance and gaining local insights. We won two global awards for marketing innovation in successive years. We worked as a well-knit cross-functional team to ensure we defended a high market share in excess of 70% very successfully.

The third milestone was with LG in Singapore where we used the power of sponsorships like F1 and World Cup cricket to make LG a very desirable premium brand in a very cluttered category. Here again, the learning was how to use global brand properties and translate them into effective local strategies and tactics.

The common thread in all these was a relentless pursuit of consumer insights, being strategic & business driven, and working well as a team across functions.

Q It was in 2015 that you took up your first HR role (as regional L&D partner) with Facebook, and then with Grab (global lead - people & OD). What lessons did you bring over from your experiences in marketing?

The transition to HR from marketing happened through a course I did on coaching where I realised that helping people grow energises me. Alongside that realisation, I did bring three transferable skills that helped me make the transition seamless:

1. Good understanding of business. I could immediately see what learning initiatives would deliver the most impact. I also knew what the business needed in terms of upskilling and I designed leadership programmes with that lens.

2. Strong consultative mindset. Having been a strategy planner earlier, I was wired to ask questions. That really helped me identify the most important issues to focus on. I was also very curious to learn and invested a lot of time absorbing what the field presented. My lack of past experience was a real strength as I brought a degree of freshness to the function.

3. Diversity of experiences. My past being so diverse was a real strength, especially when I delivered leadership programmes and soft skills initiatives. My stories were real and relatable and helped land the concepts well.

Having since set up your own organisation, Better Versions, what was the drive for your foray into entrepreneurship?

There is never a good time to become an entrepreneur. You just have to take a calculated plunge. One of my mentors once told me that becoming an entrepreneur is not an if but a when. As we go through our careers, this is the endgame we all have to prepare for.

Traditional corporate roles have a finite shelf life and entrepreneurship is something that can carry you well into your 60s and 70s. So it's best to start preparing for that earlier rather than later.

The trigger to do so for me was the pro bono work I was doing as a coach and mentoring of scaling start-ups. I was deriving a lot of energy from that and I felt that this could potentially become my go-to life approach in times to come. And if I could be a little creative and make this a paid exercise, life would be perfect.

Is being your own boss as hard as it sounds? What are some of the things you quickly learnt in terms of venturing out on your own?

Being one's own boss is liberating and at the same time is very terrifying as well. It’s surely not for the fainthearted but at the same time it is something everyone needs to ultimately become. It helps to keep a few home truths in mind:

  1. You need an abundance of patience and hope. Work comes in cycles and so does money. You need to get used to that.
  2. You need some financial stability before you venture out. That will give you the confidence to resist the urge to drop prices and rates to get some work done.
  3. You have to be an inveterate optimist and never give up. Keep trying all the time. Sometimes opportunity knocks very softly.
  4. You have to shed your ego. You will realise that a lot of your earlier superpower came from your visiting card. Now you are at level zero and starting out. Enjoy every day as a fresh start in life. And seek things that you have never done. In short, get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Q As you're taking over as Asia MD at WDHB, what excites you about this role, and what will be your priority for the first 100 days on the job?

What excites me about this role is the ability to bring a new way of strategic learning and thinking to leading organisations in APAC. The key to our 100% bespoke programmes is the ability to meet our clients where they are. No matter if the ambition is a complete digital transformation, driving purpose throughout the organisation, sustaining a culture of empowerment, or leadership development in uncertain times, our programmes take experiential learning to the next level.

WDHB has the connections of a 30-year-old brand, with the speed, determination and passion of a young startup. It is our ability to think unconventionally, partner with a wide ecosystem of experts around the world, depth in research/design, co-create, collaborate and deliver with intensity that drives our award-winning programmes to support your people and strategy developments beyond the typical L&D programme providers.

WDHB recently acquired another exciting company called Experience to Lead in USA, which has a niche in designing innovative learning experiences using the worlds of space, sports and music as underlying themes.

Albert Einstein said, “The only source of knowledge is experience.” For the first 100 days, it is all about exposure. We are a niche player in a big industry. While learning and development can take many forms, it’s vital for me to show that experiential learning is the wave of people and strategic development, despite the ambitions of an organisation.

We live in a time when the world is constantly evolving and changing, and it is vital that organisations prioritise their people to keep up with this rapid change in demand and uncertainties. This is the opportunity for organisations in APAC to allow us to help them get ahead of the curve.

Having done marketing, HR, L&D, coaching, and entrepreneurship, tell us your biggest career reinvention secrets. Your top three tips for CHROs who are keen to try something new!

Great question. Pretty hard to distill them down to three but here goes!

1. Be a lifelong learner. Discover your talents and strengths early and keep adding value to yourself in your areas of strength. Be passionate about personal growth. This will help you make adjacent shifts quite comfortably.

2. Cultivate a set of mentors and professional relationships. You have to be a giver and taker in equal measure so actively seek to give before you receive. Ensure that you are of help even to your mentors in some way. 

3. Maintain a positive and curious worldview. Become a better version of yourself by identifying your personal purpose and then wholeheartedly living it. Believe that the best is yet to come.

Become the person who people like to meet. Be curious and likeable. And equally like people. You can't fake this. People will know if you really care. And simply keep growing. Standing still means you are actually regressing. Stay curious with childlike openness to new experiences.

Photo / Provided

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