HR round the clock

In this exclusive interview with Aditi Sharma Kalra, Wan Ezrin Sazli Wan Zahari talks about how he’s turned the people function on its head, while blending tried-and-tested wisdom with a fun, refreshing, and at times, an unconventional approach to grow the business, brand and talent.

When Wan Ezrin was first called for a job interview with TIME dotCom in 2017, his first thought was that the call had come from the famous news weekly magazine Time, rather than the telco. Admittedly, it says a lot about the company’s employer branding back in the day; however, what many may not know is this low profile was by design.

Around a decade ago, the Shah Alam-headquartered telecom provider TIME dotCom went through a major transformation, driven by a mentality of always wanting to under-promise and over-deliver. This mantra remained firm and steady for many years until quite recently, when the company decided that while there wasn’t a need to ‘shout’ about the prowess of TIME’s connectivity, there was a definite need to be better known in the market to attract the best talent.

As Ezrin puts it: “You could have the best ice-cream in the world, but no one will come to your shop if they don’t know it’s there.” Slowly, he pushed for a more proactive employer branding strategy, but it wasn’t easy. When he first joined, he came from a high-flying aviation culture where everything was about brand, brand, brand, and an awesome employee experience. There was a lot of adjusting to do – in terms of cultural fit and deciding what would be right for his new company.

While this was challenging, he persevered, and within the first 100 days of joining TIME in January 2017, he made it a priority to get the absolute basics of the HR attitude right.

He explains: “We had to be whiter than white. We had to be exemplary, in terms of being disciplined and being honest. So, I carried a no-nonsense stance during my early days in TIME. It was painful – for many people, and even for me especially, because naturally I dislike forcing people to do what is right. I prefer people to live up to their own conscience and march along willingly, and sincerely.”

The patience and gentle persistence has paid off – today, every vacancy advertised by TIME sees large volumes of people applying, keen to join the current workforce of just over 1,200 employees. Most of them are based in Glenmarie, Shah Alam, and in TIME’s flagship data centre in the nation’s capital. In this successful journey, Ezrin has been joined by a team of 24 core HR members (and an additional team of 22 non-HR members, including the Corporate Office Affairs team).

In this exclusive interview, we talk about how he’s turned the people function on its head, while blending tried-and-tested wisdom with a fun, refreshing, and at times, an unconventional approach to grow the business, brand and talent.

Q How would you describe the work culture at TIME?

TIME has this unique blend of wanting to be lean, transparent and sincere; minus all the office politics, power plays and corporate nonsense; and the eagerness to get things right the first time. We invest a lot of time in thinking, planning, detailed design and strategising.

We crave perfection in everything we do. Junior employees focus on the details, and senior managers focus on the high-level stuff, but are also capable of going down into the details – so that makes this place unique.

Also, it prevents the organisation from having managers who are just all hot air, but zero content. Our managers here are people who can deliver, rather than assuming they are the next best thing since sliced bread! Most of them are doers, not celebrities. I like that. These are people with content and they genuinely contribute. Much, much better than having posers in the company management.

The board and the senior management are always totally accessible.

We don’t have multiple labyrinths for employees to walk through before they can speak to me. My mobile number is accessible on our intranet. So, things are quite transparent.

Q Upon immersing yourself with the priorities of the business in 2017, what were your top HR priorities to help attract and retain the best talent?

The first thing I did was to make sure we were measuring all the important things. Numbers and trends needed to be ready all the time: and this went beyond the usual reports of headcount numbers, attrition rates, number of new hires and number of new exits. Input from HR needed to be more insightful, and provide the meat to at least say: “This is what we need to do, etc, because our data and insights show this, etc.” I advocated the concepts of “leading indicators” versus “trailing indicators” and how they should be used.

Some bread-and-butter measurements include the job offer acceptance rate, new hire failure, applicant ratio, managers to employees ratio, accession rate, medical and hospitalisation days per employee, absence without official leave rate, performance improvement plan/job coaching rate, human capital return on investment, revenue per headcount, overtime per employee, average monthly compensation rate, training penetration rate, formal learning days per headcount, and many more.

Q Once the basics were put in place, what was the path ahead, how was it communicated, and most importantly, what needed to be changed?

Next was performance management – we needed employees to take the process seriously. If employees and managers knew what to do and were transparent from the start of the year; goals would be made clear right from the beginning, conversations would be meaningful and there would be far less disputes at the end of the year when performance ratings were compiled.

So, we embarked on a marathon of performance management clinics to educate employees and managers on the fundamentals of managing performance. The key thing to understand was that performance management is not the IT system that we put in place to retain the data, but it is the actual day-to-day experience in managing performance. It’s about having conversations and making clear the expectations, and making transparent what is achievable and not achievable.

The whole education process has been very good, with more people promptly completing their performance management documentation at the end of the year, with fewer people disputing their final performance ratings.

In tandem was talent management, which is all about doing talent reviews and talent mapping. Managers usually dislike the first five minutes of doing it because they think they’ve got better things to do. But later, they realise they have never really assessed or evaluated that employee on his/her potential. The whole exercise served two objectives: for the company – deciding on future positions, succession planning and movement of people via transfers, etc; and for the employee – taking their career progression and development very seriously.

The third big initiative is our micro-projects that came about as the outcome of our employee satisfaction index (ESI) survey results. Traditionally, we were quite good at capturing this data, but I realised we were not acting proactively on any feedback we received. We then took up the task to do something about these issues, given this was sincere and honest feedback from our employees.

Next, we did a marathon of focus group sessions with all levels of employees across various divisions to obtain ideas on how we could improve things in all areas of the employee experience. These ideas were then condensed and distilled into “micro projects” that were then laid out in a Gantt chart to be executed/implemented before the next ESI survey.

[ALSO READ: Behind the scenes with TIME dotCom's Wan Ezrin]

Q Talk us through some initiatives basis which you’ve revolutionised talent management and development – given how you like to blend tried-and-tested methods with unexplored ideas.

Well “revolutionised” is a big word, so I’d like to think of it more as doing things that actually work.

First and foremost, industrialising and institutionalising talent management (TM) practices is very difficult. As such, one of my biggest passions is to educate and distil to my talent management team the basics of TM and how to industrialise it. Not only do they need to understand the fundamentals and approaches, but they also need to understand the resources, time and energy required to make it all happen – and how things can fit snugly in a performance year. So, I came up with the internal concept of “endurance management” for my guys, which I think may be useful for all HR practitioners.

With regards to development – many development outfits turn out to just become vendor managers at best. I advocate “expertism” so that our development team can actually analyse needs, design and develop programmes as well as execute them well. Again, endurance management comes into play here, as keeping things snug between development processes, TM processes and performance management processes is vital to ensure that every input and output of each respective process talks to each other and makes the overall giant wheel turn.

Q Under performance – one of the big things has been around ratings versus no ratings. What’s your opinion on that approach?

I started my career in a British multi-disciplinary engineering consultancy that had a zero performance management process. And that was at the early turn of the millennium! So, anyone who is advocating no ratings is not saying something new. Other places in the globe are already doing this, ages ago – when all of us were still in school! The point is this: different cultures work differently. In a British engineering consultancy environment, or in an architect’s firm in Sweden or Denmark, people may well be instilled with dignity when it comes to getting their work done in the most perfect manner. “I work well, so I get paid for the work I did well” – that is how “pride in what I do” exemplifies itself.

Unfortunately, not all cultures carry the same values. If we were to advocate 100% “no ratings” in performance management, then we are likely to see a lot of dead wood, lazy, manipulative people in the work environment in this part of the world. Add on to that employment law in this part of the world that is not pro “at-will employment” (like in the United States), this is a guaranteed formula for disaster.

I want to implore all HR practitioners to look at the streets. Yes – the streets! The performance management of human beings is seen in the streets.

As long as police departments exist on earth, that means that we will need performance ratings to manage performance. There are indeed good, sincere, altruistic people in this world, and there are also bad, insincere, selfish people in the world. Therefore, we need some checks and balances.

Q You’ve coined the term “corporate ergonomics”, which goes beyond having a massive slide right in the middle of your office. What’s your focus here, and how have you achieved it?

What I realised after working in a hip, low-cost airline for almost six years was that whenever I entered another office, let it be a GLC or MNC, in Malaysia, or outside, for profit or non-profit – I realised the physical layout of the place where one works influences the level of productivity, passion and love for the job. Either one would feel that all energy is sucked-out at the point of entering the building or feel a sense of raring-to-go euphoria!

A few simple aspects need addressing first: first is ventilation – you don’t want people working in a stuffy, smelly environment. Next is office furniture: people need to be comfortable. They can’t be too comfortable to the point they want to doze off at the table, but you get the idea. A company needs to have decent tables and chairs that will allow an employee to reasonably sit and do his/her work continuously for a whole day without feeling pain in their body. Lighting needs to be good and needs to be fixed immediately when a light bulb goes bad. These are the basics.

Next – layout. If I am advocating a lean organisation, that means that nobody will get their own room. There will be no rooms and no doors. That makes it easier for employees to speak to their superiors. What doors and walls do is create negative barriers and make employees intimidated every time they want to have a sincere discussion with their superior. So, remove those walls and doors. Remove them totally. Also, my back (that is, my vertebral column!) is no more valuable than my subordinates’ backs. Everybody should be getting the same quality of chairs and tables. No discrimination. Everybody gets the same level of support in order to be more productive at work.

So yes, there is differentiation in rank and salary – but other than that, there is absolutely no reason why any employee should get more space than another employee. Removing these double standards indirectly improves the sincere pursuit of career progression. Let people want career progression purely for the job and the accountability; not for a bigger office, a better leather chair or a personal assistant for that matter.

[ALSO READ: Photos: Slide into TIME Dotcom's open-concept office space]

Q How easy or difficult has it been to lead these people initiatives? Specifically, what challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?

No big HR initiative is easy to implement. First and foremost, it’s always easier to be an armchair critic and give comments on what should or shouldn’t have been done when it comes to HR initiatives. Second, sometimes while executing, we need to be single-minded and follow through rigorously with great perseverance and resilience. The focus is excellent execution, amid an environment where everyone might be doubtful in what you are doing, or even worse: making fun of the whole thing!

I tell my guys the pay-off is not immediate. The ultimate aim is traction and to continuously record data. I remember almost every senior manager poking fun at our talent review exercise when we started the process a few years back. The same thing also happened in my previous organisation! But today – now that they see the value, there is less and less of these admonishments. At the same time, we as HR want to be continuously evolving so we always accept inputs to make our processes better.


Vital stats: Wan Ezrin Sazli Wan Zahari started his professional career as a civil engineer working in a multi-disciplinary consultancy based in London. He then slowly digressed into other engineering fields, such as oil and gas, before digressing out of engineering totally into quality management, organisational improvement, and finally, HR. In his own words, his first “proper HR job” was in 2009, but he admits his learning comes from having a good mentor and leader, as well as sincerity and hard work.


This feature has been published exclusively in the Jan-Mar Q1 issue of Human Resources. Read this edition of Human Resources, Malaysia:

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