“If you stop learning, then there’s something wrong”: AirAsia’s Intan Shahru on her principles during her HR journey.

Recently, we chatted with AirAsia’s Head of HR, Intan Shahru. She has been in leadership roles for about 20 years for large local organizations and has also established HR strategy and direction for the AOCs and collaborated with the Ministry of Transportation. Read ahead on this recent spotlight interview where Intan shared her inspiring views from her encounters during her HR journey. 

Rockbird Media: In one of AirAsia’s recent activities, you partnered with a popular search engine to revive its training academy to help upskill staff. One of your insights is to make innovation a way of life, and make it unique to their company culture. What do you think is the most important role of technology to enhance employee performance?

Basically, technology is a part of our ways of working. It took us a lot of effort, actually. From AirAsia, to actually acclimatize our employees in terms of technology. But it’s actually driven from the top. So when you talk about technology, it’s not just about the process and system but it’s about your thinking as well. It’s all about data. For us data is important, so we’re looking at big data, small data and all that. So irrespective of which department that you’re at, data is the key for the aviation business. So which is why we’re trying to incorporate a lot of technology into our ways of working,  in terms of producing outcomes as well in terms of delivering our business strategy. Take it for example in HR, we include a lot of technology in our system so everything right now is no longer manual. It’s actually very much driven online. We partner with multinational technology companies as well, so everything in our organization is actually via online. We usually collaborate with them in terms of training programs, platforms, and systems. We make sure that a lot of our training and development revolves around technology. That’s part and parcel of the whole entire journey, end to end.

Rockbird Media: I agree with you on that, especially that we’re currently living in a digital world. Everything must be so much easier now. 

Yeah, it is actually. Most communication is honestly via technology. Basically, each and every one of us have phones and we can’t live without them. Whatever we do, in any business, we sell all forms of communication, making sure that we can communicate via apps. Also, I’ve got about 16,000 employees across different regions. So communication needs to be not just paper based. We need online communication. Now, most things are actually done online. I believe we’ve gone through a lot, it’s a journey. It’s still a long way to go because technology doesn’t stop. There’s always a new set of technology that comes in so we have to be ahead of the game. And the good thing is we always think about what’s next – what’s next for our people and our business. So it’s a continuous effort on our end.

Rockbird Media: I saw this one LinkedIn post of AirAsia where you said, “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but if you are not sure you can do it, say yes then learn how to do it later.” Is this a principle you have applied in your career journey to reach where you are right now? If so, can you share an experience and what you have learned from it?

Let’s take AirAsia for example. I’ve been in the financial services industry in the past. I was in consulting for 10 years and was mostly servicing financial services and banks. I joined a central bank, which is a regulator. So I moved from a consulting company into a regulator base, which is a government link company. So it’s a huge transition from a culture perspective. From the central bank, I got offered a job with AirAsia. Tony (CEO) came to me and asked me to come and join them. I told him I didn’t know anything about airlines. He said “I’m not looking for somebody that understands airlines. I’m looking for somebody that can actually transform the organization.” I’ve never been in the aviation industry but it was something I wanted to learn. If you ask me anything for the past four years in regards to the aviation industry, regulation base, anything to do with digital. I know it in the back of my head. But if you asked me 10 years ago, I wouldn’t know it. So like I said, I tell this to everybody and to all my team members – learning is a continuous journey. You will want to learn every single day. You will want to actually understand something new. If you wake up one day and you notice that you’re not learning anymore, maybe it’s time for you to actually move. It has been crazy in AirAsia for the past four years because transformation always happens there. For me, it’s a continuous journey. When you feel like you don’t know how to do it, let’s build the bridge, cross the bridge, and we learn how to do it. That’s my principle in life. I’ve been doing it for the past 20 years, it works for me. I tried to inculcate it in my team as well. Because personally if you stop learning then there’s something wrong. You will always want to actually try something new at the end of the day, personal or work, both aspects.

Rockbird Media: In your entire HR journey, how did you direct power structures early in your career compared later when you had a more formal leadership position?

From my perspective, when I started my career, I needed to make sure that I learned as much as I built my technical skills first, so I learned every single thing I needed to know when it comes to HR. For me, I didn’t want to be a technical person that specifically specializes in one area. I wanted to learn every single thing about HR – the people, the talent. I started my career learning jobs or design – the baseline, similar when building a house. When you build an organization, you start looking at people. So you build your technical skills in terms of talent and leadership and understand  what it means. Then as you move up the career ladder, you start to actually manage smaller groups of people. After that, you understand how to build your leadership capability. Now you get these worries, asking yourself,  “Can I be a leader?”, “What does it take to be a leader?” To get motivated and inspired, you have someone to look up to but in the end, you do you. You emulate certain things that you like in a person you admire, but how you want to actually lead your life, or manage the people around you or below you is entirely dependent on you. That’s basically how I built my career. I’m actually like a jack of all trades, but mastery in none to a certain extent which is why it’s good for me. I’m resilient enough to know that I will survive in any positions or industry that you put me into.  Because I’m not just a technical person in one area, I can actually do a lot of things, it’s multifaceted. And when you actually move towards the top of the ladder as a CHRO, technical skills are very important. You actually build your leadership skills, and also your business acumen. Being a CHRO is entirely about you, being able to understand what the business needs are and translating it into talent requirements into organizational requirements. That’s my journey for the past 20 years end to end. 

Rockbird Media: Seeing your activities as an AirAsia CHRO through the internet, you seem so passionate and you do your best in your role. As a woman leader, what advice would you give to young women entering this profession?

I’m a mother. I have three kids, small kids actually – 9,5 and 4. People ask me “How do you direct, Intan? You have a full time career, you’re sitting at the C-suite level and you have three kids. How do you manage this?” For me, it’s all about understanding what your wants and needs are and being able to actually manage time. I have a full time job. I work like crazy but I manage to squeeze time for my kids and for my workout. I need to workout everyday because that’s time for myself. I spend most of my time for other people, for the organization, for my stakeholders. I need to re-energize every single day. That’s how I consume energy. As a woman, you need to be comfortable in your own skin. People might think “Oh my god, if you’re a woman, it must be hard for you to actually converse and be competitive with other men in the industry.” Well, it’s not about gender. It’s about you as a person, whether you’re a woman or a guy, you have the same skills set, you build your baseline. You need to be comfortable in your own skin and you need to make sure you set goals in life and plan for it. Personally, I like to plan my career and my life because that helps. If you plan your life around certain things, it’s more structured. As a mother, there’s additional accountability that you have at home as well. So you have to make sure you’re resilient enough to handle your time on what you need to do and focus on what matters most. In my family and career, how do I juggle these two? It’s a balance that you need to have . It’s more of understanding yourself. My motto is “You do you”. You can’t compare yourself to others. Never compete with anybody. For me, it’s me against me. Where I am today is actually based on what I want to do. My career, my achievements, it could be at work or my personal life. When it comes to anything in life, don’t compete against the people around you. You can emulate the good things, take the good, focus on the good. Don’t take in the bad. Focus on you. Whenever you feel like asking “How could that person be at that level?” Eventually, that person is him or her. It’s their career, it’s their life. Just focus on yourself. 

Join Intan together with the other phenomenal thought leaders as they discuss in Closing Panel – HR as a leader of transformation: Leading the journey beyond the traditional ways of working at 11th HR Leaders Asia 2022 on August 24th at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 

 

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