In the spotlight: Julie Hudtohan on Leadership

Julie Hudtohan

Ahead of the 10th HR Leaders Asia, an event gathering HR professionals from various industries, Rockbird Media will be chatting weekly with the thought leaders, and visionaries who will be gracing the event.

This week, we speak with Julie Hudtohan, Vice President for Human Resources, Unilever Philippines.

Making the interaction uniquely her own, she shared personal experiences of leadership. These included biases she seeks to overcome to truly illustrate the positive effects of inclusion and ripple effects of having diversity in the workplace – whether with regards to gender or other lenses,like socio-economic background.

She also talked about Unilever’s commitment to equity and creating a society that gives everyone a fair shot.

See for yourself below how Julie explores these topics. 

Who is Julie Hudtohan at work and home?

I’m a wife, daughter, HR leader, friend, among other things. I’m a very proud Unilever “lifer”. That’s what we call people who’ve been in Unilever for a very long time. It’s been 20 years of service so far and I’m very proud of the work we do there. 

Unilever is a huge part of my identity, my work life is a patchwork quilt of different experiences. Working for them has taken me out of the Philippines, into Singapore, Australia, Europe, and the United States. So, when I think of work, I think of global experiences and different cultures.

At home, we’re a modern family. I’m an only child currently based in Manila for my mom and dad who are senior citizens now. My husband, stepchildren and beloved cat  are in the UK. I go back and forth – it’s a modern example of how you can make it work.

You must feel elated to come back to your homeland after being in Europe for a long time. What insights about that context can you share with HR leaders in the Philippines?

It’s a beautiful gift but for Asians, especially Asian women, our mindset and our natural tendency is to be of service. We can be subservient and submissive, offering support to others while fading into the background. 

I think that’s the stereotype taken to an extreme. Growing up I loved the book and movie “The Joy Luck Club,” questioning the place Asian women have in society and asking how one finds her voice.

Working abroad in more assertive cultures, you learn to calibrate how you engage so that you have your fair share of airtime and your own point of view. If you want to lead in a different context, there should be no insecurity about stepping forward, taking charge of a situation or pushing back. I’m a firm believer that if you know your content, if you have a great idea, then you should speak up, take your space and contribute to the conversation or even lead it. Don’t just be the person supporting or picking up actions that other people have decided.

In the early years of working in Europe, that was the struggle. How do I find a way to be heard without changing who I am? Banging the table or fighting with others is not who I am. I found that it’s in the strength of your argument, based on the fact, the data that you gather, how people feel and what you know in the industry, what their employees are experiencing. That qualitative data are also facts that you can bring to the leadership table. 

By the time you get to board level, you’re so far away from the reality on the ground. Many times I find our Asian traits amazing, we have natural empathy and sympathy for people at all levels of the organization. You can bring that data to the top table and remind people, this is what the reality is five levels below you, this is what they experience on a day-to-day basis, these are the problems they have, this is how we can help.

In those 14 years in Europe, what would you say is the most challenging part of being an HR leader? How did you deal with these challenges?

I think one is I have to give Unilever a lot of credit. I didn’t change companies across those 20 years. It’s the same mother ship that I belong to. In some ways, the corporate culture of Unilever was stronger and more consistent from one place to another and had less variability based on the country’s culture. Even language-wise, English is the spoken language for Unilever in general. Even if you’re in the Philippines or if you go somewhere else, work conversations have always been in English. I haven’t been at a disadvantage in that sense. 

Was it easy? I think any change is difficult to a certain extent. What makes it easier, is I find that the first few weeks or months that I work in that different culture, I’m in observation mode. Just like when you’re a guest in someone’s house, you don’t impose your norms. You’re a guest in someone’s home so you adjust and you want to be a gracious guest and not offend the people hosting you. It is important to spend some time observing what the cultural norms are in your new workplace or your new environment and be sensitive to where there are differences and meet them halfway.

Maybe overtime either you can also share your own culture and offer a different way of doing things, but I think in the early days when you’re building trust and credibility as a newcomer, it’s always good practice to take the time to observe and to show an appreciation and understanding of their norms and their rules.

How did your global experience impact you?

If you’re a leader you want to have as big an arsenal of tools that you can draw on. Imagine that you have a toolbox, you want to fill your toolbox with all these different kinds of gadgets that you can pull out. So that when there’s a problem, maybe you’ll get the hammer, a wrench, a masking tape, or any other kind of tools you can think of. 

I find when you’re in different cultures, they use some tools more than other cultures. By spending time with different people from different cultures or different ways of working and you observing them you’re like, “That’s not how we do things in the Philippines” or “That’s not how we do things in Unilever Philippines”. In a different country or company, when they do something different, you can observe and if it’s an effective tool then you can practice it while you’re there. You can learn it, you can experiment with it, and then if it works, you add it to your clear toolbox.

Every encounter with a different culture or working in a different place, even if it’s just one or two or three new “tools” that you add, the global experience then gives you a richer toolbox to draw from the next time you’re faced with a problem. Whereas, maybe if I had only ever lived or worked in one context, the toolbox that I have would have fewer things inside.

Would you say that being exposed to different cultures develops your character or your personality?

With regards to values, I like to think that’s formed right in your formative years and it’s harder to change over time. There are some things I believe that at your core, they’re like bedrock or foundation, and you hold on to them no matter where you are. Things like integrity are really important to me and I think regardless of what culture or country I found myself working in, that hasn’t then did the change.

I think in terms of resilience, a character in the sense of your ability to cope with adversity, your grit, your ability for creative problem solving, I’d say I’m a beneficiary of the gains of having different experiences versus just being in one context.

Your muscles of resilience, grit, creative problem solving develop by pushing yourself to be out of your comfort zone or in new situations. When you get to exercise them, then they become strong muscles.

It is said that HR leaders hold a very important role in organizations. If there are characteristics an HR leader should embody, what are these?

I think all COVID did was to amplify key traits or competencies that are needed in HR people. It’s not that the pandemic made HR people different creatures, the foundation of what makes a great HR person hasn’t changed but the context of the pandemic shows the spotlight on how important those traits or our competencies are. 

I think one is the capacity for empathy. I spoke earlier about the ability to represent the voice of the employee, to advocate for the employee, whether or not you agree with what they’re asking for. In HR, having empathy for their situation and bringing the question or their request to the leadership table to be discussed, to be reviewed, to be debated, is part of our responsibility. Regardless of how you might personally feel, it’s part of our responsibility to surface what the voice of the employee is saying. It’s not just a feeling of closeness to the employee but empathy in the sense of you using the voice to advocate or represent what the employee’s concerns are. 

The second piece is about business acumen. Empathy without the context of business acumen, you could fall so in love with taking care of the employee that you make the company bankrupt. I always joke that if you’re in corporate HR, of course, we’re not a charity organization and there’s a profit and loss to balance. There’s a budget to take care of. 

I think for HR professionals, having business acumen and understanding of how the business works and that includes you know commercial and financial implications of the decisions we make in HR. That things don’t come for free,  the mathematics of what it takes to offer nice things to the employee population. Part of business acumen is the understanding of what the business needs and how do you go about addressing that. Sometimes, it’s also about pushing unpopular agenda. HR will be at the forefront of managing certain challenges and having a good business acumen to understand the trade-offs.

In the coming 10th HR Leaders Asia, you will be delivering a keynote presentation on Adversity Quotient. What can you say would be the most exciting part that the attendees can expect on the 27th of April?

I look forward to having a dialogue with people in the audience. I encourage our HR colleagues to come to the conference with a point of view or their questions around things like what they’re finding most challenging at the current time coming out of the pandemic. I think, as a collective, if we can harness the wisdom of so many of us gathered in one place and if I can help facilitate that idea exchange then it would be time well spent.

But I think if we get together, we should challenge ourselves to have an honest and direct conversation on what is difficult for us to do in HR at the moment and then brainstorm together on what might be the options to do in response.

HR can be a lonely place. People come to us for help and then where do we go in turn? To me,  my answer is that our professional community should be that place where you can be vulnerable, exchange ideas, and help each other.  

Julie on gender issues in the workplace.

While we celebrate International Women’s Day, I think it’s also important to remember that the gender issue or how people identify in terms of their sexuality, being discriminated against or not being treated equally is not just a gender problem for women. There’s the LGBTQ+ community that also faces these challenges. If you brought them the idea of diversity and inclusion, it’s not just people based on their sexual preference or gender who might feel that they can’t be their best selves at work, you can have social economic diversity challenges. I remember speaking with someone in Unilever, when when we started we didn’t come from well off families and a lot of people in the workplace did, there’s this social-economic divide where people can afford what food to eat, what clothes they’re wearing, what shoes and handbags they’re wearing, are all signals that can also make people feel like “outsiders”. In the workplace, it’s very interesting from an HR perspective ’cause there are all these different lenses right in terms of diversity and inclusion – that people have their different chips on their shoulder and the challenges that they’re dealing with.

At Unilever, we believe that acting on equity is essential to achieving overall equality and a fairer, more socially inclusive world. 

I encourage HR professionals to think beyond just males and females who might be the groups that are feeling like an outsider at work. What are the signals we can do? What are the processes or initiatives that we can launch to help those people have a voice, to give them a sense of belonging, and have a place in our organization?

What would be your message to your fellow HR practitioners?

As HR professionals, I think we should always remind ourselves that when we’re sitting on a leadership team, we have every right to be at that table. Our seat is no less important than the ones in finance, operations, marketing, or sales. We shouldn’t downplay the opportunity to use our voice around that leadership table and have a point of view not just in HR matters but actually on how the business is run. 

It was an absolute joy speaking with Julie! If you’re seeking to learn more, please join her keynote presentation on “Developing your AQ: A must for a crisis-ready leader”. A highly interactive learning, fun, and impressive execution at the 10th HR Leaders Asia.

#speakerspotlight #HRLeadersAsia #HRLeadersPH2022 #HrTechTransformation #TotalRewards #LearningDevelopment #EmployeeBranding #OrganizationalAgility #EmployeeEngagement

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About Rockbird Media

Rockbird media is an international business media company that produces B2B events and offers business solutions.