Go-Jek’s Dr. Susan Chen on Transforming People Strategy in Startups

For most tech startups, product and growth are the two top priorities as they scale higher and faster.  With the need to lengthen the runway of funds, the Human Resource (HR) priorities are largely bucketed into recruitment and admin.  But that is slowly changing as start-ups mature and founders witness the importance (or impact of the lack of) strong HR fundamentals in their organization - and are now bringing in top HR leaders to lead the change!

      Dr. Susan P. Chen, Go-Jek's Head of OD & Transformation

     Dr. Susan P. Chen, Go-Jek's Head of OD & Transformation

Dr. Susan P. Chen, who recently joined Go-Jek as their Head of Organization Development and Transformation is an example of this transformation.

I’ve always enjoyed being in roles that has a transformative nature and I love to be based in the emerging markets where all the action is happening!
— Dr. Susan P. Chen

Susan joined the Indonesian ride-hailing start-up Go-Jek as a Senior Vice President in May 2018, after years of experience as Head of HR in the corporate world. “It was a pretty easy decision because I think I’ve always enjoyed being in roles that has a transformative nature,” says Susan, “and I love to be based in the emerging markets where all the action is happening!”

Armed with $1.5 billion in new funding from existing investors eager to accelerate its overseas expansion, she reveals that Go-Jek recognizes the need to transform and scale the business to greater heights. All while sustaining its business model internationally and continuing to build upon its core business in Indonesia.

Eloquent, enthusiastic and earnest. Susan is sure to inspire those whom she speaks with. The interview was full of energy and zest about her ambitions and possibilities with Go-Jek.

For Susan, this move was a golden opportunity for her to make a social impact, something which she genuinely wants to be a part of. “I am not Indonesian but I am actually very proud of the social impact Go-Jek has made in Indonesia!” Susan laughs, “It’s amazing how it has truly changed the way people live and work. It’s a change that will leave a legacy in Indonesia and I’ll like to see us doing that across different markets.”

What is your role in this ambitious task?

“My role is to make sure our people strategy is aligned with the business strategy.” She believes that understanding the business strategy is crucial to putting together the right teams that properly support those strategies. “So it requires us to know what product we are going to launch, what is the support structure, and then we can identify the right talent,” Susan shares.

Her responsibilities also include identifying the short-term needs of a business as well as its long-term sustainability model. “At Go-Jek, we absolutely need a more integrated and sustainable approach to the way we operate. That goes across to our product and with how we work with our talents as well,” says Susan.

What made you want to take on this challenge of joining Go-Jek?

It’s a deliberate choice of what kind of HR leader you want to be. HR as a profession definitely has room to transform and be further developed
— Dr. Susan P. Chen

As a self-professed advocate of HR transformation, Susan was thrilled when the opportunity came to join Go-Jek. The big draw for her was the chance to revamp HR itself. She understands that many view human resources as a mundane and unfulfilling career. However, after being in HR for 15 years, she clearly begs to differ. “It’s a deliberate choice of what kind of HR leader you want to be,” says Susan, “HR as a profession definitely has room to transform and be further developed.”

One major draw on the role is the ability to own and drive business and HR transformation. Transformation requires a very structured, systematic and consistent approach to change. The executional part of transformation may be unsexy, but necessary for the sustainability of change. It requires a clear articulation of our objectives and the aligned actions required to deliver on the outcome. To find the clarity required and drive the actions towards the change is what excites her about going to work every day.

She thinks more needs to be done to foster the next generation of HR professionals. “I think there is some great work going on. I can see pockets of it but how do we take that to the next level and develop HR as a profession? We need to first start changing the profession in terms of how it is viewed by building our worth and credibility from within,” says Susan.

On the future of HR, she envisions it to be a sexy and exciting profession that many will want to get in, much like how data scientist leapfrogged to become the coolest profession in recent times. But, “that will require a fundamental change in terms of education of HR and the way HR is developing the organization,” Susan reckons.

What does the Grab-Uber deal mean for Go-Jek in terms of talent acquisition?

 (Picture Credits:  EKRUT )

(Picture Credits: EKRUT)

“We are definitely attracting talents from the competitors. However, we will also assess them carefully because we are a very different company in terms of culture, DNA and operating model,” Susan says.

The magic word in that paragraph is ‘different’. But how?

“I think our people will make a difference because the way we view social impact is unlike our competitors,” Susan says, “Hence, for each market we operate in, we make sure our business decision, the way we work and the people we recruit fit into that social impact we want to create.”

Susan does not believe in a blanket strategy when it comes to recruiting talents. At Go-Jek, diversity of ideas is important, and they put much thought and consideration to engage a variety of talents.

How important is HR for startups?

“In most of the startups I’ve seen and even in early stage Go-Jek, usually, HR is the first they bring on board but also the weakest link,” says Susan. She admits that in the early stages, HR is often left as an afterthought or eschewed entirely. “Many important HR agenda, such as employer branding and total rewards will be much more organic for the first two years,” Susan notes.

However, when the business does not have consistent hiring practices and capability, it is often not sustainable. Usually, this poses a challenge after series B funding. “Between series B and C, investors are much more critical now as they will start expecting a sustainable business model. That’s where founders begin to realize there isn’t a systematic approach in place and even hiring practices are not on track,” says Susan.

As the business scales in size, HR will become increasingly integral to the structure of the business. It defines the culture, the potential and thus capabilities of a company. This means that HR needs to be more business savvy and viewed as one of the pillars of the business from the get-go.

What advice would you give to HR practitioners wanting to move to a startup?

Be in the arena that people don’t think about you being in
— Dr. Susan P. Chen

Susan thinks there are a few key skills one should have before making the big move.

Starting off is the grit in wanting to understand the business model well. She observed that many HR professionals were unable to connect the people strategy with the business strategy. “A strategy will only be impactful if you translate into tactical and operational delivery,” says Susan, “The right HR who knows about the business will certainly make a good future leader in general management as they continue to grow.”

Furthermore, one needs to be hands-on and willing to roll up their sleeves. She gives an example where there were days she would have to send out offers because everyone else’s plates are full. “There’s nothing I cannot do just because I am an SVP,” says Susan. And when in doubt, never be afraid to ask questions. “Every day, I wake up knowing there is so much more I need to learn and so much I don’t know. I will unabashedly ask my team what it means for this and that,” Susan laughs.

Lastly, she encourages HR practitioners to explore beyond their comfort zone. “Be in the arena that people don’t think about you being in” says Susan.  All too often, she notes that HR personnel are only invited to HR related meetings and thus lack exposure to other business operations. Giving an example of stepping up she recalls “Once, I overheard that there was a new country expansion strategy meeting between the different business department and I ask if I could invite myself. They say of course I can!” So the bottom line is to lean in and speak up. After all, what’s the worst thing that could happen even if the answer is no?


 

References:

Go-Jek is an on-demand service provider with various services such as transportation, logistics, payment, food delivery, and more. It connects people with hundreds of thousands of merchants, motorcycle drivers, beauticians, and other on-demand service providers.