Michael Wright: The HR Interview

Being involved in social media gives me an opportunity to come across individuals from all over the globe. And as I discover and learn more about them I begin to understand and appreciate what I do as a Human Resources practitioner more. In spite differences in language, cultural norms and business practices, the HR game is much the same in other parts of the world as it is here in New York City. It essentially boils down to this question: How can we find, recruit, develop, and motivate people to be the best people we need them to be?

For the next few weeks I’m going to highlight Human Resources practitioners from around the world. Their stories will hopefully inspire those who may want to experience what the world has to offer the right HR person. First up is Michael Wright, one of the most atypical practitioners I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. A varied and unusual background, Michael is about making great things happen. Check out his story!

State your name. rank, and serial number (aka who you are and what you do).

I am Michael, and you can call me Mike, Mick, “Blunter” or Mikey, but I’m allergic to “Mickey” and I may resort to violence if you call me that. I spend my time obsessing about Talent on behalf of GroupM in Asia, who are the Media Investment Management arm of WPP and responsible for planning and implementing about 1/3 of the advertising that everyone in the world, everywhere, experiences, every day of every year.

Tell the readers about how you wound up in the Asian Talent Acquisition space.

I founded a Recruiting firm back in 2001 in the UK, and by 2005 research and experience had led me to believe that the 3rd party recruitment industry in England was heading towards absolute commoditization with the rise of RPO and Indian BPO. So I decided our firm needed to be somewhere where we could better leverage our assets and expertise. I picked China.

I started planning to exit England in 2005. So I hired a team to execute on the strategy of getting there and we eventually ended up in Beijing in 2007.

I’ve been here ever since, now based in Singapore and overseeing recruiting activity in the whole region.

The cultural diversity of the market you cover is amazing! How do you keep up with it all?

Each country is unique in terms of people, climate, ways of getting stuff done. So making great things happen over such a wide and different space requires courage, patience, great listening skills and endless enthusiasm. Most important of all is to have a team of stars in the markets, people who you have a shared agenda with. It’s not rocket science. A keen interest in food helps with bonding as food is the preferred social lubricant out here, rather than back home in the UK, where it’s definitely booze.

During our conversation you mentioned “building trust” several times in relation to how you conduct business. Can you elaborate on this?

In Asia, relationships are very important. Lots of people will tell you that and I guess it might be confusing to someone from the West to hear it, because people tend to think “relationships are very important everywhere.” I think that the higher value of relationships out here stems from a number of factors, not limited to these themes: the concept of face, filial piety, inconsistent political governance and collectivism. I find referral networking works a lot better out here than they ever did in the UK, because the relationship networks that exist are better developed, and if people trust you, they will go right out of their way to help you. I find that in the West, people are more individualistic and therefore less likely to assist if you only have weak ties with them.

You say that “HR is not known for experimentation” in Asia. Where do you see the gap?

When I look at other companies of similar scale to us, and when I talk to a lot of HR professionals that work inside them–I pick up that a lot of the work that they do is execution. Adaptation of global initiatives. This is a shame because the market requires a different approach to just twisting and shaping something which was conceived in London or New York for it to be truly effective. If you don’t give Asia a chance to conceive, own, and deploy locally born initiatives then there will always be an expectation that the ideas always come from the overseas headquarters (HQ). And I guess many HQ’s like the feeling of being in control a little too much. This is changing, but slowly. Our case is quite different, because I report into Angela, GroupM’s Global Chief Talent Officer who is based here in Singapore, which means we are able to come up with and apply original, sometimes experimental ideas which are custom built from scratch to meet local challenges. I geek out on blogs and white papers coming from the US and I see high levels of sophistication in thinking and doing over there. It seems that HR is in a very exciting spot right now and there’s quite a bit of disruption happening.

Part of why I reached out to you to conduct this interview was your atypical style and career path. You didn’t graduate from University. You’re a former DJ. You express strong opinions on your blog. How has that helped or hurt your career?

I guess it’s all about context. I ran my own business for 11 years and so for that reason I felt the freedom to do whatever I wanted without fear of negative PR. Being a DJ and Producer got me to meet all kinds of connections–from Asian film stars to Chinese government officials–and it was sometimes a fun talking point with clients and candidates. More importantly than that, music production and performance provided a valve to release some of the pent up tension that you get from being far from home and operating a business in a complex and strange setting.

But my cheeks turned scarlet when I was explaining to my now boss in the interview how I’d had a career as a somewhat famous DJ. One thing about the Media and Advertising Business I’ve learned since then is that we love people who have a story to tell and are interesting people, who are interested in stuff and follow their passions. So I guess I tick that box. As for my lack of academic credentials, well I’m proud to tell you that GroupM are probably one of the few organizations in Asia who have initiatives in place to take in new hires who didn’t get to do a Bachelor Degree.

Regarding the blog, I’m just trying to keep it real. We have a clear code of conduct and I’m just careful to operate within that. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be a bit snarky when it’s justified. I tend to gravitate towards reading the blogs of other people only when you can see the real person shining through.

What prompted you to get involved with social media?

My dad worked at IBM for the best part of 20 years. He was always bringing home huge computing devices with green, eventually color screens that almost filled up whole rooms. So my Internet experience began before the launch of the WWW ‘proper’ and certainly before the first website was launched, before 1990. Prior to the Internet we know now, it was kind of a cool cross-country means for people to collaborate and share files and stuff. So the idea of the Internet being first and foremost a means for strangers from different places to work together–the “Social” Internet, if you will, was embedded in me from a very, very young age.

Hence it’s not surprised me at all to see the social web continued to advance and it’s been pretty easy for me to adapt and capitalize on changes, especially those which make my life easier as a recruiter, heh.

Anyone in the Recruiting space who is really old like me remembers Geocities, Usenet and early BBS will know what I’m talking about in terms of that being a theoretical foundation to max out the value of today’s social media.

What advice would you give to a Human Resources professional looking for global opportunities such as those you’ve obtained?

It sounds like an obvious one but…Don’t just start firing your resume off without networking with fellow Talent Professionals who already work where you are interested in exploring. The demand for expatriates with experience outside of Asia, are still plentiful right now but are fading, gradually, as local knowledge (culture, business practices, laws, talent-networks) becomes even more important–so act now, if that’s practical. Keep an open mind – do it for the experience first and for the lifestyle and pay packet second. Don’t approach seeking overseas employment with the “Teacher” hat, on wear the “Humble Student” hat instead.

What’s the next challenge for you, professionally speaking?

GroupM and her operating companies are relatively unheard of outside of the communications and advertising industry, despite employing something like 20,000 people globally. As such we don’t make many of the “employer of choice” lists because we don’t have the same brand recognition that many of our customers do. I think that by continuing to focus on recruiting and developing the best possible talent, we can move that needle and become more visible as one of the best places to work.

Our industry, the way people consume Media, moves at light speed, so our biggest challenge in Talent Acquisition is finding a means to attract diverse talents from outside the industry, who don’t yet know who we are, at scale. So I’d say that finding a solution to that whilst maintaining a positive recruitment experience is top of mind for me, and a huge challenge professionally.


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