"It's OK that not everyone likes you, and not everyone appreciates how you work," says Dr Susan Chen, Head of People in Riot Games

When businesses are creaking under economic, societal and technological pressures, the importance of modern and people-centric HR functions and disciplines rises. It takes work to balance the needs of the business with the needs of the people. I chatted with Dr Susan Chen, who has one of the most colourful careers in the industry and a fresh and healthy mindset grounded in genuine experiences that I believe could be very helpful for many nowadays. In the following in-depth interview, we talk about why it's now a perfect time for a reset, discuss her book-writing experiences, examine erosions of organizational cultures and discover why chasing flashy job titles may not be the best path to success. Enjoy the read.
By Jan Takacs, 14th July 2023

Time for a reset

Hello, Susan! Thank you very much for taking the time. Currently, it looks rather gloomy around the world as people face numerous challenges, such as increasing economic pressure, anxiety from new advanced technology, or even social unrest in some places. On top of that, everything is moving and happening very fast. When you think about it, what goes through your mind? Do you see any silver linings?

Hey, Jan! Well, I think the silver lining is, in all this, a chance for reset and re-imagination. It feels like the world is forced to hit a reset button. We are fundamentally challenging so many things that we used to hold dear. That's either the way we work and live, like going to the office versus working remotely, our relationship with technology or even changing our life priorities entirely.

Take as an example this new idea of ChatGPT, the idea of AI. We are being pushed to question not only how we work but even how we think. And, if you want to get philosophical, it is fundamentally challenging who we are as human beings and how we activate our potential.

So, regarding the silver lining in all this is allowing ourselves to hit the reset and say, "Can I reimagine the world? Can I reimagine myself in this new world?"... And I personally find this re-imagination very exciting, although exhausting and sometimes scary.
“We are being pushed to question not only how we work but even how we think.”
Such changes are complex and often come with a lot of resistance. In this particular case, it also cuts both ways and feels increasingly unequal. Only some have the privilege to adapt quickly, as it requires the right mindset, attitude and access. Do you worry about rising inequalities and how it impacts everyone, for the better or worse?

From the impact perspective, it absolutely does apply to everyone, although sometimes it feels like it's a 'First World' problem (when we talk about it together like this).

But, let's remember, there are parts of the world, as well as some industries and professions, where people may not have the luxury of thinking about being proactive and how to adapt, but at the same time, they are impacted nonetheless. This revolution of technology and work will impact everyone. But how we can deal with it, ... it's difficult to say.

In my opinion, just like with all changes, depending on the individual reflectiveness, and the reality of our circumstances, it will allow us to make certain thoughtful decisions because I think it's a luxury to hit the reset and reflect. And unfortunately, not everyone's in that situation.

The challenge with these kinds of revolutions, from a societal point of view, is that the polarisation becomes bigger and bigger. Those who have access to technology, those who have access to flexibility, and those who have access to knowledge, can adapt well and even leapfrog ahead if they choose the right approach. And at the same time, we are leaving parts of our society behind.

So that divide within the society becomes even greater, even more polarised. And we definitely don't think enough about the outcome and implications of that.

Approaching career as a learning journey

Everyone seems to be chasing job titles nowadays. We want to get senior-sounding roles very quickly, ideally next week. That's why I find it fascinating that in your life, you actually declined many opportunities for new promotions or big titles that were there and chose to go in a different direction, which often even came with pay cuts. That's something almost unheard of. Can you talk about that mindset and why it worked out well for you long-term?

There's something about instant gratification in our current society. There's the title, the promotion. But what I've always helped me is to remind myself that our career is more of a journey, less an outward representation of our status and worth. So, when you approach it as a learning journey, your conversations with yourself and your decisions will be different and primarily based on learning.

I still remember when I first decided to turn down a regional head role. It was earlier in my career. To be given that opportunity, it was brilliant. I could have chased that, and it would make me feel really good to be able to be a regional head of HR so early in my career. But when I started to think deeply about learning, about the longer-term journey,... what I did not want was to lock myself (in the industry).

In my opinion, the quicker you grow, there is a danger that it becomes so tempting just to continue. I started in retail hospitality and felt that it wasn't where I wanted to be forever in terms of a career. I want to learn about different industries. I want to understand what managing a knowledge-based economy looks like compared to a more resource-based organization. So, when I had a personal conversation about learning, those decisions became easier. It wasn't as hard.

Additionally, I think some of these decisions are best made (and should be) earlier in your career because you have fewer limitations and can focus on your career through a narrative and on the experience of learning. Because eventually, you will need to think about other aspects, such as family or kids, and it will be more challenging. You will not always have the luxury of making decisions based only on your learning preferences and personal growth.
"I learned how important it is to choose not only a company but also the leaders or the team I work with."
Delivery services in Southeast Asia see spike in business because of COVID-19 (Source: Channel News Asia, Photo: Mediacorp)
Making appearances Susan speaking at People Matters by TechHR in Singapore, which is Asia’s largest HR & worktech conference
Your career is full of various successes and many bright moments. Can you tell me about an experience when something went wrong, or you made a bad decision and what you learnt from it?

The funny thing is that earlier in my career, I was not as intentional about choosing where I wanted to work as I should have been. I learned how important it is to choose not only a company but also the leaders or the team I work with.

Thinking back, it was more like, "OK, I want to get into a knowledge-based kind of organization. What are my circumstances? What makes sense for me?" And then, just make a decision based on that. 

But after working with many startups, where you usually work with leaders and founders so closely, I've learned to be more intentional in making those decisions, recognizing that a lot of the work and impact you do is still surrounded by the leadership you anchor yourself around. By not making it a part of your (job selecting) intentional decision, you may get into a situation where you cannot be impactful because it's just not the right team for you. Some of the less positive experiences in my career are linked to not necessarily working with the right leaders and leadership teams.

Which is really more on me for not being so intentional with such considerations. It does go back to the easiness of chasing the shiny companies. But, when you go inside, especially in the hyper-growth space and startups, it's a lot more about recognizing how impactful you can be through a productive ecosystem and figuring out things on your own a lot, compared to a more corporate setting, where you have a lot more safety nets to navigate.

You don't have to work well with certain types of leadership, and it's OK. It's OK that not everyone likes you and not everyone appreciates how you work.
Currently, you work in Riot Games. As a gamer myself, this industry always looked exciting, at least from the outside. But, at the same time, when you read about the details and stories from people within the gaming industry, it sounds highly challenging. With tight deadlines, many high-profile content releases, a very demanding user base,... How has your experience been so far?

For me, being initially a non-gamer and then also being in Riot, a unique, single-product gaming company, in the sense that we have, as a main product, League of Legends, one of the oldest-running games in the world.

To have a single product for ten years plus is unique, which I haven't appreciated as much until I got into the organization. My most significant surprise was seeing an organization evolve from the single product focus standpoint, building a company around that single product to multi-product in such a short time, and seeing so many transformation opportunities, both around the product and organizationally.

On top of that, I am experiencing what it means to be truly integrated with the business to see that growth and potential, which is not typical from a people/HR perspective.

Coincidentally, I joined when we started this adventure into TV entertainment, having a Netflix show. I didn't even realize how pivotal the moment was (for the organization), and then later also realized that it might have an industry-changing potential.

So far, It's been two years. And it still feels like there's so much for me to learn and experience, and bringing that people's perspective into it. It often is tiring but exciting, which is lovely. I thought I could take a little breather, but that didn't happen yet (smiles).

Three manuscripts, one book

You recently published a book. As someone who does (very little) content on my own, I know it's often overlooked that quality content production is hard and time-consuming. Writing, rewriting, producing, changing, editing, re-editing, it's a challenge.I saw you mentioned that your manuscript was originally from 2016. So, we are going back in time a little. Can you tell me more about your original motivation? I assume it was not like, "OK, let's write a book." out of the blue.

The caveat is I, in theory, wrote three books. Three manuscripts and only the third one have been published. I can walk you through that journey, as it's a great learning experience.

I started with, "What message do I want to put out in the world? What is something that I think is an important message to engage with the reader and the audience?" That was my starting point. I started my book initially thinking about the dynamics of success and failure.

My original book was about interviewing successful people, particularly women. I was looking at it from a woman's perspective and getting them to share their failures and what they learned from them.

What was interesting, as I've gone through the journey and interviewed these fantastic women ... I interviewed people like the generals in the army in Australia, a very successful executive for Twitter and others. I realized something: their story wasn't for me to tell.

It was somewhat arrogant on my part to think that I could tell someone else's story authentically and connectively (in my opinion).

I felt as I was going through the manuscript, "How arrogant of me," and I did not appreciate how it made me feel. So, I decided that wasn't the approach; that wasn't the storytelling I wanted to do, and I parked the whole thing away.

That was a big learning because it took a year and a half, or maybe even two, of solid work, and it was not easy to put it away.
“The funny part of this entire book story is that once you have a very clear point of view of what you don't want to be and what you want to be, everything goes much faster.”
What was the story of the second manuscript?

I've been deep in the startup world back then and kind of jumping into the unknown, similar to you (previously). Before I had kids and got married, I packed my bag and moved to Jakarta; I didn't speak the language. Sure, I had a job, but I didn't know a single person. 

When I was there, in such an emerging and dynamic market, I started writing a book more from an emerging market perspective, putting together and sharing the stories from an HR practice angle. 

And then, again, when I almost finished the book. I realized that through this process, I was unveiling only my own perception and experiences, which made me feel a bit arrogant again. Because I wrote that book, and then again, I looked at it and thought that only because it all worked out well for that particular company and me, it doesn't mean it is the only way people should do things (in a startup) everywhere.

I thought that was arrogant because who said there is the best way of doing things? What I wrote might not work for others in other situations at all. Also, I did not want the book to be (mostly) about myself, so I put that project in a drawer again.

After such a long writing journey, my career and I continued to grow through that, even though the first two projects never got published. 

Eventually, that experience allowed me to be very clear on what I stand for and what I truly believe, which helped me a lot to shape the (third) book that got just published, The Death of Best Practices, which is really all about recognising that best practice is a mindset, and not necessarily a series of frameworks.

Especially when we talk about how the world needs to hit the reset, which means that almost any of the best practices we've been discussing during the last decade or so have become questionable. It's time to move away from them and reimagine.

The funny part of this entire book story is that once you have a very clear point of view of what you don't want to be and what you want to be, everything goes much faster. So, in my case, the third manuscript happened in a much shorter time compared to the first two.
Delivery services in Southeast Asia see spike in business because of COVID-19 (Source: Channel News Asia, Photo: Mediacorp)
Long journey towards the first published book The Death of Best Practices invites you to explore HR leadership centered around curiosity and grit, quite different from the standard "been-there" and "done-that" playbooks from best practices.

Company cultures erode quietly, but quickly

You are a big believer in building a strong company culture, and we both experienced the dramatic impact of good or bad cultures on companies. Previously you shared (in other publications) that culture is shaped by the worst behaviours organisations tolerate. Can you elaborate on that? And why do you believe that is the case?

Based on my experiences, the destruction of a company culture happens much quicker than the time you take to build it up.

I have seen companies with great cultures for ten years and more being destroyed within one or two years because of the worst behaviour of some people there.

The reason it's important to articulate it that way is that if we want leaders to be reflective and take action, we can't have them only talking about all these beautiful things they want, as it will not get us anywhere. It simply doesn't shift people's mindsets.

Because when you ask them (leaders), "What do you want in your culture?" you will hear all the same things, like collaboration, responsibility and respect, but that ultimately doesn't help people. It becomes much easier when you ask, "Alright, so what is not OK here?"

Results from such discussions then become the guiding principles for difficult decisions later. This is especially true in organisations, where some people have preferential treatment or enjoy exceptional approval for certain things; those can erode team cultures very quickly and are good examples of behaviours that should not be tolerated. 

Because usually, the drivers for culture's erosion are behaviours that are more nuanced, relatively discreet, and sometimes invisible, and not those obvious examples like someone shouting at people.

That's why I'm a big believer in shaping it that way, at least to help managers truly think about the culture they're building through action and behaviour so it becomes much more actionable. Otherwise, culture feels so fluffy and so intangible, just words on a piece of paper.

No strawberries, please

Moving on to the last part, I have a couple of quick, slightly off-topic questions; answering them is entirely up to you.

What would it be if you could choose a different career or job?

I would love to be an interior designer, focusing on small spaces like tiny homes.
What's the most interesting place you've visited, and why?

Probably, the most interesting place I've visited was Israel. It was so intriguing because it was a country where I could truly feel a sense of history and how it influences its past, present and future.

I had many fascinating conversations there, especially with the younger generation. They seemed so mature and grown up.
If you had a magic wand for one hour, what would you change in the world? And why?

I'm a big believer in education, so if I could change the world, I would like to see what universal access to education could mean for the world. I would love to see the impact of providing an excellent education to everyone.
What's the most unusual thing about you that people don't know?

What a weird question. Maybe, it's kind of boring, but I am very allergic to strawberries, and I had not tasted a strawberry since I was 18 after having a terrible incident at my birthday party (back then) when I had a fresh strawberry daiquiri that caused me to go to the hospital.
If given a chance, in which movie, TV show or any artwork would you want to spend a day?

I'm a big fan of true crime, so I would love to follow the minds of true crime detectives. I would love to understand how it happens, as solving a crime is so much an intersection between psychology and the evidence. It would be super interesting to see how it works and explore the craft and science behind forensics.
Given that Southeast Asia is a very young region, what would you say if you had a chance to give a single piece of advice to the young and ambitious?

Focus on learning and not chasing the shiny next big thing. And when I say learning,... it's great to spend the time to build a habit of self-reflection and strong self-awareness. And the earlier you can create that, the further it will carry you.
What a lovely ending. Thank you very much, Susan.

Thank you, Jan!
About Susan
Susan is an accomplished talent strategist and people leader who drives sustainable growth in diverse companies. She has collaborated with healthcare start-ups, share economy platforms, fintech MNCs, energy companies, and entertainment giants across Indonesia, Singapore, Norway, and the US. A strong advocate for education transformation and inclusion, Susan's extensive international experience in Taiwan, New Zealand, the UK, Norway, Singapore, and Indonesia complements her PhD in knowledge management from the University of Stavanger, Norway. She is currently pursuing further education in educational psychology and research at Massey University, New Zealand, published a book 'The Death of Best Practices' and recently launched a consultancy co:grow, focusing on business transformation through people function. You can drop her a note via LinkedIn here.
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