It was 2am on a Friday night when an epiphany dawned on Paul Thomas Kannimmel, a research assistant at a local university, that there was more to life than being cooped up in a lab. So, despite his parents’ objections, he quit his job the following week. While figuring out his next step, he held down two part-time jobs – as a waiter and voice-over talent – to pay his bills. While waiting tables, he met with a Sales Manager at (then) Glaxo, leading Paul to clinch the position of medical sales representative with the company.
Three years later, Glaxo offered him a promotion and an option to branch out into sales, marketing or training. Instead of remaining in sales or going for the highly sought-after marketing role, he decided to take the unconventional route and go into training. “I saw a lot of room for improvement in the training function, and not many people were doing it then. I thought I could make a difference and contribute to the field. I guess it was like a ‘blue ocean, red ocean’ strategy,” he explains.
Thus began the first chapter of his story in human resources. Paul, who describes himself as an “eager beaver” with great curiosity and appetite for learning, was soon thrust into the role of acting Human Resources (HR) Manager, which he took on with great gusto. At the same time, he had also enrolled in an MBA programme, which led him to another defining moment in his career. “One of the guys in my study group was the Finance Director of Warner Lambert, and he told me they were looking to fill the HR Director position there. I was surprised; I hardly had any experience then. But I went for the interview at his insistence, and against all odds, I was given the job!” remarks Paul, who had been in HR for just over a year at that point. “It was a very steep learning curve and I was the youngest member of the team. Those days, HR directors were at least in their mid- 40s and there was I, 27 years old, the HR Director for Malaysia and Singapore,” says Paul, who reckons he was fortunate enough to have had great mentors to learn from early on in his career.
He fondly recalls that one of his best learning experiences came when he grabbed the opportunity to work in Hong Kong for six years, as the first-ever Asian HR Director for Pfizer, managing 21 countries across Asia Pacific (ex-Japan). “It was a wonderful experience living and working outside Malaysia for the first time, an experience I would highly recommend to any HR practitioner. It gave me a completely different perspective, having to deal with different cultures and travelling across a diverse region.”
Just when it seemed like his career was on a roll, Paul received some devastating news. His wife was diagnosed with cancer, an illness she bravely battled for three years and ultimately lost. By then, Paul, his wife and their six-yearold daughter had returned to Kuala Lumpur. A year later, he received another devastating blow – Pfizer announced a major downsizing exercise and his position had been made redundant.
Despite these unexpected setbacks, he kept going. “When life throws you lemons, you make lemonade right?” he quips. So, following a one-year stint with an animal nutrition company Gold Coin, he moved on to General Electric (GE), overseeing HR for the ASEAN region and then as Head of Organisational Development for ASEAN - a three-year experience that he thoroughly enjoyed.
In 2015, Paul decided that it was time to strike a balance between work and family, and decided to join Astro Malaysia Holdings Berhad as its Senior Vice President, Human Capital. He took on the role because it involved less travelling to allow him to spend more time with his daughter, who is now 14. He feels that one of the most satisfying aspects is his ability to influence and nurture potential in his current role.
“Never forget the ‘human’ in human resources.”
He is in the process of implementing several leadership programmes at Astro to build a strong leadership and talent pipeline. In fact, Astro recently launched its High Potential Leadership Programme to groom middle managers into senior managers. “I learned that you don’t need to be a subject matter expert to be a leader. You surround yourself with people who are well-versed with the subject and learn the business along the way. As long as you have some level of business acumen, sound reasoning and logic, and of course put in the effort, it’s possible to get into different industries, learn those industries, and lead them.”
His advice to graduates is to embrace difficult challenges, acquire more business savviness, gain overseas work exposure if possible, and above all, to stay humble. “Also, never forget the ‘human’ in human resources. When no one else is talking about the human agenda, it’s your job to remind your CEO to take that into consideration for all the company’s big decisions. It’s a balance between the business agenda and people agenda that we need to strike.”