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Finding Your Purpose-Driven Career | Rong Shang, Unilever

Passion. Just another buzzword, or something we can all find? We speak to Cheong Rong Shang, a Human Resources Practitioner at Unilever. She shares about the importance of self-discovery and how we should change the way we search for meaning.

Lazy afternoons for the young Rong Shang were spent in front of a whiteboard, imagining herself a teacher. Back then, her younger sister would always take up the role of her “student”. At a tender age, Rong already knew what she loved and what she wanted to be.

Today, the thirty-year-old is a HR Business Partner to Unilever International, one of Unilever’s business units. She looks at the future growth of the company driven by unmet needs in various markets, and develops the talent and resources needed to propel this growth.

But this isn’t a case of a dream unfulfilled. In fact, it was constant self-reflection and a good dose of bravery that got Rong to her current role, where she sees meaning and excitement in what she does.

After completing her A Levels in 2006, Rong followed her passion and did a stint as a relief teacher at Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, her alma mater. She enjoyed her time spent teaching, but it was also then that she realised that this wasn’t the career for her.

"I didn’t pursue teaching because I realised that you don’t only have to deal with teaching, but also with the admin matters and with difficult parents,” said Rong. “And when I evaluate that, I came to discover that the satisfaction I got from teaching students wasn’t enough to overcome that."

So being a teacher was out. Still, Rong was clear about her love for teaching, which wasn’t necessarily tied to a specific profession.

When the time came to enter university, she embarked on a degree in business management at SMU, intrigued by the idea of starting her own business.

Understanding yourself

The summer before her final year, Rong still wasn’t clear on what she wanted to do with her life. The year before, she completed a marketing internship with social enterprise Eighteen Chefs, where she got the chance to follow a founder on his journey in navigating the tough F&B scene in Singapore.

Spurred on by an ex-teacher to just apply for internships and gain interview experience, she sent in an application for the Unilever Leadership Internship Program in HR.

From there, things developed fast. After submitting her application on Sunday, she was called in for an interview on Monday, received a call back on Tuesday, and on Wednesday got asked to fly out to Australia that weekend.

“We dove straight into the project meeting and there were all these acronyms I didn’t understand, and there were Bain and Co. consultants there, and Unilever people there, and everyone was talking in code!” said Rong with a laugh.

Her internship opened up her eyes to how much the company is willing to invest in future readiness of the organisation, as well as the strategic nature of HR is the organisation – a departure from the typical impression of HR specialists simply being recruiters or admin staff.

“It was like doing a diagnostic test,” explained Rong. “We were like investigators. We looked at the readiness of the organisation for its business growth and future ambitions from a talent, skills, organisation and culture perspective.”

RongShang Unilever
Rong (bottom row, first from left) conducted a workshop this year for Unilever about the new standards of leadership put forth by the company.

Going through that internship made her realise that HR married both her interest in business and in teaching.

“I always tell all my interns, when you come into Unilever for an internship, the whole purpose is to help you discover what you want to do in life. It's not to tell you whether Unilever is the right place for you,” said Rong.

She advised young adults to go for internships with companies that are agnostic to their academic background. This is because what one is studying might not be what they want to work in, and firms are trending towards placing less of a focus on an applicant’s background.

She also emphasised the importance of continuous self-discovery.

“You’re asking an 18 or 19-year-old to tell you what they want to do in life, when they have another 50 years of working life? That’s too much pressure.”

Rong’s stint with Unilever also helped her crystallise her priorities.

“After that internship, I was very clear that soft skills are what you take out of your time in university,” she said. “As students, we should be focusing on picking up the skill of connecting the dots, and how to apply a concept or theory in different scenarios.”

Working adults get thrown into new environments all the time, and the learning curve can be very steep, she said. How one behaves in one scenario might not work in a new one.

Hence, young adults need to polish and build their confidence to ask the right questions in their workplace. This helps to develop what Rong calls “learning agility”.

Mining for meaning

Last year, a Linkedin survey of working adults aged between 25 and 33 years showed that a top concern is finding a job that they are passionate about. Before that, ManpowerGroup’s 2016 report revealed that for millennials all over the world, having a sense of purpose in their work is a priority.

But how does one find meaning in what they do?

“A lot of young people expect the companies to show them what’s meaningful about their work,” said Rong. “The number one thing that people need to know is that companies won’t give you meaning; you have to find meaning in the job.”

Knowing what you want would help define that meaning, she said.

But she also acknowledged that not many know what they want. “If this is the case, then find a culture that allows you to be who you are,” said Rong.

This means that it is important to be in an environment that isn’t emotionally toxic, but one that you are comfortable with. Such an environment will give room for one to confidently strive for experiences that can help one understand what fuels them.

Rong and partners from One Young World organisation with Unilever CEO Paul Polman (fourth from left) at the One Young World Conference – Bangkok 2015.

For Rong, being curious and wanting things in her organisation to be better is what drives her. This characteristic was heavily shaped by competitive basketball during her schooling days.

Aside from that, she is motivated by wanting to preserve the things that are core to business performance. For instance, she recognises the importance of culture to Unilever, and constantly keeps that in mind when evaluating decisions that her business unit has proposed.

“It’s to safeguard the culture, because whatever we have achieved till today is because of it. If we kill the culture, this business is gone,” said Rong.

As much as Rong believes in working hard, she is also a firm proponent of the need to take care of one’s mental and physical health in order to sustain oneself for the long run.

Late nights, gastric problems and constant stress were a norm for her. It took a slew of troubles that hit close to home for her to finally realise she needed to relook her priorities.

In 2016, an intense six months into her new role at Unilever, she received some worrying news about her loved ones that wore her down emotionally.

“That was the trigger point. I asked myself, ‘Am I focusing on the right things?’” she said.

She realised that she couldn’t have it all and began building the discipline to prioritise her welfare. She said that a huge part of this comes from having confidence in herself.

For instance, bosses in any organisation might have the tendency to contact their employees on weekends about work. But Rong encourages young workers to challenge their instinct to respond.

“Don’t do respond unless it’s very urgent. And you can only do this if you build trust with the people around you that you can deliver,” she stressed. “The more confidence you have in your own capabilities, the more you can take care of yourself.”

Looking back on her journey thus far, Rong is thankful for all the opportunities that have helped her discover more about herself and what is important to her.

She said: “The path ahead is still very long. It is about constantly embracing what is to come, and reminding myself to learn, relearn, and unlearn things.”


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