Cindy Chen, regional head of the Adecco Group Taiwan & South Korea, is a veteran of the company and the human resources industry. From her first position as consultant to the manager of the company’s staffing business up until her current role as head of the Northeast Asia region, she has maintained a philosophy of seeking to understand others in order to succeed. During her 28 years with Adecco, Chen has played a key role in restructuring the business unit and doubling profits in Taiwan.
Chen connected with TOPICS Associate Editor Julia Bergström in August to discuss her journey with Adecco, her experience managing international teams, and how Adecco has adapted to a new, digital world that has transformed the HR industry.
What attracted you to the HR industry in general and Adecco specifically? What have been the most rewarding aspects of working in this area?
I joined this company to experience different industries and trends, meet different people, and understand their thoughts regarding their careers. Our industry is varied; you get to meet a wide range of people and witness business trends firsthand. It makes my job fun.
Being part of a big company also provides possibilities for growth and career opportunities. I think the most rewarding aspect is that I get the chance to work and grow with others. For the Adecco Group, our business is people, so we respect each other, and we bring our own set of experiences and cultures to our work, which enriches our lives. I’ve made a lot of great friends internationally, both clients and colleagues.
Did you have any mentors in the early stages of your career? How did their guidance shape you as a professional?
My first boss was the one who brought me into the industry, who helped me build a foundation, and taught me how to get myself promoted from consultant to director. I learned a lot from him.
My second mentor was not only a career mentor but a life coach as well. She showed me the ropes for my more senior roles. She taught me how to treat people well and believe in their potential, and she’s probably the one who left the biggest impression on me.
She would remind me that as a leader, you don’t only make financial decisions: you are also in charge of building up the culture of the organization. Many country managers probably forget that they have a responsibility to the company to respect and influence the company’s culture. And she taught me that you are allowed to have fun while doing business. I believe everybody needs a mentor.
How would you describe your approach to management? What are your strengths and what would you like to improve?
Management is a long journey, and it’s not only about becoming a leader yourself; each colleague can be a leader in their own way. I’d say management is a partnership, especially now that the work environment is becoming increasingly complicated. Senior leaders need to learn how to deal with the younger generation and understand their value systems and positions. Young people are the company’s future, so it’s our job to make the system work.
I spend a lot of time talking to people. For example, each Wednesday morning, I arrange my schedule so that anyone can book time to have breakfast and chat with me. That requires a lot of trust; you have to make people feel that they can share their thoughts with you. I try to make it a cultural session, so people can come to me if they’re confused about their career or need somebody to talk to about their job or personal life, or they can just give the company suggestions.
As for improvement, I want to develop my listening skills. Listening isn’t always so easy, and people will consider hierarchy and position when they speak with you, which is why it’s important to build up trust. Being too experienced can also be a problem – sometimes a colleague might begin speaking, and I can foresee what they will say and jump to conclusions. Listening and confirming are both critical because just listening is not equal to understanding.
How has Adecco and the HR industry changed over the last three decades?
When I joined Adecco, it was still quite small, so you could almost say I grew up with the company. I joined the predecessor company, Ecco, before it merged with Adia to become Adecco. At that time, we were just providing dispatch recruitment services, but over the years, we’ve become a partner to our clients in solving all their HR-related issues.
We used to rely more heavily on personal relationships. But nowadays, we have more tools in the form of management systems, operational systems, social media, digital tools, events, and a lot of other new ways to engage with candidates. I think it’s a beautiful thing because it means businesses are evolving.
As the work environment continues to change rapidly through digital transformation, a generational gap, and the gig economy, companies need to up-skill and re-skill. Our clients don’t necessarily have the resources to face these challenges, so we address both their short- and long-term needs to solve their issues and grow together. Throughout my career, the industry has changed a lot, and I’ve enjoyed experiencing that change.
What can a company do to become a more attractive workplace for prospective employees?
There are two major things a company can do to attract employees. The first is to learn how to sell themselves. Many companies forget that employees are looking for a career, and now that there’s an imbalance between supply and demand, it’s more difficult to find the right talent. Companies need to sell themselves and let candidates know what kind of career they can build together.
The second is to upgrade, up-skill, and re-skill current employees. Many companies want to adapt to the digital world but don’t implement the right training, mindset, or culture.
Many companies also have the wrong impression about what type of candidates they need. They look for certain kinds of experience or educational backgrounds, but many times what they actually need is someone with the ability to learn new skills. It’s a different way of evaluating talent for companies that I hope people can learn.
What’s an important lesson you’ve learned in your career?
I think I’ve already passed the challenge of balancing kids and a career. Looking back, many of my female colleagues had to sacrifice their careers to take care of their children, but fortunately I didn’t need to do that.
If you want to become a career woman, you probably need to set different priorities for the various stages of your career. It’s not about being lucky or unlucky; it’s about understanding yourself and having clear goals. If you achieve this, you’ll have no regrets, regardless of whether you choose to be a full-time mom, have a full-time career, or strike a balance between the two.
As women, we face too many expectations – from our parents, from our spouses, from society. I don’t ask people to pretend it doesn’t happen. But if you don’t want to just accept it, you need to communicate and position yourself – not necessarily by fighting but by finding that balance. It’s easy to say but difficult to do.
What tips do you have for leading international and multicultural teams?
When you take a regional role and go to a different country, you already have industry knowledge and experience, so the first thing you need to do is learn the local culture. You need to understand how business is done, how relationships work and how leaders are viewed, and where you can jump in to set up a system and help the team grow.
One year, I promised my Taiwanese colleagues a trip to Korea if we performed well. We worked hard toward that goal and made it happen. We had a five-day trip, and one night I arranged for the Korean and Taiwanese colleagues to get together for dinner. Being able to bring everyone together to share a relaxing moment motivated me to keep working hard and encouraging our colleagues to engage in international exchanges. That’s my big motivation at work.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I’m a member of Rotary International. Through that organization, I’ve gotten to know different kinds of people and learn new things not related to my work. For example, we initiated a program called Bridge of Life, which focuses on supporting financially challenged students. At first, we sponsored them with scholarships, and later we decided to work with international coaching foundations and provided the students with career guidance courses. We also invited Rotary members who have been successful in their industry to mentor them. We have been doing this for eight years, and this year I was the project leader.
I also paint, and I love traveling. My husband works for China Airlines, and I used to be a flight attendant for Singapore Airlines. I traveled quite a lot during that time and also went backpacking and stayed at hostels in different cities. But after I changed jobs, I no longer had time to do that. Now I have more time, and before the pandemic, I traveled a lot in Asia. Adecco also has an annual meeting for country leaders, where we meet in a new city in Europe every year, and I usually extend my stay in those places to get out and explore.