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Viewpoints of a Leader: Kim Underhill

We speak with Kim Underhill, regional head for Electrolux Southeast Asia and India. Ms Underhill is a remarkable woman who despite her tough challenges, rose to the top armed with sheer determination and a desire for success.

By: Sadie-Jane Nunis


Ms Kim Underhill is the regional head for Electrolux Southeast Asia and India. Her climb to the top was challenging but she persevered and overcame many tribulations.

Ms Underhill left school at age 15. Later in life, she was a single mother who juggled two kids, a career, and night school. She embarked on her academic journey with the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM), taking night classes beginning with a certificate and graduating with a bachelor's degree in business and marketing. Never one to be deterred from her passion for learning, years later she ambitiously enrolled in and graduated with a Masters of Science in Industrial and Organisational Psychology.

Ms Underhill's career looks like an obvious path to success. Armed with more than 25 years of experience in the food service industry, she has held key roled in sales and marketing, business development, and general management. Some of the key accounts she has managed are Fortune 500 companies ranging from Coca-cola and Pepsi, to McDonald's and Unilever.

Ms Underhill is also a coach. She was motivated to develop her workshop "Success Inside Out, Challenge or Choice" to help women compete and prove themselves capable in the corporate world. Young women preparing to enter the workforce should attend it.

As her way of giving back, she readily took up a seat on the Today's Manager Advisory Panel as she is proud of her alma mater, SIM.

Today's Manager (TM): There is a constant debate that management and leadership are different. What are your thoughts?

Ms Kim Underhill (KU): Management is about ensuring that the organisation structure and its people are aligned to deliver the set growth strategies, goals, and objectives. It is easier to restructure and manage the operation process and organisation structure. However, it takes a true leader to provide appropriate direction, guidance, and the ability to influence his/her people to want to support the growth plans.

TM: How do you manage the various generations - baby boomers, Gen X, Y, and Z?

KU: I have had the advantage of working with people from the various generations in the companies that I have worked at over the past 25 years. To me, it is about relationships, regardless of the generation. You adjust and adapt to each generation as you would when raising children of different ages.

Some baby boomers tend to have a fixed versus growth mindset about what is right and wrong. They may even fight you to the end with their beliefs. Some may view this as being arrogant or stubborn but remember that they do have the experience to back them up. Gens X, Y, and Z should take advantage and learn from their experiences. There are some baby boomers who enjoy challenges and are receptive to change, which is the only constant these days.

Baby boomers believe strongly in seniority hence they have automatic authority and power, while Gen Ys believe that they should be heard and want freedom to participate in the decision-making process.

TM: What is your management style like?

KU: I do not adopt a specific management style. It varies depending on the situations and the people I deal with. There are times I have to be authoritative and firm when making decisions (too many opinions but no solution situation). Other times, I need to be paternalistic and empathise with my team. More often than not, I believe in participative, affiliative, and coaching management styles. I find that a positive management style creates openness for collaboration.

I often refer to Mr John Maxwell's management book The 5 Levels of Leadership when conducting both internal and external coaching and leadership sessions/workshops. I got to where i am today because the company believes that i can deliver based on my past experiences and success. How i truly make a difference depends on how well i work with the employees I inherit and those that i reorganise to maximise growth potential that is aligned with the company's strategies.

TM: Do you change your management style when you move between companies - Fabristeel to Electrolux especially? Why/why not?

KU: The answer is two-fold. Yes i did when dealing with corporate and organisational structures as these two companies have distinctly different types of structures and management styles. No, when dealing with the team members, as the way i approach people management is fairly universal throughout the years I have been in senior management.

The companies are different. Fabristeel is responsible for total operations targeting at offering total solutions to the designing and building of commercial kitchens for the hospitality and quick-service restaurants industries. Electrolux is a regional sales head office for South East Asia (SEA) and India, providing sales and service support to kitchen contractors, consultants, and end-users.

TM: Why did you decide to go into this industry?

KU: I feel that the industry chose me. I started out with IMI Cornelius, an American carbonated and frozen beverage equipment manufacturer about 20 years ago in a temporary secretarial position before it became a permanent role supporting the managing director for Asia-Pacific. In my 10 years there, i was given opportunities to support the sales and marketing teams that manage household brands like Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola. I was intrigued by the food and beverage (F&B) industry both in the varieties of equipment and the impressive processes behind all the fancy beverages in the markets, as well as the passionate people I met who have been in the industry for many years. During my tenure I was given roles in customer service, marketing, and eventually business development.

I was head-hunted on three separate occasions. First, to join a non-carbonated beverage equipment company (Grindmaster) managing customers like Nestle and Unilever; and by a commercial kitchen contracting firm that gave me opportunities to manage a full operation with profit and loss (P&L) responsibilities and manufacturing facilities in Singapore and China, covering sales globally (Fabristeel); and finally, my current role as regional head for Electrolux Professional in SEA and India (Electrolux).

As you can see, the industry chose me from the start, giving me opportunities that led me through a career path that i am passionate about and will continue to enjoy for more years to come.

TM: Why did you decide to join Electrolux after staying with Fabristeel for so long?

KU: While both prominent brands in the F&B industry, they are different in their organisational structures and to-market strategies. Fabristeel is a 'one-stop-shop' design-to-build commercial kitchen project contractor while Electrolux Professional is a 'one-stop-shop' foodservice equipment manufacturer. Both organisations work closely in delivering major products in the region.

At Fabristeel, I was responsible for the general management of its full operation including its manufacturing plant in Singapore. At Electrolux, my focus is in sales and marketing covering four sales offices and 14 markets in the SEA and India regions. Both roles provide me with continuous learning in different aspects of the business, looking at it from a project versus an equipment distribution perspective.

The decision to move was mainly due to an  organisational and strategic shift that was not aligned with my personal career growth. I continue to collaborate with Fabristeel in new projects. The relationship remains strong between my team at Fabristeel and me. In my current capacity, I have the opportunity to strengthen the relationship between the two companies and grow our presence in the industry.

TM: What is your thought process like when thinking of means to stay competitive?

KU: First, understand what our customers need and not want. Our job is to fill the gap by providing solutions and not merely pushing what we manufacture to customers. Second, I strongly believe in the importance of 'face-time' in building quality relationships. Customers need to know that they can rely on us to help them.

TM: As a woman in a mostly male-dominated industry who has climbed the ranks, how did you work your way to the top?

KU: I never see things from a gender perspective. I think and act based on what the job requires and give my very best to get it done. In fact,i I think that being a female in this industry is an advantage.

I focus on working hard for today armed with a vision for tomorrow, but I never chase tomorrow and forget about today. This is my philosophy in my career growth. As i have shared with many people that i have coached/trained, as long as you are willing to put in the time and take on additional work when needed, someday someone will notice you. Never say "it's not my job" as every additional support needed from you is an opportunity for you to learn. This is precisely what happened to my career path. I have never applied for a job. I started as a temporary secretary, worked very hard, and was noticed for a permanent role. Thereafter I was sponsored by my company to return to night school for six years. Before long, I was given opportunities to practise what I learned and the rest is history. All this happened while i was a single-parent raising two young children.

True to my mother's words: "hard work will not kill you".

TM: How do you motivate yourself, especially when things get tough?

KU: I frequently listen to motivational speakers and leaders of the business world to help provide guidance. Everybody faces difficult times. My best way for self-motivation is to consciously remind myself that it is possible to have perfection in all things hence I must count the blessings and the little 'wins' I have. Watching how my actions and the contributions helped others grow is one of my biggest motivators.

TM: What are our aspirations for yourself and your employees?

KU: I aspire to leave a legacy that people can learn from, namely, the belief of having the 'ultimate balance' in life, through the understanding that success is all about looking at oneself from inside-out, turning all challenges into positive choices, and continuing to grow through learning.

For my employees, I want them to believe in themselves and to truly understand that while knowledge is power, knowledge that is not shared, is simply knowledge. I have and would like to see more of my employees (both past and present) grow in their career and life through my mentorship.

TM: What is the problem with coaching today?

KU: Coaching is only successful if both coach and coachee are committed and have clarity on expectations.

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