The Best Partnership: Centring HR Strategy on the Business

The following is an excerpt from The 50: HR Leaders Reimagining the Filipino Organization. Authored by Pancho Dizon,  this chapter is titled, “The Best Partnership: Centring HR Strategy on the Business.” In it, Cheryll Ruth Agsaoay, the Vice President-HR Head of SM Supermalls, is interviewed about how the organization executes its strategy in viewing HR as a partnership.

Cheryll Ruth Lat-Agsaoay believes in transforming employee experience and the HR function to enable business transformations. Barely two years with her employer SM Supermalls, she is at the midpoint of the employee experience transformation roadmap, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Before coming onboard with SM, Cheryll spent 18 years with telecommunications giant Smart Communications Inc. where she extended her scope to cover PLDT Group and filled senior HR management positions spanning Strategic Internal Communication, Learning and Performance, Organization Development and Business Partnering.
Among the major transformation initiatives, which she worked on as HR Business Partner, was establishing the digital media group in Smart and the spin-off of the start-up subsidiaries on digital and financial services. She also assumed the HR advisory role for cross-functional projects on customer experience, brand engagement, and digital marketing. A seasoned HR strategist, she designed programs with citations at the Anvil, Philippine Quill, Asia CEO Awards, ASEAN Corporate Sustainability Awards, Asia Communication Awards, and Asia Pacific Stevie Awards.
This wealth of experience enabled her to hit the ground running when she started out with SM, helping the company amidst its business and organizational transformation and even steering it through the various challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What could be the secret to the success of Cheryll’s career, you may ask?

“I’ve always believed that HR has to be anchored on the business,” she explained, “HR has to be seen as a strategic partner for the growth of the business, not only an administrative support.”


When she arrived for her first day at SM Supermalls, Cheryll wasted no time demonstrating what this meant. She devoted her first two weeks making her rounds, engaging heads in meaningful conversations to determine what HR should prioritize. Adopting her internal customers’ lens, she synthesized the interviews with a simple framework: what should HR start, stop, and continue doing.

“I wanted to make it clear immediately that HR partnering meant understanding business and operations as well as challenging the status quo,” she said. To help this along, she took care to be transparent about the progress she made within the first 90 days on the job.

One thing she did was to come up with a three-year transformation roadmap for the HR function based on what she dubbed the “3 buckets” of innovating employee experience: Brilliance with Basics, Breakthroughs, and Best-in-Class.

“Brilliance with Basics” is about getting the HR fundamentals right. This would be the time period where the nagging points in HR would be scrutinized and then fine-tuned to be as efficient as possible, whether that’s ironing out salary structures, clarifying roles, and more.

“Breakthroughs” refers to making sure that long-standing issues and concerns related to HR service delivery are resolved and targets are stretched every time new milestones are achieved. Finally, “Best-in-Class” is about ensuring the quality of HR programs and services are at par with industry and market standards. This includes gaining local and international recognitions for HR areas that have shown the best growth.

According to Lat-Agsaoay, these initiatives helped build HR’s credibility as an asset to business growth. “HR is committed to consistently live up to the trust given to us for the ‘seat at the table’ by helping the business in its critical transformation period,” she said, “The retail and mall business is evolving fast, and everything HR did had to be done in the interest of securing the best possible future for the company.”


Another challenge she had to surmount in achieving this adaptability was gaining the trust of some of her more tenured subordinates who were also older than her. With the rapid changes Lat-Agsaoay was introducing, trust had to be earned fast.

“The way I approached it was, I took care of bringing everyone into the fold,” she explained, “We had endless alignment sessions and we committed time to cascade new frameworks and HR operating models. I’m grateful for how they tried to keep up with the speed of transformation in our first year together, and I told them it’s only going to get faster.”

Another way Lat-Agsaoay gained employee trust was for HR to demonstrate one of the company’s core values―malasakit―especially as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. To keep employees in touch, for example, they quickly set up group chats and online communities. A tracking system was also set up to keep an eye on how employees were coping and assist contact tracing efforts. For employees at risk of exposure to the virus, they weren’t simply left on their own―an HR buddy was assigned to provide them comfort and emphasize that the company was looking out for them.

The HR at SM Supermalls also demonstrated their brand of malasakit by prioritizing upskilling and reskilling―even in the middle of a pandemic. More than 80% of the workforce were trained online during the lockdown in anticipation of the “new normal”. Communication was intensified with multimedia content and virtual town halls. This thrust for digital-enabled HR can be seen in the SM Life app, a platform that the company uses to keep employees connected. Where it was once mainly for wellness, Lat-Agsaoay and her team worked with IT to revolutionize the app by injecting more functionalities on disaster preparedness, virus management, ideation, and learning.

“I don’t see L&D as separate from wellness,” Agsaoay clarified, “When you’re competent on the job, your purpose is clear and this leads to peace of mind. If you don’t build your competency, you can’t evolve with the business and live out your passions. You’ll never have the wellness you desire.”

Lat-Agsaoay concluded by expressing gratitude for the company leader Steven T. Tan, who was COO when he hired her and who was appointed president at the start of the year. “None of what we achieved in HR would be possible if the president of the company didn’t regard HR as a partner,” she admitted.

“In fact, in the middle of a problematic situation, Mr. Steven told me ‘Cheryll, this is you and me’,” she revealed, “I shared this to my HR team to help inspire us to take HR to higher levels of business partnering amid the uncharted waters we face as an industry.”

HR should prove itself as an asset to management, helping the company speed along its growth and even keep its head above water in the face of an unprecedented crisis. Rather than being an isolated and inward-looking function, HR rolls up its sleeves to be front and center of the action.

“It’s not just any one of us,” she concluded, “It’s everyone, all together, rising as one.”

To get more insights from other HR leaders like Cheryll Ruth Agsaoay, please check out the full book, available for purchase here


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