At Nestlé, a Rising Star’s recipe for success requires global outlook, passion

Adeline Looi’s professional path has been anything but ordinary.

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She’s a trained chemical engineer. She worked as a consultant. She’s lived in Malaysia, Singapore, Switzerland and more.

Now, she is the global head of integrated leadership development at Nestlé.

Her storied career path, which eventually led her to HR, doesn’t seem obvious, but it has a common thread: a passion for lifelong learning and helping people grow—goals she says drive her in her position at Nestlé.

Adeline Looi Nestle
Adeline Looi

“I think my life’s purpose is to help people grow and realize their God-given values. That means they come to the table with something, and it’s about them becoming clear about realizing what it is and being aware, but also then making it come to pass,” says Looi, one of HRE’s 2022 Rising Stars. “We all might have the talent today, but it may not be so apparent. That’s what I really love. And that’s why I wake up every morning.”

At the food and beverage giant, maker of Nescafé, KitKat, Gerber and many other household names, Looi works with employees around the globe and in different markets. Historically, Looi says, some companies’ leadership and development efforts are prioritized around top-tier employees. But to her, that’s a mistake. Not only is it vital that HR and company leaders offer that learning support to all kinds of employees, but that they personalize the interventions to best help workers grow.

“It starts with self-awareness and deep personal insights, so it’s not just what the company thinks I need to do,” she explains. “Instead of being forced to eat the menu of the day, I’ve got a menu and I choose what works for me because I might have a gluten-free diet, or I want to lose weight … it’s about [employees’] current conditions but also their preferences about where they want to go in the future.”

Greatest accomplishment: Being selected as a change manager for a major transformation project in Malaysia, Singapore, at a young age and “learning to believe” in herself.

Most recently, Looi’s efforts have been amplified by COVID-19. At the beginning of the pandemic, when most of the world was thrown into uncertainty, Looi led her regional team to put in place a team-effectiveness framework. Team leaders could reach out for support on a team coaching app or to global team coaches who would walk their teams through online psychometrics, making them better able to interact and work remotely.

Those efforts have paid off handsomely. Nestlé employee data found that engagement was at an all-time high during the pandemic (91%), while employees’ views of inspiring leadership increased by more than 10%. And despite COVID challenges, recent 2021 Nestlé financials were extremely positive in terms of both organic growth and operating profits.

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One of Looi’s goals is to magnify underrepresented voices, something she knows about firsthand. As an engineer, she was outnumbered as a female—and a minority—which meant she had to prove herself doubly, she says. But her success and faith in herself came when she realized she had to be “authentically” herself.

That was a lesson she brought into Nestlé, a company that, like many others, struggled with having enough female senior leaders at the top. It made a global commitment to develop and recruit female leaders through its Nestlé Gender Balance acceleration plan, and Looi introduced a signature leadership program that uses leadership assessments to identify and create equity for those whose talents are underrepresented, including women and minorities.

“It’s important that a seat at the table is available to everyone,” she says. “No one by nature of skin color, gender, belief systems or sexual orientation should be kept at bay just because of that. Everyone has a voice. That’s how we create that safe space for people to be who they are authentically, then they can represent the community they are part of, and then the team becomes better.”

Looi’s vast experience and global reach—she speaks English, Malay, French and Chinese—has helped her connect with scores of employees, says Rising Stars judge Gregory Hessel, senior client partner and managing director client development for consulting firm Korn Ferry.

“She’s a global citizen. What comes out of that is the understanding of how you communicate internally and externally differently,” he says. Her non-HR background and education, too, are assets that allow her and others like her “to be a customer of HR. They have had to use HR differently than somebody that has had a linear HR background. Usually, people hate HR, so it’s always great when someone else who may have said, ‘If I was in that role, I’d do things so much differently,’ now can.”

Humanizing HR, in fact, is one of Looi’s biggest hopes for the industry going forward.

“I think we’ve gone down this lean, mean machine path where we are about data, all about efficiency. But we need to remember the reason why we’re doing it—and it’s all about the people. When we continue to humanize HR, it helps people, it helps leaders be the best they can be. So then HR is not seen just as a paper pusher, or policy enforcer, or a process manager. HR needs to bring the cutting edge; we need to be about people.”

Greatest challenge: Overextending herself, physically and emotionally burning out—and learning to set limits. Recently, while working on HR transformation, Looi was supporting employees all over the globe and traveling everywhere. “You feel like you’ve got no limits, but you do,” she says. “And that’s OK; that’s what teams are for.”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.