A CHRO Shares Her Culture Playbook for Southeast Asia’s Record Merger

23 January 2024

Sarinra Wongsuppaluk, the Chief Human Resources Officer at True Corporation, is a seasoned executive with a diverse background spanning from FMCG and retail to hi-tech telecommunication. But her role in the biggest merger in Southeast Asia’s telecom industry, between True and dtac, is her toughest challenge yet. She spoke with True Blog on how culture can make or break a company’s strategy, what drives her to succeed, and why she always puts personal development first.

The Merger of Giants

True and dtac serve 51.4 million customers on mobile. The priority in a merger of this scale is to ensure service quality is not affected as over 10,000 employees adapt to new colleagues, adopt new systems, and undergo organizational changes. The glue to keep them working together through it all? Culture.


“True and dtac are very different. One was a Thai conglomerate; one was very Western. So culture is crucial to make the two become one. People need to feel motivated. They have to buy into our vision of being a telecom-tech leader. This isn’t something the organization can buy. We had to create real passion and it all starts with culture,” said Ms. Sarinra.


Since the merger, in March 2023, True has undergone a flurry of activities to bring together its employees. They range from fun and energizing (think massive karaoke parties or fitness challenges) to insightful and intimate chats between the C-suite and employees.


“My greatest reward is when people can feel how the new culture improves their life at work. In our last event, I had someone tell me, ‘People can speak up now. They work hard but they also play hard. Things have really changed.’ To me, hearing that makes it all worth it,” said Ms. Sarinra.

A New Culture Playbook

To reach this point, Ms. Sarinra started by defining a new culture, which rests on four core values: compassion, credibility, co-creation and courage. This was the result of a long process where senior managers sat down together to set their ambitions for the new company.


“Culture starts at the top. If you don’t get it right from the start, you can’t succeed. Working with senior management, we landed on three objectives for our new culture. First, we want to be one team. Secondly, we want a high-performance culture. Thirdly, we want to be customer centric. Those ambitions are what we translated into four values so that we could them bring to life through employee events, in hackathons, and with a new set of performance targets for our people,” she explained.


Of the four values, Ms. Sarinra highlights compassion. This is her third merger, and she is well placed to know how stressful they can be employees. Her team made it a priority to balance the need to move fast with effective support for its employees’ wellbeing.


“We should have compassion in everything we do. That’s why we look for ways for management to get closer to employees. It’s about creating intimacy and breaking the silos. The other way we show compassion is our focus on health and wellbeing: better facilities, great physiotherapists, special health insurance rates for family, allowing employees’ family members to use our gym, etc. This is how we prove our appreciation and support for how hard our people have to work,” she explained.

Moving into the AI Future

After nearly a year of on-the-ground activities to build tight bonds between True and dtac, Ms. Sarinra is gearing up for a very different 2024. She explained that the next phase of the new company’s ambition to be a telecom-tech leader will focus on delivering tangible benefits to customers.


“Our first year of culture building was event based so that people could get to know each other. But now we need to build something more sustainable and longer-term. It’s about passing our culture on to customers in ways they can feel,” Ms. Sarinra said.


Ms. Sarinra predicts that data will be central to this ambition. Already, she employs data scientists and engineers within her human resources team. And she plans to train many more across the whole organization.


“We’re working with Harvard and MIT to bring the very best data science training to our people. With the rapid adoption of artificial intelligence, we need to create a new set of leadership skills. That’s why critical thinking is one of the most in-demand skills right now. You can have all the data in the world, but it’s useless if you can’t formulate a hypothesis and test it out,” she said.

Our first year of culture building was event based so that people could get to know each other. But now we need to build something more sustainable and longer-term. It’s about passing our culture on to customers in ways they can feel.

The Learn-It-All Culture

Ms. Sarinra is at her most passionate when talking about helping others grow. She founded True Digital Academy and now drives an ambitious program to reskill True Corporation for the AI-power future. She also encourages her colleagues in the C-suite to undergo reverse mentoring where junior employees train up the most senior echelons.


“Young people have so much energy and innovation. It’s a lot of fun. On the weekends, I love to coach young CEOs of SMEs. They are driven and full of ideas. So I learn a lot from them. But they tend to lack process because they fear it will blunt their creativity. I help them find a way to preserve their spark, while anchoring it into the real world,” she said.


Within True, Ms. Sarinra said the expectations from top talents are similar. They want to get ahead, learn more and do more. Hence the need to foster a culture that swaps a “know-it-all” mindset for a “learn-it-all” ethos.


“In my career, when I was offered an opportunity, I always said yes. That’s how I tried so many things before coming to HR. That’s how I got to experience the daily pressure of chasing profits on the frontlines of a sales team. My view of True is that people here want that, too. They want to learn, they want to grow, and it’s our job in HR to help them realize their personal ambition,” she concluded.


When not accelerating the transformation of Thailand’s leading telecom-tech company, Ms. Sarinra shared that she enjoys baking for her friends and colleagues or bringing food to her temple. Even when finding time to focus on herself, there is a common theme to the things that bring her joy: giving back to others.