By Bharati Jagdish
“I grew up seeing my single mom struggle with two jobs to support a family of four by herself. I felt guilty taking money from her,” says Santoz Kumar, Director of Sales (Asia) at global mass participation sports operator, the IRONMAN Group.
To lighten the load on his mom, he developed grit and resilience in his youth.
In adulthood, a chance encounter with PeopleSearch set him on an unexpected career trajectory.
It all started 11 years ago when he took part in a contest to win a car. This sparked an unexpected chain of events that led to invaluable career experiences.
As PeopleSearch celebrates its 20th Anniversary, we check in on the candidates we’ve worked with over the years. Read Santoz Kumar’s full story here.
It was serendipity that brought PeopleSearch into Santoz Kumar’s life.
Currently, Director of Sales (Asia) at the IRONMAN Group, Santoz clearly has an affinity for marketing endurance and extreme sports.
However, the “sport” that brought him to PeopleSearch Singapore’s attention was of a somewhat different nature. It was the 2009 Mediacorp Subaru Car Challenge where participants slug it out over a number of days to win a car. In fact, one could classify the contest as an endurance sport of sorts. Participants place their palms on the car at stake and the last person standing wins the vehicle.
“Over that about 4-day period, the MD of PeopleSearch had taken note of me from his office in Ngee Ann City, Singapore,” says Santoz.
He’s referring to Lorencz Tay, PeopleSearch Group’s Managing Director.
The contest was taking place at nearby Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza. After 77 hours, Santoz came in as first runner-up. He didn’t win the car, but the experience sparked an unexpected chain of events.
Lorencz had keenly observed Santoz’s resilience, grit and determination during the contest and felt this spirit would make him an excellent headhunter. He swiftly deployed a consultant to meet Santoz at the end of the event. After a series of interviews and serious consideration, Santoz turned down the job.
“My career after military service started in an SME involved in Robotics and IT education. I was working for a VC to run and develop the business. We were servicing primary and secondary schools and organising international robotics competitions. While working, I was also doing my degree, going for night classes. At the time of the car challenge and my meetings with PeopleSearch, I had just received my First Class Honours in Business Computing and IT. The main reason I didn’t take up the PeopleSearch offer was to give the IT industry a shot. I wanted to be an IT professional.”
By all indications, this was an ephemeral interaction that amounted to nothing except for a realisation on Santoz’s part that a career in recruitment was not for him.
CONNECTING THE DOTS
One would think that would be the end of the story. Little did he realise that this brief encounter with PeopleSearch consultants would burgeon into a series of meaningful career opportunities later on.
“I spent a year in the IT industry, selling software solutions. The pivotal moment occurred when PeopleSearch consultants, Dave Ng and Marc Bakker were discussing an opportunity with the F1 Singapore Grand Prix team. They were looking for a Corporate Sales Manager. Overhearing their conversation, the person who interacted with me a year before that, after the Subaru challenge, recommended me as I fit the personality type.”
The headhunters were determined to go beyond the CV to identify candidates who would thrive in the role. They were looking for someone with a never-say-die attitude, grit and resilience – qualities that Santoz certainly embodied. Even though he didn’t have any prior experience in sports marketing, his eagerness to learn in order to bridge skills and experience gaps managed to land him the job.
“The lesson from this is that in every given opportunity, we should do our best and make a positive impact. Even if we do not gain initially, the dots will connect in the future. It is important to make a personable impact and impression on the people we meet. My display of grit and determination during the Subaru challenge didn’t win me a car, but it helped pave the way for my career in sports.”
“I DID IT TO LIGHTEN THE LOAD AND MY RELIANCE ON MY MOM”
Santoz’s character traits are considered especially desirable in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world. They were progressively ingrained during his growing-up years.
From the age of 14, while others enjoyed their school holidays, he’d be working 12-hour shifts, six days a week, as a sales assistant.
“I did it to lighten the load and my reliance on my mom. My parents divorced when I was very young. I grew up seeing my single mom struggle with two jobs to support a family of four by herself. During the day, she worked as a cashier at a supermarket and during the night, she worked in a factory as a packer. I felt guilty taking money from her,” he says.
Among the other jobs he took on to lighten her load: a porter in a hospital and a salesman at a furniture store. He also once worked in a hawker stall, cooking and washing dishes. Each experience taught him the value of hard work and perseverance.
“I was determined from a young age. I always told myself that I would rise above the cards I was dealt.”
His National Service experience also proved pivotal in terms of further strengthening his character and shaping his philosophy.
“I was enlisted into the elite Commandos unit in the Singapore Armed Forces. I felt a huge sense of pride and honour as it was the most prestigious institution I had been part of up to that point in my life. I didn’t know what to expect at the start of the journey but gave my best in everything I had to do.”
After the early training phase, he graduated as a distinguished honour graduate and was selected for officer training at the Officer Cadet School (OCS).
“It was another prestigious moment and achievement for me. Eventually I graduated from OCS with a Sword of Merit (top 10 per cent of the cohort) as a Commandos Officer. During my schooling days, I was a mediocre student who didn’t give his best shot. But my experience in National Service taught me that if you gave your best, you will be amazed at how far you can go.”
THE VALUE OF WORKING WITH HEADHUNTERS
While making the transition from IT to sports marketing posed a challenge for Santoz, it was not something he couldn’t overcome with help from PeopleSearch consultants.
“When I started with F1 in 2011, I was clueless. I thought of it only as fast, loud cars that go round and round. I had no experience in sports, let alone F1. This is where the deep insights that consultant, Marc shared came in very handy. He had been involved in F1 before and gave me advice on how to ramp up my knowledge. He gave me material to read and shared his personal experiences in the industry to bridge my knowledge gap. He helped me step up.”
The experience with PeopleSearch taught him that headhunters can indeed be a valuable resource in more ways than one.
“I realise that headhunters work for both the employer and candidate. It’s about mutual benefit. They want to get candidates who will help deliver the company’s business goals and requirements. At the same time, headhunters want to make sure the job opportunity is aligned with candidates’ career ambitions.”
He describes working with headhunters as a “career accelerator.”
“Headhunters also do a lot of heavy lifting to pitch you, position you and ultimately, help you win the position. Sometimes, there will be concerns and the headhunter is able to address them for both parties, acting as a buffer. This is especially helpful in negotiating the remuneration package as they are able to manage expectations on both ends respectfully to close the deal. I still have a good relationship with my headhunters who have become friends and I see them as valuable in my career growth.”
The F1 job that PeopleSearch placed him in has influenced his career trajectory up till today. He’s been taking on one senior role after another with significant players in the sports industry.
He explains that his career success has also been substantially influenced by his ability to make meaningful connections.
“All my subsequent job opportunities (after F1) came directly through professional networking sites. I never say “no” to a coffee or a connection request. I see it as a way the universe is reaching out to me. Some opportunities may not fit, but may play a pivotal role in the future. The aim is to make and have genuine connections with people. I have made some brilliant connections and we have become friends, developed business relationships or referral relationships.”
His unconventional career path has certainly gotten him noticed.
“Sharing your story in a genuine way helps you connect with people authentically. The people you meet may help you along the road.”
LEARNING, PIVOTING AND CONNECTING
Being a keen learner has helped Santoz accelerate his career growth.
“I always observed my bosses, the way they spoke, the way they pitched, and learnt from them. I also watched YouTube videos to learn about sales techniques and methods used to sell.”
This attitude towards learning has the potential to be transformative especially in tough times. The current economic crisis precipitated by the Covid-19 crisis certainly calls for it, especially among those who have been displaced as a result.
“The biggest realisation is that things can go south really fast. And when they do, it is important to find your footing first, stabilise yourself and assess your situation in order to respond. As things are highly fluid and evolving, you need some stability to achieve the goals you had initially set. At the same time, you would need to be flexible enough to create small goals that are achievable during this period. It is important to stay focused on the big goal but also work towards smaller goals to get you there eventually.”
FLEXIBILITY AMID A CRISIS
During this crisis, while some grapple with taking their next steps after being retrenched and others struggle with continued job insecurity, Santoz has this advice.
“If you have tried your best and you have to take a job with a lower salary during this period, do not be disheartened. There is something to be gained while working for a company amid the crisis of the century. You will play a part in this battlefield. What you learn from this experience will help you in the future. Each job also gives you insights into an industry that could help you develop your knowledge and skills.”
“If you don’t get any job opportunities, it is a good time to explore internships or startup accelerator or hackathon events. You will meet new people who will stimulate your thinking and allow you to play a part in the solutions they are building,” he says.
As the situation evolves, companies are evolving in tandem and looking for people with specific character traits to help them recover and thrive in an uncertain world. This presents a multitude of opportunities for job seekers.
“Tell your story by talking about incidents and experiences that showcase your resilience, problem-solving skills, wisdom and humility. It could be about how you’ve coped with being retrenched or a failed business venture. We must remember that failure is not necessarily bad. Failure comes with invaluable lessons that increase your value.”
Santoz Kumar expressed his views in this article in a personal capacity. These views are not reflective of his employer’s opinions or positions on the various issues discussed herein.