Technology will play a big role in the organizations of tomorrow.

East Asia (based out of Singapore & Thailand) and Middle east (based out of Dubai).

Her core expertise lies in Performance & Talent Management, HR Digital Transformation, Diversity & Inclusion, Rewards, Business Partnering, Employee Engagement, Analytics & Project management.

She holds an MBA degree in Human resources from SCMHRD, Pune and has completed her Biotechnology engineering from MDU.

Thank you, Shefali, for giving your valuable time to this interview. Your kindness is much appreciated.  We look forward to your candid responses.

We would be pleased to learn about your professional journey from the beginning. So, please share with us about your first job interview. 

Technically, I did not interview for my first job. As a part of the Indian MBA curriculum, I did my summer internship in my first organization and was offered a preplacement offer.

Having said that, I did undergo a selection process for the summer internship which consisted of the standard CV shortlisting followed by structured interviews. Given that I was a fresher at the time, the preparation was mostly about my academic journey, motivation to be an HR professional, and domain HR knowledge and application. My engineering background in Biotechnology did help my case to a certain degree as my first organization was India’s biggest biotech firm.

Once I was selected for the summer internship, I was assessed for my project and its delivery. I worked on a ‘Succession plan’ for the C-suite and delivered the project plan to the entire HR department followed by a gruelling Q&A session to justify my findings and recommendations.

My performance led to the PPO and once I joined the organization, this Succession plan was a key project which I led and executed.

As the first job holds a special memory, let’s discuss your first year at your first job. How was your experience? What were your expectations of your employer and your role? Were they all fulfilled? What didn’t coincide with your expectations? 

I believe that an individual’s first job is very special as it introduces you to the real world as opposed to theoretical & philosophical viewpoints.

I too was as excited an anyone else to start my professional journey, however, as I had already completed a two-month summer internship in my organization, it wasn’t a completely new entity for me. I had some rough idea of what to expect.

Initially, I remember being very eager to learn and absorb, curious about the “what” and “how” and wanting to create value at the get-go.

My role was newly created with an evolving job description aimed at creating an employee value proposition and executing a succession plan for senior management. Given that there was no legacy, I had the opportunity to create an end to end systems and processes and I enjoyed the freedom to do so.

This role was a great learning experience for me as it taught me the Do’s and Don’ts of good leadership as I got a taste of both. It helped me understand that change happens gradually, it is always better to ask, and do not assume, and that I am responsible for my own growth and advancement.

Overall, it strengthened the case for proactiveness, due diligence, perseverance, task maturity, project management, analytics and emotional intelligence for me. This role also exposed me to some of the brightest minds in our country and introduced me to some great colleagues who are now my friends.

Why did you choose HR as a profession? What was the motive and what was the motivation?

Frankly, I chose HR based on elimination. I was 100% certain that I didn’t enjoy Finance or Operations and that left me with only HR or Marketing as viable options.

Even once I was in the B-School, I was not sure if I would settle for HR or Marketing as my core and had equal weightage of electives in both streams.

I enjoyed subjects that deep dived into the human psyche such as Organizational behaviour, Marketing research, Consumer behaviour, Organization Design, and structure, conflict and negotiation, etc.

It was a lot of discussion with peers and seniors which helped me realize that I was better suited for HR. As one of my seniors put it, HR is nothing but an internally focused marketing continuum where the consumer is within the organization. People are our biggest assets and HR has the biggest responsibility in acquiring, shaping, and strengthening these assets in order to deliver and gain competitive advantage.

This was cemented by my two-month stint of internship and I realized that this is what I enjoy and would continue to pursue.

Do you think workplace mentors and coaches play an important role in settling fresh graduates in their first job? How was your experience? 

Oh yes, without a doubt. It is one thing to do a job and another to do it right!

I feel that it is very essential to balance the curiosity, energy, and enthusiasm of a fresh graduate with the support, wisdom, and experience of a mentor.

Your first job is a big cultural shift from theoretical simulations in an artificially controlled environment of a classroom and the real world can be very overwhelming at first. You are learning the ropes, making sense of the culture and people around you, trying to imbibe and embody the ethos of your team, trying to assimilate and deliver at the same time. A good mentor can act as a sounding board and help you be more effective by providing the necessary intellectual and emotional support during this vulnerable phase.

This is also a win-win situation for an organization that beliefs in robust leadership development. A strong induction into the organization under an experienced and empathetic mentor can be valuable in ensuring that the employee hits the ground running faster and stronger while reinforcing the right behaviours early on. This also helps in fostering a strong performance culture of constructive feedback and development of next in line coaches and mentors.

In my first role, while I didn’t have a formal mentor, I did learn a lot from various leaders and colleagues in some way, shape, or form. I was very lucky as my role required me to interact with the senior leadership as well as the last man standing, and I gained a lot of insights from the veterans across functions. Some of my colleagues were also very supportive in helping me settle in the new city and shared anecdotes of their experiences in the organization and life beyond work. These collective insights and experiences shaped my strategy and approach in not just managing expectations and delivering at work but also helped me to pause and enjoy this new phase of my life.

COVID-19 has changed workplace dynamics in many ways. What has been your learnings during this phase? What permanent changes do you foresee at workplace post-COVID-19?

COVID-19 has been a watershed moment that has impacted individuals, communities, and organizations alike. And while the pandemic will not completely go away anytime soon, we all continue to adapt and innovate in order to face this unprecedented challenge.

The biggest learning from COVID-19 for me is that ‘evolution is the name of the game’. We need to continuously evolve, innovate and adapt. Agile organizations were way faster and effective in their response to this pandemic when it came to their products, people, and policies and this speed and quality of response provide key leverage.

The pandemic also accelerated and, in some cases, built the case for investment in technology, work flexibility, and consumer centricity. It is highly likely that even when this Pandemic is behind us, we will be left with permanent changes to traditional workplaces. Some of those can be summarized as:

  • Flexible work arrangements: With almost all of global workforce virtually connecting form their home, the myth that one must be in the office to be productive has been dismantled. There is enough research to support the upside of flexible work arrangements on employee acquisition, productivity, engagement, and mental health and COVID-19 has successfully proved this to the non-believers. 
    A lot of organizations have already declared that work from home will be a permanent feature in their post COVID world.
  • Office 2.0: With organizations letting go of traditional office layouts, we might see a trend of less physical/restructuring of space in offices. Home offices would also become an essential commodity to create a comfortable and distraction-free environment.
  • Smart office technology: With the focus on flexible and agile work systems, it would be essential to embrace technology for end to end employee life cycle processes. This could range from leveraging software for hiring, digital learning solutions to platforms supporting streamlined interaction between teams. 
    This would be a great time to build on and strengthen immersive employee experience in a contact-free and virtual world.
  • Process Evolution: With the physical aspects of work changing post COVID, a lot of organizations will have to re-evaluate and refine their processes and internal SLAs. In order to be agile and responsive, we will have to cut through the layers of decision making and make way for leaner path flows and empowered decision making which is not centralized at the top. To be truly consumer-centric, we will have to align our internal value chain with the changing needs of our external customer and our internal processes would determine how fast we adapt to these requirements.
  • Purpose: With the spike in anxiety and mental stress due to COVID, it would be particularly important to address the mental health and emotional wellbeing of employees in a post COVID world especially in a remote working environment. A lot of organizations are actively working in this area and it would only gain more traction. Along with this, organizations would also have to make a more concerted effort on topics of social responsibility, sustainability, climate change, etc and tie it to a product, policy, or employee offering.

Organizational Culture is a key differentiator between successful and not so successful organizations? What determines the organizational culture? What is the role of HR in creating organizational culture?

Just as everyone has a unique DNA, organizations also have a distinct culture.

Organizational culture is the sum total of what you value and how do you things in your organization. This is an invisible yet powerful force that motivates, engages, and drives action through its members and encompasses the policies, structures, processes as well as behaviours and attitudes in the workplace.

How consistently you reward and reinforce positive behaviours and reform the negative determines the strength of your ethos.

A culture where shared values are lived by all employees consistently and across the board fosters a strong internal identity and purpose, provides direction builds trust, creates engagement, and drives efficient decision making. This leads to lower disagreements and higher productivity which in turn provides a strategic competitive advantage to the organization and elevates its overall performance.

Today, almost all organizations have incorporated ‘Culture’ as a key driver in their strategic plans, but the proof of the pudding lies in how effectively it is defined and then lived on a day to day basis. Leaders on the top need to consistently ‘action’ this culture and lead by example.

HR plays a very important role in shaping and sustaining the culture of an organization. Every organization needs to define the do’s and don’ts of acceptable cultural behaviour and HR acts as a strategic partner to the business in identifying what the culture for that organization would look like. Once this alignment is achieved, HR needs to act as a caretaker and ensure that this culture is maintained.

Some of the concrete measures that HR can take are to clearly communicate these shared values and beliefs, ensure that these are understood and practiced, role model and reinforce via key processes such as talent acquisition, development and recognition. This can be further strengthened by creating two-way communication and feedback channels to empower teams, continuously review the organizational cultural norms and reform when needed.

Based on your experience, what are the primary expectations of a CEO from the HR Function, in general, and HR Head, in particular?

I believe that the primary expectation of any CEO from HR is to act as an independent, informed, and trusted partner, advisor, and coach to the business. Today, HR has a seat on the table, and CEOs expect HR to create value with a direct impact on the business outcome.

HR leadership needs to be commercially astute, understand the business in and out, bring all the facts to the table to ensure that business strategy decisions are linked to human capital decisions. This needs to be supported by best-in-class HR policies and systems which are in line with the organizational culture and have a competitive advantage in the market.

Parallelly, an HR leader needs to build and continuously develop a strong HR team which can support the strategic and tactical needs of the business and acts as a counselor, coach, and advocate for employees. In summary, HR leadership needs to provide and sustain the direction, tools, resources, and environment to continuously support business delivery.

Please share an experience when you acted under pressure from your management or reporting manager even though you knew it was wrong and shouldn’t have been done? 

In my professional career, I have had contrasting opinions from my manager or peers many a time, but I have never had to do something which was wrong.

Luckily, I have worked in very professional organizations with strong and ethical HR teams. So, I was never pressurized or coerced into doing something that wasn’t reflective of my moral and ethical compass.

Please share an experience when a person's cultural background affected your approach to a work situation?

Our thoughts and actions reflect our beliefs and values which in turn are derived from our cumulative experiences and exposure in life.

As HR professionals, we get the opportunity to partner with the length and breadth of an organization which is a microcosm of various social, economic, and cultural entities.

It is always beneficial to know your audience’s motivation and I have had my fair share of learning on how diverse backgrounds can affect our ability to process information, reflect & then act upon it.

One such experience is of my time spent in Thailand. The Thai workers are extremely diligent, emotional, and competitive and they are always willing to take on additional challenges. While this is a great trait for a high performing workforce, my employees were taking on a lot of work to the point of physical and emotional burnout and this posed a serious risk to their health, engagement, and productivity in the long run. It is then I realized that saying "No" is not a cultural convention in Thailand and employees don’t want to turn down work out of respect to their managers and peers. But this inability to say No or pushback causes a lot of strain on these employees.

I started focusing developmental conversations around prioritization and time management with an underlying theme of constructive & fact-based push back.

The business was also very supportive and rallied for change in behaviour and mindset by leading from the front. We followed suit with other interventions around learning and development, coaching, periodic huddles and other feedback mechanisms to review how effectively this change was being embedded into our day to day working style.

What are your thoughts about layoffs? What is the role of HR in layoffs? According to you, what is the appropriate way of managing layoffs?

The layoff, in summary, is the alignment between the workforce with the given business reality. It is also an HR professional’s worst nightmare and can be emotionally taxing. Having said that, Layoff is a reality that needs to be addressed and managed with care, compassion, and dignity.

Also, while most Layoffs are a business decision, HR is often at the forefront of managing the process. When it comes to execution, the most effective way it to target two groups in the process:

The impacted employees:  It is very critical to create a seamless communication and exit strategy for the impacted employees that articulates the Why, What and How of the layoff. This needs to be done in a conducive environment where the impacted employee is treated with respect, and their query and confusion is managed with clarity and outplacement support wherever possible. In times of COVID, we have seen how some of the companies have made layoff as a very positive experience for employees just by executing it with the utmost sensitivity, planning and transparency.

Remaining employees:  Once the impacted employees and their immediate teams are informed, the next step is to execute a communication plan for the remaining employees. It is very important to address the facts as transparently as possible and assure these employees about their job security and responsibilities. This is also an opportunity to build team morale by recognizing the knowledge, skills, and abilities in the existing workforce and by providing them opportunities for growth, re-allocation, and development. This should be succeeded by regular check-ins and two-way feedback to ensure that the employees are coping well with the changes and their evolved roles.

Share your experience of working with the most challenging reporting manager (or, supervisor). What was the most difficult thing about that relationship from your perspective, and how did you manage it?

In my experience, I have faced challenging and demanding situations, but seldom have they been concentrated on one individual.

In a contesting environment, one must separate the issue from the person and understand that most parties are operating from a place of good faith.

When it comes to demanding stakeholders, I believe that time is the best remedy if supplemented with trust built via consistent performance and expectation management. This trust coupled with articulate communication can be the bedrock of maneuvering tough conversations to agreeable resolutions. It is also important to remember that there will be times when you will have to give up your position and support the opposing view and that none of this is about you and you should not take it personally.

What kinds of experiences have you had in relating to people whose backgrounds are different than your own?

As I mentioned before, our background plays a very important role in how we think and behave. Each person has a unique perspective based on their cultural, economic, and social conditioning.

I have had very interesting experiences with people who come from different backgrounds in my professional and personal life. These experiences have been very enriching and have challenged me to broaden my understanding of how the world works. This has also made me more flexible and open to new and creative ideas, new ways of approaching things, and appreciate the diversity of thought and action.

What do you think about Talent Shortage? What are a few practical tips you want to give to CEOs and Hiring Managers to manage the challenge of Talent Shortage?

I have never heard any organization say that they are at 100% when it comes to Talent. Organizations continuously evolve and that often creates a gap between the desired and actual knowledge, skills and competency required to move it in the right direction.

When it comes to Talent, CEOs and hiring managers should be clear about:

  • What is Talent: There should be an overall alignment of what Talent means for the organization with clear and differentiating guidelines.  Each organization at a said point and time could have the ‘Net New’(a completely new offering which would take the organization forward), an ‘enhanced old’( a core offering which is being strengthened) and a ‘solid core’ which is still relevant with little or no change. Hiring managers needs to be aware of areas where key talent is needed and then map it to the existing employee population which can determine the build, borrow and buy strategy.
  • Separate people from positions: When it comes to hiring Talent, it is very important to separate people from positions especially with existing employees. Often, key roles in organizations are carved out for employees and would look very different if created from scratch. Hiring managers need to be conscious of this and ensure that the business need takes precedence over anything else.
  • Hire for skills: When it comes to Talent, it is very important to hire people with scalability or transferable skills. I also see a lot of value in being selective and thorough where hiring managers are sure of what they want and communicate the needs to the prospective hire beforehand. 
    It is also vital to remember that organizations that are diverse and inclusive are more engaged and show better performance. HR can add real value here by providing the direction, tools, and resources that allow hiring managers to be objective and conscious of bias when it comes to hiring or promoting employees.
  • Invest in talent retention:  While we spend a lot of resources and time in developing and acquiring talent and it is also critical to retain this talent. While most organizations have talent management verticals, it is particularly important for the leadership to be fully on board, follow through the plans and measure the effectiveness of their successions, retention, and engagement initiatives.

How Social Media has changed the workplace dynamics?

Social media has been one of the biggest disruptions in our generation. It has completely changed the way we access, and share information and social media platforms are the biggest public opinion and behaviour influencing entities.

When it comes to workplaces, there are contrasting opinions on whether social media is a boon or a bane to employee productivity. But with millennials forming over 70% of the global workforce today, most organizations are tapping into social media for creating impactful employee experiences.

So, be it employer branding, networking, crowdsourcing, talent sourcing, collaboration, learning, or engagement, social media is a big part of how the employee value proposition is created.

I believe that if used judicially and professionally, social media has a lot more to offer.

If you need to draw a landscape of the future workplace, how will it look like? What disruptions do you foresee in HR over the next FIVE years?

The future of work is continuously evolving and if COVID has taught anything, it is that Technology will play a big role in the organizations of tomorrow.

Some of the key HR disruptions in the next 5 years could be:

  • Tech transformation: This would range from AI to automation of HR information systems and processes with a more effective interface to mobile-based apps for key processes such as time and attendance, learning, performance management, feedback, and engagement. This advancement will also elevate the role of HR from an administrator and process owner to an effectiveness coach. 
    Investment in technology would likewise support remote working models and flexible work options in the workplace.  
  • Data Analytics: Big data would drive people analytics and vendor-driven large data models would move towards more customized products. Predictive analytics and strategic workforce management would play a critical role in creating lean and agile structures and influence acquisition, assessment, engagement and development of talent.
  • Employee experience: Employee experience would have to be redefined with wellness and development at its core. Immersive platforms for development and recognition will have to be developed from hire to retire in order to create a deeper impact. Social purpose with key themes such as D&I, sustainability, climate change, etc would also play a key role in employee engagement.

Lastly, what is your message for fresh HR Graduates? How should they prepare themselves for a career in HR?

This is a challenging time to be an HR professional. As the world is battling a Pandemic, workplaces are working overtime to ensure the health and safety of employees as well as drive business continuity. HR can be a proactive business partner in this situation and create tremendous value for the organization, not just for today but for the future of work as well.

My advice to the HR graduates would be to be brave, humble, and patient. I know you are excited and eager to put your ideas and energy into action, but it is always wise to understand and then act. Be very curious, listen, absorb, ask questions brainstorm, and ideate.

Change happens over time and mindset and behaviour change takes time, resilience, and consistent effort. It is OK if you aimed for 100 and landed at 80, don’t lose heart and keep at it.

Be clear of what is expected of you, what value you want to create, assess your effectiveness, seek continuous feedback, and be in charge of your own development. Play to your strengths and develop key skills that would take you forward. Actively network, be abreast of the latest trends, disruptions, and demands in the market, and try to innovate in your own sphere of work. In order to stay relevant, keep reinventing yourself, keep investing in your own development, keep challenging yourself to think unconventionally. What you can’t measure you can’t improve, so reflect, adapt, and transform continuously.

Know your business in and out and find HR solutions for business challenges, don’t get restricted by silos. Be a trusted partner to the business and a champion of change. Treat your seniors, colleagues, and teams with empathy, dignity, and respect. Always prioritize fairness and equity over popularity. Act as the custodian of organizational ethos, live by the values continuously, and be a role model to employees.

Other than that, please remember that while it is extremely important to be smart and savvy, hard work will never go out of style and last but not the least, have a life beyond work, ensure that you get time to re-energize and reflect. Be kind to yourself! Good luck!

Thank you very much, Shefali, for sharing wonderful insight. We appreciate it.  

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