Start-ups are exciting spaces for young HR professionals to learn the ropes early on it their careers

Zainab Sulaiman is a highly dedicated and result driven HR professional with diverse experience across multiple functions. Working across large, mid-size and start up environments, she holds extensive experience in Retail, Sales and Non-profits at both operational and management levels. Currently associated with Zeven Sports India Pvt Ltd, Bangalore, as Head: HR, Admin. & IT, Zainab earlier worked with Christel House India, Bangalore, as Fundraising Manager; Association of People with Disability, Bangalore, as Volunteer Teacher and Fundraiser; Freelance writer with Debut children’s novel ‘Simply Nanju’ published in 2016 which has sold over 2000+ copies to date; Founder, Fatcat Kids, Bangalore; Madura Garments, Bangalore, as Training Manager; Nike, Bangalore, as Training Manager; and RCI India, Bangalore, as Training Supervisor.

Zainab is certified with an Executive Development Program in HRM, XLRI Jamshedpur Post Graduate Certificate Course in Inclusive Education from Spastic Society Bangalore & Bharti Vidya Bhavan, Delhi; Post Graduate Certificate Program in Management from IIM, Kozhikode and Bachelor of Commerce from Mount Carmel College.

Zainab is also a regular contributor to Indian Express New Delhi and HuffPost and has published short stories in Chicken Soup of the Soul Series (India) and a Holi anthology for children by Hachette. Among other achievements, Zeven Sports, where she head HR, has been recently Awarded for being among the ‘Top 20 Companies in Diversity’ in the SME category by Jobsforher in March 2019.

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

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

My first proper interview was with RCI India Pvt Ltd, a holiday exchange company, for a customer service cum sales agent role. A friend of mine from college worked there and she referred me for the job. I frankly did not prepare at all for the interview as I was just out of college myself and had no idea about the corporate world. In fact, I told the interviewer that I could only join after my younger brother’s final exams – he is 10 years younger to me, as I was helping him prepare for them.

The interviewer, who turned out to be my boss eventually, was very amused to hear this, though she said nothing. She was very kind and asked me a lot of questions about myself, my likes and dislikes, my hobbies, etc. and then offered me the job, which I agreed to take one month later due to my brother’s exams. And thereby started my corporate journey.

Which, according to you was the most intriguing interview? Can you share your experience in detail? 

The most intriguing interview was one which was going downhill from the start. It was the HR round and was the last milestone to be cleared. My previous interview with my prospective immediate manager had gone off exceedingly well – he had asked me a lot of questions that were interesting and made me think on my feet, and I felt he was happy with my responses. However, as I sat across the table from the middle-aged man who looked at me with disinterest, I knew things weren’t going well. He asked me a few questions about how I’d managed to reach this far in the interview process – this company normally hired only from the top B schools in India and grew their talent internally, and I had got in through a back door of sorts, as again, someone I knew had referred me for the opening. As the minutes passed, and things seemed to be growing bleaker by the moment, a chance question turned the tables. ‘What kind of books do you like to read?’ he asked. ‘Crime,’ I answered. ‘I particularly love Agatha Christie’s books.’ His face lit up and for the first time that afternoon his expression became animated. ‘Me too!’ he exclaimed. ‘Aren’t they the best?’ Suffice to say, minutes into expounding about our common interests in reading – he loved PG Wodehouse too, praise the Lord – I was hired.

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 from your first job and your role? Were they all fulfilled? What didn’t coincide with your expectation? 

My first year was an eye opener for both me and the kind manager who had hired me, for after waiting for a full month for me to join, she and I both quickly realised I was doing terribly. The job was admittedly tough: we had to convince our customers to holiday in Ooty during the winter (a hill station with temperatures at 3-4-degree Celsius) or Goa in summer (when it was 40 degrees plus). I had been given training during my induction and some amount of hand holding had been done, but I just couldn’t close any sales as I found it near impossible to sell angry clients holidays they didn’t want. Luckily for me, my boss was also a wise woman. Instead of writing me off, she packed me off to a sales training program, conducted by an ex-army man who drilled one simple tenet into our heads: he asked us to repeat to ourselves, ad-nauseam, ‘I am the best. I am the best.’ Of course, he backed this up with lots of training on the whys and how’s and what’s of sales and explained that this little phrase was meant to get our confidence back on track and help us stay calm and in control of challenging situations. Fresh out of college, disheartened at how difficult the real world was, I took his words to heart, and everywhere I went, from brushing my teeth in the morning, to riding my Kinetic to work, to hitting bed at night, ‘I am the best’ was my new mantra, and I am happy to say that it worked. By the end of the following year, I was the top selling salesperson in the team, and more importantly, I had begun to enjoy my work at last.

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

Absolutely. Like I described above, my first boss was my mentor as well who supported me by giving me the tools (training in this case) to do my job and kept the faith and gave me time to prove myself. As all bosses are not as empathetic, I believe that a mentor program would help all employees immensely and should be an integral part of the first year of the employee’s stint at the company. I had also been coached recently by a professional coach in my capacity as a senior leader of a management team, and once again, this exposure taught me to step back and evaluate my role and my responses, and approach my work objectively, and thereby be more effective and professional.

You have a very exciting professional journey. You worked as a Training Supervisor and Training Manager. Later you worked with NGO’s and as a Fundraiser. Lastly, you moved into HR. Please tell us more about your journey and how you managed to move into diversified roles? What challenges did you face?

I would like to see this journey as one that is focused around one essential element in any company – people. As a salesperson, then a trainer, and finally as a HR professional, the common thread is my ability to work with people and bring out the best in them, creating a win-win situation for the company and for themselves. I guess I also like to learn and hence each role gave me a new opportunity to enhance my skills, ability and knowledge, as well as grow as a person. The challenges of course were many; some I managed to overcome, like my stint with RCI. Others, like the fund raiser stint, were not as successful, but everywhere there was learning, growth and a sincere effort to do what was required; at the end we can only control our own efforts and not necessarily the outcomes, and this too is an important realisation that we must all face one day.

Having worked in a leadership role, what do you think are the expectations of a CEO or the Management Team from its HR Function in general and HR Head in particular?

Today, HR must be aligned to the business and be seen to actively contribute to business goals and strategy. Right from planning and bringing on the board the right team to ensuring their efforts are productive and effective, to developing and implementing the right processes, all these areas need to be pushing for one single objective, which is the growth and profitability of the company.

As a HR practitioner, you might have taken several job interviews. Please share with us a few incidents when you felt that the candidate was most deserving yet couldn’t be offered the job.   

Sometime candidates are ahead of the curve in terms of their experience or qualifications, and this is when we are forced to let them by.

What is your take on having filters, such as % scored in Graduation or Post Graduation OR the brand name of college and institute, for shortlisting profiles?  

I don’t really believe in these filters, as with a certain level of fundamentals in place, I think the sky’s the limit for any human being. The only check point here would be, is he or she interested enough to make it happen.

Have you been part of Employment Termination Process [Lay-Off’s, Firing, etc]? How did you prepare yourself for it?  

Yes, as it is an inadvertent part of the business and need to be approached it from a viewpoint of fairness to all – the employee and the company. I handle these situations with empathy, frank and open communication and firmness. Most people respond to this immediately and realise these unfortunate situations are not personal.

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? 

Overlooked the bad behaviour of a senior colleague, even though it desperately needed correcting.

What kind of soft skills does a fresh graduate need to get a career break and to be successful at the beginning of their career?

Communication, openness to learn and take feedback, and patience.

The top management’s vision and their way of doing business creates the culture in a company

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?

A culture created very specifically to support the company’s goals is a task in itself, but if undertaken, can pay off enormously during periods of stress and challenge. This, however, cannot be defined or driven only by HR; it requires the thought, vision and support of the top management, and HR needs to find innovative and interesting yet real ways to make it an integral and driving force in the company. Typically, the top management’s vision and their way of doing business creates the culture in a company. HR is that mirror in which both the management and the employees should be able to see themselves, warts and all.

Often the Fresh HR Graduates tell me that they would like to work in the core-HR and show less interest in the recruitment domain. What do you think could be the reason to disfavour recruitments?

Recruitment is a pressure filled job and needs to be relooked at to make it interesting for fresh graduates. Perhaps positioning it as a job that builds sales skills, a huge value add to any job, could make it more appetising for this TG.

Social Media has put pressure on HR to do what it’s originally meant to do – build an honest and hard-working team and a culture that delivers both for the company and for the employee

HR is at the crossroads, yet again. According to you, what will be the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robots, etc. on the future of HR Function? Please also highlight how social media has changed the world of HR practitioners? 

AI will increasingly take over and one needs to be prepared for it. However, the quality of HR jobs will also go up as these machines cannot do the kind of qualitative analysis that human beings can. Social media on the other hand has truly made the world flat. Now, everyone knows what kind of a company they’re joining, and this puts pressure on HR to do what it’s originally meant to do – build an honest and hard-working team and a culture that delivers both for the company and for the employee.

Last question, what is your message for young and aspiring HR practitioners? What kind of growth opportunities should they look forward to? And, what are the key competencies one must possess to be successful in this profession?     

HR is just about coming into its own. Start-ups are exciting spaces for young HR professionals to learn the ropes early on it their careers, and I would advise them to take as many risks as they can.. Within a few years though, they should ideally begin to narrow their areas of interest, get additional qualifications along the way, and commit to a path that interests them. The key competencies are a willingness to learn, ability to adapt, and a positive attitude.

Thank you very much, Zainab, for sharing these wonderful insights. We appreciate it. 

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