In this colloquy with All Things Talent, Pakzad Nussirabad, Chief People Officer at Nexdigm (SKP), gives us an insiders perspective on the journey of an Information Services professional in the world of human resources. He tells us about some key events in this journey that helped him grow as a professional and helped him build and lead cross-cultural teams across geographies and various industries. Pakzad also shares his insights on how automation is not a one-size-fits-all concept and how HR professionals should have a solid plan to bring about cultural change via automation. Further, he emphasizes the need to have an Employee Value Proposition to motivate and retain employees and the importance of duly communicating it internally and externally.
With your rich experience of nearly 18 years of building and leading cross-cultural teams across geographies and various industries, how would you describe your journey in HR so far? What were some of the key elements in your journey which helped you soar professionally?
The exposure and experiences I am blessed with have all contributed to making me who I am today. To begin with, my formative years in the Information Technology domain have not only given me the edge I need in today’s time of digital transformation but also given me the insight into what an employee expects from their leaders and the human resources function. Having worked for varied industries and associated workforces, a common approach I have applied is that of going beyond just understanding the business and its people, but also what drives both. This, in turn, has served me well in collaboratively formulating and executing transformational people strategy in alignment with the organisation’s goals. Another approach that has served me well is that of saying “yes”, contrary to the belief that one should learn to say “no”. Fortunately, all the “yes” has been for opportunities to learn and “yes” I do believe one should learn to say “no”; but probably a little later in their career journey. Possibly, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life until much later helped drive these learning experiences.
Having worked for varied industries and associated workforces, a common approach I have applied is that of going beyond just understanding the business and its people, but also what drives both. This, in turn, has served well in collaboratively formulating and executing transformational people strategy in alignment with the organisation’s goals.
The lyrics of Baz Luhrmann’s song “Everybody free” in 1999 served well as a timely motivator. This attribute of mine also served me well when it came to making the decision to break the journey and travel a path less travelled. Here, I refer to the choice of jumping off the bandwagon of working for multinational companies and taking up the challenge of growing a mid-sized privately-owned partnership firm. The way I see it, the choice gave me the opportunity of not only learning to colour the shapes with the chosen colours and staying within the lines, but also the freedom to be, to explore, and learn to be an artist. Not to say that this wouldn’t have been the case with my earlier employers but maybe a tad bit later.
To date, this journey has been nothing short of spectacular and now I can say with certainty that I know who and where I want to be from a career perspective i.e. a catalyst and enabler to the organisations I serve. The role with my current employer also tied in well with my inherent drive for lifelong learning, however, rather than having the knowledge served buffet and/or force-fed, I had to now hunt down the knowledge I sought. And further, not shy away from self-funding it. Tough initially but on hindsight, I’d not have my knowledge served in any other way. Importantly, this “far from over” journey would have not been possible without the trust, belief and freedom I have enjoyed from the organisations and leaders I have had the pleasure of serving. Now, this forms the core foundation of my “pay it forward” participative leadership approach I largely subscribe to. Lastly, my career journey would have been a lonely
and way more difficult one without the support of the teams I have the fortune of working with and learning from as well.
Most of the functions like sales, finance and marketing are perceived to add value to the business strategy, the HR function is often thought of to be lacking in strategic outlook. What are your views on this? In your opinion, why does HR need a role in business strategy?
The outcome of sales, finance, and marketing efforts are largely measurable and have a direct and clear linkage to the achievement of the organisation’s goals. Not that this is not so of HR efforts, but measurability at times is not that
tangible and establishing a direct correlation to organisation goals can be challenging. A deeper interest in and understanding of the business and continual alignment to the organisational goals goes a long way in overcoming this. Doing so not only enables HR to associate and explain the contribution of non-tangible HR efforts better but also elaborate and illustrate the importance of the people strategy. Further, a people strategy that is created based on alignment with the organisation’s vision and goals is one that is respected and succeeds.
Never before has the workforce changed so quickly and continuously, and HR is in the middle of it all. How can HR gain confidence in their technology choices and turn people strategies into a catalyst for change?
While we do live in a VUCA environment, we should not consider technology alone as a sole change agent; especially when it comes to people. Undervaluing the human touch would not be optimal.
A starting point when it comes to automation, I personally follow is that if it does not work on paper, automation would be futile. Secondly, not one size fits all. Gauging your workforce on its tech readiness and capability would be a good approach before deciding on a solution. Upskilling may be more a need of the hour either prior to or during the implementation. Next, awareness of the culture of the company is critical to the successful implementation and utilization. Here, there could also be a conscious plan to bring about cultural change via automation. Lastly, no automation project should be taken forward without a project plan outlining the need, outcome, timeline and appropriately defined return on investment. Also, do not undervalue the feedback from the leadership during the project approval process. How you accept and action it helps not only in receiving the go-ahead but also in building trust for future digital endeavours. Goes without saying, adherence to the project plan and keeping an eye on the ROI over time further helps with building the trust equation.
Many employers these days are adopting an employer of choice strategy, offering a variety of employee benefits in an attempt to attract and retain quality staff. How is Nexdigm (SKP) positioning itself as an employer of choice to gain a competitive hiring edge?
With the aim of being an employer of choice, we do have a benefits roadmap in place. The roadmap also takes into account our growth plans, we want to provide the best in class work environments to our employees and we want to engage our workforce. This balance is very much required when it comes to talent attraction and retention for mid-sized firms such as ours or even for larger setups. Having said that, our initial focus was catching up and offering the basics in terms of medical and tax exemption benefits. While the focus continues in expanding those benefits, we have further extended to introduce benefits/rewards in alignment with our employed pay-for-performance strategy and are in the process of exploring the need of the hour employee assistance programs. We also consciously look at our policies as guidelines and do not shy away from making amendments suited with the times. From the immediate future perspective, we are working on bringing benefits unique to a firm such as ours, which will go a long way in driving loyalty and performance.
Furthermore, what role does an effective Employment Value Proposition (EVP) play in attracting, motivating and retaining the most valuable employees?
In a way, I have touched upon this in the question above. However, as we know there are many other ingredients that go into an organisation’s EVP and there is no doubting its importance. As important as it is to define the EVP, it is even more pertinent to have it communicated internally and externally. In addition, both the EVP definition and communication activities are continual in nature. Further to what I have mentioned above where people acquisition is concerned, we have developed a robust quality and time-sensitive recruitment process suited to all our business lines not ignoring the required focus on candidate experience and employer branding. Our culture of care remains universal and applies as much to our employees as it does to our clients fostering a spirit of collaboration, responsibility and trust. It is our constant endeavour to ensure our organisation’s goals defined by the leadership are cascaded to all our associates so that they, in turn, are able to reflect on and align their goals/actions, thereby ensuring we move together towards a shared common purpose. Our robust Reward and Recognition programs keep our associates focused and motivated for better delivery, driving them to bring more to the table every time. While
all these are just a few examples we continually need to work on the right mix of EVP offerings ensuring they approximately have an answer to the question – “What’s in it for me?”
A technology shift that isn’t backed up by a corresponding cultural shift can put the success of a digital business initiative at risk. According to you, what can be done to foster a company-wide shift in mindset and not just technology that will accelerate the transformation process?
This question takes me back to 1998-99 when Microsoft products were coming of age, email was becoming an increasingly accepted communication medium, and the Y2K scare had many running towards upgrading to the latest and best Intel chipsets and processors (Pentium, if one remembers). Back then, I was an Information Services Professional entrusted with the challenging task of convincing a workforce comfortable for years using typewriters, the postal system, telephones, first iterations of word processor on MS-DOS and an army of secretaries to adopt these technological changes. Looking back that task was far more daunting than what stands in front of us today and what worked then definitely does work now. To start with, adoption was top-down with a clear message that if we expect you to adopt it, we better lead by example. A lot of focus was paid to articulate and advertise the benefits especially in terms of time and effort. This was backed up by a lot of hand-holding, training, and prompt support. Must say that there were many hiccups especially with the technology being literally path-breaking and requiring further investment to work, as it should. The project plan and roadmap highlighting the possibility of these cost diversions did help keep leadership faith in the team and project intact. The project plan did also have a defined cut off date signed off by leadership and adhered too as well. Can’t deny that external stimulus in the form of Y2K threatening to wipe us out did help. Yes, there were naysayers but delivering on the said benefits did help them come around as well. Optimism by all the leaders is also one key cultural ingredient that helped drive the transformation. An observation back then that served as a boon in our case at least was that people met and spoke to each other more. There was no evolved search engine, elaborate World Wide Web or social media where one could get their information, reviews and vent/praise. Nor were there evolved technologies to communicate and learn on – Messengers, Chatbots, LXPs, etc. Here technology aided in its own transformation process. I for one miss the old days when we met, we spoke, and things were simpler (black or white). Having said that, I am an all-out technophile.
Leaders that have subscribed largely to a participative leadership style can easily extend that very approach and bring innovation into the mix. At the same time, being innovative themselves is highly important keeping in mind the volatile and competitive times. They need to be able to think beyond the mundane and challenge the status quo; even more in times of peace.
In your opinion, how can “innovation leadership” revolutionize modern workplaces in order to lead a successful digital transformation?
Innovation leadership not only requires leaders to innovate but create an environment that fosters innovation in their teams and beyond. Leaders that have subscribed largely to a participative leadership style can easily extend that very approach and bring innovation into the mix. At the same time, being innovative themselves is highly important
keeping in mind the volatile and competitive times. They need to be able to think beyond the mundane and challenge the status quo; even more in times of peace. Therein being prepared with possible options and solutions when planned strategy goes south. Where digital transformation is concerned, I see this type of leadership is beneficial especially from acceptance and reduced exception handling perspective. Acceptance comes from collaborative inputs being the basis and the “what’s in it for them?” being adequately captured. Incorporation of the majority of scenarios in the design document itself results in reduced exception handling. Also, I see an innovation leader truly partnering with the digital product/service providers and being more vulnerable to accept and change policies/processes that are not with the times, rather than force-fit them onto the solution. Here, their end game is more to do with visualized cultural transformation through digital means.
DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION
With Millennials growing into leadership roles, communication across generations is becoming the most challenging issue in the workplace. How can businesses work on paying more attention to the generation gap? According to you, what conversations need to happen that maybe are not happening to help build bridges between different groups?
With iGen (Generation Z) hitting the workforce this conundrum is only set to get more complicated with 4 generations at play in the workplace. Then there is the added complexity of upbringing, exposed environment, geography and a number of other factors that get thrown into the mix. Being a 57-year-old firm, we are cognizant of our multi-generational workforce and our focus has been to start at the top by making our mid to senior leaders self-aware and adopt a collaborative approach. We started by making our leaders aware of how they perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others (360 feedback) putting them on a path of individual development. In parallel, we also asserted our belief in behaviours being important when it comes to measuring performance.
Therein we defined our leadership competencies. With a focus on driving collaboration, we have carried out cascading collaboration workshops making our leaders aware of their communication styles, enabling them to build trust and handle conflict situations. While our continued focus shall be on driving collaboration across levels and appropriately measuring behaviours, I see the next stop on our organisational development journey being revisiting our values which shall serve as a guiding light especially in conflict scenarios. Overarching above all this is our “culture of care” which drives us to move forward together hand-in-hand. At a generic level, I do see it pertinent to be aware of the generation cohorts; and behaviours, expectations and preferences unique to them. However, I also do believe in not being biased by them and seeing people for who they are.