In this candid interview with All Things Talent, Simin Askari, Vice President-Corporate Human Resources at DS Group talks about her journey and challenges so far, the initiatives DS group is undertaking to create a more nimble and skilled workforce, and why it is important to improve corporate culture in the #MeToo era. She also shares some valuable insights on why HR needs to understand and learn the intricacies of business and how technology is redefining the workplaces.
Simin Askari is the Vice President-Corporate Human Resources at DS Group, a multi-diversified conglomerate. Simin comes with over 25 years of professional experience in diverse industries. Responsible for the HR systems, process efficiencies and managing HR strategy, her role at DS Group is of a strategic partner. She has diverse experience in designing career paths, succession planning and leadership development across businesses. Simin’s role has been instrumental in implementing employee development policies and organisational development initiatives. Her driving force has always been towards creating an agile, motivated and employee-centric HR practices. She is an alumna of the Faculty of Management Studies, AMU.
Q. Having worked as an HR leader in the industry for many years, how has this journey been so far? What were your initial main challenges when you started out? How did that help you evolve into a leader?
A. Firstly, I’d like to make a confession. I didn’t start off like an HR professional. I actually started off as a salesperson and I was selling computers for HCL- that was my first job. And I think that job really helped me evolve as a professional in understanding the business because I started off right where everything starts – selling. From selling, I went on to a business development role and then to being an entrepreneur for about 10 years. Slowly as the factories started growing bigger, we started to hire more employees including contractual labour. There was a requirement for somebody to handle HR full-fledged, so I took up this challenge and started evolving into an HR professional thereon.
I learnt a lot from my own mistakes…and, there were many that I made around that time. I would say fortunately because I was responsible for them and I was responsible for the business- I could learn from them and strive not to commit them again. It was around the same time that I started reading a lot. I had done my MBA so I had studied the basics- I then dwelled deeper to understand the function; including the rules and legal requirements.
As the numbers grew that’s when complexities grew; that is where my business understanding helped me ensure that the HR function was more aligned to the business rather than being a sort of side road function. This is when I started bringing in initiatives which now are quite common but perhaps not so common in our industry at that time. Initiatives like the introduction of profit linked incentives for top executives, sales incentives, communication classes, training, etc. are quite common for an HR professional to implement today, but I learnt over time and evolved.
I got an opportunity to head Apollo International’s HR function while I was an entrepreneur. I took this up as a challenge as this was a bigger canvas to paint. There were diversified businesses with diversified challenges. For me, it was really exciting since it kept me on my toes and I had to again reinvent myself, understand the businesses- they were into trading, exports, and logistics. I was responsible for the domestic as well as overseas businesses and spent a delightful 5 years with the group.
Then DS happened. They were looking at bringing about transformation and changes in the HR function in the organisation. Here I got the opportunity to be able to work with the best minds in the country. I have been able to work on several initiatives with the best consultants in the country. Some of the recent initiatives I have been working on are the career Management Framework for our employees and the DS Learning Academy. The journey has been immensely satisfying professionally and continues to remain exciting. I get up every day raring to go to work!
Q. Can you tell us what’s your favourite aspect of your job? On a personal level, what are the most challenging aspects of your work?
A. My favourite aspect of my job is the everyday challenges that it throws upon me. I enjoy them; I am one of those people who would probably sort of wilt away if I am not given something to do. When I go back home and I sit back and say- OK today was a day well spent– that’s when I feel the happiest. So, daily interaction with the people here, feeling that I have contributed, I think that is what really excites me and matters to me.
In terms of challenges, you’d always face them in your everyday job, and it’s no different for me. There is learning to happen at every step and there is so much to learn and imbibe from. There are people who feel they are experts and don’t need to learn any more. But, I don’t think like that, I am happy to listen to others, absorb from their experiences and grow further as an individual. I feel this is what has always contributed to my success. Recently I have been given a new role to lead… something that is entirely new to me. But I know I will be able to manage because I have handled an entire business not just a function. My logical approach and leadership skills will come in good stead at this time.
Q. What are some of the biggest HR initiatives you are currently working on at DS Group? How do you ensure to convert organisational change into a community-building process?
A. In terms of initiatives, DS-ACE which was started five years ago, is something we have been continuously working on. This initiative was started to build organisational capabilities by introducing talent from the top institutes from the country. The ACERs (as we call them) have brought in immense value in terms of strategic inputs and process improvements. Today this program is our most sought after initiative at these institutes and incumbents applying for the ACE program know that they too will not get a better role elsewhere.
There are two other initiatives that we are currently working on-
The first one pertains to designing the career architecture for our people. That essentially means that if somebody is joining us, what are the career paths available to them, what are the different routes they can take to reach the top, how will they be able to reach there and what is the fast track that they can take. So if somebody is ambitious, how do they ensure that they reach to the top quickly. A predefined path would help them know how they can achieve their goals.
Now, when you are creating a career path you will always have some sort of competency gaps arising. How do we address those gaps? Therefore, we are also working on creating a learning academy alongside. This learning academy is essentially going to define learning journeys for employees which will- be drive through our newly acquired LMS. There will be varied forms of blended learnings. There will be credit systems; it will be like a university. So if you are passing, you will get credits and these credits will come in handy at the time of your promotions.
In fact, we are even going to experiment with augmented reality and virtual reality as modes of training. This is manufacturing set up, and AR or VR would be an ideal method of teaching someone; for example how to do preventive maintenance on a particular machine. I feel we should bring in a fun element in learning because when you have fun, you actually enjoy and imbibe more from the training.
DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION
Q. Study after study shows women who support women are more successful in business. In your opinion, how can women leaders recognise their own biases and consciously work to support other women in the organisation?
A. When it comes to women supporting women I think women by nature are supportive. Per my understanding, the whole concept of women not supporting other women in terms of climbing the corporate ladder stems from this fact – for some strange reason when there are few women in the team they don’t consider the men as the competition, they will always consider the women as competition.
I don’t know why. I think the reason is that there are so few jobs available. And they have struggled really hard to reach there that they don’t want their place to be taken by another girl. Therefore, they always feel threatened if there’s another girl there and that’s the reason why they don’t help each other. The minute they stop thinking of another woman as a threat that is when they will begin to support each other.
At my level, I probably don’t feel threatened and that’s probably the reason I am able to give more. But I have observed in some of my own teams when there are rifts, it’s more often between the female colleagues.
I am a leader who happens to be a woman, not a Woman leader”. So I look at myself like that. And I would want people to look at themselves as leaders first and men and women later.
When I look at the society there are biases and people do tend to treat women differently. Somewhere we also try to be overprotective, Somewhere we feel that they are not able to do certain things. I say, why not?! There is no stopping any woman today to be able to do whatever she sets her mind to. But the environment around us is not conducive. When I started off as a salesperson, I had a scooty and I used to travel all around Delhi on it. My parents had faith in me and that is why they would let me do that. Today travelling alone at night in this city may not be as safe.
My challenge is also to convince my male colleagues to hire a woman who’s been on maternity leave. Frankly, there are two sides to every coin. On one side when a woman comes back she would try very hard to make sure that she is back at the position she was and she will be more committed than any other male colleague. But on the other side, there are women who come, stay for a month or two and as the life back home becomes difficult they just drop everything and say – Forget it, I just can’t do it. It is they who drop the anchor. A woman is limited only in her own mind and if she sets her mind to it, there is nothing she can’t achieve.
I was fortunate I had support at home when my children were growing up and I could continue to pursue my career as I deemed fit.
My advise to women colleagues would be that perseverance is all that is required to overcome difficulties. Women have the capabilities to reach the top echelons in an organisation and nothing should be able to stop them from attaining that golden position.
Q. #MeToo incidents in the workplace aren’t happening in a vacuum, they all happen within a culture that somehow sanctions them. In your opinion, has the incidents of #MeToo forced businesses to re-evaluate their corporate culture especially in India?
A. Yes, it has, definitely, it has. Such cases don’t happen in a vacuum. Why haven’t we at DS Group ever witnessed a #MeToo? Because we have a culture that is extremely pro-women and we are quite protective of our girls. When a female worker is travelling we want to make sure she is safe. We focus on specifics like her accommodation, travel arrangements, pick and drop etc. I recall an instance here, where a woman employee said that somebody made a sexual remark, and we took immediate strict action. There is an absolute zero tolerance for such behaviour. I have spent more than six and a half years here, and I can’t recall a single instance, where I would say that this happened. Culture is, of course, very important.
Q. Also, how can we capitalize on VUCA and use unpredictability to our advantage to ride the changes and get where we want to go?
A. To a great extent, it is how we approach the uncertainty that helps us manage it; I say “manage” not “overcome”, because there would be a lot of things we won’t be able to overcome. Being prepared and being one step ahead is something that we should be doing. We should be cognizant of what is happening around us. For instance, there are a lot of buzzwords these days – AI, Machine Learning, Big Data & Analytics. These are areas where we’ve already started working. We’ve already deployed AI and ML into our various processes. We have already set up an analytics team, which is working across businesses to analyse the various data we get from different sources. There is one team that is working on sales data and driving sales analytics. There is another team which is working on creating those dashboards for various businesses and functions to monitor things and derive business sense out of that. If you are able to provide HODs business insights by analysing data, they will be able to take more pertinent decisions.
In this organisation, we have tried to keep up with the times. We have invested in technology and teams. This has helped us grow and stay relevant.
Q. Only a few expect the Human Resource to be a strategic driver of business results in their organisations. How can this misconception be changed? In your opinion, why is it Important for HR to be a Strategic Business Partner?
For an HR professional to be an actual strategic partner to the business they first have to understand the business. You can’t work in isolation.
If today I don’t understand how finance functions I won’t be able to relate to what they are saying. If I don’t understand how purchasing happens, how sales happen, I won’t be able to provide any inputs. So we need to introspect as professionals and see what are we doing. Are we understanding the business or are we even attempting to understand? HR needs to be aligned to the larger business objectives and only then they can add value and positively impact the business. While framing their hiring, training, and employee development strategies, HR needs to understand the work of the various functions.
The minute HR starts looking at the other perspective from various functions that is when it starts becoming a strategic business partner.
Everything has a cost and ultimately businesses are here to make money. HR cannot function as a cost centre, it has to contribute. How will it contribute? It has to understand that there will be a cost implication for every action they are taking. So if they evaluate everything in monetary terms, in terms of the money that is either being spent or generated by way of bringing in efficiency by upping somebody’s productivity and ultimately affecting the top line and bottom line, that is when everybody understands them. Till HR doesn’t talk money it will never be a strategic partner.
Any initiative you are taking in HR shouldn’t be in isolation. It has to yield tangible results for the business. If we talk about career planning for our people, how does it help the business? If it is just a career path for an employee what is the business getting out of it? If HR is able to communicate the productivity and revenue impact of an idea to the management, then it is actually able to show a tangible monetary value to the whole value chain. That is when management will be interested in the whole idea.
Q. As the future of the workplace draws near, so do the changes that come with it. According to you, how is technology redefining the workplace and the businesses?
A. There are a lot of changes in stock for us and technology is actually a catalyst for all of that. The way we are going to experience the workforce, going forward, is going to be extremely different. We hear about the gig economy and it’s actually already here; the Flexi- workers, the robotic workers. The permanent staff which is going to be there and the way they are going to continue to be motivated; it’s going to be very different. Technology is helping us cope up with these changes happening around us and is also fuelling these changes at the same time.
Another trend that is catching up very quickly is the minimalistic trend. People are very conscious of the environment, very conscious of how they are using the resources and they have started conserving and using less and having lesser materialistic things. This marks a huge shift in our entire view of livelihood. When you change the perception of how you define a livelihood, the whole concept of earning that livelihood also changes. As a result, you will have people who will be happy with working for lesser hours and, contributing more to society. So, again you will witness a very different mindset there. People will be more inclined to join organisations which are more about giving back to society. This will change the way businesses are functioning now and how they will function in the future.
Technology and digital impacts the entire organisation and it requires effective leadership at all levels to drive the digital strategy going forward. Organisations will need to consider a more structured approach to building a healthy pipeline with the necessary capabilities to lead in the digital era. They can do this by placing potential leaders in positions that stretch them beyond their current competencies and skills and coach them on building new digital capabilities as rapidly as possible.
The world of work is changing and it is the quality of leadership that will decide who will disrupt and who will get disrupted.
It looks like a journey of a great leader. I know Simin professionaly and don’t have any hesitation to say that she manages her team really well. She have all the qualities of a great leader…all my best wishes for her future…