[SPOTLIGHT] Beyond Resilience: Making HR Leadership “Anti-Fragile”

[SPOTLIGHT] Beyond Resilience: Making HR Leadership “Anti-Fragile”

Unmesh Pawar is the Partner - People, Performance & Culture at KPMG India. He has over 25 years of international experience in building high-performance leadership teams to meet business outcomes. A sought-after leader in human capital strategy, organisational transformation, and coaching, Unmesh comes with strong expertise in talent management strategy and operations, talent acquisition, development and management, employee relations, inclusion and diversity, and human resources transformation. Through the course of his career, Unmesh has held several high-level leadership positions with leading brands such as TATA, Accenture, and Mastek. Before joining KPMG in India, Pawar worked with Accenture for nearly 17 years in multiple roles. He completed a Masters in Human Resource Development and Management (MHRDM) from Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies, and a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Mumbai.

In an exclusive interview with All Things Talent, Unmesh Pawar, shares nuggets of wisdom on the need to reimagine work, workplace, and workforce, build anti-fragile leadership, and develop skills that help organizations thrive in an uncertain future. He also shares his insights on how remote work can improve workplace diversity and inclusion.


ATT: Let us begin by talking about your journey into HR. What galvanized you to work at KPMG?

Unmesh: Coming out of college right from the first job, I have had experiences working with organizations that either had been setting up new business lines or had to reinvent/transform themselves. I was privileged to work with a phenomenal boss during my stint in Tata’s, where I learned my early ropes of the function as she ingrained in me the values needed to be a successful HR Leader. Mastek and then Accenture has been my longest tenure – my mecca from a career standpoint, where I had the privilege of working with some of the best HR and business leaders, solving the most complex and challenging business problems locally and globally.

These stints honed my leadership capabilities as I managed teams across different cultures and deepened functional skills while leading specialist functions like Talent Management, Acquisition, Learning, Diversity, and Human Capital Strategy. What I enjoy doing most is helping people, teams, and companies get to their potential. It was for some time that I had done an India only role that’s when KPMG happened, the role was exciting and I had an opportunity to lead the People journey in the transformation that KPMG had undertaken.


ATT: The pandemic created a lot of pressure on HR, how has this crisis impacted HR as a whole? What were some of the challenges & how do you think HR stepped up?

Unmesh: The pandemic was a test for everyone, not just HR function. I feel the pandemic provided a stellar opportunity for HR to step up and once again prove our significance. As a function, we did a remarkable job of ensuring employee health, safety, and well-being while ensuring business continuity. Customer expectations through the pandemic shifted which necessitated changing the business and operating models in real-time.

On one side, we were making decisions on employee compensation, workforce mix, headcount, ensuring business continuity through talent mobility, while on the other side, we were ensuring high employee engagement, reinventing how we communicate, and adapting to the virtual – hybrid working environment. HR function had a lot to deal with as we partnered with our businesses in building organizational resilience and preparedness.

HR IN 2021

ATT: What are some of the challenges & opportunities to look forward to in 2021 for HR leaders?

Unmesh: To stay fighting fit through the pandemic, companies had to make tough fiscal calls; after-effects of some of these decisions have been experienced as inequality has risen, resulting in social, racial unrest in different parts of the world. Closer home, we have seen the challenge of widening the divide of opportunity, employment, and sustainable livelihood, especially in daily wage earners. HR will have to move beyond its functional boundaries and take a broader organizational and societal view in becoming more integral to the people and business outcomes they support in times ahead.

  • The Hybrid Work Model is here to stay; in 2021, we will see the focus of HR on humanizing the corporation. The social contract between the employer and employee has shifted – employees and their family’s well-being in all aspects will take center stage. The work, workplace, home, and workforce will have to be reimagined. It is no longer just about tinkering with roles but thinking ground up on the best way to deliver business impact and efficiently making the most of a distributed, diverse workforce constituting permanent employees, advisors, gig, neo gig workers, and machines. The reimagination of work needs to connect employees to a larger purpose, a purpose that is empowering and in that allowing them to choose what, how, and where they work will be imperative. The hybrid work arrangements necessitate a newer relationship model that will allow employees to thrive.

The work, workplace, home, and workforce will have to be reimagined. It is no longer just about tinkering with roles but thinking ground up on the best way to deliver business impact and efficiently making the most of a distributed, diverse workforce constituting permanent employees, advisors, gig, neo gig workers, and machines.

  • Leadership and Culture in the context of the new work order will be equally challenging. Companies that moved from barely surviving at the beginning of the pandemic to then thrive in a couple of months displayed what Nassim Taleb says is an “anti-fragile” mindset. These organizations and leaders seem to get better in the stressful uncertain environment. This pandemic will not be the last of the unforeseen events we will face; hence we will have to consciously build leadership that is “anti-fragile” beyond resilience and robustness. To navigate the uncertainties of the future, we will have to cultivate in our leaders’ skills like resilience, compassion, courage, agile decision making, and flexibility.
  • Skills will be in focus. The push for automation/ digitalization will see a pivot towards actively using AI on structured and unstructured data generated across multiple touchpoints, and on the employee’s life cycle stages. Such rich data-powered insights will help businesses make sound decisions about people’s capability, skill needs, talent mobility towards critical business projects. We will all have to relentlessly focus on ensuring that we are developing skills to help the organization thrive in an uncertain future. Managers will have to have conversations to relentlessly develop performance and focus on people building next frontier skills rather than doing a post mortem as part of the performance management touchpoints. Learning will have to undergo a shift and be integrated into the regular course of work with nudge enabled microlearning bites rather than a separate intervention.


ATT: The sudden shift to a remote work setup has been stressful for many employees. Since many employers expect a long-term shift to remote working practices, how can HR professionals better enable these?

Unmesh: As we discussed above, remote working is going to be institutionalized in most companies. Assuming their roles can support, employees will be working from just anywhere – their hometowns, homes, client sites, coworking spaces. It’s also likely that with the space optimization and hotdesking, employees will at best be able to come into their offices three or four days a week only.

To ensure seamless collaboration, employers will have to assist with infrastructure suitable for sustained remote working that could include ergonomic furniture, collaboration tools, and connectivity.

The home is now becoming an extension of the workplace, companies need to focus on data security and the safety, sanctity of employees’ privacy and their homes. Remote working on a sustained basis will result in a feeling of detachment; hence engaging teams, being sensitive to their changing needs, leveraging technology to listen to them, and continuously striving to enhance their employee experience will help build trust. We will need to integrate physical, mental, emotional wellbeing into the flow of work. Leaders will have to be trained in managing distributed teams virtually such that they can virtually inspire individuals and empower teams to collaborate and innovate seamlessly in an agile fashion.

Beyond Resilience 2


ATT: In your view, can remote work improve workplace diversity and inclusion?

Unmesh: Remote working has created a huge opportunity to include talent that was out of bounds earlier. Now that roles and work itself is being re-architected, it will allow us to hire people who are not local without needing them to uproot and relocate. People unable to leave their homes either on account of physical challenges or elder, child care can now have a chance to find meaningful careers.

The flexibility that people will have around deciding what, who, how, when they deliver work is very empowering to further the I&D agenda. The other benefit I see is people can work from their hometowns, leading to a better quality of life supporting their elderly dependents.

Such talent mobilization in far-flung locations will also result in an economic uptick in those areas. I consequently do see remote work as an accelerator to the diversity agenda of not just age, gender, sexual orientation but also of disability, experience, race, ethnicity, backgrounds, and expertise.


ATT: In your experience, what does HR need to do differently now, post-COVID-19? What are your top learnings from this pandemic?

Unmesh: COVID-19 has been a learning journey for everyone. The crisis brought the realization that human beings and organizations have enormous resilience and an ability to adapt, reinvent themselves facing all the pressure amidst the uncertainty that we were thrown in. HR will have to acknowledge the corporation’s synergistic existence and take a broader view of the impact of organizational choices on its employees, gig workers, and communities it operates in. Our employees have displayed immense adaptability and helped the organizations reinvent themselves.

As we enter the vaccination and post phase of this storm, we will have to strive to provide our people a greater voice in making choices allowing them to perform in the best possible manner that works for them. The momentum of the COVID-19 times of an agile, hierarchy free, technology and innovation powered organization that empowered everyone in the workforce must be sustained as we are likely to experience such unprecedented challenges in the future.


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