Turning Challenges Into Opportunities Is The Biggest Task For Leaders In Times Like Today!

Sharad Sharma, Executive Vice President & Chief People Officer-SBI Card talks to The Human Factor about his professional journey and provides valuable insights on the challenges HR faces and how it can cope with the changing times.

Q. What has been your journey like as an HR professional?
A. It’s been a journey of almost 22 years spanned across Healthcare, Telecom, ITES, FMCG & Financial Services Sector. I started my career in 1994 in a large healthcare equipment company. After 5 years I moved to Bharti British Telecom, a conglomerate, and this proved to be a real catalyst in my professional life. After having spent 3 years with them, I explored challenging HR roles and was fortunate to work with some of the finest brands in the world like – Canon, eFunds Corporation, Fidelity Investments, and Max New York Life Insurance. My last assignment was with Vertex Data Science where I was privileged to have built an institution of 15000 strong people in India with a geographic spread of almost 12 cities in the country. Both Vertex & Max New York Life Insurance groomed me to be a Business HR leader.
In these 22 years of my HR journey, I had the opportunity to influence and set-the people agenda , challenge and establish strong stakeholder relationships, transform businesses & cultures across both Indian & multinational companies and change the working environment such that HR was perceived by my stakeholders as a strategic and value added function. For the last one year, I am the Chief People Officer at SBI Card, the country’s 2nd largest & most profitable credit card company.

Q. What were the biggest challenges you faced?
A. Each organization or industry has its own typical challenges, which change with economic or business dynamics. As an HR Professional for over two decades, I summarize my key challenges below:
Achieving a Stretch Goal: The organization you’re managing is responsible for a set of deliverables — whether it’s in a business process, sales, customer services, or getting new customers. The biggest challenge always is efficient utilization of your organization’s people and resources to achieve an aggressive goal. It requires organizations to motivate people, remove roadblocks from employee’s path, and make them focus on the things that are most important.
Bringing out the best in your Employees: All employees have good days and bad days. So some of the causes for poor performance are out of your control. One of the biggest challenge has been on how to build a culture that takes significant steps to make as many days as possible ‘good days’. This requires treating employees with respect, helping them align their personal goals with their work goals, encouraging ownership and inspiring them thereby creating a work place which fosters co-creation, collaboration, transparency, mutual trust.
Dealing with Under performing & Outstanding Employees: This has been the biggest challenge; how do you differentiate performances? Not all of your employees will do their best. You’ll carry your under performing employees to a point, and then beyond that point you’ll have to ease them out of your organization. You’ll be humane, but you have to balance the needs of the organization with the needs of the employees. This always throws a challenge because these are sensitive decisions. On the other hand some of your employees obviously outperform the others. That’s good news for the organization, but it presents its own set of challenges. Outstanding employees are critical to the organisation and need special treatment. You want them to keep doing an exceptional job, but that usually means that you’ll have to make them extra special. They need recognition for their talents and efforts. They need encouragement, training and guidance. And above all they need to know that they have a career path in your company, even if that career path takes them out of your organization.
Hiring the Right Talent: This has always been the crux of building an inspiring organization. No matter how happy your employees are, you’ll get occasional turnover. Hiring is easy, but hiring the right talent has always been extremely difficult.
Responding to a Crisis: No matter how well we plan, things will go wrong. An employee will get sick at a critical time. A weather disaster will hit your facility and disrupt your plans, regulator/ statutory changes will happen. A crime will be committed — maybe a theft or even something that harms an employee. Managing an unforeseen situation and to deal with it spontaneously without being overwhelmed by stress has always been taxing.
Driving Change: Even if your organisation is good, it can do better and needs to match up to external changes. There’s always some type of improvement that is required to be made around processes, organizational structures, the working environment, employee motivation, etc. It’s always a challenge to shake the ‘status quo’ and push people to get out of their comfort zone & embrace newer ways of working together.

Q. What are the challenges HR faces in the new era of the ‘digital age’?
A. The world is changing on cultural, societal and economical aspects based on the increasing dominance of digital technologies. These changes have silently pushed all of us into a ‘digital age’. These changes have surely affected HR in multiple ways. Particularly, in relation to changed workforce and more specifically related to the use of technology in delivering HR activities. For HR the challenge is to now find:
Digital employees– Resources who are techsavvy, own digital qualifications, have multitasking capabilities and inherent desire to operate using fast and parallel information processing, natural affinity for networking, learning by doing. Such people however also want instant gratifications and frequent rewards. Pressure on HR is to source innovative ways to recruit, develop & compensate such ‘digital employees’ & above all efforts to integrate such employees with the previous generation staff.
Digital ways of working – Today’s, workforce wants everything digital, simple ways of working & an increasing urge to remove and replace all manual work with automated work streams. This means that HR needs to gear up and create its Performance Management, Feedback Mechanism, Compensation practices & L&D interventions around the digital platform and at the same time make them easy to understand & smooth to manage. Processes after all are expected to ease up the life of employees and should be helping them with just one click!

Q. Any advice you would like to give on how to manage people/teams as the workforce becomes more diverse, as the ways of working change
– Communicate with employees: Keep the communication simple & short. Inform the key changes in the company & keep employees abreast on any change.
– Set simple goals & promote productivity: It is important to inculcate and establish interest within your employees for the company. Cocreate & brainstorm with cross functional teams on ways to achieve those goals.
– Stay one step ahead of the game and be enthusiastic to challenges. Leaders must focus on achievement orientation & have forward thinking behavior. They must quickly respond to problems & make quick decisions. Turning challenges into opportunities is the biggest ask for leaders in times like today!

Q. How effective and how important are rewards and recognitions in strengthening employee engagement and retention?
A. Recognition from seniors as well as colleagues is a necessary enzyme that act as a catalyst for employees to remain motivated at work. As HR we must understand and identify what kind of recognition actually motivates our employees. A simple gratitude in the form of ‘Thank you’ or ‘Job well done’ can go a long way to be part of frequent acknowledgement culture. Along with this basic form make sure to recognise an employee’s recent accomplishments on larger platforms such as town hall meeting, or set up a bulletin board where fellow employees can post ‘thank you notes’ to show their appreciation. Make recognition easy and highly visible to everyone throughout the organization. Also recognition ways should be easy, simple and accessible to all to share their acknowledgement. Recognition promotes positive behaviors and drives attitude at workplace, and in turn, promotes higher levels of employee engagement.

Q. What advice would you give young candidates if they want to stand out and get noticed during an interview?
A. Gone are the days when only functional competencies or academic results were seen while selecting a fresh talent. If you really need to stand out in an interview process, watch out for following:-
*Make sure that your opening conversation makes it clear why this job is right for you. Be confident to lead the conversation having an approach which demonstrates drive & passion for the role. It should make clear to the interviewer that you’ve done your research, you understand what the job is, and your particular background/skillset will make you a good contributor.
* Be specific in your conversation and do highlight your accomplishments in an interesting & shining manner to draw the attention
* Create a rapport, and listen well.
* The interviewer looks for someone who is going to be an asset to the team and the organization. Therefore it is important to display by asking provocative, pointed questions – but stay away from ones that are critical or confrontational.
* Close strong & thank the interviewer for his/ her time and summarize your points from your opening, adding in any additional thoughts. Emphasize why the role is a fit for you once again.

Q. What is the secret to hiring the right candidate?
A. In addition to having a strong resume and technical background, attitude is very important. If someone displays flexibility, willingness to learn new skill sets and is a good team member; that is invaluable.
– Look for and hire – humble, hungry and smart people! These are the key ingredients to building a strong team, and when those traits are in balance, great things can happen.
Pick people with natural enthusiasm for life and a connection to the company cause and mission.
Look for candidates who truly believe in your company’s values and your products such that they would be your brand promoters.

Q. How can a company attract the best people?
– Show candidates you care: At every step of the hiring process you should make candidates feel special and valued.
– Prepare for arrival: Make the candidates first few days professional, but also fun filled.
– Create a culture that speaks of it: A unique, open, upbeat, autonomous culture is infectious, and will drive good candidates through your doors automatically. Be honest about the company culture – once you dive into the interviewing process, be transparent and honest about the purpose and values of your business.
– Be transparent right from the interview stage: If you have a straightforward, well-designed career path for upward movement within your organization, share that. But, if you don’t, be honest and explicitly share that as well. Leadership team must display empathy and positivity in all actions and decisions.