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Rumki Fernandes, regional director – talent and HR, Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa, Grey Group, shares a persistent problem as well as three important learning points she picked up throughout her 20-year career in HR, in a conversation with Jerene Ang.
Q What was your first HR job, and why did you choose HR as a profession?
I started my career in management consulting and then moved to executive search. In both jobs, I thoroughly enjoyed the aspect of problem solving and interacting with people – to understand what really drives them, what makes them tick. I guess I moved to corporate HR because it offered me both!
Q What do you enjoy most about your work?
The interesting thing in HR is that no two work days look the same. There is so much variety in this function, that no matter how much time or how many years you spend in HR, you are always learning something new each day. It keeps you on your toes. The diversity the role offers makes it very engaging and fulfilling.
Q What is the best career advice you have ever received?
Through the years, I have received many pieces of advice, but if there is one thing that I believe is my philosophy, it is – ‘say you can do it and then do all it takes to make sure it is done’. By this I don’t mean we should take short cuts or do things in an underhand manner, but that we must be much more ‘solution minded’.
We are often posed with tasks that look difficult or sometimes may not even be directly in our line of work. The important thing here is not be deterred by that, but to figure out a way to make it happen, or find the resources that can make it happen.
Q Having been in HR for the past 20 years, what is one persistent problem the function has faced over the years?
Different issues are relevant at different points of time. Depending on where the organisation is in its journey – start-up, growth, expansion, acquisition, right-sizing, globalising – challenges differ. But through it all, if there is one thing that holds true, it is that in a competitive market, real talent is always in short supply. Hence, as a HR professional, you need to always be scouting for talent.
Q The war for talent will only get tougher, what are three tips you have for attracting and retaining the right talent?
One of the key things for talent retention is to equip managers to manage their staff. Truth is, once hired, the responsibility of managing talent really shifts to the manager, who must be very clear about the organisation’s goals, vision and most importantly talent management practices.
Related to this is transparency and objectivity in goal setting and feedback. Feedback needs to be a continuous process, not a once a year ‘performance evaluation’ type exercise. Today’s ‘stars’ want to receive feedback that is fact-based, constructive and helps them move forward.
A third very key initiative for talent retention, especially for global organisations is ‘mobility’. Whether mobility is inter-departmental, or across geographies, it is critical for organisations to put in place a robust mobility program. Key talent has choices and if they are not able to see the ‘right career track’, they will most likely leave the organisation.
Q Is there anything you feel HR can do better to play a bigger role in organisations?
The role of HR has evolved greatly in the past decade, and it continues to evolve. I think the big shift that has happened, and is still happening, is in the area of strategic management. The more strategic HR gets, the more it becomes ‘core to the business’, and that way, HR can add greater value to the real organisational journey.
HR is a ‘transformational’ function – it needs to be the driver of change. This change is not just in the way HR itself functions, but also HR’s role in dealing with changing demographics and new workforce; the way roles and responsibilities are emerging; as well as the new departments and functions that are becoming critical. HR needs to be fully flexible and adaptable to these changes.
In fact in today’s world of high degree of uncertainty and unpredictability, HR needs to be proactively thinking three steps ahead and planning for this change.
Gone are the days when it was about the ‘process’, now it is all about the ‘output’. Also as organisations go global, HR needs to think about the ‘war for talent’ which now transcends all borders and boundaries.
Q What is one nugget of advice for aspiring HR leaders?
It’s not so much advice, but things that I have learnt in my career and continue to learn. One of the things I believe very strongly in is relationships. I believe that the relationships one builds in the organisation carry great weight and go a long way.
Another thing – very commonly asked in interviews is – ‘what have you done?’. I think the important thing here is not ‘what I have done’, but ‘what I can do’.
A third thing that resonates with me, something that one of my bosses taught me, is that mediocrity should not be tolerated when you can copy the best. The truth is that there is no harm in borrowing best practices from any place and anywhere if it helps move the business forward, and it is perhaps much better to do that, than invent something that is commonplace.
Q When borrowing best practices, how should organisations adapt them to suit their context?
‘Best practices’ clearly are approaches that have worked in a certain framework or environment. Hence, one of the key things when borrowing ‘best practices’ would to evaluate the new circumstances because, the truth is, not everything will work everywhere.
Adapting then could be more about the ‘context’ rather than the ‘approach’ or the ‘method’. Organisations may want to assess why the practices worked in a certain environment, and then identify the ‘approach’ that is more relevant to the new circumstance, so the goalpost remains the same, but the way of scoring the goal differs.
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