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Q&A: The last thing you want is to treat people as numbers, says Datin Badrunnisa, QSR CTO

Q&A: The last thing you want is to treat people as numbers, says Datin Badrunnisa, QSR CTO

In the old days, people showed up to work from nine to five —  the world of work was very isolated. Today, she says, it's important to get to know people beyond their aspirations and ambitions. 

You can't run an organisation simply by putting people in boxes by their role.

This is what Datin Sri Badrunnisa Mohd Yasin Khan, Chief Talent Offer at QSR Brands, strongly believes in.

As the working world recovers from key megatrends, employees’ perspectives are also shifting — particularly, the trend of disengaged employees is on the rise. As an HR leader, you would, in fact, wish for employees to go beyond, and create a bigger impact, she explains.

However, if you don't get the right engagement – which stems from the right way to manage them – your staff won't go beyond that. Instead, this would require a bit of an overhaul to think about how you manage people differently, as the CTO shares.

In this interview with Arina Sofiah, Datin Badrunnisa delves into how she is tackling the shift in the working landscape by driving talent development across a 20,000-strong workforce at QSR Brands, which is Malaysia's leading restaurant chain operator, and operates over 1,350 KFC and Pizza Hut restaurants in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, and Cambodia. A down-to-earth leader whose sincerity shines through in the interview, Datin Badrunnisa (pictured above) has been helming this role for close to two years, and is hailed as one of the corporate icons of the nation, having previously tenured with Axiata for about 13 years, and currently serving on the boards of redONE Network and UEM Sunrise.

Interview excerpts follow:

Q What are your current priorities in your role as Chief Talent Officer at QSR?

I suppose one of the key reasons why I was brought in despite QSR having a HR head, was to set up the talent practice — that's how I decipher the role. When I say that, I mean a talent practice that is robust and sustainable. That means at the end of the day, we have a talent practice where we identify good talents, develop them, create succession plans, and so on. That was the intention when I first came in.

There are other priorities, of course. One of the other key things is to look at cultural transformation — the business is transforming but what does it mean from the people side? How do we transform from a people angle? From some of the work that I've done, I’ve realised that there are key organisational capabilities that need to be built to be able to deliver the business better.

Q In that vein, how do your role and priorities align/differentiate with the role of your CPO?

They are definitely different roles. Some people collapse the two roles together, which is not wrong either because it's all about people.

But if you think about our CPO here, she has a huge role simply because of the number of employees we have in this organisation. We have about more than 20,000 employees, so just imagine running an HR operation smoothly — to hire and fire, to pay on time accurately, performance management, and rewards. All of that is a tall order for about 20,000 employees. In a way, her role is a lot more operational. It's about ensuring HR operations are well-oiled so that everything is done on time, efficiently, and with the right employee experience.

Whereas my role is very different in that sense — it's a bit of a deep-dive into key strategic people initiatives; where do we need to change some of QSR’s people practices? Or leadership, for example, in order to effect a change? My role is not so much about the day-to-day HR operations.

Together, both roles are complementary, I would say.

Q Could you share some initiatives you are working on as part of these priorities?

One of the key initiatives is talent development. So, when I say setting up talent practices, a big chunk of that work is developing talent, especially for leadership and leadership competencies.

This is a key matter, because a lot of people don't shy away from developing them to be better at what they do, which is what I call functional expertise. That happens quite naturally and is true in most organisations as well — most organisations would put their training dollars into that. But where they sometimes don't do a good job is building leadership capabilities.

And leadership capabilities don't just rest at the top part of the organisation; they should be throughout the organisation.

It's not just about the people management side of things, it's about influencing, collaborating, even problem-solving and innovation. Such leadership capabilities are not just about being a manager or managing people, it's about, 'Here we have a business; what can we do to create a better impact in whatever we do?' It’s about working with other people, managing stakeholders, creative problem-solving, overall leading the way. So, that is one of the key initiatives.

The next one, cultural transformation, is about trying to bring this deep into the organisation. We've done the leadership part of it, we've done key interventions at the top of the organisation, but how you translate that into everyday work practices? This is big because it's about changing people's work practices and behaviour throughout the organisation; how we serve our customers, and how we interact with each other. This is not easy – I'm not saying we have done this yet, but it's one of the things we should do and focus on.

We do other activities such as giving people a way for them to understand themselves better and their leadership strengths, such as through online assessments.

There is something we do which is quite interesting as well: For Pizza Hut, we're trying out a fast-track programme for assistant restaurant managers. We asked, 'How do we get better restaurant managers? How do we make restaurant managers much more of a leader, rather than just a doer?'

To drive that, we are trialling a six-month fast-track programme with about 14 assistant restaurant managers that we carefully selected.

Q What is the #1 talent challenge that your sector is facing?

I think it's not different to any sector, that's my personal view — rising labour cost, it is difficult to get talent because good people are always very much in demand.

Apart from rising labour cost and stiff competition for very good people, there is also how to manage a multi-generational workforce because they are not the same. The older workers who have been around for a long time are never the same as the younger workers that are coming [into the workforce now]. They’ve been primed very differently, with technology and all that, so their mental model is very different.

Could you share some key developments that are intensifying this challenge of rising labour cost?

If you talk to a lot of HR people, I think COVID-19 has somewhat changed the talent landscape.

It first started with the Great Resignation — people didn't want to go back into the workforce because throughout the pandemic, they have settled into different ways of work or different ways to get income. So, their priorities changed.

That seemed to have changed again, so that is not the foremost challenge or change in the HR landscape.

People then talked about quiet quitting, wherein people are perhaps less engaged. They don't literally quit, but they quit because they are not engaged with the organisation.

One of the challenges that we see is that if we as employers don't change the way we manage people to be much more in tune with the times – young people, or people who are not engaged, you're going to get more and more disengaged people. They might still need the job, and they will do it, but they might not give it all their best. They might not go the extra mile for you. 

The way you engage them in the past, pre-COVID, and the way you engage them today is different. Throughout the decades, we HR people think we know what it is, but we tweak and change HR policies to meet these demands. We create flexible work hours, we create great flexible benefits —we think that's enough, but I don't think it is. To me, this requires a bit of an overhaul to think about how we manage people differently. If we don't change our ways, then this is where we get quiet quitting and a very disengaged workforce. They're still there, but you don't know what to do with them. They would probably do what you ask them to do, but that's not what you want. You want people to really go the extra mile — that's what engagement is all about.

They are part of you while they're here, and they create a bigger impact. You can't run an organisation just by simply putting people in boxes by their role. You want them to be truly engaged with the organisation so they can go beyond their role. This way, they can create a bigger impact.

Their role is just a way to define something and how you bring them in, but everything is changing. So, how do you describe a role to the extent that it is flexible enough to take care of what's changing, be it externally, from customers', or from business imperatives? Could you encapsulate that into a job description? No, you want people to go outside that and create a bigger impact.

However, if you don't get the right engagement – which I believe stems from the right way to manage them – they won't go beyond that. They will only then stick to the bare minimum, which is not what you want. Therefore, I believe that we in HR need to really think about how to revamp our HR policies and practices that can really get the best out of talent. Talent has changed in shape and form, so you better know what you're dealing with.

I don't have the answer, but I do think we need to look into that space of how to manage these new breeds of people.

Q How are you actively tackling this challenge, and how closely are you working with your Chief People Officer on this?

How we work closely is in terms of talent retention. For example, we like to differentiate rewards for good people. That sits in the CPO’s space.

But who are then the good people? This is what we discuss properly since I have access to that data on our talent. That is where we come together.

What I think I need to work on more with our CPO is how to change our HR policies and practices in a way that promotes flexibility. It cannot be a one-rule-fits-all anymore, so how do we accord flexibility without compromising on equitability and productivity or creating unnecessary bias? All of this is (about) how people are measured. It’s the impact on people, so we shouldn't compromise on that, because that's what people are for — to create impact, and however you define productivity.

This is an area that I need to work very closely with the CPO on, and she is aware of this as well. We want to see where HR needs to create an impact. When I say HR, I mean the CPO and myself — we are in that space of how to manage people through better rules. This is where I think we need to work together better.

Q Finally, how are these challenges affecting your role - how are you proactively preparing for the future workplace?

A big chunk of my role is in development, so that's how I prepare our organisation for the future.

I bring in new capabilities. There are new capabilities that have not been here, largely brought about in the last couple of decades now by changes in the way businesses are run, especially with how technology has disrupted a lot of businesses. Due to the advancement of technology in businesses, capabilities have changed as well. However, when people think about capabilities, they think about pure digital capabilities. I'm not talking about just coding capabilities, for example — that's probably already required obviously. If you're changing the channels you use or the way you interact with your customers and all that, then yes, you must create digital interfaces and all that.

Instead, I'm talking about some of the transferable capabilities that are coming out from this era. This is how we can prepare them for the future. Agile working practices, human-centric problem solving, because that's what the digital world does. It is very good at providing the right user experience so that customers spend a lot of time on the app buying their products. So, user experience is very important in the digital world.

This line of thought is very transferable to when you think about customer experience and how to make it better. This means human-centric capabilities. One that comes to mind is design thinking. You design your process or your service or your products around the user’s needs.

These are very transferable skills from the world of technology that we need to bring into QSR to modernise the way we think about problems and how to serve customers better, or even apply to being agile in a way that's faster and more nimble.  Rather than always taking a long time to solve a problem, can we perhaps experiment a little more, so that we can iterate and bring a solution to fruition faster. It may not be perfect, but let's quickly iterate so that we perfect it as we go along. That mindset came from the digital world, but sometimes we don't do that in other parts of the business — we need to. Things are changing so fast.

The capability of experimenting and iterating is important, even outside of the tech space, because of the speed of change. If you are not changing, your customers are changing. If you are not changing, your partners are changing. The capability to iterate and solve problems in a different way is very important. These are some of the things from my angle being in the talent space, I should try to bring into the organisation, and we're starting to do it in small steps.

Q What is one piece of advice you've received that has guided you, and you'd now like to share with others?

More than anything else, I think it is important to just be human. In the role I'm in with HR leaders alike, we're in the space of dealing with people. The last thing you want is to treat people as numbers — it is always the person behind it, no matter what. It's really trying to treat people as people with respect, and not just as a number.

Try to get to know people — talent management is not trying to get to know people's aspirations and ambitions. This is not just for HR, but applies to line managers as well. Try to get to know the person as a whole.

In the old days, people showed up to work from nine to five, then they leave work and that's it. There are no emails coming through at night —  the world of work was very isolated. In the industrial age, that is fine, but today's world of work is very integrated with the world of life.

I always believe that if you don't understand the whole person, then how can you manage people? If you don't understand the whole person, how do you expect them to work? HR managers and people managers must better understand the whole person. How can you say, “I will just understand a bit of you at work”? That's not true anymore. You had better understand the whole person.

To me, the biggest advice I can give is to just treat people as people and with respect. Not to be nosy, but to know enough about them and to have empathy, without obviously taking your eyes off the ball in terms of their performance — just because you want to listen to them doesn't mean you will give in to them. No, it's not about giving in, it's about listening and understanding them as a whole person. You know what their passions and interests are, or their family situation. Gone are the days when don’t have to know that.

Previously, as leaders and bosses, you don't know these things. The minute they leave the office or the workplace, it is all hidden. The only time you get to know is when it's an office party and they perhaps bring a spouse. This probably when you get to know. The interactions are very different.

But now you know. COVID has made it so seamless. You know how many children they have — they pop into your screen — or when they say, 'Sorry, I have to go sort out my parents now, they're at home with me.'

Now you tend to know, and that’s the reality. You should know about your employees. As leaders, you should know about your people a lot more than before. That would be my advice and going forward, that’s not going to change — it's only going to get more intense.

Lead image / Provided 

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