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Beena Natarajan, Head of Talent & Vibe, Zeemart calls out the usage of ‘calibration’ as a non-inclusive phenomenon, and shares how we can replace it with frequent high-quality connections and situational feedback, in this interview with Aditi Sharma Kalra.
Q Was HR a natural career choice for you? If not in HR, what other career would you have chosen?
Quite honestly I fell into HR accidentally as I turned 30. Early in my career, I pursued several customer service roles which helped me develop patience, curiosity and empathy. As my career progressed, I found myself in leadership roles where I had the opportunity to motivate people to achieve peak performance to meet and exceed business goals.
The ‘accident’ happened due to a burning desire to drive change at my workplace after a few poor HR decisions that I attributed people who lacked empathy. That was motivation enough for me to major in HR when I graduated from Macquarie Graduate School of Management in Australia with an MBA degree.
Had I not pursued HR, I probably would have stayed in customer centricity, driving customer success and business outcomes. When I think about what’s important to me, it’s family – be it at home or at work.
Q What was the most innovative HR campaign that you’ve worked on, and what was your biggest learning from that?
At Zeemart, we have a holistic approach to ‘life work’ balance (in that order). We have a culture where we are constantly seeking personal development opportunities that contribute to the wellbeing of every team member.
Some of the activities we get up outside of work are futsal games, rock climbing, foosball league tournaments and more recently, the corporate steps challenge. We make good reading available to all employees from an in-office library. Company socials include employees’ immediate family members and for everyone’s wellbeing, we ensure healthy food and snack options in the office.
One of the exciting campaigns I am running this year is Zeemart’s Inspirational Champions Series. It stems from our core values of awareness (empathy and respect), openness (we communicate, contribute and collaborate freely) and enterprising (love for success). This campaign is targeted at accelerating our goal for this year – ‘hypergrowth’.
As part of this campaign, we invite successful people from all walks of life to share their professional and personal life journey with us. The average age of employees at Zeemart is 30, so this series is aimed at encouraging everyone to realise their dreams. After all, amongst us stand the next generation of successful leaders!
My learning from this campaign has been that ‘extraordinary’ people started from ‘ordinary’ beginnings too, so nothing can stop us from achieving our dreams if we put our mind to it.
Q On the other hand, what is the hardest decision you’ve had to make as a HR leader?
To be totally honest, I haven’t had to make a decision yet that would qualify as the hardest decision I’ve made in my role. I run an open-door policy where I encourage openness and transparency within the confines of being professional while being candid and firm.
The toughest decisions I face on a regular bases are around growing pains at our start-up. I have personally found recruiting talent is always a hard one, particularly when you have more than one ‘right’ candidate with great potential and yet you can only pick one.
Next generation performance management can be achieved with the use of technology and frequent connections.
Q How closely do you work with the CEO, and what are the specific projects that both of you work closely on?
I report directly to the CEO and we stay close on a number of items. We have a weekly leadership meeting and a regular 1:1 bi-weekly cadence. I can probably say we connect 3+ times a week. Some of the specific projects we work closely on are: attracting, developing and retaining talent; recognition and rewards; and geo-expansion as we continue to open new offices outside of Singapore across Southeast Asia and India.
Q Who is the one person who has inspired you the most in your career, and why?
I don’t have one person but two. The first one is my mother. Hailing from humble beginnings in Bengaluru, she got through college, married my dad, moved overseas and raised three children as the perfect homemaker.
I have always felt she has been quick to adapt to unfamiliar situations, look for solutions rather than talk endlessly about the problem, stay calm when under pressure and has always encouraged me to be bold and aspirational. Raising a family overseas for my Ma in unfamiliar surrounds was not easy but she thrived more than survived.
The other person is my mentor who has been my sounding board when I have been unsure and more importantly has given me the confidence to trust my own gut feelings. She is Sonia Fernandes who holds the position of the Regional Chief Talent Officer at Mediacom.
Sonia stands out as a progressive and inspirational HR leader. She is super passionate about progressing women in leadership and has been innovative around her work in the use of artificial intelligence for talent management and transformation. She achieves her organisation’s strategic business objectives by putting HR front and centre.
Q How would you describe your leadership style?
My leadership is open-door and servant style. I am always approachable and make the time for anyone who reaches out to me. I am also a big fan of being a partner to solve a problem rather than a member of the SLT with the ivory tower syndrome.
I am a lifelong learner who likes to stay sharp and updated. I never miss an opportunity to encourage our team and our leadership to be in a mode of continuous learning.
I also bring fun into learning and working through positivity and a sense of humour.
Q With today’s rapidly evolving environment, what do you believe is HR’s #1 responsibility?
In our fast-changing environment today, the need for agility and ability to transform is far higher than it’s ever been. With new emerging threats around privacy and compliance, it is important we protect our organisations and our employees.
I believe HR’s top accountability is to ensure people are ready as businesses transform. The top item on my to-do list is diversity (not just gender diversity) & inclusion. It helps us make better and more inclusive decisions, helps us build better products and more importantly, helps us serve our customers and partners better.
Q Is there a word that you believe HR professionals should do away with? And what should they replace it with?
I have always felt that the elephant in the HR room is the use of ‘calibration’ for performance management. It’s old, non-inclusive, biased and hinders employee development when they end up on the wrong end of the bell curve. The use-by date for calibration was long ago in my mind.
As HR professionals, we should rely more on frequent high-quality connections and situational feedback. With the use of cloud technologies and artificial intelligence, we have the ability to gather adequate insight on employee activity, behaviours and collaborative traits. This next generation performance management can be achieved with the use of technology and frequent connections.
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