Back to the Drawing Board

In an exclusive interview with Human Capital, Abhijit Bhaduri, a leadership coach, talent management expert, author, advisor, and Founder of Abhijit Bhaduri & Associates, offers pragmatic advice for navigating the breakneck changes currently underway, shines a light on the changing talent equation, and reveals the silver linings for organisations willing to place bold bets on reimagining themselves in an uncertain present.

 

You’ve built a very extensive career in HR. You are a talent management expert with global experience in top-tier organisations, an author, a speaker, a coach, and so much more. How do you look back at your career so far?

 

We all have a core professional area of focus and a portfolio of other interests. My core identity has always been human resources. But I also have many other interests – writing, drawing, theatre, music, etc. And I think, when you work on your own, it is possible to integrate many of these interests even better. In a traditional job role, it is a little more challenging.

 

As a freelancer, it is easy for me to decide on how I will allocate time between writing, working on my keynotes, coaching or longterm projects. I can pick and choose. It becomes like a share portfolio. I can temporarily over-invest in one, under-invest in one and keep changing the mix. So that’s how I look at it, which is the reason perhaps that I’ve been able to pursue many different things. I love that flexibility of being a little impulsive if I have to.

 

The coronavirus outbreak has pushed almost every business to bolster its digital transformation efforts. What do you feel are the biggest pitfalls that organisations should avoid when executing their digital strategies?

 

When you look at a digital transformation strategy, the first design principle is that it’s not about technology. A lot of people say, “We’ve created a website where people can buy and sell stuff, and so we are digital.” Absolutely not. That’s not digital transformation.

 

Every function, whether internal-facing or external, must be reimagined using technology to be location-agnostic.

Secondly, you need to ask yourself: When the lockdown was announced, how easy was it for you to continue every aspect of your business and employee experience? If it continued seamlessly and you thrived in this new environment, then that’s probably a good yardstick to look at. However, people don’t really make enough investments in HR tools and technology. Without that, it’s very hard for people to have their goals tracked and to have managers stay connected with the teams, or for individuals to stay connected with their managers and other colleagues and be able to collaborate online. The managers must be trained to rethink their role in the new scenario.

 

You should be able to manage every aspect of your business in a seamless, online/offline format. If your business was not O2O, which is online-to-offline, and back, then perhaps you have some distance to cover in your digital transformation journey.

It’s really like saying that when people buy something online, they also go to the store, try it out and check the size, and then order it online if it is cheaper. Or they can do comparison shopping, and if they need to return the stock, then they’ll still go back and return it in the store where they tried it out.

 

Good businesses blur the difference between the online and the offline realms.

That’s how I’d look at digital transformation for every function – especially HR. Is it O2O?

 

As the role of AI continues to expand rapidly in the HR realm, the potential drawbacks of AI-powered decisions are also quickly coming to the fore. How can HR professionals uncover and surmount the challenges of using AI, such as algorithmic bias?

 

If you want to fix the bias in algorithms, it’s not the algorithmic bias that can be addressed, but the bias of the person or people who coded the algorithm.

The coders must work in diverse teams to understand if any group is being excluded or treated unfairly. Biases will always be there, in various shapes and forms, because every human being is unique. Algorithms have to be constantly evaluated for their ethical implications. In the post COVID world, if the employer uses face-recognition, the employee must specifically approve the usage of that data for some other purpose (e.g. creating a happiness index or an engagement study).

 

If decisions are made without involving the people who are impacted, it is likely to be biased. This is not even about algorithms. Rather, it is about human bias. For instance, business meetings are usually dominated by extroverts – they take up a lot more of the airtime and introverts don’t get much chance to speak. Extroverts and introverts in any population are nearly 50/50, so there seems to be no reason why this bias still exists. But it does. Try to map your own meetings to discover who does most of the talking.

 

Becoming aware of the biases is step one because it allows people to address them easily. Also, it is a continuous journey. As we go on, we will discover more nuances. We have biases against anyone who is not from the mainstream. It’s the majority who must make efforts to include the minority in decisions. Biases in people decisions are everywhere. If the leaders are from certain colleges, then they tend to take more chances on students from a similar background. Prejudices come in all shapes and forms. So when I create an algorithm using the rule book that is in my head, it shows up as a biased algorithm.

 

COVID-19 has cast the gig economy in a new light. What are your views on this front?

 

I look at the gig economy as just one of the many variants of talent. The key perspective to keep in mind is what I’ve talked about in my upcoming book, Dreamers and Unicorns, that when we thought of the word talent, even a couple of years back, we looked at it as a set of people who were on the rolls of an organisation. But it’s no longer a binary group of people who are or are not on the rolls of a company. Freelancers are a set of people who are increasingly becoming prominent, and India is definitely one of the places where a lot of freelancers exist.

 

When we think of the term gig economy, it covers a whole range of jobs. The way I look at it, there are three kinds of roles. One is a set of jobs that are allocated based on the platform on which you have signed up. Ride sharing, food delivery, home repairs are all examples of this. You sign up on any platform, and the platform allocates the jobs and ensures that you get paid. You don’t have to worry about developing your own business or building your own brand, sales, or collections. It’s all taken care of by the platform. That’s one variant of the gig economy.

 

Then there are freelancers doing white collared jobs. They need to build their own brand to get discovered by the clients. They’re creating their own products and services, and people know them for who they are. It’s a very person-specific thing, and organisations invite that specific person or the team to offer services and support.

 

And then there are gig artistes: people in the arts and fine arts. 80% of Bollywood (film making in every language) is made up of gig artistes. Whether these people are in theatre, film, music, the broadcasting media in general, writing, or anything like that, they are gig artistes. They work on projects and get paid for their craft.

 

The pandemic is going to make even large organisations start relying increasingly on freelancers and gig workers. Freelancers are going to experience a lot more opportunities as companies start to embrace a flexible workforce.

Such a workforce could include work-from-home mothers, people who’ve retired, people who have been the victims of acid attacks, or the cognitively challenged and physically disabled, among others. It will open new opportunities. B2B sales is now increasingly driven by SaaS productions (subscription-based) or Cloud-based (pay-per-use). Connecting, collaborating and shaping solutions is driving value. And this requires soft skills like listening, empathising and offering to integrate conflicting views. Women have excelled at many of these. The customer success teams at Salesforce and Oracle are headed by women.

 

With more than 850,000 followers on social media, Abhijit is the most followed writer in HR. Follow him on social media @AbhijitBhaduri. Sign up for his sketchnotes on abhijitbhaduri.substack.com.

 

From your perspective, how can HR professionals build their personal brand to gain more influence and impact?

 

I think your personal brand is not just about saying or doing a certain kind of thing but also about the nature of the work that you do. Being a subject matter expert who can simplify ideas in a manner that creates value for the users is a prerequisite for personal brand building. It’s about building a pull. That involves knowing about the medium or platform.

 

When I work with leaders in helping them craft their personal brand, I help them discover their unique ability to create value and how to communicate it. Several senior leaders have used these principles to build a strong personal brand on various channels. Like any other brand, a personal brand is crafted and nurtured over time.

 

In times of crisis, it is difficult to make company culture a priority while continually putting out fires that threaten business sustainability. Moreover, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become challenging to build an engaging culture for a dispersed workforce. What would your advice be for maintaining and nurturing organisational culture during such difficult times?

 

I think that the manner in which you deal with fires should reflect your company’s stated values. this means that whatever your stated method, your values should reflect why you’re doing what you are doing and also indicate how you’re going to be doing it. Therefore, a company’s culture shouldn’t change drastically regardless of whether it’s a shortor a long-term crisis.

 

Ultimately, the way you deal with people during times of stress – whether you trust employees and care about them and their families and what methods you adopt to tide you over difficult scenarios – are reflections of organisational values, regardless of what you put on the values posters.

 

Many HR processes were designed for a world where the overwhelming majority was colocated. Now when most roles are remote, the HR processes have to go back to the drawing board. What happens to hiring or onboarding when you take them online? Do they remain consistent with your company culture?

 

It’s not the office that we have been used to. The rules of engagement were all designed for the pre-pandemic office world, and it’s a different world now, so it’s obviously going to need a lot of work. Now is the time for human resource people to take the lead and shape the workforce, work policies, and employee experience in line with stated values and culture. Ultimately, this is a great opportunity.

 

Turbulent times demand emotional resilience. In closing, could you give a few quick tips for leaders on how to stay resilient when all the odds seem stacked against them?

 

This is a situation that nobody in the world has experienced before and, therefore, this is a time to make bold bets. It’s a time to start questioning the basic assumptions and begin to design a different workplace that values everything that the previous workplace norms did not allow for.

 

Mental health has always been something that organisations have left people to worry about on their own. Perhaps this is a time to step up to the plate, prioritise employees’ holistic well-being, and question the inclusivity of the whole process. These are things which endear people to you. You build deeper connections, and that’s one of the big ways in which you build emotional resilience.

 

Maintaining a Gratitude Diary to record every day what one is grateful for is a wonderful way to build resilience. Meditation is a stress buster. We have overcome many challenges before – everyone has. This too shall pass. The poet Rumi said: Light can only seep in when there is a crack. When a vessel is cracked, the light comes in.

 

While times of stress are very hard, they also strengthen and build us in a way that we see ourselves in a new light. If anything, I see this as a positive opportunity to bring groups together, to bring employees together, and to revitalise the workplace.

With 5+ years of experience, Ankita has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR - from hire to retire. She is currently Deputy Editor at Human Capital.

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