An Agile Leader

An Agile Leader

Sanjeev Sahgal, Chief People Officer, Mercy Corps, does not just adopt the principles of Agile in his work – he embraces agility in his mindset and ability to navigate change and uncertainty. He approaches Agile not as a bandwagon but as a journey to break away from legacy thinking and create long-term value.


In this exclusive interaction, Sanjeev shares why there’s widespread enthusiasm about Agile in HR. He also reveals some important lessons he learned on his first corporate job and how being interviewed for a volunteer position at a suicide hotline changed his approach towards listening.

One can’t swing a cat these days without hearing the term “agility” and how it can be applied to every aspect of business: from product development and innovation to leadership and culture. Do you think “Agile in HR” is much spoken of (more so since the pandemic) but not as broadly practised?


The Agile manifesto is celebrating 20 years with organisations implementing Agile transformation reporting significantly higher financial performances[1]. When you look closely at the manifesto and principles, it is hard to miss the focus on people/teams in delivering Agile. The pandemic has changed the way businesses operate and how individuals interact and work. We are experiencing a large-scale shift, with a mix of remote and hybrid workforces pushing organisations to adopt new processes, practices, and technologies to deliver value.


We are at an inflection point, with traditional HR teams trying to move away from a management system that solves for uniformity, bureaucracy, and control. CHROs are striving to bring Agile into HR with more flexible and responsive people practices. In my experience, I have seen more organisations beginning to practice agility in their HR teams. However, it will take time and a huge amount of resolve from HR teams to shed their old ways of working and develop new skills and mindsets to support their organisations effectively.


How would you articulate your view on “Agile HR” and your role in the Agile journey at the World Bank and other organisations?


I have been associated with the transformation agenda in organisations for more than 25 years of my career now. From Motorola to GE, Target and the World Bank, I have used six sigma, lean and agile methodologies for new product development, enhancing employee experience and improving client satisfaction. In my view, Agile HR is not just a service improvement methodology – it’s a complete overhaul of the operating structure and delivery model for the organisation. Companies that implement agile in HR will improve organisational agility and, in turn, create long-term value by setting the stage for employees to think about their work through an agile lens.


I started the journey in the World Bank Group by setting up a Business Performance Excellence team focused on developing capabilities of the service delivery teams and deepening the relationship between new skills, job outcomes, and institutional results. We shifted our approach to engage with employees across the organisation as we developed HR policies and refined decisions, thereby minimising friction and building trust in these processes.  The journey is not yet over, but I am proud of the results delivered – the HR function is paperless, almost all HR transactions are mobile-enabled, and client satisfaction and employee engagement scores are amongst the highest.


Today, people-related data is everywhere, and it is growing ever more enormous. What are some ways HR can put data to good effect and extract meaningful, value-adding insights?


Data is no longer the new oil – it is the world’s most valuable resource, and HR has a critical role in capitalising on this resource. The people data needs to be connected to finance and operational data that demonstrates where value is being created – HR needs to then align talent to value[2].


HR Business Partners supporting line leaders need to identify where value is created in the organisation and develop a plan to hire, develop and deploy talent to maximise value creation. HR talent development tools need to be modernised for current business challenges that can help align talent to value.


McKinsey’s recent surveys[3] found that companies who were quick in reallocating high performers on most critical strategic priorities were 2.2 times more likely to outperform their competitors on total returns to shareholders than those who moved slowly in reallocating talent to the highest-value initiatives.


Another example is how HR can incorporate purpose-driven metrics into compensation and performance decisions. For example, Shell has included the energy transition condition in the 2020 LTIP awards for Executive Directors and Senior Executives and into the Performance Share Plan awards made to around 16,500 employees globally. This is aligned with their broader energy transition strategy that was shared in the 2021 AGM[4].


HR leaders around the world are trying to make sense of the dizzying pace of today’s technological advances, as disruptions are coming from all angles. What are some of the top tech trends HR leaders need to look out for in 2021 and beyond?


The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation at a dizzying pace; however, such transformation has never been about technology – it’s about people. HR leaders need to prepare their organisation for the rapid changes by investing in a skills strategy that aligns with the emerging trends. A lot has been written and spoken about the potential of AI, ML, big data, IoT, and blockchain, and I would like to highlight four trends that we need to watch out for in 2021 and beyond.


Extended Reality (ER): Employees will learn to work with augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR). Humans will be the super minds and not substitutes who will design systems for human-computer collaboration.


• Digital Twins: It is a highly complex virtual model that is the exact counterpart (or twin) of a physical thing that can be used for simulating scenarios in order to find solutions for potential breakdowns or optimise processes.


• Internet of Senses: Spatial video, digital sound/touch/ taste and tech brain-computer interfaces will allow for distributed synchronisation and collaboration by 2030, giving rise to an Internet of Senses.


Behavioural Science-Based Tech: This technology is based on behavioural and cognitive science to enhance skills (Knackapp is a good example).


What factors does the HR function need to be mindful of when trying to stay grounded on its human aspects while making the most of technology tools?


As more automation, digital, and AI creep into our lives, there is a danger that we become less focused on the human aspects. As a function, HR needs to keep the ‘human’ in HR or the ‘people’ in people function. Using approaches like Human-Centered Design (Design Thinking) will help understand clients’ key needs beyond technology tools.


Up-Close and Personal


While early job experiences may not be the most challenging or monetarily rewarding, they certainly are formative. Could you give us an account of an unforgettable experience at your first corporate job?


My first corporate job was as a Sales Executive selling fax machines with a Tata Group company – Latham India Ltd, in Hyderabad. It was my first month – January 1995 – and after completing the training, we were all given a monthly target, which I achieved by the 28th of the month. On the last day of the month, I booked two more orders late in the evening.


While I was elated, the advice from my seniors and colleagues was to book that order on the next day so that it could be added to the next month’s target as my ‘beginners luck’ would not last. However, against legacy wisdom, I booked those orders on time as it was the right thing to do. I managed to beat the target not only for that month but for that quarter. It was a rewarding first experience, one that included achieving the highest sales in the state in year one, nationally in year two, and a promotion to Territory Manager. This early experience shaped my thinking with three key lessons – trust your instincts, do the right thing for the organisation, and be comfortable breaking away from legacy thinking.


Have you had an ‘aha!’ moment when you learned and experienced something so profound that it changed you forever?


I interviewed for a volunteer position at a suicide hotline nonprofit. In my assessment, I provided great responses with solutions in the role play but was rejected for the role.


I wanted to know where I went go wrong. I asked the interviewer after the results were shared, and she said, “Sanjeev, when people call us, they have given up all hope after trying the best they can. They are lonely, and this call may as well be the last time that they may ever talk to another human being. They are not looking for another talk about being brave, facing troubles, etc. Most times, they are not even looking for a solution. You know what they are looking for?” My eyes widened in anticipation. “Someone who can simply listen to them. We cannot solve every problem; the truth is we don’t even know if we can save any caller. What we know is that some of our callers do change their minds. A few come over and talk to us in person, get references for other NGOs that provide support.”


I continued to think about that interview and grappled with the idea of listening without jumping in with solutions. It took a lot of effort to shift my way of thinking, but it gradually became a part of me. The lessons of that conversation were profound, not only for a suicide hotline but even for day-to-day conversations with friends, family, colleagues, and team members.


What’s something you are doing or want to do in 2021 that you’ve never done before?


I have long wanted to start kayaking, and, finally, 2021 was the year it happened. I have done recreational white water rafting before, and this summer has been an absolute delight being on the water with the paddles.


What’s your most significant learning from the pandemic experience?


The most significant learning for me is the appreciation of the “invisible” people in our lives who make things happen. We can sometimes get into a bubble and forget about the frontline workers in the grocery shop, food delivery, hospitals, and the list goes on. I saw a sign recently at a restaurant that resonated with me: “The whole world is short-staffed. Be kind to those who showed up.” We need to do more to appreciate these frontline workers.


What would we be surprised to learn about you?


My wife is an excellent cook, and I have become a good sous chef. I have learnt a lot in the process, especially the importance of prep, timing and ensuring all the right ingredients are used to get the authentic flavours.


A Workday in the Life of an HR Leader


Do you have a morning routine that helps you get a good start on your workday?


Three things help me make a good start to the day – gratitude for another day of my life, reading news and interesting articles, and a big cup of tea. On some days, I listen to podcasts; my favourite is the Knowledge Project with Shane Parish.


How do you typically unwind after work?


My essential unwind hack after work is to stream from one of the many networks available today. Even after the longest days, I watch something for a few minutes – that’s the signal for my mind to switch off from work and rest.


What’s your favourite indulgence when you need a break from work?


When there is a need to break from work, I turn to travel, especially to visit hidden gems around the world. I recently visited a granite quarry in Vermont and am still awestruck by the magnificence of nature and this craft.


What are some productivity hacks you use to make the most of your workday?


A big challenge for all of us today is the distraction from the myriad of things that come our way. I plan for intense work by blocking chunks of time and keeping meetings early in the day or later in the evening. Organising my physical and virtual space has helped enhance my productivity. I love the “Collections” feature in the new Edge browser, which allows me to file interesting material for future reference. Evernote is another lifesaver for me.


Rapid Fire


Describe the year 2020 in 3 words: Chaos, Resilience, Hope


Describe the year 2021 in 3 words: Human, Resolve, Grit


What’s the one thing you miss most about pre-pandemic times?


I miss being able to meet up with relatives and friends near and far without any risks or constraints.


Complete these sentences:


i. If not an HR, I would have been … a technologist.


ii. I strongly believe in … human potential.


iii. I’m grateful for … a loving family, great teams, and colleagues throughout my career.


iv. I wish … we travel within before travelling to space.


What comes to your mind when you hear these words?


i. Psychological safety: is fostered when each person can be their true self.


ii. Future leaders: will be coalition builders.


iii. The future of work: is being written right now.




[1] mckinsey/business functions/organization/ our insights/enterprise agility buzz or business impact/svgz-enterpriseagility-ex1- revised.svgz









Ankita Sharma is working as Senior Editor with Human Capital. With 6+ years of experience, she has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR — from hire to retire.


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