Interview with Adil Malia - Staying Atop The Waves Of Change

Interview with Adil Malia - Staying Atop The Waves Of Change

In a world where trends are fluidly changing and an ocean of information is swirling around us, we have to find ways to stay ahead of the curve. Successful professionals are doing whatever is needed to hone their skills, gain new perspectives, and bring the right tools and strategies to their organisation. You have probably heard the advice: “What you feed, grows. What you starve, dies." To make sure that we are feeding your ambition with the right HR knowledge, Human Capital interacted with Adil Malia, an eminent thought leader and CEO at 'The FiRM' - a business management consultancy & advisory company. With four decades of rich experience in the corporate transformation, people, and leadership space, Adil brings his observations to life - revealing his journey, key insights and lessons learned. The interview sheds light on a variety of crucial topics to bring forth the 'total HR picture': comprising leadership, learning & development, HR Tech, future of work, composite talent success, culture, and strategy.


Q1 You have worked across diverse industries ranging from Indian conglomerates such as Godrej and Essar to global MNCs like Coca Cola, Al-Futtaim, and GE. Tell us about your journey? What are your key learnings?


The circuit of my professional journey started rather early at 19. Today, I have nearly four decades of work experience in India and overseas. I have been a legal assistant, have worked in IR, and in HR & OD. For a few years had moved into Marketing before I found my way back into HR. That explains my journey. 


Top five lessons I would like to share with my friends:


1.    Never approach your work casually. Whatever work you do should be done with full passion, total dedication and commitment.

2.    Unless you understand business & finance, however great you may be in your functional domain of specialisation, you will not be valued as much by your company.

3.    Take-up rotational experiences if you get the opportunity to do so. It teaches you tremendously. Actually, go and ask for it, if it is not coming your way.

4.    Learn to laugh. Enjoy fun-milestones and moments with your team. It does not take away seriousness. Rather, it makes the work environment light while continuing to focus.

5.    Authentic care and development of people are very important. It not only helps engagement and retention but creates ‘positive workplace citizenship’.


Q2    There is a famous quote allegedly attributed to Peter Drucker, that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Having worked across sectors, functions, and regions, have you found this to be true?


The culture of an enterprise is a collective reference to the formal & informal:

a.    The belief system that it subscribes to;
b.    The values that it ascribes to;
c.    The way it takes business decisions; 
d.    The behaviours it recognises and punishes as a part of its group norms;
e.    The decision-making process it adopts.


Albeit culture should be flexible and adaptive, it tends to develop rigidity over time. The business model and strategies that an organisation adopts to create value should be aligned in synchronicity with its culture. If it is not, then the culture outright rejects the strategy, and it fails. New leaders who join from the outside or businesses that import strategies from other sectors and organisations thus generally tend to fail, being alien to the culture. I saw this happening in Coca-Cola and several other global companies during my career.


The hunting style of each animal in the forest is unique and best suited to itself. If the tiger hunts like a fox or the fox hunts like a tiger, both may remain hungry and die! Understanding organisational culture and blending with it helps success.

Q3   You say: “the quintessence of your journey is based on the learning ... one first needs to be a good person. Everything else follows!”. Could you elaborate on that?

I believe that ‘being good’ and ‘being happy’ are two critical values for people.


If you are good at the core, all the affiliated roles you perform would be influenced by that goodness. If you are a good person, you will become a good son, a good brother, a good father, a good husband, and naturally extending to the workplace, you will thus be a good leader, a good manager, a good peer, and a good team member.


However, what is critical is being authentic. You can’t be fake, pretending outwardly to be good. Such superficial goodness will get detected, not last long, and will vanish soon in adversity like wax.

Q4  Smart machines based upon the principles of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning are now intersecting with every facet of human endeavor. Where do you see the AI revolution five years down the line? 

AI has indeed made great strides. We have succeeded in creating smart systems that work on the back-end through algorithms. The machines have been taught to perform repetitively mundane tasks, do intelligently analytical work, and react like human beings. 


Yes, we are going that way, and therefore, the new world work-order and the new age work-ways will sufficiently have to be reordered. Five years down the line, the situation will become more acute with the quick pace and strides that AI is making.


Rather than ignoring or shying away from this reality, professionals need to deep dive, absorb and learn the new ways to master it. AI will do the low end of repetitive jobs and the high end of acute analysis & predictive evaluations, etc. Organisations will have to master the art of using these hyper-logical aids effectively to help people succeed and make meaningful contributions at workplace.

Q5  As technology makes more decisions for us, will the nature of leadership change? What will be the key ‘drivers’ and ‘derailers’ of leadership success?


Given any situation, climate, technology or context, the role of leadership is to create value for the enterprise and flourish its people with happiness.


To that end, a leader has to define destinations, provide directions for creating value, resource the enterprise, facilitate the eco-system to connect and engage people with its purpose and thus, create a happy workplace! This will continue to be the HR role in digital times as well. 
The shift, however, will now be in determining how we, as leaders, use the new technological advantages of AI and other digital tools to fulfill our roles.


This onslaught of change will pose two drivers: (1) ability to design emotional, engaging and meaningful people interventions that match the speed, accuracy & depth of employee insights, and (2) ability to ask the right questions. Answers are available - the winner is the one with the capability to ask the right questions.

The two derailers would be (1) inability to appreciate big data analysis to make meaningful interpretations, and (2) failure to design bespoke interventions for engagement of talent resources. 

Q6  How has the HR function transformed over the last decade? Do you see HR playing a strategic role in the future?


Unfortunately, in the past, HR had been mainly engaging itself with building the facilitative eco-system, managing key people management processes & compensation programs, providing expert people advisories, ensuring trusteeship for its ‘performance bell-curves’, custodianship of employee data, policing of employee records and files, etc. 


Whilst all these roles are critical, they had not been at the front end of roles that contributed direct value to the business. 


By realizing the high value of RACE (right, aligned, connected and engaged) talent to the business, HR has now been critically at the centre, performing its several roles in a different and meaningful manner, thereby contributing direct value to a company as its critical partner.


By realizing the high value of RACE (right, aligned, connected and engaged) talent to the business, HR has now been critically at the centre, performing its several roles in a different and meaningful manner, thereby contributing direct value to a company as its critical partner.

Q7  In an era of unceasing disruptions, the world of corporate learning has been revolutionized. What are your tips for creating a culture of ‘continuous learning’?


Learning is not a happy option. It is a critical survival need. Don't let ‘good’ halt your performance from becoming ‘great’. A few suggestions to keep the organisation in an ‘ever-learning’ default mode:

1.    Structure a formal Learning & Knowledge Management System in the enterprise;
2.    Do not mix up organisational capability building with individual competency development;
3.    Do not mix up learning as an outcome of performance management;
4.    Institutionalise zero-based evaluation & 'design thinking' in the company;
5.    Encourage people exposure to new happenings in markets, technologies, etc.;
6.    Identify mentoring and reverse mentoring processes;
7.    Encourage intrapreneurial mindset and do not punish genuine mistakes;
8.    Pay a premium for creativity and innovative ideas.

Q8  As companies continue to focus on talent acquisition and retention strategies to compete in today's talent market, what are the biggest challenges that plague us today?


We are living in an age of ‘Composite Talent Success’. Every element of talent is critical, not only talent acquisition. As you are aware, I have been writing and speaking about our 7G Talent Management model for enterprises. All the seven dimensions of this model - Get, Give, Grow, Guard, Guide, Govern & Germinate need to be contextually aligned with the culture to (1) create enterprise value, and (2) contribute towards ‘net happiness’ in the system.


At different points of time, depending on internal challenges and external factors, various dimensions of talent may get into pressure and become critical. But if a company has been managing its composite talent process with alignment, it will be able to face momentary pressures within its stride.

Q 9 Employee experience is finally getting the airtime it deserves. What steps could take employee experience to the next level?

Generic exposures and experiences that are commonly available to people do not motivate them any longer, least the millennials. Such experiences cannot also be ad-hoc or accidental. Talent now expects bespoke experiences tailored to their specific requirements depending on their uniquely expressed needs.


Q 10 Recent research by Harvard Business Review revealed that “the average age of a successful startup founder is 45” and “older entrepreneurs are more likely to succeed”. Why might this be?

Start-ups are a whole new animal. They need exposure to new consumer insights, latest technology & platforms, different go to market strategies and uniquely special funding models. Old hats & hags may not understand these new realities as well.


However, the need for market knowledge, commercial wisdom, mature judgment, confidence and prudence are other factors that are required to make these start-ups successful. This comes with time, age, maturity and exposure, which new-age entrepreneurs do not have.


Thus the situation where one needs the under-35s to offer young insights, ideas, etc., whereas one requires the 40-pluses to provide maturity, wisdom, experience.


Q11 In today’s rapidly-evolving business landscape, what habits should HR professionals cultivate to stay updated and become an all-star?


Habits of new wave HR Managers:


1. Read, understand, and learn the business. Develop an all-round reading habit. Use your books to do ‘self’ development, not ‘shelf’ development.

2. Understand finance. It’s not just an accountant’s job. You need to know the relevant numbers to make your efforts contribute appropriately.

3. Familiarize yourself with new digital technologies & platforms. We have to create value in this age of technology.

4. Systematically seek rotational assignments. Be brave.  

5. Learn to create a unique environment where diversity is included in a happy corporate journey to generate value. 




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