The Strategic Thinker

The Strategic Thinker

Riyaz Aftab, Vice President- Human Resources & People Strategy, Time Inc. India believes in connecting with people and building long lasting relations. He has developed this very mindset into an organisational practice, and thus ensured that the aspired growth trajectory was attained when he conceived HR policies in a startup, and, large companies transformed into engaging and rewarding workplaces while he was involved in defining their HR strategies and programmes.


How do you look back at your professional journey so far? Please share a few enriching experiences that you have come across.


By combining several years of cross-industrial, international, and functional expertise in corporate and business HR, I have successfully charted paths and driven profitable transitions across – Talent Acquisition, Global Mobility, Total Rewards, Talent Development, Regulatory Compliance, Employee Relations, Employment Law and HR Operations, Governance, and Transformation. To say the least, it has been an enriching experience. Understanding and driving employees to be the best versions of themselves, and to achieve their true potential is what motivates me as a senior leader in the HR industry. I have had the opportunity of meeting and engaging with several people across hierarchies and sectors. Life has its own way of providing one with a perspective! I have learnt from the experiences I have had while building relationships which have lasted decades.  This has helped me work as a strategic partner with the business, and helped establish a rhythm and tempo towards organisational behaviour and cultural change, as an agent of change, and through facilitating leadership feedback.


I take pride in myself on being a strategic thinker and I have a long-proven record of accomplishments that bear testimony to this. With a strong relationship management and communication skills, combined with the passion to drive positive change, I have not only enabled start-ups to achieve monumental growth through people expansion, but also supported the biggest organisations in becoming engaging and rewarding workplaces. Over the years, I have successfully collaborated with senior leadership to shape the business strategy, identify human capital implications, as well as design and deploy people practices to enhance performance and productivity in these changing times. 


As a senior HR leader, the one thing I have enjoyed the most over the years is nurturing young and talented HR professionals with whom I have had the opportunity to work since my days at GE Countrywide. Today, I remain in touch with many of them as a friend, philosopher, guide and mentor, all of which I enjoy immensely. I have also been in touch with various stakeholders with whom I have worked with very closely and have access to them, be it market check, benchmarking data and being a sounding board. I think being an HR leader is about having a ‘human connect’ and not taking oneself too seriously, and losing the essence of the humanness while playing one’s role. The missionary zeal of taking people along with me on this journey is something I truly enjoy.


What were some of the challenging times in your career that gave you the most important lessons in life?


The most difficult time of my career was my move from the core Business in Financial Services to Human Resources. Initially, I was extremely apprehensive and unsure of myself. It was my then manager who played an instrumental role in building a steady confidence and faith that drove me to take up this challenge. Thereafter, the support of many managers and leaders enabled me to gain invaluable learnings over time.


Some of the learnings that I would like to share:


Organisation before self: In my opinion, it is extremely important to own your job or task completely. It changes the way you approach your role. As a HR specialist, one must think about every employee working in the organisation and keep them happy and satisfied. I never forget that happy employees are directly proportional to the outcome or quality of work. There is a strong connection between how a company engages with its employees and the business performance.


Build a strong base: Strengthening trust among multiple stakeholders and the employees is the most valuable commodity. It is imperative for a leader to interact across levels within the organisation. Maintaining an open-door policy has never been as important as it is today. This helps in building transparency and fostering a positive environment at the workplace. Being approachable to all, regardless of their rank or standing in the corporate ladder, is key to have a far-reaching communication channel and in building reliable support systems. Through consistent HR efforts, effective engagement practices and employees’ aid in building trusting relationships form the most valuable skillset an HR professional can possess. If your employees trust you, and if you are able to inspire them, they will walk through fire for you when the situation so demands.


Empathise and not Sympathise: As a HR specialist, we need to establish an inclusive environment that considers every employee as an extremely valuable asset. There have been many occasions when employees have walked up to me feeling devalued, wanting to vent their emotions. This is especially true as a People Manager and more so in a HR function.


Strategic Perspective: You need to be invited to the strategic space by your business leader who sees you as a ‘Point of View’ before making critical business decisions. It is essential that this act be free of one’s hierarchy in the HR ladder, and is developed on the basis of your insights and perspectives based on speaking the truth. The most important facet is understanding critical interdependencies across functions and divisions, and grasping the short and long-term trade-offs of business decisions.


How has working across industries made your professional journey more interesting?


In a space such as ours, it is necessary to observe multiple perspectives. With greater travel opportunities and meeting points, the protocols of contact between individuals and firms have also undergone a major change. My work across industries has exposed me to a variety of challenges that stem from contrasts between styles of management and decision-making strategies, a situation that has led to the development of new and innovative management solutions. No one solution is universally applicable anymore and everything now depends on the ground factors that are ever-changing. Together, all this has led my journey to the present day highly interesting, offering me a wider perspective of global solution strategies and a broader canvas to ideate.  This exposure enables us to speak the language of the business, thereby impacting peers and leaders in the organisation by including them in the organisational decision-making process. Thus, you bring in a diverse HR experience across different spaces to bring next practices rather than best practices.


How different have the two experiences been for you of setting up HR from scratch in an organisation to managing well-established HR frameworks?


Both these experiences may seem to be poles apart, but they actually tie into each other. I began my career with the responsibility of setting up an organisation from the scratch, which involved greater planning at the structural level, as all companies aim to build a firm base before they look to expand. This forward-thinking strategy aided me when it came to maintaining established HR frameworks later, as I could trace issues back to the framework and work to solve them from thereon. Learn to run before you can walk, as they say! Ultimately, both these experiences offer opportunities for self-development, irrespective of their differences in strengths and challenges. Neither is better or worse than the other as both contribute to future learnings and build the confidence of HR managers in helping achieve the complete potential of the organisation as well as their own.


Having a rich experience in the HR Industry, what is your understanding of the business and how big a role does HR play in an organisation? Were there any sector specific challenges and opportunities you experienced?


The HR industry has always revolved around three major action points: attract, develop, and retain talent. As the industry continues to evolve, the functioning of each of these actions has undergone a significant change with HR coming to form an integral part in the future strategies in every organisation. The globalized world offers greater opportunities to liaise with a wider group of business leaders, in order to bring newer perspectives and help develop global rather than local success strategies. The push for growth too has been a key factor in the progressive importance attributed to HR, as timeframes have become tighter and more niche. My work across the APAC region taught me the significance that HR holds right from conception to production in terms of manpower as well as coordination of resources. The lessons that emerged from these experiences prove that HR is today determining the path organisations take while looking to move forward and pioneer and support it in equal measure. The following nuggets are my learnings from my HR business partnership model for young professionals:


1. Seeing the “big picture” of your organisation.

2. Understanding the importance of communications and data, determining patterns and then applying your knowledge to make good decisions.

3.  Understanding how your actions impact key performance measures of the Business and HR respectively and not either/or.

4. Effectively communicating your ideas to employees, managers and executives with empathy.


Who have been your figures of inspiration during this professional journey? What do you think are some of the values and ideologies with regards to which leaders should walk the talk to win stakeholder confidence?


During my time in the industry, I have learnt that not all roles models need to be positive or looked up to. Sometimes, one requires negative role models too as they show the path that must be avoided and pushes you to learn from mistakes rather than focusing solely on achievements. This is a seldom-referenced aspect of work-life that HR managers must learn to pay attention to. With such an approach, HR managers learn to make decisions free from the insecurities of failure, and ultimately help evolve successful strategies. HR practitioners must, however, ensure that they do not become copies of their role models, and must thereby maintain a unique perspective to every issue they are confronted with. This allows them to evolve a variety of strategies to aid in the company’s growth. My lessons have also come from leaders who understood and practiced lag measures rather than just lead measures. The lag measures could be:


1. Information that is a result of something that happened

2. Used to measure processes and outcomes to gauge organisation’s performance

3. Does not connect directly to the future

4. Not necessarily predictive

The ability to bring intuitive data to object data is key to the decision-making process. This aids in providing a holistic outcome, where the empathy factor drives acceptance of people and leadership.


“Best HR practices are built on a futuristic vision.” What are your views on the same and how have you practiced this during your stint with various organisations?


HR is a dynamic system of functioning and can never be explained without fluid metaphors. This, I think, is the reason behind the assumption that the future is the only place where best HR practices can be conceptualised. According to me, talent vitality will be key to people success in the industry. The industry requires all individuals to be at the top of their game at all times, and, this can be made possible only through constant skill updation. The evolution of HR departments in the organisation and the dynamic nature of the industry have ensured that the department no longer occupies the role of a mere filler of seats. Thus, HR credibility must be a top priority in order to support growth at all times. By reinforcing all decision-making strategies and ensuring predictive consequence analysis, the HR department ensures that the organisation remains on track for progress. Lastly, it is imperative to build an HR infrastructure which promotes an environment of innovation, change, collaboration, scale, flexibility, yet at the same time, has a strong focus on the basic fabric of the organisation such as organisational culture and values, and both these factors hold the key to building a strong brand and identity. To encourage and listen, to be positive and energetic, to ask hard questions, to give courage and provide a safe place to work are all facets of an ideal HR organisation. The more internal equity HR builds, the more the brand of the function will be seen as an employee champion and a change agent.


As part of Time Inc. India family, what will be your focus for 2018? Do you have any organisational goals that have been set by you?


Our delivery of day-to-day operations will function simultaneously with this. We also plan to focus on talent identification and development to streamline our service provisions. Ultimately, the goal is to build an organisation that supports organisational, professional, and personal growth at all times.




Section 2


Up, Close and Personal Section:


What inspired you to steer your career towards HR?


I am a people person. I enjoy working and interacting with people. The best avenue to do so in any organisation is through the HR function.


How do you like to spend your free time?


For me, free time is mostly family and friends time. It is when I can let my hair down and relax and have fun with the people closest to me.


Please share some of your experiences of travelling to different places and what have you gained from these experiences?


The most important aspect for me has been people and relationships.  What remains with you always are memories of the people you spent time with! It is of course a wonderful thing to travel and experience different cultures and landscapes.  It provides you with a completely vivid and unique perspective in life. Learning about various cultures and realizing that it is all a huge melting pot is fascinating. The contextual aspect of the various geographies is a huge learning as well.


Please share with us some of your memories from your years of growing up.


I spent all my studying years at a boarding school. Personally, hostel life has been a good teacher. In fact, it is here that I learnt many valuable life lessons, whether it was the matter of survival of the fittest, learning to be independent, or learning about the rule of first among equals. I would call this period my “wonder years”!


Has someone from your family deeply inspired your values and growth as a human being?


Beyond doubt, my mother! It is from her that I have learnt the importance of being a good human being. Simple things, such as treating people with respect, being empathetic, having little or no expectations when you give, humility serving as a key to self-growth, and unconditional love, have had a deep impact on who I am today.


Who would you credit in your life as a great influence in shaping the man that you are today?


Undoubtedly, all the team members that I have worked with thus far!




Section 3


Rapid Fire Section:


1. Favourite Quote: “Remember all the people on your way up, as you will meet them on your way down” - Wilson Mizner

2. Leadership style: I aim to be inclusive and affiliative to all my employees to bring the best out of them through team work.

3. Current Professional Goal: To implement consistent talent vitality strategies.

4. Favourite Book: It would be unfair to name just one… I enjoy both fiction and non-fiction.

5. Favourite Movie: Bridges of Madison County

6. Favourite Music Artist: Lata Mangeshkar, Whitney Houston and Jagjit Singh.

7. Life is…‎ The way you want it to be

8. Family is… Always there for you

9. I strongly believe in…. The fact that we get what we deserve

10. Family for me is… My identity

11. The most important thing I do on Sunday is… To relax.

12. I deal with setbacks by…. Introspecting.

13. 3 Things I never leave home without….‎ My peace of mind, a book and a pen.




Section 4


Perspectives Section:


Some gaps that HR Organisations need to bridge


As employee portfolios continue to be more diverse, the idea of work-life balance is becoming an important concern for HR in organisations. In most cases, professional and personal lives continue to be seen as rigid, non-intersecting entities. The growth of organisations and the subsequent workload on employees make them to choose between their dual lives, with the idea of ‘making sacrifices’ being posited as an excuse for the same by organisations. Despite the onset of multiple technological innovations such as virtual work stations and micro data centres, most organisations continue to enforce a policy of on-site work over flexible work timings. The creation of a conducive work environment is paramount as organisations push to make employees more efficient, be it on-site or in work-from home setups. In addition to this, employee success is measured today based on the amount of effort and time spent on an activity, rather than the results achieved. Both these situations represent major gaps in the smooth functioning of the organisation, making it all the more important that HR departments rush to bridge them.


Common errors companies commit while designing engagement practices


Taking into account the gaps to be bridged, companies have begun to design HR strategies that prioritize employee engagement alongside the functioning of the general business. However, certain common roadblocks do remain to hamper their success. Making work timings more flexible and adopting out-of-office work environment options has become a common practice across organisations. But the facilities to ensure their smooth functioning have not kept pace with this change, as is seen through the issues employees face with connectivity, data security, and other such factors. Beyond creating a professional environment to support their working life, companies have also created facilities that allow employees to take time off from their professional pursuits, and engage in physical activity such as sports, relaxation workshops and off-site events. The balance in focus between improving employee morale and maintaining a professional atmosphere is one that many companies are yet to master. The source of such inability to achieve a balance stems from companies constantly micromanaging every aspect of their employee’s work life, spilling over into their personal life over the course of employee engagement activities. By placing more responsibility on the employees in their functioning, it will be possible for companies to rectify their mistakes and make employee engagement strategies more effective.


Section 5


Buzzer Round Section:


A mysterious benefactor wrote you a check for 100,000 and said, “Help me solve a problem!” What would you say?


There are some things in life which are priceless!


What’s the one thing you’re deeply proud of but would never put on your resume?


I am very content that I have been an influence in people’s lives and have been a catalyst in building their careers.


What’s the one dream that you have tucked away for the moment?


I try to live in the moment so that no dream of mine ever goes unfulfilled.


Is there something that people consistently ask for your advice on? What is it?


Most people come to me with their interpersonal issues.


When was the last time you astonished yourself?


I know my own abilities quite well so nothing really astonishes me anymore.


What do you value most: free time, recognition, or money?


Since there is nothing that comes free, I would say appropriate compensation for being a recognisable individual.


Are you living your life purpose- or still searching?


I am quite content with my place in life now but I am always open to learn as time progresses.




Section 6


Learning Points


1. Empathy is one of the biggest strengths for any leader. I am of the opinion that it helps to figure out a strategic and effective solution that bears a long‑lasting effect.


2. People must always be hungry to learn more and with every experience try to broaden their knowledge. As they make their climb up the ladder, it is vital to stay humble, eager to unlearn and re-learn things.


3. I believe change is the only constant, and therefore situations in life are not always smooth; perspective is everything. If we try to keep a positive attitude towards life, it will really help enhance the quality of your life.


4. Be a good listener, this is one of my key success mantras as this process not only creates the room to make an inclusive decision, but also helps in effective planning. If you master the skills of listening it helps in enhancing and enriching your understanding and makes one a good communicator.


5. Be passionate in what you do as it improves your quality of work and reflects your personality in the work that you do. This touch of personalization really helps in creating your own niche. Also, being loyal to what you do is also crucial as that would set examples for your peers and people working with you.




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