In Conversation with Shilpa Vaid

Jun 17, 2019 in Conversations
Posted By : Upendra Namburi


Conversations with Shilpa are just...invigorating. She's a seasoned HR professional having worked with leading banking and consumer brands, but have always seen her more as a leader than a specialist. Her perspectives and advise are candid, sharp and constructive. The humour helps of course.

In this conversation, we navigated several subjects including leadership change management and how the employer - employee relationship is transforming. The most striking part of the interaction was the conversation on the need for customized employee experiences, which is a crying need of the hour.

Now, sit back and absorb this conversation with Shilpa! and, don't forget to take notes :)

I. You’ve worked with a diverse set of organizations in people functions. What sets apart the good leaders from the great ones?

The good leaders I worked with gave their teams a sense of purpose & focus; they were all invested in their teams; they were passionate & inclusive; they led with compassion. But the best ones I have worked with had these distinctive qualities: 

They let everyone know what they stood for: They were transparent and trustworthy. They were crystal clear about what they stood for; everyone knew what values were important to them. They walked the walk, talked the talk and walked the talk! I believe that as a leader it doesn’t matter what you say because people are watching what you do.

They had ‘executive courage’ – loads of it:  

'Leadership is not a popularity contest'

– this has to be one of my favourite lines when it comes to leadership because taking hard calls, making tough choices and having difficult conversations is simply just part of the job description. And they didn’t avoid any of it even when it meant standing alone sometimes. They knew that it is not the easy decisions that make a mark or leave a legacy – it is the difficult ones

They were able to deal with the ‘grey’ – leadership is never black or white; it needs us to navigate the grey and deal with difficult questions that have no easy choices. And they did it well; never getting paralysed into inaction. How well you handle the really hard, uncertain and important challenges is crucial as a leader.

They weren’t perfect and not afraid to show it: All leaders have doubts, fears and uncertainties and they were not embarrassed to show chinks in their armours. Their vulnerabilities made them real and yet our ‘heroes’. For me, acknowledging mistakes, asking for help, accepting imperfections shows courage & yields far more results as a leader than portraying a perfect facade.

And maybe the biggest strength that made all the above possible was their ability to reflect. For leaders, reflection is a superpower. Listening, being open to feedback and acting on it if they feel it is warranted. The best leaders know that even success needs reflection.


II. How can a leader effectively drive change in a team and an organization? Where do organizations usually falter?

The truth is organizations don’t change; people do. And getting people to accept, adapt to and adopt change is easier said than done. Making a change is hard, but sustaining it is harder.

First and foremost; we need to understand that setting and communicating the big vision is a good beginning but not the end. Execution is hard and it is hard because it can be messy but it is also where the magic happens. 

As leaders, the way we make the decisions, is as important as the decisions themselves – we need to include our leadership teams and other key influencers at the right time. And give them a voice and genuinely listen to the disagreements. This is not to say that there will be times when leaders can see the need for change, that others can’t, and sometimes that change needs to be pushed to help the business stay relevant. And in these times you have to stay the course even with the doubters and the naysayers. 

Most importantly, we need to lead from the front – we can’t hide behind hierarchies or attribute the tough choices to the home office/ head office/ region. Do the town halls; talk to people; explain the ‘why’ behind the choices. Answer concerns quickly, directly & publically. Confront the brutal, honest truths with kindness. Communicate regularly. 

Some of the mistakes organizations make when trying to drive change are getting a person in a leadership role and expecting that miracles will happen. New leaders need to be supported; we tend to underestimate the push back they might receive or the effort it will need to drive change especially in today’s context where none of us deliver results independently and depend on our peers/ teams to be successful.  Organizations also need to understand that culture is powerfully shaped by incentives. People behave based on what they are measured on and rewarded for.  


III. The world of work is changing. Job descriptions evolve rapidly, roles transform and KPIs metamorphosize. What can leaders and HR functions do differently to adapt and adopt this new emerging world?

Most industries and organizations are going through unprecedented change. I worked in retail where it is predicted that globally in the next 10 years; 25% to 30% of the jobs will cease to exist in the next 10 years. There are so many forces at play like tech, automation, evolving work forces that are reconfiguring organizations and jobs and will continue to do so. 

This is a time for leaders who can thrive in the face of relentless and often radical changes; who adapt quickly; who can identify untapped opportunities; who can take lots of information & find what is meaningful; who understand the ecosystem in its entirety vs. the narrow description of their role and who are able to integrate diverse viewpoints and break silos. 

As leaders and HR functions; we need to help our employees prepare for the future – help them understand what is changing and what it means for them. Help them gain new skills so that they can stay relevant and employable. The fact is that in an environment where new skills emerge as fast as others become extinct; organizations that are willing to enable this learning journey will be able to not only address current skill shortages but also anticipate the demands of the future.


IV. Many organizations and leaders are challenged in hiring and retaining super specialized talent. Any tips?

'We need to start by recognizing that the psychological contract between employee and employer is different from what it used to me'

We have a very different workforce today. More diverse, global & virtual talent; flexi time, assignment based worker and part timers. For certain segments of the workforce, careers are probably not as important as experiences and for others it is employability that is more important than just employment.

So if you are competing for talent in this context – then it amplifies the need for a compelling employee experience, meaning & purpose as well as the need to deliver hyper personalized offerings in terms of policies, practices, pay. This is the era of hyper customization; your target audience is n = 1 and hence we need to move away from the one size fits all and other inflexible approaches and think customized career paths; learning plans and rewards. 

I can’t stress enough on the need to focus on employee experience – choice, flexibility and customization. The only way we can win the war on talent is by offering progressive & innovative environments that top talent now expects. One overlooked aspect is the value of co – creating this employee experience with employees themselves. Organization that can rewire for the new reality and quickly in meeting the diverse needs & aspirations of their people will create a completive powerful advantage for themselves.


V. What is going to change rapidly in the HR function in India in the coming years? What lies at the heart of a new age HR function? What’s core and what isn’t?

I believe that, as HR, our fundamental role is to deliver organizational performance, success and relevance – today, tomorrow and beyond. 

If I think about the HR function of today; the need for high business acumen has become tablestakes. The expectation now is for HR to be able to provide an ‘outside in perspective’ and understand the overall eco system that the company operates in. The need is for an HR function that is focused on outcomes from talent, organization, culture and customer perspectives. A function that is able to engineer collaboration/ coordination/ innovation – all ingredients required to deliver business results. A function that is not just comfortable with tech but equally able to drive tech. And this needs HR practitioners who are curios, agile, flexible and comfortable with disruption.

With organizations, work & jobs now getting reconfigured & re-imagined; HR as a function will also need to get re-engineered. How do we manage the boundarlyess organization where organization structures are a network of teams that work closer to the customer and not functional groups organized by hierarchy? It could mean developing better tools to manage and operationalize teams, getting employees to share knowledge and skills across functional silos and ultimately improving organizational productivity. How do we redesign jobs given the advent of technology and automation? This could mean changing job definitions but equally making them better by reducing mundane tasks and adding more value to human interactions. How do we harness the potential of flexible talent and support new working styles & work environments? How do we customizing employee experience where N=1? Can we identify signature processes that are distinctive?


VI. Which are the innovations in the arenas of HR and talent which excite you?

There are so many exciting innovations in the HR arena today but if I have to highlight a few

Rewiring of the L&D function: Jobs across industries are evolving and this puts an unprecedented focus on the L&D function to help employees learn and relearn new skills & capabilities. We have seen a lot of innovations - from online & mobile learning platforms that integrate & curate content & tools from different sources to virtual realties & simulations to AI that can make learning recommendations.  The focus is going to be on delivering learning in the flow of work and making content more relevant & supporting performance. 

Feedback, engagement & analytics tools:  There are many interesting feedback & engagement tools today to gauge employee sentiments on a real time basis, conduct organizational network analyses, continuous feedback apps that are team centric and are redefining the age – old performance management rhythms. Even the adoption of people analytics has improved significantly in mature companies and if organizations are able to successfully integrate all of this people data together; it can truly solve multiple business challenges around retention, productivity, team effectiveness etc. whilst keeping in mind employee privacy etc.

Employee experience and well being: Companies are now applying design thinking principles to employee experience – charting the employee journey (both digital and offline) akin to customers’ journey and ensuring that ‘moments that matter’ are personalized & distinctive. Employee well being is more centre stage than it has ever been and rightly so. Organizations are moving from health to well being to human performance and as part of ‘total rewards.’

Human automation collaboration: Robots already shortlist CVs, match profiles to roles, but this is only the start of how AI and automation will impact the way businesses leverage talent. And this gives organizations the opportunity to rethink how work is done and identify the right work for people to elevate the ‘human’ in jobs and a chance for innovation & creating advantage. The caution though is that as we begin leveraging digital labor in place of human labor; we need to ensure that we don’t create a workplace that is devoid of human connectivity.

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