Syed Ali Abbas, CHRO at Pacnet, shares his experience in building the talent management and HR strategies for a company emerging from a massive restructuring. Sabrina Zolkifi reports.
In a statement released in 2012, Pacnet announced the company would be “refining” its business model and was about to embark on a massive restructuring exercise, which would enable the company to “enter a new phase of accelerated growth and improved profitability”.
As part of the change process, the company’s current chief human resources officer Syed Ali Abbas was brought in to integrate HR more closely with the business, and as a logical extension of that, make it more effective.
While Abbas had his work cut out for him, he says he was lucky because there was a “common sense of purpose” which helped in creating a more effective HR organisation.
“For us, 2013 was a year of stabilisation and back-to-basics stuff for Pacnet. It was about getting in touch with employees, getting in touch with top management – almost like a 360 for HR in the company – rebuilding our mission, our policies, our processes to make them better and building a new foundation for the company,” he says.
“2014 is a little more exciting because we’re getting into putting together a more aspirational talent management strategy.”
Down an unorthodox road
But Abbas took a different route when rebuilding the company’s talent management strategy, as he wanted to create something more collaborative and engaging.
“What we started early last year was to survey our employees. However, instead of doing annual employee engagement surveys like most companies, we do quarterly surveys focused on specific items of employee interest, anchored by a commonly-used customer service methodology.”
From that, the company gets employee suggestions as well as an overall customer service rating called a Net Promoter Score (NPS), which helps them discover whether employees are happy enough with Pacnet to recommend them to others as an employer, if they’re neutral, or if they are “detractors”, where they would actively recommend against us as a place to work.
“We’ve taken it to the extent where we’re doing it for new hires, our overall employee base on a quarterly basis, as well as for our exiting employees,” he says.
What this has resulted in is a very clear understanding of how the company is faring as an employer of choice. But the survey also draws out changes and suggestions from the employees, which Abbas says would be harder to fish out through traditional engagement surveys.
“When we did the first survey, we of course asked employees if they would recommend Pacnet as a place to work. We also asked what they liked about Pacnet as a place to work today, and what Pacnet can do differently to be a better place to work in future,” he says. “We took the answers from those questions and used that as the key input to create the core values and guiding principles for the company.”
Following that, the company took other feedback which emerged from the first survey and used that to form the basis of the next quarter’s survey. For example, other focal points which came up from the first survey, including things such as “I would love to see more career development support” or “I would like more training”, helped the company form more detailed questions to better understand how employees thought top leadership, their managers and HR could support them in these areas.
Abbas and his team are using the responses from that second survey to build multiple new initiatives for Pacnet employees, such as a comprehensive career management programme.
“The employees get to see the survey results and see the programmes coming out of it,” he says. “It makes them feel like they’re working in a company where HR is actually taking their suggestions to create a collaborative environment, which is far more flexible and fulfilling than what big employee engagement surveys can provide.
It makes them feel as though it’s now their company. That is an incredibly powerful connection.
Pushing strategy to the next level
In order to create a talent management strategy that is not only engaging and collaborative, but also effective, Abbas says HR has to look beyond the traditional “attract, motivate and retain” model. A common mistake here is confusing tactics for strategy.
“A lot of people, when they think about talent management, pull together individual HR programmes in areas like staffing, employee engagement, performance management, learning and development, etc. Then they throw systems and metrics into the mix and call the result a talent management strategy.”
Instead, Abbas believes HR needs to “take a step back” and understand how HR can build a platform for the organisation to leverage on talent to achieve their business objectives.
“Talent management has become a much broader subject than just the classic ‘attract, motivate, and retain’. What you now need is to look at how talent management can drive performance and measure it in a way that will help you understand its impact on the business,” he says. “The individual HR areas and programmes are just components of that platform.”
In my view, the simplest way to learn – and this is the way I’ve learnt it – is to be open to understanding how different parts of the business do things, and adapt them to HR.
More than just copy and paste
“I’ve actually, very consciously, used marketing and customer service techniques for a lot of the work that I drive in my team at Pacnet,” Abbas says, adding effective use of marketing tools like segmentation and communications can play a critical role in HR.
Abbas says you can roll out as many programmes as you like in HR, but if they are not targeted properly and people don’t get behind them, they are not going to work.
While he says a lot of companies in APAC are beginning understand the real value of strategic talent management, and are taking steps to implement it within their organisations, there’s still room for improvement.
“It’s not that we don’t have good HR leadership talent in Asia. I just think we’re not using all the tools we already have in our back pockets in a way that’s customised for the businesses we support,” he says.
“We always talk about that seat at the table, but when we get to that seat, we still talk about how many people we hire or train. Instead of that, we need to get our orders from the business in terms of what they want from HR, give advice back to them on how HR can help drive the company, and then pull out the right tools to meet those needs.”