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Yahoo's Vineet Gambhir
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Q&A with Yahoo’s Vineet Gambhir

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Vital stats: Vineet Gambhir is Yahoo’s vice president and head of talent APAC, and is a seasoned HR executive with more than 20 years of international experience in HR, HRIS and global operations. Having worked in diverse markets, he has led, built and managed HR as a strategic partner for the business. He’s supported stakeholders ranging from sales and marketing, manufacturing, and corporate functions. He is based in Singapore and is responsible for the region’s HR efforts.

How do you make data part of the HR DNA at Yahoo?

For me, data is more than a skill set, it’s an attitude. What we incorporate in our culture is the attitude to have an inquisitive mind which says, “I must have evidence of what I’m trying to make a statement of”. You need to have the urge to substantiate what you’re hypothesising.

Why do you think HR still lags behind other functions when it comes to incorporating data into decision making?

Many people think data is a challenge because they see it as a skill set, and when it’s a skill set, you have two or three reactions.

The first is, “it’s not a skill set I want to gain because I don’t have time for it”; “it’s not a skill set I think I need because I’ve been fine without it”; or there’s a fear of the unknown. When you use it as a means to an end and not the end itself, then data becomes a part of life.

How can HR adopt data like other functions do?

Data is something any discipline can follow, whether you’re in marketing, HR or sales. If you’re in sales, it’s not just about making a sale, it’s about keeping track of goals and scores, and how you’re trending. HR is the same way; when you make a statement about attrition going down, you need to understand the specific data points which allow you (a) to really understand the trends, and (b) the reasons behind it.

What is the biggest mistake HR makes when it comes to data?

A lot of people collect data, but they don’t do much about it. For us, we refer and use the data we have gathered. For example, when we are doing the pulse survey, it’s not just a “nice to have” activity for us – it’s something that drives actions within the company and is integrated with our people agenda for the year.

At the end of last year, we did a survey, so by the beginning of the calendar year we have a pretty clear action plan specific to the input to make sure we’re addressing those issues. If you don’t address those issues, it could result in new issues, so being predictive about those potential issues that could come up is really important.

What should HR be wary of when analysing data?

Sometimes we get excited about a data point and jump to conclusions too quickly. Let’s say four people left the company at the same time – it would be a very dangerous statement to say that attrition has spiked up and go into crisis mode. The reality could be different. It could be a specific set of circumstances around one data point, which when you look at the bigger picture, is just an anomaly. You need to look at data over a period of time, study it intelligently and see where the HR value comes.

Make it part of your attitude, make sure you’re doing something with the information you collect and are able to look at the big picture and the stories around those numbers, without being lost in smaller details.

It’s been said HR is a very instinctive function. How do you balance that with data-driven processes?

To be honest, both gut and science are important. Let’s say you have a doctor who has read all the books in the school. After he’s studied your symptoms, he’ll say you’ve got a running nose and give you some medicine.

But you also have savvy individuals who will say, “you’ve been walking around in the rain, the weather’s been pretty cold and you’ve been hanging around with people who are sick – I’d advise you to stay warm and increase your vitamin C intake”. Now that’s a predictive doctor.

Use your instincts because that’s what makes you special as an HR person to better understand emotions, but then also use data to validate those emotions.

There has been a lot of chatter about HR being hesitant about embracing data.

We don’t punish people for ideas. Every human being is capable of amazing ideas – that’s what the human brain was wired to do. It’s the fear of making mistakes and being laughed at, which comes in the way. If I’m afraid of this conversation, I’ll be very guarded in what I tell you and probably won’t tell you half the things I know. But if I let my fear go, and think about it as two friends meeting to have a conversation, it becomes easier. It’s the same way with HR and data – there can’t be any fear.

You’ve been in HR for about two decades. How have you seen the function evolve?

Back when I started my career, HR was an administrative function. We needed HR because we needed employee documents, we needed benefits and compensation, and we needed enrolment – that was HR’s job. Then HR moved from an administrative function to a more tactical function. It played a diagnostic role about 10 years back, which means when something happens they would come to HR and ask to know what happened. HR became the post-mortem guy who would analyse a situation and tell the rest of the business what had happened.

Now, what’s emerging is HR is sitting with the business and working together on a problem. If you’re going to do this, these are the possible people ramifications of your decision. If you expand at sites A, B and C, here are the talent challenges and benefits you’re going to face.

How do you see that evolving even further?

Before the business can even talk about satisfaction, they need to be looking at business plans. As HR, you’re analysing the opportunities and landscape. You start to excite the customers with your data, and have them think about talent opportunities as they’re thinking about their business plans.

The role HR plays is like being on a treadmill which is only getting faster. You can choose to not keep up and fall off, or you run fast and the treadmill will seem slow to you.

When you hear comments, it’s often about how the business landscape has changed, about new technology, about business profitability – those are the breakthroughs that are happening so it’s only fair HR is expected to keep moving. The comments aren’t about HR being incapable, it’s about the function making a choice to walk in step with the business or making the choice to let the business outpace them.

I suppose that lends itself to HR’s efforts in becoming a more strategic business partner.

There are some things that have worked for me to get that seat on the table and I assure you, I fought my way to that table. The first thing I would say is you need to build your credibility. Credibility means knowing there is no task that is too small or big; if someone asks you to fill a form for them, make sure it’s the best darned form you’ve filled.

Once people trust you, they will give you more and more decision-making opportunities, and that’s the first starting point. The second thing is the door to make decision opens less and less for you, and it opens for a shorter period of time the more senior you get.

So the ability to make your point and what’s in it for the business is two to five minutes. In HR, because we’re so close to the people side of the business, we can get emotional about how we present our side of things.

Can you give an example of that?

In one of my organisations, we had visiting executives and we needed to get funding to make up for some compensation gaps. For the past two years, before my time in that organisation, the pitch was, “we need more money, the people really need it”. Every time, the discussion would end with, “OK, that’s good to know”.

What happened was that the door opened, but it quickly slammed shut because you’re only appealing to their emotions.

Can data help HR combat that?

If you go in with a different approach, where you know you have three minutes to make a pitch, and that pitch is, “here’s the cost of replacement of our resources, here’s the time it takes to source for new talent, here’s the impact on the business”, then it’s all quantified. I presented four slides in less than 12 minutes, and we got what we wanted.

When you can do something like that, you become a business enabler. We all have the same magic wand – turn it to the left, you disable the business, turn it to the right, you enable it.

How do you think the adoption of data can help HR cement its position as a business partner?

Earlier, HR could just give the business advice and that was OK, but now we’re being asked to prove things, and if we give the business the wrong information, we can lose money. Now, HR is actually a revenue-enabler and not just a cost-centre. The speed at which we hire and retain people – especially in the digital space – and HR’s ability to attract, motivate and retain is dependent on knowing what’s going on in the industry.

All those are revenue enablers. In Yahoo, our business strategy is four-fold. We start with people. If we have the right people, we’ll build the best products and that’s step two. Step three is building the right products and increasing traffic, and step four is once you’ve increased traffic, advertisers will come spend with you and that increases the revenue. So HR and people are the starting points at Yahoo to make money.

What advice would you give to those struggling to make the most impact in a small period of time?

If you’ve got a finite amount of time, you need to think about whether what you’re saying is of value to the business. That starts with credibility. Even if it’s something small, make sure you do it really well. The second thing is to think like the business and channel the emotion so you can enable the success and profitability of the business.

Then, people will realise you’ve helped the business save money while making strategic people decisions, and they will start asking for your advice on other aspects of the business. The fourth stage is getting that spot at the table to speak. It’s an evolutionary process, and it’s a marathon.

You are a huge advocate of predictive analysis. How have you applied that to your responsibilities at Yahoo?

Let’s say someone’s been in the job for three years and your previous data shows people are most vulnerable in the first 90 days in a new company, as well after 18 and 24 months. If an employee doesn’t do well in their first three months, that’s usually a result of bad assimilation and a lack of support. Once you’ve reached the 12 to 18-month period, you’re at cruising altitude, and you’re achieving performance.

The third part, at about 18 to 24 months, employees will start asking, “what’s next?” and that’s when they’re vulnerable again. For us, what we do is to look at everyone at that two and three-year mark, and look at their achievements – did they get to do different things? Where were they when they started at the company? Where are they now? We do an analysis based on these things.

Based on that, I now know which talent we need to watch, and that results in further scenarios such as learning and development opportunities.

Do you use data and predictive analysis for Yahoo’s developmental programmes?

When it comes to L&D, you may need to think about what would excite someone who is at their two-year mark – do they need training to get to the next level in their career? You need to predict how you can cater to their L&D needs. It becomes more effective than just giving employees a programme you think they need.

Can you share some instances in which predictive analysis has been beneficial for you?

When we had our new CEO join, she [Marissa Mayer] really transformed the culture, and the first change was around transparency.

Every week, we have something called a FYI where the employees get together in the conference or meeting rooms and she personally – either live or via video – will address the staff without fail and share everything that’s happening within the company and take accountability of it.

Does FYI support two-way communication between Mayer and Yahoo’s workforce?

What’s cool about it is that we also have a mechanism where we gather questions from the employees every week. The questions which get the most employee votes are addressed by her. Sometimes they’re difficult questions and sometimes they’re easy, but she’s always up there with her executive team taking the questions.

Outside of that, how does Yahoo encourage transparency?

I have the same office space as anyone else and I have the same access to the phone as everyone else. It’s not that I get an ultra thin tablet while everyone has this bulky thing to carry. It’s the same with the rest of the business. When people see that, they feel it’s open.

And it’s not just about saying you’re open, it’s about demonstrating that as well.

Is that reflected in the company’s communication culture?

In our relationships, we are honest with each other. We’ll make someone mad if we want to, and there are no hard feelings. Because there’s no fear in doing that, you don’t have to worry or make extra effort to ensure someone is happy or sad – it is what it is. And because you have the company’s biggest interests in your heart, it creates a beautiful culture.

People love the fact they can communicate and that’s predictive because you aren’t waiting on an employee survey to tell you what’s wrong.

One of the things Mayer introduced under her leadership was PB&J.

PB&J – or process, bureaucracy, and jams – is where employees can submit an idea, own it and run with it. There have been more than 600 employee initiatives which we have launched as a result of PB&J. When you are doing it that way, you can collect data around that which validates the success of the efforts. Again, don’t lose sight of your instincts, but use the data to validate those instincts.

Are you working on any new HR initiatives right now?

We’re doing a number of holistic things – one of them is the Backyard Bravo. It’s a system where anyone can give kudos to someone else, and when someone gets a Bravo, their managers will get looped in. What we’re trying to do is collect all the Bravos from the region and find a way to showcase that.

I’m also working with the business leaders now to encourage them to pick up the phone and give staff credit for great performance over the phone.

What about efforts to improve leadership competencies?

People talk about their bosses all the time, so we’re making sure employees take their management responsibilities seriously. We make sure they have access to the right training, are aware of the big picture ahead of time, making sure goal-setting is happening and they’re having regular career discussions with employees.

We’re also keeping a predictive eye on talent and asking how else we can take care of their needs instead of waiting for them to tell us.

What’s your secret to getting all these programmes on track for success?

The way I would run these initiatives is to do it with the business. Always get an executive sponsor so the business owns the idea. We call Yahoo the world’s largest start-up. Yahoo is as large as a large company gets, but it also behaves with an entrepreneurial spirit. We truly have a dream executive team that’s amazing. The kind of business leaders you work with motivates you.

Don’t do data because someone asked you to. Don’t do data because you had to. Do data because you can’t do without it.

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