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People professionals are a business’s storytellers

Every HR professional can be a strategic partner

Bhawna Gandhi, head of HR at Danone Singapore, on how a new approach to inspiring employees is helping Asian businesses find and retain the talent they need for the future

HR professionals can’t just think about what is happening in their office or their country. What we do can be impacted by anything happening anywhere.

How would you characterise the current standing of HR as a function across Asia?

There was a time when HR was seen as an administrative support function. That situation has changed dramatically over the last few years, particularly through the technology revolution – the pace of change has pushed HR to change itself. In certain organisations, we are already there and in some we have further to go. But every HR professional can be a strategic partner – the opportunity is there to define it for ourselves.

How do you achieve that sort of shift?

When the organisation has the right expectation and where they see HR as strategic, it can definitely work. It’s much more difficult if leaders don’t think their way. No HR leader can be a business partner if the demand isn’t there from the business. You can become trapped because you feel you aren’t being asked the right questions by your leaders, but they might not feel you are capable of giving the right answers.
When HR professionals start to take proactive steps to engage leaders on strategic conversations, they can really raise the bar in their organisations – I have seen it happen personally and I would say it is happening in Danone.

What’s HR’s role in some of the major business changes you have been describing?

Danone has a transformation function that is dedicated to change management. In all our businesses, you not only have HR leaders but people who are empowered to lead that transformation. The organisation has created that space by design, not by default. That person leads you through transformation and shows you how to do more than just tick boxes. You don’t often get to work on transformations on such a huge scale, but when you do it’s an opportunity to build a lot of credibility.

What role does evidence play in your work?

When we undertake a major project, we use a lot of different forms of evidence. We use quantitative data, but we also go out and talk to people and bring that evidence together with the data and benchmark it all against other companies who have been through similar processes in the past. The moment you have all that information, the tone of the conversation starts to change – people realise we are in control of the process and any unconscious biases they have about what we are doing go away. And it doesn’t matter how big the quantum of evidence is that you bring to the table, as long as you bring it.

What sort of skills do you believe the HR professionals of tomorrow will require to thrive?

First and foremost, I would say learning agility. With the pace at which the world is changing – whether it’s because of AI, blockchain, automation or the economic and political environment – HR professionals can’t just think about what is happening in their office or their country. What we do can be impacted by anything happening anywhere.

We are always hearing that chatbots are going to take jobs or that AI is going to change what we do. You need the ability to cut through all that noise and turn it into a narrative that makes sense for your business. That’s the role HR professionals can play.

You also need creativity. In the past, that has been associated with people in marketing or operational functions. Today, companies need to attract best in class talent – that’s perhaps the most important thing you need to do for the future – and that needs a creative approach to HR. We need to be storytellers and share the vision and mission of the company to truly inspire people.

But arguably the most important is being a user interface and user experience champion. HR has a huge customer base – our own employees. They are customers of Starbucks, Amazon, Facebook, or Google in their personal lives and they are used to getting exceptional experience outside the organisation. When they come back to the office are you able to give them the same sort of experience? HR professionals need to be customer-focused.

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