Tell us a bit about what you do in your role as a CHRO.
My role includes everything from ‘hire’ to ‘retire’. I’m involved in all aspects of HR right from pre-acquisition to acquisition, talent development, talent engagement, total rewards, compensation and benefits, diversity & inclusion and internal communications as well. It’s been a fun ride working with a fast growing company like AGS Health, which is into revenue cycle management for the healthcare sector, and we service only US clients. We are growing exponentially and in the last year and a half, I have seen the company grow more than 30%. So it’s exciting times and fun times as well.
What has been the three biggest lessons that you have learned in the last 30 months as a CHRO?
The first one is that trust is critical. It’s critical to strive and to thrive. Without trust, which is either building or forming and making your own brand, it is absolutely impossible to go anywhere.
The second is communication. We always grew up in a world prior to COVID where communication has been top-down like a waterfall. I don’t think this generation believes in that. And I don’t think it works anymore. Post COVID if there is one lesson I’ve learned as a CHRO, it is that communication has to be clear and concise. It doesn’t have to be a waterfall; it doesn’t have to only come from the top for it to be accountable and therefore acceptable.
The third lesson is not to take things personally. This is something one of my ex bosses told me when I moved to India. And at that time I thought – how can we take it in any other way? When we were younger, we didn’t know the difference between feedback that is given to your role, task or action, and not to you as a person. It’s very difficult to differentiate but that’s my biggest lesson in the last 12 months. I’ve grown and learned not to take things personally.
Is there any story that you can share about not taking things personally?
I was working on a project plan, and I thought I had done a fantastic job from an HR point of view. We presented the plan and the entire CXO community approved the idea. During the implementation, I spoke to each of the vertical leaders and explained the plan to them, and they asked me, ‘But have you considered that we still don’t have people coming back to work.’ I said, yes, that’s why we’ve built a hybrid model. But then comes one question, which I’m completely unprepared for and that was, ‘How are you going to do this while we are shifting our strategy of hiring professionals from anywhere in the country? How are you going to tackle that?’ I wasn’t prepared for it. I was still thinking about our five locations and remote and hybrid working in office. I wasn’t thinking about people working from anywhere in India. But thankfully it was not a big challenge and I realized that I just had to address it.
Another example is when I was coaching a young leader in our organization. She told me that she was having difficulty working with one particular professional. As I probed, I realized it was not about the difficulty of working with that professional, but it was about understanding the scope of her work. Where does the line begin for her and where does it end? Scope creep was happening between two roles and all I needed to do was point that out. She was taking things too personally and believing that she was having a difficult time when in reality that was not the case.
As CHROs you work closely with CEOs. Is there a difference between male and female CEOs and the relationship they have with HR?
This is my first experience working with a female CEO. In the last 24 years of my career, I have worked only with male CEOs. But in the end, it is all about perception. It does not matter whether the CEO is a male or female. Their focus is on the results. I think the difference comes with showcasing empathy. While working with a female CEO, I’ve seen that she actively listens and is more empathetic. That is where it has been different for me. Otherwise, when it comes to the approach, it has been the same whether it is a male or female. They’ve always expected me to deliver, they have always challenged me, and they’ve always expected the best out of me. So from that point of view, gender does not matter.
How can CHROs build their brands even better? How did you go about it and what advice would you give to other CHROs?
Let me go back to 2008, which is when I had the first conversation with my then boss, SV Nathan, in Deloitte. He told me, ‘You want to recognize and realize what you want to be known for. Let’s start there. That’s the brand.’ That was the first time someone told me that I was a brand. Until then I was Ekta. It brought a lot of perspective. After a lot of thinking, I realised that leaders want to be known for a few things. For example, I look up to leaders if they have high IQ and are very intelligent. I also look up to them if they are empathetic. But what is it that makes me want to be my brand? I think I want to be known as someone who can earn the respect of people. That is something I want. How will I go about doing that and building my brand?
The first thing is trust. If I am able to create that in my teams, or in the larger ecosystem, or the larger world, then I guess I will have respect.
The second thing I have done is hire people who are smarter than me. I love to have smart, intelligent and hungry people in my team. People who raise their hand and say, ‘Hey, next role is mine’. These do not have to be new hires alone. I have developed a lot of my internal talent. Many of them are smart, and they are hungry. And all you have to do is feed that hunger. Feed them fuel so they can burn brighter.
The third thing is succession planning, which is critical and important. As a CHRO, I don’t always want to be in this role. I want a bigger or larger role. I always tell my team to think about how they can prepare someone else to take over their job so they can take over mine. But as human beings, we are insecure. We don’t want to build successors. We want to hoard and keep the talent because sometimes organizations have also let go of people because there was a successor. Leaders have learned from that and hesitate to build a successor as they feel their job is at risk. But to me that risk is better than having an organization where there is no one who can take over your job tomorrow in case of an emergency.
So that’s how I built my brand. By doing these three critical things –
- First is imbibing, living, talking and breathing trust
- Second is developing strong teams
- Third is succession planning
Succession planning is a critical aspect of leadership and organizational growth. If people fear succession planning, then how should organizations approach this in a balanced way as they move forward?
To me the answer is very simple, and it boils down to transparency in communication. The insecurity comes when he or she does not know what is next. For example, I might tell a talent development leader that I’m moving them to talent engagement, so they must develop their skills over the next eight months, so at the end of the year they can move. But what happens to the person who is currently in talent engagement? Surely, they both must be talking to each other.
So if you believe that there is potential, then have a conversation with that individual about their next role. Help them become a holistic leader. No leader would have done one type of role before becoming a leader. They would have worked in multiple roles to gain a holistic experience. Otherwise, how will you gain the respect of people if you’ve done only one role?
That’s why transparency is very important in communication. If you build that, you will have 80% success. The insecurity comes when you don’t know what is there for you tomorrow. So, draw out a one year or 1.5 year plan.
What aspects of a CHRO are underappreciated by the rest of the business?
Most of it is. I remember a few years ago, I was the regional HR head in an organization that thought HR was the easiest job to do. They got a non HR person to take the HR role and in less than a year, the individual quit. This person had been with the organization for 20 years, so that tells you that HR is not a cakewalk. You cannot bring anybody and everybody and put them in HR and think that they will succeed.
I think the aspect that is most underappreciated is the complexity as no two human beings are the same. With any kind of initiative, you cannot say one size fits all. At least I have not experienced such a thing. Today everything has to be customized. If you have 20,000 people, chances of the same thing being applicable to everyone is not more than 5%. So I think that gets under appreciated quite a bit.
People think that we have a framework and all we have to do is implement it. It is not that simple. We have different types of thinkers – some are analytical, which means you have to draw every single full stop, comma and semicolon for them. Others are go-getters – all you have to do is tell them the end goal, and they’ll figure out how to make it happen. Then there are people who love to have conversations, dialogs and debates to reach a conclusion. There are also the silent types who say yes to everything, but then I worry what’s happening in their mind? If they’re saying yes to everything then I haven’t thought it through, or I’m a genius. Chances are it is the first and not the second.
Lastly something that is underappreciated is decision making. In HR, we have to take decisions almost every minute and every hour on certain days. You can never plan your day. Decision making is not an easy process. But at the same time being decisive is very important for a CHRO.
Can you share a couple of instances where you have influenced and persuaded change within your organization?
The biggest change and conversation, in India and globally today is all about wellness and mental wellbeing. The second conversation is about diversity and inclusion. Until COVID, we as Indians shied away from the whole conversation about mental wellbeing. If we had a migraine or broke our leg, we didn’t hesitate to tell 10 people. The mind is also a part of your organ system. So what’s the big deal if you wish a take a mental break for one day? In the UK, as a country they give mental wellbeing days. I wish India could do that too. The first thing everyone tells me is that people will abuse the system. But that change has been something that I’ve had massive dialogues on in the last 30 months.
One of the most abused questions in the English language is ‘How are you?’. We are trained to ask, ‘How are you?’ and then continue with ‘Hope you are well?’ There is no time given to answer the first question. We need to train front line managers on how to ask that question and then pause to listen to the answer. How do you make your organization realize this?
I think the great resignation was a wakeup call for many because a lot of people were leaving because someone wasn’t listening or was unempathetic. There are global reports to confirm the large numbers of people who quit the workforce. So, organizations will either wake up from that external influence or internally if you start a dialogue and proactively makes changes yourself. At AGS, we’ve incorporated an EQ module in our frontline managers program, where they have been given questions that they not only have to ask but listen to. Listening is number one.
The second is diversity and inclusion. I have a funny observation that I’ve made over the years. If there is a male colleague who is not supportive, I do a little research into their background. Are they single? Married? Do they have children? I would then ask them to imagine if their daughter were here in this organisation and how they would feel about that. This changes the dialogue. When you shift the conversation from IQ to EQ, it makes a big difference. Not all results come from intelligent conversations. Sometimes a visual image brings a different perspective.
I have never hesitated to have a difficult conversation or a challenging conversation. People think that a push back is a ‘no’. A push back is never a ‘no’, it means I am curious. I tell my team the same thing. I ask them to be prepared for curiosity. And that’s how I’ve done it. Whether it is a CSR agenda, diversity inclusion agenda or an employee engagement agenda, I just push my way through. And if there is a leader who does not support you, then make them the champion for that cause.
There is a lot of awareness around DEI. In your experience and from your observations, what are the missing elements in DEI?
When we talk about diversity, most of the time, it is gender that we speak of. But diversity can be in any form. Different types of thinking is itself diversity and to me that is the most important one. For me, the biggest hindrance is professionals who either take gender for granted or treat it as an entitlement and demand more.
When it comes to gender, we as women never learn to negotiate. We are always the first to throw in the towel and say – fine do whatever you want. Why are we not having a dialogue about it? Why are we not deliberating about it? We give up our careers when we get married or have children. Why? Because as a country and as a culture, we are told that this is what is expected of us. I believe a boy child’s mother has the extra responsibility over a girl child’s mother to teach equality and it all begins at home. So, I believe women must start the conversation.
The second thing is that we cannot have these conversations in silos among women. Men comprise more than 50% of the workforce; we need to include them in the conversation and tell them what the problem is. I’m confident that once we explain, they will understand. Let me share a story here. In my previous organisation, a colleague came to me with tears in his eyes and he wanted to talk. He was married for less than a year and he and his wife were expecting a baby. He told me that his wife was now in her second trimester, and she was complaining of backache, her feet was swollen, she was moody and unable to eat. He didn’t know how many women in his team were expecting and going through motherhood and he did not even have the realization of what they were going through. Now that his wife was going through all this, he felt he had been a horrible manager. So imagine the eureka moment that he had. No one is psychic in this world, we need to have conversations.
So to conclude,
- DEI has to be about giving everyone the right opportunity, not the same opportunity.
- Secondly, it is about having dialogues and not keeping thoughts in our head and seal our lips.
There are so many leadership development competencies and assessments. Are they still relevant in this day of continuous change?
This depends on what conversations you are having and what roles you are talking about. I love to have conversations on strengths. That’s always been my way of establishing credibility. You can only go so far with your development areas or areas of focus, but with your strengths, you can outbid your development areas. So play to your strengths. Identify the competencies that are your strengths. For example, critical thinking is my strength, but analytical thinking may not be my strength. So I will lean on critical thinking, I will lean on creative ways to solve problems. So I think conversations should start with strengths first and then go forward from there. Although we are talking about potential, I don’t think in HR, we are giving up on competencies yet. The other dimension to potential will always be performance. And performance is always based on core competencies and how you deliver.
QUOTE IN FOCUS
I have never hesitated to have a difficult conversation or a challenging conversation. People think that a push back is a ‘no’. A push back is never a ‘no’, it means I am curious. I tell my team the same thing. I ask them to be prepared for curiosity.
Every organization at some point goes through rightsizing and there are tough decisions to be made. How do you internalize or vocalize this to yourself so you can find the courage to go through with it?
When an organization decides to rightsize, it’s never an easy decision. There is always a struggle to decide on the approach that we need to take. Do you take a last in first out approach, or a first in first out approach? Should it be performance based, or skill based? What I have observed is that if you’ve not invested in keeping yourself updated, that is when you come into that radar or the list. So you need to constantly upskill yourself.
The justification I give myself is that there are enough opportunities given by the organization. Apart from classroom training, E-learning modules have been there for over a decade. There are many modules that you can learn at your own pace. Even after that, if someone refuses to learn then how can I help you? I can only take the horse to the water. And I tell myself that this is a part of my job. And if I don’t do it, then someone else will be asked to do it.
Can you share one story that has constantly inspired you, so others can benefit from it?
It has to be the story of the two monks that has inspired me. Let me share that story.
There are two monks, and they are on the bank of a river waiting to cross. A young lady comes along, and she does not know how to swim. The requests the monks to help her. The older of the two monks asks her to hop on his back. They reach the other side, and he places her down and continues walking along with the young monk. Halfway into the jungle the young monk sits down and starts screaming at the older monk for having touched a young woman as it is forbidden. So the older monk says, ‘I left her on the bank, who is carrying her till now?’
I love to lean on this story because it can be used in any context. It can be used in the context of feedback that somebody gave you for improvement, but you’re carrying it like a baggage months later. Or where you are starting something new, and you want to give away the old. It can be used almost anywhere. On my desk I have a book called ‘Zen Flesh Zen Bones’ and this book is like the Bible for me. I’ve had this book for 15-16 years and whenever I’m in trouble, I turn to any page and read one of the Zen stories. I love this book and the story of the two monks is my favourite.
Global CHRO – AGS Health | Board Member at End Now Foundation
EKTA SINGH is a HR Business Leader with more than two and half decades of progressive experience in Strategy, Organisational Design and restructuring, M&A, Employee Relations, Business Partnering, Benefits, Compensation, Talent Management, Talent Development and Recruiting. Ekta is also a Board Member in End Now Foundation, which promotes internet ethics and digital well-being. Prior to AGS Health, Ekta has worked in Capgemini, RBS and Deloitte to name a few. She is a Certified Six Sigma Green Belt and a Certified Coach. She is a Diversity and Inclusion champion and is a leading facilitator for several policies and programs.