Understanding the ongoing evolution of the role of HR
How to craft “real, market-facing and relevant change”
With more than 25 years’ experience in supporting the human resources (HR) efforts of financial services companies, Seema Vadera (pictured), global head of HR for Liberty Specialty Markets (LSM) has first-hand experience of how attitudes towards HR have evolved.
Where HR was once broadly considered an ‘admin function’, there is now a greater understanding of how the people and culture of a company shape, define and support its commercial progression. When she first stepped into the HR world, Vadera said, it wasn’t with the long-term ambition of remaining there, but she was quickly drawn in by the variety of experiences that any day working in HR can bring.
“Everyone seems to think HR is about hiring and firing, but it’s so much more than that,” she said. “It’s about helping an organisation move to a certain point strategically. You could be supporting massive projects, from buying and selling businesses, all the way through to having individual conversations across the entire breadth of the organisation. In many ways, great HR is actually about helping organisations make positive changes happen in practice. And no two days are ever the same.”
What does a great people and culture agenda look like?
Vadera noted that integral to creating a meaningful and long-term HR strategy that works for everyone is recognising that it needs to be commercially entwined with a business’s growth strategy. She highlighted a recent strategic review carried out by one of LSM’s businesses and how considerations of what this would mean for the people involved helped to shape that review.
“That’s how you create real, market-facing and relevant change that brings everybody along on that journey,” she said. “That inherent collaboration between strategy and culture is something that LSM prides itself on, and keeping those conversations going by encouraging and championing the right working environment goes right to the very heart of how the company operates.
“It’s about strategy, culture and data. From the world I grew up to where we are now, I see how data is becoming increasingly important in terms of how you make decisions, how you understand what’s happening in your organisation and how you engage with what’s happening. It’s what allows you to make evidence-based decisions and changes.”
Why authenticity is at the heart of a healthy culture
Authenticity is also at the centre of creating a healthy culture, Vadera said, because without it, the stated ambition to “put people first” is just empty words. People recognise sincerity, and they respond well to that. Having a culture of honesty and openness is what allows leaders to have even more difficult conversations, as it’s much easier to understand why a decision was made if the decision-making process was transparent and fair. Authenticity also builds trust. And trust is the bedrock of a strong, positive culture.
“Our commitment to put our people first is really integrated in the way we behave and act with integrity,” she said. “And that has to be permeated through the whole organisation. Especially now, when I see the kinds of questions that graduates ask in interviews, and I compare that to when I was a graduate, I wouldn’t have had the courage ask those vital questions!
“But graduates today want different things, they recognise that they’re going to work for a long time, and they want a value proposition that works for them. And our value proposition is that we are a genuinely values-led organisation. We use our values to inform our business decisions. We challenge each other when we see behaviours that are not in line with those values and hold ourselves to account.”
Vadera highlighted that embedding the right culture across an organisation takes a top-down and a bottom-up approach or a meeting of both. However, she added that the value of having the right buy-in and culture across a leadership team can’t be overstated. As to whether a great culture can be retrofitted across an organisation, she believes that building the right cultural fit is a learning curve for everyone involved.
“The key is that you have to want to learn,” she said, “and while some people find it easier than others, it’s important to focus on getting the fundamentals of a healthy culture right.” Her advice to leaders looking to do so is to keep things simple – to embed the right values of transparency and accountability, and to put your people first, as it’s on this foundation that the other elements will fall into place.”
The critical role of learning and development initiatives
Training and development are also essential not just to building the right culture, Vadera said, but also to maintaining it once it’s in place. Developing your people and opening up new pathways to opportunity is crucial to supporting their long-term professional development and ambitions.
“Training isn’t a day in the classroom, boom, job’s done,” she said. “Training’s done on the job, it’s about being stretched, about trying something new. I get butterflies in my stomach regularly when I’m trying something different but that’s how I know I’m pushing myself. It’s not about being uncomfortable, it’s about being on the outer skirts of your comfort zone.
“That’s where people are at their optimal – when they’re in their comfort zone but they’re being stretched, and they’re being given the opportunity to fulfil their potential and be challenged… And, of course, learning and development is an individual’s own responsibility as much as a manager’s. But an individual knows what’s best for themselves: what their strengths are, where they should develop and what they would like to push themselves to do. So having that [two-way] dialogue is so important.”
How LSM’s values are reflected in its culture
Looking at the internal culture within LSM, Vadera highlighted how its approach has been validated by how its people have embraced the variety of training and development programmes available to them. Her team is actively focused on nurturing and growing the business’s talent pipeline and it’s great to see how its rising stars are building on the opportunities presented to them.
“From a development perspective, I think the best developers are authentic leaders,” she said. “People want to have real conversations with those leaders who are engaged with what they want and how to help them achieve that. Those authentic leaders are also those willing to have tough conversations, to be honest, and to give the facts directly early on, to prevent the conversation from becoming more difficult or complicated later.
“My advice to leaders is to be brave, to have conversations as early as possible, to be inspirational and authentic and real. That’s how you nurture top talent and that’s how you bring them along that journey. And I feel very proud of our brand and our people. I’m really proud to be working for a business that really cares about its people and its culture, and I feel we at LSM should all be proud of that journey.”
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