Ethics, values, behaviour and attitude of leaders have dramatic effect on the culture of a company

Stephen McIntosh is HR transformation leader with international experience in delivering talent management and organisation development solutions from strategy to execution. During his visit to Kathmandu for the HR Meet last month, The HRM had a tete-a-tete with him focusing on various issues of human resources management. Excerpts:

Q. HR transformation is a critical area of focus for many organisations. We would love to hear about your experience leading HR transformation initiatives.
A. HR transformation gets thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean? It’s not just about implementing the latest fads. True HR transformation is about building entirely new capabilities within the department. This can involve creating innovative processes from scratch, significantly improving existing ones, or offering entirely new services to better support the organisation. In my experience leading HR transformations across various industries, I’ve found a successful approach involves several key steps. First, we identify core HR focus areas like recruiting, strategy, succession planning, and employee engagement. Then, together with senior management, we assess how well HR is currently handling each area. Is there a complete gap, is it weak, or just needs some improvement? Crucially, we resist the urge to simply copy ‘best practices’. Instead, we tailor solutions to the specific needs of the business. This might involve using different succession planning models or assessment tools depending on the context. Ultimately, HR transformation is all about contributing to the organisation’s overall success. By improving efficiency, effectiveness, and growth, HR can play a crucial role in achieving this goal. For example, at American Mission Hospital in Bahrain, we identified a need for improved succession planning. By understanding the hospital’s unique requirements, we implemented a leadership assessment process and a tailored succession planning programme.

Q. This means HR transformation should be reflected in the company’s progress, growth and service delivery?
A. That is true. HR transformation must bring some kind of positive impact in the company. Has it really added value or not is the primary question.

Q. You interacted with HR leaders of Nepal during the 16th episode of HR Meet held on March 29-30, in Kathmandu. Could you please share your impression about them?
A. I’ve talked with a few people and obtained some feedback in my presentation as well. I think there is a challenging situation. I don’t think there are enough resources (that might be funds) spent for HR or enough attention given to HR by the companies. The most challenging thing that I assume is they might not have enough support from the senior leaders. Are the key stakeholders who receive the process and products that HR provides to the company engaged with HR is the question. Do they really spend time talking with HR? Does the HR have information on how the business is going? These are some of the challenges I think they might be facing. HR is a very important issue for the future of Nepal. If they cannot build the leadership needed for the companies, they will never keep growing. Maybe they have good leaders right now, but the next person will not be a good leader. Companies need sustainable HR work. HR should not be taken into the hands of some transactions and not involved in building a solid company. I do not know there could be a large homework on it, but I am just sharing my impressions. Also, the fact that beyond companies is a huge number of people going abroad is very real. It has created challenges of getting talented labours, skilled and professional workforce in the country. There are many challenges everybody is facing at their end. I have described the internal company issues, there is also a macro issue (of outward migration) involved in the economy. Against this backdrop, HR can help overcome these challenges by giving attention to the development of succession planning and talent management, among others which could help them really do the best.

Q. As you have worked in different geographies what are the determining factors for managing workforces? How do the cultural and socio-economic as well as political aspects affect effective human resources management in various countries?
A. Developing a skilled workforce can be tricky. Companies have employees at different levels with different needs. I have worked in many places, including industrial settings, and faced some unique challenges. For example, in Saudi Arabia, many people do not understand English well. This makes it hard for them to use training materials, which are often in English. To address this, we offered basic classes in English, math and technical skills. These skills are essential for workers to perform well and grow in their careers. From the company’s perspective, the goal is to create a clear path for workers to develop their skills. This ‘skill ladder’ helps employees progress by improving their English, math, technical knowledge and safety awareness. Beyond these basics, we also focus on developing a worker’s overall abilities. This includes providing them with different experiences, challenging them with new tasks and giving them feedback to help them grow. I have been fortunate to work in many countries, including Canada, the US, Saudi Arabia and Argentina. While work cultures differ, the basic needs for employee development remain the same. This is because we are all human. The key is a commitment from both sides: the company and the employee. The company needs to provide resources, time and support. The employee needs to put in the effort to learn and grow.

Q. Organisations, like people, learn and accumulate knowledge over time. This knowledge comes from experiences, successes and even failures. But how important is it for companies to actively capture, use, hold onto, and share this knowledge? Is there a real benefit to managing this internal learning journey?
A. The basic area of learning begins from knowledge and knowledge comes from education, training, research and others. Based on knowledge someone understands the situation better and you have some framework in your mind. A person involved in a team, listens to other persons in the team and beyond, observes and learns from other people. They learn from mentoring and coaching and also through receiving personal feedback. Imagine you want to know how you are doing at work. The best way to find out is to ask your boss and colleagues for feedback. This feedback should be specific, like “You give great presentations, but sometimes miss deadlines.” By understanding how others see you, you can learn and improve. Learning is like stretching a muscle – it helps you grow beyond what you already know and can do. It pushes you to think differently and learn from others. This gives you a fresh perspective, making you smarter, stronger, and better prepared for the future. The more you learn, the more you will grow.

Q. Do you think adaptation of technology will replace human resources from the jobs they are doing currently?
A. I think technology comes at the space of every job, for instance AI, machine learning, Microsoft copilot. Microsoft copilot helps you to make decisions and do your jobs. Any job that relies on giving the right answer is going to be a risk. For instance, in the jobs related to law, AI picks legal manual and precedence of previous legal cases and it could advise. However, there is still a need of people for the new answers. There will be issues that AI would not be able to detect in terms of human factors, such as emotions, attitudes involved. Sometimes, there would be need for mercy and AI cannot be merciful. There will always be a place for human work. Eventually, AI will become something that takes over more of our work, but I do not think it will remove people from jobs. It may reduce human effort and the number of jobs could be minimised due to advanced machines. We can look back to the era of the Industrial Revolution. For instance, there were a hundred people working in the factory and along with the Industrial Revolution, 60 people lost jobs and they adjusted in other sectors. In the modern era, AI could be like that. Hopefully, other jobs will also be created simultaneously.

Q. How can we create a system where everyone’s efforts contribute to achieving desired results? What strategies can we use to align the workforce, evaluate performance effectively, and track progress? We are open to hearing about different approaches, including result-based frameworks, key performance indicators (KPIs), RACI-Q implementation, or any other ideas you might have.
A. I have created many key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure employee performance. KPIs are a great way for businesses to understand how things are going. You cannot manage what you do not measure. The best KPIs are those that tell us how effective we are, how satisfied people are, and what risks we might face. They should also help us predict what is likely to happen next, so we can make good decisions. For example, I created a ‘succession planning usage’ KPI. This simply tracks how often we use the succession plan to choose new leaders. Another KPI is the ‘succession plan age’, which shows how old our plan is. These KPIs help people understand how well the company is prepared for the future. There are many other KPIs we can use, but the key is to keep things simple. Business leaders need to understand how HR is performing. Just like other parts of the company, HR plays a vital role. Many departments use numbers to track their work – sales looks at sales figures, finance looks at profits and taxes. HR does a lot of work too, but sometimes it is hard to show results in numbers. The challenge is to find ways to represent HR’s work with clear and useful numbers that show its contribution to the company’s success. This revised version uses simpler words and avoids jargon. It also focuses on the key points: using KPIs to measure HR effectiveness and the challenge of communicating HR’s value through numbers.

Q. How important are team building, horizontal and vertical discussions in the team?
A. Team building is something that is under construction right now because Covid-19 disrupted the team massively. We are still emerging from that disruption. Today, remote meetings are much safer than it used to be. Today, online learning has taken a new shape. People are being recruited online; making decisions over video chat has become massive. The applications that come in a smartphone are booming. Team building in person is less now, it is augmented in virtual platforms. Teams are more connected than they have ever been before. Studies have shown that if you entirely conduct your team online that does not build much trust. Talking online, seeing your face is not the same as being with you in person. What I strongly recommend people, who are willing for effective team building, is they can have remote team comprising of people from different locations but at least once every two or three months they should come together, get people face to face or have meals together. That will build friendship, relationships, trust and confidence. People will help each other more. If you are younger in a job or for the first eight years in the job, there will be an opportunity to learn from others. If you are working online (remotely), you miss the informal opportunity to walk by office and have a conversation. It is really damaging to people who are young in their career and not getting the mentoring, feedback and coaching, building strong relationships, openness and communication. They are going to suffer, and their skill developments are going to lag behind and that is going to be dangerous for people. That is why get together in two-three months to watch out for young career people, talk to them and develop trust.

Q. We all know a positive work culture and strong work ethic are important for a company’s success. But how can we measure how effectively these are implemented in different organisations? What are the key obligations of employers and leaders in creating a company that is not only successful but also ethical and contributes positively to society?
A. The leaders perhaps have the greatest impact on the culture. Especially, in the Middle East, where I worked for 10 years; this could also be similar in Nepal and India as well as in the region, where the leader is the strongman position. Strongman position leadership has authority, answers, and s/he makes the decisions. Normally, people do not question the leader, embarrass him/her. There is no democracy because s/he is the strongman. I have witnessed this in many places. Take Saudi Arabia, for example. The King has a lot of power and can make big decisions that affect the entire country’s culture. Just look at Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He is making big changes because he is in charge and can push people to step outside their comfort zone. This is a kind of ‘strongman’ situation. In companies, we also see strong leaders who have a big impact on the workplace culture. It is important for these leaders to understand how their own behaviour affects their employees. A harsh, demanding leader who does not care about their people can create a climate of fear and distrust. On the other hand, leaders who build trust, listen to their employees’ concerns, and make decisions based on that input can create a completely different culture – one that is positive and motivating. Leaders have a major influence on how work gets done and the overall feel of the company.

Q. What strategies do least developed countries like Nepal need to adopt in human resources management to gain talents?
A. This is a macro issue of the country and everybody’s challenge. We cannot change how attractive other countries and lucrative amounts they pay. What Nepal should do is recruit talents. Fresh graduates who have obtained the highest grade need to have immediate placements in jobs in the country. Imagine if the smartest 20% of graduates had a chance to shine. The government could create programmes to help companies hire these talented young people. For the first two crucial years, these graduates could gain valuable experience through job rotations, learning leadership skills, and getting regular feedback. They could also connect with each other, forming a supportive community where they can share ideas and learn from each other. This kind of programme would give these bright minds a strong foundation. After two years, they will have a wider range of knowledge and skills, making them valuable assets for both public and private sector jobs. This will ultimately help the country grow and develop further. The question is, do leaders see the importance of strong human resources (HR) practices? Many companies do not fully understand how HR can help them succeed. Just like companies need to invest in developing their employees, countries need to invest in their people too. By putting a focus on HR and talent development, both companies and countries can build a brighter future.

Scroll to Top