Tell us about your early career.
I would not call it a bumpy road but it has not been a straight line either. Once I wanted to be a doctor. But since I was more involved in sports I couldn’t achieve that goal. So instead of medicine, I took a Masters’ in Science, majoring in Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering. With studies, I was always involved in sports. I played and coached Basketball at the top elite level in the country and this combination actually led things to where they are today. I started working after university, first teaching Math, Physics and Computer Science then after that working with System Maintenance and Database Administration. Meanwhile, I was also doing coaching and through that found some contacts in the sports retail industry. I was offered to step into a big Sporting Goods retailing company in Sweden. I was a part of a journey where this company grew from being five stores when I started, to fifty stores around the country when I left. Today it’s a multi-national. It was a fantastic journey and I learnt a lot about both entrepreneurship and how to deal with people. While I was working with that retailing company, I got the offer to join IFS. My background as Engineer and the experience of managing people from different surroundings at different levels gave me the opportunity. And I’ve been with IFS for 18 years now and I’ve been working pretty much within the areas of Human Resources Management and Leadership Development. Someone having a Masters’ in Science is not obviously set to end up in a career in HR. That’s why I say that it was not a straight line to where I am today.
You started your career as an Engineer then a Store Manager and today you are the global HR director in a reputed international company. What were the challenges you faced during the journey? What were the competitive skills you had?
I stepped into IT but within HR, which I knew only parts about. So, the actual challenge was stepping into an environment where you feel you don’t know much about the field than the others you have to deal with. That was challenging. But I also realized that it’s very much about being who you are, putting your mind and energy into it and you will end up handling any kind of situation. You will be able to adapt yourself through a lot of dedication. My strength was being rather quick to understand the purposes of the organization, the needs and the requirements of the individuals, the goals to be accomplished and trying to find a way to support both the management and the individuals in achieving their goals and objectives. In combination, you must be a good listener and to understand other’s point of view, you should be humble and pay respect to the situation. In brief, adaptability and the ability to listen and understand will help. Working with different types of people in sports having different needs and prerequisites, have made it easier for me to understand people, their unique situations, and their demands.
Businesses have become so much complex. Is HR actually a part of the problem or is it merely reacting to what’s going on around it?
Today everything is changing fast. Having the fortune to visit Sri Lanka so many times over the years I have seen then the pace of change is even faster and society is adapting and responding to the change. It is very hard to distinguish between the drivers of change and its exact effect on society. In a similar way, relating to HR, in a rapidly changing global environment, it is difficult to distinguish between what HR is proactively acting on and what HR is reactively acting on. HR is about understanding and to be aware of the trends that are ongoing and how they affect society. This is not only relevant in businesses, but with the people as well; and from that, trying to compile all of it into the needs of an organization; and then, addressing all of it from a HR respective, what kind of processes we need, what kind of leadership we need, what kind of talents we need and so on. You’ve got to see the trends and how they impact the business.
What is IFS’s corporate vision and how does the HR initiatives and programs support your company’s vision?
We are striving to be a leader in our focused industries. In order to be that, we are to deliver leading, proven software products based on a future-proof platform, designed to help customers stay agile and benefit from the change. Business-wise, we aspire to keep growing globally through expanding partner ecosystems and acquisitions. HR plays a crucial role to support all of this and one important thing we need to do in HR is attracting and retaining the right people. To be attractive as a company, you have to have an attractive offering which includes competitive compensation and benefits packages. You’ve got to have solid HR processes such as talent management, career planning, and succession planning. You have to have challenging work assignments and a structured way to handle development as well as a positive and strong culture. I also think that it’s very good to have a global environment within the company. HR in a company like IFS is very much about Global Coordination, Synchronization, and sometimes Alignment. This is needed because teams and working groups are global and the managers leading them must have a common set up for everyone. We also have to have a sort of common face towards customers and everybody else we interact with.
For HR, realistically it is tough to address issues across the diverse territories, trying to consistently be a presence for a workforce of thousands. As a global HR director, how do you face the challenge?
As we have to handle certain things locally, we have a local HR department in most of our countries depending on the size of the workforce we have in each country. What is important is keeping the balance between global and local management. In operative HR, everything that is connected to employment, such as compensation and benefits, legal framework, work environment and similar, are driven by the local HR departments.
When it comes to Strategic HR, everything is connected to talent management, performance management, leadership development, career development, etc. are driven at the global level. The challenge here is to understand what you are to centralize and to align as well as what to keep at the local level. And even if you have a good split you must understand that it’s necessary to constantly coordinate and follow up on these things. You have to have a constant and continuous dialogue with HR departments around the world to understand what is ongoing and to remind all of what is needed to be coordinated and what is ahead because just setting the definitions and the processes doesn’t mean it keeps on working. We need to be proactive and follow up on it. It’s not enough with talking on the phone or skype, we also have to travel sometimes and be on site. We’ve to meet people in person. HR is not an isolated department - if it is, it won’t work. We need to be involved in the operation, in the daily work. It is said that you have to get the fingers in water to feel the temperature. Similarly, you need to get into the field to realize what’s ongoing in the organization. You cannot do that by sitting in the office.
IFS maintains development centers in Sweden, Sri Lanka, and Poland while operating as Multinational Corporation through subsidiaries in America, Europe, and Asia Pacific. What is the main objective of establishing development centers and the competitive advantage you gain through it?
It is important that we reflect our customers so we need to have a local presence over the world to gain a better understanding when both developing our product and being able to face our customers. By spreading the resources, we get a better time coverage, and more creativity through diversity. And it is also about finding good people. If we’re spread, we have more places to find skilled and talented people to match the needs of the organization. If we look at Sri Lanka, we’ve been present in Sri Lanka since 1997 because it is proven that we can find extremely good, talented, technically skilled, well-literate and also very ambitious people. We have had close and fruitful cooperation with universities in Sri Lanka since the start which has helped a lot. Today we’ve got over 800 people employed here in Sri Lanka but actually, it is over 1600 that is or has been employed, including both current employees and those who have passed through IFS. Some of them are now working in IFS in other countries while some have moved outside Sri Lanka and outside IFS to bring their competencies to other companies. So I think that IFS has also been a very good starting point to help to develop their skills and personal careers. I am confident that these former employees help to spread positive things about IFS.
IFS is a non-hierarchical, team-oriented organization. In such environment, how do you manage the complications arising, as a HR director?
Yes, we have a non-hierarchical kind of culture in the organization because at IFS it is very much about networking. Networking is about relating to people and to create networks, you must mix, blend and meet people. So, it is very important that you meet customers and prospects as well as managers and employees around the world, communicate in order to understand what’s going on because you won’t get that from formal ways like reporting. So in this kind of organization, you’ve got to have really good communication skills. When you network, you must do it a good way. As an HR director, I cannot wait for others around me to make contact, I need to be the one who initiates contact, to get involved not only in HR but also in the business. I’ve got to understand daily challenges of the managers and the strategical objectives as well as challenges for the organization in the long-term.
What do you look for when recruiting for your own team?
I have about 5-6 people that work closer with me, all of them have worked over ten years. This means that I have not done much recruitment to my team over the years. But looking at anyone coming into IFS and working in HR, it is very much about the attitude, behavior styles, and the mindset than knowledge and skills. This is a networking organization where you must relate people. I would probably look for individuals in line with the culture and they must be able to work very much independently. This is no formal organization, where you get daily tasks and such from a manager. You must understand what is needed and you must have a desire to assist the management, the managers and the organization with processes and support fit for purpose that helps to achieve the business objectives. HR is a highly important profession. You must also be able to relate to people at all levels such as senior management, middle management as well as employees. It is good that you have some kind of expertise, but you also have to be broad being able to step into different areas. You should be able to work with operative matters; you should be able to work with strategical things in long-term; you should be able to work with managers, assisting them in their operative matters. You must be able to work with change processes and develop our HR in line with the needs or trends.
What are the strategies used to attract, engage and retain employees for your team?
We are a strong global company with main locations in SL and Sweden, which has a mix of global environment and strong local presence. We have a great and outstanding culture and fantastic people. We have competitive products and services, global products that are well-recognized in the market. We work with high-end processes and technology. We are a business application company, not a technological company, but while being a business application company, we’re trying to stay on top of technological trends. We offer development opportunities in that global and local environment and we have solid processes supporting the development of the individuals, which gives mutual benefits to the company and the individual. We have a good performance management process where all employees get and give continuous feedback, set goals and set up an individual development plan. Good managers are essential so we strive to foster a good leadership through training and coaching making sure our managers “walk the talk”. One thing we do to ensure the view of our efforts is that all the employees are participating in a yearly survey from Great Place to Work giving feedback on our company from different viewpoints. It’s a global survey where we look at employees’ view of the company, processes, management, colleagues, their own job and others related areas. In combination with the survey, we also do an audit of our processes and report everything together with the survey. The result of this survey and audit has been very good and we earned listing as one of the best employers for consecutive years in Great Place to Work.
What are your overall long term vision and philosophy for the HR function?
Of course, it is to make IFS a great place to work. We are providing quality HR processes and services to promote a good leadership and positive work environment. And that is done in order to empower employees to achieve high performance and support our organization to fulfill its business goals. We have to understand the organization, its needs, and objectives, and then give maximum support through our services and operative work. But we are never to take over the manager’s managerial responsibilities. The manager who is the leader and responsible, we support managers to handle their responsibilities.
What advise can you offer organizations wanting to undertake a transformation within HR?
It doesn’t matter which kind of transformation it is. It must be driven by the senior management and then HR can assist and drive it. The senior management must be visible as transformational leaders. You must understand what you are, what kind of culture you have, what the present position is and what you want to transform or change. You must understand where you start from and where you want to go, your goal, you must be aware of both. When you do such transformation, you must have involvement with the management all the way through a good partnership and anchoring and the processes must be transparent. Both management and the organization should be well informed what going on is, what is the starting and the ending points are, what the goal is.
What are the barriers you see in the HR sector in Sri Lanka? Can you give a solution to overcome these barriers?
I must be humble and say that I only get to see a glimpse of Sri Lanka even If I’ve visited Sri Lanka number of times. But I could just give some reflections with that in mind. One thing that I think is important thing is that it’s not only the technical and theoretical skills that are of value when working in real life, it’s also much about but the mindset, being able to understand the broader picture, the ability to communicate and so on. For an example when you are studying at the university, and coming out into the professional career, it will not be only about applying skills you learnt, but it will be very much about behaviors and mindset also. You won’t enhance your career just but having technical skills. You have to build networks, understand the business and how to work in a global environment, having communication skills, being proactive in your communication, daring to communicate and to make contact, to make your voice heard, not always being humble. I have noticed a shift among the younger generation such as the Millennials being more communicative, more daring, more challenging, initiating, but still with a humble and respectful approach. I think it’s a good and important thing to promote these soft behavioral skills, like communication also in education, not only the technical skills.
What aspects of your career have become most satisfying for you?
I’m very proud of being a part of fostering and nurturing a leadership and a culture, where performance and what you deliver matters, although you are just one individual, your individual contribution really matters. And it matters that the culture and people are seen and respected, I think I have contributed to our culture where you have a possibility to influence, freedom connected to a lot of responsibilities, individuals are seen and respected. An open and friendly environment. Further, in this fast-changing world, to survive as an organization, we need to constantly to change in order to survive. I think we have a well-structured change process being able to handle changes handled professionally and efficiently but with a respectful and a human touch. To be able to handle and to promote change, you need good global leadership and a strong positive culture which I think we actually have.
What advice would you give to someone starting their career in HR sector?
Something that HR professionals need to know about HR is that it’s not just a set of operative activities. HR is about concepts and processes that have a strategic value and linked to the business. It’s about generating integrated solutions that are sustainable to organizations. In essence, HR plays a huge part in organization’s strategic initiatives – it’s not just a supporting function, it’s a fantastic profession. If I would be to give an advice to someone, I would mention some aspects. The Theory is one thing and practice is another. When you’re starting your professional career, it’s important that you are humble and willing to understand the purpose and objectives of the organization or the business you step into. Of course, you can bring in your theoretical knowledge and the skills you have. But you must be able to adjust to the organization’s and the manager’s needs. I have the fortune to spend time with new recruits and I talk about the importance of trying to understand the broader scope and to be involved in different areas. One must have a balance of understanding, and be able to nurture the needs, but with the ability to do those things using with their own unique set of skills and competence.