Sayeda Tahya Hossain
Chief People Officer, BRAC
“Though I have extensive experience in the HR sector, I have to consistently prove myself. I had gone to an interview where they questioned my capabilities as I entered the door because of my gender and my age.”
As we overlook the view of Gulshan Lake and the Mohakali slums, Tahya recalls the moments when she knew that she realized moving into the development sector of BRAC HR would be the future of her career. “I had a long-standing career in both development and corporate HR. As the HR director of one of the multinationals, I was also in charge of CSR activities. As part of their activities, we wanted to work on some intervention work in the area.” They had decided to speak to the Chairperson Sir Fazle Hasan Abed of BRAC regarding the prospects. “When we had met with the team, they not only proposed the idea but went beyond. I was in awe of his ability to envision a larger picture for the overall development of the nation and that is when I knew that BRAC was the place for me,” elaborates Tahya.
With 20 years of experience in both corporate and development, Tahya has worked for multinational companies including Nestle, Unilever, Lafarge and Citi Na. She explains that HR in the development sector is still lagging, “I noticed that the corporate structure of HR in most companies was up to the mark because they have an international model to follow; they follow a global system and decisions are made much faster in these sectors. So upon entering the force, I wanted these changes to be administered and customize them to allow for progress in a BRAC that was benefitting the entire nation.” She has witnessed the change in the development sector as they now understand that performance is the key. “BRAC believes it is not simply about performance in the context of money; this concept entails sustainability and finds out new ways to achieve it. And development sectors are beginning to understand the value.”
Tahya believes that the primary factor to success is a productive work ethic, “When I had first started working I was newly married and would notice that the other employees would work on Saturdays and extended hours. Unfortunately, I had a number of responsibilities towards my family so I was determined to finish my work on time. As I walk into a room, I have to prove to them that I can work during the designated hours and get the task done without stretching it because I am distracted.” As a working woman with a family, she emphasizes the need to find that balance between your domestic and corporate life. “You must decide how much of your time you want to designate to each aspect of your life and work in accordance to your capabilities to get the work done in a punctual manner. Furthermore, you cannot use your family duties as a crutch. If you want to be treated as an equal you must compartmentalize the many responsibilities you have and complete your work in a punctual manner. Everyone has numerous responsibilities in life but they should not interfere with your work repertoire.”
Although she works with people, Tahya reminisces about her early years when she was an introvert, “I had always known that I wanted to work with people. Nevertheless, I would be straight to the point and seldom engaged in conversation. During my time in Nestle, the Managing Director would always ask me about my day and I would reply with simple formalities not realizing that he was trying to inquire about my day to day work activities.” She chuckles as she remembers the day that he had approached her and advised her to market herself, “He told me that I must market myself in order to be recognized, explaining that I do some of the hardest work in the office but it is not recognized because the services is being marketed by a peer or a supervisor. In an industry where men dominate every working field, women must work hard but also remember to highlight their accomplished in order to be recognized as a commodity.”
“People, value, and capacity come together and this process starts from the recruitment.”
In a country where women are 50% of the population, Tahya states that women are imperative for the overall advancement of the nation but they commonly underestimated. “Though I have extensive experience in the HR sector, I have to consistently prove myself. I had gone to an interview where they questioned my capabilities as I entered the door because of my gender and my age. When I first join a company, they want to know my theories, ideas, and contributions that I could bring to the table. It has come to the point where I have started wearing sarees so I look older and am taken more seriously. However, this should never be the case, your performance should talk about your capabilities.”
Tahya cites that individualized learning is the key to progress in any field, “Education and learning are two different things and there is a necessity for both. In BRAC, we do send individuals abroad for higher studies. In terms of technical programs, we have numerous programs that are predominantly geared towards fieldwork. Furthermore, we are introducing the leadership academy to develop future leaders for BRAC and other organizations. At BRAC, we believe that learning is a continuous process.” Beyond these learning programs, BRAC has a number of geared towards financing women because that is the foundation of independence. “We believe in financing women or providing them with provisions in order for them to become financially stable. For example, we provide cattle for women, different types of loan who are pursuing for their won stability. We do understand that in many instances, the money that we gave them are being siphoning to the rest of the family and their male counterparts. Fortunately, the recognition of women as independent entities is rising within the nation.”
Tahya has redesigned her floor of the famous building of BRAC, “I have focused on furniture with glass and lower cubical walls in order for everyone to have ease of overall communication.” Always keeping her door open, she explains that she walks around the entire floor constantly interacting with everyone. “I believe that the most important aspect of creating an effective team is establishing an individual relationship with each and every member of your team. This helps you understand their strengths and weaknesses, makes them more open to approach you and help them adapt to any changes that may come their way.” Tahya believes that after you have understood your peers, you must allocate the certain task to them according to their strength and interest. “Based on individual strength, you must give individuals tasks during which they take the lead and provide them ownership to complete the task. This allows them to tackle new challenges, grow as employees, and provides them with a sense of motivation because they know that the senior management trusts them with a certain task.”
To create a High-Performance Organization (HPO), Tahya credits the cultural trifecta of this concept to be interrelated, “People, value, and capacity come together and this process starts from the recruitment. If you want to hire someone of the sufficient caliber, you must appreciate them from the very beginning. This starts with paying them the correct remuneration because they should not have to worry about financially providing for their families. Beyond this, you must consider their market competency.” Tahya states that this involves recognition of their market competence; they must be given recognition for a satisfactory job, promotion in terms of capability, and development of the employee in a cumulative manner. With a permanent staff of 40,000 and a total staff of 100,000, BRAC has implemented a system of assessments beyond the technical performance appraisal which will help them understand employees strength and improvement areas and lead to a structured development process. Tahya expounds, “In this context, we have introduced psychometric systems, developments centers, and a series of interviews that allow us to further comprehend the employee’s strength and improvement areas which may help us define on their future responsibilities. We are also focusing on development of our female managers to grow them in the system.”
When inquired about her future, Tahya envisions herself changing the mindset of the nation, “The world is changing at such a rapid rate that we must learn to be innovative and creative. Completing the same task creates a sense of redundancy which stifles creativity. And if we do not change our thought process to think outside the box, growth will not ensue.”
Building the BRAC Way
Tahya explicates on the necessary challenges that HR must tackle in 2017:
Going Global: The world is becoming smaller as globalization is inevitable and we must learn to have a global mindset. Our nation is in the preliminary position of building this thought process and we must advance rapidly if we want to recognize on a global scale. At BRAC, we require certain employees to complete a stint in a foreign country because with adaptability to any changes has become a necessary quality.
Manifesting Mobility: International mobility is directly related to having a global mindset. Exposure to various cultures in different environments is a separate education that provides one with an insight like no other. My own experiences in multinational companies have given me knowledge that I would have never gained in any other mannerism.
Top Talents: This is a particular challenge for the development sector because we expect the same amount of work as a corporate conglomerate without equal remuneration. The top tier talents are being poached and we must work our best to retain them because their scarcity will prove to be extremely detrimental to the overall development of the economy and nation. In this regard, we must work on capacity development.
Retaining Reputation: With the advent of the internet and access to information, the inside mannerisms of a company is very transparent. You must decide what your company stands for and what kind of branding you want to do. Employees want to know the ethics behind the company itself and the kind of impact they are making. I knew I wanted to work for BRAC because they have branded themselves successfully as one of the pioneers of development for the impoverished.