Smarthveer Sidana - People and Culture: A People-led Digital Transformation to Scale Business
Smarthveer Sidana is the CEO of the HRTech SaaS platform HireQuotient, bringing his vast experience in both technology innovation and management.
In this episode, we talk about what a people-led digital transformation should be like. We discuss the impact of societal disruptions on company culture and people-led processes, as well as how companies can transform these disruptions into opportunities and adapt. Smarth also tells us more about his sales funnel-based approach to people management and shares some predictions for the future.
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“Can we find better ways to deliver the same outcome, but with fewer resources and in less time? So that people can spend the same time with families and they can do many things with the time that they have in hand.”
Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation Podcast, where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host, Tim Butara, content and community manager at Agiledrop.
Tim Butara: Hello everyone, thanks for tuning in. I’m joined today by Smarth Sidana, CEO of the HR tech SaaS platform HireQuotient. In today’s episode, we’ll be discussing what a people-led digital transformation should look like, and Smarth will also tell us a little bit about his sales funnel-based approach to people management. Smarth, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you as our guest today. Do you want to add anything before we jump to the questions?
Smarth Sidana: I’m very excited to be part of the podcast and thank you so much for having me, Tim.
Tim Butara: Awesome. So, the first thing we need to clear up before we get into the nitty-gritty of it is – why should digital transformation initiatives be people-led? Or rather, what does it mean even that they should be people-led?
Smarth Sidana: Thank you for the question. I think, before we actually answer why should digital transformation be people led, let’s try and understand why there’s such a strong need for the digital transformation, because I think that would clearly lay the foundation. And it’s important to understand that over the past couple of years, what has really happened is, technology has really taken many leaps forward, and there’s great innovation – like for example ChatGPT, essentially, that has happened.
But in addition, what has also happened, is some of the things like pandemic, Covid, etc. that has really changed the world for everyone. And what this means is that the normal that existed in 2019 is not the same normal that exists today. We talk about remote working, we talk about ways to collaborate in a team, we talk about doing more with less.
All of these different themes highlight one key thing that needs to happen in every organization, which is: can we find better ways to deliver the same outcome, but with fewer resources and in less time? So that people can spend the same time with families and they can do many things with the time that they have in hand. So I think with that in mind, digital transformation has become really important for each and every organization and each and every vertical within the organization. Earlier it used to be restricted to largely the business side, but today it spreads across all.
So, with that mind, and to answer your question now. I think you give me one example where technology has implemented or gotten implemented on its own – it’s not possible. So, it is people who implement technology, it is people who a) have to first understand the need for a technology to exist, it is people who have to build that technology, adapt that technology, customize it for certain use cases.
And then also, and a lot of companies out there today optimize for – a lot of startups – how do we drive adoption bottom-up? What that means is that if your technology and your digital transformation is not people led, there is no use in that technology. So I think the answer is very simple. There is no way to drive digital transformation in any vertical, any company, if it is not people led, and hence the answer from me is very binary.
And very interestingly, I was reading another report by McKinsey which established a very strong correlation, that organizations with fewer than 100 employees are almost three times more likely to report a successful digital transformation than those who have 50,000+ employees.
And that’s a very interesting data point. If we double click on it, the most obvious conclusion that we can draw from it is that perhaps there are– larger organizations have employees who are scared by the fear that technology can take away my job. And the more and more of these people who have this fear add up in an organization, in a vertical, the difficult it becomes to implement a technology.
So, I think with that in mind, one needs to understand that there are a lot of challenges that one would encounter if you are just trying to implement any transformation top-down. And while true to our journey of working with the clients, what we also understood is – there are some easy way outs, that you can slowly and steadily start to make your employees adapt to the mindset that allows digital transformation new changes to happen.
For example, fostering a culture of vulnerability. When employees are very open to accepting that, hey, we are the best, but in the new changing world, there are certain gaps in what we can deliver and what has to be delivered. And these gaps are better bridged by technology or by the newer digital tools.
Curiosity as a future skill is something that companies can focus on, because the more and more curious employees are, the more vulnerable, the more accepting they are towards newer technologies. And similarly, some of the other things like creating shared spaces, collaborating with change management experts, providing technology support to help adapt new technologies; some of these things can really make the job easier, but it starts right at the top, which is people.
Tim Butara: That was a great intro and a lot of very good points here. And the next thing that I’m wandering about is, how can companies streamline these technology functions and technology innovation and technology adoption with the right mix of talent and culture?
Smarth Sidana: Sure. And thank you so much for asking that, I think when we talk about culture, the broad things that come to my mind is innovation, flexibility and openness. These are the three big themes. And when we talk about talent, what comes to my mind is, agility, and when I double click on that, what that means is that, in any organization, you need to have people who are very comfortable accepting that what worked earlier will not work today or may not work today. And what that means is that you need to balance your team with a set of experts and gender list.
So, overall, I think culture and technology combined for me is innovation, flexibility, openness and agility. And beyond that, I think, while we are talking just about the talent and culture, and that’s the question that you asked, I think it goes beyond that. And this is something that we’ve really figured out at HireQuotient as well, that, as we are navigating the new normal, as every day there is a new territory that we have to get into, encounter and then win.
What really has helped and has been our secret sauce is the power of We. And how do we define that? It is nothing but culture, collaboration, care and concern for each other that really comes together in the right mix to say that, how can we make a culture where people are talking about, what is my gap to outcome? What can I do more with the kind of resources that I have today? And can I do something which is larger than me, which is beyond me?
And when you talk these themes, then by default, what you’re trying to do is, build a culture where people are very open to new individuals, new ideas, diverse talent and obviously new technology as well.
Tim Butara: So, this is basically the perfect approach for managing people’s resistance to change, which, as you pointed out before, is often the thing that holds back companies and enterprises from making a full, successful transformation.
Smarth Sidana: Absolutely. And I fully agree. Look, as humans, we all have resistance. Most importantly, I think what we need to understand – and this has helped many leaders in my organization as well – whenever you are doing anything new, the first question that we need to answer to make it successful is just to say that, who are the people who would be most affected by the new way we want to do things? Be it the customer, be it internal team members.
And, therefore, if we understand and empathize with them, and we understand, look, there’s a shortcut for everyone. Let’s take a simple case. If you have been using Salesforce for 10 years, more than 10 years, and there’s a better version of Salesforce by a new startup that gets launched, and they have a really awesome telex product.
Tomorrow you go– as the CEO, you might be very excited that, hey, cheaper, better, more efficient; let’s go and put this in my company. You go to people; there are people who took 5 years, 6 years to learn how to work with Salesforce, develop the workflows on it. You can’t expect them to overnight move to a newer tool. You have to understand that you are shaking their lives, you are shaking their day-to-day operations, you are shaking a normal routine for them.
And therefore, there has to be a support ecosystem, and it is natural for them to have that resistance, and to have that shocker, and also tell you that, hey, you know what, let’s not do it. So, from that perspective, I find myself often in that position to say that, hey, do we really need to do this when somebody’s just coming and shaking my life every day? So it’s very normal and we need to appreciate that.
Tim Butara: I think one major reason for this resistance to change in a lot of people are also just the sheer number of economic and societal disruptions we’ve seen over the last three years – so, Covid, the war, all of the economic and supply chain issues. And I’m wondering what specific impacts all of these have had on company culture and on companies’ attempt to have their processes be more people led.
Smarth Sidana: Before we actually get to your question, simple answer is that every change in the long term is for good. That’s a philosophy that I’ve always believed in. Now, early on, people would definitely resist, people would have a different point of view. But if you take true cycle view, it does benefit each and every stakeholder of the ecosystem. Every time it could not be human doings, but when you do the entire ecosystem, it benefits everyone.
And coming specifically to your question – look, I agree that the societal disruptions; you talk about the broader macro changes that have happened very recently, the entire financial crisis etc. The only theme that entire macro change emerged was, how do we do more with less?
Whether you talk about with more people-centric approach, which is to make sure that, hey, we are not ruthless and just hiring and firing, which is what a lot of startups used to do earlier, or you’re trying to find technology that can complement and enhance, amplify the productivities of your staff, and you pick ten more dimensions of this, it all boils down to how do you do more with less. That’s the biggest theme or the benefit that I’m seeing of this broader macro change.
With the other thing that you talked about, some of the other changes, I think for example let’s take Black Lives Matter movement. I think that’s very critical and instrumental in how companies started to think about diversity and inclusion, which is a very solid, strong concept. For years, decades, people have been talking about the importance of diversity. It’s not just gender, but beyond that, many many things. How it helps you to build a good product, build a good, more diverse, inclusive set of values, and better teams.
Now, with all of that, I think that these changes force companies to become more efficient and more inclusive over all. And therefore, I think these changes are for good in the true cycle. That’s how I at least developed the point of view. Then you pick any – the dotcom bubble happened, you pick the 2008, and you see what impact it created in five years, and today, what impact it created for us today. So all of those would tell you many silver linings to it.
Tim Butara: It really underscores this “do more with less” that you spoke about in the intro and you reiterated on now. And I’m guessing that this “do more with less” is also the biggest or the key lesson that managers and leaders are learning from this period. Are there any other important ones?
Smarth Sidana: Oh look, there are many. But the biggest one that I’ve also seen in some of the best leaders, the big changes, is that I see them becoming more and more people and team centric, and them becoming more empathetic. And it’s actually a magic, because now with these values at the core as the inputs, you can really drive some of the outcomes.
For example, I’ve seen an organization where they were trying to really understand, how do we improve our retention so that our attrition is less, and we don’t need to hire a lot of new people, ramp up, etc. just so that we are able to deliver more outcome without hiring more individuals.
Now that at the core made the manager realize that look, what is it that is really making the people go out of the organization? They understood that there are fundamental things that have to be changed in the organization, in the way how people are treated, in the way how they are given career opportunities, in the way how they are– the entire system is not transparent enough in terms of what skills they lack on, why did they not get promoted, etc.
So, just having a human-centric approach made that entire organization, the managers, deliver the business outcomes. And when you are driving a very fast car on a highway, then often you don’t have time to come back and course correct. Look at the best hospitality companies; the entire Covid for them was a period where they could really go back, introspect, improve the product, improve people management and do a lot more fundamental changes which, once the normal is back, would redefine their business for good.
Tim Butara: That was a very good point, about the changes that they had to make because of these disruptions actually ending up benefiting them in the long term and transforming their business for the better. I love that you included that point.
Smarth Sidana: Yeah, and there’s one very real example. I was chatting with a CEO of a very large – it’s a Tech-Acon now, I was chatting with them to understand– the entire business went to the CEO, revenues went to the CEO during the Covid time, hospitality company.
Before the Covid happened, and actually when the company started, the biggest metric that they were trying to focus on was customer satisfaction. What was a leading indicator of that was, when a customer goes to a certain property, are they able to find a predictable experience or not?
Now, as the company scaled up from five properties to perhaps five million properties, and I’m just dropping the number as a placeholder. What had really happened is, the entire core value had gone for a toss. And there were certain compromises. And most of the startups, when they’re growing at that pace, from five to five million, there’s hardly any time that the top leadership would get to look back, introspect, and really change the fundamentals from the first principle thinking, that what worked earlier, what got us here, will not get us there.
From that core perspective, they were headed towards a higher growth, but that was a shallow growth somewhere for them. The entire two years of Covid gave them a runway to really say, look, let’s go back to the basics, let’s understand how the business looks today, what are the fundamental changes that we need to do in order to redeliver on the metrics that mattered to our business when we started.
And that phase for them, because there was no rush, there was no growth, the next time that was happening, hence they had more peace of mind, they had more time and flexibility to work and course correct. And now that the business is back, they are much stronger than ever. So I think it’s overall been a phase where a lot of companies’ leaders have tried to redefine how they build teams, manage teams and deliver the business outcomes.
Tim Butara: Well I guess this is the right place to ask you to tell us a little bit more about your sales funnel-based approach to people management, and maybe also what benefits it has brought your company.
Smarth Sidana: Sure, would love to talk about that. And look, where this is coming from, before starting HireQuotient, my experience was largely as a management consultant. And I had done quite a few things, but not sales. So I had worked with a team, I could work in a team, I had managed teams, so I had that people management experience to a certain level, but I did not have the sales experience.
And once HireQuotient started, then obviously you have to do most of the things yourself, from discovery, demo, selling, etc. What I really understood was, sales and people management are highly correlated. And let me help you understand how. So in sales, everyone is very well aware that the journey to sign a big client is not overnight. So is the case with when you onboard a talent to when the talent is at its peaks, really punching at their upper limit. It’s not an overnight journey.
The second big correlation that I saw was to sign a deal. There is a lot of input that goes from your side, which is nurturing the clients, making them feel valued, same is the case with talent. Once the talent is onboarded, you really have to mentor, nurture, provide the right ecosystem and do many other things to make sure that they are delivering what you expected or what they expect from themselves.
So overall, with these two themes, then I started to doubleclick a little bit and understand what is more correlated in both of these processes. And what I found out, and what the leaders that I saw around me missed was somewhere just the acknowledgement to say that when we’re building a very diverse and a smart team together, you have to be the person who’s controlling that entropy. You have to bring people together, channel their energy in the same direction, and make sure they’re all headed in the right direction with the common issue.
And that is the most critical thing of people management. Which somehow I could correlate with when a client is signed on a pilot and they’re about to sign, we deliver value to them. How you have to help them establish the value of your product, convince them that they built the right ROI, and do many things to make sure that they sign a year-long contract or multiyear contract with you. So I could see one strong correlation there.
The second page which was very important for me was, in sales, people often talk about that when you sell to somebody, your job or your champion in a company, your job is also to make sure that all the relevant decision makers enable those that champion to make sure that your product gets adopted. This is beyond just the purchase.
In the same way, when you build a team, the most important thing is to nurture and form those bonds. Which could be as simple as that, if you have a team, can you make person A feel good about person B? It could be through maybe few conversations, maybe through gestures like sending gifts, etc. But the core idea is that, if you are the hook for all of that, then somewhere that team is bound to fail – or, it could fail, because there’s a common failure point. But is there a way that you could pretty much connect A to B to C in a very organic fashion?
So, all of these, and there are many more, I’ve published a framework around it. But the broad idea was to say that, look, everyone around the world appreciates sales people, revenue leaders, but there’s little appreciation for the people leaders – talent acquisition, HR, etc.
So, what is driving the business is people. And let’s also therefore acknowledge and appreciate that there is a process to build a very high performing team. It does not happen overnight. There is a lot that goes into building that team, and therefore the talent acquisition and HR plays a very important role in that.
Tim Butara: So nurturing is a very key aspect in both, right. You mentioned that one of the key similarities that you immediately recognized and that’s what led you to develop this approach is this nurturing aspect. That it doesn’t happen overnight, you really need to invest energy and effort and care into it. Fascinating.
Smarth Sidana: And I think the other important, just for listeners to also bookmark or just remember, is that if you build a strong team of high performing individuals who are also from diverse backgrounds, there is going to be a lot of entropy in the entire vertical. So your job as a leader is to perhaps bring everyone together, as you would as a sales leader bring the decision makers together, try to influence them on a different note with things that strike a better chord with them, etc. So be ok with the fact that, yes, they have different perspectives, but if you as a leader can align them on a common vision, then that plays to your advantage and your company’s advantage.
Tim Butara: I think this will be especially important and relevant for leaders in companies that are of a larger size. We spoke in the beginning that this is much harder to drive in companies where there’s a lot of people, where there’s that much higher of a chance for people to be resistant to change. So I can really see how the tips and the insight that you’ve highlighted hee, Smarth, will help these kinds of teams and these kinds of companies the most.
Well, this has been an excellent discussion so far, Smarth, and I just have one final question to kind of round everything off. What do you expect to be the biggest challenges over the next few years to people led digital transformation?
Smarth Sidana: That’s a very interesting question, because as the technology is evolving, nobody can really predict the future. And as we say that, therefore what becomes really important is the challenges as we speak. In my opinion those are going to be around the digital skill gap. Then you do no more to exist in the future. But people have to be trained. Then somewhere you need to spark that curiosity, you need to build some value, which are more around curiosity, flexibility, etc.
The other thing I think that would become a challenge if not handled well is obviously resistance to change, because the world is moving very fast. Next five decades will perhaps change the world more than the last 20 years. So from that perspective we need to be much more open to change. Some of the other things, for example, siloed decision making; not having a culture where people are open to take risks, express their vulnerabilities; lack of inclusive culture, etc. These I think will become the big challenges.
Tim Butara: Well, definitely, I think this resistance to change that we already spoke about, it’s also heavily connected to not taking risks, right. Because taking risks would mean change, and if we’re resistant to change, then obviously we’re also resistant to risks.
And one of the first things you mentioned, it’s this period in time that we just can’t escape at least talking about it a little bit is ChatGPT and similar generative AI technologies, and what factor and what role resistance to change will play here. It will likely be that resistance to change will be the differentiator for success in this area. So, yeah, definitely a lot more disruptions on the horizon. And as you said, it’s hard to predict for a few years in advance, let alone five years or ten years.
Smarth Sidana: 100%. And I think if you doubleclick on that, we need to understand psychologically why people have a resistance to change. A large part of it is driven by just people not being open to express their vulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities about accepting that I don’t know a certain thing. About accepting that somebody could do it better than me. Vulnerability about expressing that I don’t know it all. And many many such vulnerabilities.
So I think it’s deeper, and there has to be a culture change that people need to bring. It is about making the culture much more open in the way that people can express their vulnerabilities. And once those are expressed, then we layer on top of it, which is that, let’s solve it together, etc. Can still be good.
Tim Butara: Well, now we’ve just come full circle, because this is the key to people-led transformation. Smarth, this was amazing. Just before we wrap things up, if our listeners would like to reach out to you, learn more about you, learn more about HireQuotient, where would you point them to?
Smarth Sidana: Sure. So if you want to get in touch, you can write to me at email@example.com. If you’d like to visit our website, that’s www.hirequotient.com. If you’d like to follow on LinkedIn, I am by the name Smarthveer Sidana.
Tim Butara: Thanks again, Smarth, for being our guest. We’ll make sure to include all of these in the show notes. Thanks again for the great conversation and have a great day.
Smarth Sidana: Thank you so much, Tim, for having me. It was lovely chatting with you. And I hope your listeners will try some useful insights for their organizations.
Tim Butara: I’m sure they will. And to these listeners, that’s all for this episode. Have a great day, everyone, and stay safe.
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