Role of HR Leadership in Navigating Organizational Changes

By: Asma Shaikh, Director General, Human Resources, AIIB | Monday, 10 June 2024

With over 30 years of multicultural experience, Asma has led organizational transformations across various sectors. At AIIB since March 2023, she focuses on digital HR interventions. Previously, as CHRO at the National Bank of Pakistan, she drove performance-based culture and aligned HR strategies with organizational goals.

In a recent conversation with the Global Woman Leader Magazine, Asma shared her views on integrating strategies for business success, prioritizing communication for transparency during change, addressing employee resistance and the role of mentorship and coaching in developing leadership, especially for women in fast-paced industries.

You have amassed three decades of experience in the field of HR, across multiple industries and cultures. How does your expansive experience influence your current approach to fostering employee relations and business growth?

In my three decades in HR, spanning diverse regions such as Pakistan, UAE, Africa, and to my current role in China within the global landscape of AIIB, I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with teams comprising of nationalities from all over the world; just to give perspective—AIIB at the moment has employees representing over 69 different nationalities!  This global experience has honed my adaptability and cultural sensitivity, enabling me to navigate and respect diverse workplace dynamics. By integrating these varied perspectives, I craft strategies that enhance collaboration and innovation.  My leadership is grounded in understanding, valuing and most importantly, celebrating cultural differences, which fosters an inclusive environment where employees thrive. This inclusive approach not only improves employee satisfaction but also drives the organization’s growth by leveraging a wide range of insights, employee loyalty and a performance driven environment where employees are self-motivated.

The integration of digital transformation initiatives with talent development strategies is crucial for organizations to succeed. How can organizations effectively integrate these strategies to thrive in today’s rapidly evolving business landscape and ensure success?

The integration is not just beneficial but paramount for organizational success.  The way I will approach this question is going beyond the obvious need for technology integration into learning frameworks such as LMS, etc-- there are key strategies that I prioritize to ensure effective integration.

First of all, it’s very important to align talent strategies with digital objectives. For example, my team of business partners, at AIIB, collaborate with business and other enabling functions, and together they identify the digital competencies essential for achieving their respective and our overarching business goals subsequently, we tailor our learning programs to address these digital needs. 

Secondly, fostering a culture of continuous learning is imperative.  Rather than relying solely on HR-driven training programs, I advocate for empowering employees to take ownership of their own development plans.  By linking development plans to their growth and performance appraisals, employees are encouraged to stay abreast of technological advancements relevant to their own roles.  This self-led approach ensures learning initiatives are more effective, digitally up-to-date and aligned with individual and organizational needs. 

Lastly, it’s essential to recognize the potential of AI revolution in enhancing learning and development efforts in today’s age.  While, I believe, AI can never completely replace human expertise in many areas, it can significantly augment employee performance when utilized effectively and efficiently and thereby increasing organizational productivity and maintaining competitiveness. Providing organizations with adequate training and resources is crucial not only to ensure that employees and organizations benefit from AI tools but also equip employees with the knowledge to safeguard organizational information.  

As a leader, how do you prioritize communication channels and methods to ensure transparency and clarity throughout the change process, and how do you address resistance or skepticism from employees?

I have found that addressing resistance or skepticism requires a multifaceted approach centered on clear communication, active listening and employee involvement. 

Transparency is key.  I prioritize traditional communication channels such as town halls, both physical and virtual, where employees can engage directly with leadership and ask questions.  Most rumors die down then-and-there when questions are addressed openly.  Additionally, dedicated email updates and open forums allow for ongoing dialogue and information sharing. Furthermore, it is essential to empower your HR business partners with information and resources to address concerns, as they arise, within their domains.  This decentralized approach ensures that communication is tailored to specific teams and addresses their unique needs and challenges. 

Also, it is essential to involve employees in all change initiatives, seeking their input and feedback from the outset.  This fosters a sense of value and engagement, leading to greater buy-in and commitment to the change.

Additionally, and very importantly, is the critical need of setting clear timelines and regularly communicating progress updates in maintaining momentum and motivation throughout the change process. Delays can breed uncertainty and skepticism, undermining the success of the change initiative.  In my observation, this is a common challenge faced by many organizations—the presence of bureaucratic hurdles and layers of decision making-- often contribute to these delays resulting in chaos and confusion. 

From your experience, what role do mentorship and coaching play in developing leadership capabilities, particularly for women leaders seeking to navigate and excel in fast-paced industries?

You know, I truly appreciate this question—as it resonates with my personal journey.  As someone who has often been the only woman in the boardroom—I am deeply committed to changing this dynamic and empowering more women to reach new heights.  Being a champion of diversity, and gender diversity in particular—I have observed that while organizations may excel at achieving gender balance, challenges still exist at leadership level-- and this is where I feel mentorship and coaching can have a pivotal role.  At AIIB, for example, we have a dedicated Women’s Mentorship Program which aims to encourage, promote and provide the necessary tools and guidance to women displaying potential for leadership and career advancements. Mentorship and coaching provide invaluable insights, advice, and support from those who have navigated similar challenges, enabling women to build confidence and foster essential leadership skills.

What I have noted, one significant barrier women face is missing out on informal networking opportunities, an after-work drink or playing golf over the weekend—due to parenting / home responsibilities.  Here, mentorship serves as an effective bridge, providing women with the support and networking opportunities they need for growth.  From my experience- these initiatives are instrumental in overcoming biases, honing negotiating skills and most importantly building assertiveness in women leaders. 

In today's rapidly evolving business landscape, how do you balance the need for innovation and risk-taking with the requirement for stability and consistency, particularly when leading through significant organizational changes?

Although we can discuss many strategies and action plans here that can foster innovation and experimentation—I feel the big piece here is CULTURE!  Having a performance driven culture that rewards agility, innovation and efficiency is essential.  At AIIB, we recognize the importance of fostering such a such a culture, particularly as we transition from a relatively new multilateral development bank to a fast growing and established institution. 

As AIIB evolves, maintaining agility and swift project turnarounds becomes increasingly challenging.  There’s a growing awareness of the need to champion process improvement and efficiency while avoiding emergence of procedural layers and complexities that could impede agility and innovation.  Balancing the necessity of stringent procedures, especially given the high stakes nature of engagement with clients, and the imperative of maintaining efficiency presents a unique challenge for AIIB and many other organizations.  Striking the right balance is the key.