Sungeetha Sewpersad on charting careers and tech shifts

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Sungeetha Sewpersad, chief people officer at Rand Merchant Bank, is excited about the opportunities AI and predictive analytics offer for the HR profession.

Sungeetha Sewpersad, who earlier this year took on the position of chief people officer at Rand Merchant Bank, says she always knew that whatever career she chose, it would involve people.

Before joining RMB, she was the human capital executive at Old Mutual Insure. Part of her extensive experience includes being the HR executive at Barclays Africa, later Absa, and a senior HR business partner at IBM.

Sungeetha holds an LLB from Unisa as well as a Bachelor of Social Science from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She also has a digital business strategy qualification from MIT Sloan, and an executive leadership qualification from the London Business School.

“Given my diverse academic background, I could use my knowledge and skills while working across various people dimensions in corporate,” she says. She adds that her qualifications, along with family support, have stood her in good stead, as they provided the foundation for the 20 years she has had in the industry.

“Having a solid foundation enables me to thrive, especially in a world where we are raising nuclear families and unfortunately lack and miss the support of extended family and grandparents. I am a mom to three amazing kids, a T-Rex, a Stegosaurus and a little unicorn ballerina. I am the wife of a great guy, whom I met 25 years ago, and have never looked back.”

After she graduated, Sungeetha applied for the first HR graduate programme at Absa. That, she says, was the first and only job she applied for, and this is a result of her actively carving out her path.

“I have been very deliberate about my career from the age of 25, when I started in corporate. I knew exactly where I needed to be and the milestones I set out for myself were very clear. My goals have always been set. I just tweaked my plan along the way.”

High-tech and people-centric

Joining RMB, she says, is the realisation of a long-term goal. “Being the chief people officer of a brand that is renowned for having talent at its core and considers it a key differentiator in the market is an accomplishment. The RMB brand is synonymous with excellence, a collaborative spirit and innovative thinkers. This is what sets us apart and this is what I wanted to be associated with,” she says.

“Embarking on a new journey, with a new leadership team, is exciting, and I am looking forward to playing a part in creating an environment and culture in which RMB’s people can grow, thrive and have a meaningful impact in a mutually beneficial way,” she adds.

Part of Sungeetha’s goals in this role include building out RMB’s digital capability, enhanced by high-tech and people-centric services, with exceptional people at the core. Firstly, digitisation should be implemented from onboarding, she says, where one can create memorable, relevant experiences for people when they join a company.

“I am scarred from having joined a company once, and I was handed an eighty-two-page PowerPoint to read, which was their version of onboarding an employee. I vowed to never let that happen to another employee.”

A recent sighting of her seven-year-old (then six) daughter buying a pair of limited-edition Nike sneakers in the Metaverse (it was the only way to enter the Nike virtual store) via the Roblox game was a key light bulb moment for her on the opportunity gamification and the metaverse can bring to the table with regards to HR.

“I have read that Accenture’s onboarding platform is a forerunner to how organisations should engage with new employees. Accenture has developed an Enterprise Metaverse named ‘Nth Floor’, where it created ‘digital twins’ aka. avatars of its offices as well as a virtual campus known as ‘One Accenture Park’, and introduced new hires to the Metaverse as part of the onboarding process.”

Giant and impactful strides

With each passing day, talent is becoming tougher to acquire, and employers must redefine employee onboarding experiences to ensure future success, “with Metaverse onboarding and orientation into a virtual reality experience where the new hires may meet people within the company, know more about the culture and values, and understand their colleagues in a fun and exciting way”.

As HR practitioners, she adds, we often compartmentalise these opportunities to businesses which are risqué, or to people with money, and never really think of how these can be used in HR to shape experiences and business.

According to Sungeetha, South Africa is not gearing up fast enough with the adoption of AI and machine learning but instead is still reliant on traditional Excel and PowerPoint to guide business thinking and planning for talent.

“If we want to make giant strides in an impactful way, we must prioritise the use of these tools to enable our strategies sooner rather than later and as a matter of urgency,” she says. For instance, technology could help HR and managers quickly draft job requirements by analysing data to determine which skills are critical to the success of the role, she explains, and this approach could also facilitate skills-based hiring to ensure the candidates with the greatest potential can get a foot in the door, boosting diversity hiring efforts in the process.

Furthermore, emphasises Sungeetha, using technology like AI-powered tools can also enhance talent management, as HR is expected to help employees holistically when it comes to their careers. “By analysing the data on skills required for roles and identifying the training programmes that correspond to developing those skills, AI-powered tools make it easier for employees to find the courses that they need to advance their careers for the present and prepare for the future.”

Burn new neural pathways

She also believes that technology-based training and e-learning platforms can be used to foster continuous learning and development for employees. “I am a huge fan of learning platforms and technology-based training. It provides short sharp bursts of relevant learning and enables employees to upskill and cross-skill at their convenience and on most devices,” she says.

She equates workplace skills to an engineer’s kit of tools where one takes stock regularly of relevance, upgrades and automation. Similarly, every employee at the workplace should do the same by asking, do I have the relevant skills? What should I be upskilling on? Has information become obsolete? What does my field require in the next three to five years? And then they should work towards those skills.

“Alternatively, it is also good to burn new neural pathways by learning different languages, new hobbies and skills – that is the beauty of technology-based training. Today, learning is made easier, via the availability of e-learning platforms – however, as HR and managers we must direct employees against a career path and relevant courses to upskill in. It can be daunting opening a platform and not knowing how to navigate your career, let alone think about the relevant courses.”

HR departments can moreover leverage data-driven insights to identify talent gaps and plan for future workforce needs. “I have used skills assessments extensively in organisations that I have worked for. Assessments provide data-rich insights as to where employees are currently performing, based on the skills they have or lack thereof. This can be directly correlated to company performance. In addition, these assessments help identify competency gaps, which can be plugged through development plans and performance management.”

Change resilience

Data analysis can further enhance the HR function by using past and current data to predict future behaviours and practices such as turnover rates, performance insights and hiring, and this data can identify trends and focus our efforts more succinctly, she adds.

In the end, to have a successful digital transformation journey, leaders must be ready to pivot the business culture. “Emphasis must be placed on reshaping culture, where our leaders align and connect colleagues in a more meaningful manner,” says Sungeetha. “To enable our leaders to do so, we need to equip them with new skills that relate to empathy, authenticity and adaptiveness. Our culture is what sets us apart, and employees have an active role to play in co-creating the environment in which they wish to work.”

“One of the ways we can build change resilience is to steward our minds and emotions. Change is leaving the comfort of the known and moving into the unknown, and this often comes with anxiety and fear. Adopting a growth mindset means a willingness to let go of the past, persist through adversity, gather support, and chart new territories,” she concludes. 

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