View from the top – Sonal Paprocki

Author Ian Gerard Koh
April 12, 2023

In our most recent edition of ‘View from the top’, we interview Sonal Paprocki, (previous) Head of People at Red Hat.

Tell us about a little bit more about yourself and the career path that you have taken.

I consider myself a global citizen due to a diverse background. I was born in Uganda, with Indian heritage, raised in the United Kingdom (UK), married a Polish, gained Australian citizenship and up until recently lived in Singapore. I have had the privilege to live, learn and work with many cultures around the world, primarily in Asia Pacific for the past seventeen years. Growing up in Uganda instilled in me a fascination with indigenous tribes and wildlife, which has stayed with me to this day.

My formative years in the UK were spent acquiring a love for learning, languages, music and football. Although my initial career goal was to work for the British Foreign Office, a decline in government posts led me to Plan B – which involved business management, strategy, execution and selling. Despite this, HR work always found me, and I found myself drawn to the diverse personalities and multi-talented individuals in the workplace.

My first opportunity in HR came when I was asked to cover for the HR director while she was on maternity leave. I had no formal qualifications in HR, but I took on the role and earned my first stripes, winning the MD’s Award for Excellence in service delivery. With the support of great bosses, I continued to build my career in HR, which has evolved progressively over the years.

For the past fifteen years, I have worked as a People and Culture Leader in regional roles overseeing Asia Pacific. I have had the pleasure of working with some of the brightest minds in business and people leadership, but I am most grateful to work every day with amazing HR professionals. The theme of my work has been ‘Change’ – primarily focusing on business transformation through high growth, digitalisation, diversification, post-merger integrations and restructuring. As the saying goes, change is the only constant.

What are the major priorities for HR in the coming year?

Everyone knows that the year ahead will be a difficult one – as businesses and employees continue to adjust to post-covid work life amidst a backdrop of natural disasters, global political tensions and the possibility of economic downturn. The recent layoffs undertaken by some large multinational corporations have contributed to the uncertainty and change fatigue experienced by the workforce.

Given the ongoing disruption, it is essential for organisations to provide strong support for their employees. Mental health and well-being should be a top priority and HR programs should be designed to prepare employees for further disruption, build resilience and navigate uncertainty. These programs should be supported by benefits such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) to provide practical and confidential support.

In addition to well-being, leadership development is also imperative. With the increasing demands of complex workplaces and external factors, leaders must evolve their leadership style to become more inclusive, empathetic and authentic. Vision, optimism, confidence and vulnerability are all traits sought after by workforces, and clear communication of plans and expectations is necessary to maintain engagement and retain talent.

Creating a positive company culture and employee experience is vital to mitigate retention and well-being concerns. This can be achieved through the cultivation of well-articulated career growth paths, agile learning opportunities and initiatives such as speaker events, community projects and celebrations.

Lastly, talent acquisition remains a priority, particularly in the Asia Pacific region – where there is a shortage of skilled and experienced talent at the necessary levels. HR leaders may need to adopt more diverse talent strategies, such as focusing on multigenerational workforces, early talent arenas and returnees to the workplace.

How important is the diversity and inclusion (D&I) agenda within the companies you have worked at and where have you focusing your efforts?  

I have been fortunate to work for companies where the importance of a strong Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) philosophy, program and practice has been recognised by the leaders. They have prioritised efforts and made healthy advances – understanding the business and cultural benefits of such initiatives. While we may never perfect our efforts in this field as it is ever evolving, we are always working towards improving.

When I began my career, there was a simple focus on ‘Women in the Workplace’, and there was little understanding of why having women in the workplace would be beneficial for the business. Unfortunately, it was seen as a ‘nice to do’ and not as a business imperative. However, workplaces have evolved in the past fifteen years, and now are adopting a comprehensive DEI model that focuses on various factors – including ethnicities, abilities, ages and sexual orientations. There is now curiosity and interest at all levels of the business, and leaders recognise the benefits to improving business results and to creating a positive impact on company culture.

In the companies I have worked for, a DEI foundation has been in place, and I have had a seat on the regional DEI board or committee. I have refreshed and executed internal regional strategies – including appointing executive sponsors, setting up employee resource groups to ensure representation from diverse groups, engaging external partners to forge in-country alliances and appointing DEI leads to drive regional/local programs. I have driven the DEI agenda by raising awareness, enabling workforces and embedding practices – while partnering with HR functions to integrate DEI into their functional practices. Another primary focus has been on upskilling and developing my HR teams on the topic.

Integrating DEI through the business strategy is the most complex work I have undertaken in this area. The real challenge is actually helping leaders understand that DEI is not a separate part of the business that HR is responsible for, but an integral part of their work. While leaders are willing, there is still work ahead to embed best habits and practices.

Do you believe adoption of new technology will enable HR to become more efficient and strategic – and how? 

The utilisation of cloud technology has already improved HR systems by facilitating streamlined processes, operational efficiencies and refined data analytics. As a result, HR Services have advanced and the HR function has made significant strategic progress. However, the emergence of virtual reality/augmented reality, artificial intelligence and machine learning marks the next stage in the evolution of HR technology. The potential and possibilities are incredibly exciting, with virtual reality/augmented reality already being trialed in learning and development. The benefits include employee experience, speed to productivity and cost and time reduction. I am also learning about virtual assistants – which have augmented capabilities to handle complex employee queries, surpassing the current ‘Ask HR’ chat bot. By enabling employees to complete HR tasks, virtual assistants can significantly reduce HRM’s reactive troubleshooting workload – allowing for more proactive and strategic work. The challenge of interoperability between the various HR systems can be addressed by an integrated software technology solution that connects talent acquisition, compensation and benefits, employee relations and learning and development systems. This aligned ‘end to end’ service capability can improve strategic decision making and create efficiencies in cost management, leading to a more cohesive approach in addressing business challenges. Finally, an integrated software solution can enable an internal talent marketplace platform, enhancing internal mobility through talent visibility and skills matching – ultimately reducing the time to fill positions.

What are the key qualifications and skills you look for in members of your HR team – and are your requirements changing/evolving?

Earlier in my career, I prioritised technical HR skills and experience. However, my perspective has shifted. Instead of qualifications and experience, the attitude one brings to work is critical. Compassion, curiosity, courage and a clear mind are essential. That said, in today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world – resilience, agility, adaptability and strong communication skills are even more in demand. The ability to adapt quickly to change is advantageous for HR professionals, enabling them to help others navigate the change journey and deliver business outcomes effectively.

Courage and clarity are necessary to take calculated risks and stay the course through complexities and ambiguity. HR strategies can be derailed when the team loses sight of the goal, making it critical to speak out and share perspectives. Effective communication is fundamental in promoting and informing, influencing and even entertaining, winning hearts and minds and building a close connection and trust with the workforce.

Thinking strategically and having macro level perspectives are essential skills to partner with business leaders, consult and influence direction on business challenges. Having a sense of humour is also necessary to keep a light-hearted atmosphere and find joy in working with teams – a constant reminder of the purpose behind the work we do.

Please note that all commentary and opinions provided are those of the individual, and not the organisation/company.

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