View from the top: redesigning career paths – an interview with Shell Sharma

Author Charlotte Matthew
January 10, 2020

In the latest edition of our View from the Top series entitled ‘Redesigning Career Paths’, I sat down with Shailaja (Shell) Sharma, Regional Head of Leadership, Talent, OD & Diversity for Asia and Digital at Aviva, to hear her thoughts on the opportunities surrounding re-designing your career path whilst navigating different career and learning journeys via alternative channels.

Charlotte:  As a leading SME in the Talent & Leadership space across the region, what are your thoughts on continuing to adopt the immensely popular 9 box model for performance and succession management? Is the approach still fit for purpose for agile organisations going through extensive change?

Shell: As talent practitioners across the world, we have grown up with and extensively used some version of the 9-box model originally popularised in the structured process by  GE. It gave us a way of categorising and ‘boxing’ talent neatly such that each box of talent could be codified and subsequently collectively and individually developed. Progress could be measured by movements up and down the rows and columns, and analysis could be done tangibly, people data calibrated and aggregated with almost mathematical precision. Large global conglomerates could at a single glance obtain an overview of their talent gaps and strengths.  In an era when manufacturing and process precision was the holy grail, a 9-box was the desired answer.

Then, the world of work shifted. The employer-employee ‘work deal’ changed, a job for life became less frequent and identity was no longer determined by one’s title and place of work. Questions surrounding purpose and meaning at work began to be asked. As the focus on life outside work became heightened, issues such as work-life balance emerged. The tribe of millennials entering the workforce introduced further dissatisfaction with traditional careers, and the nature of work changed as people capabilities and their contributions were impacted by automation and digitisation. What began to be increasingly valued was the quality of contribution, rather than the number of hours spent at a desk. In parallel, the shape of organisations evolved, new hybrid models of work formed, such as the gig jobs at new age companies like Grab and Google.

Charlotte:  With this in mind, in your view what needs to change from a talent model perspective? Furthermore, what alternative talent solutions would you recommend to employers which you feel could potentially better accommodate the ever-changing corporate environment?

Shell: In this new age of the ‘thinking worker’, the traditional models surrounding talent and careers need to evolve as well. The talent ecosystem needs to deliver personalised needs and aspirations of individuals. A consumer with an appetite for hyper personalisation is now being catered to with the use of sophisticated predictive data analytics as practiced by big data companies like Facebook. Changing expectations around work identity means career fluidity – mosaic careers are ideas that need to be an integral part of career pathing and design.

Developing the new Personas based career stages model

Given the radical changes in workforce expectations as well as the rapidly evolving nature of work and shape of organisations, we need to equally radically re-examine the way we approach talent and careers in organisations. Paradoxically, the two elements that have created the need for disruptive change – digitisation and data-based personalisation are the same resources that come to our aid while thinking of possible solutions to re-crafting careers. To those of us in the HR world who may not be familiar with the concept of ‘Personas’, this is a way of understanding the underlying needs of consumers psycho-graphically (as opposed to demographically). These needs are then grouped and a ‘Persona’ is created. The concept has been around for a while in the marketing domain, but only now are we beginning to see its use and relevance to understanding employee needs. Technically a Persona is defined as ‘a profile of users which talks about their values, needs, pain points, attitudes, interests and underlying needs’. This provides us with a much more insightful and detailed profile of an employee’s career interests, aspirations and motivations. Crucially it allows us to supplement the 9-boxed organisational view of talent with a Customer (Employee) led view of careers, for example based on their life stages.

Research and findings while developing Personas

Through in-company research we have found that there are six stages that an employee can be in, irrespective of their function, age, gender, geography or nature of work. So far, we are yet to encounter any individual who feels they do not identify with any of these stages, although some have described themselves as being in two of the stages. This data gives us hope and even some confidence that these are more or less universal.

An interesting find for us was the sub-set of people for whom their career was not an intrinsic motivator,  also extensively added value to their organisation. Yet the traditional model of talent labels ‘career aspiration’ as a key marker or indicator for talent, hence it would not accommodate those high performers historically. It is only when we have dared to challenge our own mindsets around talent and careers, have we been able to truly appreciate our people’s needs. This has had the added benefit of reducing commonly held biases and misconceptions within our HR community. A good example is the commonly held view that ‘mothers returning to the workforce would be strongly focused on their family/children’. However, we found that often these were the most career focused and driven to grow employees in a workforce. Getting a customer led employee lens using psychographic data and analytics has enabled us to understand (and appreciate) our people in a whole different way!

Charlotte: That is a very interesting perspective. Based on the Talent Personas model, how can you use these personas to craft personalised career and learning pathways? Also, what key questions should be considered to make sure the model is effective? Perhaps you could share an example with us of how this persona model could be used?

Shell: This strong and rich understanding of an employee’s career stages enables us to craft their career and learning journey in a personalised manner which was not possible before. The classic Leadership Pipeline (Ram Charan et al) perhaps needs to be reviewed and supplemented in the context of changing work patterns and organisation design. We can craft pathways which are truly personalised and dynamic, the design fully recognising that an individual can move in and out of career stage Personas over a period of time. This then becomes the basis of a ‘New Career Deal’ for employees.

The Career development and Learning Journey for an employee then becomes crafted around the 5 key questions of:

  1. Where am I?
  2. Where do I want to go?
  3. How do I like to work?
  4. How do I like to learn?
  5. How do I want to develop? 

An example of how the stay in role Career Stage persona has implications for the career and learning journey is shown below:

Charlotte:  This appears to really open career and learning conversations up! And what do you feel are the benefits and shortcomings of the new proposed approach at a high level?

ShellThe implications of using this new way of looking at careers and pipelines is a reduction in the neatness of aggregating data. No longer can we aggregate and present annual 9-box tidy reports and analysis. Our neat leadership and functional talent pipelines now look like spirals of various sizes and shapes depending on how fast or slow and in which direction employees want to grow.

Yet the benefits of using this or a hybrid of this approach give us the utmost value to employees, and ultimately the organisation. For only by truly knowing our people, can we serve them better, and they in turn serve our customers better. In this climate where customer centricity is king; career personas is the road which may enable us to indeed treat our employees as kings.

Charlotte: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us on opportunities to re-design career paths, the benefits of the persona model whilst shedding some light on navigating career and learning journeys via alternative channels.

Please get in touch if you would like to join our upcoming Frazer Jones “Re-designing Career Paths” Q1 Singapore roundtable, where we will explore the re-designing career paths concept and the persona model in greater detail led by key speaker Shell Sharma. Similarly, if you would like to have further information about broader HR events & market information (such as salary benchmarking, industry market updates) or if you have HR hiring requirements across Asia or globally, please reach out to Charlotte Matthew directly.


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