Talent Management in the Services Sector

On Frankaffe, Sushrut Munje borrows from experience at Hammer and Mop and SILA to explain how talent management in the services sector be led to fruition.
courtesy: m shaff

Stepping out of college as a teenager and building Hammer and Mop was a necessary step, one which taught me all the necessary lessons and opened numerous doors. It would not be fair to say that completing my engineering course and opting for a management degree after a few years of work experience would not have worked out this well – since every path has something to offer. However – going by the mistakes made and the realizations struck – I certainly stand grateful.

Having had a protected, loving childhood kept me away from harsh realities of the outside world. While I was raised with empathy and was taught to read, there was always a wall which kept me in and warm. This could have continued had my startup not pushed me out of my comfort zone without warning. There were no cabins with air conditioning at the very start but there were people – working day in and day out for money – who had not lived life the way I had.


Hammer and Mop was merged into SILA in 2015, a real estate services group that is currently in the process of consolidating all its businesses and building the first Indian integrated property consulting organization. Given the scale and skill set available at hand, and having experienced the promoters’ working style closely, there is little doubt in this being a massive success story.

SILA has been unconventional in the way it has managed all its businesses, and this would be in the context of the sector it operates in. It is understandably heavy on operations and its dependency on personnel. The difference lies in the approach towards managing these resources and frameworks.

What does Real Estate Services include?

Broadly – this includes everything that is behind creation of a real estate asset to its maintenance and an eventual closure – identifying a plot of land and calculating its valuation – advising on how to convert it into an effective asset – managing the construction of the project by dealing with contractors and architects – maintaining it in various aspects; namely hygiene, pest management, security and energy perspective – offering services at a micro level to the project’s tenants, if required – and managing the closure of the property, if required.

At SILA, our businesses include all of the above – real estate advisory, construction management, turnkey interior fit outs, facility management, energy audits, home services and pest management. As a result, the teams are spread over all business verticals lending great diversity to the organization. The human resources team thus has the challenge of ensuring the consistency in the brand message to its internal customers (employees).

While the challenges which generally plague the sector did plague SILA, our culture allowed enterprising solutions which did away with a majority of issues. In this article, we would list down the problems and how the methods employed by SILA helped in building a robust talent management system.

Issues in Human Resource Management

Services sector is notorious for the challenge in hiring and retaining people. The key reason remains lack of process engineering – which leads to over dependency on an individual’s skill set, as opposed to the process that has been set. As a result, the quality is the individual’s prerogative and cannot be controlled by the organization. If one resource leaves, there is no guarantee than the person replacing the first one is as good. Since quality control is personnel dependent, a low quality handover would lower the output further. As a result – staff at nodes (key positions) are rendered indispensable, and this helps them negotiate a tougher deal.

Taking the conversation of bad handovers ahead, lack of succession planning hurts organizations over the long term without them realizing it soon enough. Since the process begins and ends with the individual taking free form decisions without relying on a matrix or a flow chart – a lot depends on the individual’s inclination to have anyone succeed them. Communication gaps which exist between teams are cracked to their widest during transition, since a lot of information has never been on record.

The lack of consistency in information sharing results in multiple departments managing varied versions of the same information. This is not realized during the daily din since verbal communication trumps written communication, and it takes the latter to highlight errors. Succession, however, requires a level of written handover and any misses in this process leads to half information being shared. As a result, the new recruit or the new promotion starts the first day at work with partial information, and it takes a slow unpleasant process to discover a new gap. Ouch.

Lack of internal communication affects succession planning as well. Ideally, team leaders groom future leaders, which allows all the involved parties to grow. Their growth paths need to be defined, mutually agreed upon, and deserving opportunities need to be presented. A leader might need to step aside to give team members a chance, and that requires distinct maturity and a growth mindset. If the team leader is a bottleneck, the team stagnates.

Organizations are often slow to keep up with the trends. Days of the cubicle are over, and employees rarely put in hard work at the same company, pining for the corner office. They move quick if the opportunity is not within reach at the current organization, and they move fast, from a job to another, climbing levels respectfully as they do.

The new age workers have access to the internet and understand how companies in the same sector function. They are loathe to opaque communication from ‘the management’, and seek a dialogue at equal footing. They are willing to tear down walls, and demand transparency behind the decision making process. They seek to communicate inside and outside teams, within departments, and encourage a community driven approach. It would be elitist to apply an open approach to certain levels given their education, and deny other levels this luxury. Lines are increasingly being blurred.

Talent has always been a scarce resource. Today’s workplace asks for new skill sets, and seeks an evolved integrated perspective towards all tasks. In addition to competence in managing people and dealing with the nitty gritties of operations – comfort with new technology and strong analytical skills are also sought. We live behind dashboards today, and we receive data real time. Quick decisions are required, and so is thinking on your feet. It is uncommon to find these skills in experienced resources, which would make it an ideal hire.

In addition to being skilled right, there is a need for innovative thinking – which only depends on the level of experience the candidate has had. To introduce innovation in existing systems requires the ability to detach, make connections outside the existing spectrum, build a case for the suggestion, seek feedback and ensure a win win. This is a mix of proactive activity, logical thinking, competence in analogy and empathetic leadership. It requires a willingness to step way from what has been learned, and try out something new. This talent pool is not easy to find.

Department heads and their teams lead the way in building an effective organization. It is necessary to have all team members understand the scope of how everyone is interconnected, and how the harmonious motion yields results. This helps while assigning priorities to departments, and makes it easier for teams to gain support from other teams and communicate its requirement. If an executive fails to relate to what a colleague is attempting to explain, it would result in a lack of prompt support from his end which would adversely affect the entire project. This willingness of people to step out of their comfort zones and be comfortable with the big picture is essential – this can be nurtured, but in finding the right hires lies the trick.

Building a Good Company

This takes me back to this article, which was written during my first month at SILA – and the one you are reading is being written during my first month out of the organization. The first task one does while hashing out a talent management plan is to take the company culture back to the drawing board. It is the joint task of the human resources team and the information technology team to create a vibrant company culture that represents the organization’s soul in every interaction between teams.

Sell the Compelling Brand Story

Our internal customers (employees, whom we pay) are as important as the external customers (who pay us). In order to deliver the service, it is necessary for the employees to understand the value system, to live it and to communicate that during service delivery. Salary is no more the prime motivator, and all levels seek to be associated with a reputed brand that keeps its word. Teams ought to proud to wear the uniform, and to represent the organization. A compelling brand story needs to be drawn and sold within.

Stay Transparent, and lead by example

Employees, across levels, are increasingly motivated by open communication channels and free information flow within the organization. They seek to know where the organization is heading, how their contribution is leading to an impact and how their performance can evolve to fit into the changing market requirements. Their fierce independence makes them question management’s decisions, which have the potential to be flawed.

They respect leaders who are comfortable in their skin, accept their shortcomings, lead a mutually beneficial dialogue, seek feedback and share relevant information. This inclusive culture breeds quality talent and boosts retention, since employees rate work satisfaction and company culture to be more important than the salary figure, while considering a switch.

“Organizational Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast”

David Ritter famously put it ever so eloquently, and I remember munching on this during my entrepreneurship days at Hammer and Mop. That one line changed my twenty two year old self’s perspective towards managing an enterprise, and the focus shifted to the relationships being nurtured. We realized that a person who cares is a way better cleaner than a professional who does not. We realized that a customer we are genuinely empathizing with would be happy to forgive us for our service gaps, offer generous feedback and stay retained till the end.

Building a business and monitoring the performance of those hired to run it is done with two key activities – managing the excel sheets and having effective conversations. The former can be tracked and monitored, the latter tends to be subjective and every individual would gauge a conversation in a different shade. How would an organization monitor performance keeping these two aspects in mind?

Marry the Tangibles with the Intangibles for Performance Management

It is tempting to let the intangibles go, and pray that things would get sorted at their own level. However, the whispers soon become deafening and it is too late to solve problems by then. The key is to focus on the ‘soft’ conversations in addition to tangible performance metrics, since it makes people feel good and feel heard. Also, before initiating the tangible performance management system, do ensure that all job descriptions have been documented, communicated and agreed upon.

Intangible Performance Management: an employee’s perception of the business, their understanding of the opportunity, their relationship with the other team members within and outside their department, their own assessment of their growth and their honest feedback on the people they work with.

Tangible Performance Management: identification of key result areas (KRAs) and identifying key performance indicators (KPIs). This can be created for all levels, increasing or decreasing its complexity based on the relevance, to suit the reporting manager’s competence. Assigning score and weightage to each indicator, and tracking this regularly.

A combination of the above two can be plotted in a company wide performance-potential matrix, thus offering complete clarity on where an individual stands. The subjective nature of the intangible aspect should be taken into account, since that is the genuine perception of the teams working with the team member. Also, the tangible aspect balances out the score by pitting hard performance against likeability and clarity.

Asking the right questions and assigning proper scores leads to a fairly accurate assessment. Changing the scores to save seemingly indispensable people from being offended is not advised, results in indirectly supporting the culture of subversion and mediocrity while hurting the transparency claim.

Check in on a Weekly Basis

Kill the infamous PIP (performance improvement plan, which is a known prelude to termination) if you do not mean it to be an honest effort, and replace it with regular conversations within teams. This is meant to be driven at a team leader level, and thus puts pressure on the management to hire right.

The informal weekly check ins between a team member and the reporting manager is supposed to ensure that the objectives match on a regular basis. Guidance and critical feedback may be offered as well. Change in objectives can be assimilated sooner, since teams are on the same plane. A communication gap at this level makes an employee feel disconnected, and does not help the team leader to drive the team ahead.

Understanding Three Levels and Three Priority Levels

While an organization conducts one business function, three different levels work on three different priorities. The investors and the promoters drive the one business function but would be concerned about fewer larger metrics, and be more focused on the EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) margin. The middle management would help manage the one business function, but work on different concerns. The field teams would be on the front line of execution of the very same business function – yet their priority levels would focus on something very different than the other two levels.

This follows the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. As a result – the communication strategy needs to change keeping each level in mind, though the desired impact the same business function. A project manager will need to gain buy in from three levels while building a case.

For promoters, the pitch would have to include strategic perspective, impact on cost and revenue. For the middle management, the pitch would have to include career growth, glory of a successful project and how this might add to the work satisfaction levels. To the front line – the discussion would initially need to allay fears of an increased work load, and propose a possible reduction in effort or increase in pay.

Employ Technology to Achieve Scale and Transparency

Keeping in mind the mentioned three levels, it is necessary to apply the same rule to performance management systems. In case of real estate services, a large number of personnel are deployed on the field, resulting in challenges in managing them. In such cases, a lot depends on the nodes – managers who work as the points of contact within the remote site and head office. Technology helps us break through barriers and get and every front line employee on record.

SILA Connect is one such technology solution, created as a cloud based ERP system for complete management of operations, payroll, human resources and procurement. The intelligent employee database shifts the entire recruitment process online, offering easy accessibility to the data. Lists can be tracked and edited through online logins irrespective of the device, which leads to unimaginable efficiency. The term ‘sites’ in the real estate services sector refer to properties under management – and these need to be audited from a quality control, human resources and machine maintenance perspective. Cloud based technology with custom made parameters help us track and analyze the performance of every single front line employee and every single site on a regular basis. Shortcomings are highlighted and assigned to respective teams, making this a transparent, prompt process – thus minimizing the complaints of “a call that was never received”.

Documentation and Documentation

Creating a process, documenting it, having teams follow it, seeking feedback and revisiting it regularly is a fool proof method to save yourself from the harm caused by attrition. All formats, rules, regulations and process flows need to be stored and used extensively. An organization chart focused on job descriptions helps clarify overlaps and plan recruitment.

Senior Management needs to be encouraged to give their inputs and share all information that helps them manage their departments. The organization ought to make the employees empowered enough to not worry about being dispensable. To take the next step, one ought to life one’s foot off the ground. In an organization, there should always be someone who would replace an existing team member.

Flexibility and Career Growth Paths

SILA offers flexible career growth paths to all its employees. The founders, Sahil Vora and Rushabh Vora (siblings), come from a background of finance, investment banking and economics. This allowed them to rethink the way everyone in their organization would approach their career, thus trusting more on intent and less on education certificates. SILA’s champions include field team leaders growing to head regional operations, security personnel growing to heading statutory compliance departments, customer service managers heading city offices and engineers helping lead strategic aspects of human resource management.

Focus has been to identify potential right from the interview stage, creating and offering the right opportunities, grooming them right and offering guidance to help them achieve the desired results. This process is mutually beneficial. The organization benefits by looking for skill sets in unlikely places and being successful, the employee benefits by skipping multiple rungs in the career ladder resulting in faster growth. Brownie points help the organization negotiate a better offer, and also works as a strong retention tool – since this is a rare culture to have. Employees benefiting in this system may find it difficult to adjust to the old order.

Workplace Strategy

In a nutshell, the focus of an organization should be within, in creating attractive and engaging work spaces. Humans thrive on feeling valued and achieving success that they had perceived to be beyond them. Transformational Leadership helps position an organization in a unique manner as compared to the sector it operates in – and gives all teams a common goal, a shared vision, an inspired tale of glory – which attracts and retains quality talent. You are as good as your word, and that applies to companies too.

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