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  • Writer's pictureTharindu Ameresekere

Building Strong People & Stronger Team with Azeem Saheer

Updated: Sep 10, 2022

Today on Business Lounge LK’s journey to bring you the voices of business professionals in Sri Lanka, we are immensely honored to have Mr. M Azeem Saheer on our ´people matters´ segment. Mr. Saheer is the Human Capital Specialist & Facilitator at Luminary Learning Solutions.

How did you embark on your professional journey, and what would you consider to be some of the most important lessons you have learned?

I’ve been in the human development industry for the last 15 years. I started my career as a salesperson. Then I moved into the computer industry, because in the early 2000s, there was a big demand for it. Then I got an opportunity to move to one of the international banks in Sri Lanka, where I worked for about three years. While working there, I got the opportunity to move to the Middle East, where I worked for about 11 good years. I got an opportunity within the bank to move into learning and development through technical training. It's been a great experience because you tend to meet different kinds of people with different personalities perspectives, technologies, and skill levels. So that enabled me to really explore the human development perspective. So that was my career in terms of getting into the human capital aspect.

I believe that human resources and human capital are the most important aspects of an organization or even a country. In my experience, one of the key lessons I've learned is that you need to explore. You shouldn’t settle down because the purpose in life changes with time, though passion stays the same. You need to keep exploring while grabbing opportunities until you get the right fit, because you can't copy or duplicate another person.

And two, we have our own unique capabilities and skills. You should learn from others, like mentors or coaches, but you need to customize your path. Number three, you need a lot of patience. If we look at the earlier generations , their speed of adapting to technology is a little lower, but they are very patient at handling it. In contrast, the younger generation is always excited and they are very quick to adapt. but they may not always be able to run at the desired speed. So, you need to have a lot of patience because everybody has their own timeline.

As a Human capital specialist, what type of work does that entail?

So, while I brand myself as a human capital specialist, in current business world we're discussing the industrial revolution. 4.0, where artificial intelligence and digitalization. But, from my perspective, a human being cannot be replicated Because we are full of unique emotions and capacities, Just like capital markets and investing are considered capital in terms of finances, for an organization, human capital is one of the most important investments. There are many organizations that look out for technological advancement and very good research and development to automate very well. But for all that to operate, a human being must be present.

To develop as a human, you need to acquire certain skills and elements. Now, in terms of what work I do, I help people to really understand themselves and who they are, as well as their capabilities and interests. I try to identify what are their blocks are, what the talent gap is, and I close that talent gap. Facilitation is one way of doing it. We have certain mechanisms to help people develop and facilitate the process of growth. In terms of adult learning environments, I avoid the term "training" because it comes from a military background. Instead, I say facilitation. It's about facilitating a conversation towards growth. So that's what I do in the facilitation part. That's a great mechanism for developing people. I'm a Lego Series Play facilitator. I use Lego bricks to help people understand their capabilities, especially communication, leadership, strategy development, personal growth and, at the same time, gamifying versions of learning. It is important for us to conduct our business so that it is interesting even in a virtual environment.

I work in the space of emotional intelligence. It's very important because it's about how you want to feel about your success at the end of the day. That feeling is what drives you. So, in playing the role of a human capital specialist, I come with experience and give my knowledge so anyone can use it as per their own. They should not rely on my way of doing it and should customize it according to their needs, so it will help them grow. This is the scope of my work.

What is it like to become a Human Capital specialist in Sri Lanka, compared against the international players?

It’s actually a challenge. For the sake of being a human capital specialist, I have to address the distinct elements people have, capabilities, and what they would like to be represented as. When compared with the international market, we are the most literate country in the world, and we have some brilliant people who are really capable of leading and accompanying you.

For example, when the government came up with a fuel pass, there were people who found different ways of making a business out of it, which is creative. Even the vendors who sell things on the pavement change their goods according to the season. That’s creativity and talent. We should consider them an asset. They sometimes come with no educational background at all. So, we have fantastic human capital in this country. But the way we deal with it and the way we showcase people is outdated. We are very traditional in comparison to the international market.

We put up slides, give some handouts, talk about stories, have some fun, sing a song, and treat them well, which is typical. It’s a very short-term development process. If I look at some forums across the globe I've been to, the knowledge they have in terms of learning is amazing and modern. From my perspective , we must make people aware of what development is and we need to change and see our human capital perspective differently to keep up with the world.

Two years ago, when I went to pitch with one of my tool, they asked me what I would be doing with some plastic pieces, and I explained that it's a research tool. Now they understand that there really is some sort of science behind it. It's important that they know why we came into this space. A person might be able to come and talk in front of the public, but that doesn't mean that that person can be a human capital specialist. The facilitation process itself is an art.

Despite the fact that there are many organizations in Sri Lanka in this industry who are able to do high-quality work, some of our own local companies continue to consider us out. Sometimes it’s an outdated perspective that comes because of skin color. But if we see the other side, I've been speaking in various international forums and they aren’t bothered about my skin colour or my nationality. They call me for what I deliver.

Though there are a lot of local players who are really capable of doing it, I think we need to develop our technology, uniqueness, and come up with various methodologies to really go to the international market.

COVID-19 threatened to reverse hard-won human capital gains of the past decade. How difficult did reskilling and development become throughout the pandemic?

The organizations understood that we needed to keep engaging the people and the need to upskill, making employees quickly adapt to the virtual system. It was a bit tough in the beginning, but I believe that it's a fast forward. We never thought we would go so quickly into the digital era. It gave a lot of people upskilling by using Zoom and using platforms like Microsoft Teams. I think that it's a real advancement for people.

In every crisis, there's an opportunity, and in the COVID crisis, the opportunity here was to really upskill people in one way. People would say that we went back a couple of years. But I believe that people have moved forward a couple of years. People are working from home, especially with this fuel crisis. So, if that post or the COVID situation had not been there before, I believe this fuel crisis would have been much more difficult for us to face.

So, upskilling or re-skilling is really important. It is especially important for us because we have had crisis after crisis. First the Easter Attack, and then we had COVID. Now we are going through a financial crisis, a political crisis, and a food crisis. Another crisis will arise if we don't improve the skills of people to be adaptable to change and be creative and innovative in decision-making.

What sort of impact does the economic and financial crisis in Sri Lanka cause on human resources management?

I saw in the papers that many workers who are in the construction industry now don't have jobs. With the materials being expensive, all the construction work has stopped. So, we have been badly impacted in terms of human resources. With that, we see a lot of skilled migration.

Even if we pay some attention to the queues in front of the immigration department, it is surprising how many people want to leave the country, causing rapid brain drain due to the current financial crisis. As people move out in search of work to countries like the Middle East, organizations in our country are finding it difficult to hire the right people for particular jobs. So, at present, the human resource department of an organization plays a vital role in keeping the employees engaged. Giving people the tools and techniques to grow and groom them in the same organization is the key to keeping them within the organization.

A crisis never stays permanently, and after every crisis, we have seen growth. That's why it's really important to survive in the industry while there is a crisis. Then it will be very easy for you to beat the competition. Usually, in an organization, during a financial crisis, the first budget to be cut off is the training budget. It's not considered mandatory in our country. But it's not any more like that in other countries, like Europe and the US. They are now investing a lot in training and development even though they are in a crisis, because human capital is the most important asset an organization has.

What advice would you offer to the young upcoming professionals about how to invest in right learning the right skill and grabbing the opportunity to build up their career pathway?

I think this generation is so lucky because they're experiencing something that we have not experienced in our childhood. One of the important things is that they have the internet, so they are very adaptable today. They can absorb a lot of information on a daily basis, and the only thing missing is guidance, and that’s where your maturity and experience need to come in.

Always have mentors, and of course, coaches in particular, who are senior to you. When you have a coach and a mentor, it's not that you follow them. It’s all about how you go by yourself if you were in their place. It only has to be someone to assist you or guide you because we have very unique talents as people. If we talk about "Aragalaya," they came up with a website, live streaming in yards, projecting nice messages on buildings, and other things within just a couple of days. That is creativity, and that is innovation.

So, I would humbly remind the younger generation that they are so talented and they don't need to go out of the country because there are a lot of opportunities for them. The only challenge they have is that they don't have proper guidance. There are lots of learning opportunities like videos and podcasts, which are only about 15 to 30 minutes long but give us a lot of knowledge. I started hosting a podcast during the COVID period to make people aware of what emotional intelligence is and how we can help them. There I talk about what team collaboration is, what communication is, what coaching is and so on. These are free platforms that people don’t use properly. Likewise, there are so many people you can listen to, like Robin Sharma, Tony Robbins, and Jay Shetty.

It is critical to have the ability to identify yourself. Number one, self-awareness is important. Knowing who you are and what you do is important, as is knowing your strengths and weaknesses. It’s important that you have a partner who is actually experienced and mature for you to get the guidance. Number two is to look out for your niche area and what you're good at for you to keep upgrading your skills in that particular branch. Number three is practice. Start learning and keep practicing, even if you fail. It is when you fail that you learn better and quicker.

The younger generation is full of digital quotients, or digital intelligence. The older generation is full of emotional quotient, or emotional intelligence. So, when you have set up a coach and a mentor, you tend to exchange these with each other. You can grab the emotional intelligence from them and give your knowledge to them. I recommend watching the movie "Intern," which is a good example of this.

What do you think are the most important skills a professional should build up and develop to overcome the challenges and be an outstanding Human Capital Specialist among others?

When we talk about the top ten skills one should possess in an era where work includes a lot of data, they are about analytical, decision-making, collaboration, emotional intelligence, and problem solving.

When it comes to me, I like to keep on learning, and my learning will never stop. Sometimes I get up at 2.30 in the morning to catch up on learning sessions happening in New Zealand. I don’t mind sacrificing that particular time for learning. It is also very important to learn while being humble enough to give that knowledge to another person. Every skill is an important one these days. Thinking that you know everything regarding a skill would actually reduce your capacity to learn more. So when you go for something, go with an empty mind and start improving and learning from the beginning. It is important that you come with a mindset of learning. If you want to be among the top among the other professionals, it's about how you benchmark yourself and what you have to learn to get there.

The other important thing is curiosity. You have to be curious enough to be a different person tomorrow than you are today. Because when people see the same thing again and again, that's the moment you lose the competition. With your curiosity comes creativity. When creativity improves, your capacity increases. These three C's: curiosity, creativity, and capacity, are the most important aspects you should focus on.

I would recommend this record to anyone looking to improve their skills, particularly with practice.

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