Mariam Minhas Mannan was until recently the Chief People Officer at FinTech company Yoco. She talks to Erevena Partner Dove Dalele about the role of HR leaders in enabling business strategy and how they can support start-up ambition.
What was the early driving force in your career?
Both my parents worked – my mother as a doctor and my father in the military which saw us moving around Pakistan when I was child. My parents set a great example of supporting each other and balancing their careers with a family which was inspiring as a young child. Even at a young age, I knew I wanted to create my own identity and find a purpose. But initially I didn’t know what that purpose might be. When I lost my parents early in life, it became all about how I could achieve financial stability and independence. This was the primary driving force at the start of my career.
How did you get started in HR?
I studied business administration at university and became intrigued by organisational design, the economics of companies and the associated people-related topics. I was always drawn to the life stories of business and leadership behaviors. After several internships with companies trying out different things during my time as a student, I joined Telenor in Pakistan on graduating, knowing only that I wanted to work in HR. The company was at an early stage of growth in the region and I was given a recruitment/operations role with a blank slate to hire. This was my entry point into HR and I found this area so fascinating.
You went on to study for an MBA – how did that come about?
Even in its early stages Telenor hired great talent from across the world. As a young HR professional, I learnt a lot from people around me and found the opportunities to grow and achieve results where there were no guidebooks and rulebooks. I had an amazing mentor who sat me down one day and asked me “What’s next – you are good at what you do but where from here”. I was already contemplating furthering my education, but this gave me the impetus and push I needed. It became clear to me that an MBA from the leading institute was my next goal. I applied and was selected into the MBA Program at LUMS.
What an experience the MBA program was- I was one of the 10 females in a class size of 100. Having said that, it was a real melting pot of cultures, diversity and experience which prepared me for the real world.
Did you consider anything other than HR?
On graduating, I had offers of roles in the likes of marketing, sales and branding as companies tried to build out diverse teams with more women. However, I knew that I still wanted to work in HR. None of my MBA cohort saw HR as a career but I held out for an HR role while they were settling into well paid jobs, which was nerve-racking for someone like me focused on financial independence. I was convinced that there are very few people with a business degree and acumen who take a HR role as their first priority. In fact, I was the last person on my course to secure a job when I landed a role as an HR consultant with Nokia Mobiles Pakistan in 2008.
How did your own growth mirror Nokia’s in the region?
Nokia was booming at that time. It was expanding into new markets, including the Middle East and Africa region. As an HR consultant working in Karachi, I helped with setting up the entire team and office from policy creation and building the team necessary for growth. Then I was asked to travel to Iran where a new team was being set up in Tehran, for which an HR leader was needed to help communicate the Nokia culture and people processes. That was an amazing experience both culturally and professionally. From there I moved to the Middle East, continuing to build my own experience in recruitment practices, talent management and performance management. I’d not come across a Nordic culture like Nokia’s before and it was foundational in my understanding of building business understanding, relationship and human centric experiences that shape the culture of teams and organizations.
Is there a particular lesson you can share with us from your time at Nokia?
Eventually, Nokia’s market share began to decline and we had to close offices in the region. I found it hard to deliver bad news to my colleagues, but I was given some great advice by a manager and mentor. He said it was about how we, as HR leaders, engaged with people and said goodbye to them. We needed integrity and courage, as well as humility. Treating people with respect and talking to them with empathy would be one of the most powerful things we could do at such a difficult time and something many of them would remember for years to come. To this day some of my closest friends are from my time at Nokia. We remember the good times and also the sad turn of events with the same compassion as many years ago.
Why did you make the jump from big corporates to start-ups?
Nokia was eventually acquired by Microsoft and I facilitated the integration of the employees during that time in the region. As a People professional merger and acquisitions, dealing with downsizing locations and designing an organization fit for purpose were things I learnt from Nokia and Microsoft. Having been in Nokia where we had a very lean team I was now ready to focus more on my personal life and my family. But plans don’t always work out as you expect! They hardly ever do!
A chance meeting with the CEO of an e-commerce company called Souq.com opened my eyes to the world of entrepreneurship, e-commerce and eventually visionary leadership. Each one of them through conversations passionately educated me on how the various parts come together, their absolute customer obsession and mission to make a difference to the lives of the people in the region which inspired me so much that I knew in a heartbeat that this was the place where I wanted to be and I joined the company as Regional HR director. I knew nothing about e-commerce but felt Ronaldo’s passion for what the company did. This was an opportunity for me to learn and be part of a story where the author was myself.
What was your role in helping Souq grow?
Souq was an exhilarating experience. There were days of frustration and days of joy and achievement, but one thing was certain – working with hungry talented individuals is a humbling experience. I also realized that many of the things such as systems, policies and processes that I had taken for granted take a long time to design, develop and implement, I had to roll up my sleeves and get stuck in at so many different levels. The balance between bringing efficiencies in HR and thinking strategically about talent was key. We needed to grow fast but the HR systems we had to support this growth were archaic. We also needed people prepared to come on board with a start-up. I spent a lot of time travelling to meet the business leaders and discuss their talent needs. Once we’d brought in new people, it was my job to coach, mentor and show them the direction we were taking. I also started looking at savings and how we might reinvest what we saved. For example, if we reduced the number of recruitment agencies from 35 to just two, what new systems could we buy? In fact, we were able to invest in an SAP system that we got up and running in record time. Once the talent acquisition team was set up, business partnering, and systems were running I focused myself more on learning and development such as designing a curriculum with Harvard University professors for our top talent.
”The people side of business is highly sensitive and the HR leader must have the confidence to tell the CEO if something’s not right – it’s a combination of business acumen and people sensitivity.”
How do HR leaders in general support start-up ambition?
I learned at Souq that while a leadership team might be passionate about the company’s vision, they also need a people leader whose most important conversations are directly with the CEO about the people within the business. The two parties might not agree on everything, but they must speak with one voice because that sets the tone for everyone. The people side of business is highly sensitive and the HR leader must have the confidence to tell the CEO if something’s not right – it’s a combination of business acumen and people sensitivity. The HR leader has a huge role to play in cultivating the right cultural values and constantly understand the talent cycle and managing talent. One thing is certain that the talent needs constantly evolve; what takes you from zero to one will need to change and adapt as you grow. Being able to have honest open conversations with the founders is key for the HR leader and fundamentally understanding their vision for their organization is paramount.
What happened when you returned to a big corporate?
My return to big corporates was by way of acquisition when Amazon came into the region and bought Souq. It was a defining moment in my career the day that the deal was closed and Souq became Amazon. As leaders we were convinced that the Souq values and Amazon leadership principles were closely intertwined. This deal was focused on the employees and giving them opportunities of mobility, growth and working with state-of-the-art technology. It gave me so much joy to see individuals growing, moving in different roles and locations. The Souq integration into Amazon meant I unlearnt many things from a start-up mentality and embraced the Amazon leadership principles and practises. I was amazed at how each and every facet of the work at Amazon integrated and really lived the leadership principles. The Amazon way of working and approach to decision making was new to me and to many of us in the region but the way the two leadership came together to make the cultural integration smooth is a playbook on how to do acquisitions right.
How did you joining Yoco come about?
When Covid hit, companies like Amazon worked round the clock, 24/7. It was a tough time and I decided to take a step back and focus on family life. In fact, it was good timing as I became pregnant with my second child and enjoyed being able to do what I wanted to during that period. I chose to work with a small number of clients in my own time, providing advisory services on organisation and people topics. Then along came Yoco. The company is a South Africa-based business developing mobile-driven payments solutions, helping people to thrive who might otherwise not have access to the tech they need to sustain their businesses. This resonated with me as I feel passionate that it’s not just about uplifting yourself, but the wider ecosystem around you. It was also important to me that they had survived a brutal Covid scenario and were able to help grow merchants and their business during this time. Yoco has four co-founders which is very different to a single founder run business and in conversations with each one of them their passion for Yoco came from different angles and came together on a single mission which is pure magic.
How did you help Yoco to scale?
I joined Yoco in August 2021 with a focus on building the people team and bringing in global talent to our teams. So, it’s about hiring to scale and establishing the necessary people practices and culture. It’s similar to what I’ve done before in terms of connecting with the leadership to understand the business and its talent needs. It’s also about bringing in strong capable people in the people team. HR has moved beyond one person doing it all. We need people specialised in disciplines other than compensation and benefits, such as training and development, business partnerships, programme management and people analytics. It’s been a rollercoaster ride as we ensure HR is executing fast enough with the right human centric experience to deliver Yoco’s growth ambition. To help Yoco scale is to understand how we want to grow the business, how do we enable our people and teams and how do we serve the customers- staying true to our mission of enabling people to thrive. My role is to understand and enable that in my area and beyond. The talent at Yoco and their alignment to the culture and the values of the organization is what sets it apart and makes any people leader’s role an exciting one to work with culturally and mission aligned talent which is so awesome to find in every role and location at Yoco.
”Data is extremely powerful. Understanding your personnel, fixed and variable costs is crucial, as is partnering with Finance so that you know how they’re looking at your people costs.”
How does a people leader’s role differ in a smaller company versus a corporate?
People processes are generally already set up in large corporates and take time to change. Things happen faster in smaller companies and it’s easier to play a more strategic role. That’s especially so as you typically get real hands-on experience and have a seat at the table where decisions are being made, Where people leaders go wrong is when they don’t understand the business and the value of data. Data is extremely powerful. Using it to understand your personnel, fixed and variable costs is crucial, as is partnering with Finance so that you know how they’re looking at your costs from the perspective of delivering the corporate strategy. There’s also an excitement around the speed of change in a smaller, scaling company where you can both fail fast and succeed fast. You also learn very fast, use scrappy ways before you think of huge rollouts. In a start-up environment you have an opportunity to move as fast as possible and as slow as necessary.
How can people leaders help steer business through difficult times?
2022 was possibly the hardest year in my career to be in HR. Many people leaders had to steer their companies through difficult times, including rightsizing them as market dynamics changed. My advice at such times is both professional and personal. Professionally, people leaders must understand the rationale and logic of the business. It is imperative they are part of the strategic decision and not just implementing it. It makes a difference on how they manage the change for the entire organization. Communication and transparency are key here. It’s important to communicate with affected people, as well as with those remaining in an organisation that has reduced its headcount. It is so natural to have fears of stability and growth – after all we are all human and it takes a very human effort to listen and talk through these fears and insecurities through such challenging times.
Personally, a focus on mental health is incredibly important. I advocate having a mentor outside your organisation. You must take care of your own wellbeing, both physically and mentally. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There is no way you can carry the burden on your own shoulders if you do not recognize the signs of fatigue, stress and anxiety when you yourself need help and counselling.
”I advocate having a mentor outside your organisation. You must take care of your own wellbeing, both physically and mentally. Ask for help when you really need it.”