Ester Martinez on Unlocking Future Human Potential

Ester Martinez on Unlocking Future Human Potential

January 8, 2020

We chat with global authority on all things Human Resources, India-based People Matters CEO Ester Martinez, who argues that the true role of human resources is to unlock the future human potential in everyone, and, this is the metric by which a HR professional’s success should be measured.

By Joanne Leila Smith

There’s a perception that HR is meant to act as an impartial bridge between the organization and the worker to represent both interests for the greater good of an organisaton. The functions of HR are many. Administrative, Industrial Relations, Payroll, hiring talent, dispute management etc are generally understood as its primary functions.

However, according to People Matters CEO Ester Martinez, this perception, as well as the phrase, Human Resources, is now redundant.

“This is a paradigm of the past, where people are viewed as assets or resources. Yes, that is where Human Resources comes from;, where people are merely utilized. Those organizations don’t know it yet, but they’re already living in the past by separating people from strategy. When employees feel a disconnect between what they are told and what they experience, in terms of values and mission, the sustainability of the business is questioned. Organizations are moving more towards the reality that people are business and businesses are people. To truly inspire people will be the biggest differentiator,” says Martinez.

To explore this position, we asked Martinez to explain how does an organization move to relationship-based thinking rather than transactional-thinking given that the premise of labour exchange is manpower for money.

“You may be paying me for a service but I’m still your partner. Organizations that base their offering in a transactional way, are all part of the lower value curve. When you are paying for a service, you still want fantastic service. You still want to know whether you’re giving money to a sustainable organization, that you’re loyalty matters and so on; it’s really trying to emotionally influence and inspire customers. The same thought process applies here. Yes, because you pay me, you use me. So money is a part of that transaction, but currencies such as flexibility, trust, freedom, are also part of the value exchange. Organizations that are aligning themselves to decentralize trust, whereby they enable people to find fulfillment in their own personal potential within the vision of the organization may sound a bit esoteric, but many organizations are moving towards this thinking,” says Martinez.

Martinez gives the example of a film production to describe this scenario practically.

“Aligning internal functions towards business solutions, whereby you get people from all different disciplines and departments, to get together, like in a movie, where 2,000 people work on a particular project for one, two years etc, is a structure which is fluid, and a lot more customer centric because you are trying to get the best out of everyone’s skills. Yes, you have to hire the best people, but you must give them the freedom to give the best they can too. This approach changes the word HR completely because you’re not jus a resource anymore,” says Martinez.

For Martinez, language is tied directly to behavior, and she argues that if workflows are delivered into more production-crew type squads, language related to people tasks and goals needs to change.

“Language gives meaning. Design thinking, scrums, words like transparency, line of sight, are all born out of the gig economy; adapting to the way people work.  There are many forces that are driving this need for change. There is a lot of pressure on business both top line and bottom line, which is driving organizations to think very creatively. Competition now can come from anywhere, and fast and a lot of it is not in your control.  So these two things have pushed the need for fast agility, regardless of the size of organisation. Essentially, the problem statement has forever changed,” says Martinez.

The other issue is demographic and sociological shifts and talent shortages.

“If I’m unable to attract talent because that talent doesn’t want to be transactional, but rather, really wants to own his or her life, I need to define what’s meaningful. So to give meaning to skilled talent, whom has opportunities to work across multiple projects is an exciting proposition,” says Martinez.

While the gig economy has brought about greater flexibility and changes in working environments, such as the rise of co-working spaces, income insecurity can be problematic for both employee and employer; with the increase in freelancers now making up to two-thirds of the bulk of organisations, we asked Martinez whether this job insecurity drives counterproductive behaviours, and, potentially limiting creative freedom, and honest feedback between workers and employers for fear of not getting contracts renewed.

“We have this situation where we can now break down jobs into tasks and ship them around the world thanks to technology. Lifestyle and opportunity does change the game.  From the employee perspective it’s important to know that some people choose to be engaged because they wish to. Some people don’t wish to be engaged, but they have no choice. So I think as an individual, it’s really a personal journey. If you are unsatisfied, you are the one who needs to make that change. So first ask what are you doing about it? How are you building your networks internally, how are you creating value? From the employer perspective, let me share a story from India…” says Martinez.

When the British occupied India, there was an Administrator who had a problem with snakes in his region, cobras in particular.  After much consideration, they decided to ask the villagers if they see a snake, kill it, and bring it to the Authorities. For their trouble, people would be paid a dollar per snake.  This proved very popular, and there was a steady influx of dead snakes. What the Administrator didn’t know was this decision kicked off a huge cottage industry of hundreds and thousands of people farming snakes. It became a great business. Now, he took a long time to realize this was happening. When he did, there was so much resentment because you can’t see these things until they become too difficult to see, and, admit what a big mistake he made.  In fury, he stopped the scheme. When the snake farmers realized their business was no longer viable, they released all the snakes into the wild…

“So, what used to be a small problem, suddenly became gargantuan. It’s a beautiful example about the complexity of everything. To not make decisions without understanding its interconnectivity. Life is not linear. So if you make a decision to build a very flexible environment for a gig economy, you will have to accommodate all the different possibilities of peoples lives, and the potential, underlying problems that you can’t see. Context and ethics are important too. Don’t think there is only one solution, because it may create a bigger problem,” says Martinez.

On leadership, Martinez acknowledges that while the best leaders simplify things, simplifying situations in a hyper-convergent world is not always so simple. We asked her how leaders might navigate simply, through the complexity of the gig economy.

“Instead of declaring 80 percent of your workforce will go gig tomorrow, start with a small project. hire some gig workers, find out if works, and why, or why not. The employer can identify fears and uncertainties and help the project team solve the problem together. Maybe its financial. Maybe its compliance. Ask how you can involve everyone to be part of that solution,” says Martinez.

According to Martinez organizations that get this right understand and accept its all a continual journey, a project that will never end, but rather, a way of operating.

“I think in India, perhaps more in Southeast Asia, you probably see organizations that grew very fast so they had to hire the best talent; they’ve really done a fantastic job to scout and attract good talent across the world.  Banks like OCBC, DBS for example, are really moving the needle and it’s being driven from the top by some strong leadership,” says Martinez.

On the question of leadership, we asked Martinez on whether generational differences have made the gig economy hard to adjust for some more than others. For example, some personalities may perform better with job security and direct orders and not so well in a less hierarchical structure, as Martinez advocates.

“I’m a fan of Dr Hawkins work. He claims each person’s personality is not really shaped by our generation but it’s a lot to do with our own personality. So there are two or three factors that affect what you just mentioned; one is adjustment. For him adjustment is not meant in the traditional way, but it really means about how much anxiety you have when there’s no clarity. Some have higher anxiety levels than others and express nervous tension more readily. People with high adjustment are like, if there’s a major problem, they’ll normally respond with, ‘we will figure it out’. Organizations need to identify people’s natural strengths, enable them to be aware of it, to make the best possible outcomes. If we put people who are high anxiety under a leader who has low anxiety then there’s a problem. Unless the leader is very mature and aware. That leader would not be so stressed about deadlines, but his team member may be. If there is a leader who’s high anxiety, he will just micromanage everything because he really feels the scale of what all can go wrong. Understanding the dynamics of human beings and allowing individuals to be aware of it, and to work together to find the best possible way goes across generations,” says Martinez.

According to Martinez, all good professionals should seek feedback if their objective is to be a truly effective communicator.

“If the overarching objective of everyone is excellence, then we need to say we want to be become better than we were yesterday. That’s a great place to start because it means you have to trust yourself. It’s very difficult to build trust with others when you are not comfortable with the truth that you’re not perfect. Whichever way a person is giving me feedback may not be the best way. Maybe he or she could actually do way better, but that is out of my area of control. Yes, I may wish the organization will teach you and help you do a better job to do that. But if I’m getting feedback, I need to understand what is the underlying message you’re trying to tell me. I need to be mature enough to understand that maybe the way you said is not right, but the substance of what you’re saying is a gift. We spend way too much time criticizing the form because it makes us feel a lot more comfortable,” says Martinez.

For Martinez, the true role of human resources is to unlock the future potential in everyone. She argues HR professionals should measure their success by how many people they can unlock.

“We can see in our own lives, people who have had great mentors who really transformed someone’s life.  Helping someone get ‘aha’ moments to help them move forward in their career. Maybe its an answer to a problem, maybe it’s a realization you’re in the wrong company because your vision is not aligned with the organizational vision. Unlocking the potential of people is what personally drives me. We need to define our reasoning less by what we do, and more by the value we bring now, and how those decisions will have a positive knock on effect after you’re gone. If you think about yourself as a ‘resource’, then you are limited. If you think of yourself as ‘potential’, then your possibilities suddenly become very different, broader,” says Martinez.

(Ed. If you want to hear more about the fabulous Ester Martinez, you can catch her, along with a serious line-up of global talent at the upcoming People Matters Tech HR 2020 conference, 19-21 February 2020, Marina Bay Sands Convention Center, Singapore.)


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