Hermina Khara models the behaviour she wants to see

From working in sales and finance to tech and human resources, Hermina Khara says at least one thing has remained true: "People are at the core of everything that I do."

Hermina Khara will be the first to tell you she’s not your typical human resources leader. Before HR, she spent a decade working in sales and finance, first in the brokerage industry and then mutual funds.

How did she make the transition from financial capital to working with human capital? It started with her own need to recruit an inside sales team, which forced her to hire a recruitment agency. It was her first time working with one, and it was an experience she doesn’t rave about. “I wasn't really happy with the candidates that they sent over to us,” she told me over a Zoom call.

At the same time, Khara’s business associates were frequently calling her for help in finding qualified people to fill roles in their companies. Her husband noticed this pattern and piped up, “You keep giving away these valuable resources—maybe you should think about going into recruitment?”

Khara told the agency she’d hired how she really felt. “I said, ‘Listen, I'm not really impressed with the candidates, but if I knew any better, I would give you guys a run for your money.’” Apparently, they appreciated her candour and thought it could be an asset to their business. A week later, she received a call from them. They were now trying to recruit her.

Khara would go on to join that industry, but not before exploring her options. “I met with a number of other recruitment companies to better understand what was out there,” she explains. “You know, what would it mean, if I started in a brand-new industry, and what kinds of things would I have to do to get up to speed.”

“The best move I made was to understand all the ins and outs of headhunting and how to go about doing those things and how not to be a passive recruiter,” she said.

Ultimately, changing sectors is what put Khara on a path to where she is now, leading the HR function as senior vice president of people and culture at Alida (formerly named Vision Critical), a software company that’s been recognized for its workplace culture and engagement. And while her environment is new, she’s still harnessing the principles from her first career to guide herself to success now.

When you’re selling to someone, she explained to me, you’re working on the assumption that your product or service will benefit them. It’ll improve their project, business or life. When it comes to people management, Khara has borrowed from that ethos. She believes it’s her job to leave people better than she’s found them. A previous mentor taught her that notion, and she’s “carried the torch,” she said. “When you use that as your compass, you can’t do anything wrong.”

In the following conversation, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, Khara discusses the importance of grit and investing in other people’s success, how she leans on a “huge family” inside and outside her company for support, and, as the pandemic drags on, what leaders must do to keep employees motivated.

Tell me about your role at Alida.

I’m responsible for the entire employee experience. From the moment we speak to a candidate, then throughout their time at Alida, and up until and when they decide their journey has ended—ensuring that they have a good experience in between.

There’s onboarding, ongoing training and development, and everything from a cultural aspect, including working with the rest of the business to ensure that employees are getting the tools and the resources they need to succeed in their roles.

How important is diversity, equity and inclusion in the employee experience at Alida?

With everything that happened last year, we actually created a diversity, equity and inclusion council, and our senior leadership team, everyone in the c-suite, has put a lot of importance behind it. That was our first step.

We’re moving forward on that front, and we’re fortunate that from a diversity aspect, we’re starting off on a strong foundation. I can only speak from the perspective of a woman but, first of all, without even trying, we have a really good number of females represented throughout the organization.

And if you look at our development team, it's a whole mosaic of people. Still, we want to do a better job. We want to ensure that when we have people from different communities, we want to make sure they have a good experience working with us.

What skills from when you did sales do you leverage now?

Tenacity, grit and really investing in other people's success. I think that's really important when you're in sales; it’s not just about making sales, you want to make sales for the right reasons. You want to make sure that you're solving the right problems for the customers that you're dealing with and whatever product you're selling them.

For me, that’s transcended into what I'm doing now because I love working with people. I love making an impact on other people's success. I was in recruitment for that very reason. When you get to provide people with an opportunity that they may not have thought of, in terms of another position or another company, that’s so gratifying to me.

Now as I’ve transitioned from talent acquisition into human resources, it’s still the same thing. People are at the core of everything that I do. Making sure that we're making the right decisions for our people and making sure that they get the fulfillment and success that they need. That's what my role is.

Do you think Alida has navigated last year’s crisis successfully? 

I think that we did as a company. And I think, to be fair, we already had the infrastructure in place. We were able to go remote within seconds, to be honest. It wasn’t that big of a change. The difference was everybody took their laptops home and started working from home.

We didn't really have a choice, but we all had to embrace change, and embrace ambiguity, because we not only had the pandemic, but we also had new leadership—a new CEO after seven years, which led to change within management and the organization. So not only were we managing the leadership change, but we were also managing the change of the pandemic, as well, which was unprecedented for everyone.

What were some of the practical things you did to support staff?

Visibility was really important to us. For example, we had town halls and our social committee put virtual social hours together every Friday for the first six months that even the CEO and all the executive leadership team would join.

The managers did a really good job of just working very closely with their teams. As for myself in HR, we implemented a daily touchpoint for 30 minutes, and that was just to touch base; not about the work, but to check up as individuals to see how everybody is doing.

I always say the question is, “What are you doing to fill your cup?” because, from an HR aspect, people can only make a difference in the success of the organization if they take care of themselves first.

To be able to make sure that you're there with intention and on Zoom, you have to work that much harder to engage and make sure that you're not distracted by other things. But you have to be in the right mindset, to begin with, to be able to do that.

Obviously, you focus a lot of time on your team. So, who takes care of you and the executive team? 

Yeah, that's a great question. We're very lucky that we have a really cohesive and collaborative executive leadership team (ELT). And Ross [Wainwright], our CEO has made sure that we all stay connected throughout the week. He stays in touch with us. We all support one another, and we very openly have conversations about some of the challenges that we're facing.

It's hard for everybody to be honest. For myself, I enjoy working from home because I save three hours in my commute, right? That works well for me. But it's not easy for everyone, because a lot of people like being in the office and connecting with other folks. It's a mind shift in terms of finding new ways of doing things.

I'm lucky I have a huge family that supports me. And I do a lot of good things myself, like in terms of meditating and taking care of myself as well. So that I'm not just preaching these things. I'm actually living by these values as well.

And so you said you had a huge family. What do you mean, when you say that?

A network of people. I have a huge family to begin with. I'm the eldest of six sisters. I have a huge support system that way, but there are also friends and people within the business as well.

I also have two kids, teenagers. A boy and a girl. My son just graduated from high school and my daughter’s in grade 11.

What are Alida’s plans to return to the office?

Our stance has been the same from the very beginning. We're going to follow the directions of the WHO and the BCCDC and the individual countries that we're operating in.

We've heard loud and clear that most of our employees want to go back to a hybrid model. So, when and if the doors open up in the different areas, then we will go back with a hybrid model. There'll be no pressure on anyone to go back in person.

When we talk about a hybrid model, of course, first, you want to see who actually wants to be in the office. Because it's going to be really easy when a certain number of people say, “We don't want to be in the office.” We don't actually have to deal with those people right away, we have to deal with the people first who may have challenges when working from home.

It hasn't been easy for everyone. Everybody has challenges. There are lots of people who are managing elderly parents, a lot of people are managing young children or now their children and their spouses are home working too.

We have to take those considerations into account. And that's been tough for everybody, right? It's been a really tough long haul for people. We're trying to do the best we can by sharing articles and giving managers tools that they can give to their employees to support them. Can we do more? Of course, we can always do more. But it's a work in progress. Everybody's trying to do the best that they can.

Who are you talking to for insight and expertise?

One example would be our investors Georgian Partners. We’ve had calls every two weeks with all the HR leaders within their portfolio to share insights and different things. We have the same thing with OMERS Ventures.

There's also HR Tech Group. I recently took part in their inclusive leadership training, and am connecting with lots of people within the HR Tech Group community. And of course, there are so many resources available online and I’ve been involved in lots of calls. Pooling information is exactly how we're going to best approach this so that we're not making decisions in a bubble.

From an employee development standpoint, how important do you think continuous learning is?

Very important, actually, and this year, we instituted LinkedIn Learning to help with our people's development because LinkedIn has a great program where you can actually develop some career paths depending on people's choices. We're going to be leveraging that tool quite a bit this year. They have over 16,000 courses that you can choose from—great courses on mental health and well-being. There are also courses on diversity, and then more like technical skills that people may want to gain too. 

As the pandemic drags on, how do you keep your staff motivated?

By just being honest and by being transparent. By continually having a dialogue. My favourite line that I'm always telling leaders is: Model the behaviour that you want to see. It starts with us. If we want people to act with empathy, we have to show empathy first. If we want people to listen to customers and to each other, we actually have to listen first.

Is that how you would summarize your approach to people management?

I think it all begins with having the right mindset. You have to have the right mindset, a growth mindset, and you have to be able to deal with embracing change and ambiguity. And I'm lucky, or maybe not so lucky that there have been lots of life events or adversities in my life that have allowed me to be the person that I am today.

When I look at the pandemic, for me, it's like grieving. You go through certain stages, and eventually, you realize that you have to move on, because the sun comes up the next day, and you have to move on.

In the past, I’ve dealt with losing my brother and my mom. I realized that no matter what, I still have to go on, right, and you still have to find the strength to carry on. That's what I see with the pandemic.

Ultimately, there's nothing that we can change right now. We just have to navigate our way through it as best as possible, and to look forward and to see that it will change one day.

As we know, there have been lots of people affected by this terrible virus. We've lost a lot of people, lost a lot of loved ones, and all you can do is carry on.

Put one foot in front of the other and just keep on going. I mean, that's all you can do at the end of the day.

This is the second article in our Management Memo series where we talk to executives about leading high-performance organizations in a rapidly changing world. Read the first: Nejeed Kassam navigates his most important role yet: father.