In his 16-year career at Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL), Group Head for HR Raza Sarwar has learned that being willing to pivot, innovate and learn something new can lead to a fulfilling and exciting HR career.
“Life is more than what a mere institution teaches you for a piece of paper,” says Sarwar, who got his first degree in software engineering and started in IT at PTCL in 2005. “After completing my bachelor’s, I thought that was it. But, life surprised me for better as it kept unfolding the possibilities right before me.”
Sarwar began working with HR when he was asked to provide technical support to an HR project team. His team performance was noted by HR leaders, who requested him for additional work.
“My interest kept growing with each assignment,” he says. “I never hesitated to roll up my sleeves to get things done, even if it wasn’t my direct responsibility.”
Sarwar credits his IT background with helping him develop problem-solving and project-management skills. These let him understand the technical and business requirements of HR projects, including efforts to hire the best talent.
With an ingrained appreciation for learning, he pursued additional degrees—an MBA, executive MBA and a master’s in engineering management— as his HR responsibilities expanded and evolved.
“I always understood the technicalities of the projects in full depth and performed with aplomb in demanding situations,” he says, noting that his ability to identify and propose unique solutions has been a big differentiator throughout his career.
Pivoting and innovating
Sarwar’s purview includes not only PTCL, which is the largest telecom company in Pakistan, but also the company’s mobile carrier subsidiary, Ufone.
He’s responsible for internal and external hiring, employer branding and strengthening relationships with top universities, as well as for the end-to-end HR cycle of outsourced staff.
Greatest Accomplishment: Conquering his fear of public speaking. As he worked on improving his skills, he says, he made mistakes and had awkward moments but persistence and determination paid off and lessened the fear. Although he says he’s “still not a perfect version of himself” and wants to continue growing, he’s proud of what he’s accomplished so far.
When the pandemic challenged PTCL’s regular talent acquisition strategies, Sarwar led the development of new approaches—which ultimately paid off. For instance, as elsewhere, COVID-19 nixed in-person participation in the company’s successful project-based paid internship program called Experia.
So, he and his team transformed Experia into a remote program—the first in the local industry to be offered in such a format. In addition to virtual, interactive sessions with top company leaders, the interns completed their assigned projects under the supervision of seasoned PTCL professionals.
Luckily, as a telecom company, going remote wasn’t a challenge. “We had all the tools available, especially when we were going through the digital transformation phase,” he says.
And, Sarwar says, the company’s learning and growth culture spurred a number of interns to join PTCL as full-time employees after completing their degrees.
“I believe that such internship programs can change the trajectories of their professional lives,” he says. “That’s why canceling the program during COVID-19 was not an option, even when the pandemic posed a clear threat to the successful execution of the program.”
Another innovation that tapped into future talent was an “idea hackathon.” This program invited 50 final-year students from five targeted universities to participate on 10 teams. They tackled real-world business case studies, drawn from PTCL itself, considering how the company could provide more of what millennials and other customers want.
Sarwar says the students learned design thinking methodology to come up with ideas and explored “the art of pitching” to present their ideas to a panel of PTCL leaders on Pitch Day.
“Every organization struggles to maintain their brand image in the market,” he explains. “We wanted unfiltered opinions and feedback on what measures can be taken to kick our brand image up a notch.”
In addition to promoting the company to potential future employees, the program helped with a gap Sarwar saw in many candidates: They had technical skills but lacked an innovation mindset. The hackathon exposed the students to becoming idea innovators, he says.
A ‘drive to grow’
Amjad Iqbal, group executive vice president of HR for PTCL, nominated Sarwar for Rising Stars on account of his accomplishments as well as the personal qualities that have made him stand out.
“He is empathetic, collaborative, talented in his job role, always keen to pursue leadership opportunities, always willing to take on responsibilities outside of the job description and always open about his career goals,” Iqbal says.
Rising Stars judge John Klein, a talent acquisition strategic consultant operating in San Jose and Reno and a 2021 Rising Star winner, was struck by Sarwar’s unique multidisciplinary education and early career focus on IT. These, Klein says, make Sarwar “an extremely well-rounded HR professional with a strong focus on continuous learning and improvement, particularly since technical understanding is increasingly critical in HR leadership roles.
“I believe his diverse background has enabled his rapid career success,” he adds. “Raza’s ability to take learnings from one area and apply them to new challenges in a meaningful way makes him stand out among his peers.”
For example, when Sarwar visited Silicon Valley in 2019, “not only did he absorb many great ideas,” Klein says, “[but] he actually took them home and was able to implement them at his company in an innovative and impactful way.”
“Failures add to your experience,” he says. “Would anyone ever want to be a person who is not scarred and bruised? That’s boring. I’d rather be the person who takes it all and comes back even stronger to let everyone know how it’s done—because I believe that a life spent without a drive to grow is not a life worth reflecting upon.”
As the talent landscape continues to demand heightened innovation, he adds, it will require “the full involvement of HR to pull together the people and resources needed to make transformation efforts a success.”
Though it may be tempting to think of HR as the prime driver of organizational transformation, Sarway says, “senior leaders are responsible for establishing the vision and championing organizational change, with HR acting as a critical enabler of change.”
Greatest Challenge: Learning to believe in himself, which he credits to his father. Because he was the eldest son, his father had ambitious expectations for Sarwar. But, during school he says he was “his own worst enemy” and had “little interest in academics in earning good marks.” The turning point came when he won a merit scholarship in his first semester of his bachelor’s degree, making his father very proud. That gave Sarwar the confidence to feel he could achieve anything in life.
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