We continue our series of profiles putting the spotlight on the lives of women in business, leadership and work.
Hema Bakhshi is Head of Future of Work at Santander UK, a financial services provider in the UK that offers a wide range of personal and commercial financial products and services. The bank has circa 20,000 employees, 14 million active customers, and operates through 841 branches (which includes 60 university branches) and 67 regional Corporate Business Centres.
Tell us about your current job responsibilities.
The essence of my role is ultimately to challenge status quo and help to proactively disrupt some of our traditional processes, with a mission to future proof the employee experience.
No two days are the same, and I work from different places that allow me to be the most productive on that day, for example from one of Santander’s Head offices or our Innovation Hub.
My time is spent working with external partners, agencies, and organisations to help me keep abreast of current trends in technology, financial services, and HR. I focus on data, research and ensure we use an evidence-based approach when driving change. Much of my time is also spent working across HR, and different business areas often directly with the leadership teams, and their respective teams, to ensure our solutions are built collaboratively.
Working collaboratively, and using data to extract meaningful insights enables me to create an environment that is accepting of innovation, and fosters creativity. It’s a varied and extremely rewarding role.
What were the key decision points that were important in deciding your career path?
My career has been firmly rooted in HR. Supporting people is important to me, as was a role that enabled me to make a difference, drive improvements and provides me with constant room to grow.
Early on in my career, HR within a corporate space gave me the ability to combine my passion for people, my postgraduate education, along with my ambition to make a change on a bigger scale where possible.
As my career progresses, I continuously look for opportunities that stay true to my core values, and listening to my gut has never failed me. My career path to date is partly due to conscious decisions, and partly down to listening to what feels right at the time.
What do you enjoy most about your current role?
The thing I most enjoy about my role is that I have a real opportunity to change the way traditional business is conducted, with the experience of our people at the centre of that.
I am able to present new ideas, work with others to create new solutions and get the opportunity to help drive them through to implementation. Being a strategic thinker is hugely important, but I also get the chance to work with others to ‘operationalise’ the good ideas – a dynamic which is very satisfying.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work? What strategies have you developed for tackling that challenge?
The most challenging aspect is initiating change, which at any level can be very difficult. In large organisations, many decisions require the agreement of a plethora of stakeholders, all with potentially very different perspectives.
The strategies around effective influencing are also important. Using data and meaningful insight is key. Ideas and solutions are often born through creativity, and sometimes a subjective view. Using facts and figures help early on to support or disprove notions, and an evidence-based approach can often provide credibility in a simple way. Secondly, the method of communication is key. Thinking carefully about the key messages, and how they are delivered can reap benefits. I often tailor the message depending on the audience and what is important for them.
Finally. I would say being open to feedback is crucial. Many times a good idea can be hugely improved by taking on-board constructive feedback. Being open and truly listening can feel like a vulnerable position to be in, where in fact I think it presents a real strength.
What has been the most defining moment in your career to date?
The most defining moment in my career was delivering a multi-faceted, leading project which was filled with difficulty and complexity. The defining moment was not necessarily the scope and scale of the programme, but the way my resilience and determination was put to the test.
At the time, the business was also undergoing a transformation which added to the complexity. I was accountable for everything from service definition, managing the tender through to service implementation. I was responsible for managing c.42 people through a matrixed delivery model, which challenged the typical structures we had in place, and service continuity was business critical. Through those 18 months, I learnt more than I had expected. The challenges and pitfalls helped me to grow both personally and professionally.
Often it’s not the problem that’s key, but how you deal with it, and what you learn from it is. Taking time to reflect is important – and will always serve you moving forwards.
Best piece of career advice you have ever received? And who was it from?
I was taught to always ask myself “What is the worst that could happen?” It was my mum who helped me to question my thinking. A simple line, yet what it did was simply and quickly put everything into perspective.
Whenever I ask myself this question, I realise that nothing is ever really as bad or daunting as it first seems. I use this in all walks of life, whether at home or at work. It helps to dissipate any worry or fear and creates a positive mental attitude almost instantly, which for me, is perhaps one of the most important aspects to success.
Away from your work role what are your passions?
My first passion is my family. I am a wife, a big sister, a daughter, a niece and a cousin. For me, family are the most important thing, and I ensure I take the time to look after those relationships. Having a good support unit helps to keep a balance no matter how tough things can get.
Secondly, I would say yoga. Being able to give yourself time to aid your mental and emotional wellbeing is important. In a frantic, busy world, the ability to be still, find inner peace and take time for yourself is precious and must be protected. Finally cooking for others makes me happy, and I really enjoy cooking, often with a glass of wine, the kitchen is the hub of my home.
What are the three (professional or personal) books/websites/ or resources that you would recommend to others?
One book I strongly recommend is Change Your Questions, Change your Life, by Marilee Adams. This is a really excellent book that shows very simple techniques around “question thinking”. In brief, it helps you to stop and think about someone else’s perspective before you act and enables you to focus on the questions you ask, instead of the answers you seek. I think it can be applied in both your professional and personal life.
Secondly, Flipboard, is an app which brings news, articles, and insights across a variety of topics e.g. business, politics, technology, through to fashion and food. It allows you to personalise content to what you’re most passionate about. A great tool to have when we are inundated with content on the internet!
Finally, I would say we shouldn’t forget the tools that enable peer-to-peer learning. Both LinkedIn and YouTube are brilliant for this. LinkedIn allows access to limitless connections and industry peers. Despite us all having large networks and many connections, I would question how often we truly use them to solve a problem and reap the benefits of industry experts at our fingertips.
Today collaboration is key, and more often than not people are willing to help, yet we don’t often leverage the tool. In a similar way, we can YouTube almost anything. We sometimes forget that the content is not only for entertainment, but there are huge amounts of tutorials, talks etc., which provide an amazing resource for learning opportunities.
What do you know now, that you wish you had known as you started your career?
The fact that ultimately, everything will be OK. When you’re ambitious and so keen to make a difference, obstacles and setbacks can feel so frustrating. Maturity for me brought a change in perspective. You may not always understand why things are the way they are at the time, but in retrospect, at some point, we always understand why.
For this reason, I would have told my younger self to focus on my career, not others. Naturally focusing on your own delivery, impact and purpose will in time put you where you want to be. The comparison with others around you becomes irrelevant.
Do you have any advice for women entering your industry?
My main piece of advice would be to ‘always be yourself’. Always be strong, be kind and remember to be human. I firmly believe that you can thrive without comprising your values. Authenticity is so important.
If you weren’t in this role what would be your alternative career?
I would like to work within the Charity sector helping those who need support, either facing poverty or on women’s issues. Perhaps even within the capacity of a non-exec director, to offer the skills I have from the world of business.