An inside look: How can CEOs retain their top talent? | Dr Sapna Masih Advani | EP9
I had a powerful conversation with Dr. Sapna Masih Advani about the current context happening in the workplace today. We discussed the reality of adopting the hybrid work environment and how to retain talent in the new world.
Dr. Sapna Masih Advani is the founder of MasihWhite – a leadership and culture consultancy based in Singapore and Japan. She has 23 years of experience in leadership development and has worked 1-on-1 with more than 100 CEOs from over 20 countries around the world.
✅ Understanding the context of the hybrid setup at work
✅ The reasons why companies are getting pushbacks from employees
✅ How to retain talent in the new world
✅ The best tips for CEOs
Connect with Dr. Sapna Masih Advani:
Full episode transcript
Rodrigo Canelas: Okay. It’s such a pleasure to have you here. Welcome to the podcast.
Dr. Sapna Masih Advani: Thank you very much, Rodrigo. And congratulations on the podcast. It takes so much commitment to do what you’re doing. So, well done, and I’m very happy to be here and good timing because you mentioned high-performing teams and I’m right now doing a project for a Fortune 500 company, trying to build high-performing teams there.
Rodrigo Canelas: Thank you so much. Yeah. Okay. So let’s start to get to know you. So can you kindly tell us a bit about your background and your journey?
Dr. Sapna Masih Advani: I was born and grew up in India on a college campus because my dad taught there. So that was my childhood. I went on to do a master’s in science and yet my love of human nature kept drawing me towards literature. So I did another master’s in literature this time, they were very confused, I must say. And then I found my place there. And so I went on to do a Ph.D. in American literature, right after that, I went to work for an American technology company. If it’s a huge multinational, we had 90,000 employees. It was a different world altogether for me. And that is where I discovered my love of leadership development. And since then that has been my life.
And so in 2001, I quit and started my own leadership consulting company. And in 2002, though, a fate through a twist in the works and I moved to Japan and that was another life-changing event. So I recalibrated my career and after a few years of working in Japan, understanding the local culture. And I went back to my roots of leadership consulting there. And since then, that has been what I’ve been doing.
So fast forward to today, I have set up a consulting company in Singapore. I’ve based myself based in Singapore and in Japan. So I come and go to both places. I have clients that emanate in these places but then spread out all over the region and all over the world.
I do four things basically. I do C-level coaching. So CEO coaching is my main, one of my main pillars. I do culture consulting for organizations, helping them to shape their culture. I do leadership development for Asian leadership teams of companies helping them to become high-performing teams. That’s the third thing. And the fourth thing I do is work to design and deliver Asian leadership immersion projects for European universities.
So these are the four things I have been doing along the way. I have developed tools and products around my work and, and my passion. And so I have a product that helps companies to diagnose and then shape their culture based on their own values. I have a product that helps companies to develop that precious middle level of leadership in their companies so that they have a leadership bench strength that can see them through these times and several tools around mentoring and coaching as well. So this is what I do.
I love my work, Rodrigo, what can I say? I get to work with people, smart, creative people like you. I get to talk to two senior leaders who are in the hot seat at all times, and that really keeps me going.
Rodrigo Canelas: And I’m so happy to have you here because you can give us a really interesting perspective about what’s happening with the CEOs. So let’s, let’s dive in and let’s understand. So first let’s understand the context. So what is happening today at the workplace?
Dr. Sapna Masih Advani: Hmm, that’s a great question. So much is happening. So I think I get thrown back to April of 2020 when we had a CEO forum, which I was part of, and it was virtual for the first time. And it was CEOs from all over Asia. Everyone was scared and uncertain and they were a lot of questions about ‘What next? What are we going to do about this?’ The lockdowns had just started work from home, and had become abrupt and instantly a reality. So everybody was a little bit worried. And I remember one participant saying in that CEO forum ‘Ahh! In a few months, all this will be forgotten. We shouldn’t waste too many cycles on this because human nature is to revert back to normal. And very soon this will be forgotten. They will be, we will be back to reality as usual business as a usual.” Boy were we off on that prediction?
So today I think the workplace is going through a massive shift, has already gone through a super shift, but it’s going through another massive shift because we are adjusting to a hybrid reality. There is this tension between organizations trying to get employees back to the office for a variety of reasons. And we should deep dive into those reasons whether they are valid and some of them may be and some might not. And then the employee is pushing back for their own reasons to coming back to the office. Because I feel this balance that we have now achieved with work from home is hard fought.
At the beginning of the pandemic and the lockdowns. It was people who burned out. It was hard. It was hard, to take time off. For example, in your home, you will be seen as slacking off. So people were afraid to take time off. Now, people have understood that their well-being is important. People are taking organizations, are giving them some time to take care of themselves as well. So this balance has been achieved to an extent. Now, whenever there is a shift in balance, there will be some tension.
So there is that of one of my coaches who says a C-level executive in India, he was telling me that there are cultural, emotional, financial, and professional reasons why they’re getting pushback from people for coming back to the office. As an example, it is part of values in Asia cultural values to look after your parents when they are aging. So when the pandemic happened, some people actually move back to their hometowns to look after their parents and to be with them. They didn’t need to be in their city apartments near the office. And so now that they have settled in there. When companies call them back to the office, there are certain issues, leaving the parents back home again. And the parents have separation anxiety all over again. There is a financial burden because their cost base is quite low in their hometown. And now they’re having to move back to the city. So they are negotiating with their employers and they are saying, ‘Well, are you going to give me a cost of living adjustment? If I move back, I will maybe just Airbnb it if I’m in town just for a day or so. So can I keep my office days to a bare minimum?’ All of these things are happening that are causing tension in the workplace. So I would say today, this is one of the major realities for organizations as well as employees.
The other side of this is if people do come back and as they return to work, there are issues with that as well. So for example, one of my Australian coaches was telling me, I am frustrated. I feel like I need to retrain my people on how to work in the office because apparently, he called an in-person meeting of his direct reports and somebody actually said to him, I can’t make it to the meeting in the office tomorrow because I have a dentist appointment. And he was quite incredulous. He said, ‘No, you do not make dentist appointments during office hours. We didn’t use to do that.’ So there are these kinds of issues.
There is a whole generation of young people that have entered the workforce during the lockdowns. They do not even know what it’s like to work in an office. So their socialization has not even started. So we have a variety of these issues, Rodrigo that are concerning organizations and employees today.
Rodrigo Canelas: So we have this topic of the hybrid work. So, it’s really big and also a new generation coming to the workplace. So if we look at the CEO, so what is, what is keeping them awake at night?
Dr. Sapna Masih Advani: The biggest thing that’s keeping CEOs up at night is attracting and retaining talent, not for the future, but for today, this is an immediate issue. Attrition is touching 50% in some sectors in the region. And I talk from a national perspective. Attrition is touching 50%. It is hard to keep those seats filled. There are organizations in my network where almost 15% of positions are open and they are not able to fill them because the right talent is not available at the right price. So this war for talent that we have been talking about for some 20 years now, has never been more real than it is now. This is how I feel. And CEOs are extremely worried about this because they’re concerned with business continuously business growth.
None of my CEO clients are telling me that they are concerned about acquiring new business or acquiring new customers. That’s not their major concern. The business is bouncing back, but do they have the people to respond to that demand? That is what is bothering them.
Rodrigo Canelas: So with that, where are we going with the situation?
Dr. Sapna Masih Advani: Well, it is eventually going to settle into some element of hybrid reality. Of course, there are ranges of realities today. There is not one reality. It is fascinating to me that while the world went into these lockdowns and the pandemic all at the same time and everyone for the first time ever seems to be going through the same issues. Now, things are diverging again. And I feel that every country, every company, every culture is going to deal with this return to office differently.
The reality in Asia is that one in two employees actually feel that work-life balance is the most important thing for them today. 70% of employees in Asia right now say that for them, if a company does not offer them permanent teleworking, or at least a hybrid work environment, that’s a deal killer for them.
One in three employees is willing to take a pay cut in order to get this flexibility in the workplace at workplace. So these are some of the issues, that are actually going to evolve further.
In my view, there is going to be a three to five-year process, in all of this settling down. And then we will know where the chips have fallen. However, this process is going to be trial and error, a lot of experimentation, some bold moves by certain companies, and some clinging to old reality by other companies.
And I think that is what is the issue at this moment. ‘How are companies responding to this new reality?’ Some of them are trying to forcibly pull the current post-pandemic reality and squeeze it into a pre-pandemic mode. That is not a recipe for success at this moment. The call of the moment is to accept that the reality going forward is going to be new. It’s going to be different to embrace it. I wonder how each organization is going to respond to it as a consultant. I zoom out, I see the whole region as a jigsaw and companies responding, various pieces falling into place or out of place fitting or not fitting. And it’s a fascinating thing to watch.
Rodrigo Canelas: Well, so what you also use say that there’s a big shift happening right now. We’re going to go into solutions. But before that, tell us, what do you see? Companies that will not adjust to this new reality? What’s the cost for them. What is going to be the consequences for them?
Dr. Sapna Masih Advani: The cost is high in many different ways, and we are already seeing some of that. So for example, I look at it from a CEO lens simply because I work a lot with CEOs. When a CEO is replaced, a company loses almost a million dollars, if not more, actually some, a lot more, but a million dollars every time there is a CEO change. And now if you look at the changes happening across the region, not just with CEOs, but across the organization, that cost months up. And so there is a financial cost to it.
Even more so, there is an intangible cost to it, which actually shows up at some point in the bottom line and in the growth of the business. For example, my clients are telling me that customer trust is eroding because they have billable resources that the customer is paying them for. And they can not guarantee that they will have those places filled with superbly skilled people at all times. So that over time, the customer trust and their credibility as service providers get impacted.
So depending on the sector that is a number of intangible costs one is paying, but then in general, there is this knowledge drain from organizations, which I am very concerned with because I do advise organizations to watch out for that because that is where the organization strength is. It sits with its people. And so when you lose people, you’re losing that sense of history. That sense, that sense of continuity in the business. That knowledge loss is at times replaceable because you can fill an instant position, but you cannot fill that knowledge gap. And that is going to in the long term show up in companies, culture, and elsewhere.
So these are many angles, there are many more angles to it. And I feel companies are not seeing yet the entire cost of this flux. It will eventually have to be accounted for, but not yet.
Rodrigo Canelas: Yeah. I totally agree with you and the knowledge drain in the mid-term and long-term, it’s huge. And I see also a lot of companies, they are not looking at that cost. So it’s very interesting. Thank you for sharing those different perspectives.
So now, okay. So we understood the context. So let’s move into solutions. You work with many CEO, so you understand well what’s happening, and different realities. So what are the solutions that are working now for, and we work with talk about people in terms of building high-performance teams? What are solutions that you’ve seen that are working today?
Dr. Sapna Masih Advani: I see many trials and error kinds of cases. Some are working well. Some are yet to show results. Some I can tell are not going to perhaps work out, but let’s start with an example. There is a CEO in my network who has actually reported great success with the particular approach that they have tried. They have seen their attrition in a particularly volatile team. They have seen their attrition go from 60% to 5%, and that is a traumatic drop. And that is something that they need to understand fully so that they can replicate.
What they have done and I have tried to distill what they have done from this. They have done a few things very, very well. He offered his people all the open positions, because there are open positions at any given time, these days, and they are finding it hard to fill them externally. So they offer these open positions to their people internally as an open challenge. And these people are not yet skilled enough for those positions, but they threw this out as a challenge to see if they rise to the occasion. And openly said to them, that position that is yours. If you can prove that you can upgrade your skills and we will give you opportunities to do that. If you can upgrade your skills, if you can prove your competency and prove your confidence, that position is yours. And within the last two months, they have promoted eight people in that particular team, because these people that took the challenge, embraced the resources that the company was making available to them in terms of training and re-skilling and up-skilling, and they applied themselves and they were able to internally fill those positions. And part of this process was this open communication. I feel.
So I was trying to draw the lessons from this. And of course, one is the resources you make available for skilling upskilling. The other is the open challenge you throw out to your people. Another is that you look internally for that growth that you’re looking for and fill those positions. But the most important thing I feel is this open communication, this idea that you are transparent with your people look, that position is open. We are finding it hard to feel external, but ‘Hey, you’re here. Maybe you could rise to that challenge.’ So this openness, this timeliness of communication, I think is a very important factor for senior leaders, for each of our leaders, as well as the organization in general, it’s something to think about.
I don’t think it is the time to put up a false front in front of your people and to say, ‘Everything is fine and we are in control and don’t worry. It will all be okay.’ I think this is the time for candid communication with your people to build that trust and build that culture of trust in the organization. At the same time, you’re building a culture of learning and culture of constant growth. And there are statistics to show that 76% of employees in Asia say that culture is what keeps them inside an organization, even beyond financial returns.
So, immediately for companies, they have this tool available to them if they are able to focus on culture. I distill it down to a few things where the solutions will come from will be open communication, honesty, open communication, and building of trust. It will come from talent mobility. And again, like all things we can not look at talent mobility the same way as we have been looking at it in the past. So now perhaps it will be micro-mobility. I just call it micro-mobility because it’s not like relocating somebody to another country. It’s about moving someone from one team to another, moving someone in the same, perhaps in the same role, expanding their scope, where people feel like they are doing something new, experiencing a change, learning something new on the job that micro-mobility is important.
There is also a need for constant upskilling and reskilling. Now that that is something that we have been doing. I mean, I have been involved with organizations that are been doing that today. I think there is a need to make it immediately relevant to employees. Because again, statistics show that 95% of employees in Asia will save that in the last six months, they have learned a new skill. However, companies are still showing a skill gap. So there is scope for improvement there, but organizations should look at what kind of training opportunities they are offering and perhaps fine-tune them to what is needed by employees today. So maybe there is a need to do an audit.
There is also a need to use culture more effectively as a tool for not just retention because retention is critical, but also for attracting talent because when your culture is good, word gets around, and it’s a small connected world. Now word gets around and people, people are attracted to come work for you. People talk to their friends about you. And so it is very important to do that.
And with all of this, I think the overriding factor in solutioning this problem, and this whole workplace shift right now will be accepted. I’m watching out actually to see which organization accepts this new reality the best. And we are seeing a range of responses.
For example, you have Elon Musk who says, he’s going to fire anyone who doesn’t spend 40 plus hours a week in the office. And on the other end of the spectrum, you have a seemingly traditional company like NTT from our region, from Japan with very traditional culture in the workplace. And they have absolutely been bold about it. Just last week. The entity has announced its policy of remote first. I think 30,000 employees in NTT will now have the option to work from home as a default. They do not have to call into work. They don’t have to take, take permission from their managers or get permission. They just can tell you work as default. And the company is giving them allowances for traveling to the office in case they need it. It’s going to be treated as a business trip and they will be paid all expenses paid trip to the office in terms of flying even.
So if you live in a small town in Japan and you working for NTT and you’re teleworking, and you need to go into headquarters for any reason at all, you can fly there at the company’s cost. And at the same time, you can also go to a satellite office, which they started last year. They are expanding that network of satellite offices. So you can actually go to work in a satellite office. If you need to do it for whatever reason you might choose. So no explanations are needed, no questions asked all of these options are open. So we see this, these wide ranges of responses. And I do feel these policy responses are going to be very important.
One of my coaches here in Singapore, actually she’s European and her company is European as well. And she was telling me the policy response from headquarters has been interesting, where they have said they have re-relaunched the internal recruitment policy, relaunched it to say, ‘When you recruit people, you can only recruit people from within this radius of the office who live with it, who physically live within this radius of the office.’ So you see this range of responses, right?
It is going to be quite interesting, but I do feel solutions will come from a variety of factors. And at the end of the day, how bold companies choose to be in their policy response in their recruitment and their retention ideas and approaches, how innovative they are in their upskilling and reskilling initiatives, and how mobile can make their people without actually moving them from location to location. All of these things will factor in.
Rodrigo Canelas: But what is interesting is when you were talking, I was just imagining, like, the reality is completely different from, let’s say 10 years ago, right? So, and what you’re saying is that there’s a lot of also a CEO’s. They don’t have all the answers. And that’s what you’re saying also like it’s about, there’s a lot of dry and trial and error, but there’s also this openness to, to, to know that they don’t know all the answers. Right. And so based on this, and also looking at your passion, it looks, I feel almost like, feel like you please do this, that it’s going to work. What is one thing, that small thing that a CEO can start doing today that will help him in his organization?
Dr. Sapna Masih Advani: So there are two things I feel one is they need to start asking themselves. What is it, and what role do I play? What is it that I do to build a culture in this organization? What is my impact on the culture of the organization? Because culture is a top-down thing. Culture is not bottom up. And so I would be so happy if every CEO today, whether the Neisha or elsewhere is asking themselves, ‘How do I impact culture?’ And they do with every decision they make, or they do not make with everything they say or do not say they are setting a culture in place. And so to see themselves as originators of the sculpture is a very, very important thing.
And the other thing I think CEOs need to be a little bit bold at this point. Here’s a very interesting statistic. Again, studies have shown which very recent studies while we were saying 70% of employees are saying that if you do not, if you do not offer me permanently, any working or at least hybrid network, hybrid working, that’s a deal killer for me, for working for your organization. At the same time, the same study is showing that 70% of executives in Asia in their hearts believe that fundamentally good work and only be done at the office.
So now there, you have it, you have this tension between these two facts. And so I would be so happy if CEOs today, but to also start looking a little bit inward and questioning their assumptions about how high-performing teams actually work and how they can be effective in a hybrid work environment that I think would move in employees, organizations, and the CEOs themselves forward.
Rodrigo Canelas: It looks it’s simple, but it’s not simple. A very, very powerful what you just said. Okay. So I’m not going to let you go before you tell us some secrets because you spend so much time with CEOs. So maybe just between you and me and a couple of hundred people, and maybe you can tell us some secrets that normally the CEO is they don’t share. Maybe you can share a few secrets.
Dr. Sapna Masih Advani: Interesting question between you, me and the, and hopefully hundreds watching.
I think one of the things that I have come to realize I’m immensely fortunate to work with CEOs and very smart, resourceful, intelligent people, and creative people. I think a thing that I’ve always felt talking to them is how like everybody else they are. I think we look at CEOs in an organization, almost putting them on a pedestal and assuming they have the answers, or at least they have a better response to every situation. But they are also going through the same feelings and emotions as all of us in any organization, the same insecurity about the complexity, the same questions about, ‘Am I doing a good job at my doing the right things? Should I be doing something else? How can I respond better to this? How can I grow my organization better? Can I do something about things?’ I think they are feeling the same sense of uncertainty about the present and the future as everybody else.
I’m not sure if that’s a secret, but that’s definitely the sense I get from talking to my coaches.
Rodrigo Canelas: So now we are getting to the end. So the next question is if we look at the future, like 10 years ahead, and we saw there’s a lot going on, what is one skill that you think the CEOs need to start developing to succeed in the future?
Dr. Sapna Masih Advani: Hmm. That’s a very good question. And I think about that because when I coach CEOs, that’s something that I do, I do bring up and, and we talk about in my view, the most important thing, a skill and an approach that CEOs can have that will serve them well for the next several years is simplifying complexity. I think CEOs that simplify the complex environment in many different ways will be very successful.
As a small example. One of my coachees, it’s a simple thing. It’s a small thing, but it had a big impact. He was telling me, and he’s from the region he was telling me, ‘Well, I have, I have a team that is an extremely high risk of attrition and extremely important to the customer. We cannot afford to lose them, but they are one level removed from me.’ And I know that they are at risk. And yet I felt a little bit helpless. And I talked to their manager, his own direct report. And between us, we decided to make that team report directly to me, directly to the CEO.
Now, this is a simplification of the internal reporting structure. Of course with full agreement with all the stakeholders, they made that shift happen. And he says the change was dramatic. I was able to address their fears. I know they were afraid of what was going to happen to me. ‘What’s going to happen to my job. Should I be looking elsewhere? You know, am I getting the best deal?’ And he said, ‘I talked to them directly.’ And it seemed to make a difference.
So CEOs who are able to respond in unconventional ways to this reality today and simplify the reality simplify because external complexity will go on increasing that simplification will bring them results.
Rodrigo Canelas: Wow. What a great way to do an hour of conversation with the simplification and which also, again, looks simple, but it starts simple.
Dr. Sapna Masih Advani: That is very true. That is very true, but it’s good. We’re seeing a lot. We are seeing a lot of responses. We see demand from organizations to give more coaching to their people to do more in terms of culture. So I think organizations are rising to the occasion and so are the CEOs. I’m very, very positive and hopeful that out of all of this will emerge stronger organizations, stronger leadership, and more resilient organizations. Most of all. So I’m very positive about this whole thing.
Rodrigo Canelas: I shared exactly the same. Yeah. I think the leaders who will be able to adjust to this new reality faster, and the unbelief that this is not having all the answers, but keep learning. And as you said, be bold, simplify, and invest in culture. I think that’s basically the summary of what we discussed. It was such a wonderful conversation. And well, thank you for bringing you brought a lot of value. I mean, from a different perspective, like really from the room of the CEO. Thank you for sharing all that value and then yeah. And keep giving helping the CEO so that they can become better leaders.
Dr. Sapna Masih Advani: Thank you so much. Thank you, Rodrigo, for giving me this opportunity to talk about something I’m so passionate about and for inviting me to the podcast. I wish you luck with the rest and thank you so much. It’s been great talking to you.