Q&A: Nabeel Al Azami: “In our sector, people run on a lot of goodwill”

Author: PM editorial | Date: 2 Feb 2016

Islamic Relief Worldwide’s head of HR talks about motivating thousands of volunteers in Asia

“After five years at Ford, I had reached a certain milestone,” says Nabeel Al Azami, head of HR, HROD Division, at Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW). He had been working on interfaith charity projects in his spare time, but he says: “I wanted to do something that made a difference full time rather than occasionally.” So it was fortuitous that this is when international relief and development agency IRW came knocking. People Management caught up with him to find out more.
Tell us a bit about Islamic Relief Worldwide?
We employ 3,000 staff and many more volunteers across roughly 40 countries worldwide, with a third of them in Asia. We have a lot of people in Asia because it’s one of the most disaster-prone areas in the world. There are countries that have problems with earthquakes, floods and major poverty. We have hundreds of staff in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and we also have operations in the Philippines, Nepal, India and Afghanistan. In Asia we also have partner countries, which are more involved with fundraising because they’re wealthier, like Australia and Malaysia.
 
How do you respond quickly when a disaster happens?
When the Nepal earthquake happened we were among the first on the ground because we have strong teams there.
 
Our regional HR manager for Asia has built a rota of disaster response personnel, so that within 72 hours we can make sure that someone is on the ground anywhere in Asia if disaster hits. We can move staff between countries, when necessary, from the closest geographical site possible.
 
How does this work in practice?
We did a skills-mapping exercise to find out what capabilities we had across Asia. When Nepal was hit we were able to look at our people in Bangladesh and find the best people to fly across to Nepal to help very quickly.
 
HR’s role is not just about directing disaster-response-trained personnel to where they are needed – my HR manager went out to Nepal as well to ensure the people systems were in place. We do this because when our teams land and start doing the work, important systems and processes could be neglected because people need to ramp up operations quickly. So we land, then we recruit local staff to help aid distribution. HR takes responsibility for recruiting the best people and working out the pay and terms, as well as where the working facilities will be. These are real HR business partnering issues against the backdrop of a disaster. And when our HR manager arrives on the ground, he has HR toolkits that we’ve developed. The kits include all the relevant templates and systems, which can be adapted inline with local and legal advice.
 
Do HR staff help with other aspects of disaster-response work?
We encourage our HR people to be involved when appropriate, for example with work that doesn’t require a lot of training such as helping to distribute food. This also helps our HR professionals understand the different roles in the organisation and helps them to understand why the staff on the ground are so desperate to get going.
 
How do you attract and retain talent?
Our job is to make sure that we get the best talent and look after them while they are doing their job. We support them in a disaster environment, and after the projects and trips, we look after their income as well as their wellbeing. We developed a stress clinic in-house, so we could provide people with support. In our sector, people run on a lot of goodwill and sometimes people push themselves too hard and can suffer burnout. So you need to look after their wellbeing because they won’t complain. We’re also looking at how to make the most of talent preparedness.
 
What is talent preparedness?
The term is something we coined at a recent conference in Asia – it’s a contraction of ‘talent management’ and ‘disaster preparedness’. It is HR learning from disaster-preparedness principles.
 
It involves thinking about how can we design our HR systems to prepare for a talent disaster, such as if a really valuable, talented member of staff leaves us.
 
Could you share some examples?
It’s about being an antenna for the organisation to see what’s happening, then making predictions for the future and configuring your workforce. By looking at your HR analytics you can see who has been in what role and how many people have certain skills. You may also know what the business strategy and future funding is to enable you figure out where talent can be directed to keep people engaged.
 
We find there can be certain hard to fill roles for in-country positions. If we can’t find someone with the complete skill set we need, we to see if we have half-qualified people who are now managers or senior managers. If we place them on secondment to complete their experience, two years down the line they will be ready to take these positions.