How I made it: Nelly Boustany, Digital HR Experience Director, EMEA, SAP
For our latest inspiring stories series, we caught up with Nelly Boustany, Director for Digital HR Experience covering EMEA at SAP, the world's leader in Enterprise Application Software. With over 15 years of leadership experience overseeing HR for global companies – including Nokia and Siemens – in the MENA region during periods of strategic expansion, Nelly’s role sees her connecting with HR leaders and boards, advising on their HR digital transformation journeys, best practices, and lessons learned.
She sat down with us to discuss ‘mini meditations’, the importance of planning, and how she learned to speak up in the board room…
How did you get into the industry?
I studied computer science, so I had a degree that helps you to put logic into what you are doing and a what-if approach. However, I couldn’t stay behind a computer just coding because I am a people person. When I began my master’s degree, I realised that the topics of HR, leadership, org design, psychology etc. were quite interesting to me and that is how I felt drawn to HR.
How do you start your day?
For me, it’s not so much how I start my day that is important but how I plan my weeks. I always start my week by planning for the months, weeks, and days ahead. Typically every Thursday I look ahead to what I’ve got coming up the week after. Then I ensure my mornings are reserved for the most important and strategic topics as that is when my mind is most open and I can focus best on what I want to achieve.
What personal attributes have most helped you to succeed in your career?
Being organised and planning while remaining flexible. I like to plan and organise as much as possible but it’s also important to leave that flexibility to enable you to respond to unexpected events and urgent business needs.
My ability to listen to the business and align to the priorities has also helped. In HR, understanding your business, where you’re heading and the valuable impact of what you do is crucial.
And lastly, I like my work. I have a passion for growing talent and making an impact, so that’s also been a driver.
As an HR professional, how do you stay aligned with the business?
I have agreed with the MD that we have a quarterly review with the leadership team – reviewing the whole end-to-end people strategy, talent acquisition, management, retention, engagement, and succession – everything that the business needs to do help it achieve its goals and remain successful and sustainable.
What keeps you sane on those crazy days?
A bit of one-minute meditation! I try to stay balanced in my approach and I am known to be a very patient person but sometimes when the pressure gets high, it is good to take 10 or 15 minutes away to zone out and regain your balance so you can go back and tackle the topics at hand. It can make a big difference and give you a completely refreshed way to deal with things.
It also helps that I have a great team to rely on. Once you hire the right people, making it work becomes a lot easier.
What career advice would you give someone hoping to succeed in your industry?
HR has evolved significantly from when I started 20 years ago. HR for HR’s sake does not exist anymore; you need to be a partner in the business.
To do this, you require real business understanding and commercial acumen. You need to know your company’s purpose, how your company makes money, who its customers are and what is driving innovation in your industry. These are all important aspects of a business that you need to know about in order to identify what sort of talent strategy will work. You need to get out of the HR shell and develop a wider understanding.
The second thing is to ensure you are up to date with the trends and technology. Tech in HR has really advanced, it has taken away a lot of repetitive tasks from the HR desk so HR can focus on what adds value to the business. You need to be able to leverage that technology to create better experiences and engagement and drive efficiency and productivity, embrace that change and elevate your HR impact.
HR is also the custodian of company culture. Changing mind sets and behaviour in an organisation is difficult but without being able to do this, it’s a half done job.
What three words best describe you as a leader?
Demanding. Fair. Inclusive.
Who, or what, inspires you?
There are lots of people who inspire me in different ways but I have been lucky in my career to always have people who mentored me or who sponsored me. These people have believed in me more than I’ve believed in myself and encouraged me to make that leap. My sponsors and mentors have always pushed me beyond what I believe is possible and it is when you are outside of your comfort zone that you grow and learn.
Inside SAP, I find Brigette McInnis-Day, now the COO of SAP SuccessFactors inspiring. She’s an inspirational leader and her positive energy is contagious.
What challenges have you overcome in the course of your career?
The first one was being a young woman in an environment that was male-dominated and full of more senior people. Having the courage to step up and say ‘this is what we need to do with the people agenda’ was a challenge I had to overcome. I learned to believe in myself.
The second was learning not to be shut down by rejection. You might face people who are intimidating, and aggressive in shutting you down. You need to find the strength to be able to continue and say “I hear you, but here is my point of view”.
This comes with experience, confidence and of course being fact-based as an HR practitioner. Having access to data and insight trends can really help you build credibility in a world of engineers and tech-driven people where the fluffy stuff is just not something they can relate to.