TR2050 interviews Hem Patel, Moderna: “You can’t be a ‘people pleaser’ in Reward.”
Member Interview

Hem Patel, VP Total Rewards at Moderna, shares his enthusiasm for building reward systems for a fast-growing employee base across multiple countries and identifies the drivers of change.

It was going to take something special to persuade British-born Hem Patel out of his comfortable existence as a long-experienced consultant with Willis Towers Watson in New York. After over a decade in the Big Apple and almost 20 years as a consultant specialising in executive pay, Hem had fallen in love with a New Yorker and her city but, as he tells it:

“This role with Moderna was an opportunity I simply couldn’t say no to. I knew and liked my future boss, I’d worked as a consultant for Moderna and enjoyed the dynamic environment, and I could see how much there was for a reward leader to do. Since day one, our CHRO has asked me to literally break apart Total Rewards and put it back together – we still have a long way to go in that regard.”

Hem accepted the job and moved his wife and son to Boston at the height of the pandemic in May 2021, diving into the fast-moving wave Moderna was riding. “When I first started, we operated in just eight countries, and now we’re in 18,” he says, almost disbelieving in the figures himself. “In just two years so much has changed and we’ve had to build reward structures and systems that meet the needs of really diverse people, but also comply with policies and legal requirements in each country.”

Busy would be the word. The past two years have also been something of a baptism by fire as Hem, despite his years of experience with executive pay and a strong technical knowledge, had no prior experience in leading a corporate total rewards team. Fortunately, Moderna is an environment that actively seeks to challenge its employees; “they told me I could learn what I needed to know. Within 12 months of joining, I received real-time, on-the-job training in HR disciplines such as payroll, global mobility and performance management – things I’d never previously experienced other than as an end user.

Rather than be cowed by the challenges, Hem seems energised and is rightly satisfied with the enhancements the Rewards and HR teams have made since he joined. “One thing I’m really proud of is a mental health support benefit we introduced last year. It entitles all our employees and their families to up to 26 sessions per year. I was a little sceptical at first, but I can already see that it’s been so valuable for our employees and their loved ones,” he says.

The experience also showed him how much staff value benefits over other parts of the total rewards package. “People rarely thank you for a bonus and certainly not for base pay, but our team gets so much great feedback from employees whose lives have been impacted via benefits. These things really matter to our colleagues and their families.”

Keeping options open

As is the case for many of his TR2050 Member colleagues, Hem never intended to work in reward. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was a teenager, except that I didn’t want to run my own business,” he recalls, explaining that his dad, a plumber, was a “workaholic and would literally go out in the middle of the night if someone called with an issue he could fix. I learned so much from my dad about the importance of hard work and how to survive in different environments, but I knew I didn’t want a job where I could never switch off.”

Hem studied International Management and French at the University of Manchester, the former topic chosen because “it gave me options and it meant I could study lots of diverse and interesting modules, everything from corporate law to statistics”, while the latter was added on for pleasure. “I love France and wanted to study abroad for a year – it was absolutely brilliant.”

He joined Willis Towers Watson fresh out of university and thrived, finding his niche within executive pay “at a time when it was a big issue in the UK and a lot of organisations were coming to terms with recent legislature requiring them to hold annual shareholder votes on their executive pay programmes,” he recalls.

In due course he was moved to the New York office, where he would still be if the role with Moderna hadn’t taken him to Boston. While he harbours a determination to get back to the city he loves one day, he is also fiercely ambitious about achieving as much as he can with the skills he’s learned and continues to acquire. “I want to get to the top of my profession,” he says, “perhaps be a CHRO one day. I have to keep learning and being challenged. I hate the idea of ‘clock-watching’; I couldn’t bear to be bored at work.”

Reward evolution and the future

There is certainly no risk of Hem lacking stimulation and innovation in the reward space generally. It is a febrile time for a function that, historically, has failed to keep pace with the fast-changing workplace. Many of these changes are wrought by the adoption of technology and it is a medium Hem is already closely aligned with. He wonders why more companies aren’t embracing innovation as quickly as Moderna is and suggests some may be “burying their heads in the sand about the speed of change.

“They are talking about introducing AI avatars into reward in the coming decade – at Moderna we’re developing this now. It’s probably a little easier for us given we’re still relatively small in terms of headcount, and we intend to keep it that way by embracing one of the 12 mindsets that help define our culture and digitising everywhere possible.”

He draws attention to the fact that there is a lot of reward work that’s transactional and administrative, allowing “AI to handle 80% of that. We certainly won’t need people doing as many of those types of activities as we adopt more technology, so the team can focus on the more value-add, strategic work.” He believes that work such as market pricing and job levelling will be completed by machines with human oversight far sooner than some organisations imagine.

Amid the march to greater digitisation, employees’ needs will remain central to the reward function, Hem believes. “The concept of individualisation is already gaining momentum. There’s a real appetite from employees for flexibility and choice. People want something totally customised to them, and organisations are also recognising that they need to invest in their people; rewards are one of the most visible and valued ways that organisations can demonstrate those investments.”

Interestingly, despite his focus on employee expectations, Hem remains firm that reward plays a vital role in ensuring that an organisation can deliver on its mission and strategy. “I don’t think reward is a good job for a people pleaser because, ultimately, we have to do what is right for the company, which doesn’t always make you popular.”

TR2050 and the far future

Many of these topics, issues and pressures are being explored via the TR2050 Think Tank meetings, which Hem attends as one of a growing cohort of global expert Members. Despite his acceptance that “what things will be like a couple of decades from now is almost impossible to predict” he is still keen to work with contemporaries to develop and pilot solutions that would meet some of the potential challenges of the medium- and long-term future.

“As an innovative, science-based company, we run studies and test ideas all the time at Moderna,” he explains, “so I really felt we would have something to offer to TR2050. It felt like an important opportunity to be involved with.”

Also, looking ahead is likely more natural to a man working in a rapidly-evolving company and with a fast-growing boy at home. The latter, fortunately, also helps to keep him grounded amid the demands and rush of his role with Moderna:

“My son is six now and he’s definitely my antidote to work,” Hem says. “I love football and I’ve got him into it too, so we’re often watching football and I coach the team he plays for. We also just took up rock climbing! That’s been great – it’s good to do something that forces you to be present. It’s a great way to switch off from work.”

Switching off will remain the exception in the busy life of this enthusiastic reward leader at one of the fastest-growing companies of the western world. Boredom is out of the question, but his industry and creative approach to reward will be of value to TR2050 and the wider profession.

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