TR2050 interviews Kumar Kymal, BNY Mellon: “This is our chance to redefine how we approach Reward.”
Member Interview

Kumar Kymal, Global Head of Reward and Wellbeing at BNY Mellon, is excited about the changes he is seeing in the reward space and trends he is certain will shape the future.

“This is a pivotal period,” declares Kumar Kymal, Global Head of Reward and Wellbeing at BNY Mellon. “We are starting to discuss what’s changing in the world of work and so this is our chance to redefine how we approach reward”.

Kumar has three decades of HR and rewards roles behind him with giants such as Blackberry, Nokia and Cisco. These experience drives his vision and enthusiasm for a function that he views as central to attraction, retention and engagement for every organisation, no matter what the future holds. “This is the most exciting period in human capital,” he stresses, “deciding what direction to take reward in is critical.”

Unique experiences

Kumar’s views of the future of reward have been shaped by tenure at some of the world’s most iconic organisations, where he was tasked with reshaping reward models in periods of business transformation.

He was at Cisco in EMEA when it burgeoned from 1,000 to 7,000 employees during the tech boom, and at Blackberry when the business “effectively imploded”. At Thomson Reuters he designed and implemented a new reward strategy to support an enterprise-oriented growth strategy; his approach was later highlighted as a best practice case study by CEB’s Corporate Leadership Council. At these companies, Kumar was required to fundamentally change the organisations’ approach to reward to meet the evolving needs of the business and cope with the external changes and challenges.

At BNY Mellon Kumar designed a new reward strategy, implementing new programmes with a distinctive value proposition to engage employees. Changes ranged from a global 16-week parental leave, a new caregiver leave, new global mental health programmes, to a unique employee share grant to enable 46,000 employees (who were ineligible to receive equity compensation) to share in the company successes.

“I’ve had some unique experiences,” Kumar recognises, “but then every company is different, and each should approach reward differently.” The reward profession itself suits him: “I enjoy being able to directly impact the business and that buzz of being in the centre of a big change.

“I enjoy the complexity of the work because reward touches everyone in the company. Reward is the way you demonstrate the culture and values of the organisation. If done well, it causes the right employees to self-select, joining the business that suits them and shares their values.”

Kumar has worked in reward long enough to recognise some of the wider trends that have challenged organisations and he believes that the speed of change is only increasing. “Rapid change has resulted in an increased obsolescence of skills, a shift away from long term employment and reduced loyalty. These trends are reshaping how organisations approach reward.”

Kumar adds that these cycles are shortening, creating a need for greater agility and “‘outside-in thinking’ in how an organisation approaches everything, especially reward.”

He views technology as another major transformative element metamorphosing organisations. Technology has increased globalisation of talent and the fact that most people are now ‘always-on and connected’, which profoundly influences talent attraction and expectations.

The impact of the pandemic has triggered unprecedented changes in how businesses operate, too. “It has really accelerated the future of work and we’re still in the early days, so it’s one to watch,” he adds.

The pandemic required organisations to prioritise and increase investment in the wellbeing and mental health of their employees. Kumar believes this trend will only increase as a new generation enters the workforce. He points out that there is an ongoing mental health crisis in the 15-25 age cohort globally, “and this is really significant, especially for Gen Z, due to what they experienced during the lockdowns at such formative ages. They are increasingly seeking a healthy work-life balance, meaningful work and a values-based organisation.”

Home life, past and present

Kumar has first-hand experience of what the younger generations are grappling with. His children, now in their twenties, moved home during the pandemic. Isolating together as a family gave them time to reflect on careers and work-life balance in the post pandemic world.

“We talk a lot about things, so I know what they worry about and what they expect,” admits Kumar. “My kids say their generation wants more than a 9 to 5 career. What motivates them is a flexible workplace and organisations that pay attention to social and environmental issues”.

The perspective of his GenZ/Millennial children is completely different to Kumar’s own youth growing up in Michigan to parents who immigrated from India in the 1970s. He is the youngest of five and his father was a professor and scientist, with all his siblings following traditional paths into teaching, medicine, and engineering.

Initially, Kumar was on a pre-med track but soon switched to social sciences when he became fascinated by how organisations work. This led Kumar to pursue a Master’s degree in Industrial Relations at the University of Wisconsin, before beginning his career in HR at NCR, which pioneered the ATM industry.

When he moved into reward roles, Kumar found his forte. “I’ve done both HR and reward roles, but the latter is where I keep coming back to – it’s so multi-faceted,” he says. That interest took him on a career trajectory across five different countries in Europe, the US and Canada, working for top global tech companies.

“I especially loved Finland, where I was working for Nokia. It was probably one my favourite experiences. The work, the people and culture were fascinating and a real learning experience – and I gained a love for saunas!”

Future trends

At work, Kumar is energised by the fast pace of change and seismic future trends that will impact the reward function in the workplace of the future.

He predicts that AI will have a “profound impact” on every single business, in all areas and functions. “AI will accelerate the transformation of jobs and will impact everything we do in organisations today.”

Skills-based pay will become a market norm, he believes, as jobs disaggregate and the workforce is increasingly hired for skills, competencies, or to complete a project. Kumar foresees that hyper personalisation of rewards will become standardised, and this will be made possible by AI, automation, and technology.

Importantly, organisations will design jobs and roles specifically with wellbeing and the work-life balance in mind to ensure they attract and retain the new generation; individuals will have the capability to self-select a career path based on their desired work intensity.

New entrants to the workforce will place importance on values and awareness of global issues, so Kumar expects reward packages to become more creative in terms of benefits. “This is harder to predict precisely, but I can see benefit offerings becoming more global, more linked to sustainability and prioritised around wellbeing. Organisations will need to respond proactively to employees looking for jobs that chime with their own values and imperatives.”

He expects some existing trends, such as pay transparency, will only grow, and sees the emerging trend of jobseekers looking for “global nomad packages” that allow them to work from wherever they want to become more standardised.

TR2050 Membership

Kumar joined TR2050 as a Member because he believes in their collective vision to explore and build solutions for a future of reward that can rise to the demands of a future workforce.

“I’ve always been a futurist in the way I think and create strategies,” he explains, “so I thought TR2050 sounded really interesting, a really cool group to be part of. Where else would you get to work with top reward leaders and academics, coming together to shape the future?”

Kumar sees TR2050 as a unique opportunity to give back to a profession that has brought him a lifetime of fascinating, challenging, and rewarding experiences across the world. “We have a lot of diverse experiences,” he says of the TR2050 Membership, “and together we can start to explore solutions, and actually pilot them. We can lay down a path that will help define what comes next because the future of work is going to be incredibly different and challenging.”

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