CEO owns the thought process of what should be the culture of the company

Awantika Bhardwaj is an HR Professional with more than 18 years of experience. She holds an extensive background in HR generalist affairs, including Employee Experience, Automation, HR restructuring, Compensation and Benefits, HR Consulting, HR policies development, Campus Connect, and Business Partner HR role. She is also a speaker at various HR forums and regularly visits colleges in Pune.   

Awantika is currently associated with Abzooba Inc. As Vice President – Employee Success where she is Heading the HR for India US and handles a team of highly skilled HR professionals. Her prior stint includes large and mid-size IT companies such as Tieto India, Oracle, Infosys to name a few. she embarked on her professional journey and climbed up to her present status.

Avantika’s educational qualifications encompass:

Master’s in Business Administration from the University Institute of Management (UIM), Jabalpur (M.P.) Specialization – Human Resource Management & Marketing (Dual Major Specialization)

Bachelor of Science from Govt. Autonomous Science College, Jabalpur

Awantika likes to spend her leisure time reading about cars and bikes.  Thank you, Awantika, for giving your valuable time to this interview.  We look forward to your candid responses.

We would be pleased to learn about your professional journey from the beginning. So, please share with us about your first job interview. 

When I was about to begin my career, recession settled in and there were very fewer jobs in the market, especially for HR. I was open to any job coming my way. This is when one day I got to know from one of my seniors that a small company was in Gurgaon looking for someone to set up an HR Department for them. There was no job posting but I sent my resume to one of the professionals working in this company. Fortunately, I got a call for an interview in the next few days. The interview was with the Chief General Manager (CGM) of the company who asked me a few questions about payslip, Provident Fund, and salary. I cleared the interview and landed day one in the company. This is when the CGM asked if I knew to write a Job description. I said yes, and he said to make a Job Description for my role and start working on it. This is how my HR career started.

Which, according to you was the most intriguing interview? Can you share your experience in detail? 

Without taking the name of the company; I would say that the most intriguing interview, rather the selection process, was when I went through a full day simulation; where series of methodologies were applied such as recording of how would I respond to an employee situations; in-basket email clearance considering those as real emails; responding to employee situations face to face over a camera and working in the team and responding to team situations and initiatives. This was like becoming an HR for a day for this company where your ability to prioritize, how you behave in a group, written as well as verbal communication skills were tested. This was the first time when I went through an assessment center in a selection process.

Do you think workplace mentors and coaches play an important role in settling fresh graduates in their first job? How was your experience? 

The concept of Mentors and Coaches were not as popular back in 2001, but my boss did shape my career in HR. He gave me the white canvas to design anything I wanted in HR and kept on adding his ideas and suggestion. He backed me up when I made mistakes and appreciated me when I did well. In today’s world, one gets to see formal mentors and coaches help shape careers and I believe that the role of boss and mentor is different in life. As a fresher, we must not confuse that boss will be our mentor as s/he may have her/his own targets to be met. Very early in career, one must find out a mentor or coach for oneself as the life experiences of these mentors add value to the daily work and even personal life. They could be alumni of the same college as long as someone is willing to spend quality time with the individual to groom them.

“Be flexible because what works in one environment doesn’t work in another, even within the same company.”

Organizational Culture is a key differentiator between successful and not so successful organizations. What determines the organizational culture? What is the role of HR in creating organizational culture?

Culture comes from the values the organization defines and from people that an organization has who demonstrate these values every day whether inside or outside the organization. HR has a significant role in being the value drivers and educating all about the values. CEO owns the thought process of what should be the culture of the company and HR helps drive it with the entire organization by giving the environment where junior or senior can see these values with the same lenses and understand those, are able to articulate it well and eventually live those values.  

What kind of soft skills does a fresh graduate need to get a career break and to be successful at the beginning of their career?

When I go for campus placements my preference is to pick those who are flexible about the job options and are willing to learn anything that might come their way. Though it might sound cliché to say that communication skills are important but throughout my career, I have heard the same and still find it relevant. Adjusting fast to the new environment is also an essential quality and always showing eagerness to learn new work can do the overall grooming of the individual.  

Based on your experience, what are the FIVE essential traits every HR Professional must-have?

My Top 5 would be:

  • Most essential is to be human and understand other person points of view
  • Be aligned with the business and become their integral part
  • Be creative in resolving workplace issues and try new methods; change with the changing needs of people or business or generations
  • Be flexible as what works in one environment doesn’t work in another, even within the same company
  • Be data-oriented and learn HR analytics to get valuable insights to share with leadership and managers alike

“Now it is no more only about talent shortage and it is about re-skilling and up-skilling even the existing workforce.”

From profile sourcing to the issuance of the final offer letter, organizations put candidates through multiple filtration processes. What is your take on using “relevant industry experience” and “excellent academic record (first-class and above)” as filtration tools?

“Relevant Industry experience” comes handy when one is new to the organization as it helps settle fast and understand the work better, however, a lot of times I have experienced that those who were willing to learn new skills gave their extra to the job and came out with flying colors Vs. those who thought I have all the knowledge and I do not need to learn anything new or I will not change my stream, technology, work, role, domain, etc. In today’s era, things change almost on a daily basis and I firmly believe that what got you here; will not get you there, thus, my mantra is to stay open to anything new. In my personal life, I have seen that “Excellent Academics” did not necessarily fetch you a good career. It was those who consistently kept on performing in their career made it to the top. Knowing the basics definitely helps and thus the subject knowledge should be clear. A continuous effort towards achieving what you are set out to takes you there.      

When we talk to fresh graduates and junior level employees as well as non-HRs, they understand Employee Engagement as – Birthday Celebrations, Picnics, Diwali Rangoli, Christmas Celebrations, Cultural Day Celebrations, etc. Please help us understand what employee engagement is and why it is necessary? 

Employee Engagement is a very large topic and pertains to the total engagement of an employee within the organization including work and fun alike. Organizations are now moving one ladder up to Employee Experience which covers culture, ambiance, facilities and more along with the quality of work or stress-free environment to all the employees. Today’s workplaces engage best when employees can find value in the system, they get creative workspaces which enhances productivity by allowing them to bring creative ideas. Beautiful looking offices are a must to attract candidates for the first time and then the freedom to use Wi-Fi, social media and collaborative tools at the workplace but what remains on top is the value creation through quality work. The new generation at work doesn’t like restrictions and monitoring. They look for freedom to work, flexible work timings and perks to perform their best. They want their efforts to be making visible changes to their customer's work. Gig worker is becoming a reality and essentially all HRs in the near future will have to deal with some. The rules of engaging them with one organization will not work as some of them will be gig and remote workers at the same time.

What are your thoughts about Talent Shortage? What are a few practical tips you want to give to CEOs and Hiring Managers to manage the challenge of Talent Shortage?

Technology is changing everything around us. Skills need to be upgraded almost every 6 months. Customers have become more demanding and are looking for 6-8 skills in one employee. Now it is no more only about talent shortage and it is about re-skilling and up-skilling even the existing workforce. What makes this problem multi-fold is that now the Talent gets to decide whether they want to work for you or not. What they see is – “what is the value proposition that you have in the offer as an organization, what benefits do you provide, do you have the learning culture and top of it are you an employer who does quality work that will help career boost to them”. The talent marketplace has now turned to a place where the corporate need to sell themselves to a larger audience to make sure that they consider you as a prospective employer. My advice is to keep engaging candidates much before even when you have a position/vacancy for them and keep discussing the quality of your work so that when the time comes, they think about you first.

“Going forward automation is the way of life, whether professional or personal life”.

In your career span of 15+ years, what was one WOW workplace experience?

There are many WOW experiences that I have had in my career but to share one I would say the working on HR related areas in a merger and acquisition situation is my favourite. Two of the companies where I worked have undergone M&A situations and this gives you maximum learning. As an HR, one gets to study 2 HR systems simultaneously and is required to either pick one which serves the purpose best or derives the best out of the two and makes a hybrid HR system for the company. When you sit down and write the Vision statement of the HR team in an already established global brand, you feel that you have genuinely made the contribution as many generations to come at the workplace will follow what you design today and you will be part of the history of that company for a very long time. I was fortunate enough to get this opportunity and learned to re-design the already existing space. 

HR is at the crossroads, yet again. According to you, what will be the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robots, etc. on the future of HR Function? Please also highlight how social media has changed the world of HR practitioners?

I am very optimistic that AI, Robotics will make the life of HR and everyone else exciting. It will not only take away the mundane tasks from us but will also give us a free hand to reinvent ourselves as professionals to see how we add value to the larger system such as through our thought leadership, risk-taking abilities, and creativity. Automation is the way of life going forward whether professional or personal life.

Social media is impacting our lives in a big way. The information is available at the fingertips of everyone at every point of time and companies need to constantly keep on improving themselves to make them the employer of choice for the relevant audience. As far as HR practitioners are concerned, it is two-fold. One side candidate is watching you and hiring has totally changed due to social media as searching the right candidate has become easy and the other side employees are writing on social media when you do good and do bad instantaneously. It is a very big responsibility on our shoulders now to do what is right. 

What disruptions do you foresee in HR over the next FIVE years?

This is my favorite topic. I think following 5 disruptions and maybe more are coming our way:

  • Every HR department will have at least 1 robot colleague
  • Full Stack HR professional is the way forward where generalists will be able to make more impact by adding their experience and perspective at the workplace 
  • Work-life will be integrated more with personal life as the automation will bring the 2 together
  • Gig workers will be more at the workplace and hence engagement and employee experience will have a different definition in future
  • Workplaces will be more and more seamless as co-working spaces and homework space will become the norm and hence the remote work

“New generation at work doesn’t like restrictions and monitoring. They look for freedom to work, flexible work timings and perks to perform their best.”

Last question, what is your message for young and aspiring HR practitioners? What kind of growth opportunities should they look forward to? And, what are the key competencies one must possess to be successful in this profession?    

My advice to aspiring young professionals is to be creative in whatever they do. The world is already an interesting place to be with the AI, automation, Robotics in place. Think more of what the new skills they can acquire and keep picking new certifications every 6 months or so. There are so many online portals due to which learning has become easy. Someone who strives to keep learning new things will go a long way. As I said earlier, risk-taking ability and flexibility are the primary competencies for anyone of us today as the world is changing at a much rapid rate than earlier. The one who will adapt fast, change fast, unlearn and then learn fast will be more successful than ever.

Thank you very much, Awantika.

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