CEO expects HR to understand business drivers and bring people solutions to business problems.

Ekta Bhardwaj is a passionate HR professional having 18 years of experience in diverse HR roles across various industries. Having assumed various leadership roles in her career, Ekta has worked extensively on HR strategy, Organization transformation, Organization Capability Development, Leadership Development etc. Presently, Ekta is associated with Nissan Motor India Pvt. Ltd. as the Head of Human Resources where her role encompasses driving business results through HR strategy. Previously, Ekta has worked with Bharti Infratel, Panacea Biotec, and InterContinental Hotels Group.

As ambitious as She is, Ekta is an avid speaker, a fitness enthusiast, and an animal lover; she constantly seeks opportunities to make a positive impact.

A graduate in Economics from Delhi University and an MBA in HR from Apeejay School of Management, Ekta is also Certified in various Psychometric and Ability Tests, Competency Mapping, Assessment & Development Center, Training & Development etc.

Her accolades include the ‘Most Influential HR Leaders in India’, ‘Women Achievers Award’ and ‘Top 100 HR minds in India’ by World HRD Congress.

Thank you, Ekta, for giving your valuable time to this interview. Your kindness is much appreciated.  We look forward to your candid responses.

Let’s Start!!!

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

My first job interview experience was remarkably interesting. I was, of course, a fresher and was looking for making a head start in HR as my career. The HR Manager, while interviewing, said to me that you look an incredibly good fit for Sales, so I would like you to offer a Sales Executive job, would you like to take it? I was clearly not too happy with this option and insisted to be considered for HR only. I remember distinctly that he persuaded me a lot for taking up Sales and also said,” if you want to make money in your Career, Sales is a better option. In HR you won’t make great money.” But I was so hell-bent on taking up HR as my career choice, that he had to agree with me. The 2nd round of interview was with the Sr. Vice President of the Organisation. He said, “I like your profile very much, but I think you are a very good fit for Customer Relations. I would like you to offer a Customer Relations job.” I said to myself Ah! not again! Once again, I insisted that I was determined about making my career in HR. It wasn’t easy for a 22-year old to negotiate with an industry veteran and refuse to accept the bright picture that he presented for a Customer Relations Career. Yet, I could convince him and finally made an entry in an HR profession.

As the first job holds a special memory, let’s discuss your first year at your first job. How was your experience? What were your expectations of your employer and your role? Were they all fulfilled? What did not coincide with your expectations?

The first job experience is memorable for me as I still consider that to be immensely significant in helping me build a strong foundation for my career. I joined the Organisation when its HR function was in a transition stage from being ‘Personnel’ Department, which was purely administrative in nature; to the HR function focusing on talent development and engagement initiatives. My Managers trusted my passion and hard work fully and encouraged me to lead many important assignments to bring about the much-needed change. I was given the opportunity to gradually explore all the Functions ranging from Training, Recruitment, Performance Management, Employee Engagement, and Talent Management. I still cherish those years as the most slogged out years of my career (as I kept on executing multiple assignments at the same time consistently), yet so rewarding in terms of fuelling tremendous growth to my career.

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

Workplace mentors and coaches unarguably play a critical role to give the right direction to fresh graduates. I wasn’t assigned a formal coach/mentor, but my skip manager informally played the role of my coach. He could recognize the potential in me (that I was myself unaware of completely) and kept on challenging me with higher-level assignments every time, which I would readily accept. He wouldn’t micromanage me on those assignments but would motivate and guide me through the course when needed. Some of my best tacit learning happened with him in terms of understanding Organisational dynamics and, hence increasing my Organisational savviness. As a fresher, it was an absolutely new sphere for me. A big part of my career success still owes to his coaching!

Why did you choose HR as a profession? What was the motive and what was the motivation?

I chose HR Function as a profession, as during my MBA I realized that I was fascinated with the topics like Organisational Behaviour and Talent Development. I really got inspired by the idea of dealing with human behaviour and emotions and was equally intrigued to know as to how that can be translated into achieving business objectives. To support people, grow, develop, and reach their potential, and to drive business with people initiatives still motivates me the same way today.

COVID-19 has changed workplace dynamics in many ways. What has been your learnings during this phase? What permanent changes do you foresee at the workplace post-COVID-19?

COVID-19 for sure is an unprecedented time and is resulting in unprecedented measures and outcomes in all spheres of life. Workplaces also have been impacted in a big way. HR has been put into the driving seat to lead this change in the Organisation. CEOs are looking at HR for ensuring business continuity and at the same time upholding employees’ morale and productivity. To keep consistent connect with employees through various communication like Leadership addresses, well-being checks and measures, engaging with teams, preventing work from home burnouts, ensuring work life balance, infusing one-team feeling, educating on new ways of working and thinking etc. are paramount during this phase. Some of the permanent shifts at workplace post-COVID-19 can be seen in terms of the following:

  • Work from Home becoming a normal way of life
  • Digital meetings replacing in-person meetings
  • Expansion of gig workforce
  • Priority to wellbeing policies and initiatives
  • Leaders’ ability to empower and trust their teams
  • Focus on output rather than input
  • Positive shifts in favour of gender diversity as employers will now find comfort in considering women candidates having a need to work from home
  • Less need for travel
  • Less need for expansive offices

What is your take on “Career Gaps”? We come across many people who are forced to hide certain aspects of their employment history because organizations do not shortlist their profiles because of career gaps. How do you address such cases? 

Career Gaps are not a taboo anymore in today’s world as long as they appear for valid reasons. Career gaps normally occur when people get laid off due to Organisation restructuring or additionally in the case of women candidates when they are on their maternity path / young mothers. Employers are open to considering such candidates today as long as they have the necessary competencies and the skill set required for the job. In fact, progressive Organisations design special programs to help women candidates on a career break to kick start a second career inning with them. By ignoring such candidatures, Organisations tend to lose out on a significant pool of existing talent. Even layoffs are a matter of role redundancy than performance issues of people. Many talented employees get laid off as their role/skill becomes redundant for their current Organisation. However, if the career gap is due to loss of job on account of some compliance or ethical issue, in that case, such gaps are viewed seriously by the prospective organisation and become a problem for the candidate for future job opportunities.

What are your thoughts about layoffs? What is the role of HR in layoffs? According to you, what is the appropriate way of managing layoffs?

Layoff is definitely a painful experience for both employees and the employer. However, given the present business environment, at times it becomes inevitable in order to ensure business continuity. HR’s role is paramount in managing layoffs right from identifying the business case for it, identifying appropriate pockets of layoffs, ensuring fairness and transparency in the process, managing positive internal and external communication effectively to this effect, upholding employees’ morale and trust in the Organisation in such an environment, ensuring retention of critical talent in these times, managing impacted employees in the most humane manner, working out severance terms and conditions in the best interest of employee and the Organisation etc.

The most appropriate way of managing the layoff is to ensure that the entire process is based on a business rationale that is clearly understood by employees. At the same time, making the layoff process as humane and empathetic as possible by upholding the dignity of every individual who gets impacted. Moreover, going out of the way to deploy outplacement agencies to help secure laid-off employees a job outside, talks highly about the Organisation’s care and concern for people even post employee’s exit.

What do you think 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?

This is true that there is a talent war in the market. To attract the best of the talent, to engage and retain them with the Organisation is definitely a challenge.

In order to manage this talent shortage, first and foremost CEOs have to prioritize the development of their people. To invest in people and make them future-ready for higher roles is a key to make up for talent shortage. This is what we call succession planning.

To infuse purpose to people’s work and help them see their contribution making a difference goes a long way in engaging high performers positively with the Company and thus retaining them with the Company for a longer period of time.

Hiring-Managers must ensure that people’s skills and abilities are utilized in the most optimized manner.

HR must ensure that people are skilled and reskilled as per the need of the hour hence reducing dependency to find talent in the external market.

Focus on homegrown talent through Campus Programs is another impactful way for making up for Talent shortage.

Diversity is the most underutilized domain. Many talented women and differently-abled talent are not able to make it to their deserving places in the Companies due to stereotype mindset and biases. There lies a great talent pool.

Based on your experience, what are the primary expectations of a CEO from the HR Function, in general, and HR Head, in particular?

A CEO looks at HR function as a key driver for giving business results and expects HR to understand and speak business language. People are the only asset that differentiates a more successful Company than the less successful ones. Everything else can be replicated.

CEO expects HR to understand business drivers and bring people solutions to business problems, design and develop an efficient Organisation, build high performing teams, create an Organisational culture that brings out the best in its employees, leverage on the potential of people and ensure the right person in the right place.

How do you motivate your team?

I motivate my team by helping them see their contribution making an impact on the success of the Organisation, by ensuring that they have enough challenge in their assignments which brings excitement in their day to day work, that they feel they are professionally and personally growing on daily basis. Timely recognition for efforts and achievements goes a long way in fuelling in motivation in an individual for achieving even better results. I ensure my team is appropriately recognized and that they feel they are a part of the winning team.

What kind of behavior makes you angry/annoyed?

Noncollaboration, lack of team spirit, abdicating responsibilities, lack of willingness to put discretionary efforts, having hierarchical and fixed mindset are some of the behaviors that annoy me.

Lastly, what is your message for fresh HR Graduates? How should they prepare themselves for a career in HR?

There is no other key to success than hard work, especially at the starting point of one’s career. One needs to be extremely passionate about the subject that he/she chooses as a career and then being consistently curious about it. Always step forward to seize every possible opportunity that offers you new and more responsibilities, explore various areas, take challenges head-on and never get into a comfort zone.

Go for a career in HR if you are genuinely interested and passionate about people. If you have an innate ability to influence and navigate complex situations. Take turns in both HR Business Partner and Centre of Excellence roles before you carve out your forte. Learning to understand the business, value chain, and financials early in career will be immensely helpful in making a strong HR leader.

Thank you, Ekta, for sharing wonderful insight.

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