Social media has a huge implication on how companies treat their employees.

M U Khan is a Senior HR professional with 25 years of experience in HR Management within India as well as Internationally. He worked in cross-cultural, global, and highly matrixed environments in Leadership roles and worked with start-ups as well as with large well-known Global Organizations. Khan built HR function from scratch, managed large HR teams, managed end to end HR for large dispersed workforces, and demonstrated a consistent track record of strong strategic HR Initiatives and translating HR strategy to operating plans. He built strong HR partnerships with Executive level business stakeholders.

Khan is currently associated with Global Cloud Xchange as Executive Vice President HR- APAC, India and EMEA Region. His previous stints include Aon Hewitt as Vice President- HR; GE Capital International Services (now GENPACT) as HR Leader; Electronic Data Systems (EDS) as Sr. HR Manager; Computer Sciences Corporation as Human Resources Manager- India; HCL Technologies as HR Manager; and Tata Motors as Graduate Engineer Trainee.

Khan holds Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.), Human Resources from XLRI Jamshedpur and B.E., Electrical and Electronics from Birla Institute of Technology.

Thank you, Mr. Khan, 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. 

My first job interview was from the campus (XLRI). XLRI a campus placement week during which all the companies come to the campus. They shortlist generally based on Academic performance followed by a group discussion and a personal interview. I went through that process.  My interview was with a panel that was chaired by the group HR Head HCL Corporation (Now HCL Technologies). There were a few questions related to the subject of HR but broadly I think they assessed my communication skills, confidence, and initiative. For those, who are preparing for jobs after graduating from the campus my recommendation would be to have a decent academic track record and focus on your personality traits like communication, drive, energy, initiative, interpersonal skills, etc.

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 didn’t coincide with your expectations? 

My first job was on the shop floor in production. Coming from college, I had absolutely no idea about it and it was a big change. Fortunately, my manager was extremely supportive and helped me transition into my new role.

In retrospect, many times new graduates do not have an idea about the expectations, and they feel that the workplace is an extension of the college environment. It is important to learn to have a professional attitude, and orientation towards delivery, eye for detail and to be able to think on one’s feet. In my view, the best way new graduates can prepare themselves as they step into the workplace is to have prior internship experiences with various organizations. It would also help to read up more (or get in touch with an insider) about the culture and work environment of the company where they are planning to join.

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

I did not plan to be an HR professional initially. I did my engineering and worked at Tata Motors for two years. It was during those two years that I realized that my interests lay elsewhere. A large part of this realization happened because I got involved in some of the activities related to campus recruiting and induction of new campus hires  and I found these to be much more exciting and fulfilling than what I was doing in my job. I was also in touch with some of the students who were pursuing their MBA in HR from XLRI Jamshedpur. That   gave me some flavour of what being an HR professional meant.

So, in short, I would say that one should take time to explore where are their real interests. Sometimes the answer may not be evident even after you graduate. And it's only after you start working that you realize where your passions lie.

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

I did not have any coach or mentor in the first 3 jobs. And probably that is why, I did not stick long in those companies and changed jobs after every two years.

Subsequently, I did have the opportunity of having a great coach who showed me my developmental areas and coached me on how to develop my strengths. During this phase, the organization was growing amazingly fast with a rapidly expanding workforce. And a lot of new responsibilities were being thrust upon me. The coach that I had in the organization, really helped me focus on what I needed to do as a manager to be able to build a solid HR team and manage it well.

One of the best things that I learned from my coach was the ability to effectively delegate. This has helped me in my career by enabling me to focus on larger things. I also learned the practical skills of managing a large team from my coach.

I would highly advise everyone to look out for mentors or coaches in their current organizations. These are employees who are typically many years senior to you are and usually bring in a perspective that you will take years to acquire. If you have such mentors guiding you all along then you do have a strategic advantage over others, in navigating the organizational complexities and improving upon your chances of success

Have you ever been a mentor to another aspiring leader? How did you go about establishing that relationship?

Yes, I have had the privilege of being a mentor to a few people in the last 20 years. Most of the time there was no formal process of assigning a mentor and the relationship built slowly over time and was based on trust. Trust is important to establish in such relationships because the mentee should understand that the person who is a coach, means well for him or her and not take feedback as criticism.  

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 is changing the way we work. Here is my view of what the implications for HR are going to be:

  1. A large part of the workforces will work from home. Employees and managers will have to learn new skills to work and manage in the new paradigm.
  2. HR Process will need to be changed to accommodate the virtual and geographically distributed nature of the workforce (e.g. how to recruit, onboard, evaluate performance, engage, and recognize performance). Digitization is the need of the hour
  3. Remote working will also open up options of new workforce subcategories, to Companies and Employees. For example, women who took a break from work to bring up children, or those who live in another part of the city and can’t apply due to long commutes.
  4. Companies would be forced to relook at their cost and to enhance productivity. Human Resources will play a key role in making sure that meant power related costs are optimized.
  5. Employee Engagement would need to be addressed differently

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?

  1. Culture is based on shared vision, values, beliefs, behaviors, and how work is done in a particular organization.
  2. Successful companies usually have an extraordinarily strong culture that is driven by the CEO and the top leadership of the organization. The strong culture aligns with how everybody works.
  3. HR plays a crucial role in propagating the culture espoused by the top leadership by
    1. Developing appropriate human resource policies, processes and reinforcing the culture by rewarding or disciplining appropriately.
    2. Human resources also play a role in propagating the culture through appropriate communication, storytelling and highlighting employees who are role models in the company for others to emulate.
    3. In addition, HR Is instrumental in shaping the culture of the company by recruiting new hires who are the right fit to the culture (and exiting those who do not fit).

In your career span of 15+ years, what has been your FIVE most challenging HR Assignment? How have you ensured success in those assignments?

During my very first job, my immediate manager resigned soon after I joined. And I found myself reporting to the Chief Executive Officer of the company. This was challenging because I was fresh out of college and had no experience of dealing with expectations of senior leadership. Then, in my next job, I was suddenly thrust upon the responsibility for managing HR for three other countries besides India. That proved to be challenging as well because of my lack of prior relevant experience. Subsequently, when I moved over to GE Capital International services it was a different industry where I was managing a call center with a vastly different workforce dynamic.

At Hewitt, the challenge for me was to quickly adapt to a very rapidly expanding company, set up the workforce HR policies and processes and operate at a strategic level with the leaders as well. In my current job, when I got posted in London as Head of HR for the EMEA region, I had to unlearn a lot of things I learned in India and learn a lot of different stuff related to HR.

Each challenge is an opportunity for growth. The right attitude of humility, flexibility asking the right people, and having the right mentors are some of the things that will help in overcoming these challenges.

We all make mistakes we wish we could take back. Share a time you wish you’d handled a situation differently with a colleague.

There are always different and better ways things can be done. For example, handling a separation with more sensitivity, keeping an open mind during a discussion that suddenly becomes an argument. I have made hiring mistakes as well and ended up hiring those who were misfits in the job. The key is to learn from these and make sure you take steps that these don’t get repeated.

Leaders are often required to make difficult decisions. Share a situation when you made a decision that not everyone agreed with (an unpopular decision).

Being an HR leader is not going to help you win a popularity contest in the Company. HR leaders are called upon to do things that make business sense but would be unpopular with the employees. I have had instances where we have had to make changes in policies, HR benefits (such as coverage for employee’s parents) which did not go well with staff but had to be done. In today’s world with so much focus on productivity, business reorganizations are frequent. HR leaders are frequently called upon to make recommendations and then implement the restructuring. Many times, these result in job losses. These are difficult decisions to make.

How Social Media has changed the workplace dynamics?

There are many ways in which social media has impacted the workplace. And we can have a long discussion on this. However, I would just highlight the following three areas of far as HR professionals are concerned -

  • Social media now has a big implication on how we recruit candidates. It has democratized the entire sourcing process. It has also increased the marketability/ mobility of the workforce.
  • Social media has a huge implication on how companies treat their employees. We only need to look at recent instances of companies letting go of their employees with very little sensitivity and how that instance became viral on social media platforms, denting the organization’s reputation. Besides, instances of whistleblowing need to be taken very seriously by Company management teams. Companies that do not address this, risk facing a trial on social media.
  • With each employee free to air his or her views on social media, companies need to be very conscious of developing a social media policy which lays out very clearly what employees should be careful about while expressing their views.

If you need to draw a landscape of the future workplace, how will it look like? What disruptions do you foresee in HR over the next FIVE years?

I can say that in the next 5 years the HR Department in organizations across India will tend to shrink. There will be a focus on the increased automation of HR Jobs. Many of the tasks that are currently being done in HR and are mundane or administrative in nature will no longer exist and will be replaced by Artificial Intelligence-based software. For tasks that require specialized knowledge of a particular HR domain such as recruiting or compensation, these may be hived off to third party organizations who specialize in these matters. In the end, what will remain in HR will be that which is strategic and seen as adding direct tangible value to the business.

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

I would start off by saying that keep an open mind about your career. Do not get overly fixated to be in HR. You can start off by being in HR and build expertise in various aspects of Human Resource Management, such as Recruitment, Compensation, Employee Relations, HR Business Partnership, etc. But do not get stuck there or you run the risk of stagnating in your career. Be open to having a stint in non-HR functions as well. In fact, the best HR leaders are those who have worked in the business and understand how the business operates. 

The mistake many of the HR professionals do is that they always worked in HR, and thus do not develop a business perspective.

Thank you, Mr. Khan, for sharing wonderful insight. We appreciate it.  

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