Focus on the Fundamentals
Vignesh is an HR professional with over 16 years of experience. Across his professional journey, he has worked with some amazing organizations and great leaders. Though he has worked across varied verticals of HR Function, his forte is in HR Shared Services where he has managed engagements locally and globally. In his current role, he is responsible for HR Digital Transformation and employee experience with Mercedes Benz Research and Development India Limited. In addition to Masters in Human Resources Management, he has Masters in Labour Law and Labour welfare. In his leisure time, he likes to spend time watching, playing, and reading on Cricket. He gets invited by colleges and institutes for guest lectures.
Thank you, Vignesh, 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 interview was a campus interview. I was 20 and I was one among the 4 in the entire batch to be selected. It was after my undergrads. We had only a few hours of intimation and eventually (no) preparation. We had a series of rounds and I need to be honest that I wasn’t through any special training for campus placements. I still remember the interviewer checking with me, my favourite sport. Cricket was my immediate response. He then quickly had a set of counter questions to my responses. He checked what role I play. I said, “I am an opening bowler and 3 down batsmen.” He said, “why you are not a captain?” Then he asked me the favourite question of interviewers ‘what are your strengths and weakness?’ However, I do not remember those answers, but I chose to be honest. When they announced I was through, I was so much surprised as I never thought at 20, I would be sitting at a desk and contributing.
As the first job holds a special memory, let us 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?
First job, first colleagues, a first manager like first love always stay closer to your heart. It was an automobile major and we were thrilled to see the big factory, employee welfare schemes and not to forget the sumptuous canteen food. I was a blank white sheet. We were hired as an “Office Administrator” and I was lucky to be placed in the HR department. That was my first experience of the HR function.
Our first task in hand was implementing TQM principles in the employee file room. We were a batch of four and we were clueless about what this was all about. However, the colleagues and mentors assigned really helped us get over the initial surprises at work. We were soon posted in our respective functions and we started on our day-to-day tasks. I was reporting to the L&D Head at that time and he was a perfect manager to start with. I remember his polite approach and don’t know why he always addressed everyone with “Mr.”. His email writing skills just awed me. He had solutions like Google to all my biggest issues faced in day-to-day tasks. Your colleagues around you are your biggest assets. They helped me learn the simplest task of folding an offer letter into a window envelope to being the champ in excel formulas to drafting correspondence for employees and leadership. I did not have any expectations. As I said I was a blank white sheet, I allowed myself and others to script the first few interesting storylines of my career there. I did my master's in Human Resources after my first job. In a way, my first job was 2 years of paid post-graduation.
Which, according to you was the most intriguing interview? Can you share your experience in detail?
One interview which I attended almost a decade ago (I did not get through though), was one of the best experiences so far. The interviewer was yet to join the organization and he was in transit. He was from IIT and IIM. My heart skipped a beat. I was literally sweating after the interview. It was that kind of interview in which you learn a lot. The interviewer
helped me learn an important aspect of being yourself and being the role, you are responsible for., aren’t two different things.
Why did you choose HR as a profession? What was the motive and what was the motivation?
As an average student, I wanted to escape science. I took up commerce in hopes of becoming a Chartered Accountant. (My personal email address resonates with my childhood dream). The campus placement at the age of 20 made me sit in an HR department and as they say, destiny has different ideas. Though I started pursuing CA / ACS, numbers, balance sheets, and financial statements did not excite me much. However,
people's conversations and designing people-centric initiatives did. It was certainly not a choice but more of a design to what I am to what suits my profession today.
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 play a very significant role in strengthening one’s career. I would say everyone needs one and just not fresh graduates. As a fresh graduate, I chose to remain grounded and continued to learn from colleagues/leaders around me. I think if you keep your heads and ears open all the time, you will tend to learn from different conversations, projects, ideas, perspectives, and feedback. A workplace mentor will help you learn a lot and he will help you channelize your energy, intention to the larger organizational goal. I was fortunate to find different mentors/managers who helped me shape my career. One of them helped me push my boundaries beyond the obvious and normal. Though it frustrated me in the initial days, when I reflect back, it was a seed for success.
In the later years, one of the days when I came out of a performance discussion where I was rated “average”. One of the mentors found me in the corridors and offered a coffee discussion that stays very close to my heart even today.
The ultimate learning was ‘do you work for a rating or do you work for your career? What you are and what you have learned stays closer to you and helps you improve. However, what your manager has selectively seen to appraise you is immaterial!’
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?
These are unprecedented times, and, in a way, we are lucky to be on the table of managing challenges during these tough times. Fortunately, I have been part of MBRDI where the employee is at the center during these difficult times. We as an organization have kept our employee’s safety, security, and well-being as the most important aspect locally and globally.
For us at Mercedes-Benz Research and Development India, employee safety comes first.
COVID 19 will certainly change many things the way we are working. The list is quite endless.
The way we work, the way we travel, our employee policies, and the benefits we offer, are the significant changes we would see in the coming months if not years.
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 is the unwritten rule of an organization. It is something everyone believes, and it is non-tangible. You cannot see it; however, you can feel it day in day out. You can smell the classic fragrance from both inside and outside the organization.
HR leaders are the torchbearers in this aspect of how well the organization functions within the cultural boundaries and they embed them in the day-to-day functioning be it from hiring to exit.
HR is about people and so is culture.
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 okay, provided it is backed up with the right reasons. In my own career, after my first job, I did take a gap for 2 years to do a management education before joining back to work.
We do come across profiles where there are career gaps which when explained does not haunt their probability of selection. It is better to disclose the career gaps pro-actively and be honest about the reason. I think the industry has moved on to check with you beyond the why, the “what you were doing” in these career gaps. I personally know my friends and colleagues who wanted to pursue the route of GIG worker, entrepreneur, and start-up. Few were successful and however, the others did come back to mainstream work.
In your career span of 15+ years, what has been your FIVE most challenging HR Assignments? How had you ensured success in those assignments?
I joined Mercedes Benz Research & Development India Limited in July 2017 when I was handed over the responsibility of bringing HR Digital Transformation. When I look back after 3 years, I think we (the team) have definitely done some significant needle movements in this aspect. We have certainly created a lot of value and the journey ahead looks even more captivating. This was quite challenging due to different stakeholders and change management. The way ahead is UI + UX = EX = 2CX.
Providing a great employee experience will result in twice the customer experience.
In one of my assignments, I had to wear a dual hat of being the center HR Head of the organization and at the same time being the Global HR Shared Services Lead. With the help of my team and tremendous support from leadership, we were able to build the lost trust back from the local and global stakeholders. This only
helped us in better customer satisfaction scores, new work from different geographies, and high employee engagement scores.
In one of my tenures, I was leading a key transition of HR processes (hire to retire) from Australia back to India including process and system readiness. We were quite successful in the overall transition only to have additional areas of work coming back to us later.
In one of my assignments, I worked as a junior HR business partner who was responsible for the business unit. It was the most challenging times (2007 – 08) and where the budgets were crippled. We were responsible for managing employee engagements with almost no cost. Thanks to the mentor/leadership who helped us construct some low cost but high impact engagement initiatives. By far, they had the most touching impact.
Always something reminds us of our first job. I was entrusted with the responsibility of being the planner of my department who monitors and controls the cost. We were going through some tough times. It certainly helped me understand different HR functions in terms of monitoring the cost.
We introduced a concept called PIP – Profit Improvement Plan and we were one of the pioneers in the profit improvement projects.
Key success Mantras -
- Customer Centric approach
- Trust with leadership - Building and maintaining trust with leadership
- Being people-centric – Invest and inspire people. They will create magic
- Thinking out of the box
- Execution Excellence
What is your greatest accomplishment as a leader?
To be very honest, this was the toughest question to answer. I think in the leadership journey you only move from one milestone to another. There is a lot to be achieved and happy that way the destination is like a mirage that disappears every time one gets closer to it.
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 would like to recall the recent survey results published by NHRD on the role of the HR function in 2030 and the future of CHRO.
India as a young nation is undergoing the next paradigm shift in terms of technology, work, workplace, and workforce. There are several other factors that are undergoing severe changes e.g.: environmental changes, ‘purpose’ and social impact becoming more important for individuals, rewards, use of analytics, continuous upskilling, and wellness are some if not all the bigger trends around us.
In this light, the roles and definitions of HR function are already taking a tectonic shift. In the next 5 years,
many of the administrative HR roles will either erode if not cease to exist. We could see newer roles emerging if not all of these but to mention a few, diversity and inclusivity, data & decision making, HR AI and automation, HR design thinking, Employee Experience, and the list may look quite interesting as we move on to the next decade.
There are tons of untapped opportunities in front of us and they are up for grabs.
Lastly, what is your message for fresh HR Graduates? How should they prepare themselves for a career in HR?
I would recommend the following to the fresh HR graduates based on my experience.
- FTF – Focus on the Fundamentals. This is very important in the early years of your career. You do not get a second chance to learn the basics. Get your hands dirtied as much as you can.
- Titles, salaries, and fancy designations are always there to reach but not now.
Get rounded experience on all the facets of HR as much as possible in the first five years. It could be your direct experience on the subject or through cross-functional projects.However, test all types of soil.
- Your learning process has to be continuous. I would strongly recommend investing 5% of your income in learning. It could be the allied studies in HR with a blend of technology, newer tools, data science, etc.
- Hold yourself to a workplace mentor. He / She would double up your learning and he/she could multiply your urge towards excellence.
Your fitness is as important as your urge to grow in making a successful career. Devote at least 5% of your daily time into fitness. I would sincerely recommend a balanced fitness regime that takes care of your physical and mental fitness.
- Every time you are in a project / important deliverable, ask yourself to give one plus which is more than asked / expected.
- Do not forget the Labour laws space. That will continue to be a unique armoury with you with the Government continuing to bring in labour reforms.
- Ask this question often, “Am I ‘in’ my comfort zone or ‘out’ of my comfort zone?” If you think you are in the comfort zone, please push yourself out of it. It is too easy and early to fall into the comfort zone.
- Write a resume every year. (this is not to jump jobs). Be extremely honest to yourself on your significant achievements. If you don’t think you have a solid 5, then you haven’t done justice to your career that year. Reflect and reboot quickly.
Thank you very much for sharing the wonderful insight. We appreciate it.