The Future of HR will be Agile, Lean, Dynamic.

Navneeth Sulakhe is a strategic and innovative HR leader who comes with a wealth of experience of about 20 years in various facets of Human Resources. He has recently moved to his new assignment with Chaipoint (Mountain Trail Foods Pvt Ltd) as Director- Human Resources.

In his previous role as the Head – Talent Management at Landmark Group, he has instituted and managed various HR initiatives that have enabled the company to be recognized as one of the best companies to work for in India by various industry forums.

Earlier to which he has held roles in Atria Convergence Technologies and Reliance Retail Ltd. He has worked across industries such as Retail, IT, Telecom, and BPO in Business Partnering, Talent Management, HR Operations, Talent Acquisition, and Talent Transformation. He is known to be an HR leader with a unique perspective and a strong belief in culture building. He has supported companies, and top executives translate business vision into sustainable HR practices that enable performance, agility, productivity, innovation, profitability, and engagement.

Thank you, Navneeth, for giving your valuable time to this interview. We look forward to your candid responses.

Let’s Start!!!

Please tell us a little bit about your own HR Story and how you grew up to be in your current position?

Today I am the Director HR at Chaipoint, India’s Largest Chai Retailer. I enable the Growth of Chai Point as a Business Partner through some great people & culture practices.

This Role has been a manifestation of over 2 decades of hands-on focus, innovation, and hard work which has seen my work in diverse roles beginning with Operational HR, Talent Acquisition, to being instrumental in Talent Management & Transformational Initiatives and driving Brand Growth.

It has been an enriching experience, as I had the privilege to develop my Business Acumen by working across Industries ranging from Retail, Broadband, IT, Telecom & BPO, in businesses like Landmark Group, ACT Fibernet, Reliance Retail, Arvind Brands, Tata Teleservices, and FirstRing.

COVID-19 has changed workplace dynamics in many ways. What has been your learnings during this phase? What changes do you see happening at the workplace and in HR’s role post-COVID-19?

It is a moving experience. I wish we didn’t have to go through a pandemic to realize the basic principle of driving businesses.

From Startups, MSMEs to large enterprises, businesses need to be prepared with a Contingency Plan, risk management plan to manage disasters, future pandemic, or external factors.

It’s extremely important to revisit the basic foundation of Corporate Finance. Businesses need to set aside a Cash surplus to survive, sustain both through a short and long period of Business downturns.

Leaders of Businesses, while being focused on the Growth and the Needs of Shareholder returns, need to make some ethical and compassionate decisions to take care of the interests of people who give it all to the Organization.

I foresee significant changes:

  • Redesign of Compensation Philosophies to suit the needs of Businesses and the preferences of the People & changing Culture.
  • Workplace Policies will undergo great changes to encourage productivity while ensuring better employee wellbeing and growth.
  • Business Infrastructure will get leaner. Why go back to something which was putting a whole.
  • Economies will focus on greener and sustainable Organizations and Every Leader will endorse this.

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?

Layoffs are inevitable in such testing times.

By being innovative businesses can limit the collateral damage.

We should never forget the cost of replacing a great talent and implications on the Business, the Solutions, and the Customer Experience when Great Talent leaves the Organization.

HRs play the most important role in these times. They will have to play a true Business Partner role, by being innovative, designing, and implementing alternate ways of retaining and engaging the talent.

I have seen multiple innovations; HR can work out a combination/modification to some of these Practices that have been implemented:

  • Optimize Operational Costs by letting go of unnecessary Infrastructure
  • Transition to Virtual Organizations to optimize costs, increase agility, and innovate new ways of working
  • Increase Automation & Agility by driving Digital HR Transformation
  • Encouraging Employment Vacation to retain & engage Talent
  • Employees can volunteer to choose percentage cuts in their Salaries
  • Senior Management and above can let go of 50% of Fixed Salaries

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? 

Organizations need to be mindful and respect the fact that - Every Great Talent emerged as a result of being in right place at the right time.

We have to be empathetic, and we need to be sensitive about the fact that people go through circumstances, to create their unique career journeys. Gaps are inevitable, either due to being in the wrong job, or due to a bad boss, or due to health issues, personal challenges. We do not know what they have been through.

I believe in being in the present. It is all about how good one is on that day of interacting with a potential, and how well one demonstrates attitude, vision, expertise, and capability for the business in the big picture.

When we speak of the role of HR changing, can you share with us based on your experience, what are the primary expectations of a CEO from the HR Function, in general, and HR Head, in particular?

Today a CEO looks at HR Function and the HR Head, in multiple Business enabling Roles: As Growth Catalysts, As Culture Champions, As Brand Enablers.

As a Leader representing the HR Fraternity, our roles have changed drastically, and I wish to share the levels at which we are “making a difference” to Businesses today:

  • Leading Digital Transformation journey in Our Businesses
  • Building Processes & Systems for Greater Employee Experiences & Customer Experiences,
  • Coaching & Mentoring People to unlearn traditional ways, overcome fixed mindsets and embrace Change
  • Innovating New Compensation Philosophies
  • Build unique ways of engaging Talent in Virtual Organizations
  • Enabling Business Growth by Optimizing P & L through Restructuring, Identification of Operating Cost Overheads.
  • Leading Brand Communication to be Employers of Choice and Partners to work within the Client Ecosystem

What are some of the key methods in which HR is driving business growth and success? Please share some insights and examples from your journey of how really HR can make a direct impact on the business?

You have to walk along with the Business. A true Business Partner must understand the Strategic Intent, be abreast of Business Challenges, Operational Challenges, and Customer Perceptions of the Brand.

These are some of the insights I wish to share:

  • Design & Implement Hiring & Retention Strategy in line with the Business Strategy
  • Create a Continuous Learning Culture that encourages proactive identification of Learning needs for the Business to stay relevant and competitive to current and future trends
  • Build a Learning & Engagement strategy that inspires Productivity across the level and Consistent Performance from the Talent
  • Innovate Compensation & Rewards Practices to cater to the changing needs of People & Cultures
  • Please share your experience of becoming a Team Leader (or a Manager) for the very first time. What challenges you came across and how you overcame those challenges?

My transition to Team Leader happened organically as a result of my exposure to multiple cross-functional projects that gave me both visibility as well as established my credibility among the Business Leadership.

During those initial days, I had to work on several areas:

The clarity in Expectations: It’s so important to manage the expectations of the Team. I could do this through informal and formal one-on-one with my Team to set mutual expectations and enable their aspirations.

Driving Performance: I have always been result-oriented. A great way to manage performance is through periodic feedback and offering support.

Building my Own Leadership Capability: I had to sharpen my skills, as I had just begun. I had to develop my people skills, functional know-how and build my Business Acumen & Strategic Thinking to move ahead in the Organization.

In the course of our life, at one point or another, we all make mistakes and fail. How do you handle your failures?

In the early formative years of our careers, we all take certain decisions based on our motivational needs at every given stage. These needs could be sometimes financial, sometimes a tag, and sometimes an affiliation with a brand.

With time and with some great learnings, that come as a result of our decisions & choices, I gradually realized that all these pursuits do not have a genuine meaning, nor do they align to our greater purpose.

I started focusing on simple, little things that give me happiness and peace, and channelizing my energy towards what I am really passionate about.

Giving negative feedback about job performance to an employee is exceedingly difficult. What methods of giving negative feedback have you used which seem successful?

I strongly recommend Sandwich Feedback and SBI Feedback, and I apply them interchangeably based on the Employee Role and Seniority as it really matters.

Sandwich Technique is useful during one-on-ones, and performance review and development discussions where you interleave the constructive/negative feedback between words of encouragement, positive feedback, and futuristic development conversations.

SBI (Situation – Behaviour – Impact) - The technique is highly necessary when you wish to get to the point of concern immediately, and direct focus on the Business Impact as a result of the Employee’s area of improvement. I have used my discretion in this form of feedback and usually for more seasoned professionals/people who appreciate or have a maturity for direct talks.

What is something you’ve achieved that you’re most proud of and why?

I have been instrumental in connecting with today’s millennials. I have been interacting with many students at B-Schools off late and able to connect, guide & support through various interventions. The kind of learnings that I too get from them is enormous.

The landscape HR is changing with COVID, GIG, HR Tech, AI. What disruptions do you foresee in HR over the next 5 years?

It has been a year of disruptions.

As expressed earlier, I wish we didn’t have to face a Pandemic. Lose Jobs. Lose Our Dear Ones. And Economies didn’t have to fall to go through this change.

The Future of HR will be Agile, Lean, Dynamic.

Businesses will be able to function with Leaner HR Teams. And Every HR Professional will be a Specialist. A Business Partner.

With Technology, Data & Analytics at the Heart, HR will be in a great position to make data-driven decisions having a direct correlation to the Growth Metrics of Businesses.

The top HR Functional Roles shall be Talent Analytics Professionals, C&B Specialists, Total Rewards Specialist, Strategic HR Business Partner.

Lastly, what is your message for young aspiring HR professionals & Graduates?

  • Be Adaptive.
  • Learning never ends. Upgrade new skills every year.
  • Add Certifications in Analytics.
  • Learn Digital Transformation.
  • Develop Strategic Thinking & always look at the Big Picture.
  • Work closely with a Mentor/Industry Expert.

Thank you very much, Navneeth, for sharing the wonderful insight. We appreciate it. 

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