Never lose your childlike curiosity and inquisitiveness

An MBA from Welingkar Institute of Management, Seema is a dynamic and inquisitive HR Leader. Born as a third girl child in a traditional Marwari business oriented family, she carved out a path of her own to make her destiny. For the last 10 years, she has been working with leaders in Pharmaceutical Industry. An excellent communicator, result driven collaborator and an agent of change, Seema has worked on several projects such as Change and Transition Management, Diversity and Inclusion and Business Integration just to highlight a few. Above all, she is a wonderful human being and an excellent story teller. Thank you Seema for doing this interview with us and sharing your insights on various aspects of HR

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

My first job was a 4 month stint as a counsellor (sales role) for a computer training institute. I had taken my CET and was awaiting results. In the meantime, I came across this job opportunity. It was my first job interview and I went there not knowing what to expect. I reached in time (punctuality is a virtue taught to me since childhood). The interviewer was the owner of the institute. He asked me about my family, academics and interests. After a few questions, he suddenly remarked that ‘Marwaris’ are misers. My rejoinder was that Marwaris have a business sense of where to invest money to create more wealth. He gave me a simulation situation to sell a pen to him. Being from a business oriented family, I could share a decent pitch about features of the pen and align it to customer need. 

I also candidly shared with him that I would quit in 4 months if I secured admission in a good B school. I am till date clueless if he hired me for my honesty or he thought I wouldn’t be able to crack a seat in good institute. Irrespectively, I enjoyed my stint and increased the revenue from 70k pm to 4 lakhs pm.

Never lose your childlike curiosity and inquisitiveness.

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

This was for MSD Pharmaceuticals Pvt Ltd. I was being interviewed for the role I aspired for but had no experience in. I had excellent achievements to share and was very confident of my technical expertise. I was also candid enough to admit what I didn’t know.  After getting to know me a little, the interviewer asked me to talk about an achievement that was challenging yet very close to my heart. I shared the project with its details. After that the interviewer kept probing around the same project. I tried to answer the questions pushing myself to think of many possibilities till I realised that there still was scope to learn more about that project. I also realised the depth of the interviewer’s understanding and more importantly the value of an inquisitive mind. As per the interviewer’s feedback, I landed the role for my divergent thinking. My lesson – Never lose your childlike curiosity and inquisitiveness.

The first job is a major milestone for many people. Let’s discuss your first year at the job. How was your experience? What were your expectations for your job and your role? Were they all fulfilled? What didn’t coincide with your expectation?

I come from a traditional business family where females are not considered worthy of running business. I grew up seeing the male members in business conversations, networking, having difference of opinions and then eating food together. I was the first one in my family to enter corporate world.

I realized that the Corporate world is a different ballgame altogether. In family owned businesses, you can have internal arguments without perceptions being formed but not in here. Corporate world encourages positive confrontation but perception management is also extremely important. You have to control your emotions and work within the norms of professionalism.

I got my first HR job with Abbott India Ltd. (the largest pharma MNC in India) through campus placement. The HR team kept us engaged right from our placements till our joining (6 months period). I was a part of the first structured management trainee program of the organization. We had a best-in-class induction program.

My situation was like that of a Bollywood Star Kid. While my advantage was that my manager was the project lead of this MT Program but by the same token there was also lot of pressure to succeed and be an ideal MT.

I was hungry to learn and achieve the world. Different levels in the hierarchy had different roles to play in my journey -   

My manager (Savita Mittra) – an expert in her domain, she was transparent and shared information openly. I was allowed to job shadow her even for the most critical tasks and learn directly from her.

HR leader (Ajay Bhatt) – a very approachable and empathetic person, he understood my background and helped me turn that into an advantage. He helped me settle in the corporate world. He used to talk about my strengths which boosted my confidence.

Colleagues – Most of them were caring and well-meaning. While I was still trying to settle in the organization, some colleagues seemed very helpful initially but as I started becoming more organization savvy, I realized that to further their agenda they embroiled me in organization politics.

Coaching is task oriented whereas mentoring is relationship oriented

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

We generally tend to use the terms coaching and mentoring interchangeably. But there is a difference between the two. Simply put, coaching is task oriented whereas mentoring is relationship oriented. So Drona was Arjun’s coach whereas Krishna was his mentor. Coaches help the fresh graduate learn the technical skills, master them and hence settle well in the role. Mentors help new comers to navigate through organizational maze. They help the mentee to step out of the content and focus on context.

I have been very fortunate to have lot of these influencers.

  • Bijender Vats (my manager at MSD) is a very smart people manager. When I joined MSD, he made me play on my strength to build credibility with business. Gradually he coached me on other aspects of HRBP role. His coaching style with me over the years has shifted from participative to encouraging.
  • Sameer Tamhane (my current HR leader) helped me in understanding the importance of creating a personal brand and guided me in working towards it.

Apart from this there are many other influencers from whom I picked up strong virtues just by observing – Arun Khedekar’s (ex-BD Head at Abbott) simplicity, Vivek Kamath’s (MD at MSD) humility, networking from Monica Chaudhari (ex-BUD at MSD).

When HR is not aligned and does not perform its duty, leader and the organization are in grave danger

You are an HR Practitioner for so many years. Could you please tell us why did you choose this profession? If not in HR, what another profession you would have chosen for yourself?

My career choice was not an overnight decision. It was a result of influences and mythological stories that I heard from my mother since a very young age.

As I was growing up, 3 characters in Mahabharat fascinated me in particular - Shalya, Krishna and Sanjay.  All three of them were charioteers at some point of time and had a unique role to play in the battle of Kurukshetra. I came to correlate the role of charioteer with that of HR. Both drive the rider (read organization).

As Krishna did to Arjun, HR takes the leader out of people dilemma, helps formulate people strategy, brings synergy of different kingdoms (read stakeholders), understands personal motivation of each kingdom and align everyone to organizational vision (in Kurukshetra, every kingdom supporting Pandavas had their personal interest but they were bound by one larger goal – upholding Dharma over Adharma).

When business ambitions start outweighing people welfare, HR has to use its divyadrishti (foresight) like Sanjay to help the leader see the result of blind ambition.

For an organization to be successful, HR alignment is of paramount importance. If not, then organization will be in similar situation as that of Karna. When Karna was announced as the commander, Shalya was appointed as his charioteer. Shalya was not aligned to the leader’s vision. During the battle, he kept demoralizing Karna by praising his competitor Arjun. Even when the chariot’s wheel broke, he did not get down to repair it eventually getting Karna killed. When HR is not aligned and does not perform its duty, leader and the organization are in grave danger.

This correlation sparked my interest in HR. I was inclined towards the role because the influence and impact it can create and the massive responsibility that came with it.

If not HR, I would have been in a business role.

HR must understand who the customer is and what does he value and then develop people and organizational capabilities

Having worked in a leadership role, what do you think are the expectations of a CEO or the Management Team from its HR Function in general and HR Head in particular?

For long, HR has been working closely with internal stakeholders to align their work to business strategies. CEOs now expect HR Head and his department to understand business and work towards delivering value important to the customer. HR must understand who the customer is, what does he value and then develop people and organizational capabilities. This will help develop products and services that will deliver value to customer.

CEO expects HR to do this by evidence based decision making rather than gut feel. Just the way Finance team is able to relate business model with profitability; HR should be able to connect the dots between employee commitment, engagement score, service attitude and customer delight.

In the same breath, can you also highlight about expectations of employees from the HR Function of an Organization?

HR has come a long way from being a corporate housewife. Employees now expect greater endeavours from HR which matter the most to them – safe and unbiased workplace, Transparency, Hope, employee experience, Empowerment, Opportunities, make them future ready and be an employee advocate. Each employee’s expectation is unique to his own need and as ‘HR Value Proposition’ points out HR should be able to deliver the value in the eyes of the receiver.

HR is very vast function. What aspects of HR do you like the most and which one do you find challenging?

I like the following aspects of HR because they are challenging:

  • Dealing with people issues – It is like playing chess. You have to think 4 moves ahead and each case is different. You have to keep in mind organizational interest and also consider the impact on employees and his family.
  • Quantifying HR outcomes – You deal with human behaviour which is unpredictable and then try to quantify it. Also, the results take long time to come.
  • Making Integration and Change process more palatable

The aspect of HR where we need to be a little cautious is Digitization. It should be backed by a strong business case. An effort towards reducing the transactional work of HR should not end up burdening the employee. We should be mindful of the proportion of additional work for employee with respect to their core work.

According to you, what are the key challenges of being a representative of employees as well as a representative of company management? What kind of conflicts you have faced and how did you manage to overcome them. 

When probed on such questions we generally tend to think of Management and Employees are two sides of a competitive game like football, cricket, and tennis. They are actually better represented by Olympics format – where all the athletes work towards winning maximum gold for the country.

I acknowledge that there could still be differences and trying to balance both is a time-consuming process, delays decisions and impacts overall trust levels in the organization. At personal level, it can lead to a lot of stress for any HR professional. 

There was a business integration situation at one of my organization. While there was sound business logic to it, the impacted employees were a little apprehensive of company’s intention. Together with the business leader, the HR team planned lot of proactive communication to the employees not leaving much room for speculation. Employees were encouraged to ask questions and give suggestions. A robust and fair assessment process was designed to reduce any bias in the process. Change Management training was rolled out to help employees navigate through this change and sufficient time was given to the employees.

On a couple of occasions, I have dealt with employee concerns with respect to managerial effectiveness. These concerns ranged across bias, inappropriate behaviour, inability to coach. My approach has been to:

  • hear both the sides individually
  • seek data and observable behaviours rather than judgement
  • bring both the parties face to face for resolution
  • clearly outline the importance of maintaining respect throughout the conversation
  • let the discussions flow, mediate wherever required
  • Ensure both the parties create, own and adhere to the solutions arrived at.

Please share an experience when you did something by coming under pressure from your management or reporting manager though you felt it was wrong and shouldn’t have been done?

I have worked with two pharma MNCs that were laid on the foundations of strong ethics. So I did not really face major compliance dilemmas. But let me narrate an incident which affected me at an individual level. One of my department heads was asking me to approve a sub-par candidate for a role he was hiring for. When I probed him on the reason for selection, I gauged that it primarily stemmed out of his insecurity. He himself had become the department head after a long career stint and did not want a very strong candidate who could replace him in next 2 years. While I knew it was incorrect, I still agreed to it as I thought his insecurity will not let the better candidate settle in the organization and will end up spoiling his career. In hindsight, I should have counselled the department head to broaden his perspective and look at overall organization benefit.

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

  • Integrity as strong as Maryada Purushottam Ram
  • Trustworthiness as Hanuman
  • Bias for Data & Analysis like Chitragupta
  • Strategist like Chanakya
  • Emotionally Intelligent like Krishna

According to you, what are the primary challenges of sharing interview feedback with candidates?

  • Importance of feedback not understood by hiring managers.
  • Conducting interview with bias and not making notes resulting in vague feedback.
  • Lack of time and preparation on part of hiring manager
  • Candidates take the feedback personally rather than fit with respect to the role.
  • Sometime rejected candidates can be negative ambassadors for the company if they do not take the feedback in the right spirit.
  • Many a time, interview is conducted by the hiring manager and feedback is shared with the recruitment consultant. In such scenario, if the consultant is not proactive, candidate may not receive the feedback. Candidate may perceive that company has been irresponsible. You should have very clear SLAs signed with the consultants.

Technology is an enabler but the decision will always be that of humans

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? 

My son and I watch Doraemon (a cartoon series) together. Doraemon is a cat robot who uses 21st century gadgets from his 4D pocket to help his friend Nobita overcome problems. These gadgets improve Nobita’s productivity looking at data which helps him reduce workload and complete tasks in flash of a second. AI and automation are like Doraemon’s gadgets. Different gadgets (platforms) are used to serve different purposes. Platforms like chatbots, TextRecruit in recruitment, Workday for HR software, Jobmaker for coaching, limeade for employee engagement etc. just to name a few.

But Doraemon’s identity is not limited to his gadgets. He brings value to Nobita’s life by guiding him in making right decisions, being more responsible and becoming a better person. Similarly, AI and automation in HR are meant to improve efficiency, productivity and augment learning.

AI’s focus is on automating the repetitive tasks and using people analytics to take evidence based decisions. It gives an opportunity to HR professionals to up skill themselves & moves up the value chain. For example, bots can screen candidates on technical filters but cannot assess cultural nuances. I agree there are simulators to assess finer nuances but finally human behaviour is complex variable. Technology is an enabler but the decision will always be that of humans. AI will bring back the human in Human Resources. Human traits will become more valuable than ever.

AI and automation will lead to some jobs ceasing to exist; some will have structural changes and some new jobs would come up that don’t exist today.

Social Media has impacted HR in a great way. It has touched all the aspects of HR right from recruitment, employee engagement to employer branding etc. My organization has gone a step ahead and launched an internal social network to connect with employees across the globe over common areas of interest. In fact, I am delighted to share that I myself had leveraged social media to promote our HR practices and talent philosophy by launching one-time campaign #HamritsaR2018 on FB and LI. Our HR team had gone to Amritsar for annual offsite and through this campaign we created metaphors from Amritsar’s history and connected with MSD legacy and HR practices.

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

HR is like gardening. You have to sow the seeds of values in an organization, nurture the organizational plant such that it develops strong roots. Just like a growing plant needs right amount of nutrients and timely pruning, an organization too needs robust talent development practices to ensure strong succession planning and well defined SOPs to ensure right governance and compliance.

Dheere Dheere  re mann, dheere sab kuch hoye,

Mali seeche sau ghada, ritu aaye phal  hoye

Sant Kabir’s above verse captures the perseverance that HR professionals need to demonstrate. HR professionals must have high degree of personal responsibility and emotional intelligence to be successful. This profession may seem very thankless at times but if you are committed to making a difference every day, people do realize the value that you bring.

Thank you.

*This interview was originally published on [Date: 15th November 2018]

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