Developing a talent pipeline for sustainability of growing business is the most important aspect of HR

Interview with Varsha has proved, yet again, that being a successful HR leader is not about your education or whether you are an MBA or not. It is about your compassion for people and your strong business acumen and how you walk that tightrope between the two. Varsha was working as an Electrical Engineer with an organization when she was offered a role to set-up the HR Function. It was over 20 years ago. And, as they say, rest is history. In the following years, Varsha worked on several HR projects, such as, organization restructuring, succession planning, developing HR systems for business growth, competency mapping, M&A Due Diligence, C&B Benchmarking, to name a few. Varsha has worked across geographies and industries. Thank you, Varsha for agreeing to do this interview. We value your time. We are certain that an insight into your vast experience will help our readers. 

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

 Everything that we do “First” holds a special place in our hearts.  After my engineering, I went for my interview for an apprenticeship. I was ready to embark on my new life. Though I was scared, just a sheer feeling of new start made me very excited. The interview was a bit informal. Now when I look back, I guess the questions were framed to gauge my learning ability and my willingness to take the risk. I still remember a couple of questions asked – “what will you do if you fail or not able to complete the task / get the desired result”? “I will try again and again” was my answer. “Are you willing to move to remote and smaller towns”? My answer was yes. My answers were simple but, filled with enthusiasm and optimism. I got the job. 

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

My belief that everything happens for a reason, kept me going for 6 rounds of interview in a span of 4 months. At the end of the third round, I even doubted the company if it was serious in hiring. However, I wanted to learn their interview process as I found their reverse pyramid hiring technique quite interesting. Once their first telephonic (international) round with talent acquisition head was cleared, I was asked to prepare a short presentation on “Driving change” followed by psychometric test round and case study discussion and finally one to one personal interview. The combined assessment report of personal/psychometric / case study and presentation was mapped very well and they were able to identify the matched criteria as well as the shortcomings. Though the entire process was exhausting, for critical positions the process was robust. In India, we go with expressway in hiring and spend very less time in planning/ analyzing. Remember, right hiring sets a foundation to the strong and sustainable organization.

The practicality of work is very different from the theoretical knowledge we gained in college.

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? 

The myth of “I have studied and gained so much knowledge in college” evaporates within a few weeks when you take up your first job. The good news is that your learning curve can be very steep if you keep yourself open and focused. The practicality of work is very different from the theoretical knowledge we gained in college. Learning is experimental in universities and learning is practical at workplaces. My first job (after apprenticeship) was as a design engineer and I was lucky to get a good line manager who also became my mentor. Though there was no formal mentor concept at that time, his support and patience played an important role in building my confidence which led me to succeed. I was keen to explore more hence, whenever I was done with my responsibilities I would ask my seniors to assign me more work even if it was not related to my area such as arranging their files, helping them doing data entry. I can now say that I got my basics very strong because of them and will always be thankful to them. Asking questions, going beyond your comfort zone, lending a helping hand can help you to climb the organizational ladder. 

Your experience in the company is the reflection of how you are treated by your line manager.

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? 

“You join the company and you leave your boss”, we have heard this phrase and it is actually true. You may join a small/ big brand but your experience in the company is the reflection of how you are treated, especially by your line manager. In today’s world, as a line manager, you also have a responsibility to be a mentor to your subordinates. The life is fast and influenced by technology, the constructive human interaction is any way disappearing at workplaces. To build a strong talent pipeline every organization has to give an importance of mentoring by the line managers, at all levels. As I mentioned before, I was lucky to have a line manager who also became my mentor in my first job, he guided me and allowed me to take a risk and to make mistakes. As long as I don’t make the same mistake twice he was okay. He was also tough and stringent when it came to quality delivery.

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?

The companies may have the best strategy and best facility with great wealth in the world, but if they don’t have the hearts and minds of people who work with them, none of it comes to life.  I had an engineering degree and was working as head of the electrical dept. The leadership saw potential in me and when the company started formal HR department in the year 2000, they asked me if I was interested to diversify my profile. I was hesitant at the beginning but took the challenge as it was exciting and something new. Looking back now, I must say, that was the best career decision I had made. Building organization through human capital initiatives, joining hands in creating and implementing business strategy and to ensure that we have an engaged and motivated workforce for the present as well as for future, keeps me alive in a true sense.

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?

The business is simple and its one page summery -- top and bottom line. The expectations are simple and that is to contribute to business growth through human capital initiatives. The business is ever-changing and thus the responsibility of Head HR. Keeping the team engaged in an ever-changing environment is challenging. Creating an empowering work environment where employees are driven and hungry for their achievement is an exciting as well as challenging task. 

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

HR leaders are the bridge between the employees and employer.  Employees are the core part of the success of any organization and their expectations from HR leaders are simple –

  1. Alignment - The clarity of roles, understanding the expectation and facilitating employee alignment with business
  2. Belonging - To build an environment that gives a sense of pride and respect, open communication with the HR leader, building a community culture and creating belongingness. 
  3. Growth - Creating opportunities for employee growth and their career path within the organization
  4. Commitment - Engaging employees to create a sustainable long-term win-win situation for employees and employer.


Developing a talent pipeline for sustainability of growing business is the most important aspect of HR.

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

Talent management is a fundamental requirement for business success. Developing a talent pipeline for sustainability of growing business is the most important area which is very close to my heart. I am extremely passionate to design, develop and deliver succession planning programs from the front line to top management level. The key is to develop and promote insiders who are highly capable of stimulating healthy change and progress. The measuring yardstick is simple - I have taken a KPI to build the talent within the organization in such a way that we only hire front liners from outside and promote internal candidates. Another area which is very crucial to business is performance management. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. The performance management system which incorporates continues feedback, which keeps the performance indicators measurable and which creates an active dialogue between employee and line manager is real artistic work of HR leaders.

We are now faced with challenges of technology interventions. Though the need for AI and Blockchain technology are important to the fast pace era of today, I think we need to put an emphasis on human interaction.  

As a Head HR, you are constantly pushed to the wall to take hard decisions.

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. [Please share a couple of incidents].

As a leader, I believe in what I do. Be it a decision to lay off an employee for a particular reason or be it fighting for employees’ rights with the management if the situation arises. I have been appraised by my bosses that I bring “out of box” solution to a situation. As a Head HR, you are constantly pushed to the wall to take hard decision and it’s never easy to implement those decisions especially when it involves human emotions/their lives. Hand holding and giving your elephant ears to listen to their concerns lifts off some of their emotional charges.

When it comes to the organization, “NO Tolerance” in case of violation of the code of conducts and ethics, and immediate actions against such violations is the key to run the business smooth.  

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 truly believe that if I am not convinced, I won’t be able to convince. One of the roles of an HR leader is to lend his/ her shoulder to shoot the gun by the top leadership when it comes to implementing a hard decision. In case of disagreement on implementing a hard decision, I have kept my stand of “agreeing to disagree” clear. What helps me is to voice my concern if I don’t agree. Then with available data, I try to make the best possible strategy of implementing those decisions. In one of the organizations, we had closed one of the business lines and I was against it as I could see the potential in continuing the business. Closing the business also meant communicating to those employees who would lose their lively hood. However, the decision was made and I had a hard time convincing the employees because I was not convinced of the move. I then stepped back and had a session with CEO, asked him numerous questions and with available data, made my efforts to facilitate the business closure and employee layoff.

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

  1. Leading from the front - Walk the talk to build confidence from both top management and employees. Taking accountability; developing humility within you for bigger cause.
  2. High Emotional Quotient - Balance between speech and silence...Two-way communication.
  3. Empathy - Understanding others, lending your elephant ears for their ideas/concern/recommendation.
  4. Appraised with new learning (Technology savvy) - With a world full of technology, get hands-on with technology.
  5. Ethics - A strong and sustainable organization can only be built with strong ethics. Be a role model of ethics.

When the selection decision is made on gut feeling of the interviewers, it is challenging to communicate the decision to the candidate.

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

The selection has many parameters starting from analytic /technical/ functional capacities as well as simple gut feeling. When the decision is made on gut feeling of the interviewers, it is challenging to communicate the decision to the candidate. Giving clear feedback about what worked and what didn’t with example really works. However, time and resources constraint in giving comprehensive feedback is quite challenging. 

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? 

The world has shrunken and geographies are not anymore defined. Social media is instrumental to get the world together and exchange of information is now on tip of fingers. The new gen is only communicating through technology. Knowing this fact, the leadership has to get in tune and shape the organization accordingly. Impact of social media on Human Resources function is huge - What was tiresome and difficult, now can be attained with ease. Some of the impacts of social media on HR functions are

Employee branding

Recruiting/selecting / reference checks of the candidates

Communication / announcement

Obtaining feedback about the company

Training and development

With new technology, agility becomes new efficiency; AI as disruptive technology knocked on our doors already.  Yes, we need to gear up for the transformation. Some of the ways that AI will support business are

Use automation and data to push back to the business.

Pre-employment checks

On-boarding, a repetitive, high-volume activity

Employee engagement pieces, e.g. employee surveys, check-ins, birthdays, etc.

L&D, e.g. automation of skills gaps, a suite of learning tools.

M&A e.g. bring companies on-board faster.

Reporting, e.g. reviewing data to identify any accuracy issues

ER cases and grievances e.g. intervene and see who’s accountable as per the data fed in.

We, as Business leadership, should think about the change program, org design & structure and build awareness of AI. We may need to change HR skill set within the organization to move forward.

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 the foundation for sustainable business. People build or break an organization. When there is synergy, there is a success. HR plays a vital role to bring synergy among different areas of businesses through human capital initiatives. If you are choosing HR as a profession, ask yourself these questions –

  1. Are you passionate to develop yourself to influence people/decision?
  2. Will developing people and their career paths give you a sense of satisfaction?
  3. Would you enjoy working with new faces? 


Thank you.

*This interview was originally published on [Date: 17th November 2018]

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