One can be successful in HR role only if they understand how the business functions

Uma Srinivasan’s objective has been to seek an opportunity that would enable her to utilize her leadership strengths, change management and execution capabilities, backed by her people management and problem-solving ability to contribute towards organization and individual growth.

A Metallurgical Engineer by qualification, Uma currently Heads the Talent Acquisition & TM for the USD 21 Bn Larsen & Toubro Ltd.  She has over 25 years of experience cutting across multiple industry segments, heading various business functions.  Uma completed her entire schooling in a small town in Tamil Nadu, Kumbakonam (better known as the “Temple Town”) before gaining admission into one of India’s Premier Engineering Schools – MNIT (Jaipur).

Her sound intellect, passion to excel, resilience, adaptability, perceptive nature and exceptional leadership style have been made a forge her indelible mark in every single role that she has taken up in her career so far.  Prior to joining L & T, Uma was heading the People function for Ltd., India’s first publicly listed pure-play Consumer Internet Conglomerate. Before that, Uma was the President - India for the Permanent Recruitment Business with Randstad India, the Dutch MNC with whom she had been associated for over 16 long years.

To strengthen her further, Uma attended other training programs such as  

2011 Management Development Program, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore

2012 Strategic Management Workshop, TiasNimbas Business School, Netherlands

Uma’s Professional Qualifications include Bachelor of Engineering (Metallurgy) from Malviya National Institute of Technology (MNIT – Erstwhile REC), Jaipur, and Senior Executive Program (Business Administration & General Management) from INSEAD (Fontainebleau), France.

Thank you, Uma, for giving your valuable time to this interview. Your kindness is much appreciated. 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. 

Though I have been in the HR Consulting/Recruitment industry for over two decades, when I started my journey way back in 1995, I never had this as an alternative anywhere in my radar.  I am a metallurgical Engineer from MNIT (Class of 1994), Jaipur and my first job was through Campus.  Actually, I had two offers in the Campus, one from Nippon ISPAT and the other one from Eurotrade Consulting (A British Metallurgical consulting and trading firm – Headquartered in London). I chose to go with the later (Eurotrade) clearly due to the attractive package (the mixed-up priorities that we all have at that stage of life J).  Interestingly the offer that I picked up from Eurotrade was one of the highest paying in those times. Way back in early 90s, women in the metallurgical domain were a rarity.  To make things more complex, some of the corporates that came for Campus categorically didn’t want the women engineers to be applying for certain jobs like production, assembly, etc. The process of selection was very similar to what we have today. It started with a technical written test, followed by a GD and finally an interview with a panel comprising a whole bunch of experienced techies. If you are good with your subject matter, then the written test is a cakewalk. GD is more to see the ability of the individual to think clearly, articulate their views, their ability to handle objection, check their emotional quotient, their confidence and their intellect to have a logical viewpoint. Also, it brings forth the team playing ability. If I remember right, they gave a topic like “Should India continue to be democratic or should it move to autocracy”.  I breezed through the GD round and for anyone to do well here, you need to keep yourself updated on the current affairs, hone your communication skills, have clarity of thought, agility in your responses and lastly improve the quality of your debate with the facts. The last stage was the in-person interview. The final interview discussion had nothing to do with the functional job for which I was being evaluated. It had a lot to do with the choices that I have made/about to make in my life and to understand the rationale. During the interview, they put forth some of the hypothetical situations (real-life) and how I would handle it and the rationale behind it.  When I completed the three rounds and made it to the final shortlist, I felt a strong sense of accomplishment. I had to compete against 60 others and to have been able to make it be one of the two final shortlists was indeed a great morale booster for me. And not to forget, I thoroughly enjoyed the entire process… more so from the competitive sense.

A mentor is someone who would help the person understand their strengths, shortfalls and help in bridging the gaps.

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? 

I quit my first campus job in less than 6 months. Though the package was very good, one thing I realised was that I wasn’t cut out for the metal trading role that was given to me.  What I realised was, I enjoyed connecting the external stakeholders and had an innate ability to influence and convince people. When I started my first job, I didn’t have a clear view of what I wanted to do, but, when I took up my second job, it gave me greater clarity of what I am good at. So, I landed on my second job in Chennai with one of start-ups focussing in the IT Training & Services as the Executive – Sales. This job & company holds very special memory for me because of various reasons – It started the process of shaping me as a Professional. Being a start-up, I had the freedom to experiment with the way I approached my job; my every success (big or small) was celebrated by the entire team; I could define my own go-to-market strategy and constantly improvise it; It gave me an opportunity to evolve as a salesperson (by trial & error method); I got the opportunity to wear multiple hats and learn/experience different roles including being an accountant or trainer or admin manager. In a way it gave me a holistic development as a professional.

The one year I was with this firm, really went a long way in helping me gain greater confidence, identify my strengths, be aware of my shortfalls, calibrate my workstyle and also helped me plan my next step. The one thing that this job/company could not keep pace with was to satisfy my ever-growing appetite for bigger challenges. I was keen to take up a much bigger role and this is when I landed in a fantastic role with a Software MNC (my third job). This was another fantastic journey for almost the next 6 years both within the Domestic market as well as the international arena.

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

Fresh graduates in a new organisation are like “Marble in a shoebox”. To be successful, they need to have solid anchors and a mentor is expected to play that role. I always compare the success of fresh talent in an organisation to planting a sapling in a garden. The seed might be of great quality, the soil too might be fertile but without sufficient sunshine or water, it may not yield the expected results. Similarly, you can be a competent individual and could have joined a good organization, but to help you adapt, prioritize and perform, having a workplace mentor goes a long way in helping. A mentor is someone who would help the person understand their strengths, shortfalls, and help in bridging the gaps. Ideally someone senior in the organization (but not the reporting boss) should play the role of a mentor. I had the fortune of having couple of exceptional individuals who mentored me at various stages of my career. Most of them have been great sounding boards in my journey. They made me foresee the hurdle ahead and got me to work on a solution, instead of providing a ready-made one. My mentors immensely helped me shape my ability to see the big-picture, work on my problem-solving and decision-making ability.  Not everyone has the fortune of getting a good mentor. You need to seek out when you need guidance to the right person and most importantly, be open to learning.

The future workforce in most of the service/tech industry is going to be fuelled by the Gig workers and the need to have robust engagement platforms for this segment is very critical.

Often the Fresh HR Graduates tell me that they would like to work in the core-HR and show less interest in the recruitment domain. What do you think could be the reason to disfavour recruitments? Why did you choose recruitment as a career?

In 2001, when I joined one of the leading HR Consulting firms as part of their leadership hiring business, my journey with HR/Recruitment commenced and to my delight, it still continues. Over the course of years, I have built and led multiple successful teams/ businesses. When I used to hire from my teams way back in mid 2000s, there was a constant dilemma of whether to hire MBA HRs or Graduates. Recruitment is all about selling – Selling to stakeholders and Selling to candidates. Most of the MBA HR graduates have their aspiration to become a generalist since they think that, that’s the fastest and sure-shot route to become an HR Head.  I will not totally disagree with them. But then the question is… how good an HR Head will you be. Before you become a generalist to anchor the HR function, one should know what it takes to Hire Top Talent. Recruitment should be the logical starting point for any budding HR professional. In my recruitment business, invariably I have seen a science or commerce or arts graduate performing on par with an MBA. In quite a few cases, they outperformed the MBA grads. To understand this, one should take a closer look at the “Recruitment” function.  As I mentioned earlier, Recruitment is more of “Sales” and less of “HR”. A great salesperson will do exceptionally well in the recruitment role because it’s all about understanding the candidate aspiration and competency and convincing them for the right job and organization. Most of the HR Graduates struggle in recruitment if they do not have the flair for it. 

Recruitment consulting industry happened to me more by Chance than by Choice. But I am glad that it happened. Being an exceptional Sales & marketing person with innate knack to influence people, I took up this industry like” Fish to water”. The recruitment industry is a highly empowering segment which is strategically positioned between the Supply and Demand of the most crucial aspect of any business – “Talent”. This industry provides you immense learning and experience that none other can provide.

From profile sourcing to the issuance of the final offer letter, organizations put candidates through multiple filtration processes. What is your take on using “relevant industry experience” and “excellent academic record (first-class and above)” as filtration tools?

The market and the macroeconomic aspects have been dynamically shifting in the last 5 – 10 years.  Apart from the Political, Economic, social disruptions, today we are witnessing massive technology lead disruption across industry segments. This tech disruption along with the multi-generation workforce is making recruitment more challenging than ever before.  In my view, for junior level hiring, we need to look at their core competencies and their key motivators. However, for the mid to senior-level roles, is it necessary to consider relevant industry experience and educational qualification (this is important because in a way it shapes the person’s thinking pattern), though I haven’t seen much correlation between a first-class academic performer and what results they bring to the table. To ensure that we hire the right person and set them up for success at the mid-senior/senior levels, (apart from the hygiene elements) based on the stage of evolution the organization is at, we need to evaluate the adaptability quotient as well as the aspiration element of the candidate.  These two are the magic bullets that have always worked for me.

What aspects of recruitment do you find most challenging?  What is the role of education (being an MBA) in becoming a successful recruiter or a headhunter?

The qualification has no direct correlation to being successful in recruitment. You need to feel passionate about connecting with people (either as clients / stakeholder or as candidates), understanding the expectations/motivators, effectively positioning a job or a candidate, influencing ability, etc… it’s like “Bridging the Gap” or “Solving a Problem”. The most challenging aspect of recruitment is the candidate anchorage post-offer and before joining period. Since we are not dealing with products, but “People” are the product here, the control on the decisions or moves they make is beyond a recruiter.  In spite of doing all the groundwork and research about the candidate and his motivators, still they dropout post-offer and before joining, is the most challenging aspect.

We need to have a healthy balance of “Tech & Touch”.

According to you, what are the FIVE critical traits of a successful Recruiter/Headhunter?

Key Competencies for a good recruiter

  • Impact (Excellent Communication; Effective Presence; High influencing ability)
  • Adaptable (identifies and adopt the most appropriate style to maximize success in different situations, able to relate to candidates and clients)
  • Embrace Change (Have the ability to quickly adapt to dramatic; continued changes in the workplace or environment; changes in the way things are done)
  • Resilient (Coping with stress and difficult situations; Receptiveness to continuous change)
  • Good Listeners (May not listen sympathetically to others or vigilantly observe and interpret peoples' behaviours

Key Functional Capabilities for a good recruiter

  • Market Orientation - Networking and Connects
  • Sourcing Innovation
  • Eye-for-detail
  • Systems & Technology adoption
  • Candidate Engagement
  • Execution Excellence

As the saying goes,” You have 8.8 seconds to impress with your CV”. You might have come across tens of thousands of resumes in your career. What, in your view, does a recruiter evaluate in a resume in those 8.8 seconds and decides to accept or reject it? Please elaborate.

The top 5 elements that I will evaluate in 8.8 seconds would be

  1. Look & feel of the profile – This is a strong reflection of the person that he/she is.
  2. Key Strengths & Speciality – Key competency areas – both functional as well as behavioural
  3. Educational Background – Pedigree or not… academic achievements
  4. Career Stability – Is he a rolling stone or someone who stays to create an impact in his assignments
  5. Overall Career Progression / Journey – This reflects his decision-making capability.

What are the primary challenges of sharing interview feedback to candidates?

The natural tendency of a recruiter is to give feedback to the candidates as soon as possible if it is a positive one.  In the case of negative feedback, the loop is rarely closed with the candidate.  Giving feedback is a challenging task in any given situation, more so when it is a negative one.  When a recruiter is working on mid-senior / senior-level hiring assignment, the seniority of the prospective candidates tends to act as a challenge for an average recruiter to give feedback.  Nobody likes bad news and it becomes more challenging to give bad news (that they are not selected) and then top it with feedback on why they weren’t selected.  I have come across many senior candidates with matured outlook, who have been more than happy to understand the reason for rejection. I have also faced a situation wherein a few candidates have taken it personally and have felt miserable about the rejection in the interview. 

Empathy is key here and the quality of the communication is of paramount importance. Who gives the feedback, what is told and how it is conveyed holds a strong bearing for a senior candidate? Any feedback on candidate rejection should be done in a very constructive manner to ensure that the self-esteem of the individual is not compromised. Sometimes, the feedback is usually sent out as a regret mail to the candidate, without giving any specific reason.  I feel, for senior levels, one should logically make a closure through a call with the candidate.

What do you do if a candidate unexpectedly rejects your job offer?

A good recruiter will always have the sixth sense if a candidate is about to reject an offer.  This is where a recruiter’s thorough groundwork on understanding the candidate’s aspiration, key drivers and pull factor to the job opportunity comes in handy.  In spite of all checks and balances, we still have surprise elements that are sprung on us when we least expect.  Usually in such situations, first of all, I try to understand the reason for offer rejection and evaluate if it is addressable.  In case the candidate is an exceptional talent, then I use all my wherewithal to address the challenge.  In all other cases, I clearly convey to the candidate in a respectable, yet firm manner that what he has done is unprofessional and the setback his decision has costed the organization in terms of time and effort.  I usually ensure that we document such feedback to the candidate.  As a practice, I always have a second-best identified in the interview process, so that we do not go back to the story-board stage.

Candidates not reaching the interview venue” (making numerous stories) and “Candidate not showing up on the day of joining” are two most painful experiences for a recruitment team. What is your take on this? How do recruiters differentiate between a “real reason” and “a fake story”?

This challenge of “No Show” is prevalent more at the junior levels, more so in the new economy segments.  Of the two situations, a candidate not showing up for the interview hurts less than a candidate not showing up on the joining day.  I have experienced similar situations multiple times in my career.   In my career, there has been a case wherein this “No Show” on the day of joining has happened for a senior position role in an MNC Shared Service Center.  As much it reflects on the calibre/maturity of the candidate, it also strongly reflects on the recruiter’s ability to establish a trusted connection with the candidate.  It is extremely important that the recruiter is able to build a healthy rapport with the offered candidates, so that they do not hesitate to reach us in case of any sudden developments.

So, how do we fix this issue?  There is no magic solution to sense these unexpected surprises early in the process.  A few things which a recruiter needs to look at closely and analyse while sourcing stage itself.

-        What is the brand/role that you are hiring for and from what kind of a brand/role the candidate is coming from? 

-        Is the role/brand meaty enough for the candidate to consider? 

-        What are his key drivers to consider this opportunity?

-        Is there relocation involved with this opportunity?

-        What is the candidate’s long-term aspiration and how does this opportunity dovetail with it?

-        What is the situation in his personal front, which could possibly have an impact on his decision-making?

-        How has his / her career path so far been from the stability point of view.  Etc.

Every recruiter needs to have “Eye-for-detail” and thorough scrutiny of every candidature goes a long way in minimizing some of these unpleasant surprises later in the process.  In spite of all the analysis and action, still “No Shows” could happen.  It is always good to have Plan B / Plan C (Backups), so the organization doesn’t lose time.

What are your thoughts about Talent Shortage? What are a few practical tips you want to give to CEOs and Hiring Managers to manage the challenge of Talent Shortage?

India can never complain of Talent Shortage.  We are a 1.3 Billion populous country… what we lack is employable talent.  As we all may know, the kind of skills that are going to be required in the next 10 years is hugely different from the skills that are available in the market.  Some of the way in which organizations and leaders could combat this challenge would be -

  1. Have Annual Talent Review for all the critical resources to ensure that they are engaged, invested upon and nurtured towards a meaningful career path.
  2. The Learning roadmap needs to be clearly in sync with the Business plan and GTM strategy, so that the upskilling and cross-skilling investments are wisely made.
  3. “Catch them young” – The best way to address this skill shortage is the have a robust model to hire, train and deploy fresh talent and create a cohesive ecosystem for them to perform well.  Organization need to start investing in digital learning solutions to help the millennials have the option of keeping abreast with the changing demand landscape as well as having the flexibility of having “Any Time Learning”.
  4. One another dimension which should be considered by CEOs and Hiring managers is “How to leverage on the GIG Workforce which has already started coming into play.  The future workforce in most of the service / the tech industry is going to be fuelled by the Gig workers and the need to have robust engagement platforms for this segment is very critical.

Any feedback on candidate rejection should be done in a very constructive manner to ensure that the self-esteem of the individual is not compromised.

What are your thoughts about Psychometric Assessment? According to you, what role psychometric assessments play in hiring the right talent?

In spite of being a strong believer of “Hire for Potential and not just for the experience”, to be frank, so far, I have never leveraged on a Psychometric Assessment as a decision-making tool for any of my key hiring assignments.  Psychometric Assessment cannot be used for the selection or rejection of a candidate during the hiring process. It needs to be used as a validation tool for the decisions made through the recruitment process. Usually, Assessment tools need to be used for elevation or role changes or development needs identification. 

Here again, the generations are changing, and the millennials and the next generation wouldn’t have the patience or interest to be taking psychometric assessments for 45 mins or an hour. We are transitioning into an era of instant solution/bite-size learning/gamification etc.  The newer generations like to have a strong fun element in any assessment to keep their engagement with the exercise.  We need to start looking at the entire psychometric assessments in a different light in the years to come.

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? 

Technology disruption is no more a choice for any industry.  Machines are taking over a number of key processes in each of the industry segments and HR/recruitment is no different.  But I still feel that we need to have a healthy balance of “Tech & Touch”. AI and ML can help us with converting data into intelligence, which in turn could help in making critical policy-level decisions.  However, when dealing with people/resources/talent, the TOUCH element is extremely critical.  No one would want to be talking to a chatbot or a Robot through the hiring process.  We need to bring about a meaningful mix of tech-enabled, and the in-person connect in the recruitment process. 

Employer Branding is an extremely important dimension of HR and Social media plays a pivotal role in driving this branding initiative for any organization.  Be it tapping on the Alumni network or to communicate the business updates or showcase the culture or workplace elements or to communicate new opportunities or to do a pulse check with alumni on a new initiative, etc.  

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

 First of all, have a passion to connect with people.  Secondly, in today’s corporate world, we often see CFOs moving to the CEO role but less often CHROs donning the CEO hat.  The HR professionals need to take a hard look at some of key aspects to break this jinx. Developing a very strong business acumen, having a fair degree of financial orientation are two very important dimensions to develop for a HR Leader.  Like I mentioned earlier, Recruitment is a logical starting point for any HR Graduate… if you know which talent is most suitable to be a part of your organization/business/function and hire them, half your battle is won.  Start with the backend grind of recruitment and then spend some time as part of the business team to understand and appreciate the challenges of running the business profitably.  This way, you would holistically develop as an effective HR Leader.  

Thank you!!!  

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