Organizations that want to build a culture of innovation must allow people to make mistakes and give psychological safety to take new risks

Manisha Nayar Vohra is passionate about enabling organizations to leverage teams and talent. She has deep experience in high octane environments in business partnering, talent, learning, organization effectiveness, reward, acquisition, performance, compliances and employee relations.

Manisha is currently associated with Delhivery as Sr Director- HR. Earlier, she worked with Macmillan Publishers India Pvt Limited as Director Human Resources; and

Bharti Airtel Limited as Head - Talent Management & Development (Market Operations)

Her Top Skills include

  • Strategic Business Partnering
  • Talent Management
  • Organizational Transitions  

Manisha is an MBA-HR from University Business School, Panjab University and Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA).

Thank you, Manisha, 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 at the campus. Like all fellow students, I had also gone through ‘frequently asked questions’ to get prepared. I received a lot of help from my friends who had cleared their interviews before me as I was complete fresher and extremely nervous about the process. 

The interview lasted for some 40 mins encompassing questions around HR and my interest areas. I was also asked why I had chosen HR as a profession. I answered it stating that I wanted to develop my skills and feel this is one function that can impact the entire organization like no other. Also, I was asked if I was open to another location, I stated that I was extremely keen to move out of my hometown in fact. While my family was not at all happy about my insistence on relocation, later they fully supported my decision. 

I was offered to relocate to Mumbai where I joined as a Management Trainee. 

For an interview, you can never be prepared for all the answers. Just be honest and forthright instead of giving information which is not correct. For some of the basic questions like, why this role? or why this organization? etc.  it is worth it to research thoroughly before you appear for an interview.

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

I wouldn’t say intriguing but more like an interesting interview in my last organization wherein I was not asked typical questions but more of a conversation on the people processes and how organizations are impacted. 

For any interview, I try to understand what the organization is looking for and how would it be a fitment for me as well as the organization. I do try and gain understanding about the organization and the journey it has been through and what kind of evolution it has seen, not just of people processes but also operational, product and revenue models. Hence when the interview started it was a lot to do with these aspects and was really refreshing.

I was able to connect to the role as well as   the organization and was selected for the same.

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 from your first job and your role? Were they all fulfilled? What didn’t coincide with your expectations? 

Of course, it was really exciting to be at my first job and that too in a new town. I was hired as Management Trainee at Airtel and it was the time when the company was a new entrant in a telecom space that already had a couple of entrenched players. These were exceptionally high-intensity days of establishing teams and creating processes and frameworks. It was great learning to be part of such an organization that was highly dynamic and growing at a fast pace.

At work, I was surprised to find friendly and truly supportive colleagues than I expected. I had an impression of the workplace being serious & boring but thankfully it was far from it. It was a place where we really came together as a team to work and had our share of fun.

My manager was extremely caring, and I remain indebted to her for support. She was sensitive to the fact that I was on my own and in a new city. Mumbai stays close to my heart for the difference that each of my colleagues and friends made.

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

Yes, especially in the first few years it is required. The freshers do need support to interpret what happens around them in a better manner. They may face situations for the first time, and it may off-track them otherwise.

One should have someone to help see the situation from a fresh lens and support. In hindsight, most of us are able to understand and interpret better, but when we are in the middle of the situation we do better when someone is able to guide us through. 

I did not have a formal mentor, however, as part of the Management Trainee program we did introduce mentoring later. Some of my ex-managers have been excellent mentors, I do continue to reach out to them which has been extremely helpful.

Senior leadership has a responsibility to build talent through feedback, perspective sharing and asking the right questions in a non–threatening environment. Even if they are not in the position of mentors, they should do this generously. For the organization that does not have formal mentoring programs, young professionals should seek support and should not hold back. 

Mentoring program also works well for building an inclusive culture and pushing more diversity candidates for leadership levels and building strong network groups for them.

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 set of underlying values, visible practices and behaviour sets that define any organization. For any successful organization having a common set of values to live by and reassessing this in wake of any changes is critical. 

In case of these values, behaviours do not get defined these will still become binding based on individuals & teams that run them which could be self-serving and damaging in the long run.

HR has an important role to look for real-time data across employee groups and teams to undertake any actions for addressing any breakdowns. For example, if an exit interview sample gives inputs on a Manager not really supporting development whereas the organisation supports values of ‘growth’, the culture will get weakened. 

Culture needs to be held together and nurtured through continuous communication, hiring for a shared set of value fitment, rewarding the right set of and building these through upskilling programs especially at leadership levels. An organization that wants to build a culture of innovation has to allow people to make mistakes and give psychological safety to take new risks. HR has to come forward to define how these program sets will help get the culture come to life. For innovation, it would also mean creating forums for ideation or internal problem hackathons.

What kind of soft skills does a fresh graduate need to get a career break and to be successful in the beginning of their career?

Communication skills are definitely important. This means the ability to structure your message coherently and clearly. This should be both verbal & written. In initial phase preparation and planning your flow of thought and message should be worth the effort. Also listening is part of communication that people often forget.

Work ethic is a critical one at any stage but because other skills may be still low, this can be extremely valuable when you start. To have an earnest drive to work hard and show the sincerity of purpose is irreplaceable. 

Another one is the ability to work in teams. As more and more organization become blurry on structures and high on need for integration, one should be able to work with others.

Being open to new experiences, flexibility or adaptability will also take one very far.

Finally, the ability to logically analyse problems and resolve these is something that most organization look for.

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?

I have been personally involved many times convincing hiring managers that they do not need prior experience in a relevant industry. We sometimes give unnecessary weightage to experience in a similar industry as there is always urgency for talent to start performing immediately. It would be enough to check if the person has a requisite skill set to deal with challenges. Experience is a good indicator but does not guarantee that. 

Especially when there is a talent crunch, learning agility becomes a strong trait to hire for. I have seen enough examples of people from different industries doing well or in fact different functions being able to manage well.  

Academic record, on the other hand, shows a personality trait of being conscientious and someone who is focussed.  If you do not have a high academic record it will be helpful to highlight if you were focussed on other things like sports, etc. 

However, there are enough examples of people who have average scores and do exceptionally well later - it’s a matter of when they are focussed on achieving something. A strong reference may be helpful, or examples of achievements covered in the profile. 

When we talk to fresh graduates and junior level employees as well as non-HRs, they understand Employee Engagement as – Birthday Celebrations, Picnics, Diwali Rangoli, Christmas Celebrations, Cultural Day Celebrations, etc. Please help us understand what employee engagement is and why it is necessary? 

Let’s understand Employee engagement is much beyond that. 

It will be good to know the definition of engagement & why organizations need it. Gallup defines ‘engaged employees’ as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. Another definition by Aon Hewitt is ‘The level of an employee's psychological investment in their organization.’   

Engaged employees lead to better business outcomes. In fact, according to Towers Perrin research companies with engaged workers have 6% higher net profit margins, and according to Kenexa research engaged companies have five times higher shareholder returns over five years.

Gallup defines core elements that link strongly to key business outcomes.  These elements relate to what the employee gets (e.g. tools to work, objectives), what the employee gives (e.g., the employee's individual contributions), whether the employee has the opportunity to grow (e.g., by getting feedback about work), etc. 

So, an organisation can engage employees when they focus on some of these  

  • Having a clear vision & mission 
  • Defining clear goals linked to it 
  • Helping employees grow by giving them feedback & opportunities 
  • An environment which is encouraging & fun 

Yes, the events can be a forum for creating engagement e.g. it helps you feel part of a team together, etc. but it’s a much bigger spectrum that HR and organization should be focussed on to create engaged workforce. As Watson Wyatt's report identifies "engageable moment" in its report, formal ones like performance reviews, onboarding, goal setting, communications by senior leaders as well as informal forums like coaching, recognition as well as company social events, etc.

Across the corporate world, a lot of work is being done on “Diversity and Inclusion”. There are many female leaders who have managed to break the glass ceiling to get elevated to the CXO level. What according to you, are differentiating successful women from not so successful women?  

My personal observation has been that the women leaders with strong will power and self-belief are able to move forward. Women may need to slow down sometimes to balance things and that itself can cause professional frustration.  Often ridden with guilt, it can get difficult to move from one day to the other, however, having clarity of purpose and belief in one’s own abilities can help differentiate and truly propel women forward.

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?

As there are changes in the technology & market, combined with the convergence of skill sets, roles are getting redefined every day and talent shortage is being felt.

Those who are entering the workforce are not ‘ready now’ for the roles and may not have especially a combination of the skills required for the dynamic & complex environment. The demand for new tech talent, for example, is across all sectors, as businesses become digitized and automated.     

The talent supply does not follow the same curve as business growth. In fact, mostly it’s the other way around when mature organizations & markets produce talent to lead a complex environment. There is a lag for talent to get ready. Organizations must target to cut this lag by rapid & constant upskilling of its existing workforce. Continuous learning has to be the adage for survival.

An organization has to buy outside what it can’t build in a short span. Hiring candidates from mature markets is another way to resolve but this does come at a cost. 

One of the ways in this situation could be to hire candidates who may not have all the required skills, but who could fit in with some amount of support & training. This also helps build stickiness with the organisation over time. 

The other solution which is being picked up by mostly startups is to hire high-end specialists for a period of time as consultants.

Additionally, project teams are coming together where no one person has all the skills but together they are able to run the mandate. I feel this team structure would really define how we work in the future because the functional lines are also overlapping, just as roles are converging.

In a global study by Korn Ferry that includes a country-wise analysis suggests by 2030, there will be a global human talent shortage of more than 85 million people. Much of the shortage is based on simple demographic elements. Japan and many European nations, for instance, have continued low birth rates. It is said in the study that younger generations will not have had the time or training to take many of the high-skilled jobs left behind.

However, the story in India could be different & much better; the study suggests that the country could have a surplus of more than 1 million high-skilled tech workers by 2030 making India the next tech leader. 

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

Embrace the change and boldly move forward! You have to keep an eye on the future and reassess how you are adding value to the organization. 

All functions are being disrupted by changes around us and HR is no different. These changes are happening at a rapid pace, giving us no time to prepare. It’s critical to understand the real value being created as technology is constantly doing away with transactional requirements. 

For instance, the Talent Acquisition digital modules are able to send calendar invites for interviews and ensure resumes are stack ranked, however, HR has the remaining critical mandate to focus on, that is enabling selection of the right-fit candidates.

The sluggish economy and general market sentiment may not be encouraging however organization of the future will increasingly need HR skills to leverage and build its people resources; for evangelizing technology to manage teams, domain experts for navigating labour & compliance environment; knowhow for tapping into people analytics and decide the next course of action; understanding of workforce interventions, benefits, programs for future-proofing these. The HR the role will not be easy but keep reinventing itself to keep matching pace with the business & markets and hence constantly throwing new opportunities.

Apart from understanding business & leveraging people processes to impact the organization HR professional will need high responsiveness to changing dynamics armed with digital fluency, analytical power and strong ability to navigate a complex set of stakeholders - workforce, functions, teams, people managers & external environment. 

Thank you very much, Manisha, for sharing wonderful insight.

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