A deep understanding of one’s self, one’s craft, and one’s context is what can help one to come up with effective responses in real-time!
Prasad Kurian is a Global HR leader with deep expertise in Talent & Performance Management, Organization Development, Learning & Leadership Development and Total Rewards. He brings in a 360-degree perspective on HR with experience in HR consulting, Corporate HR, Business HR, Internal HR Consulting and HR Shared Service Centre contexts. He is also a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and that helps him to integrate mystical world of Organization Development with the analytical world of Strategic Workforce Planning.
Prasad’s career has been characterized by a conscious effort to stand at the intersection of theory and practice in HR – ‘to apply theory to practice and to derive theory from practice’, as he puts it. You can see many examples of this on his blog on HR and OD, titled ‘Simplicity @ the other side of Complexity’ (https://prasadokurian.blogspot.com ) that he has been writing regularly for the last 15 years.
Thank you, Prasad, for giving your valuable time to this interview. We look forward to your candid responses.
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 started my career as a Scientist-Engineer with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC). While I left ISRO to join XLRI for my MBA in about one year of joining ISRO, the time I spent at VSSC is deeply etched in my memory. After spending 22 years working in HR, I have forgotten most of my Engineering, though I do claim to have been a ‘rocket scientist’ in my past life. What I remember most fondly about ISRO, apart from my manager and my team, is the non-hierarchical culture where you are actively encouraged to debate your point even with the senior-most people. This was very remarkable considering that I was working in a government department. This training did get me into trouble many times once I made the ‘quantum jump’ to the relatively fuzzy domain of HR, where it is often very difficult to prove or disprove things conclusively and hence arguing with one’s boss is a tricky endeavour.
Which, according to you was the most intriguing interview? Can you share your experience in detail?
The most intriguing job interview that I attended was with the CEO of one of the organizations that I worked in. During the interview, I asked him “What are your expectations from my role for the first 18 months?”. “Nothing”, he replied. It left me wondering why they wanted to pay the salary if there were no expectations from the role. Mercifully, he clarified that
one cannot really do an Organization Development kind of role without understanding the organization deeply and that it would take at least a couple of years. It was amazing to hear that from a CEO. Luckily, I was selected for the role and I did get to work closely with this gentleman for a long time.
Why did you choose HR as a profession? What was the motive and what was the motivation?
I have been interested in psychology from my childhood. During my first job at ISRO, I was nominated to be part of a task force to explore the question “Why are many young engineers leaving the organization?” This prompted me to read a lot about organization psychology and I was fascinated by the subject. However, leaving my job to study psychology was not a feasible option at that time. Therefore, joining the HR MBA program at XLRI and taking as many Organization Behaviour related electives as possible was some sort of a ‘socially acceptable escape route’. Luckily, it worked out well for me!
Do you think workplace mentors and coaches play an important role in settling fresh graduates in their first job? How was your experience?
Yes, very much so. My summer project guide, who I am still in touch with after 23 years, has played an important role in shaping the way I look at the HR domain and how I approach my work. I have also worked with him twice, as his direct report, later in my career. Having benefitted from having such an amazing mentor, I have tried to do what I can to guide the HR management trainees and summer trainees in the organizations I have worked with.
Have you ever been a mentor to another aspiring leader? How did you go about establishing that relationship?
I have been fortunate to work with many high-potential employees. To me, the most important thing is to let them know that I am confident about their potential to develop into more senior roles and that they can reach out to me if they need guidance. I guess I add the most value to them, by acting as a sounding board and helping them to find their own answers.
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?
To me, what influences the culture most is the
patterns of behavior of the leaders. The role of HR is to make the leaders more aware of their impact on the culture and how that drives employee and organization-level outcomes. Providing coaching to the leaders so that they reflect on their behaviors keeping in mind the core values of the organization, and to enable them to have a higher degree of integrity, in terms of integration of the thoughts, words and deeds are where HR can add value.
In your career span of 15+ years, what has been your most challenging HR Assignment? How have you ensured success in that assignment?
The most challenging assignment that I have handled involved helping an organization to crystallize its identity and to redefine its vision and mission in alignment with the identity. This was followed by a realignment of the organization strategy and the goals of the various functions. What made this effort successfully were top management involvement and sponsorship, a Large-Scale Interactive Process (LSIP) kind of methodology that got the entire organization involved, and, enabling the next generation leaders to have a very big say in defining the future of the organization.
We all make mistakes we wish we could take back. Share a time you wish you’d handled a situation differently with a colleague.
When I was quite new in one of the organizations that I have worked with, I was given the responsibility to drive an organization-wide project that involved working with people in different functions. During that project, I got the impression that one of my colleagues was slowing things down unnecessarily. I tried to ‘push things through’ and that created a strain in our relationship. Later, when I had developed a deeper understanding of the context, I could understand why he was going slowly on a few things, and, why it was difficult for him to tell me the reason explicitly. Therefore, I went to him for an informal chat and apologized to him for my behaviour. After that, we worked together very effectively on many projects. It also taught me a couple of valuable lessons – to
make extra efforts to develop a deep understanding of the context before trying to drive change and to listen deeply for what is not explicitly stated!
How do companies identify their FUTURE MANAGERS? According to you, what are the key skills and competencies of successful and effective MANAGERS?
Most companies develop a
managerial competency framework that details the behaviors that would lead to effectiveness in a managerial job in their context. Then assessments are done using a combination of tools or using a full-fledged assessment-development center anchored on the competency framework. While these competencies can vary across organizations, vision, humility, learning agility, courage, communication, balancing tasks and people focus, and accountability seem to be especially important.
Leaders are often required to make difficult decisions. Share a situation when you made a decision that not everyone agreed with (an unpopular decision).
Once I made a decision to make a significant change to the methodology that the firm was following in a particular domain because I felt that it would not work well in the particular client context. This was a big risk and hence an unpopular decision. Luckily, the new approach worked out very well and the client gave excellent feedback.
If you need to draw a landscape of the future workplace, how will it look like? What disruptions do you foresee in HR over the next FIVE years?
To me, defining characteristics of the future workplace would be the pace of change. The workforce mix and the nature of the employer-employee relationship would change significantly. The assumptions about the employer-employee relationship influences everything we do in HR, even when the assumptions are not explicitly stated. This would call for a
more agile version of HR with a deep understanding of the business. However, this agility has to be built on the foundation of a strong set of values that are lived consistently. This would ensure that the HR responses are directionally correct.
HR would need to
focus on the effective execution of a few key HR initiatives directly aligned to the most important business needs as opposed to working on a large number of HR initiatives at the same time. There should be increased focus on enhancing the quality of manager-employee interactions around HR processes. The need for agility and responsiveness would be reflected in all HR processes and initiatives. For example, it would mean moving from elaborate annual employee engagement surveys to simple real-time pulse surveys. Yes, no employee engagement, in the sense of deep connect with organization leading to discretionary effort, would be possible if employees are viewed primary as costs!
Lastly, what is your message for fresh HR Graduates? How should they prepare themselves for a career in HR?
Fresh HR graduates would do well to focus on two things –
deepening their understanding of the behavioural science fundamentals that underpin HR and deepening their understanding of the business context/strategy/operations of the company they have joined. They should also be keen observers of human behaviour and motivations at the workplace, including their own behaviours and motivations. The most important thing in organization life is relevance and it comes from the contribution one is making in a particular context. With the high degree of flux in organizations, ‘canned responses’ and ‘knowledge of best practices’ will not be sufficient to make a difference. A deep understanding of one’s self, one’s craft, and one’s context is what can help one to come up with effective responses in real-time!
Thank you, Prasad, for sharing wonderful insight.