When your team grows, you grow.

With an experience spanning over 10 years, Garima has worked as an HR professional in the spectrum of Tech, Audit, Talent management, Advisory, and Consulting industry.

Having experience in leading recruitment, onboarding, and training for regional operations, her expertise however lies in acting as a catalyst to create dynamic and successful business partnerships. To create an engaging organisation, she believes one must be ready to adapt and evolve by actively communicating ideas, best practices, and by developing a deeper understanding of business.

She believes that learning should never stop which has led her to travel to unchartered territories and explore her passion for baking as well as photography. Garima has worked with IBM, Google, and PwC and is now with ZS Associates as an HR Business Partner.

Thank you, Garima, 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.

Those were difficult days, fresh out of college, just when the recession had hit us, and no prior experience (I’d say very similar to what’s going on today!). It was my first ever interview, and I managed to crack it and joined IBM a week later. I came to know about the opportunity through a reference. I prepared well, brushed up on what I had studied in my MBA, but spent the majority of my time doing thorough research on the organisation and the industry it belonged to – how they were doing, what were their financials in the past few years, what was the impact of the recession on them, any new industry trends, and if they had come up with anything new in the recent past. I was asked questions about my understanding of the organisation, and why I chose to appear for an interview (that’s where I could quote figures and company’s growth in the last few years, clearly, they were doing well). I was also asked about different channels of recruitment, and the optimised hiring model for their respective industry, etc. My preparation braced me for the three grilling rounds, where I also ended up asking about the future of the firm and where did I fit in – always ask questions in the interview! By the end of my final round, I was told in person that I was selected, and I couldn’t have been happier. I kind of lived what’s depicted in movies and series.  

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 did not coincide with your expectations?

I spent exactly a year with IBM, and it taught me a lot and kind of help in creating the right foundation on which I built my career thereafter. On my second day of joining, I was sent out to recruit at an external consultant’s office and came back home at 1:00 AM. I had never expected that any job would keep one up so late at a location other than your office or expecting to be at a strange location with an unknown colleague on the second day of work itself. I did have second thoughts at that moment, but I decided to continue and experience everything. I am glad that I did not decide hastily and continued with them because soon enough I was moved to handle recruitment through employee referrals. The team was very cooperative, and the tenured folks walked in to help whenever they saw me struggling. Of course, you do meet people on the way, who will not be very cooperative or would try and bring you down at every available opportunity. I had a colleague, who for some reason did not like my company, she would try and frame me for any loopholes or misses at work. But there is always something to learn from them too. I understood that not everyone at work can be a friend and would mean well, they may not like you for any reason, and it’s not your job to make everyone happy. They shall remain as work colleagues, and we should learn to accept it.

When we start afresh, we have a very different picture of a Corporate, but that’s not exactly how it works. However, the most important aspect to remember always is that no matter how it does or doesn’t match with your expectations, believe in perseverance. No matter what organization or industry it is, your first experience teaches you a lot about what’s to come, and how you learn to manage it all. Things will eventually start to turn in your favour or in the direction you ought them to be, and you’ll soon realise the difference you’re able to make.

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

Workplace mentors play such an important role in shaping up an individual’s career. Back at IBM, my own Manager started to invest time in me, the way he would in other team members. His approach to every individual was very customised, according to their needs, potential and working style. I was educated on the ways of the organization, what mattered to people there, and how I could make the most of it. On multiple occasions, when I would falter, I was also sternly given feedback, which helped me correct myself, and put in more effort to learn. The enablement at work started to boost my confidence, and I started to speak up about matters that were discussed within the team. I started to bring in new perspectives and add values, a basis in which I was guided further. Similarly, at my second organization, I was extended support from another Manager. She ensured I got new exposure, and she mentored me, guided me to perform better at what I was doing. Constructive feedback is always very helpful, because we all make mistakes, and it gives us an opportunity to learn and perform better the next time.

Those first two mentors in my career really left an impact on me, something that I still follow. I always ensure that I provide similar kind of an experience to someone who works with me and help them grow in their role while realising their true potential. I am what I am today because those two individuals believed in me when I started, and they believed that I had it in me to excel and strive to do better.

Why did you choose HR as a profession? What was the motive and what was the motivation?

The clichéd response to this would be being a people person and hence choosing HR. Contrary to popular belief, I chose this field because I always thought, that it’s the people that make the organisation and not vice-versa. People hold true core values and principles, and the differentiation between an average and a great organization. An organization would work like a well-oiled machine only if the people in it had the zeal to make it work, and it would crumble down in a moment if one-day people decided to not keep it together. Hence, I wanted to understand and be a part of this phenomenon, and that drove me towards studying human resources.

COVID-19 has changed workplace dynamics in many ways. What has been your learnings during this phase? What permanent changes do you foresee at workplace post COVID-19?

The pandemic has changed the world in unprecedented ways. What we always believed of being impossible, is now in implementation across the world. According to a study by Forbes, this will bring in the biggest transformation at work since WWII!

I’ve come to realize that no matter the strategies and theories we once thought we couldn’t live without and that one had to follow have all turned to vain in this scenario, and suddenly it opens the window to infinite possibilities. This is the time to create something new, work on erratic disruptive ideas, and truly create an impact.

So many organizations are changing their internal policies with respect to work. They’ve come to realise that change is inevitable. What was earlier a taboo, has now become the new normal, and that has shaken up the very foundation of the existing working models and stereotypes. This is also bringing in a change to the recruitment, engagement, assessment, and retention strategies. In order to stay ahead, and stay relevant, there’s a requirement for permanent changes to everything that we’ve been doing. There will be a stark differentiation between a pre-COVID and a post-COVID working model and environment. This is a great opportunity for freshers to bring in their perspective and new ways of working wherever they go, because the time couldn’t be righter, and the firms couldn’t be more open to the new ideas!

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? How does HR develop a culture that ensures employee engagement?

I’d say it’s the people that truly define an organization’s culture. But yes, in ensuring that it continues to be what was envisioned in the first place, it gets driven by the leaders. It’s important staying true to the values and imbibing them in everyday work. HR plays an equally important role, in bringing in the people that would adapt themselves well into the organization. They coach and guide wherever necessary, and they maintain continuous communication and lead by example as to what and how the culture should be.

What is your take on “Career Gaps”? We come across many people who are forced to hide certain aspects of their employment history because organizations do not shortlist their profiles because of career gaps. How do you address such cases?

Career gaps could be due to multiple reasons, and some of those could be beyond an individual’s control. It could be due to a medical condition, family exigency, attending to a newborn, or ailing family member. In the last five years, the trend has also shifted to millennials taking a break to try out new avenues or explore different options in order to choose what’s best for them. It’s true to a great extent that the organisations do see it as a setback, and sometimes penalize in terms of not selecting or offering a lower level/ designation to compensate for it. However, the other side of the story is, that sometimes it may also lead to creating stress on an individual while working with team members much younger but at the same level, probably with similar responsibilities and compensation. This in some cases may also lead to lower morale and demotivation.

With millennials, we’ve already started to witness this change, where we became more curious about what they learned during that gap or upskilled themselves. In one such a case, we had a candidate with three years of experience, applying for a Senior Associate role. She had taken a break of two years, of which one year was spent in France and the other one partly in India and the UK. She had helped a start-up launch themselves in the UK and had helped the locals with farming and building a local presence in France. She brought with her the mindset of a millennial, but the knowledge from having worked and explored consumers in two different countries. That’s where she was looked at as an asset to the team with varied international exposure. She brought in a new perspective because she had studies consumer behaviour up-close.

I believe that we should be more open and accepting of the career gaps. This pandemic has given us an opportunity to re-evaluate and assess our theories and thought processes. There’s no doubt that we’ll witness career gaps now for most of our population, and this would lead to a wider acceptance and cognizance, resulting in reducing the standard notions about a “career gap” and bringing in a more diverse workforce.

What are your thoughts about layoffs? What is the role of HR in layoffs? According to you, what is the appropriate way of managing layoffs?

Layoffs usually happen when the organization has had a significant financial impact, where it becomes difficult for them to keep running the business effectively, and they resort to downsizing. That could be because of changing market conditions/demands, less business, failing to compete with new disruptive technology or sometimes not very intelligent strategical decisions in the past. Layoffs give the flexibility and window of opportunity to the organization to be able to continue to run their existing business and save some, if not all of their talented employees.

The first step is to identify the new count that can be sustainable for the firm, in order to continue to employ and provide salaries to the people. Once it’s decided, some people are shifted to other divisions/locations basis their agreement in order to try and retain them to the maximum possible extent. Post which, eventually, it’s decided who to be laid off. This may also include evaluation basis levels, job responsibilities, past performance, and business needs. The individuals are also compensated to some extent, to help them sustain themselves for the coming months. This process can’t be mechanical in nature as it involves people and their future. The organizations need to be extra careful while conducting this exercise, and not being a miser at it financially.

What do you think 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?

I believe during and post-COVID, we’re only going to encounter a talent surplus. Unfortunately, some businesses had to let go of talented people, but that means they’re up for grabs. This is the time to assess needs for future growth and bring in diversity. People with diverse backgrounds, knowledge, and experience can revolutionise the way we’ve been working till now. Yes, this may mean incurring some additional cost in the first few months (owing to a lesser influx of business) but at the same time helping in creating a stronger foundation for upcoming market revolution post-COVID, where the consumers are expected to be aware of and understand the new normal.

Every crisis turns the tide for some businesses. We just need to anticipate it and be prepared for it.

Based on your experience, what are the primary expectations of a CEO from the HR Function, in general, and HR Head, in particular?

In general, the organizations feel that HR as a function exists to help with maintaining and managing employee data and employee life cycle events. Usually, in a Senior leadership meeting, the HR Head would be expected to give people updates – headcount, attrition, measures to curb attrition, engagement, and any changes to the policies. They run hand-in-hand with the business leaders helping them with their people request and then managing those people.

However, some organizations are now tapping into the full potential of HR. Not just involving them with planning the headcount but involving them while spanning out the business needs. Once aware of the business needs, HR can help assess and build a talent pool that would act as a catalyst in the organization’s growth. The engagement is not just restricted to conducting certain events or activities (contrary to popular belief), but truly assessing if people at work feel engaged enough and can relate to the vision and growth of the organization, do they see it being aligned with their own personal growth and aspirations? Are they feeling inclusive or facing difficulties where HR can help them and lend an ear?

How do you motivate your team?

Not so long back, it was believed that the reward is what drives and motivates an employee – what was called a carrot and a stick approach. Through multiple studies, we now know that ‘salary’ was not the most important driver, rather working on something important, and contribution to the big picture is, being heard and valued is more important.

In order to keep the team motivated, I have always tried to understand their aspirations, personal goals, and what they truly want to achieve in their role. Post developing the understanding, together we decide on the goals, and what would they need in order to achieve them. Creating a consistent and effective two-way communication is the key. I am always open to new ideas, upward feedback, or any kind of disagreements. When the team feels they can walk up to me and discuss their comforts and discomforts, it gives them the freedom to talk. It’s also very important to show them the bigger picture, and tell them where they fit in. When their personal aspirations align with work goals, true magic happens.

COVID has, however, changed the current work scenario completely. Not being able to interact in person, elevator conversations, or water cooler ideas have all vanished. Hence, it’s important to connect now more than ever. Let them know that they still matter. Helping them with flexibility as some of them may not have the best working conditions at home. Also, holding informal connections to try and understand what they’re going through, pep talks, and giving them the time to adjust to this new normal without the burden of heavy expectations and deliverables.

How would you describe your leadership style? What values are most important to you as a leader?

Something that I’ve always believed in is that a leader is someone who ensures and invests in their team’s growth, both personally as well as professionally. If your team members grow, you grow. I believe it kind of stems from what I had witnessed in my nascent years at corporate. I learned from my mentors and have believed in it since.

I’ve always believed in letting my work speak for itself. No propaganda is needed if the work I do makes an impact and that’s what matters to me.

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?

The future workplace would seamlessly bring in people from all parts of the world to ideate and work together. It is happening right now too, but we’re still more focused on making teams sit together and work together in person. The intelligent way to work in the future would be to not be restricting ourselves to geography, experience, or qualifications while bringing in someone. To have at least 50% of our workforce telecommuting if not more, while bringing down the operational costs, but disrupting the standard norms of work, such as – working on a fixed schedule, tenured promotions, reduced flexibility, etc.

The primary focus of HR shall now move to engaging team members working remotely, bringing in more inclusivity, changing the standard performance assessment model, and making work culture more flexible giving the ability to manage personal and professional fronts easily.

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

Whenever you start, start with an open mind, learn as much as you can from whoever you can. You shall be witnessing a change that no one has ever witnessed, the time is now to bring in positive disruptions at work. The study, observe and understand the environment around you, and do not shy away from bringing in your perspectives/ideas. You are the future leaders of a new world, and you can use this moment to truly expand this role to its limits.

Thank you very much, Garima, for sharing wonderful insight. Highly Appreciated.   

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