Passion, Compassion and wit is all it takes to become a great HR leader.
Ajay Khanna is an experienced learning & development professional with a clear focus on building individual capabilities by designing and implementing the right interventions with significant impact on business outcomes. His 20 years of experience includes sales, people management and training & development, with a dash of Human Resources including Talent Management and employee engagement. Long exposure to sales leadership and alignment to business compliments his overall HR and training & development approach in creating employee and business centric content to achieve both employee and organizational expectations. Ajay’s professional objective is to add value to business by creating an ecosystem of learning and best HR practices. Enable business for current and future challenges by aligning learning and human resources to the organizational objectives.
Ajay is currently working as AGM & Head, Learning & Development at Syngene International Ltd. His Certifications include Certified Learning & Development Manager, MEHR, CAMI; Training Specialist, Dale Carnegie; and Train the Trainer, Dale Carnegie.
Ajay holds Master of Business Administration, Sikkim Manipal Univ.; Bachelor of Science, H.P. University, Shimla. Ajay writes his blog on training and leadership related topics on WordPress and LinkedIn
Thank you, Ajay, for giving your valuable time to this interview. We look forward to your candid response.
We would be pleased to learn about your professional journey from the beginning. So, please share with us about your first job interview.
Year 1999, I had just completed my graduation in life sciences from a place called Solan in Himachal Pradesh, and with not many choices around I was on a constant look out for a decent job so I could fend for myself and start my career journey. I was always perceived as an outgoing person who would do well either in sales or marketing or similar jobs that requires dynamism and passion. I got my first interview call from a Multinational biopharmaceutical company based in Delhi for a front-line sales position. It was through a news-paper job posting that I had got to know about this vacancy. Contrary to what many think (sales jobs are easy to get), it wasn’t an easy job interview; there were rounds of discussions and so many candidates to compete with. This being my first interview, I over prepared (Science and basics of sales) and lot of things that were not even asked about. Well, I did well in the group discussion round and debates but not so good in the written examination but somehow managed to clear them to reach the final round of personal interview. The panel comprised of three people dressed nicely and speaking impeccable English. I was nervous and had no clue as how to go about it. They didn’t grill me much considering I was a fresher. This was the first time I was asked the most coveted ‘where do you see yourself 5 years down the line’ question to which I replied that may be conducting an interview like this and there was laughter in the room. I started to feel more relaxed as the interview progressed. Some of the other questions that I could recall were on sales that how I would sell something, what excites me about sales, so on and so forth.
In the end it was a great experience and more so because I could clear all the rounds. I did not join that company as the job location was far off in Rajasthan and my mother wasn’t willing to send me to deal with Rajasthan’s heat after having grown up in the most beautiful hill station in Himachal Pradesh.
Purpose of technology is to make life easy by improving the efficiency or reducing errors, and it must be allowed to do this in the interest of mankind.
Which, according to you was the most intriguing interview? Can you share your experience in detail?
My first job interview, as I described above, was always the most memorable for me and largely due to the interviewers’ compassion and ability to keep me at ease. In fact, this prepared me to a great extent for the future interviews that I attended. I cleared the next one too and accepted the offer letter to embark on my career journey in sales from thereon.
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 the job and your role? Were they all fulfilled? What didn’t coincide with your expectations?
My first year at my first job was reality hitting hard. I remembered every word my parents told that how hard it is to earn a penny. But I was all set for it and decided to not give up and strive in the face of adversities. Selling in extreme conditions is both mentally and physically draining, I remember how I would fall sick almost every week and look for reasons to go to my home which was about a five-hour journey from my HQ town in Punjab. I had no bike in the beginning and hiring a cab or a rick wasn’t a good financial choice, so I would walk the day and come back home only to sleep. Slowly I started getting a hang of the things and work expectations. After my initial struggle of not being able to achieve my budgets in the first 18 months of my career and an extended probation, I decided to rise and challenge the situation. I turned it around fast to become the top performer in the North Zone in the next 12 months. I got my first promotion in three years of my job and took over as a sales manager at Lucknow handling a team of 9 associates. I was the youngest manager in my organisation then and continues to be so in many organisations for a long time. A lot of my learnings are from first few years of my career and struggles that I went through. I believe I have got a strong foundation due to this. I am extremely grateful to all my difficult customers, managers and employees who taught me leadership like no one would ever do.
Do you think workplace mentors and coaches play an important role in settling fresh graduates in their first job? How was your experience?
Yes undoubtedly, as I said above, I am indebted to my first mangers, through whom I learned a great deal. I wouldn’t say that all of them were good to me but all of them taught me many life lessons, I always say that one learns equally from good and bad managers if one is seeking. I was an inquisitive employee and so am I even today. I ask questions, in fact a lot of them. This has been my constant source of my learning. The word coaching and mentoring are modern day terms and one wouldn’t even know what it meant (in the business context) a few years back. I grew up in my career in the good old way of management which was more trust based. I was a kind of employee/manager who people trusted, and it is through this mutual trust and respect, we achieve a great deal both personally and professionally].
A successful training program is not just about the content or trainer but about an experience that last long
What situations or circumstances made you transit from Sales to Learning & Development?
While I had no initial intent of joining a training or a learning department, but I always have been a person keen on helping others learn something new or overcome the challenges that they face at work or otherwise. It was this trait that one of my Presidents in my current organisation observed and asked me if I was willing to move to the newly formed L&D dept as its first L&D manager. And this is how began the second phase of my career in early 2013. L&D wasn’t just another job option for me, it was something I was extremely passionate about. Once I assumed this role, there was no looking back, from a sales trainer to an L&D person and to now an L&OD professional. This has been my journey thus far and I am really looking forward to continuing to add value to the profession and helping people recognise the immense hidden potential in them and eventually become happy.
What competencies of Sales Manager are helping you become a successful L&D Manager?
Customer connect, sales leadership and the never give up attitude acquired in my stint in sales has been the foundation of my L&D career. As we know that L&D today is not another HR function, it is a core business need especially in the VUCA world. Alignment of business objectives with L&D initiatives is key to delivering value.
A strong business acumen for an L&D professional is like cherry on the cake, one can see through the challenges clearly and propose meaningful interventions. As I have been on both sides of the table, so I know what works and what does not. Also, sales management gives you a knack for risk taking and I think that comes handy when you must innovate or reinvent your offerings.
In the corporate world, people have been using “Coaching” and “Mentoring” interchangeably. It is creating confusion. Please help us understand the similarities and differences between Coaching and Mentoring. When do we coach an individual and when do we mentor an individual?
I agree to that to an extent. A lay man may not really be able to differentiate between the two but a professional surely can.
Coaching and Mentoring are different in many ways, but both are focused on helping individuals bridge gaps between their expectation from self and reality. We too use both the strategies at workplace however, I am myself a coach and I believe coaching is far more empowering and client centric than mentoring. To me, the best scenario to apply coaching is between a manager and an employee where they engage in everyday, short yet meaningful conversation to achieve a set goal. Benefits of coaching are multidimensional. Mentoring however could be a solution to larger life goals where the mentee has the freedom to choose the mentor and seek guidance as and when required in an unstructured way. Coaching gives more satisfaction to both the coachee and the coach.
What kind of soft skills does a fresh graduate need to get a career break and to be successful at the beginning of their career?
Technical or non-technical whatever profession one choses, it is one’s soft skills that decides how successful one becomes at the end of the day. On this premise, we lay a lot of emphasis on the importance of softer skills especially self-awareness in our training curriculum.
Listening is a skill that I recommend strongly to our younger folks to develop in them. The better the listener, the better the problem solver you are. Wit is also something that I don’t see very often among not just the younger but older folks too, I am sure this will become a critical leadership trait as the new generation of leaders takes over.
What are the critical traits of a successful L&D Expert? What kind of education do they need?
So, there are a lot of Indian and International institutes today offering short and long courses in Learning and development apart from the basic education in HR. They may specialise in L&D as well, though it may not be the differentiator when it comes to professional success. I sternly believe that one’s passion will surely take oneself a long way in the career journey. The basic traits expected (My opinion) from an L&D expert are
1. Business Acumen, 2. Global Mindset, 3. Innovation and creativity 4. Stakeholder Management 5. Listening and coaching 6. Language proficiency 7. Agility
We hear this statement, “Participants leave their training learning’s in the training room and return to their routine after resuming their work (particularly in cases of behavioural or soft-skill training). What is your take on this? How do you ensure that the training is effective for the employee?
Well that’s true to a large extent and this is a natural tendency of any participant, you or me to forget what is not useful. We can’t blame them solely for this. Our brains are wired like this. Today there’s so much emphasis on understanding participants behaviour and why so many training interventions fail to deliver value and achieve objectives. There is a clear need for the industry to introspect. Have we made training so monotonous and ritualistic that people see no value, or we are too scared to innovate? I am sure every trainer does the basic due diligence while planning a program, but then not every program is as engaging as the other. On careful inspection we find that trainings have become a one-way mode of knowledge or skill transfer without even knowing the audience needs. There’s too much focus on how to do something v/s why to do it in the first hand.
If we as trainers can address the question ‘what is in it for the audience and balance it with strategies to achieve it, I am quite sure it will work. How I ensure effectiveness of the trainings is by aligning the course objectives with participants objectives and by helping them realise how it would benefit them, through an interaction (partnership) based delivery. Another modern way of improving effectiveness is by using practical scenarios (case based) over conceptual explanations and off-course death by power point.
“Content” or “Delivery” (experience creation), which is the key and the primary element of a successful training session.
I have partially answered this question earlier…I think both are important but what is more important is the context. Same thing would mean different for different people or same people in different scenarios. So, customisation holds the key. Much before it all starts, a clear context is what, must be set. Sometimes during workshops I’ve also seen and learned that how smartly trainers (facilitators) improvise based on the silent feedback and bring the relevance back quickly. In the end a successful training program is not just about the content or trainer but about an experience that last long, very long. Give them an experience that they will carry with them forever. How? Please figure out for yourself. Storytelling works for me.
People often assume “Training = Conducting a Training Session or a Workshop”. Training is also considered as a career option for an “extrovert and outspoken people”. Please share with us various career options within the preamble of “Learning & Development”.
Learning and development is a very vast and versatile function, training is indeed an interesting piece of this pie, however there’s much more to it than training or training management. Technology based L&D has really picked up in last few years, and there’s almost every company today having an online learning portal, this is largely managed by LMS specialist who may not be trainers but have great knack for technology. There’s also so much of analytics and metrics involved in trainings these days that I see a great demand of people with ability to interpret patterns and analyse data. So, there’s no dearth of opportunities for non-trainers in the L&D domain.
Technical or non-technical whatever profession one choses, it is one’s soft skills that decides how successful one becomes at the end of the day.
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 sooner we accept the reality the better it is for all of us.
AI is here to stay and will impact us as much as any other profession. Let’s embrace technology with open arms. Nothing can replace HR until the time it has human in it. Purpose of technology is to make life easy by improving the efficiency or reducing errors, and it must be allowed to do this in the interest of mankind. How we leverage this will be a proof of how naturally intelligent humans are. Hiring, assessments, learning are areas that I clearly see has advanced after the arrival of AI and it will continue to impact more functions and roles for its betterment. Social Media is a very powerful tool and I have used it more than often, be it employee engagement or social learning. My work on our social learning project in my current organisation is a case study that how HR/L&D could leverage FB/IG and other tools to foster a strong culture of informal learning and employee engagement.
Last question, what is your message for young and aspiring HR practitioners? What kind of growth opportunities should they look forward to? And, what key competencies one must possess to be successful in this profession?
There has never been a better time to be in HR than what it is today, and I say so because the perception of HR has changed 180 degree in last one decade, Thanks to all the HR leaders to have put HR in such commanding position. As they say, “HR is not just a business partner, HR is the business.” In terms of opportunities, there are plenty, OD, Talent Management, Employee engagement and much more. One word of advice for all aspiring HR professionals or enthusiasts is
to not take the job as just another career option. You should know that you are the foundation of so many peoples’ careers, you are the genesis of excellence. You must whole-heartedly thrive in this endeavour and be successful, and without doubt you will be, if you have these two most important attributes - Passion and Compassion.