“From The Doorman To The Chairman, Everyone Has A Point Of View”

Prabir Jha (global chief people officer, CIPLA) believes that contrary to urban myth, hr is one of the toughest business functions to practice while anchoring values and fair practices to organisational impact.

Prabir Jha (global chief people officer, CIPLA) believes that contrary to urban myth, hr is one of the toughest business functions to practice while anchoring values and fair practices to organisational impact

How, where and when did you start your career?

My movement into HR, with hindsight, seems to have been destined. I never knew much of it as a career when I was growing up. I was always keen to join the prestigious civil services. And indeed I cleared the UPSC exams (1989) even as I was finishing my Masters.

ssaIn my decade with the government, I had a lot of exposure with things called HR during my stint handling the Indian Ordnance Factories. At some stage, I wanted to study more and I started thinking of an MBA. And the civil services would not have done much with a marketer!

So I chose to specialise in HR, an agenda I had discovered I quite enjoyed. Then it was obvious that I must try for XLRI, arguably the best place for HR. Wonder of wonders, after all these years away from books, I cleared the selection process.

While I had never ever planned to leave the civil services and every bit of an assured career that it offers, I left the government six months after having returned to it post my MBA (1999) for what I feel, ironically though, was a poor HR handling of my case by the ministry. And I quit to join the private sector in a formal HR role. There was no script but my career got scripted!

Why did you choose HR as your professional field?

 I had a lot of exposure to various facets with HR in my days with the Indian Ordnance Factories in the Ministry of Defence. While at one level, you had scores of unions and federations to handle, you also had the responsibilities to look at working through fast track possibilities and Pay Commission compensation challenges. And of course, one could also become the counsel to senior officers and junior staff alike. And I discovered, I took to all this as a fish to water.

So choosing HR as my MBA sabbatical option was not surprising. Otherwise, I would have been a very good marketer too, but then, I had never ever thought of leaving the civil service, where it logically did not make sense to take that route then!

Describe the initial years of your career.  Actually, clearing the UPSC and joining the civil services has one problem. You never really start from the bottom of the pyramid. From day one, you lead people, take decisions and are responsible for things beyond your age in many other walks of life.

I was apprehensive about how well I would be able to lead people who were much older to me on my first posting. But honestly, I don’t remember any major hiccups. I enjoyed connecting with my big team, across levels. I loved reasoning with all the unions and learnt some absolutely great leadership lessons observing some of them.

In fact, there were many important leadership skills that I did learn in my early days. For example, I learnt to compliment at least one person every day. It makes all the difference not only to that person but to many who hear of this.

I also learnt that if you are paid to take decisions – then take them. You are not any wiser delaying your decisions to the next day. Also, honesty and candour always help. Even if momentarily upset, the other side respects you for these qualities and this adds to your reputation that travels to your next posting, even before you arrive.

Finally, build your people. You cannot take all decisions or you will be doing a job many levels lower. You need to trust and delegate, building your team and freeing yourself to focus on what you should really focus on.

What might be described as the best moment of your HR career?

 There are so many moments right from my civil service days till now in Cipla that have given me joy and exhilaration. To consolidate all of them, I would probably need to wait for my possible book!

But through my entire career, the one thing I have consistently done, and I believe done extremely well, is to build great teams. Each time and everywhere. Building teams and getting them to deliver orbit changing impact is never an easy job. Many like to let things be. Well, that is the easiest option, but in my view not always right.

Sizing up the team on both the hard skills and the softer dimensions is tough. But you need to make your assessment. Letting go of people, hiring people better than you and getting all of them to connect to one larger purpose is never easy.

And also make them all feel inspired, energised and connected. Everyone is ready to prejudge your intention. You develop your share of critics. There is the predictable but unavoidable anxiety in the team too. But I feel that this is actually the secret sauce. It is worth everything.

If you hire the best, they raise the talent bar for those below them. When you raise the performance bar, the cascade happens right down. The same place becomes so different. The energy levels change. The mood to win becomes palpable. Winning then is not an accident; it is a lot of planned labour. And I have seen this every time, everywhere.

How have your experiences transformed you personally and professionally?

Building high impact and high connect teams is a personal high always. The team helps you make the impossible possible. Actually, as a leader, I have learned to envision, share the vision, put a high caliber team together, help them work through some peer differences and get out of the way.

In fact, I have never been nor needed to be a micro manager with the teams that I have built. It has allowed me to develop people, many of whom are respected CHROs in their own right.

To bask in the success of your team is absolutely the best reward God has gifted me so often in my career. I have learnt to enjoy the smaller successes as much as the big ones.

The truth is that I have learnt to be vulnerable with my team than to be slotted a superhuman. I have learnt to be open door and hierarchy neutral in spirit, and this was true even in my civil service days. I have learnt to take criticism on my chin because I know the team will help and stand by me. I have finally learnt that trust, competence and commitment make the best alchemy of success.

 Some key guidance and advice you would like to share with the HR practitioners of today and tomorrow.

 HR must think bold. We must co-create the organisational agenda, not just execute the one given to us. We must understand our operating context and apply our lens to problems and opportunities.

We must then have a point of view and speak up. HR is not just about being the “nice guy”; it is as much as being the best custodian of an organisation’s sustainability. HR practitioners must not be mere survivors. They must be people who can stand tall in the face of severe opposition, especially in moments of tough transformation.

They must learn to celebrate and laugh through all the struggle. It is a function which often is the fall guy, not the one called to the stage to be applauded. Your success is the success of everyone else.

Contrary to every myth, HR is possibly the most difficult function. You have to deliver impact through influence on everyone who does not report to you. It is an agenda everyone, from the doorman to the chairman, has a point of view that is believed to be the only truth.

Through all of this, you must necessarily navigate and anchor a world of values, fair practice and organisational impact. When you are able to do this, you will have a series of best moments.

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