VENKATESH (PRESIDENT-GROUP HR AND MANAGEMENT BOARD MEMBER, RPG ENTERPRISES) CAUTIONS HR PROFESSIONALS THAT ONLY THOSE WHO ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT BEING EMPLOYEE CHAMPIONS CAN GET SUCCESS IN THE HR FIELD
Tell us how your journey into HR started.
I did not choose HR, in fact HR chose me ! I got interested in HR at a very interesting time in the 80’s when the function was getting transformed in India from just being labour relations and managing trade unions to becoming a little bit more strategic. If you fundamentally want to impact people’s lives, it’s the right profession to be in.
I have always believed that HR is a calling, it’s not just a job. So if you don’t have the stomach to go through some of the pain points and painful moments in your life along with some serious highs, this is not the line for you. It’s very unpredictable, very person-dependent and that is what makes it so exciting. There is never a dull moment. As I look back I realize that this has been the best career choice for me. I would not have done anything else for a profession.
When it comes to career choices in India, you are always under societal pressure to be an engineer or a doctor. In my generation it was even worse – probably there were just two or three career options available. It was either engineering or medicine or chartered accountancy . In my case, thankfully, there was no parental pressure. So when I first heard about Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) I was quiet intrigued by what an institute like that does. So I appeared for the examination which was a competitive all India examination. It clicked, I got in, and did the two year programme. Campus hiring happened and I got into ITC (my first job), and that’s how my journey into HR started.
What were the initial years at ITC like? What were the challenges you faced, and the new things you learnt?
My exposure to the corporate world started with TISS because we had a unique format called ‘weekly field work’, where you were expected to spend two days in a week in a company. So you already knew how businesses operated, how companies ran HR functions, so in that sense there was no culture shock or the first shock of starting to work in a company. For me it was an easy entry into ITC.
On the other hand, ITC spends a huge amount of time in inducting you, getting you comfortable in it’s cultural fabric. My first posting after the initial exposure in the corporate office was in a remote place, called Munger in Bihar. There was a problem going on there and there was unrest, so I was thrown straight into the deep end. That was phenomenal learning.
I spent my first 10 years in a manufacturing environment. I was posted in Calcutta, then in Munger followed by Bangalore, and finally in Saharanpur in UP where I was the head of the factory as well as North India Sales & Marketing. It was a huge responsibility, considering the fact that I was pretty young at that time, only 28, and was given the responsibility of managing a pretty large business portfolio. At that time the factory had a production turnover of over Rs. 800 crores. Back in 1992 that was a lot of money.
I would say ITC was like school. You learnt all your initial lessons there, your value systems got formulated. So to that extent it was a great impact.
I had my fair bit of challenges too. That was the peak of the trade union movement in India. While we were relatively better off in ITC, having more responsible unions, there still were some fairly tense moments where we had to manage unreasonable demands and labour unrest situations. So signing a long term settlement with the union was a high point in the early years of your life. You wore it like a badge of honor. At the same time the job was not very linear, like managing only trade unions or admin, but it also had a large management development portfolio.One was like the HR Director of the plant, managing, learning the career development of the management staff there. So it was good, a very rounded kind of work I did. So those were big highlights in the early years.
As I look back I think my early years in Munger were a little more stormy. In Saharanpur, I was the functional head, therefore it was a little more strategic. But in Munger there were a series of challenging situations you had to deal with.
I made a straight transition from ITC into becoming an HR director for a company called PowerGen Plc, a British energy firm and one of the first independent power producer(IPP)companies to come into India. I was appointed as the India/Middle East HR director of PowerGen. I spent four years of my career there. We were managing offices in the middle East right upto Turkey. Everything in ITC had evolved over the last 60-70 years but here in PowerGen it was like a startup in India. It was great fun and a lot of learning.
The highest point in your career ?
There were quite a few. I decided at a certain stage in my career to work for emerging Indian multinationals. I started working for Indian groups which had global ambitions. As a Global HR Head you had a lot of autonomy, you decided what global policies had to be adopted, unlike in a multinational where most of it is created abroad and you are merely executing it. So I joined Vedanta Resources Plc as their first Global HR Head. When I joined, it was not that big but by the time I left, it was a $7 billion dollar company. We got listed on the London Stock Exchange. The highlight was the enormous growth and being able to create an HR fabric and an HR infrastructure to support that growth. And at the same time I was the custodian of the culture. Of course, our legal head quarters were in London, but most of the management team was based out of India. I think we transformed the organization. We acquired a lot of public sector companies both in India and abroad. This involved huge cultural integration challenges. How do you bring everybody on the same platform and way of thinking – be it in matters of compensation or HR systems? How do you get the same performance orientation? The high point was we rolled out the global stock options scheme and we went out to some very junior levels of management in our coverage. I think in the industrial sector it was one of the best stock option schemes ever rolled out. Those five years were a high point for me for I learnt to handle scale, I learnt to handle ambiguity, I learnt to handle how to break through global barriers when it comes to people management.
The other high point is I went entrepreneurial for four years. I decided one day that I had had enough of this group HR head role and wanted to do something different. Not all of it was easy, but most of it was quite good and I got a chance to test my entrepreneurial and business development skills, which according to common perception does not come easily to HR folks ! It’s a common feeling that we are not the marketing guys, we don’t know how to get business, we don’t know how to make a pitch. So I got a chance to try out these things and I think I did reasonably well. I tried to pioneer a new concept of services called ‘HR Director on Hire’. My new company called ‘Svanishta’ did reasonably well, worked with a lot of groups in multiple sectors. It was good while it lasted, but subsequently I decided to came back to a corporate job.
Did these experiences change you or impact you in any way ?
Yes of course.Today in my business dealings I think and act more like an entrepreneur. I have no patience with bureaucracy. In India we like to ‘gold-plate’ the concept. We try to perfect a process too much which slows down things a lot. There is no such thing as a perfect concept or process. If the process or concept looks good and is 90% there, implement it. Along the way, you keep correcting the process, but don’t keep waiting for the ultimate process to be designed.
Unfortunately in India there is always some intellectual who is there ready to tear into your proposal. Take a look at our current government and the way it has performed. They keep debating but nothing gets implemented. Take the case of GST. Put it in place, understand what the flaws are,and correct them but don’t keep debating it. My stint as an entrepreneur brought about this change in me. I have become more crisp in my presentations and I encourage everybody to follow this way of thinking and working. Everybody has great ideas but somebody has to go and implement those great ideas.
What advice would you like to give HR practitioners of the next generation?
The one thing which is fundamental to this profession is to be a good human being and genuinely wanting to help transform people’s lives. If you don’t want to make things better for people this is not the line for you. So you might have to face some unpleasant situations but you have to be an employee champion. In fact it’s like being a politician. You can be a terrible one or a great one – it’s in your hands. Ethics is another crucial aspect. Without ethics you lose credibility very fast and eventually people stop respecting you. As an HR personnel you are the conscience keeper.
My other advice is regarding change. If you are want to be a status-quo manager,…. well good luck to you! I would not want to be one as that makes it very boring. My career progressed because of my need to do something different and to make some changes. So if you don’t have that, you’ll get bored. And this philosophy applies to almost everybody right from the CEO of a company to the Prime Minister of a country. If you don’t have the desire the drive to make things better you should not be sitting in that position. You also don’t need to bring about a dramatic change always. A small change can also go a long way.
Who do you consider an inspiration?
Well it’s not one person, there are many and most of them are historical figures. History has introduced me to some great generals, philosophers, and transformational leaders. Though none of them were perfect, they all impacted the world in some way or the other. In fact nowdays I don’t read too much of management literature but prefer to read biographies because biographies are really very accurate description of history. So many of by inspirational figures are from there and not from the corporate world. I have enjoyed reading biographies of Shivaji, Alexander, Ramases II of Egypt,Bodhidharma…the list is long I find these biographies giving a very realistic picture of our history unlike the history textbooks of school. They are not sugary sweet but bang on in terms of reality and very fascinating. What’s interesting is they were flawed people not perfect human beings but they brought about dramatic changes. Look at Alexander at the age of 29 he was ruling half the world.