S. V. NATHAN, Chief Talent Officer, Deloitte INDIA, through short simple sto ries shares his thoughts on the future of HR and the challenges it faces in the imaginat ion age, in conversat ion with The Human Factor.
Q. How has your journey been as an HR professional?
A. The journey has been fascinating and at every stage of my career I learnt something new. I started my career in manufacturing with a British multinational company. They had a very strict hiring policy and only recruited from the top most institutions of the country the IIMs, IITs and XLRI. As a consequence they had some of the most outstanding people joining them. Manufacturing at that time had a lot to do with Unions, strikes, longterm settlements etc. The biggest problem faced by them at that time was how to engage the workforce and channelize their energy and their creativity in a positive direction. So they decided to install suggestion boxes to encourage people to come up with ideas and share their problems. Here I learnt that it was most important to keep your workers engaged. I also learnt that suggestion boxes hardly work!
I then moved to the hospitality industry. The key problem here was how does one deliver service at the point where the customer receives it? I soon realized that you may have hired the best brains in the industry but if they lacked the service orientation they were of absolutely no use. I also learnt that you don’t need fancy degrees to succeed. Talent in fact has nothing to do with degrees. I soon gave up the idea of hiring people only from the top institutions and b-schools of the country. I realized if I could make ordinary people do extra-ordinary things then I would be successful in any task in any situation. It was all about finding out the way to motivate people, and get the best out of them.
So I drew up a program and ran it for a couple of years where I trained people, who had a fire in their belly and made them fantastic professionals. Even today when I travel abroad I meet some of the people who attended the program and they always remember those times very fondly.
When I moved to the IT industry I realized how extremely competitive this industry was, how there was a shortage of qualified personnel and hence anybody could buy anybody for thirty pieces of silver!! The key problem here was how does one build loyalty and commitment? I realized that people are not committed to an organization; they are committed to a cause. If they have found their true calling they will never quit the organization. So as an HR my biggest challenge was bringing a meaning into their jobs.
When I moved to Reliance Infocomm, which is the largest of startups I have ever seen in India, I understood the real meaning of hard work. We used to work for 18 hours a day. Nobody asked us to put in such long hours but we toiled and plodded as if there was no tomorrow. I asked myself why would people want to be a part of such a grueling schedule? I realized that people work for a cause. If they believe in the cause, if they can be shown the larger picture, it motivates them to work hard without complaining. It reminded me of a story of a stonecutter. A passer by asked him “Hey are you chipping stones?” He answered “No I am building a monument.” A great leader is one who can get his people to imagine, to visualize. I learnt how important it is to make people understand the real purpose of why a company exists and how to make them also identify with that purpose. That is when I also realized the true power of communication.
When I moved on to Deloitte it was small with just 800 people. I helped them scale up and build it into a 26,000 people organization. With all the learning from my past experiences it proved to be an exciting process of getting the right people, building great teams and along the way building a great brand.
People are not committed to an organization; they are committed to a cause. If they have found their true calling they will never quit the organization
Q. How has the digital era affected HR?
A. Today we live in the digital world. Right in front of my eyes I have seen the power of the digital world unfold. From the days of the bulky Nokia to the sleek smartphones of toady I have learnt your phone is not there to just make calls.
The digital age has definitely made life a lot simpler for all of us. Processes have become faster and easier. You don’t need to fill out long forms, sign them in a thousand places. It can now be done in a jiffy. You don’t need to distribute thick hardbound copies of your company policies; it can be uploaded and downloaded very easily from the net now. Information has now become easily accessible, easily searchable and easily deliverable. It has cut down a lot of mundane and repetitive things that earlier took up a lot of time. I also feel in the future robotics will go a long way in removing drudgery, and will give us a lot of free time.
Digital is affecting very broadly speaking relationships, learning and growing. Earlier you grew in a job by imitating your seniors, you made mistakes and learnt stuff on the job. Today the world is seeing new ways of learning. Thanks to the digital it’s a lot faster and easier.
Relationships however are getting affected. People have stopped listening. I also feel they have stopped reading. They have also become impatient. In this era of WhatsApp if anything is more than 90 minutes nobody has the patience to watch. Even three minutes is long by today’s digital standards.
People want everything at the tip of their fingers because that is all they use to seek that information.
While we have become highly connected we have also become hugely disconnected. It has become difficult to connect to the heart of people. After all you can’t build relationships on the basis of a WhatsApp group. They are built by acts of kindness and gratitude. Acts which touch people’s lives. They are built by communicating deeply and emotionally. People have forgotten the art of conversation. It has been reduced to the two thumbs today. How does one speak to people without the thumbs (SMS etc.)? In today’s age therefore I feel it’s very important to develop the art of reading, of listening and of building relationships particularly if you are in business.
So while digital has made life easy it has also made us lose a lot of human touch, which needs to be brought back.
Q. How do you mange a workforce which now days is so diverse?
A. Your ability to communicate effectively will determine how well you manage your workforce.
Take an example. How do you make people understand that polishing their shoes is very important for business? If you bring out a notice stating ‘Polish your shoes before coming to work’ do you think people will listen? NO. So how do you craft your messages in a manner that is both appealing and effective? You could say, “Did you know that the first thing people notice about you are your shoes? So it’s always a good idea to put a smile on them. The shine on your shoes is the smile on your shoes”
To manage people well you need to keep three things in mind. How do you connect, how do you develop, how do you care for your people? When you genuinely care for your people you constantly keep thinking about their welfare. You keep changing polices and processes. It is care for our employees, which made us come out with a six and a half month, paid maternity leave for our female employees much before the law came into existence. It is this same feeling of care that made us look into the problems of parents who adopt children, of new fathers who had to be at home with their new born child as the wife needed help, or those with aging parents to look after. We worked out paid leave schedules for them too.
Sometimes you need someone to talk to who will not judge you or criticize you. With this thought we introduced an employee assistance program where one could call up the number and there would always be someone on the other side to talk to. So when you care you automatically come out with solutions to their problems. This automatically helps you build a connect with your people.
We all have a multi-generational workforce in our organizations today. The way we connect with a fifty year old will be different from the way we connect with millennial, and will be different from the way we connect with GenX. You connect best when you understand the needs of each generation and craft your policies such that they are relevant and useful for all.
Another way is to connect with people via e-mails, messages but it’s the face-to-face interaction that is always the most valuable. It is that interaction where human touch is visible that is most effective. So when I have to praise my employees I very often send a letter to their parents via the snail mail. One of my employee’s was so excited when his parents called him up and told him they had received a letter from his office. He came to my room smiling and thanked me and requested if I could send a similar letter to his wife. I agreed. In a few minutes he was back again with a small request –if I could also send a copy to his in-laws too. When I have an employee coming up with this kind of a request I know I have built a bond with him and connected with him.
The way you give feedback is another critical factor in managing people. Sitting with your employees and the end of each year and telling them how they have performed is outdated. For the feedback to be meaningful it has to be instantaneous and regular. I keep telling my leaders “Try and catch somebody doing right at least once a day. If you have not praised somebody today then you need to look harder”. When you appreciate people you send a message across that this is the behavior that is going to be rewarded. When it comes to rewards and recognitions it’s the psychological rewards that matter the most. So this whole thing about have you been appreciated in the last 7 days is an extremely important and powerful concept. Genuinely appreciate people and see how motivated and loyal they become. Thanks to digitization there are some cool ways of rewards people. We now have digital walls that tell you who are the people on the wall of fame, and what is it that they have done. When you appreciate you also connect with them
The last and the most important thing when it comes to managing people is developing them. You develop them when you appreciate them. You develop them when you deeply connect with them and are able to find out their strengths and weaknesses and find ways to harness their strengths.
My entire life I have been rapped on the knuckles for not doing things. I am not this, I am not that. One day I looked at myself in the mirror and I am five feet four inches, and I realized there is no way I can grow into a six feet three inches boy. I can hang all day from tree but it will not help much. So find something good in people and praise them reprimand takes you nowhere. These are the ways in which one can manage a workforce.
Q. How do you make sure that you can attract good people?
A. I can attract people by building a good culture. If you notice I did not say –build a good brand. Culture is the values of an organization. Culture is also what people talk about when they go home and that then builds the brand image of your organization. If they speak good things about you then the best talent will get attracted towards you.
Q. How do you retain them?
A. You retain people with the help of the C-D-C model, connect, develop and care. You retain people most importantly because of the job you offer them and the promises you make. The job has to be interesting and stimulating.
For example you give me the job of cleaning your Jaguar, with a promise that one day you will let me drive it. I will clean it with all my might but after two years if you still don’t let me drive it I will feel cheated. I will leave and go and tell five other people about it. So give people meaningful jobs and that’s the best way to retain them. As is said earlier –everybody has a reason to leave and a meaning to stay.
Never forget to praise and recognize somebody for his or her efforts. My boss used to always stress on the importance of polished shoes. One day my muddy shoes got cleaned because of the rains and that day my boss called me and said “Hey Nathan your shoes are shining” I did not know how to tell him that I had got nothing to do with it, it was the rain. But the next day before I left for work I went and polished my shoes.
The first 90 days of any person in an organization is the most crucial time of his life. That is the time you need to find a way to connect with them and show them you care. Even if they leave you after that they will always talk good about your company.
Q. What advice would you give a young candidate to get noticed during an interview?
A. Let your passion shine through and people will notice you in no time. Let me explain with a story. I have had 2 drivers Chandan and Ramlal. When we used to drive to office Chandan used to race like the devil and reach the office in about 28 minutes. Whatever I had for breakfast in the morning used to reach the top of my throat by the time I reached office. I got rid of him and got another driver Ramlal. Ramlal was the smoothest driver and he used to drive effortlessly and we used to reach office in 25 minutes. So passionate was Ramlal about his job that he would not allow anyone (including me) to enter the car with dirty shoes. He even borrowed an old mat from my wife and put it in the dickey of the car, so that whenever we put any luggage inside there would be no scratches. Here was a simple man with a simple job but extraordinary passion. He made his presence felt and I knew for sure he was one person I would never let go.
So if you want to shine through in an interview let your passions shine. Nobody is going to ask you during the interview “Do you work for 12 hours?” But when you narrate a story of a project with a tight deadline where you worked day and night in spite of your friends leaving early, just so that you could meet the deadline, your passion is visible. The interviewer knows you are different you have the resilience and the staying power-something every organization is looking for.
A word of caution –be honest with all the stories you tell. Very often I ask a very innocuous question in my interviews. (I learnt it from my boss) I ask “What is a hobby of yours which is more like a passion?” If someone tells me photography then my next question is “Ok tell me the equation between the focal length and aperture in a camera” If he says its inversely proportionate I feel fine he knows something. I then ask him to name some leading brands of camera manufacturers. If he says Hasselblad or Leica its great but if he says I own an aim and shoot then the interview is over. If photography is his passion and all he does is use an iPhone camera then the interview is over
Have a positive attitude and you are bound to get noticed.