Sharad Verma (global head, HR, Polaris) discusses why hr as a field is an imperative to drive business performance
How were your early years in HR?
I consider the formal start of my HR career as going to XLRI in 1990. Though in some ways, I think it started much earlier, during childhood, when questions such as ‘why do people behave the way do’ and ‘why and how is everyone different’ would come into my mind. I think this is a natural curiosity which all of us exhibit. Some develop a deeper curiosity or a passion and then get formal training, experience to continue on the path. The search for answers results in lifelong learning.
At XLRI I got formal introduction into the HR arena, could learn from amazing peers and colleagues and probably the best faculty that one can find anywhere. However, stepping into the real world of work you quickly realise that theoretical knowledge has its own place but what matters is real and practical knowledge. In that sense I continue to learn from my colleagues, from seniors and also from young people and millennials.
But why HR? You could have chosen other fields too…
Initially it was more for career reasons. Though I think my deep interest has always been in personal growth and development, understanding psychology in a practical manner, in communication and presentations and in creating systems that are effective and efficient. I find that HR is a good career that satisfies many of these interests. Within HR, we have the flexibility to be people-oriented, to be analytical, to have a business view, to manage change, to indulge in number crunching, to build teams, to understand drivers of human performance and to connect with people at every level. I have enjoyed all these aspects of HR.
How were the initial years of your career? What were the lessons learnt during the initial years?
During initial years, one of the key challenges for young MBAs is that of acceptance by senior colleagues who may or may not have a professional education. Similarly other challenges were to be accepted by top management.
My most important lesson was to connect with people regardless of education or personal background and to be able to relate to them. I also learnt important lessons interacting with workers, trade union leaders on shopfloor. I enjoyed and learnt a lot in creating training interventions for senior management who would bring their rich experience to the classroom. This is when you learn to be both a facilitator and a learner. I consider every moment to be a learning moment.
In your HR career, you would have encountered many notable situations… Which might be described as the most significant one?
There have been many moments and I would like to recall two as they are quite different. One during early stages of my career and one later.
This happened in 1997. I was consulting for a cement company and as part of my assignment had to train the workforce to plan their targets and in sales techniques. My assignment carried me to interior Gujarat. After reaching the place I realised that the participants did not understand English.
I had to convert the entire course material into Hindi on the spot. It was a gruelling training program for two days – each going for more than 12 hours. The program had to be conducted in a large garage as there was no appropriate conference facility in the place. The striking factor was the hunger for learning which the participants had and the high value they placed on it, with a fierce competitive spirit to excel and perform.
I capitalized on this to teach them planning, presenting and closing skills. At the end of the program we set targets for achievement – these were very challenging numbers – higher than they had ever achieved before and numbers that were considered almost impossible to achieve. The whole team was charged though after the training. There was a review planned after two months.
When I returned for the review, I was told the team had done record breaking performance and exceeded all their targets.
Although they were giving me credit, it was rightfully theirs. Among many other moments I rank this very high because of the achievement of results, the extremely difficult circumstances and it demonstrated to me the power of learning and raw desire to excel given the right inputs and encouragement.
The second moment was when we designed and developed a predictive analytics solution for employee retention in 2012. This was way ahead of its times and there were a fair number of naysayers among senior management. Instead of analysing attrition historically as was traditionally done, we presented a model to predict and address proactively. Based on the results and learning from our model we intensively trained managers in how to retain people. We designed and implemented analytical and data driven models for career movement and the behaviour that retains employees. Over a two year period, the attrition numbers dropped by 10-12 percentage points including in hot spots and very challenging skillsets and teams. This was a great experience as it involved a series of actions – strategic program design, working with a highly motivated and skilled team including data scientists, training HR business partners to become facilitators and helping management to think deeper and analytically.
How have these experiences contributed to changing the way you think or the way you perceive situations now.?
The above moments taught me that there is no alternative to rolling your sleeves and going deeper into issues; taking a long term view of things and bringing passion and knowledge in a positive manner to achieve quantifiable results.
If you were to give a few guiding notes to HR practitioners, what would they be? A. I think learning and a genuine curiosity to go deeper, under problems in depth and then working with people is what results in great moments. Of course the most important part is to enjoy the experience and the respect for human values and elements. For me learning is a constant anchor and regardless of whether you succeed or fail, I am happy with powerful learning and takeaways from any experience.