Raj Raghavan (Director & head of HR, Amazon india) presents a thrilling anecdotal column in the human factor, which summarises his career and key lessons learnt through his life and the people who have left lasting impressions in his thoughts and in his career.
Raj Raghavan (Director & head of HR, Amazon india) presents a thrilling anecdotal column in the human factor, which summarises his career and key lessons learnt through his life and the people who have left lasting impressions in his thoughts and in his career
The other day, I was driving past the town of Maraimalai Nagar on the outskirts of Chennai and obviously could not help but glance at the majestic Ford Automotive plant situated on the Chennai-Trichy highway. I couldn’t but reminisce a picture that my buddy at the that time, Larry Gallo and I took in the mid-90s under a board that said “Construction site for Mahindra Ford Manufacturing” where we discussed how several years from then we would be standing at the very spot telling ourselves how we would be part of a great manufacturing story in the country. And how true was that! We were probably the first set of HR leaders who launched a brand new automotive facility that was also one of the first few in the country to have female technicians! A few weeks from then I was visiting Hyderabad and bumped into a former colleague at the airport. We were together at the GhatkesarPlant of Brooke Bond Lipton, which subsequently merged with Hindustan Unilever. I was their Plant Personnel Manager during the early 90s, probably the youngest that the factory ever had. It had a luminous history of being the oldest composite manufacturing facility for the company that manufactured instant coffee, roast & ground coffee and packed tea as well! A facility that once employed 1000s of people, whose Union ran a middle school in the village was now shut down. Nostalgia knows no bounds but if you thought that over a period spanning several years of professional career, you will only leave a great legacy of success, you were probably so wrong!
My current role as Amazon India’s HR Leader is probably one of the best that I have ever had. I am fortunate to lead a team of outstanding people who are humble yet determined, focused and obsessed with their customers i.e., our employees. My team and I not only manage HR for some large Technology Development Centers for the global company but also have been very fortunate to help through the launch of our India facing businesses as well. Amazon.in, our consumer business in India that launched in mid-2013, has gained so much ground that Seattle now thinks of us as “innovative cowboys” for whom no problem is insurmountable. We also helped the HR launch of Amazon devices and Kindle content in India. And what to say about cloud computing! Often times, I wonder whether such career successes are well planned or a result of serendipity… well, it is probably a combination of both!! But that requires for one to do things specifically right. At Amazon, before we set off doing something, we ask ourselves, “What problem do we want to solve?” And I think it is such a simple, yet powerful way of focusing oneself. In the process of doing so, we are also okay to be misunderstood for a long period of time! Often times, not everyone understands what you are up to and how you are going about what you want; but as long as we ask ourselves the right questions, we are okay to be misunderstood by others. I think this is so true in life too – this doesn’t come with any arrogance of sorts but from a quiet confidence of being in control of oneself. One of my biggest lessons at Amazon is understanding the concept of “working backwards”. You start with the customer in mind and then start working backwards towards accomplishing the task and what a powerful tool that has proven to be!
The initial years of my career were spent at Eureka Forbes, then India’s largest direct selling company. During the course of about 5 years, there were so many firsts for me both as an HR professional as well as a person. I started as an Area Personnel Officer for TN & Kerala, then moved on to becoming their Regional Personnel Manager for Southern India before ultimately becoming their Head of HR for the Direct Sales Division of the company. Some friends I made during that period continue to be friends even after 25-years! I learned so much about people during my tenure there. Every passing day, if you were observant, you will be able to observe the many faces of human emotions each passing day. From having to deal with a Medical Representative Trade Union in Kerala who wanted to expand their bases, to putting together an Integrated Sales Person Assimilation Program, to developing an Organization Development program for growing people from within… my team and I went on to building things in an absolutely unconstrained manner. When I finally decided to spread my wings and went on to work for Brooke Bond Lipton, I was so fortunate to have had such diverse experience spanning the entire landscape of the country.
I am not sure I mentioned earlier but I have been so fortunate to work for such wonderful companies in my career. One such company was GE where I spent close to ten years doing a variety of roles spread across the company in several geographies. There was a time at Niskayuna, in up-state New York where GE has their Global Research Headquarters, when a colleague asked me to walk across an empty room. I did so without asking any questions and then he explained that they were experimenting wireless transfer of electricity across the room! Would I have done that if I knew it beforehand? Not sure! When you enter the main building of GE Global Research, you see an empty desk at the lounge behind which no one sat at. You go closer to it and there is a small plaque that says the desk was used by Thomas Alva Edison when he researched at the Centre! Such is their history! I touched the desk and could literally feel the goose bumps! We did several firsts at GE. One of them was “Restart”, a program aimed at bringing back to work those female scientists who had taken a career break for a variety of reasons. The program went into depths of understanding the issues of such scientists and put together a wellthought our program to restart their careers.
In all of this how can I forget the exceptional people that I have worked with! Starting from Ananth Raman, who was my first Manager at Eureka Forbes to Dave Saab at Brooke Bond Lipton and K Murali at GE; all these individuals put up with me all along my career. Likewise there have been several co-workers and friends from whom I have learned so much each passing day; one of those lessons is what I call the paradox of growth. It is where growth creates unintended complexity and this complexity is the silent killer of growth. I see HR’s role as one that helps leaders keep things simple while they help the business focus on their customers. The other big learning over these several years is that the School or Institute from where an employee graduates is an insignificant predictor of success. Several top notch employees that I know of are not from top notch technology or business schools. I have learned to be agnostic of this because of its statistical insignificance! How else can you explain someone like me becoming successful?
As I close, I think of the following skills as most relevant for HR leaders. The first one is the ability to go deep into an issue, yet not defocus on the tactical sides so you are able to dive in and out to solve problems. The second one is the ability to be super-resilient. Such people are great problem solvers. The final one is for HR to be the truth teller. Can you call out the ugly face of the organization in discussions within your leadership? We should be able to push very hard and ask tough questions so the bad actors are pushed out!