In an exclusive tête-à-tête with Human Capital, R. Mahalakshmi, Director–HR, Mondelez India, dives deep into how the snacking giant embodies the ethos and agility of a start-up and unpacks their top strategies behind winning the hearts and minds of employees. Talking about driving bold and rapid corporate transformations, she asks leaders to answer important questions around purpose and "the why" behind those transformations, the result of which will determine the success or failure of the organisation to create breakthrough value. Mahalakshmi also renders her perspectives on how the coronavirus crisis has created an impetus to turn massive uncertainty into an unprecedented opportunity.
You have worked across diverse sectors with top tier global and Indian organisations. Take us through your journey and the key learnings. Also, what makes you passionate about what you do?
I am passionate about two things: leaving a legacy and continuous learning.
These two have pretty much defined my choice of roles and what I did in those roles. I have worked in business consulting with firms like Hewitt, Arthur Andersen, Ernst & Young, and thereafter in global COE leadership roles and HR head roles across industries!
With my passions driving my life journey, I have enjoyed roles that gave me an opportunity to reimagine what can be, to leave a legacy, and put me at the heart of quite a few turnarounds and largescale transformations.
Mondelez is one of the best and most admired companies to work for as it continues to “lead the future of snacking” while creating “the right snack, for the right moment, made the right way” for consumers. Could you share some of the top strategies put in place to attract and retain the right talent in the right place at the right time?
At Mondelez (MDLZ), we offer the opportunity to work in a multi-billion-dollar global enterprise with the ethos of a start-up. Our strength lies in our growth mindset and the opportunities we provide to talents to be partners and co-shapers of our growth. Also, agility is a core value. We have multiple experiments that allow for testing and learning as we look to unlock growth. This has gone a long way in ensuring consumer centricity, speed and agility in our approach to people, processes and products! In addition, these approaches make MDLZ a great place for talented individuals to learn and grow every day.
Our employer brand proposition “Make It!” also gives an invitation to talents to “make it uniquely yours”—and with that, we are connecting with everyone’s dreams and aspirations, whilst providing the opportunity to shape the future of a large snacking player.
We are also very conscious that we have a multi-generational workforce at play. As high as 70% of our colleagues are millennial or centennial—and our propositions on learning, career, pay, and benefits cater to the segmented needs of each demographic!
It is my privilege to lead the People function in this organisation where leaders truly lead with head and heart. It’s little wonder our colleagues tell us that they join the company for our brands and stay for our culture! And on that note, I must call out how our inclusive growth culture allows folks with diverse styles to contribute and thrive!
Evidence has mounted that workplace culture is a key driver of bottom-line results and a significant source of competitive advantage amidst the changes and uncertainties facing businesses today. In your opinion, how can organisations create and sustain a culture of growth that enables the best people to do their best work?
Culture is certainly key, and it is evinced in how each of us lives, behaves, and makes decisions (more than what might be written in posters and induction kits). At MDLZ, we have been intentional about living our leadership imperatives of: “Love Our Consumers and Brands”, “Grow Everyday” and “Do What’s Right”. It is lovely to work in an organisation where people are at the heart of everything we do. We aim to create some of the world’s most loved brands and sustain a great work culture, with a people strategy that is segmented for our diverse demographics, keeping colleagues engaged through our investments in capability and providing opportunities for them to shape their careers in their own unique way through an approach branded “My Career Launchpad”.
Mechanisms like Shark Tanks, which are future-forward growth projects led by cross-functional teams, keep the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship thriving. Moreover, all of us strongly live the ethos of “Growth is a Team Sport”—pulling the combined passion of all functions towards realising our vision.
We are also strong believers in “giving back to the planet more than we take from it”, and our sustainability agenda keeps our talents focused on being part of something greater and meaningful. Hence, by fostering purpose as a core driver of strategy and decision-making, we at Mondelez India are driving successful innovations and business growth.
How does the work culture at Mondelez India reflect its diversity and inclusion goals? Could you share examples of ongoing or past initiatives implemented by the company to level the playing field and support diverse groups to flourish at work?
At MDLZ, we focus on providing equal opportunities to all. This is true not only for gender but also for people with very different thinking styles, communication styles, and demographic backgrounds. Of course, within that, gender continues to be a focus, too, and it is one of the nine business KPIs that we track globally.
I am proud that all our policies are gender-neutral (e.g., we have parenting leave, sabbatical availed by men and women as well as WFH options leveraged across the organisation), and I believe that is one way we will (hopefully) impact the fabric of the society, which is seeped in gender stereotypes (including who cooks, who is responsible for caregiving, etc.)
We are also very proud that our manufacturing plant at Sri City, which is in the interiors of Andhra Pradesh, has 50% gender diversity, with women on the shop floor. And to sustain this, we ensure that our policies are gender-neutral; we develop equal bosses; and we are intentional about providing life-stage support to our colleagues to manage parenting, caregiving and other key life stages. Additionally, processes around mentoring and the presence of active communities enable our talents to learn from each other and thrive.
We have also identified that both men and women require backend support to get to the level playing field of opportunities; therefore, there are flexible working hours and work-fromhome policies that apply to men as well as women. In addition, we run unconscious bias programs using the creative form of theatre. Lastly, we are very proud to have zero gender pay gap at Mondelez India.
You have led multiple transformation projects in various organisations. From your expert perspective, how can HR play a pivotal role in driving successful business transformations?
Purpose plays a big role in this. So you must ask:
What is the purpose with which the HR function exists in your organisation? That holds the key to what HR can do. At MDLZ, we have co-created our purpose, which is “to unlock the true growth potential of our business and our people”.
This purpose stokes all our actions and puts the HR function at the heart of all key business actions, including transformation.
The most important aspect, of course, is knowing the WHY. Why is the business seeking to transform itself? That then defines all actions, whether it’s reimagining the structure, the decision processes, the capabilities needed to deliver or even what is measured and rewarded. All these levers can deliver a breakthrough in value.
The other big role you play is to represent the voice of your employees on the decision table— bringing head and heart into defining the pace and how the change gets implemented. HR also holds the position of calling out the impact of all management actions on the talent brand during any transformation.
More often than not, transformations are also great opportunities for leadership teams to boldly redefine ambition, and strong HR folks can play a seminal role in facilitating that conversation and helping articulate the business ambition and vision.
The scale of the coronavirus crisis has fundamentally altered and disrupted the workings of the world. What are your views on COVID-19 and the future of work?
While none of us is clairvoyant, one can easily see that the Covid19 period has accelerated the pace of change and brought the future closer. So the future of work is very much right here! This is a fantastic opportunity that all of us in HR can leverage. In many ways, it provides us with an opportunity to do a pilot/test and learn about the future of work! What can one focus on?
◆ Partner with the business in assessing consumer patterns and reimagining how we organise our work, workforce and policies to fulfil the new asks of the consumer.
◆ Use the opportunity to experiment with workforce models, including gig and flexible work constructs. Working from home has, of course, found adoption in interesting ways—not only in head office roles but even in non-traditional areas like sales!
◆ Accelerate the adoption of digital tools—not only as an enabler of virtual work but also as an enabler of learning, hiring and engagement!
◆ Lastly, continue leveraging the organisation’s purpose to inspire the right talents who have a purpose resonance to join your workforce and find ways to achieve their personal purposes while working in your organisation.
Now more than ever, the focus is on doing more with less, and this will surely be a great time to get creative about how we optimise the dollar on pay, benefits, learning and engagement.
In closing, could you give a few quick tips for professionals who are newly transitioning into a leadership role?
◆ Be who you are. Find a way to leave your unique thumbprint in any role.
◆ Continue to learn and be agile. See how you can power business growth and leave a legacy.
◆ Take ownership of your own development. Seek sponsors, mentors and mirrors (who can provide feedback) and keep progressing.
◆ Ensure you focus on developing others. Pay it forward, as that is what will give you a sense of fulfilment and get you real followership.
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