Innovation is one of the biggest competitive advantages for us: Shreya Bhagwanth

Innovation is one of the biggest competitive advantages for us: Shreya Bhagwanth

Shreya Bhagwanth, Executive Director – Human Resources, 3M India, has embraced a fluid career path. After being in the fast lane of corporate success for seven years, she off-ramped to become self-employed in search of flexibility and then on-ramped back to the corporate expressway. Her experience of how flexibility can be transforming and enabling when available at the right stage and time has shaped her approach as a people leader. In this exclusive interview with Human Capital, Shreya talks about 3M’s innovation culture and shares some exemplary pivots the organisation has made to enable and empower employees to be and do their best during these challenging times. She also gets candid on how she has been influenced greatly by her first corporate job and how she makes the most of her workday.


There have been surprising changes in the attitude and approach of HR functions towards the uptake of technologies connected to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) since the pandemic. What are some recent applications of technology in HR at 3M?


The continued pivot to virtual work has enhanced the focus on the digital experience of an employee — from hiring and onboarding to performance management and learning. There have been two areas where 3M HR has used technology to enable employee experience.


(1) In early 2020, 3M launched ‘Performance Everyday’ — a new performance management platform for employees worldwide. Activated through our Workday platform, it allows employees and supervisors to work together on goals and create transparency by capturing progress throughout the year based on continuous dialogue, feedback, and recognition. Monthly one-on-ones, progress notes capturing, anytime feedback and peer-to-peer recognition are all system-driven actions that we undertake throughout the year. Goals (both performance and development based) can be revisited and prioritised, when needed, based on the context. Overall, the process is rooted in enabling growth and agility, and it is available on the tool for the supervisor to make a blended evaluation at the end of the year.


(2) We have made a digital pivot in the Learning Function. 3M had invested in virtual learning well ahead of the pandemic. During 2020 and since then, we have focused on driving employee adoption and experience on new learning platforms. 3M’s underlying philosophy for learning and development (L&D) is “Development for All”. This ensures that we have an L&D portfolio for all 3Mers, irrespective of role, function, geography, or level.


We have a wide portfolio of programs across various formats — self-paced learning, short videos, book summaries, facilitatorled training, and social or peer-based learning, which are accessible to all employees across multiple platforms. Technology-facilitated learning interventions continue on our shop floor with our technical associates. 3M is in a unique position to help fight the ongoing pandemic with its products and solutions. The Learning and Plant HR teams have collaborated to deliver TEJ — a learning initiative to help our technical associates learn about personal energy. The strong theoretical framework has been supplemented with simple exercises to help the learning stick with our technical associates.


Creativity and innovation require space to explore and experiment. 3M’s “15% culture” — a longstanding philosophy for more than 72 years — has inspired several organisations to follow suit. However, many have failed for reasons such as people finding it difficult to take on more than their regular workload or being afraid to take risks and fail. How does 3M make this innovation strategy work so well?


The 15% culture is part of the 3M philosophy established by William McKnight, an early CEO of the 3M Company, which came to be known as the McKnight principles. “Hire good people and leave them alone. Delegate responsibility and encourage men and women to exercise initiative.”


3M’s unique 15% culture encourages employees to set aside a portion of their work time to cultivate and pursue innovative ideas that excite them proactively. While coordinating with their manager to ensure day-to-day responsibilities are still executed, employees get the space to try something new and different, think creatively and challenge the status quo.


It is important to note that the 15% culture is not equal to 15% time — it is simply any amount of time that a 3Mer can spare above and beyond their regular job responsibilities. It is a license for all 3Mers to innovate and pursue their passion for projects that will provide new growth opportunities.


The 15% culture is a unique attribute of 3M culture, pursued by many companies yet successfully replicated by few. The reason it works is because of its simplicity, sponsorship, advocacy by 3M leaders and the fact that it is rooted in our culture. Over the years, several 15% projects have led to successful innovations for 3M, best known amongst which are the ubiquitous Post-It® Notes. The 15% culture has become foundational to the 3M experience.


3M has long offered a dual-career track to scientists and engineers, who can advance up the career ladder without necessarily having to move to managerial positions. What are the advantages of a dual-career ladder, and what are some other strategies used at 3M to retain tech talent?


Innovation is one of the biggest competitive advantages for us and is at the heart of our culture. 3M has two parallel career paths in the technical organisation known as the “dual ladder system.” In addition to a management path, there is a technical path, which provides comparable opportunities for career development and career progression.


Members of the 3M technical community may realise career development in either management roles or in the continued pursuit of their technical interests or hop across both options based on opportunities and interest.


Successive jobs on the technical path of the dual ladder enable technical professionals to make significant contributions with increasing levels of complexity in their specialised area of expertise. At the same time, the system encourages a person with the interests, skills, and abilities in leadership, delegation, and coordination to seriously consider the management path of the dual ladder.


The dual ladder also works towards a common reward system. There is transparent information shared on the expectations and job profiles available on both sides of the ladder. Many 3M leaders today started their 3M careers in the technical community but were able to explore leadership roles given the dual ladder. At the same time, their peers continue as Corporate Scientists operating at the highest level of technical contribution to the company.


The Technical Community in 3M drives the Tech Forum — a self-directed and self-organised platform for internal collaboration, information sharing, and special interest chapters across the world. It presents leadership opportunities to the technical community and works directly with the CTO. There is a comprehensive career framework specific for the technical team, complete with role profiles, potential career paths, and development opportunities.


Collaboration is a tricky thing to get right. People often blame the lack of focused time at work on the abundance of emails, meetings, and chats or on having too many bodies in the huddle. What are your top tips that organisations could use to crack the code on effective collaboration?


Collaboration is fundamentally driven by organisational culture. 3M strongly believes that inclusion is at the core of driving collaboration.

Leaders serve as role models of collaboration and drive consistent communication across the organisation. The clarity in roles and responsibilities and the accountabilities of individual positions are important to ensure the alignment of priorities. While some email usage is inevitable, we also realise that enterprise collaboration tools make a difference. Teams working on a short-term or long-term basis use the MS Teams tool, Whiteboard collaboration or content-sharing tools to ensure updated content. Business teams use Salesforce to ensure there is a visibility of customer engagement across levels and hierarchies. 3M looks at regular pulse checks through surveys on how collaboration is working.


Up-Close and Personal


While early job experiences may not be the most challenging or monetarily rewarding, they certainly are formative. Could you give us an account of an unforgettable experience at your first corporate job?


My first corporate experience was in Hindustan Unilever, and I think of the first 18–24 months there as the “real” MBA for me. The company was true to its employer brand of giving large and consequential responsibilities to young managers.


My first role was that of an HR manager in a manufacturing unit. The 18 months were power-packed with learning — negotiating mid-LTS productivity improvements, setting up multiskill programs, working through TPM implementation, navigating shopfloor ER and IR in a dual union context, external environment management — all these ensured a steep learning curve. There were many occasions when my inner voice asked: Can I do this? Am I up for it? What if I fail? But the confidence that my manager and the leadership placed in me gave me the assurance to proceed.


Have you had an ‘aha!’ moment when you learned and experienced something so profound that it changed you forever?


I have not had what would be considered a “typical” post MBA career. After working for seven years, I chose to get off the corporate treadmill and became self-employed in partnership with a dear friend for a few years. My motivation at the time was the need for flexibility. I always knew that I would get back to working full time in an organisation when the time was right for me.


My journey gave me a strong personal view of how fluid the concept of a “career” is and how flexibility can be hugely transforming and enabling when available to an individual at the right time and space. It has irrevocably shaped my behaviour as a people manager and as an HR leader.


What’s something you are doing or want to do in 2021 that you’ve never done before?


I am excited about 3M India’s experiment with a new office concept. Effective in May, our corporate HQ in India will move to a co-working location in Bengaluru. This contemporary workspace will do away with assigned seating and “cabins/ offices” for 3Mers. It will instead offer unassigned and non-hierarchical seating. We are excited about this open and collaborative workspace which will allow us to build on our cultural elements. We look forward to when the COVID-19 context gets better, and our Return to Work protocols permit us to be in office for at least a few days a week!


What would we be surprised to learn about you?


I love singing and choose to sing, irrespective of what my listeners may think of it!


A Workday in the Life of a CHRO


What are your morning and evening rituals?


Mornings inevitably start with a newspaper and coffee. Weekday morning hours are typically focused on meetings with the Asia teams or catch-ups with India colleagues and team members.


Weekday evenings usually involve a check-in on the deliverables or an alignment with global teams. They typically end with a walk with my husband or teenage daughter (if she is amenable). Walking helps me unwind, get out of the house, and physically separate myself from work.


What is the one thing in your workday you cannot do without?


I cannot do without connecting and engaging with people, albeit virtually now. That’s my source of energy.


What’s your favourite indulgence when you need a break from work?


For tiny breaks from work, I love to engage in online puzzles, word games, and mini crosswords. The challenge is to restrict it to a tiny break. Books have always been my indulgence. I love having the Kindle because it allows me to indulge in my habit of reading multiple books at the same time.


Do you have some productivity hacks that you simply love and would recommend to others to make the most of their workday?


Start early, before the meeting schedules for the day kick in. That’s when I block some quiet time for my thinking work. Keep meetings short. Ensure follow-ups from meetings. Use tools like Outlook for reminders, and Teams and OneDrive to minimise email. Remember to have lunch, especially when WFH!


Rapid Fire


Describe the year 2021 in 3 words: Promising, Grateful, Transformative


What’s a movie title that best describes you: The Pursuit of Happyness


Complete these sentences:


➟ If not an HR, I would have been … a teacher.


➟ I strongly believe in … the rejuvenating powers of a good laugh, a heartfelt apology, and a cup of coffee!


➟ Curiosity is … just the beginning! This is emblazoned at our corporate headquarters at St.Paul.


• What comes to your mind when you hear these words?


➟ Resilience: “Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It’s a quote by Samuel Beckett that’s tattooed on tennis player Stan Wawrinka’s left hand.


➟ Rejection: Getting back up, reflecting, powering through, and looking for other possibilities


If you could only keep three apps on your phone, which would they be?


I would keep a phone banking app, WhatsApp, and the Amazon app.



Ankita Sharma is working as Senior Editor with Human Capital. With 6+ years of experience, she has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR — from hire to retire.


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