A Human Leader

A Human Leader

Leaders who shed their “superhuman” image and focus on being more human will be the most effective in times to come, says Amit Sharma, CHRO, Volvo Group India. Being human is about having the humility to accept the fact that we do not have all the answers. In this exclusive interview, Amit shares how leaders can thrive amid disruptions and become nimble enough to take advantage of any opportunity that arises. He also reveals some of his pivotal “aha!” moments that solidified his leadership foundation.

After a year of quick and bold pivots, how are you navigating the second year of the pandemic at Volvo India? What are some new challenges you’re experiencing?


The first COVID-19 wave caught all of us by surprise, but its spread was more gradual. However, the end of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021 also brought hope, as the curve almost flattened, and the vaccines were ready to be rolled out. There was a sense of (false) exuberance that we had won against the pandemic, leading to complacency in people.


As we lowered our guard, the second wave hit us with full vengeance. The curve was sudden and steep! The arrangements made during the first wave were found to be inadequate. It underscored the significance of “staying on your toes rather than your heels” once more.


This situation also stressed the need of embracing the “power of AND over the tyranny of OR”. If the first COVID-19 wave was about prioritising employee safety over business, the second wave was about prioritising employee safety, business continuity and contribution to community. The biggest challenge was managing and balancing this trio, which looked conflicting on the face of it. The business was recovering, but employees were scared. Where employees were resilient, the community around them was in despair. The news reports all around were not uplifting, but the SENSEX was moving up!


In such a scenario, it was a key challenge to maintain employee morale and ensure customer success (which is one of our core values). Supporting employees in their hour of need, especially when they were not in an office location but at their respective hometowns in the country’s far-flung areas, was a significant challenge. Helping our employees deal with their personal losses due to the highly virulent second wave was a challenge. The ability to meet customer requirements around after-sales support, financing, and supplier quality, without impacting our employees’ safety was also a challenge. Maintaining steady production at our factories in order to ensure that the customer was not losing due to product unavailability was a challenge. Running the operations with headcount constraints was also a big challenge.


We overcame all these challenges and ensured that we supported employees and their respective families with medical assistance, hospital admissions, vaccinations, additional support leaves, enhanced insurance options, food delivery, etc.


We supported the community by setting up multiple COVID care centres, vaccination programmes, distribution of sanitisers and PPE kits to COVID warriors, etc. We met our customers’ expectations through seamless support and deliveries.


It was all about dealing with such challenges by embracing the “Power of AND” and Volvo Group employees staying connected, leading the way, and coping with unpredictable situations sustainably and effectively.


While many aspects of leadership are timeless, what new skills and mindsets will be needed to lead effectively into the future when “knowing all the answers” is no longer something we can expect of (or require of) modern leaders?


You’ve touched on a pertinent point in the realm of leadership principles. These are indeed times in which no leader can claim to know the answers to the current problems. In our cultural context, the leader is put on a higher pedestal and is expected to “know all” and “guide all”, a situation that directly impacts his self-esteem. The question running in his (and I am deliberately using a masculine pronoun here as this mindset comes from the masculine approach) mind is, “How can I show myself as an ignoramus in front of my followers?”


Hence the need for moving away from the Superman image of a leader to a more human leader – who has not only the vision, passion, commitment and ability to lead but also the humility to accept that “I don’t have all the answers; I am open to being led by someone who has better knowledge on the way towards the resolution of the current issue”, who has the ability to leverage networks, who is not hierarchical, and who knows when to lead from the front and when to lead as a shepherd.


In an uncertain future, successful leaders will be those who know when to be in the ring and when to be on the sides. Leaders who will be the most effective in the times to come will be those who engage the entire organisation and don’t come across as authoritative experts; those who shed the entrenched ways of working to find win-win solutions through better stakeholder engagement; those who can shift mindsets and bring in a new way of thinking through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits and loyalties; and those who are ready to learn.


In a nutshell, leadership that is adaptive and flexes its style based on the situation is the future.


How easy or difficult is it for people to work remotely or in a hybrid-remote setup at Volvo India? For the share of the workforce that can work from home (or from anywhere), do you see the office as a hub for accomplishing the kind of collaboration and creativity that cannot be achieved virtually?


COVID-19 has forced every business to review and rethink how they perform and from where. A higher level of flexibility is needed than ever before to prepare for the “new tomorrow” and increase the speed of transformation. The continuous war for talent challenges us to adopt new ways to enhance employee attraction and retention.


From the point of view of the future workplace, we need to balance two aspects: ‘Being a Responsible Employer’ and ‘Being a Responsible Employee’.


We have defined our Workplace Principles based on four imperatives:


Health, Safety and Wellbeing


Collaboration, Engagement, Openness & Growth


Performance in relation to business needs and flexibility aspects


Legal & compliance in local and global dimensions


Our workplace reflects that the health, safety and wellbeing of our employees is our top priority. We need to spark pride, collaboration and innovation with an attractive work atmosphere. Our work environment must enable continuous learning, growth, speed and agility. For us, performance, learning and achievements count, no matter where we work. All employees have different responsibilities, and each business is empowered to decide where they work from; hence, managers decide where work is performed in dialogue with the employees.


A significant proportion of our work is best done on work premises and with colleagues working together. For example, Product Development is primarily a team effort. Innovation, teamwork and lifelong learning are best facilitated by colleagues being in the same place.


Colleagues value the social aspects and benefits of an attractive company work environment while retaining the flexibility of working remotely. It is feasible to operate more flexibly than historically. With new digital collaboration tools and with clear expectations on work tasks, we see more remote/hybrid working after the pandemic than was the norm before. Having a compelling workplace proposition will become even more important in attracting and retaining talent.


With many organisations pursuing audacious and ambitious digital transformations, there will be a lot of pressure on HR to speed up culture change and quickly shift people’s mindsets in embracing the digital future of work. How can HR approach this challenge?


Culture change is a larger leadership responsibility rather than just HR’s. CHRO can program manage it, but leadership must be provided by all, especially the CEO.


For an effective culture change initiative, the first and foremost step is to listen to the stakeholders — employees, customers, managers, suppliers, external partners, etc. Seek their views on what’s making them glad, sad, and mad and their suggested way forward. Be present as a complete leadership team to acknowledge their perspectives. Basis the feedback, articulate the behaviours to be adopted, identify specific projects to build the desired culture, and ensure high leadership focus. It’s a long time-taking process, but the organisation needs to travel that path to get the change ingrained in its DNA.


When it comes to embracing the digital future, some of the areas HR needs to focus on are:


Understanding that digital and digitisation are different.


Adopting an agile way of working. Ensuring consistent collaboration with stakeholders and continuous improvement at every stage.


Design thinking with the end customer at the centre of it. Ultimately all our internal processes are designed to help employees achieve customer success.  


Ensuring a deep understanding of data analytics and its interpretation.


Creating transparency in the processes and systems.


Adopting digital tools in managing the processes. 


Ensuring that digital is embraced not just from a process perspective but also an outcome perspective.


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?


The workforce of Indian Oil represents the regional diversity of our country. While I was managing the Performance Management function in the refinery, especially for the blue-collared workforce, I realised that there’s so much thought diversity in our country based on the region people come from. People from different regions and backgrounds had different aspirations. There is no one truth, but various truths depending upon the context and background of each person and the situation.


My first job opened me to varied perspectives and made me a more inclusive professional who accepts and understands differing viewpoints.


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


When I joined Indian Oil, my first job was as a Shift Incharge of the Time Office of the refinery. I was like, “Is this why I did my MBA for and joined this organisation – to come in shifts, manage the attendance and payroll of workers, organise employee transport and supervise the canteen in off general shift hours?” I wanted roles in recruitment or Comp & Ben or Industrial Relations. So I spoke to the Head of HR of the refinery, who listened patiently and advised me to remain in this role for at least a year before discussing my reflections on the work and exploring alternative opportunities.


I came back disappointed and reconciled to the situation. In the next year, I managed various heated employee relations situations arising from payroll errors, timekeeping machines not working, delayed or contaminated canteen food, worker protests, etc.


During my year-end conversation with the Head of HR, we reflected on everything that happened that year. He enumerated various instances where he saw me managing employee relations effectively. And that was an “aha” moment for me!


I realised how much those experiences developed me as an HR professional. I cultivated the knack of understanding the situation, diffusing a potential crisis, managing employees with sensitivity while ensuring no compromise on organisational interests, keeping attention to detail and ensuring flawlessness in Comp & Ben matters. I also understood the importance of building relationships with employees and leveraging such networks to tide over situations. All of that in just one year, just by being the Shift In-charge of the Time Office!


This experience taught me the importance of every role and the learning opportunities that come from “seemingly not so glamorous” HR roles, the importance of being connected with employees, the importance of ensuring that we do our basics right, since unless hygiene factors are taken care of well, no amount of “seemingly strategic” HR work will cut the ice with employees. Credibility needs to be built by delivering on the basics – that’s the foundation.


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


This pandemic has shown us the value of human connections, personal time, hobbies, mental health, and family and friends. In 2021, I have decided to focus on pursuing certain hobbies which got left behind in this daily rigmarole of life.


What’s your most significant learning from the pandemic experience?


The most significant thing I learnt from the pandemic is the phenomenal power of human resilience. It amazed me how quickly we all adapted to the new digital world, new ways of working, and the world of virtual connects, overcame all odds – personal as well as professional – and still delivered with the highest levels of efficiency and effectiveness.


The pandemic has further reinforced my belief that there is nothing impossible once the human spirit embraces something and resolves to achieve it!


What would we be surprised to learn about you?


You will always find me having a lighter moment with the team whenever I am not at my desk. It’s such a connecting and stress-busting process!


A Workday in the Life of a CHRO


Do you have a morning routine that helps you get a good start on your workday?


My commute to work in the morning allows me to catch up on reading articles that I downloaded the day before. It provides a curious and absorbing start to the day and primes the mind to be open to varied opinions and new learnings.


How do you typically unwind after work?


Evenings are the time to listen to ghazals and Sufi songs while spending time with family. Nothing relaxes me like soulful music and the company of my loved ones.


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


During the day, it’s walking up to our team bay and cracking a joke or two or having a quick coffee table chat about amusing things in the organisation.


From a day’s (or more) break perspective, I love going on a long drive into nature and spending quality time with family and friends over there.


What are some productivity hacks you use to make the most of your workday?


Adequate sleep to ensure freshness of mind and body, meeting-free days for focused conceptual work, light music playing in the background, organising the mailbox in terms of “To” and “CC” emails, disabling email notifications, using the power of Positive No, ensuring that accountability is put where it needs to be are some of my productivity hacks.


Rapid Fire


• Describe the year 2020 in 3 words: Perfect VUCA example


• Describe the year 2021 in 3 words: Hope, Resilience, Humanity


• What’s the one thing you miss most about pre-pandemic times? I miss meeting people over coffee and lunch in the office. The insights gained from such conversations are priceless.


• Complete these sentences:


i. If not an HR, I would have been … a branding and communications specialist.


ii. I strongly believe in … the power of relationships.


iii. I’m grateful for … having some great mentors in my professional life.


iv. I wish … everyone realises their dream.


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


i. Resilience: The human spirit


ii. Curiosity: Questioning every answer


iii. The future of work: Hybrid, flexible, agile and digital but with a heart


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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