The Brand Leader
- By S. Ajay Kumar |
- Jun 08 2019
How do you look back at the professional journey that you have traversed thus far? Please share some of those highly enriching experiences.
My professional journey spanning over three and a half decades has been extremely enriching. I had the opportunity to work in various industries and be a part of their HR transformational journey. I have grown from being a Manager to a Leader, and, have had the fortune to work with family-run organisations to multinationals, and, from start-ups to established conglomerates. However, I feel that the most important aspect of this journey has been the unbelievable amount of learning each of these organisations provided me in becoming the person I am today; professionally and personally. I have had plenty of enriching experiences during this journey, but to sum it, I often say, I have been in situations where I have had to hire 1000 skilled employees within a span of 3 months, and, also the misfortune of letting go of 1000 employees within a similar time frame. However, in both the situations, these employees walked-in or walked-away as company brand ambassadors. That is the power of HR, and, when I look back, I am elated that I have been able to capitalise on this prowess with the help of charismatic leaders and passionate team members. Ultimately, through my professional journey, I feel privileged to have touched so many people’s lives.
How has working across industries made your professional journey more interesting?
I have had the opportunity to work across various industries with each having their own unique business models and HR needs. I started my career in manufacturing and petrochemicals, which were highly process oriented companies. Here, my role predominantly constituted managing employee relations, union management, and, wage negotiations. With my move to the FMCG sector, I got my first taste of transformational HR. As they were sales-led organisations, it was important to engage employees and drive business goals through HR programmes and processes. This continued when I moved to the ITeS industry, where HR played a major role in enabling the business to drive results. Here the onus was on HR to drive learning and development, and, ensure that a young workforce had the resources to service customers to the highest standards. Finally, I moved to the Retail Industry, which to me, has been the amalgamation of all my previous experiences. With a focus on product and service, and, a workforce that ranges from semi-skilled to highly skilled, in different levels and functional areas, the pursuit to create an engaged, productive, and, a performance driven workplace. I feel that working across industries has given me a holistic perspective of HR. However, what is common across all these industries is the need for HR to align with the organisational vision and perform as a business-enabler. Products and Process apart, people are a major component to the success of any organisation, and, HR is the function that works as the enabler for such success.
How different have the two experiences been for you- setting up HR from the scratch in an organisation to managing well-established HR frameworks?
While the basic philosophy of HR, engaging and empowering employees to deliver on the organisational vision has remained as the focus in both these experiences, what stands out as the difference is the ease with which these can be implemented. As a basic human trait, most of us prefer status quo and enjoy being in the comfort zone. Hence, when we begin to question the existing well-established HR frameworks and seek change, it sometimes becomes difficult to change perspectives. This is much easier in an organisation where HR is being built from scratch. The ease of adoption to various HR programmes and concepts is higher. Finally, there is another important aspect that lends to HR’s success in both these situations, that is the buy-in of the Business Head. If you do not have the buy-in and the Business Head does not believe in transformational HR, then the function will fail, be it an organisation with well-established frameworks or a start-up.
Having been long associated with the Retail sector, what is your understanding of the business? How big a role does HR play in this sector? Were there any sector specific challenges and opportunities experienced by you?
Although an industry at a nascent stage, organised retail is dynamic and fast-changing. In only the last two decades, we have seen disruptive changes in the industry. With increased foreign investment and competition, we have been kept on our toes, and, with the advent of e-commerce, we have had to adapt with an omni-channel strategy. The business in its simplest form might be to buy, move, and sell, but with innovations and rapid changes, the industry and its workforce have had to constantly adapt. In such a scenario, HR plays a pivotal role and enables the organisation to be agile. The business requirements and pressures are high in retail owing to constant change and competition. Hence, the onus falls on HR to engage and enable employees to perform beyond expectations and deliver business goals. This is a difficult balance that must be maintained between the business and the people and HR plays the role of managing these two aspects on a tight rope.
In retail, we also have a workforce with very different skillsets and at varying levels. From our store staff, to designers and buyers at our corporate office, we must drive the same strategy and vision of the organisation across this varied demographic. We must also take into account regional considerations that play key roles, as we are present in more than 90 cities across the country. This is a big challenge and something we strongly focus on as a function. Another key role played by HR is to bridge the gap between decision-makers and reality. At the corporate office, we all fall into the dangerous practice of viewing the world from our desks. Hence, as an HR function, we work diligently to ensure people at all levels are sensitised of each other’s roles and understand how their work fits into the overall scheme of the organisation’s success. This is done through various initiatives such as incentive plans, engagement activities, reward and recognition, learning and development initiatives through different communication channels.
Who have been your figures of inspiration during the professional journey? What are some of the values and ideologies with regards to which you think, leaders should definitely walk the talk to win stakeholder confidence?
I have had the fortune of working with several great individuals during my professional journey. Amongst them, the values and ideologies that stood out to me are humanity, integrity, and, the acceptance that they can be fallible. While business goals are important, the only way to reach these goals is to be honest, empathetic, and inspirational. I have realised that many organisations have excellent processes, state‑of-the-art methodologies, but, severely lack an empathetic, connected, and, inspirational leadership. More often than not, these companies will fail.
“Best HR practices are built on a futuristic vision.” What are your views on the same and how have you practiced this during your tenure in various organisations?
If HR has to be a successful function in any organisation, it must drive an employee value proposition that is aligned to the business objectives and vision. The processes and initiatives in HR must be strongly connected to the business outcomes that a company envisions. It is often said organisations consists of three pillars – Product, Process and People. HR plays a critical role in managing People strategies. For example, if the entire retail industry is moving towards an omni-channel strategy today, and, the organisation’s product and processes are being aligned accordingly, it becomes imperative that HR should upskill the workforce and ensure employees are equipped to deal with this change. In an agile world, change management becomes a vital function of HR.
As part of the Landmark Group family, what will be your focus for 2018? What organisational goals have been set by you?
Our focus would be to continue to build an agile organisation, where people are quick to adapt to change and also equipped to deliver exceptional results. Towards this end, we would be strengthening our talent pipeline by enabling next-in-line leaders through coaching and providing them larger responsibilities within the organisation. We will also continue building the capabilities of our workforce at every level in-line with market trends. From the front-line to the CEO, we intend to create a more digitally-savvy workforce, where technology not only enables us to work more efficiently, but also brings us closer as an organisation. Finally, HR automation is a major area of focus; to ensure that we make the best business decisions based on the available big data available through various HR tools and services.
Up Close & Personal
What inspired you to steer your career towards HR?
I have always enjoyed working with people. Right from my days in college, I was part of various social clubs, wherein my major strength was my ability to connect with people. Further, my willingness to adapt to change, manage conflict, and, deal with ambiguity, steered me to a career in HR.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I enjoy networking professionally, not just with peers, but also aspiring students who seek to learn more about the professional world. Having worked for over three and half decades, I strongly feel that the experiences I have had are both inspirational and eye‑opening for students.
Please share some of your experiences of travelling to various places. What have you gained from these experiences?
I enjoy travelling and have travelled extensively around the world. My key takeaway from these travels has been that people are the same everywhere. We all share the common gene of humanity, and, all it takes is the effort to understand cultures and welcome differences.
What were your learnings from the B-School?
I believe that it developed some key skills that have formed the basis of how I grew as a professional. Having taken up several leadership positions while in college, I feel it equipped me very early on in my career to manage work as well as people, apart from the conceptual understanding of various practices that I have applied in my career.
Has someone from your family deeply inspired your values and growth as a human being?
My father deeply inspired my values and has been my role model throughout my life. Even though he was a Senior IPS Officer, he did not command respect, but, earned it through humility and integrity.
Who would you credit in your life as a great influence in shaping the man that you are today?
It would be wrong to attribute this to a single individual. My parents, my wife and children, friends, colleagues and well-wishers have all shaped me to be the person I am today. We learn from everyone and every situation, and, I believe I have learnt in the same manner.
Favourite Quote: “Work hard, play hard.”
Leadership style: Empowerment
Current Professional Goal: To build a strong succession plan
Favourite Book: What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith
Favourite Movie: Lagaan
Favourite Music Artist: Kishore Kumar
Life is… A journey of never-ending learning
Family is… My lifeline
I strongly believe in…. Passion and perseverance
The most important thing I do on Sunday…. Enjoy a pleasant siesta!
I deal with setbacks by… Bouncing back stronger
3 Things I never leave home without… Smile, Faith and Positivity
Some gaps that HR Organisations need to bridge
I believe that with the current rate of disruption in every industry, it is important that organisations do away with hierarchical structures and build a culture of transparency and openness. The more people are empowered, and, the more they believe in the values of the organisation, the better the organisation will perform. From an HR perspective, we must ensure that every leader is a people leader to achieve this. The focus on putting people first is not just a mandate of the HR function, but, is the mantra by which every leader approaches his / her responsibilities. At the end of the day, an organisation should not be merely focused on business results, but the people behind it, and, that remains to be the major gap in understanding what is required to be bridged.
Common errors companies commit while designing engagement practices
One of biggest errors companies make while designing engagement practices is believing that one size fits all. What works well in one organisation or demographic might not work well with another. The only way to ensure that engagement practices are effective is two-fold; firstly, to ensure that they are aligned to the vision and objectives of the organisations; and second, to ensure that the practices and interventions are developed from employee feedback. Hence, measurement becomes an important aspect of engagement practices and the return on investments should be quantifiable in terms of reduced attrition, increased productivity, better engagement and so on. So, to summarize, while designing engagement practices make sure it is unique, customized, aligned to the business and measurable.
A mysterious benefactor wrote you a check for 1,00,00, 000 and said, “Help me solve a problem!” What would you say?
My ability to resolve the problem matters, not money!
What’s the one thing you’re deeply proud of but would never put on your resume?
I am deeply proud of raising my two sons to excel in their professional and personal lives.
What’s the one dream that you’ve tucked away for the moment?
Spending time with my grandson!
Is there something that people consistently ask for your advice on? What is it?
People often approach me on advice on their careers and personal growth. My team and even peers outside of the organisation, reach out to me on how to deal with problem situations, staying positive, and, how to balance work and life.
When was the last time you astonished yourself?
Very recently, when I kicked the butt after several decades of smoking!
What do you value most: free time, recognition, or money?
Free time. Since it is often very hard to get. I believe in living my life to the fullest and I enjoy pursuing my passions outside my area of work.
Are you living your life purpose or still searching?
I am living my life’s purpose. I feel I have achieved what I set out to do by establishing transformational HR in organisations, professionally, and, seeing both my children do well for themselves, in the personal space.
1. Life is about learning from anyone and any situation. If a person is closed to learning, he/she is closed to progress and success
2. If you have the right attitude, you can achieve anything.
3. I have often seen that people react instantaneously to a situation. I have realised it is better to listen, observe, understand, and respond
4. To be successful professionally, it is important to be passionate about work and enjoy the ups, and, in hindsight even the downs. However, do not lose the zest for life – work hard, play hard.
5. It is very important to balance between your plans for future and your life at the moment. It is a tricky balance that leads to happiness.
1. Name: Venkataramana B
2. Age: 58 years
3. Title: Group President – Human Resources
4. Organisation: Landmark Group (Lifestyle International Pvt. Ltd.)
5. Experience: 35 years
6. Years in HR: 35 years
7. Education: MA (PM & IR) & PG Diploma in Marketing, Madras University
Awards and Accolades
1. Most Innovative HR leader in India in the Asia Pacific HRM Congress in 2018
2. Global Achievers Forum Award in the Dronacharya category in 2017
3. CHRO of the year at People First HR Excellence Awards in 2017
4. Most Influential HR Leaders in India by World HRD Congress in 2017
5. Lifetime Achievement Award by Genius HR Excellence Award in 2017
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