Interview With Smriti Handa, Regional HR Director (South Asia) at Reckitt Benckiser- The HR Reboot
In an exclusive interaction with Human Capital, Smriti Handa, Regional HR Director (South Asia) at Reckitt Benckiser (RB), shared her career journey thus far, how the HR role has changed beyond recognition, why it’s more important than ever, and what practices are demanded in today’s volatile business landscape. She also gives an insightful peek into how her team is flexing the organisational muscle of building best-in-class talent capabilities at RB—one of the world’s largest consumer goods giants.
You have worked across diverse sectors with top tier global & Indian corporations. Tell us about your journey. Also, what makes you passionate about what you do?
In my career journey, I have believed that there are no shortcuts to any place worth going. We must learn to make choices and live proudly with them. I was taught early on by my leaders that career is a combination of depth and breadth of experiences that you build. Having followed that advice, I’ve worked across recruitment, shared services, HR strategy, business partnering, operations, employer branding, and talent/performance management. I have had the opportunity to work across diverse sectors, from FMCG, Healthcare to Telecommunications, in different organisational cultures—Indian and European. It was strategically very rewarding to have experienced different life-stages of the companies I’ve worked for—from sunrise to growth to maturity. Along the way, I went from being a nervous wreck outside the boardroom, to a silent observer in the by-lanes of the boardroom, to now being an active contributor in the boardroom. Because of these varied experiences that led to personal growth, maturity, courage and conviction, my journey has been fulfilling and worthwhile.
I am passionate about my work as I strongly believe that what I do makes a difference to employees and business. When business leaders and employees feel that HR adds value to business decisions, I know that my team and I enjoy a seat in the boardroom. When business understands that its results are driven by people, their capability, agility, responsiveness and that it's not some wonderful stroke of luck or merely market dynamics, we believe success is near. Each of these 'aha!' moments make us believe that we are doing some kick-ass work, and we feel a sense of accomplishment.
You have over 15 years of experience in various facets of HR. How have you seen the function evolve?
HR was more of an administrative and operations function 15 years ago. Today, it has become an integral part of the CEO’s inner circle—by demonstrating a direct correlation with business outcomes and its ability to intertwine objectivity with subjectivity. Proactive delivery on the future of work, workforce analytics, inclusive culture, and digital mindsets to ensure business growth has helped the HR vertical win over business respect and not be considered merely as a support function. HR Research, which was more consultant driven earlier, is now an integral part of Business HR.
Fifteen years ago, managers assumed themselves to be an expert on people strategy due to an element of subjectivity attached to it. With psychology emerging as a science, ample research work and formal education, HR has emerged as a specialist field. Leaders have come to understand that “Culture can eat strategy for breakfast!”
Organisations are still struggling to engage millennials in the workplace—and now Gen Z is on the doorstep. What generation-savvy approaches do you have in place to engage a blended workforce spanning multiple generations?
Depending on the flavour for the month, Gen X, Y or Z, receives criticism in media for lack of agility, need for umpteen choices, impatience, or pre-occupation with social media, etc. It is not for the first time that two or more generations are working together. Differences may be stark this time, but we should celebrate these differences. That’s the idea of “inclusion”.
Generational, gender or geographical diversity savviness has led to maturity in dealing with varied personas. Across the organisation, we have celebrated these differences by offering flexibility to employees. This may range from flexible work hours and benefits to flexible assignments (gig economy). We have learnt to play on individual strengths and not group people in categories, so we plan a personalized learning agenda and customize career paths. One size does not fit all! We also understand that not every employee will appreciate these differences and therefore, we build consciousness through workshops on multi-generational work ways, the science behind unconscious bias, etc. We also look at ways of up-skilling and re-skilling wherein old ways of doing jobs have become redundant. And finally, in cases where there is respect, trust and intent, we also use mentoring and reverse-mentoring as tools to bring about learning and commitment. While much has been said about the differences, we also reinforce similarities between generations—e.g. how everyone, no matter from what generation, strongly believes in and practises core values every day, which are the bedrock of any organisation.
A recent global survey by KPMG revealed that while 70% of HR executives recognise the need for workforce transformation, merely 37% feel “very confident” about HR’s ability to transform via key capabilities like AI and analytics. Why might this be?
True that! Firstly, the HR function has undergone vast transformations and has witnessed a metamorphosis from being a ‘Personnel Department’ which dealt with everyday employee requirements, to being ‘HR Operations’ that managed hiring and exit processes and, finally, to now being the ‘People & Culture’ function which is about building a great company. Skepticism was no less when each of these transformations was happening, and now that we are evolving further, questioning the status quo, we will continue to experience doubts and disbeliefs.
Secondly, it will be fair to assume that these percentages are reflective of any new change hitting the workplace. Acceptance of change has never been easy for us. Some professionals take it head-on, and some feel awkward. The same is true for AI and Analytics in HR. We will have some leaders, some followers and some laggards when it comes to adopting new ways of working in HR.
To elaborate, I feel followers or laggards would be skeptical due to:
• Missing personal conviction (fad or bubble burst?): Read and read more, attend seminars, and learn from the front-runners!
• Fear of the unknown: Train yourself! Take some risks!
• Lack of support displayed by their business leaders: Take the lead, begin with baby-steps. Showcase small-wins, win the trust and go full-on!
• Availability of funds to scale it: Make choices! Let go of mundane and regular operations. Adapt the new and futuristic.
Both globally and locally, organisations seek to benefit from the richness of talents and ideas introduced by a more diverse and inclusive workforce. What measures have you and your team taken to ensure that RB’s work culture reflects its D&I goals?
Every day is full of new and fresh ideas for my team and me. We often calibrate to assess and meet these emerging needs. For us, it includes a three-pronged strategy:
• Building a culture of inclusion by enlisting men & women as equal partners in our journey;
• Focusing on forward-looking policies to drive a more flexible and healthier working environment for employees;
• Appreciating differences and therefore, driving aspirational initiatives for internal development of diverse talent.
To prioritize diversity, we have a clearly laid down approach. With it comes a lot of responsibility and the team is keen to fulfil it. All this is possible because diversity is not merely an HR agenda for us, but everyone’s business. With the right intent, we constantly emphasize the need for diversity at large forums and work towards making people sensitive towards D&I via directed sessions. By accepting and appreciating the differences, it is not too difficult to crack the D&I piece of the puzzle.
Over the years, social responsibility has emerged as a full-blown business philosophy. Moreover, the Companies Act, 2013 has transitioned CSR spend from ‘choice’ to ‘compliance’. How do you think CSR is valuable in a strategic sense, beyond legal compliance?
Corporate Social Responsibility aims to contribute to society. Under this, organisations choose philanthropic and societal goals that come close to their business strategy and through it, work towards creating a positive impact on society. It may have started as legal compliance, but as we see it today, it has become an integral part of every business strategy. Consumers and young talent are growing conscious about the deteriorating state of the climate, wildlife, natural resources, increasing economic gaps, etc. They want to engage with companies that accept responsibility. So, across organisations, you will witness various functional heads working towards a purpose-driven strategy.
In today’s rapidly-evolving business landscape, what habits should HR professionals cultivate to stay updated and become an all-round star?
To begin with, I wouldn’t want to put pressure on one individual to be an all-round star. We all come with our share of strengths and areas of growth. So, we must give every single HR professional the space to learn and mature.
Now a rapid-fire round with you. What comes to your mind when you hear these words:
o Leadership: Combination of IQ, EQ and DQ (Digital Quotient).
o CHRO: Right hand of CEOs who are focused on building a long-term, sustainable organisation.
o Diversity: First comes ‘inclusion’.
o Millennials: Game changers.
o HR’s ownership of fun at work: Sorry! Did you really say that? We are in the 21st Century.
o Success: Directly proportional to the ability to face failures.
Is HR solely responsible for cultural change?
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