A Spirited Leader - Exclusive Interview with Harjeet Khanduja, Vice President - HR at Reliance Jio

A Spirited Leader - Exclusive Interview with Harjeet Khanduja, Vice President - HR at Reliance Jio

Harjeet Khanduja, Vice President-HR at Reliance Jio, is a naturally high-spirited leader, and it is difficult to pin him down to a profile. He is not only an influential HR leader, but also an international speaker, an author, a poet, and the list goes on. From being able to explain complex management topics in a compelling, relatable, and entertaining way to writing humorous-satirical poems on social issues, Harjeet's multiple talents continue to amaze people. Prepare to get energized as the prolific thinker, in his unique storytelling style, takes us through his inspirational journey of "making a difference", shares his views, tips, and advice on the changing work scenario, and discusses much more in the 'Up Close and Personal' section!


How do you look back at your professional journey traversed thus far? Could you share some of the experiences you've had that really stick out for you? Also, what are your key learnings?

I joined my first job. I was placed on an assembly line with my colleague. Our job was to ensure that the daily production target was met. One day, my colleague got hurt on the assembly line.  I took  him to the doctor. The doctor asked us, "What do you do?" We looked at each other. Then my colleague said, "We push vehicles (hum gaadi ko dhakka dete hain)". I felt bad. I did not do my engineering for this. That was the first learning of my professional life—"Don't push things; make a difference."


My next project was with the Sumo Trim Line. My supervisor broke his leg, and I was pseudo-in- charge of the Sumo assembly line. I asked my supervisor what I should do to make a difference. He said if you can increase the production capacity of the assembly line even by one vehicle, you would make a difference. I redesigned the trim line, and the capacity of the line increased by 30%. It became a case study. I got an opportunity to meet and show the project to Mr. Ratan Tata. That boosted my confidence and belief in the philosophy.

I kept working with this philosophy and kept collecting accolades. One day, I proudly placed another trophy on my shelf. The phone rang. It was a  friend  from the opposite building. He yelled, "Get out of there! There is a fire  in your building!" I left with my wife, wallet, and phone—no trophies. After deep introspection, I realized that I did not want my past achievements to be my baggage. This was one of my key learnings—"Don't sit on past laurels; keep reinventing yourself to add more."


Business leaders and HR teams spend countless hours and a lot of money on employee engagement initiatives—even then, why are so many organizations ineffective at improving engagement levels?

Suppose you are suffering from a fever and a party is arranged for you. Would you enjoy it? However, if someone sits by your side and takes care of you and your medication, you would be more engaged. Engagement starts with hygiene factors, which include whether the employee is getting his or her salary on time, whether the employee feels a sense of security, and whether the employee is treated properly by colleagues, including the manager.


The most important thing we forget is that employees come to work to do work, which means engagement can happen most effectively when employees enjoy work. This happens when employees understand the importance and value of the work being done and are able to derive "meaning" from the contribution made.


When you have a fever, you go to a doctor who diagnoses the problem and prescribes a medicine. You feel better. Now, if a friend of yours gets a fever and starts taking the same medicine without proper diagnosis just because it worked for you, what do you think the chances of success are? The same is true with engagement programs.


If a company carefully designs engagement programs keeping business requirements and principles in perspective, it will see great results. However, if the same engagement programs are copied by another organization without context, the programs will yield dismal results. Copy-paste does not work here.

What are some of the common mistakes that you see large organizations repeatedly make in understanding the new workplace dynamics?

Earlier, technology used to be the forte of large organizations. Computers, the Internet, Pagers, and BlackBerrys first came to large organizations. These technologies changed the way people worked and lived. Society was lagging behind. When society tried to catch up with the Internet revolution, organizations went into restriction mode, determining what you can do in the workplace and what you can't. 


Then came the smartphone revolution. Smartphones were affordable. Apps were being developed for free for mass consumption. This time, society adopted technology way ahead of large organizations. Organizations could not assess the impact. They were still in the mode of restricting the use of official  assets for personal use. They forgot that everyone had their own personal assets now.

Moreover, technology and business models changed the behaviours and expectations of the society. People started getting used to speed (30 minutes or free) and customizations (choose your own toppings). These small little things changed the way people think, act and interact.


However, internal culture, speed and customization philosophy did not change, widening the gap between society and large organizations. Startups took advantage of this by building cooler workplaces.


Another change came to redefine the employment paradigm itself. Platform-based organizations challenged the traditional practices. Focus shifted from skills to education. If you have a driving license, you can drive an Uber. Nobody will check your qualification, gender or age. No one will tell you when to start work or how many hours you should work. You will get real-time feedback on your performance. This is still a shocker.

Large organizations are still double guessing whether this is the reality or just a phase, because it happened too fast.

What would you like HR professionals to do better in terms of understanding the language of the business? How can they sharpen their business acumen to better align workforce strategies with business goals?

I met an entrepreneur. He told me that he does not require HR. His finance guy can take care of salaries. He was not sure of what value HR can bring. I asked him about the problems he faces with his employees. He said that his oilman wastes a lot of oil while lubricating machines. I told him to introduce an oil consumption incentive for the oilman. The next time we met, he was super excited because this positively impacted the bottom line of his business. 


This is the only language business understands. This language is quite simple as well. Many times, HR professionals are enticed by jargon, which creates distance between business and HR.


To sharpen business acumen, you should regularly interact with sales and operations guys and discuss how business is doing and what problems are being faced. When you start viewing the business from their eyes, you will be able to suggest simple people solutions to complex business problems.


What would your piece of advice be to HR leaders who want to build a strong business case for technology investments?

Go for it! Here are a few things you must consider before you begin:


◆ Focus on areas that are important for your business.


◆ Prepare a business case (not HR case) with measurable performance indicators.


◆ Validate the business case with business owners.


◆ Bring an HR Tech expert on the team.


◆ Do evaluate open-source systems alongside standard off-the-shelf products.


◆ Look for mobile-enabled solutions, preferably on cloud, with a focus on service and scalability.

What top trends are you tracking in the HR space as we head into 2020? Also, are there any that concern you?


HR is in a very exciting phase of evolution. Technology is going to take a front seat not just for HR transactions, but for business as a whole. The human factor will become more and more important. Fundamentals of psychology and people behavior will become more prominent. HR's focus is already shifting to health and well-being, coaching, counselling and reskilling.


Platform organizations have already given a new flavour to HR practices. More such organizations will emerge in 2020, paving the path for rethinking HR practices and entire regulatory and social security frameworks.


There is concern about an imminent economic slowdown. My understanding is that it will be short- lived for India. Positive signals have already started knocking on the door. Either way, HR practices will see a splurge of innovation in 2020. 


Up Close and Personal


You are an inspiration for many. Who inspires you?


My wife inspires me. My son inspires me. People around me inspire me. Nature inspires me. My everyday life inspires me. Inspiration is everywhere; you just need to see it.


You often review movies to extract valuable leadership and management lessons, which is very well-received by your social media audience. Please tell us a bit about how this interest came about.


I am a movie buff. I always used movies to train my team. Then I started conducting a learning program, called "Movie with Harjeet", for a wider audience. Participants loved it. One day, a participant asked for a session summary. I wrote and posted it on social media. It was well-received. The appreciation motivated me to write more. Now I get requests for writing about new releases often. I try to honour the requests.


How do you make time to pursue your hobbies—even with your busy schedule? Also, why is it important to have hobbies?


I've experienced that whenever I work too much, one side of my head starts paining. That's when I switch to my hobby. The pain goes away. Then, if I continue with my hobby for a longer period, the pain shifts to the other side of the head, which means that work and hobbies activate different sides of the brain (which is otherwise also scientifically proven). So, for the uniform development of the brain, it is important to pursue hobbies alongside work. Once you know the importance of anything, you can definitely make time for it.


What would we be surprised to learn about you?


I write humorous-satirical poems on social issues under the pen name "Sardar Tuktuk". I have been awarded the title of 'Hasya Samrat' and have been recognized by the World Hindi Foundation. My poetry has been published in various books. I also do appearances on SAB TV for my poetry.


How do you like spending your free time?


I spend my free time helping people, travelling places, watching movies, playing games, experiencing things, writing stories, and spending time with family.

Rapid Fire


Favourite quote: "Dream is not that which you see while sleeping; it is something that does not let you sleep."


Favourite movie you've watched so far this year: Mission Mangal


Favourite movie dialogue of all time: "Kya soch kar aaye the…" (Sholay)


Leadership style: Keeps changing


Life isa one-time ticket to the wonderland


I strongly believe inhumanity


When faced with a "setback" I"set forward."



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