Going above and beyond is a career choice made by Raj Raghavan, Senior Vice President and Head of Human Resources at IndiGo, India's largest airline by market share, and one of the most admired companies in its industry and beyond. Delighted to be a part of the 6E family, Raj perceives IndiGo as a "network of a hundred startups" driven by creative collaboration and innovation. He has substantially scaled up the organization's HR function in a short time and widened the horizons of growth amidst odds. The influential CHRO explains that creating a respectful culture, empowering employees to chase their dreams, and exceeding customer expectations have been key in this process. Today, as Raj leverages a scientific approach to drive proactive and progressive HR decisions, he is not afraid to experiment and put forward bold ideas to take IndiGo to newer heights.
How has your journey been thus far at IndiGo? What has changed since you joined the organization in 2018?
When I turned 50 a few years ago, I asked myself a question that changed the way I went about my career thereafter. The question was, “Don’t you want to stop explaining to others what you do and simply be doing things that made a difference to your business?” The answer came to me shortly after. I had to move from being a regional leader of a global company to being a global leader of a regional company. That said, I was somewhat selective about which regional company I wanted to work at; one thing led to another, and then in early 2018, I saw myself starting as the CHRO of IndiGo. In hindsight, I should have done this many years ago!
Frankly, the last two years have been nothing short of a stellar yet roller-coaster ride. I should, however, admit that I have enjoyed every bit of it. Within the first few weeks of my joining, we saw the CEO leave and were looking for a new one. In the process, we also underwent a bit of leadership churn, but it gave me an opportunity to work closely with the new CEO as well as the Board Committees. While we were busy handling these transitions, the business grew multi-fold. What was a 150+ fleet airline then is now 250+; this meant adding as much capacity in the last two years as the company had added in the first ten years of its existence. This translated into the scaling up of the HR function to be capable of hiring, on-boarding, planning for succession, etc. at India’s largest airline by the number of passengers flown.
Successful companies are often celebrated for their great workplace culture. Could you give us an inside scoop of IndiGo’s work culture?
As an adage goes, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. At IndiGo, we are proud of our three organizational pillars, viz. (1) on time, (2) low-cost structure, resulting in low fares and (3) hassle-free customer service. Together, these three pillars are the bedrock of our culture at IndiGo. During the last two years, I have come to acknowledge and appreciate the humility, respect for people, and the relentless focus on operational efficiency that has made IndiGo as successful as it is today.
As is well known, not everyone has been lucky with running a successful airline company that is both admired by its customers and profitable. We continue to harp on keeping our costs low, and by no means does this translate to being cheap. As part of our culture, we question every additional dollar that we spend and see how it results in managing a well-run company. As an IndiGo employee, one of the things I have come to appreciate is this: “You are never alone at IndiGo”. This means that we have developed a caring and respectful culture across the company for our employees, even as we continue to grow as India’s largest airline. It is of great importance to us that we treat people fairly and respectfully, and not just as resources who will get things done.
IndiGo has pioneered people practices in the aviation industry, cementing its position as one of the best employers in India. Could you share some of the top attraction and retention strategies being employed at IndiGo to keep ahead in the tight talent market?
At IndiGo, one of our stated people philosophies is that “we want to nurture the dreams and careers of our people”. Several examples could be cited, but let me keep it to just one. One of the most coveted roles in an airline, among many, is that of a pilot, but the cost of training and qualifying to be one is prohibitively expensive. On the flip side, it is equally difficult to hire a pilot. In fact, Boeing had predicted a few years ago that the global airline industry is in for a talent shortage pretty soon. Several employees within the airline wish to fly in the cockpit, and in order to help them fulfill their dreams, we came up with two innovative programs: 6E Fly High and 6E Family Fly. These programs are intended to give our employees and their families an opportunity to build a career in flying.
“6E Fly High” is an ab-initio pilot training scheme initializes the induction of existing IndiGo employees holding CPL Licenses as Junior First Officers. This program is applicable to all employees with a minimum tenure of two years with IndiGo. The program costs about INR 20 Lakh, and IndiGo sponsors 75% of the training cost for its top three students in the batch and 25% of the cost for the rest of the selected candidates. In addition, the program ensures that all successful students are given the roles of a full-time pilot at IndiGo.
“6E Family Fly” is a similar program that aims to nurture the dreams of our employees’ family members. Qualified family members can apply for pilot training, and they are assured of induction into the IndiGo pilot program on successful completion. Both of these programs are one of a kind in the industry that helps to reinforce our culture by giving dream careers to employees and their families.
Both of these programs are one of a kind in the industry that helps to reinforce our culture by giving dream careers to employees and their families.
Employee empowerment is a timeless business topic full of diverse viewpoints and solutions. Making employees feel invested in what they do and eager to fulfill customer expectations is one of the hardest things for HR practitioners and business leaders to crack. In what ways are employees empowered at IndiGo?
Airline customers are not satisfied enough by swanky planes and look for courtesy and service beyond just the smooth machines. Also, running an efficient airline means that employees need to follow a set of standard operating procedures to provide consistent service. In order to balance both our priorities, we have several initiatives, one such being peer-topeer recognition. Anyone who wishes to thank or recognize a coworker can use “6E Claps”, a mechanism to recognize a colleague. Employees simply need to get on to our recognition portal and submit their nominations through a write-up.
Another example is more customer-facing. Our frontline associates are empowered to make decisions on behalf of customers without asking for approvals. For example, during irregular operations, like weather-induced flight delays and missed flights, our airport operations executives can help move customer tickets without a change fee.
The bar continues to be raised on HR, as it must continually adapt to the everchanging workforce and workplace dynamics. What, according to you, are the biggest HR challenges and opportunities for the aviation industry in 2020 and beyond?
I think this question needs to be comprehended in the context of the specific organization that one supports and specific to the industry. While I am not an expert across sectors, I probably would think of the following from my current context and what is most relevant to me.
I believe that culture is very important to us at IndiGo. We have been very successful at building a young organization from the groundup in just about thirteen years, much of which had never been done before. That has allowed us to invent everything from being on-time to providing low fares and supporting a hassle-free customer experience. Because we have so much of innovation and experimentation going on at any given point of time, it feels like we’re a network of a hundred startups. And we love that. However, it also creates the challenge of consistently maintaining the culture that has made us successful. As we grow, we have to be mindful of not losing sight of what made us successful in the first place.
We want to see IndiGo as a magnificent magnet that attracts top talent, and this is not just about hiring great talent. Employees should love coming to work at IndiGo so they can fulfill their personal aspirations of working at a top-class organization. This also connotes that my team and I need to create a frustration-free employee experience for our colleagues. To join, grow, and to leave IndiGo (if at all) should be frustration-free, and this needs to be done by leveraging a combination of HR technology, analytics, and heart!
Favourite quote: If you have to think anyway, why not simply think big?
Favourite movie dialogue of all time: “Idhu Eppidi Irukku? (How’s this?)”—by Rajinikanth in the Tamil Movie, 16 Vayathinile
The best book you recently read: Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box by the Arbinger Institute
What comes to your mind when you hear these words?
◆Democratization of Learning: Another Buzzword!
◆Gen-Z: Instant gratification!
◆Diversity: It is something that even big countries are lacking in and needs a lot of focused attention and in-depth work.
Up Close and Personal
You are an inspiration for many. Who inspires you?
Early in my career, I had the privilege to work under some very honest managers who were not easy to work with but were never political and only wished well for me. Not everyone gets this, and hence, I referred to myself being lucky. I still remember a tough industrial relations situation during my Brooke Bond Lipton days and how Praveen Dave, my then manager, whom many of us fondly referred to as ‘Dave Saab’, stood by me like a rock. I vividly remember the conversation Dave Saab had with me before offering me the role of factory personnel manager at one of our oldest manufacturing plants near Hyderabad. He was upfront, honest, and straightforward: “Raj, this role is not for the weak-hearted, but remember that I will always be around to help”. Without going into further details, that was when I immediately knew that I had a boss who had my back. I knew I had someone who trusted me and cared for me immensely.
Later in my career, I had the pleasure of working for Murali Kuppuswamy at GE, who is currently Hertz’s Global Head of HR. Although a dear friend now, Murali was never an easy boss to work for. He had immense ability to dive deep as well as fly right up to 30,000 feet and ask strategic questions. It was by way of his somewhat intimidating and deep questions that Murali made people find their own answers rather than solving it for them!
What is one myth that you would like to dispel about the HR profession?
Myth: HR plays by the book and is rigid!
Reality: Progressive HR leaders do not hesitate to make exceptions and, many a time, I even find them open to reversing their decisions.
Do you think HR practitioners need to be technologists to drive an organization’s digital agenda?
To me, it is not just about using machines to help with recruiting or overall HRMS but about how you become scientific and create a culture of experimentation within your HR function. Google HR has long been supporting hypothesis testing, primarily focusing on the factors that can predict the success of new hires. Amazon also focuses on hypothesis testing in one of its HR Tenets, “We form hypotheses about the best talent acquisition, talent retention, and talent development techniques and then set out to prove or disprove them with experiments and careful data collection.”
An important component of HR technology is based on the facets of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The differentiator on AI-based recruiting is: how do we figure out biased decisions that machines make? After all, machine-learning-based artificial intelligence relies heavily on what the machines learn, and the inputs to these learnings come from past data with a heavy human bias! To be able to figure out what these inputs are that derive the outputs is key. Unless we do this now, the future will tell how HR professionals failed in teaching machines to be unbiased!
What are your top productivity hacks?
I still believe in keeping the age-old “to-do” list. Secondly, a few years ago, I realized that I am somewhat tardy when it comes to following up and keeping myself organized. Hence, in order to keep me efficient, in my last two jobs, I have hand-picked a program manager whom I could trust to follow-through on project reviews, program implementation statuses, budgets, productivity, etc. These are high-potential individuals who come in to do this for a few years and then move on to take greater HR responsibilities.
What would we be surprised to learn about you?
I am an introvert and love spending quiet times with myself! There are times where I have stayed 20-plus hours without conversing with anyone in some of my long intercontinental flights.
Do you think hybrid work arrangements would be a common feature of the workplaces going forward?
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