Prabir Jha, Founder and CEO of Prabir Jha People Advisory, chooses to live a life of convictions rather than consequences, and his story is one of immense motivation. He set out in his professional life as a young civil servant. However, a new dream, a desire, and destiny brought him outside the walled gardens of the famed civil services and into the corporate world, where he achieved phenomenal success and contributed profusely for over twenty years towards transforming the HR landscape of some of the best-known global corporations. Determined to explore newer avenues of opportunities and promote people practices that will help more businesses, he took yet another bold leap forward in 2019, transitioning from the corporate world to entrepreneurship by launching an advisory firm. Widely regarded as an influential HR leader, Prabir believes that HR has a fantastic opportunity to challenge archaic practices and impact modern workplaces. He calls for CHROs to boldly reimagine the HR agenda by demonstrating more self-assurance and strategic insight.
You have diverse industry experience—from engineering, IT, pharmaceuticals, and automotive to top business conglomerations. Take us through your journey and the key learnings. Also, what got you to leave the civil services for the corporate world?
Certain scripts in life and in careers seem ordained. Accidents, cross-roads, and serendipity do influence a lot of what we do or become. Coming from Bihar, the decision to write the UPSC exams and become a civil servant was almost a given decision. All my choices in education were in support of that. I got selected for civil services even before I finished my MA exams. It was almost a strategic accomplishment to have those coveted initials after my name and join the Academy.
Yet, almost seven to eight years later, despite all the trappings of comfortable civil service life, I was restless and wanted to study more. Given that I never enjoyed the dreary world of accounts, and that civil services seemed at cross purposes with sales and marketing, I chose HR as my MBA specialisation, that leveraged my years of experience in the civil services handling a wide gamut of personnel and industrial relation matters of the Indian Ordnance Factories. Writing the XLRI examinations then became the obvious wild card thought.
I had never ever thought that I would leave the civil services after my MBA. A career in the government looked all so set at the end of almost ten years. But indifferent handling of the reimbursements of my XLRI expenses got me to take my first principled exit decision— to give up on what was almost the only dream and enter an absolutely new world of the corporate with fifteen thousand rupees in the bank and two small children in arms!
I have three sharp career insights from my two decades of corporate life:
● I have always lived a life of convictions rather than consequences. My career has been about making each day matter rather than building a safe resume. God and the people I've served have been generous and allowed me to follow my heart, including my current entrepreneurial experiment of running my own advisory!
● The second insight is that your team builds you, so build them. I feel proud that tenure after tenure, I have developed a team of the best professionals, many of them better than me. Giving them a strategic direction and providing them with all the support and freedom has ensured a consistent and step-change impact in every company in quick time. And getting them to enjoy playing as one team is a huge leadership acumen to acquire. That I could count 32 CHROs who were once on my team is the biggest career satisfaction. And I am sure the number will easily double.
● The third learning is showing courage and vulnerability. For most of my corporate career, I’ve been a CHRO of some of the largest companies and have driven the agenda for large-scale transformation. That was never easy, strategically or politically. Willingness to recognise one’s own vulnerability, building a team to supplement our efforts, and setting an audacious agenda sets us apart. I have never believed I know all answers, or for that matter, all questions. But one must be willing to be stupid enough to ask the most basic question because often the problem is right there. When you challenge the status quo, you will build critics and enemies. When you win, you will evoke jealousy. Through it all, keep your head down and march on. Neither criticism nor adulation should get your focus to shift.
The bar continues to be raised on HR, with talent acquisition, retention, and engagement being dramatically reimagined, and the world of work being continually redefined by technology. To handle the tsunami of change in HR, are there new habits and approaches that leaders need to put into practice ?
Beyond the specifics, CHROs must boldly reimagine the new reality. Most of them are still unable to visualise the new picture. Unless we do that, we’ll continue to think the classic parts incrementally and perpetually play catch-up. And we’ve got to show courage. CHROs need to set the agenda better than just taking instructions for action.
HR has an amazing opportunity to challenge historical practices and impact modern workplaces by combining business, technology, and culture.
HR leaders must get their key stakeholders to understand the difference between HR, the function, and HR, the agenda. It needs CHROs to demonstrate more self-assurance and strategic insight. The individual pieces will fall into place once you are clear in your vision and can get all key stakeholders to share it.
Workplace culture is often seen as one of the biggest impediments to digital effectiveness. How can organisations manoeuvre past this barrier to transform digitally?
We must first recognise there is no ideal, great cookie-cutter culture. It is either strategically aligned or misaligned. It is also not a given. We shape and change cultures as part of our strategy choice.
Building a “digital” culture is more a behavioural challenge than a technological one. And yet, most of the efforts that one sees are around the deployment of a technology platform.
Most digital shifts support information democracy, transparency, agility, accountability, and experience. One needs to act decisively on each of them beyond personal biases or tenure of association. However, not everyone wants to practise them, even if they say so because the leadership turfs get impacted, some roles become redundant, and some blockers get identified. This is where the penny drops.
Equally, to support the shift to digital culture, every HR (and other functional) sub-system needs to get rewired—behaviours of leadership right from the top require change. If you say you want to be paperless, you must not need prints! If you want to have sharper meetings, we must stop holding daylong courts of physical attendance like political rallies! The shift is therefore of pure will to move every nerve and sinew beyond the vocal cords!
From your perspective, how can HR professionals build their personal brand and change negative, outdated perceptions of the human resource function to gain more influence and impact?
Personal brands rest on making a consistent breakthrough impact. Just doing long hours of status quo activity doesn’t get you into the orbit of a cutting-edge HR shaper. You need to challenge your own way of thinking and articulate your distinct point of view. Also, make sure you mentor and support a cross-section of talent within and beyond your company, and let every informal interaction count. These shape the lunch-table conversations about you. Give away more than you get or take and slowly, your reputation will precede your resume.
As a leader, when you lead the thinking and doing into orbit-shifting changes, the HR rank and file begin to believe in themselves very differently from the past. Their sense of self-worth increases and the HR brand rises, both within and outside the company, as you take them away from the expectation of routine HR chores to strategic transformation. My personal experience in company after company confirms this belief. But it needs courageous and imaginative leadership to help breakthrough. CHROs cannot get away by simply extending their tenure without delivering a refreshed agenda and a stronger HR brand.
What are some of the common mistakes that you see large organisations repeatedly make in understanding the new workplace and workforce dynamics?
You cannot solve pediatric problems with geriatric solutions!
This is my experience of commonplace challenges facing companies today. Our individual and institutional success of the past is the biggest blind to thinking anew. It is good to be proud of our past but stupid to be a prisoner of our legacy. Human ego and frailty prevent us from acknowledging a new world. And tenured courtpoets or freshly hired survivors shy away from showing the true mirror. There is nothing more than the humility to be open to constructive criticism; have the agility to learn from anyone and everywhere (beyond the clichéd line I have always heard—”We are unique!”) and the willingness to repudiate anything of the past that impairs your future.
Technology disruptions, generational shifts in demographics, new leadership behaviours, cultural complexity, shorter business cycles, shifting customer and employee loyalty, and sharp shifts in employer brand strength will all flow from the honesty of intent at the top.
As we step into the 2020s decade, what are the top trends you’re watching out for in the HR space?
In my view, talent and productivity will be the two biggest priorities for the coming years.
There will be a key talent deficit across levels, functions, and industries. We will see more of new-age skills in demand, either to be met by reskilling or by new hiring. And yet the market will continue to demand more from less.
Organisations are going to be redrawing their architecture across the board. Leveraging technology options will also be a given. While the focus will be on productivity, I expect the accent on employee experience to be a concomitant gain. In addition, investment in leadership will remain critical. I also hope that there will be more emphasis on middle management talent than in the past.
My overarching sense is that strategic transformation will be the biggest key priority for HR. This is also the most significant gap I see today in terms of HR capability. The change will need to be both led and enabled for a variety of reasons specific to the industry and the firm. So the year will present an opportunity for many in HR to pick this skill from the agenda that I foresee.
CHROs will need to manage some apparent contradictions between “human” experiences and “digitally” supported efficiencies. New digital shifts will force the rethinking of business models, triggering changes in workplaces and the workforce. Many may not be amenable to reskilling or new behaviours that adversely affect their impact and relevance. This situation will need to be dealt with firmly yet fairly. The modern workplace also requires a more agile culture, and HR will need to better manage this duality of hard and soft. Those who anticipate and respond quickly and comprehensively would be the ones that the decade ahead will celebrate.
Up-Close and Personal
What’s one of your favourite memories from the past year? Also, what’s something you want to do in 2020 that you’ve never done before?
One of my favourite memories of 2019 was attempting something I had never done before. To leave a top paying corporate job to start a small strategic advisory venture of your own is never easy. Yet it is your own baby, and every small thing about it—the name, the logo, the first invoice, the first client—is a wonderful memory. And it is nicer because I, yet again, followed my dictum of conviction, not consequence. As for 2020, I would love to learn to play a musical instrument. I have always felt inadequate without it. Let’s hope it happens!
What is one myth that you would like to dispel about the HR profession?
That HR is an easy job! This is as misplaced of a stereotype as one can think of. I believe it is the most difficult job. You only realise it when you become the CEO. Everyone from the doorman to the chairman has a view on HR (and they often believe that theirs is the only right view!). You need to wade through it all. The credit is always someone else’s, but the blame is always on HR, which functions as a convenient fall guy. HR has created its own PR problem by focusing on doing a lot of transactional stuff (including things that should be done by the employee or the manager), rather than focusing on the strategic agenda. Finally, it is the only function that has to deliver an agenda through almost every manager. Poor line managers make HR the bad boy again.
What are your top productivity hacks?
There is nothing dramatic here! I follow my calendar seriously as it keeps me focused. And I avoid wasting time on issues that don’t need my decision.
How do you maintain work-life balance?
Actually, corporate life does not allow you that luxury, unfortunately. Yet I don’t typically carry work tensions home nor vice versa. This has worked for me. I also do a fair bit of the household chores, some quite well! These and other activities such as cooking, listening to music, and reading books de-stress me. Earlier, my dog also got my mind off work. And I never compromise on my eight hours of sleep!
What would we be surprised to learn about you?
I am quite an open book person, so you often get to experience me as you see me! But some may be surprised to know that I once was a reasonably proficient horse rider and a squash player.
Favourite quote: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” — John Quincy Adams
The best book you recently read: Trillion Dollar Coach by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle
A movie title that best describes you: Dabangg!
Describe today’s HR in one line: The more you do, the more you need to do!
What comes to your mind when you hear these words?
CHRO: Move beyond your title to do beyond your title.
Gen-Z: Help us set the new alphabet!
Diversity: Why are you stopping short of true plurality in thinking?
Does your organisation support you in maintaining work-life boundaries?
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