Coca-Cola’s employee value proposition is about offering global careers: Wadhawan

Coca-Cola vice-president (HR) Sameer Wadhawan on the company’s people management strategy in India

For companies, it’s important to show employees a growth path, says Wadhawan.
For companies, it’s important to show employees a growth path, says Wadhawan.

India is becoming a talent-grooming ground for the global operations of American beverage maker Coca-Cola Co. Sameer Wadhawan, vice-president of human resources, India and South-West Asia at Coca-Cola, said in an interview that recruiting, grooming and exporting talent from India has helped the company create an employee value proposition and reduce attrition.

He also spoke about the company’s people management strategy in India, its sixth biggest market globally. Edited excerpts:

You are a leading beverage company with a huge headcount. How do you manage your people issues?

Let me give a bit of perspective on our operation. Coca-Cola India is the sixth largest business of the parent firm in the world. We are seen as the growth engine of the company. Close to 25,000 people are working for the Coca-Cola system, which means both bottlers and the office side. We have 13 franchise bottlers in India and one company-owned bottling plant. While around 65% businesses is done by the company bottler, rest are done by the franchise ones, which are small, independent family-owned businesses.

If we include indirect employment, then it is to the tune of 125,000 plus people in India.

Our ability to hire people is robust and our employee value proposition is about offering global careers.

Does it mean you are exporting in-house talent to other countries? Is it part of your hiring strategy?

A global career is one of the keys to attract(ing) best talent in India. Then we leverage our presence in 207 countries world over. If you go to Coca-Cola headquarters, you will find Indian talent; if you go to Africa, Europe, Singapore and parts of China, you will find Indian talent. We groom the talent and then export.

But one of the keys for us is while exporting them, we manage to bring them back (to India) when required. Today, at the leadership level, one-third of them had left India at some point of their career with us. For example, our operation head and marketing head had worked for Coca-Cola in (South) Korea and China. Then, they are back to manage operations here as we need their experience.

So, recruit and export is part of the strategy?

That’s a broad strategy. To achieve that, we have several programmes starting from education campuses. Every year, we bring around 25 people (interns) from top 10 schools for about eight weeks. You may wonder how it is different from summer internships. In fact, we do a lot of scrutiny before selecting interns because we offer pre-placement offers or PPOs to some of them, but don’t go for campus placements. This is because we need to know the guy working before hiring.

Once the person is on board as an intern, we give him or her a live project to work on. There is a mid-term review of interns and final presentations by them to the top leadership. Then these guys undergo an assessment at our assessment centre.

Companies often complain that new recruits from top schools want to make strategy from day one without on-field knowledge.

Once a new person formally joins us, we send him or her on an 18-month project as a management trainee. Of this, three months is for inter-functional knowledge, for 12 months they are sent to our bottling plants where they work with area sales managers. For 12 months in remote territories... they will not get metro postings. You come from a B-school and you have your ideas, but this grounding happens (for recruits) to understand the last-mile business. Before we give them a final posting, we allow them to work for a month or two on our CSR (corporate social responsibility) projects.

You said that your attrition rate is less than 10%, which is better than the industry average. What steps are you taking to retain talent?

When you are dealing with young employees, it’s not easy to curb attrition, but we have managed. After recruiting and initial exercise, we follow a ladder of critical experience for career growth.

When you spend six or seven years in a company, you need to see a career growth path. For companies, it’s important to show employees a growth path. We at Coke are doing this for all levels of employees from management trainees upwards. After three years, we give people responsibility to employees—it’s the metamorphosis of an individual executive to a supervisor. Then, we have another for middle management, which helps transform mid-level executives to senior leaders. But before that, we take them through a six-month-long process comprising multicultural projects, an executive coach working with them, assessment centre evaluating their managerial skill and the regular theoretical inputs.

Then we have a global leadership programme. In the last few years, we from India must have exported 60-odd people. All jobs available globally up to director level is open to all employees. We support inter-geography and inter-functional movement.

The strategy is to tap the best Indian talent and convert them to a global pipeline (of employees) for Coke. My value proposition is a global career.

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