The gatekeepers of talent
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From asking probing questions during interviews to negotiating tense situations between colleagues, these professionals specialize in managing people. They spend their days recruiting the right talent for their organizations, and then work to make sure that employees stay happy, motivated and in tune with the workplace culture. Three such professionals tell us why human resources, or HR, once considered a boring administration-oriented job, is so much more today.
KS Kumar, 49
Vice-president, HR, Castrol India Ltd, Mumbai
K.S. Kumarsays his first exposure to HR was when he was part of a union at the Madras Christian College, Chennai, where he did his bachelor’s in science (chemistry) from 1982-85. “We learnt the art of listening (to others), and what the dynamics of negotiations were, and how to find common ground,” he says.
How he got here: In 1987, Kumar went on to do postgraduation in personnel management from XLRI, Jamshedpur. Graduating two years later, he joined consumer goods company Hindustan Lever Ltd (now Hindustan Unilever). His first posting was in Etah, Uttar Pradesh, where he looked after HR for two factories—a tea factory and a dairy “The dairy was over 25 years old with a formal union, while the tea factory had been recently set up. Working with both provided learnings in employee engagement in different environments,” says Kumar of his two-and-a-half-year stint at Etah.
Moving to the corporate office in Bangalore, he then worked on national wage settlements and on integrating employees after the merger of Brooke Bond India and Lipton India and acquisitions like Kisan Foods Ltd. He joined Castrol India in 2010, after stints at Burns Philp India (now AB Mauri India Pvt. Ltd), makers of yeast and bakery ingredients (1996-98), Citibank (1998-2005) and finance company Fullerton India Credit Co. Ltd (2005-10).
A day at work: Castrol India has 850 employees. The lubricants business has three verticals—automotive, industrial and marine—and Kumar manages HR for all three. He also looks after HR for the 250-strong Asia-Pacific team in the industrial vertical.
A typical day could start with a talent-assessment call. This could be a discussion with the Singapore-based head of the industrial vertical to study talent across the region in the different businesses, and leadership succession. The call is likely to be followed by review meetings on strategy, appraisals and evaluations, as well as mentorship meetings with employees. And then there are routine matters, like hiring, approval of final offers, expenses, etc.
The day could end with a training session in which Kumar speaks to employees. “We have new people coming in from different cultures and we want to establish a culture of transparency and openness where every employee feels comfortable speaking up,” he says.
After work, he often updates his personal blog www.human resources.co.in with features and links to relevant HR resources.
Success mantra: The modern HR professional has to have sharp commercial acumen, a head for numbers and an understanding of the kinds of revenue expected from different lines of business, says Kumar.
HR myths: HR is often seen as a unidimensional job but in reality there are different specializations within it. “You could work in a plant with the unions, in training, in reward management, recruitment, or as a business partner.”
Most proud of: He successfully negotiated a wage settlement, that hadn’t been signed for three-four years, at a factory acquired by Burns Philp India in Kolkata. Due to this impasse, the management was unable to modernize or invest in the factory and expand operations. “The earlier team had got it into very hardened positions. I had the advantage of coming in new,” says Kumar. He made an unconventional, casual visit to the house of the leader of the workers’ union. “I’ve just dropped in to pay my respects. Will you offer me a cup of chai?” Kumar recalls asking the union leader, who was also a politician. The settlement was signed three months later.
Interviewing candidates: Kumar always asks: “Can you give me an example of leading a diverse group of people? How did you bring them together? How did you motivate them to succeed? How did you establish goals and priorities? When you had someone in your team underperforming, what did you do to get that person to start performing?” There is no better proof of a person’s abilities than live examples, and such evidence-based questions help to uncover these, he believes.
Money matters: Compensation can range from Rs.80 lakh to Rs.1.5 crore a year at this level.
Jonam Hora, 29
Manager, HR, Citrus Pay, Mumbai
“A start-up is a good place to work in because you get to know everything from scratch, with the kind of experience you will never get in a bigger organization,” says Jonam Hora, who began her career at ICICI Lombard General Insurance Ltd in 2008 but took the plunge with a start-up three years ago, joining Pune-based digital advertising start-up Sokrati. “I liked their website, did a lot of research on them, as well as consulted with colleagues and mentors at ICICI Lombard before I made the decision to join,” says Hora, who sees herself as a generalist and is happy to move between different industries to learn different sets of skills.
A day at work: Much of Hora’s day is spent in recruiting for the company office in Mumbai as well as new centres in Chennai and Bangalore. A 20-minute autorickshaw ride takes Hora from her suburban Andheri home to the Citrus Pay office in Santacruz by 9.30am. At the office, Hora sits in for the final rounds of interviews, issues appointment letters and organizes background checks on shortlisted candidates.
As the only HR professional at Citrus Pay, Hora is also designing templates for processes like appraisal systems. Her workday ends around 7pm, and sometimes the team, often accompanied by the founders, goes out for a drink.
Success mantra: Good communication skills and the ability to keep things confidential, so employees will be encouraged to talk to you. Also, basic etiquette like taking calls and responding immediately. “Employees are your stakeholders, if you are not always reachable and responsive to them, then you are not a good HR manager,” says Hora.
HR myths: Hora says people think HR professionals leave the office at 5.30pm, and that HR is a cost centre restricted to planning fun activities. “Today, HR is a profit centre that invests in hiring the right talent, training them, reducing attrition and helping the organization grow.”
Most proud of: Hora recalls her first week as a young manager at ICICI Lombard and her assessment of candidates that was subsequently proved right. “I began to be known for my screening abilities and even senior managers would request me to sit in on their interviews,” she says.
Interviewing candidates: “Why do you want to join us? And, based on their résumé, why they previously changed jobs from ‘a’ company to ‘b’ company, and how they achieved ‘x’ target?” Hora focuses on body language and non-verbal cues to figure out whether candidates and their answers are genuine. Hora finds the administering psychometric test Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which measures personality types, useful in evaluating whether the candidate will fit into the company culture.
Money matters: Can range from Rs.8-15 lakh a year at this level.
Ramakrishna V, 33
Senior vice-president, HR, IDFC Ltd, Mumbai
Finance company IDFC is in hectic preparation mode as it gears to set up a bank, and Ramakrishna V. is in the thick of the action as he coordinates different project teams. An electronics engineer, Ramakrishna specialized in HR during his MBA with some scepticism. “Initially I felt HR as a discipline is unstructured and abstract and might not work for someone like me with a structured background,” he says. But he was swiftly and happily proved wrong, he says. Whether it is determining what motivates employees or designing a system of bonus payouts, every aspect of HR has a science behind it, he says.
A day at work: Ramakrishna is at the office at 9am on all weekdays except Wednesdays (when he begins the day at 7am, at the Kalina grounds, practising cricket as part of IDFC’s corporate cricket team). Ramakrishna, who had worked earlier as a specialist in compensation and benefits, has recently started working on setting up processes for the IDFC Bank. The day is full of meetings. “My role is to consolidate the efforts of teams like the HR and core services teams that are working on setting up the bank,” says Ramakrishna. He has three-four meetings every day with different vendors for hiring, selection of premises, etc. Work wraps up by 8-9 in the evening. But Ramakrishna carries on work-related calls during the 40-minute commute to his home in suburban Powai in Mumbai.
Success mantra: The ability to know the organization’s numbers, not just employee numbers but the numbers for revenue sources, and the ability to study and understand the business and help it grow, are important value additions an HR professional can bring to the table. Ramakrishna says HR professionals should go beyond record-keeping, doing analysis of attrition levels or diversity levels.
HR myths: That you can do HR by intuition, or by having studied psychology in your graduate programme. You need to know the science behind HR, says Ramakrishna.
Also, people think that HR professionals are mere MIS (management information services) providers. With the right inputs and expertise, HR professionals can be as important as the chief financial or technology officers of a company and become the right hand of the chief executive officer (CEO).
Most proud of: A project to automate the time office, which monitors the in-time and attendance of workers, at the Hindustan Zinc plant in Debari.
“There was a lot of resistance to automation,” says Ramakrishna. He had been assigned this project as a young manager in 2005, and completed it by getting the workmen involved. “We made a team...involving one person from the time office, an old-timer who was proud of being able to use computers, as well as supervisors from other departments.” The project went on to win a gold medal from the CEO as part of a Six Sigma productivity improvement initiative, and was deemed a huge success.
Interviewing candidates: “Tell me about a success at your last organization? Tell me about something you failed at and why?” are two questions Ramakrishna always asks. The answer to this question often gives an insight into the person’s emotions, thoughts, and the way he gives credit to other people, says Ramakrishna.
Money matters: Can range from Rs.18-35 lakh a year, with variable bonuses, at this level.
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