R. Mahalakshmi.
R. Mahalakshmi.

R. Mahalakshmi: Fail fast, learn quick and keep moving

R. Mahalakshmi, head human resource Mondelez India, on how companies can cultivate the 'experience-hungry' millennial employee

In order to stay relevant today, it’s imperative that companies know how to reach out to a millennial workforce and consumer base. Recognizing this, Mondelez India, makers of Cadbury chocolate, has launched disruptive innovation programmes and a “Mentor-Up" initiative where company leaders take cues from millennial mentees to drive company growth and culture.

Managing a workforce that constitutes over 40% millennials, R. Mahalakshmi, human resource (HR) head of Mondelez India, says this generation is turning the conventional construct of employment, employability and employer on its head. In a phone interview, Mahalakshmi, who has over 20 years of experience, including stints with Hewitt (now Aon Hewitt), Arthur Andersen, Ernst & Young and Bharti Airtel, discusses how to best manage a multi-generational workforce. Edited excerpts:

How are the distinct characteristics of millennials—from the way they use technology, their entrepreneurial spirit to cultural attitudes—challenging companies to change the way we work?

Millennials are the first generation that have had access to technology all their lives. With technology enabling seamless connectivity, information access and people connections anywhere, anytime—these digital natives are challenging organizations to rethink everything from workplace structure to culture and engagement. An experience-hungry generation, they are most happy to try out different things—fail fast, learn quick and keep moving. They want to know that the work they are doing has meaning and a bigger impact, beyond their role; that it impacts industry or society at large.

Millennials also want to be able to work in a way that suits them best. “Organizations" are just one of the options that this talent thinks of in terms of employment or careers. It is equally cool for them to try entrepreneurship as it is to freelance or find other ways of earning their livelihood and experiencing all that life has on offer. This generation values work-life integration, not separation like older generations. All these factors are turning the conventional construct of employment, employability and employer on its head. It is, therefore, imperative for even the best of organizations to be sure that they are relevant—as they hire, grow and retain this talent base.

What are some of the opportunities and challenges that come with millennial leadership?

The millennial leader is nimble and not diffident about challenging the norm. It is amazing to see the passion and desire to create an impact. Having leaders like that, who are passionate, indeed goes a long way in creating a glue that holds together teams and drives them positively. These leaders are happy to experiment, hungry for experiences and not so dejected with short-term failure. I genuinely feel that a lot of millennial leaders demonstrate an open, transparent and inclusive leadership style.

The challenges these leaders face, and where they need to be coached, are two classical areas—they exhibit a degree of impatience and struggle with resilience. But the good part of having multiple generations working together is that it provides perspective to talent in a non-prescriptive way.

How does an HR manager encourage/facilitate reverse mentoring programmes between Gen X and millennials (Gen Y)? Are these kinds of exercises valuable in the long run?

I feel that it is important to launch these programmes not as an HR initiative but as an enabler of something that the business is struggling with. For instance, when we recently launched Mentor-Up, our reverse mentoring programme in India, we were conscious that this programme must be a key enabler of a business solution. The Mentor-Up programme design is thus based on what leaders will learn from the millennial mentees that will help drive our growth, culture or impact as a company. The second critical success factor was the effort to really enable the millennial mentor, and setting up the process in a manner that age differences or grade differences do not come in the way. Hence, the role of the HR leader is in ensuring that the leadership team that is being mentored comes together to embrace the learning attitude that is a key catalyst for programme success and understands the value they want to derive out of an intervention like this.

Are organizations ready to hire, retain and manage Generation Z or post-millennials?

Different industries are at different stages in their readiness for this. Clearly, industries like information technology, fast-moving consumer goods, telecommunications and consulting are ahead of the curve and reinventing themselves.

Interestingly, when you observe the choices millennials make in terms of where to work, some of it gets reflected in the industries and/or organizations that they would be comfortable or happy to work with too.

Equally, one observes disruption in both the construct of roles, with part-time roles, role-sharing, etc. becoming more prevalent, and hiring processes, where digital social hiring is playing a significant role.

Do you think preparation for their arrival may be the spur organizations needed to rethink their digital strategies?

Absolutely. This is not just because of millennials in the workforce but also the growth in the number of millennials and consumers. Therefore, it is a key step as organizations work to stay relevant both as a consumer and talent brand.

Digital strategies today are redefining our approach to product, marketing, selling, and also hiring and retaining. New platforms of digital marketing and e-commerce are driving new growth; Yammer and WhatsApp are revolutionizing communications; and equally well-leveraged digital approaches are showing us opportunities to get economies of scale and move towards the standardization of basic transactions. When basic functions are handled by a bot, they free up a lot of time for quality engagement and strategy.

Millennials are often called the disruption generation. Are they really the disruptors and innovators in the workplace?

In my personal experience, disruptive thinking could come from anywhere but millennials definitely exhibit a higher degree of propensity towards it.

For organizations to survive, creating a culture which encourages disruptive thinking is crucial. It is seminal that organizations provide structured opportunities and platforms where the power of disruptive thinking can be leveraged. Some of the ways in which it can be done is by creating opportunities to crowdsource ideas, by enabling a culture that encourages and celebrates risk and by encouraging pilots. An example that comes to mind is our recent top 45 leaders offsite. In a session called “shark tank", a bunch of cross-functional managers were required to pitch their innovative ideas to solve five-six industry and business problems to the “sharks", viz. the CXOs (top management). The top three ideas from the shark tank are now being piloted in a couple of sub-geographies across India. Interventions like this garner the passion and the ideas of the workforce to drive business growth

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