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Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

When people philosophies of firms lose their mojo and need an urgent reboot

Why do companies which had a great HR credo suddenly find themselves desperately seeking a reboot of their people philosophies?

“We had such a great employee covenant. It was a strong selling point in our talent acquisition and retention paradigm. Something has gone so dramatically wrong."

Why do companies which had a great HR credo suddenly find themselves desperately seeking a reboot of their people philosophies? Of course, there are ups and downs in every company’s life. But how does yesteryear’s killer strategy suddenly become so weak?

The biggest elephant in the room, in my view, is the issue of employee heavyweights not punching their weight, but simply warming their seats. If the problem employee is a newbie, the solution is usually straightforward: a seamless parting of ways. The matter becomes complicated, however, when the culprits are those who have been with you forever; those who joined when the organization was a nobody, who partnered in the growth journey; were feted and celebrated and reaped bountiful rewards. Slowly, as the years went by, the ennui, the complacency, the over-confidence, the desire for status quo, or sheer laziness, took over.

And today, when the organization faces new challenges, they are not the talent of old, with fire in their bellies, ready for battle. Many a time, these heavyweights are complacent, seemingly waiting for the maturing of their deferred benefits or lucrative stock options. “Vesting in peace" is how many cynical subordinates would call out such superiors. And it is these venerables who will have to be called out first, because any meaningful change for organizational speed, responsiveness and energy has to be driven from the top. It is with them that a “shape up" or “ship out" conversation has to be had; a kind of warning call to the community.

Another reason for a sagging employee covenant is when the organizational purpose is no longer strong enough or does not resonate with employees. It is now all the fashion to talk of motivating workforce millennials, and organizational purpose being held up as a strong talent magnet for this population group. But my submission is that it has always been organizations with a purpose stronger than just the commercial aspects of profitability and margins that have been able to create a strong employee value proposition. In the 1990s and 2000s, many organizations in then sunrise industries like information technology and ITES (information technology enabled services) leveraged this very well. While organizational health was paramount, these organizations successfully ingrained in employees a sense of the larger cause: India Inc. The rare market opportunities that presented themselves were to be utilized, not squandered, for the larger good of the nation itself. This larger cause helped smart leaders at all levels to motivate employees well beyond just the worship of Mammon and marshal their troops to battle-entrenched industry players. And the ranks responded to the clarion call.

The same opportunity now presents itself to start-ups. A cause larger than just the commercial aspect is a great way to align employees and build a strong employer value proposition even if it’s not as exalted as national interest! Nilofer Merchant, in her book 11 Rules For Creating Value In The Social Era, says, “Money motivates neither the best people nor the best in people. Purpose does."

Organizations may have great purpose and great people but they also need great enablers. The sales and manufacturing may excel, so also quality and R&D, but have you as an organization worked to create world-class enabler teams, those departments which administer the organization—the finance, HR, IT, training teams—and keep its internal wheels turning? Has the company acquired world-class talent into these functions, talent with truly a customer mindset? Are they held to the same levels of excellence and benchmarks that the company expects of its front-line players? Or are they treated just as an overhead? I have always believed that the motivation and mindset of these departments have a great role to play in creating a strong employer brand.

One CEO told me how his organizational satisfaction survey and culture just kept dipping year on year in spite of many new measures being introduced. Finally, he decided to make the journey a participatory one. Cross-hierarchy teams with even the junior-most employees were given the mandate to change part of the culture. And these teams, led many a time by those who were not in actual positions of hierarchy, actually helped. The natural leaders came up, participation led to empowerment and ownership of problems, and the tide actually turned.

“When leaders throughout an organization take an active, genuine interest in the people they manage, when they invest real time to understand employees at a fundamental level, they create a climate for greater morale, loyalty, and, yes, growth," said Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

And that indeed is a perfect recipe for a great employer brand.

Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations.

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