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Joining HR was one of the most fortunate coincidences in my career. I was like any other 21-22 year old, confused and a bit adrift. A batch mate thought that I would be a good HR person, and I said whatever literally. I wasn’t even fully coherent about what HR as a function does. He introduced me to the CEO of a company and we started talking and when I discovered it was about people, it interested me. And cheesy as it sounds, I am really passionate about people and that is what attracted me to HR. I truly believe that there is so much that people can do and there so much that can be done for people. Everyone has their platform; they just need to discover the right platform.
The initial years in HR
Though I had chanced upon HR, I took to it completely. Initially I did really mundane jobs like making payrolls, maintaining leave records and 30 years ago it was all manual. I happily did stuff that technically should have been very monotonous for an MBA who actually wanted cool work. It was because I could connect with it. I used to look at a leave record and think that it pertains to a real person and if I get this wrong, he might lose a day’s salary. And I think I didn’t even notice the monotony of my job. That helped me, because somewhere I felt inspired, and somewhere it connected with my core purpose. I was never critical of the job. I did it because I enjoyed the whole space.
I would have continued in HR but I have to admit that I had started getting restless in HR. I had started feeling that something was amiss in the function. It was either too marginalized or I was having all the wrong conversations. For instance, the business leaders would say, we are about the business and you are about the people. And I would be no you are about the people too because, if people don’t perform your business is not going perform. And actually if you don’t tell me what the business is all about, how am I going to hire or create KRAs or do other part of my job. After a while I started feeling the disconnect somewhere. That disconnect from the business and the complacency of my HR peers started making me restless.
That’s when I got an opportunity to join the virtual consulting wing of Ernst & Young. I am glad I discovered consulting because it gave me immense exposure to how business functions. I discovered two great things there. First, as a consultant it was easier to convince the CEO to work on certain aspects as compared to being an internal HR person. Maybe because they were paying for a piece of work and they wanted value for money or because by the time they had come for that piece of work, there was a burning platform and they had really acknowledged the need for that work. So it felt that as a consultant you could do more.
Second, it gave me an opportunity to work with people from various other verticals. Especially because when I joined Ernst & Young there was no separate HR consulting practice and I was in business consulting practice. Our core work was to get a business change implemented and on the back of that we had to realign structures, jobs, pay bands etc. There was no differentiation between HR and business. This made it easy for me to connect HR realities to business realities, which I think was a wonderful opportunity.
Consulting grounded me a lot and made me disciplined, detail oriented, taught me the important of execution and operational efficiency. I also got a reality check about HR and how we contributed to the chasm between business and HR through our confusion, through our own skills or the lack of it. The learning that I had early on in my career has helped me throughout my career.
I have stayed in three different ways in the people space. Apart from a decade in internal HR, I spent another decade consulting in the people space. And then the last 11 years or so I have been in different leadership or CEO roles in consulting.
The transition to business
In order to succeed in a business role, you have to re-skill yourself. Nothing in HR trains you for that stuff. Not even consulting, being a consultant and a contributor as a consultant is so different from managing a consulting business. It’s like a different world.
I had a huge appreciation for the importance or relevance of business but I was not a business leader by indoctrination or training. Initially I was a little scared. I literally went running to the CFO of the company in Hewitt, and told him to explain how P&L is managed, what is this top line, bottom line. But then I got down to it and learnt about it and it is not rocket science. There were two things which I had to put in a little more effort to learn. One was the financial management and second was economics of a professional services firm, what is a budget, what is a good budget, bad budget and how do you manage. The third one which was about people came naturally to me and here I had an advantage, it helped.
HR – a road to the future
The first and most critical thing as per me is a change in mindset – change agility is the most critical. If I as an HR person wanted to transition and become more relevant, I would look within to see, how receptive am I to learning, how self aware am I, am I moving with the times, am I listening to what the world requires and what the current environment requires or am I in my own head going through my own noise of technical stuff, stuff I may have read, how many more OD certifications should I get, how many more courses should I do? I am not saying that is not important. All I am saying is HR needs to become more agile and therefore more self aware and better, listen and be receptive to the reality around.
The second change I would urge is in terms of skill. HR people should go back to classroom learning about the business. Understand the financial drivers, the share valuation, what the analysts are saying; why they are saying that, what are the imperatives, what are the current business priorities for my business, what they are going to be three years later and understand why, what is his competitor doing in this space. And this should not be with reference to people; they should understand the business first and then connect it with the people aspect later.
They need to develop a business understanding and the acceptance that this understanding is critical so learn it. What I had to do because I had to manage a business role, if I had to go back to being an HR person, today I would do that as an HR person.
I see the place for HR as a function to go is that you can’t tell the difference between the skills of an HR manager and a business leader. The day that happens actually will be the best point for the organisation. Both should have the knowledge base and perspective even though their time spent on it and their depth of study may differ. It is a two-way tango; it’s not just what HR can do differently, it’s also about what business can do differently to enable the function to make that shift. In fact, I advise business leaders who are looking for a good HR person, to put their best business person in the HR role. It is a development opportunity for them and a win-win for the organisation.