What can you expect here?

I am passionate about making a difference to people and organisations- and I guess there are many who would like to do the same. I hope this could be a platform to share views and experiences so that we can all grow together and make a difference.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Reflections on the state of HR in our organisations

For some time now, I have been thinking about the contribution of HR to organisations. Have there been organisations where HR has singularly made a difference. Or is this all led by the CEOs? And how do you measure HR contribution?
The last few years have arguably been a roller coaster for Indian business- and such tough times are the right environment for HR’s true contribution to shine through. But when I speak to some CEOs, they seem to be grappling with many people issues, and are still looking at HR to make a step change. Moreover, when I talk to employees, they don’t seem to be more happier. In fact, their expectations have been soaring on many aspects, and organisations & HR seem to be struggling to meet them. There appears to be a surfeit of initiatives and processes- and all this seems to be doing is to add complexity. Operating line managers seem to be wary of many of the HR processes, and given the multiplicity of activities, seem to be doing them with less heart and less ownership. I thought these were just my perceptions- until I spoke to a few CEOs. And Shiv Shivkumar of Pepsi vindicated my feelings, in a very engaging session, that spurred me to think deeper, and pen down these thoughts. 
And then there is the other side of the picture! HR is an enabling function, and we encourage line managers to own HR, and that's a reason that we get many views from people on what needs to be done. And when they say HR is not delivering, in a way they are projecting their own lack of success in managing and leading their people! However, given that there could be numerous perspectives, lets explore this deeper.

So what ails HR? 

As I was talking to a few people and thinking through this question, the following came across as some of the key problems facing HR. 

1)      Tyranny of the Process
Almost two decades ago, the HR team in Hindustan Lever consisted of 3 people- a Management Development Manager, a Training Manager and a Recruitment Manager (I am leaving out the Industrial Relations team here). This team did everything to do with management development- through a set of very simple processes, but with lots of rigour and senior management ownership, and they helped develop awesome leaders. Now, HR comes up with numerous initiatives and activities spurred by two prime drivers. First, we in HR have to show some activity in the short term to address an issue, and we launch a hyped-up ‘intervention’. Second, and this is just a hypothesis, is that we tend to address many symptoms and issues, and not really ‘attack’ the root-cause. Therefore, every issue or symptom is managed with an initiative and a process to support that. 

2)      HR training emphasizes process champions
Increasingly, what is being discussed in business schools and in the numerous HR seminars etc., are an increasingly ‘process’ view of HR. Everything is boiled down to a tool, a template and a process. While this may suit an ‘engineering’ mind-set of a majority of our leaders, this seems to be missing the point. The greatest HR contribution was never through these processes- the only way HR adds value is bringing insights on people and organisation to enhance decision-making and uphold the culture of the organisation. In layman’s terms, while we have built a lot on the ‘science’ (at times‘pseudo-science’ as most of it is not well tested and researched) of HR, we have not focused on developing the ‘art’ of HR. Do we even see the value of the ‘art‘ here? We have to train our HR people to think like CEOs on people and business. How do we do that? Not by teaching them competencies and skill assessment frameworks and templates!   

3)      The looming shadows on our credibility
Employees are increasingly skeptical of organizational HR initiatives- unless they see some clear benefit for themselves. Truth as a virtue in organisations is probably becoming rare. Well, let me rephrase this. I think organisations and managers still want to be open and truthful, but the perception of employees is that we are less truthful. Career aspirations of employees are often not dealt with objectivity and honesty- these are normally cloaked in subterfuge, uncertainty and are conditional. This is partly due to the uncertainty in organisations where leaders are hesitant to commit on a future course of action, further exacerbated by poor career counselling skills, a fear of people leaving if they don’t like what they hear, and a lack of clarity in judging people’s potential and future. 

4)      What are we in HR aiming for
I keep asking myself- what is HR really aiming for? While other functions are quite clear- Sales focusses on revenue, Marketing on Market share, and so on, we in HR seem to be all over the place. Sometimes I hear people saying they want to create a ‘great place to work’, and soon they say we want to build ‘capability’ in the organisation, and then move on to talk about building a talent pipeline, and end it all saying they want to be partners to the business! Add to this diversity, culture, new HR operating model and so on- the reality is that HR deliverables have become complex and numerous, and that is probably at the root of some of our issues. Moreover, to be contemporary, we at times tend to go after the fad of the season- the ‘best practice’ of other organisations soon become the hot initiative we are championing! What do we really enable and what are we truly accountable for? If I ask this question of HR people, what do you think we will hear? Are we clear about our responsibilities versus what we think is owned by the business/line managers. 

5)      Asphyxiation at the altar of copycat gamesmanship
The above multiplicity of initiatives not only leads to some amount of lack of focus, but also to a lack of depth in thinking, and makes us prisoners of tools and products that consultants or commercial organisations market very well. For instance, take the engagement surveys. Yes, it is good for every organisation to check what their employees think, and to benchmark that with a set of peer organisations. So far, so good. However, many companies then participate in various ‘best employers’ competitions- ostensibly to see where they stand, and to use it to talk about their employer brand! Now, as a group of HR professionals, can’t we share data on the engagement surveys amongst a set of peer group companies and see how we are doing, and work out improvement actions internally.  Do we need these best employers’ competitions and paraphernalia, just to tell us where we stand? Can’t we make this more useful to us by sharing data amongst a few, like minded peer group companies, and use it to make changes. This goes back to the question- what is HR really driving and what are we accountable for? 

6)      Silos and specialization
Over the last decade, the HR function in most organisations has been through transformative changes- and the model of having Centres of Expertise, Business Partners, and a transactional Shared Services is now the norm. However, reading professional literature and speaking to many people, I sense that a priority of most organisations is to continuously tweak this model and drive for productivity and cost efficiencies, with a big thrust on technology. While this is probably important, there is the risk that this takes the mindshare away from the more strategic issues. Second, the challenge this model presents is the balance between specialization and silos- how do we bring the power of specialization, yet ensuring it doesn’t  end up creating silos in the HR organisation. I guess some of these issues are also influencing how HR responds to the business challenges.

With changing aspirations of people, and changing organisations, we in HR need to wake up. Ram Charan, in the latest HBR, has raised similar questions- though more on the role and capability of HR professionals! There is a need for a big shift in what we bring to organisations. I don’t have all the answers, but there are some areas we can explore. Many of the Silicon Valley companies are pioneering some big changes- but large organisations are still slow to respond.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are great HR professionals and outstanding organisations- so I am taking nothing away from that. All I feel is given the big challenges, this is the moment for us in HR to show some thought leadership, and change our game.

But would like to have your views… am I barking up the wrong tree? Do you share these concerns, or do you feel these are not so worrying? Would be good to get some thoughts on this, and maybe we can together think of some possible solutions.  

A big caveat: these are my personal observations and reflections, and is in no way linked to any organization.  

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The case of the clannish countrymen

Last week, over a cup of coffee with a dear old friend, we tussled over one of the most debated issues on the culture of organisations- the impact of national cultures. As we know, every large organisation tends to engender 'sub-cultures' - sometimes based on function, product division, geography and so on. However, is the difference created by the specific culture of a nation really significant for organisations? For a large multinational, how different would the organisation culture be in India, from China, from France? Obviously, local cultures would have a big impact- but is there a way to understand the why and how of that impact? More importantly, successful organisations still manage to have one 'unifying culture' across countries- and how do they manage that?
To understand the broad cultural orientations of a nation, there is no better resource that Geert Hofstede. The Hofstede research on India is quite an interesting piece of work. He identifies 5 key variables that determine differences in the cultures of nationalities. Compared to the world average, India is higher on Power Distance- we are accepting of the inequality of the distribution of power in the society. We are also more 'Masculine', with the men's values of assertiveness and caring being different from women's- perhaps leading to more competitive people. Moreover, we are  accepting of Uncertainty, having less rules to deal with normal issues that come up. Lastly, we are more persevering and parsimonious, which Hofstede labels as Long Term Orientation. The one area, surprisingly, where India is not different from the world average is our focus on Individualism vs Collectivism (I would have thought that we are more familial with large support networks, but apparently at heart, we are still as individualistic as the average person in the world!)
So what does this tell us? Yes, on some basic orientations and values, Indians may be different from the rest of the world - and this impacts the culture. While I am loathe to generalise, but putting the Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance together, we can surmise that we would tend to be more hierarchical, and maybe less respectful of time, especially of junior people. Within a homogeneous culture group this may be fine, but may create issues if people from other cultures are part of this environment.
So how do some companies manage such seemingly different cultures? My guess is that most have realised that cultures are different, and that others have to make allowances for these differences- a sort of  'empathise and live with it' approach. To do so, a lot of awareness and cross cultural sensitivity training is needed. At the same time, organisations also work on the 'Practices' end- the framework of routine activities and practices that drive certain behaviours. By introducing non-negotiable practices, you could slowly change the behaviour, even if the cultures are different. That's why Practices are so critical in driving culture. The 6Sigma and Session C practices in GE are great examples- of driving a specific culture even in places that would not naturally take those up. These practices need time and sustained leadership focus- and soon they can change the culture! Voila! 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The leader's long shadow

Am back after a longish hiatus!
Continuing our explorations of creating the right culture in organisations......

Over the last few months, I have been reading and exploring the impact of the leader, and it is fairly obvious that the leader casts a really long shadow on the culture of an organisation. There are two questions that come to my mind as we delve deeper into this phenomena:
First, lets look at the 'great bad men' syndrome. Many of the great leaders usually have a couple of traits that works for them, but taken to an extreme, the same strengths can have extreme debilitating effects on culture. How do we balance 'greatness' and 'meanness'? Most organisations with a very unique culture have a 'this is the way we do it here' kind of a leader. What drives them, and how can we get the best out of them, and yet keep their certain whims from coming in the way of the culture of the organisation.
I read about Rupert Murdoch in the Economist recently (from where I borrowed the 'great bad men' epithet). A great man, undoubtedly, for having changed the television and media industry, but could the organisation have done something to keep check on the 'scoop-at-all-cost' culture. Similarly, I wonder about Steve Jobs- sheer brilliance in building a customer and product centric culture, but is there is a faint streak of authoritarianism that runs through in Apple? This is where my dilemma is- if we meddle in the culture of such organisations, you tend to dilute the unique edge that these leaders have brought to it. On balance, I think it may be better to live with these rough edges ..... what do you think? Or is there a way to temper those edges appropriately?
Which then leads me to my second, and a much larger question. What drives leaders to focus on building a strong sustainable culture? While the intellectual part of the 'case for culture' is easier, as it is linked to the culture elements needed to drive strategy, there is a subconscious, emotional part of this need that is far more powerful and critical. In my experience, it is the personal desire that certain leaders have, part stemming from ego, and part from a strong belief in a particular way of working, that is much more potent in driving culture. I guess it is for organisations to understand this and build on it- not always easy, as we need to ensure that this personal drive is aligned to what the organisation needs at that point in time. Any experiences you would like to share that will help us understand this better? 
Your responses to the poll will help us understand the motivation of leaders in driving culture.... Cheers 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Culture and Leadership

Continuing our explorations on culture....

Well, the polls always have the last word! Irrespective of the small sample we have had, I would consider the responses as a microcosm of reality- and yes, leadership is the most important determinant of culture in the organisation. Research tells that leadership has a 2x power of influencing culture- well, they are the guys who are running the show, aren't they! Moreover, the woman/man at the very top has an even greater influence.
What then are the challenges in getting leadership to drive a distinct culture? First things first - we have to get alignment at the top on the culture we need. And quite often, this is not easy as this co-ownership has to be quite deep, and based on real alignment of values and intent. This journey of building alignment takes time, it has its ups and downs, moments of truth and catharsis, and sometimes confrontations. This then is the role of the leader of the top team- he has to believe in getting this deep alignment, and work through a series of experiences and interventions to get to a stage where the top team is in full sync.
But this is easier said than done! There are the usual obstacles to such meeting of minds and hearts. First, the leader has to believe that it is critical to get this alignment, and should work consciously and patiently on it. Second, despite the best intentions of all great leaders, how many have the luxury of time to prioritise and focus on this area- the short-term business pressures on modern day CEOs are all-encompassing, and don't leave much room for them to focus on such issues, except for the most prescient and focused of the leaders. Third, longevity of the top team is critical in this journey- they need to spend enough time together as one group. Too much of people moving in and out of the top team saps the energy. And last, given that this is a task that requires a lot of reflection and work on an emotional plane, the leader needs to have a great counsel or coach to help him through this lonely process.
Being a visionary and charismatic leader probably makes things a bit easier- the way Steve Jobs or a Richard Branson can bring their personality to bear in pulling together a culture that they passionately believe in is something not all can do. However, there is the obvious danger in being too much individual leader driven while we build the culture of an organisation.
As Rosabeth Moss Kanter says, 'in the middle, every change is a failure'. So would it be when we build an aligned culture agenda with the top team!  

Friday, January 21, 2011

Little things that make a difference....feedback

Genuine, honest performance discussions can have a profound impact on people and their careers. A significant moment comes to my mind and I thought I would share that with you- again, one of those little things that can make a big diffference.

This happened when I was about 3 - 4 years into my career, after having passed out from XLRI. I was the personnel manager of a factory, which employed almost 500 contract labour on a regular basis. We all knew this was not sustainable and that a change in the business model was needed - but for a couple of years this was falling between the cracks. The factory thought that the Head Office should do something and the Head Office thought that this was a factory issue. In this context, I had a review discussion with my skip manager - who was running the business. He began by asking what I did in the last few months. I wanted to give an impression of how busy I was and told him that I did everything from recruiting, training to running volleyball and cricket tournaments for the workers there. He smiled cynically and said "You are talking like my daughter! When I ask her what she did during the day, she says that she did some history, some english, some science, some play, etc". I realized this discussion was not going where I thought it should go. My heart sank and suddenly I found myself stuttering like those misfiring old fat-fatiyas or tuk-tuks! He then slowly built up my thinking on key priorities and asked me to take ownership of that big contract labour problem, and make a proposal. That discussion changed the next 4 years of my career - we made a breakthrough proposal, implemented it over a year and at the end I moved from HR to run a part of manufacturing and supply-chain in the business.

On reflection, what did that discussion do:
·         It was honest and genuine, and gave me feedback that my priorities were wrong
·         He coached me on thinking about the biggest strategic risk/priorities and how I could do something
·         He supported me and the factory in going beyond what we thought was our role
·         Finally, this linked into my own development and movement to a cross functional role over time.

I guess a feedback discussion can be really powerful - it has the potential to change lives. It is not another chit-chat - it is core to the individual's life and career, and if we do it  with genuine and honest intent, in a safe and supportive manner, it can work wonders! It is clearly one of those small things that can make a big differrence. I guess we all have such moments to share.....

Little things that make a big difference

Very often, as executives and managers, we are looking for that big strategic decision or initiative- one that will change or 'transform' our business. That's probably a perpetual quest. We get some right, and quite a few wrong- but that 'killer app' of strategy, product launch or brand relaunch eludes most of us. And books get written about the few who have got those big breakthrough decisions, and the rest of us continue in great hope that our big strategic acts are going to be part of management folklore. That sliver of hope drives us in our quest for greatness, and at times brings interesting serendipitous results- and keeps everybody going.

However, in this larger journey to greatness, do we overlook the little things that can make a big difference. When we talk to people, there is usually that one small incident that changed the direction of their lives- be it through an interaction with someone else, a failure, a small piece of advice..... the list could go on. Meeting with many people has made me firmly believe that these small things can make a very big difference, one that most of us underestimate. Each of us has been through small experiences that would have had a big impact, and I would like to document some of those.

To start with, I want to talk about the 'penny drop moment'- through the use of simple, vivid descriptions or analogies- words that change our thinking. In our everyday lives, do we consciously think about how a few words or an analogy can make a  huge difference, and plan and use them. Let me give you a personal example. A few years back, I had some terrible back problems, and every few months would be down with a stiff back. I consulted a physio, an Australian lady who had worked on sports injuries. One day, as I was lying on the pysio's table, she said a few words which stayed with me forever. "Treat your back like a string of pearls", she said. I guess that was when the penny dropped, though I didnt realise it at that moment. I focussed on strenghtening my back, and in those stretches and exercises, I took deep care as I would do to a string of pearls. Just those words made a big difference to my life.

Giving feedback to people is one area where such thoughtful selection of words would make a difference. I am sure you would have come across examples in your life when a simple communication, made a big difference. Do share some examples.

What are the other small things that make a big difference?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Culture- how do we define it?

Continuing my explorations on culture......
Its obvious that the first step in creating the culture we need in an organisation is to articulate it. How often do we consciously do this with clarity and rigour? Even if we manage to articulate the culture we need, it could sometimes end up being quite generic and not very distinguishing. Which right thinking organisation wouldn't want a performance-oriented, agile, innovative, customer-centric, collaborative culture!

So what comes in the way of organisations defining exactly what they need? I guess the first filter is what we define as culture. Different companies may use different terminologies (see Gerry's comments on my earlier post), but what we want has to be closely linked to our business strategy, and should be the key to our recipe for success. We should try to define it in very specific terms, and make it unique for the organisation. Only one, or sometimes 2 elements of culture would be distinguishable in any organisation- we cant be distinctive on many counts. If an organisation chooses to be distinctive on more than a couple, more often than not, it ends up being a mish-mash of everything.

However, the one critical challenge in articulating the culture needed in an organisation is the ability to live with paradoxes. Rather, balance the opposites. 'Where there is light, there is always a shadow.'  I guess it is this ability of some organisations to understand this and make the right choices.

But there is one debate on culture that I am still struggling with. How much is the culture of a company dependent on its maturity and market context. While a start-up may need elements of speed etc., as the company grows and is well established, it would probably look to develop other elements, like a collaborative culture. However, the counter logic to this is that culture of a company is timeless - irrespective of the maturity or growth of the company, it needs to have its unique DNA. I guess both arguments hold water. What are your thoughts?

Any examples of how organisations have defined culture which has made it easy for them to focus and create it? Would be really interesting to hear from you..... look forward.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Culture eats strategy- so how?

Its obvious that execution is critical to making your strategy come alive- and an organisation's culture is a key determinant of how well it executes. However, the organisation's culture also determines how robust the strategy is, and how inclusive was the strategy development process. So its a double whammy- your organisation's culture is key, both for developing strategy and executing it.
This is complex- and most of us grapple with it. And successful organisations struggle with this even more, as they need to break big mental barriers to transform themselves. I would like to discuss some experiences and learnings, and understand how some do this better than others. Do share any ideas.
As I explore this further, I would present a few thoughts and hypotheses as I go along. First, how do we get this realisation of importance of culture. The common mistake we make is we equate culture with people or talent- but even if we have the right talent, we may not be able to get things done if we do not enable them. I guess enlightened leaders realsie this, but getting this sharply understood by all leaders is probably the step one.