Feeding the Optimism of a bright future in HR

by | Feb 1, 2016 | Career Advice | 0 comments

\"MKIn conversation with MK Ajay, who leads HR and ERM for the India & South Asia region for Colgate Palmolive. An accomplished writer with three published books whose works have been featured in several reputed literary journals globally, Ajay was born and grew up in Kozhikode, Kerala. He holds a B.Com degree and a MA in Psychology. He shifted from accounting to psychology as he developed a keen curiosity about the human mind and the behavioural sciences during his final year B.Com. Upon completion of his psychology degree, he practiced as a mental health counsellor in a clinic for about a year, after which he completed an MBA (HR) from XLRI, Jamshedpur.

Ajay worked with Asian paints for a period of about 3 years straight out of campus, after which he joined Colgate Palmolive at their Mumbai office in Jan 2002. He had been living and working abroad with Colgate for over a decade, and moved back to India with his family (wife and two daughters) after successful HR leadership stints in Malaysia and New York in June 2015.

He views the Indian workforce today as a paradox, with quite a different character as compared to the workforce he had seen during his last stint in India more than a decade ago. In India, the workforce has plenty of technically or functionally competent talent, whether it is in information technology or finance or sales or marketing or HR. However when one scans the top of the corporate ladder in most industries, there is deficiency of genuine leadership level talent. This was a theme that he also heard repeatedly when he conversed with other CHROs upon his return to the country. The demand significantly exceeds the supply of leadership talent in India. Though India produces a significant quantum of specialized workforce (software engineers, accountants, scientists, certain MBA streams etc), there is still a lot more diversity needed in terms of skills, worldviews and orientation in our workforces today.

The organizational culture today is different as an inclusive leadership style is preferred over yesterday’s command and control style. If one puts an autocratic leadership style on one end of a continuum and inclusive leadership style on the other end, most organizations appear to have shifted towards the inclusive end of the spectrum. One of the key drivers for this change in leadership style may be the millennial generation’s expectations from the people who lead them, the increasing per capita income of the middle class professional and the sheer number of jobs available to a candidate in the market which makes them less dependent on their employer. Technology plays a role too in making workplaces more inclusive by promoting transparency and via transmission of real time information. Managers and leaders are therefore becoming more inclusive, either willingly, or because of the expectations of the workforce or because that’s what the business demands.

Positive aspects of the workforce today:

  • The confident outlook of the large, young workforce gives India a competitive edge in a world confronted with an aging demographic trend. The Indian workforce is well connected with the wider world outside, is digitally savvy and have largely inculcated a global outlook.
  • Today’s youth are bolder and less risk averse than their parents, as most of them have experienced lesser economic deprivation and have grown up seeing opportunities all around them. They have a far greater ability and willingness to articulate their points of view in the workplace. This too has led to a gradual breakdown of hierarchy in organizations and infused a wave of freshness.

Deltas for the workforce today:

  • Management of ambiguity and the expectation of a black and white reality, whereas the world is intensely grey! The younger workforce expects clear boundaries to most things at the workplace. However, today’s interconnected, fast changing world does not have clear boundaries. Things have blurred. And many things are in flux. This can disconnect the workforce’s perceptions from reality.
  • Recent recruits excel as individual contributors. However, many of them struggle when they make the transition of managing teams. One can observe a self- centered attitude they have grown up with and that can come in the way of managing a team, because managing a team is less about yourself and more about focusing on others, and getting the best out of them.
  • The third deficit in the workforce is a cluster of specialized, contemporary skills. Parts of the world are ahead of the curve as compared to India in some of these skills. For example, in e-commerce, India is lagging way behind China. This is not even a matter of debate. China has leapfrogged into a very different level, way ahead of us. Also, India is still learning and has some way to go before catching up with markets such as Western Europe or USA when it comes to even a basic skill as managing modern trade or retail formats. Even in information technology, where India is widely regarded as a serious global player, though it is largely a captive center capability in an industry like FMCG, true innovation and world class value added services are not that frequently pioneered in India. The West Coast of the US is still the hot spot of IT innovation. While we are making progress and moving up the value chain steadily in many functional streams, the absolute cutting edge innovation is still regrettably coming in from the traditional developed markets and from western, world leading research oriented universities.

Challenges for Leadership today:

  • Information complexity comes to mind first. As a leader, there is far more information and cues that one has to take in and process today. There are many more reports and many more KPIs to track. Many more stakeholders and multiple touch points with differing opinions to manage. More matrixed organizations to deal with, each with its own set of information needs and output. Hence leaders suffer from an explosion of information – both hard and soft. And to derive meaning out of that mass of information and to communicate meaning to one’s team and provide them direction – which is the leadership action that an organization truly cares about – is a far bigger challenge than, say, a decade ago. This is very true in the FMCG industry and it is seen on an almost daily basis.
  • Unpredictability of the business environment. Today the uncertainty is far higher because the economy is far more wired globally. The state of other economies and even remote commodity markets directly impact the local business, especially sales trends and consumption. At an enterprise level, many more unforeseen variables impact the business. The challenge for leaders in Indian organizations is to stay agile and be vigilant to some of these changes that are happening outside our borders. How to translate those changes into a vision, and a vision that can inspire the entire team, is the next question. Converting the chaos of the oft-mentioned VUCA world into an operational business vision is a formidable challenge indeed.
  • People related challenges. A collision of generations is underway in many India based organizations. A diverse workforce is a good thing and that should be a strength for any organization. But only if leaders and people managers know how to harness that energy emerging from diversity. The challenge is learning how to harness the power of diversity by being inclusive yourself as a leader, by designing processes that complement inclusion, and thus drawing the strength from each of the different employee segments and multiple generations that work in an organization.

Diversity as a tool to tackle these challenges

Diversity at one level simply means more perspectives. When there are multiple perspectives thrown at the same problem, research has demonstrated that the solution that is likely to emerge would be better. High performance teams, whether in sports or a team of astronauts, are characterized by diverse thinking. Teams that nurture diverse views and experiences tend to outperform teams where the majority of team members tend to think alike and hold similar values. There is the widely referred notion of ‘group think’ that all of us are familiar with – which basically talks of a situation in which most people in a team view a problem in the same way, thereby stifling flow of ideas, perspectives and ultimately, creativity.

An initiative at Colgate sponsored by the Managing Director aims at broadening the diversity and heterogeneity of the talent pipeline. Colgate has in many ways augmented the premier MBA program that served them well for more than two decades by bringing in and experimenting with candidates from other talent pools. Targeted recruitment of female talent at the entry level is another way in which Colgate is trying to enhance diversity. They are also trying to promote diversity through cross-functional moves, international assignments both into and out of India, and through global Action Learning projects for Indian talent. Leadership development initiatives that promote listening, the power of questions and facilitation rather than a one way flow of information, and a focus on enhancing self-awareness of leaders go a long way in supporting diversity at the workplace.

Strategic plans at Colgate to address inclusion

A unique way in which Colgate is trying to encourage inclusion within its India organization is through its strategic business planning process:

  • Visioning workshops with the India Leadership team and with key managers from all departments are conducted using design thinking. The idea is to communicate the business vision to the organization and to collaboratively design a multi-year roadmap to achieve the vision by 2020. Within the organization, Colgate is consciously articulating the inclusive culture which will drive the business forward and linking it along a few dimensions aligned to Colgate’s time tested values of Caring, Global Teamwork and Continuous Improvement. A big part of creating an inclusive work environment is of course to have key positions led by inclusive leaders, something which Colgate takes seriously through its highly regarded succession planning process. This is reflected in the fact that Colgate has almost never hired the MD or a director level candidate from outside for its India business, as the focus on building leaders over the years has resulted in a robust leadership talent pipeline. In fact, Colgate India is today seen as a talent exporting hub. The current global Chief Marketing Officer of Colgate worldwide, the head of the Eurasia/Africa business, the head of the Asia business etc are all Indian talent that worked for Colgate India.
  • One of the KPIs that will be reviewed in all the annual budget reviews both in India as well as globally is aimed at maintaining a percentage of female employees in the overall workforce, in the managerial workforce and at a leadership team level. This KPI is reviewed not only by the India MD, but also by the global CEO.
  • Training programs which are available globally and are called ‘Fostering an Inclusive Work Environment’ and ‘Coaching Essentials’. It creates awareness within the organization and among employees on the value that an inclusive work force and diversity brings to the business operation. Colgate also defines and promotes a respectful and safe workplace by creating awareness around its ‘Managing with Respect’ principles, which is also currently helping the company maintain record low attrition figures in the single digits, while much of the FMCG industry is experiencing significantly higher attrition trends.
  • ‘BindaasBol’ – A design thinking and organization development inspired dialogue encourages a culture where people can speak up and share their ideas openly. This India designed initiative is making waves in the company and is now beginning to be adopted by other Asian countries within Colgate.

An expectation from leadership across all levels in the company is the ability to listen and the ability to be open to different ideas within one’s team. Colgate promotes an authentic and inclusive leadership style, both in its talent acquisition and development processes, to complement this intent.

An implemented model (Case Study)

A group of about 50 senior managers of the company were invited to the 2020 visioning workshop and certain ground rules were set. Firstly, the design thinking approach was used instead of using traditional power point led sessions or linearly structured goal setting processes. With no power point slides and no directive intervention, it was a bit amusing in the beginning, but people got the hang of design thinking fairly quickly. There were times when the HR facilitators would ask all the directors to leave the workshop room. This was to encourage the directors to let go of the decision making power and to encourage the level below to take some of the longer term strategic business decisions. This was a cultural experiment of sorts. A great number of ideas and quality inputs emerged from the group of managers during the design thinking inspired brainstorming. The process helped unlock 40 or 50 brains instead of the regular 7 or 8 minds that would be utilized for strategic decision making.

Another new practice was started wherein all the directors would leave the room just before decisions had to be taken. People were then asked to put any questions they had on a Post-it note and stick it on a wall anonymously. The directors would then come back to the room, pick up the Post-it notes and answer the questions. Decisions were then taken after factoring in new perspectives generated by the questions. The impact of this simple exercise on the business plans has been extraordinary. People felt courageous enough to ask controversial questions which they never have asked before to the MD himself. It cleared the air and relaxed everyone even when discussing tough issues. All of this has created a wave of innovative thinking as well. People discussed this practice in corridors and awareness of what inclusion can do has grown tremendously within the organization.

Ajay believes that expanding self-awareness is the most fundamental and powerful way to build one’s inclusive style as a leader. This is not easy and has taken years of determined, conscious practice for many leaders whom he has coached. Secondly, being very clear about one’s own values and principles helps a leader to muster the courage to speak up when inclusiveness is being violated and also helps one to step in as a coach when a style that doesn’t nurture inclusiveness is observed at the workplace. That’s also a fundamental but every important role that HR leaders need to play.

The Millennial Workforce

Global outlook, confident, somewhat self-centered, well informed, bolder than the previous generations, yet not as bold as counterparts in some of the developed markets, but steadily getting there- that is how Ajay describes the Millennial generation. The reason why a lot of us from the earlier generations find it easier to be team players is perhaps because we have had several experiences delaying gratification of our needs during our upbringing in a less affluent middle class. However, delay of gratification is not a behavior or attitude that the millennial generation has as much experience in. This habit proves to be a disadvantage to some extent because when they come to an organization, there is a great chance that many things will not go as planned or happen as quickly as they want. Getting out of that mindset of instant gratification and understanding that tolerating some frustration is a necessary part of organizational life can take a while. Moving away from focusing primarily on one’s self to focusing on others is therefore one of the more difficult journeys for many Millennials in today’s workplace.

Colgate today has a predominantly young, Millennial workforce in India, but also has a sizable segment of long tenure employees. They have the Millennials co-existing with several employees in their 50s who have stayed on because of the stickiness of the wonderful Colgate culture. This mix of generations has led to a culture where there is lesser weightage given to hierarchy than in the past. It is important that the earlier generations loosen up a little bit and not see some of the “quirks” of the newer generations necessarily as disrespectful behavior, but just as an alternative way of expressing themselves. And it is also critical to encourage the younger generations to gather what is valuable in terms of learning from the earlier generations who can have substantive technical and historical perspectives about the organization. Then the mix of generations can generate synergies rather than creating a dysfunctional source of stress.

Workforce 2030- The future worker:

According to Ajay, the Indian workforce in 2030 will enjoy exponentially more career options than what we can imagine today. They will therefore pursue only jobs that are aligned with their interests and aptitude. Their career choices will not be dictated by status or societal pressures. Meaning and purpose at work will take precedence over financial considerations or how the world defines success because most Indian professionals would be reasonably well off by then. This is already happening to some extent with certain groups of youngsters and professional groups and you see them demonstrate a higher risk appetite when it comes to careers. The boundaries between work and personal life will blur in the future, and technology will make the concept of a physical workplace or fixed working hours irrelevant. People may also perhaps be less willing to relocate outside India as salaries and working conditions at home will be at par with the developed world at most levels, unless the experience of working abroad itself is an experience that they intrinsically value. The culture and leadership styles at the workplace will emphasize inclusion and a collaborative approach. We may even witness supervisor-less and leader-less work teams where members self-manage their output. Virtual teams will be the norm in most industries including hard core manufacturing. Automation, large centralized global shared service centres and robotics would do away with the need to have today’s armies of junior level employees. The centrality of work would reduce and work-life balance will be one of the primary values at work. We will see a far greater percentage of leaders from \”softer\” areas such as the liberal arts, design etc as compared to today, somewhat mimicking what we see in the West today. It will be a far more assertive, confident, fickle and globally oriented workforce in 2030 India than it is today.

The advice for the business leaders of tomorrow would be the same as today, because today is fast transitioning into tomorrow, right in front of our eyes. Those aspiring for leadership positions should embrace the messy and complex nature of a globally integrated economy and accept that predictability at work will be rare. They need to nurture the skill to draw the best out of team members who may be very different from them in terms of skills, attitudes, motivations and styles. They will need to be facilitators of ideas rather than being the only minds doling out instructions. Future leaders should avoid micro-management at all costs as future workplaces will have no patience for a micro-managing manager. Future leaders need to get out of themselves and out of their comfort zones to experience different cultures, different ways of working and being open to new ways of interpreting data, adopting new technologies and new ways of leading. Listening will be a far more valued skill at the workplace of the future, so aspiring leaders should focus on developing that skill, and inculcating a certain reflectiveness that is a necessary precondition for that skill.

The primary challenges for the leadership in the future will still be to articulate a vision for their organization, motivating teams while holding them accountable, making sense of information, designing new ideas and collaboratively architecting business solutions, anticipating business and talent related trends, and delivering results. The difference will be that in the future India will be far more integrated with the world, and with a far greater voice geopolitically and economically. The Indian workforce will demand inspiration from their leaders in addition to direction, so the appetite for ambiguity, and the intuition that leaders need to have in the future will be of a greater level.

Ajay is optimistic, based on his own experience, that diversity and inclusion will be powerful forces that assist organizations in their journey to deliver value. Since organizations have openly started rewarding inclusive behavior, they will also put in efforts for promoting it by creating incentives and measuring diversity. Therefore, diversity and inclusion are not fads, and are here to stay. This will lead to a flexible work environment in the future that will bubble up new ideas through active listening and reverse mentoring. Future leadership roles will be inter-disciplinary in nature so one must keep oneself immersed in happenings outside one’s own functional area and take every opportunity to participate in cross-functional business projects. The future will go to leaders who avoid functional boxes or boundaries of any sort, to leaders who embrace the notion that the way they see the business is but one among several ways of seeing the world.

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