Time to split or redesign HR?

This blog is my reflection on discussion that has dominated webspace about HR, sparked by Ram Charan’s inflammatory article on splitting HR. I have provided links to his blog and two other blogs refuting his view.

Ram Charan – http://hbr.org/2014/07/its-time-to-split-hr

Josh Bersin – http://www.forbes.com/sites/joshbersin/2014/08/01/why-does-hr-get-so-much-grief/

Gurprriet – http://joyandlife.wordpress.com/2014/08/19/hrexcellence/?utm_content=bufferbbded&utm_medium=social&utm_source=linkedin.com&utm_campaign=buffer

I want to share few of my stories as HR professional.

Story 1: I joined this new organization, big shiny one. After two weeks of observing, I walked up to my boss to clarify my core deliverable. He mentioned two big things – maximize learning hour completion in my business units and maximize budget spent. I asked him why do we have learning hours and he laughed at me that after working for 12 years in learning space and having led few business units, I was still asking this question. To give him credit he asked me to do more if I wanted to, as long as I get these two right and as long as my business leaders were happy. I could not and cannot fathom why the focus was not on relevance of learning and people skill development. I could not and cannot agree that purpose of big budget is to spend it and not optimize it.  I remember asking for half the budget next year and still getting as much budget knowing my business will never need it.

Story 2: We were a group of hard working fun loving girls at work. All from HR but with starkly different functions within HR. We loved working late hours most weekdays and then making sure we finish our work by 5 on Friday and go for happy hours to start a well earned weekend. One Friday, this girl said she will get delayed and join us by 7 which we were okay with. She stopped responding to calls or messages after 6 and reappeared only at 9.30 to tell us what happened. As she was preparing to close reports and activities at 4, she got an email asking her to process exit of 4 junior level employees. The business head who had asked for this had already left for home by 4.30 and all these 4 employees were waiting for her right at her seat. Business head decided to have his retention discussions with these 4 and decided to waive off the notice period. Without comprehending the effort and time it takes for smooth exit, he had sent this request and left for the day. His expectation was for HR to work as executioners of the process. I later asked my friend on whether they work towards retaining top talent. She mentioned that even when top talent left because of their manager, the manager would have had the retention conversation without involving or informing HR.

There are several stories to demonstrate business leader’s expectation that role of HR is hygiene and execution and salary distribution. I do have another story where a leader put his trust on our team.

Story 3: I was working on leadership development program for a business unit with a leader who had been industry for over 20 years. In one of my conversation with him he opened up with a major conflict with his second line of command who again were quite senior to me. He lay huge trust on me and I could not have disappointed him. We both worked through the conflict and challenges within the team so that they do not reflect in public or influence work. It was a coaching relationship which helped us both. I was more in tune with his team and he helped me with business nuances.

What are HR professionals today struggling with? Is it what business expects of us? Is it getting dumped with work that no one else would do? Is it incompetence? It is likely to be parts of above and more.

I remember talking with this leader who was my client in business and moved into HR head role. When I asked him what motivated this decision, he said that it looked like a good role with expanding organization, few acquisitions lined up and because HR was intuitive and anyone could do it. I could not believe that he moved into a role he had just sort of demeaned. I remember another HR head saying that if someone in the organization needs alternate work, s/he could move into HR and we will find a suitable role for them within HR. Another HR person was venting when she had to work on reports because she took up HR to not do maths or anything analytical anymore and thought HR was all about talking to people. At one point I was told that I would not fit HR because I was full of life and not motherly and here I am 12 years and counting in probably the function considered warm fuzzy even within HR.

There are stories and more stories of how HR is treated unfairly or how HR adds no value. Its a struggle for this function and I am sure it will eventually shape up, find its own place in organizations, find its seat at the table. For so called incompetent professionals there is a professional who is shaping the function to keep up with shifting times. For business heads who think HR is equivalent to admin, there is a business leader who is inclusive.

On the suggestion that HR should be split. I am confused by this because isn’t HR already split into several functions within. HR has continuously restructured itself and has been looking for terminology that justifies its role. There have been debates on label – Human Resources, Human Capital and now Talent. The function is now split into advisory roles and operational roles in most organizations. HR leaders are talking on several forums on how they are finding time and space from the overwhelming demands of operational work they have had for decades.

The recommendation seems to suggest on dissolving HR and that HR function is not needed. We can debate that HR function may not be required in its archaic form. Although I do personally feel even the archaic role of HR still holds value in organizations.

HR professionals should do three things on priority.

1. HR professionals need to upskill.  If there is no good course available on people strategy, there is no harm in attending course on business strategy. It will help us establish better connect with business leaders. HR professionals should engage in peer learning and collaborative learning so that the profession benefits from collective ideation.

2. HR profession needs reverse mentoring. This will bridge the divide between generations. Older generations will benefit from ideas and creativity youngsters will bring in. Also, the profession has undergone transformation significantly with newer structures and technologies. At the same time professionals themselves have not had much skill enhancement. Reverse mentoring will align expectations and shifts.

3. HR professionals should respect the profession, have an opinion, express it and continue to learn about business. Treat this as client service work which requires understanding of client’s work and challenges.

I remember a cheeky conversation with business leader who looked down on my work as just a warm fuzzy function. I told him that business has other things to worry about and should learn to trust HR with our work. Leave what they think is warm fuzzy to us because its a skill to do it consistently and effectively and we love doing that.

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Feeling old

This weekend I went out and partied more than I have in past many months. My observing self was at its peak and I have to write about it. 

Friday night I went to an eating place with few colleagues. We wanted to get a few drinks to mark closure to a hectic work week. The place was full with not even place to set foot in the bar. We were lucky to find a table. There are two things that told me I am old. First, was a couple snogging at the next table and their table was not even in a dark corner! They were surrounded with people and were happy in their own world. Second, more direct was one of the those one liners hung on the wall saying “If the music is too loud, you are probably too old”. That one was a serious reality check for me. After half hour of sitting there with friends, the music really was too loud.

Saturday night I stepped out in my LBD (which saw light of the day errr bright shining lights at night after long long time) to a new hip night club in downtown. I must say that I totally love Colaba, which I qualify as Mumbai downtown. This night club was full of kids. Umm yes I’m old. Even at our age we stayed till the club shut down, although we did step out every half hour to hear our own voice. After the first club shut, we managed to find our way into another club at one of the best hotels. The crowd here was more to our liking. They were wearing better clothes, not particularly grinding against each other, music was better, there were glass walls so we could see the seaside road view outside and more than anything else, we could hear our own voice once in a while. 

But this post is not about judging people on their looks or social presence or fashion. Its about feeling old and realizing that not a lot has changed.

I realized that the kids at the party are over a decade younger than me, thankfully not yet half my age. Some things never change in crowd at hot spots in India. 

There is still that group of girls who dress up for the night, who have recently learnt to use makeup, who know they are getting attention from boys and yet choose to ignore them and are in their own zone with their friends.

There is still that group of friends where there is a couple grinding against each other because they are young and wanting more and have probably recently started dating. There is still that single attractive girl in that group who all the boys want to dance with. There are still those boys and girls who are treated like a sidekick in the group. 

There is still that one couple who couldn’t care less about wearing kurta to a club, busy with each other drinking dancing eating.

There is still that one or two girls whose dressing sense shouts “look at me” and they dance like they need exorcism. 

There is still that one girl who would walk in alone, dance with 4-5 strangers and get a few free drinks.

There are those foreigners (mostly whites) backpacking in India and looking for some Indian fun, smiling at all attractive Indian women. 

And there are still some of us who would stand in a corner, get few drinks, dance with our friends a little bit, criticize the music and DJ and observe everyone around us. 

Receiving feedback

My first year of work taught me a very important life and career lesson – on feedback.
This story has stayed with me for the last 14 years and has shaped my willingness to listen to others. Feedback is important in life, as children we get it unasked by our parents by our teachers by elders and by well wishers who want to ‘fix’ us. We often grow tired of the constant volunteered information about ourselves. Over the years, I have explored this idea personally and in works of personal development to shape up my beliefs around it. This blog post is summary of what receiving feedback is all about and what to do with it.
Why listen to feedback?
We all know why it is important. It is for self improvement and development. It actually is more than just self development. Feedback tells you what people perceive of you. Yes, you knew that too. But there is more to it. For example, one of colleague was given feedback that she was not organized. Her feedback from the conversation was not a reflection of her abilities so much as how her work relationship needed to be with her boss. I remember seeing difference in the way she documented things for her boss while she continued her work with same random fashion as she always did.
Lesson 1: Approach feedback with open mind and listen to their feelings. Reflect with detailed context of your relationship with the person, their motivations, their personality and values.
How and what to listen?
Stay calm and remember the conversation is about what people (or a single person) think of you. It may not be correct reflection of you. At the same time, you have to get the message right because perceptions are reality. If they are wrong then you may want to fix what people think of you.
Listening to feedback makes more sense with follow up questions. These questions should be exploratory in nature and not sound confrontational or challenging. Going back to earlier example of my colleague who was told she is not organized. She started with clarifying exploratory questions. Few of her follow up questions were – “Could you elaborate on that?”, “I would like to know instances where this was visible to clients and team members”, “What steps you recommend for me to be more organized?”, “What is the impact on people’s perception of me due to this?”. At the end of the conversation she reflected on the conversation and this is how she summarized the conversation to me. Her boss was meticulous and had a plan even for how to plan work. She on the other hand was ‘cross the bridge when we get there’ person. There was no challenge in timeliness or quality of her work. Her team members were fine with her style of work and she ensured appropriate communication with them.  It was her boss who could not relate to her approach towards work. She went on to tell me that she figured that she needs to provide her boss with sense of comfort with approaching her interactions with him differently.
Lesson 2: Ask questions to explore the details, ask for specific instances, facts, behind your back conversations etc to know more.
How to manage your emotions?
There is no straight answer to this except than to remind yourself constantly that this time is dedicated only to listening. At the same time, don’t allow for it to become ‘thrash you’ or ‘strip you’ session. If you don’t understand the above phrases, these are sessions to rip you and your work apart in a derogatory manner. In such sessions boss/ colleagues often resort to personal remarks about your ability or question you to demeaning levels.
One of my bosses once got really personal accusing me of being insensitive and arrogant. I was tempted to ask if my arrogance hindered my work, but I suspected him to tell me it hindered my relationships. Considering he was the kind of boss who thinks he is always right, I did not want to argue and turned the course of discussion instead. I provided him with instances of my good relationships with team and clients. When he tried to challenge me, I challenged him to go take my feedback from just about anyone I had work relationship with. I did add that I was confident that I will get more than 80% positive feedback and was sure that this feedback would also provide me with concrete areas of improvement. Further in this session when he got personal, I asked him to share instances for me to understand my shortcomings better. By the end of conversation he was compelled to be objective when sharing feedback with me. At the same time I had realized that my boss had negative perceptions which I needed to fix. I did take this as a setback, it is never good for your boss to not like you! I dedicated some time to mourn over the fact that my promotion will be delayed and I will get less bonus. After a week, I knew I had to keep my emotions aside and had only two options – to change my boss’ perception or to move on to different team or job altogether.
Lesson 3: Don’t react but respond calmly and remember its people’s perception of you. They may not always be right.
How to not defend yourself?
It is natural to want to justify your actions or decisions. Specially when its your boss and you know that they are completely off track. Hold the urge and explore alternates. Ask the person to be specific on what could have been done differently.
Confession: I do often end up saying one or two statements in self-defense. On why I am who I am or about my style of work or influences on my decision. The sad realization at the end of every conversation is that I should not have said that one statement.
This urge is also elevated when feedback provider is your team member. As a manager, we seem to have a bigger say. Our team members are more likely to listen to us. There are multiple reasons for this. Managers are the decision maker for employee’s salary and promotions, in short team member’s career; managers are often more experienced than the team member; managers act as mentor or coach to their team members and role reversals are not as common. There are always exceptions; some managers are able to create environment conducive to open communication making some of my recommendations irrelevant to them. Back to the discussion on how to not defend yourself.
Try not to explain yourself right at the moment. Set a follow up conversation, it gives you time to reflect on the conversation. You also tend to be more calm after the initial emotions have passed. It allows you time to frame your response more factually.
I was once accused of not communicating enough to my boss on one of the projects I was working on. He was visibly upset and called me out on a team meeting. After the meeting I took half hour break to calm myself and requested for 10 minutes time to discuss this at length. I shared all the emails and conversations I had had with him. At the end of the conversation, he still accused me of not setting up special time to update him on project progress. It was wrong of me to assume that he would read the emails or pay attention to updates when I spoke on team calls or ask me for special update time for this project. Sometimes you can never win! It is very contextual and depends on who you are interacting with. Take a break for some time to calm yourself before you decide whether it worth the effort.
There are exceptions where you should take the conversation head on but this should be only when feedback is biased and non-factual. For example, my head of department during my catch up meeting with him asked me to take full blame of an escalation. This was one of those moments to not hold back and discuss facts to put things in perspective.
Lesson 4: Justifying your actions often goes against you. Timing of your response is very important and sometimes your actions suffice.
What to do with the feedback?
I have partly covered this above. Listen, reflect, clarify and make amends as required. You should at times look at getting second opinion where you can so that the feedback has less person bias. This can be done directly or indirectly. And yes this is applicable when someone says positive about you too. Ask your colleagues for your strengths and areas of improvement. Do so with earnestness without holding them onto their perception of you. This is where all rules of seeking feedback and the above lessons apply.
Identify patterns in your past feedback and see whether there is a need to overcome them and how. Work on your feedback and in next discussion, review with the feedback provider if they see a difference. Acting on feedback is the culmination of receiving feedback.
There will always be few things you discount and discard. Be cautious with what you discard, you may just want to park it for later. Sometimes its good to be aware of what people perceive of you and your action may just be to work this awareness to your benefit. For example, if you are recognized for your attention to detail, you may ask for projects and work that require your acumen. If your feedback is that you are over confident, you may use it your advantage while making a presentation where your confidence will work to your benefit.
Lesson 5: Acting on feedback is the result of receiving feedback. Act judiciously and leverage your new found self awareness.
For further reading here is an HBR article on how to receive feedback – http://hbr.org/2014/01/find-the-coaching-in-criticism

What’s missing in Indian media

For over a year now, I have been watching new channels lot more than I have in three decades of my life. Not being a regular allows to look at things afresh since I do not overlook the incremental shifts. There is massive shift in what I would look at news for. Some of my disappointments and expectations are listed below and these are limited to the TV news channels.

Facts vs opinion: TV news for me was the go to place for information and factual truth. There were opinions but they were add ons. Now prime time news is full of opinions and not so much factual information. For example, for the last two days there is so much talk of  ‘Smriti Irani not a graduate and is given responsibility for Education ministry’ . When I open TV channels, I see political parties, journalists and activists sharing their opinions, many are biased and quote instances from past. Its like court of law where everyone is building their case basis what has happened in the past. I struggled to find news report verifying facts. There finally was one channel that shared the affidavits in question to know what the debate is all about. The other big item on agenda is Article 370. Flipping through news channels for two days could not provide me with facts on what article 370 constitutes and historical incidents leading to it. I would expect at least one of our responsible media channels to share factual details of what is available to us – the content of article, indo-pak wars, indo-pak discussions and outcomes etc. I would so wish some news channel would cover ground reality in pakistan, what people want, economical stats and may be independent research conducted by several peace groups. Even the debates on article 370 are insipid with uninformed people talking about something they have no idea about. Most debates were only platform for regulars to share their views shouting personal comments on each other. I wish our media was more responsible to share factual information in more detail and invest more in research than paparazzi and sound bites. Opinions are good when debated by relevant intellectual people.

Research: Journalists are expected to dig out stories and details and more details. For example in Smriti Irani’s case, one channel projected the two conflicting affidavits; I wish they had tried to verify it or found out more about the reason for contradiction and what is the correct thing. I want to hear thought provoking stories like ‘can kashmir become like andorra’ or ‘ current state of education in India’.

Top stories: Prime time stories have become uninspiring with same topic on every news channel. There is no breadth to what is covered. There was earthquake but the details were not covered because losses were not of national significance. Any misfortune is covered if it is statistically significant or politically controversial. Media needs to become all inclusive. The 200 stories in whatever minutes should not have 20 on the same topic. And honestly who cares about 200 stories as long as we get a feel of whats going on.

International perspective: While interacting with media in one of my events, I learnt that Indian media only cares about what is the MNC doing for India. It doesn’t care about global because this is what sells. Top news channels have presence internationally and it will be good to allocate some time on top international news. I miss the old format of news which was – National, Local (city), Business Sports and International. Newspapers still have this, it just needs translation to what TV covers.

Modi wave and AAP experiment

The context
The past few years have been transformational for India and Indians. Country is younger and youth today is more involved in politics than has been in any generation before.
Historically, Indian National Congress or Congress Party is credited for leading India to freedom. They gained loyalists who praised them for their devotion to the country, their initiative in freedom fight and their sacrifice. After few decades, many people by default would just vote for congress believing that they deserved to “rule” or “lead” us. Then there were other parties with their non-congress, usually more fundamentalist ideologies and beliefs which have come and gone. With shifting perspectives, the country is now looking for stronger alternatives.
The generation of congress loyalists from freedom struggle is diminishing. The youth today has grown up with different and some contradictory thoughts.  We have not known the reality of freedom struggle and grown up only about half a century after independence. We have heard alternate views on the ‘Father of our nation’, his wrong decisions and personal motivations. We have grown up with more appreciation of shades of grey in people than see them as binomial ‘good or bad’. We have grown up hearing that India needed slight dictatorial leader to begin with to sort out the nation. There are many more voices and debates and viewpoints we have heard.
We are less tolerant of injustice and failings of systems. We are impatient and want to see results. We have traveled the world and compare our systems with other countries. We question and want answers. More than anything we want change.
Political experiments
In 2011, Anna Hazare started movement against corruption and Indian youth raring for change jumped on the bandwagon. charged up from movies like Rang de Basanti, and movements/ revolutions in Middle Eastern countries, took it upon themselves to protest. It was like they found a noble mission in their mundane lives.
Anna’s followers full of media specialists gave him footage and used new age channels like twitter to seek support. Most of Anna’s close brigade was people who believed in the cause, who want to fix the nation and at the same time wanted their personal aspirations met. There sure were exceptions but that’s not what I am talking about over here and they never got popular for their self-sacrificing ways.
 Before this starts to look like anti anna or anti AAP, I want to add the disclaimer that I am trying to look at things as objectively as possible. I do have my own set of questions for these protesters, most of who converted into AAP supporters. First major question is that how many of these supporters and activists ever got into the details of the bill they were supporting, understood it and had informed view around what is right and what is not. The whole movement was of blind followers who believed that the person or group driving this has right intent and is knowledgeable enough to provide substantial inputs on correcting the bill. Second more of rhetoric is did they look within themselves on how they have supported corruption on things which could be done without corruption. Examples are getting driving license and passport made, paying full traffic fine versus 20-50 bucks to the traffic cop to get away. Let me say this again that there are always exceptions but they are a small percentage. Yes these things still function without paying extra money, but we as nation encourage corruption instinctively. This fight against corruption was full of contradictions where Indians were willing to pay little extra to get work done faster. We are an impatient country but that is a whole other topic of conversation.
This movement benefited two political experiments in the past few years. One is the Modi experiment by BJP and other is the new party – AAP.
Modi Wave
Modi, over a decade back became chief minister and stabilized his stance in Gujrat. He aspired for next bigger thing by becoming prime minister, which to his credit he has achieved. Here are few things that made Modi experiment work.
  • Presidential form of elections. His campaign was lead like presidential elections where one person is projected as the top leader. His leadership and strength was highlighted. This goal was aligned to tactical execution of his campaign. Modi’s projection as prime minister included a well-articulated agenda. Modi was revered, epitomized rags to rise story, touched on basic needs of people and customized it according to constituencies he campaigned in.
  • Strong core agenda. Youth today is more aware of international scenario and is craving to compete with other countries. Development agenda was highlighted towards this end. He touched the nerve of youth and small town population with issues like unemployment, infrastructure and inflation (a word we would not have understood or cared about few decades back).
  • Proof of concept. Any campaign has its set of exaggerations and elimination of what is not so positive. Gujrat model was highlighted and anything done well was exaggerated. Modi’s opposers highlight him as dictatorial only helped his campaign because it just showed that the dictatorial style of governance is needed for development. All good done in Gujrat worked as proof of concept of his style of governance.
BJP projected a leader who showed India vision of brighter future, demonstrated capability to execute in one state and claimed this was scalable across the country.
AAP movement
Aam Aadmi party took birth from this Anna revolution where some people found opportunity to experiment with their political aspirations. AAP story has had several twist and turns. They had potential which now seems to be diminishing due to regressive thought process and archaic means.
  • Agenda of Corruption free India. Kejriwal picked from Anna’s campaign and lead his political agenda front ending a noble cause which people of India believed in. But is corruption really our top concern? What went wrong was that people of India wanted revolutionary change without knowing what they wanted and without inherently believing in the anti-corruption as I have mentioned earlier. As much as we want zero corruption, we are all responsible to encourage it at some level. Corruption bothers us when it is impediment to growth, when it includes large sum of money, when it is without any results and especially when it risks our life (like in case of defense). Added to this the corruption agenda propagated was too wide without any scope and full of personal attack on people who may be corrupt but have contributed to national development in some or other way.
  • Changing strategy too often. This was the biggest reason for AAP failure. I agree with AAP supporters that their strategy went wrong. They shifted their strategy way too much and way too often. They started with jan Lokpal bill as their top priority. They were able to win Delhi by huge margin and came across as unprepared to run a state. Instead of shifting their approach to that of governance, they projected themselves as anarchist and activist even while they had authority. Kejriwal and his advisers consumed by arrogant victory assumed that their false humility will work across the nation. The incorrect extrapolation led to mass recruitment and inorganic growth. They happened to bring in people who were in their comfort professional zone with underlying political aspiration or activism without appreciation of ground reality. Their strategy was to bring in strong local people with clean image and let them lead their constituencies on their own. AAP volunteers started dropping out due to lack of support and strong leadership. There have been several shifts in direction which has led to confusion within their own.
  • Leaving Delhi. Kejriwal’s worst decision ever was to leave Delhi. It was his platform to build further credibility by making a difference to Delhi. Even if congress would have threatened them to withdraw support soon, they should have gone on god speed to do what they could have. This would have given them time to think through their next steps. They missed the message that many AAP voters in Delhi said that they still wanted to see BJP at national level. If he were able to work his way around and did some good stuff, Kejriwal would have had more time to build stronger national level party and gained some experience.
  • Loose campaign. They had less time to campaign and needed strong reach which they could not create. Their Delhi victory of being underdog did not work at national level without credentials. Their win on taking Sheila Dixit head on, did not work on taking Modi head on. They won over Sheila Dixit because there gaps in her governance, whereas Modi had many success stories to tell. They tried to prove Modi’s exaggerated claims by going to Gujrat but they could not build a strong case about it. They would challenge everyone and became regressive in putting everything as either good or bad. The rallies and messaging became anti-Modi as opposed to sharing their own credibility on what they could and would do for the nation. This was loosely drafted and party members looked fatigued doing everything on their own now that they had alienated even media which till sometime back was their biggest support. And Modi at the end of it he was popular, had political and financial backing, decades of experience and strong strategic team supporting him.
  • Amateur posturing. Let’s accept that posturing is part of our life and AAP did no wrong in posturing. They just did it in a drama queen way throwing tantrums all over the place. If media said anything nice about people AAP was against then there was generic statement against all media. They would blame and challenge anyone and everyone. They lost several supporters due to this. And now AAP has gone in self-victimization mode. As much as they deny, they like posturing and are quite amateur at it. They play games and claim victim of others game. Political posturing requires some growing up and conviction. 
  • Common vision and voice. I have mentioned inorganic growth of party and this was perilous. They could not create common vision for the party. They could not provide strong credible team, strong agenda or even strong leadership.
  • Latest change in strategy. With multiple shifts in their strategy, they have now settled for Modi’s strategy of projecting one person. Well, this is also similar to what happened in Anna campaign. Kejriwal is being projected as Gandhi, epitomize self-sacrifice and play innocent victim. If they feel that this is how Modi won, then they are again on wrong path. They need to figure it out.
AAP is potential almost lost due to its ambition and immaturity. To revive they require stronger faces for the party, its people’s party and if ‘Kejriwal ki koi aukat nahi hai’ then he should bring in multiple strong people on the top. AAP needs clear agenda, cohesive ideology, strong inclusive leadership and a complete rejuvenation.