Article (April-2021)


HR leadership is at an inflection point

Suvro Raychaudhuri

Designation : -   Director - Human Resources

Organization : -  CGI, Bengaluru


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How do you define Leadership in HR in the present environment?

SR Leadership in its essence inherently assumes the situational ability to lead, plan, organize control resources and inspire people to action, learning and execution towards a greater cause. This essence really does not change in the realm and domain of leadership, regardless of the environment or situation.

The present environment is at an inflection point, which requires contextual judgment as well as farsighted vision to be able to facilitate workforce transition into a new phase. HR leadership will therefore be defined by its ability to reconstruct the good practices from the 'past', develop insights from the perceived 'present' and create the platform for the anticipated 'future'.

Being at work over the last two decades, I have seen the nature of work change and how HR leadership has been instrumental in guiding organisations through each wave, or gateway. We have witnessed how technological and human components got inextricably knotted and how jobs got less defined. We have seen contingent workers increasing as a percentage of total headcount in specific industries, customers playing a key part establishing work and evaluation standards, talent pyramids inverting with tenure challenged by the young and the meritorious, and organisation charts hardly capturing the networks of influence, flow of tacit communication/knowledge that characterizes the workplace.

This is a great environment and opportune moment for HR leadership to leverage on the strength of the function derived from a large convergent pool of subject areas. This allows us to demonstrate expertise in solving problems, while drawing from that pool. This is also a great time to lead the way by facilitating platforms to convert valuable data and information coming from the external system, to actionable human capital insights.

Some of those insights require a larger leadership perspective, action, mentoring and sponsorship going beyond the company and industry, and some of them are just great learning to imbibe or spread. Through the last year, we have come across a varied range of scenarios while working from home. A group of employees wanted to come back to office despite the pandemic citing issues at home, reflecting a deeper sociological dysfunction at the cellular unit of society, which is the 'family'. New entrants in an organisation were in virtual on boarding sessions, where they largely missed out on 'experiencing' the culture of the organisation (not just the philosophies, rules, observed behavioural regularities, dominant values as Schein puts it, but also the sights, feel and smell of it). With less time required for commuting between home and the workplace, employees utilized that time engaging in exceptional community work, learn new skills or just put extra effort to solve a 'ticket' to prevent a project going 'red'. Humans established a marked difference from just Resources.

According to you, what should be the competencies of a good HR Leader?

SR Great competencies of an HR leader are made from knowledge of not just the HR function but also of the system within which it operates. The system is fairly complex and pervious today, than ever before. Galbraith talked about market environments being a fulcrum for strategic organisational decisions, as that environment becomes more complex, and intertwined, so does the need for outstanding leadership decisions on structure, technology implementation, capability and capacity planning, inorganic growth roadmaps, investments, etc. The competencies of a good HR leader therefore are about acquiring and staying ahead on knowledge, skills and abilities on this competency map.

HR leaders across different industries need to have a set of horizontal competencies. There are however industry verticals where it requires certain specific competencies. Analytical and communication skills, ability to drive change and work with conflicting stakeholders, empathy as an ability, knowledge of compensation and benefits, local labour laws, ability to promote diversity, equity and inclusion constitute the 'horizontals' I referred to, whereas there are 'business essentials' that are core to that business or industry, that influence HR competencies as well. For example, if we consider three different kinds of industries in India today, the people cost as a percentage of sales revenues are very different (with all shades of definitions under these metrics considered). For a company in the manufacturing sector, we can possibly see a percentage of 7-10%, moving to around 16-18% in the hospital sector, and 45-55% in the IT sector. These are largely different ranges, and therefore the competence of a good HR leader is about understanding different levers that work to improve these metrics without creating disruption in the respective industries/ organisations.

After all, the competencies required to drive a management imperative on a charter-of-demands in a collective bargaining environment, will be different from trying to retain a key DevOps architect who has the capacity to bring in a few million dollars for the organisation.

How you visualize the HR leadership role different from what it was before 2020?

SR Being a function that evolves substantially on contextual and experiential knowledge, new leadership practices will essentially be a re-adaptation of existing old leadership truths, with new dimensions. There will be new ways of working, new learning and collective unlearning. This will play in the larger context of changes in labour laws, local policy changes, new modes of administration and governance.

HR leadership is at an inflection point currently. The evolution of the virtual organisation has been hastened by the pandemic, and much of the existing leadership that has evolved so far from traditional to network organisations, will have a challenging time moving over to this new paradigm, in order to accommodate new modes of work, new expectations, new regulations and entitlements. This is challenging, but not impossible to drive though.

Historically, the essence of HR leadership changed years back, from lack of emphasis on the human dimension during the times of Henri Fayol, Henry Ford, A.P Sloan and F.W Taylor, to people-centric focus at work. At this juncture, it will be important for HR leadership to navigate through certain decisive moments once again, that may create what Senge referred to as Creative Tension.

More workplaces will be open to adopt different work models, there will be changes to regulations and laws around work, data privacy concerns, and employees will come up with new rights and entitlements. The competitive landscape on talent will undergo a shift, where a decision to stick to a fixed plan or a certain standard will go against the required agility that the environment demands, which in turn will have a bearing on the perception of its current and future employees. Pay structures and benefits may undergo a change, depending on various factors associated with new modes of working. Partnerships will be less permanent, less formal and more opportunistic. HR leadership and teams of companies from the same or even different industries may come together to leverage joint opportunities.

One key element of an HR leadership role will be the ability to navigate employees through this inflection point. It will require addressing dysfunctionalities (debilitating fear, destructive internal competition, poorly designed and complex measurement systems and mindless reliance on precedent) with right judgment. HR's new role will be to provide subject-matter expertise and insights required to assess business and talent sustainability till the next inflection point.

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