Padmaja Alaganandan has been associated with PwC for over eight years and has worn multiple hats during this stint. Prior to her current appointment as the Chief People Officer, Padmaja was the technology sector lead for PwC’s Advisory Line of Service. Before that, she was the leader of the firm’s People and Organization Consulting practice.
In an interaction with People Matters, Padmaja shares her thoughts about the need for a learning culture, up-skilling, and women in leadership roles. Here are the edited excerpts:
You have worked in almost all facets of the HR domain. Can you share some insights on how HR, in general, is transitioning to the next level in the digital era?
I started my career in business consulting, and the issues we looked at for clients were about how you enter into a new market, what the pricing strategy should be, how do you build distribution reach, and so on. But over the years, I realized that almost all those projects would end up with issues that were in the people space. What kind of organization design do we need? How do we build the required culture and leadership for success? And my entry into HR consulting was a natural journey.
HR is experiencing a three-sixty degree transition because people and talent issues have become not just relevant, but critical to companies and CEOs. The pool of available talent in HR is becoming more concrete, given the larger number of reputed institutions focused on producing good talent in the domain. All the reputed business schools offer HR as an optional course, and there are sufficient specialist institutions too. It is a reflection that there is more quality in education. There is an ongoing debate about whether we should hire HR specialists or groom people from the business functions to perform them. I see merit in both approaches and we probably need a mix.
As a CHRO, what are the things you do to create a learning culture in the organization?
Organizations across industries are focused on learning, and for a business such as ours which is built on knowledge the only way we can add value in client work is through people. We invest a lot in learning, of different kinds. On an average, our employees spend around 64 hours in a year on learning modules which include technical, leadership building and mandatory e-learning. There’s a lot of content we make available online, through our learning platforms. While we focus a lot on this, I also believe that if one has to upskill– whether it’s on topics such as Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence or softer learning such as leadership behaviours and emotional quotient building, there has to be a pull-factor and these cannot just be mandated through push-factors. In our organization, around fifteen thousand employees are going to be upskilled on specific digital tools that have to do with analytics, robotic process automation, and data visualization etc., because we believe that will drive a lot more innovation, and make them and us fit for future.
How is the L&D landscape changing with respect to new talent management practices, and what are some of the new approaches being followed by employers to enhance learning and development?
Learning and development are two sides of one coin. As far as learning is concerned, all of us need to help people who come on board to understand the environment, workplace practices, do’s, and don’ts. Then there is technical learning which is specific to the team and helps drive productivity, it may span from supply chain to Blockchain. Then there is the managerial and leadership capability building. So, underlying all of these is a global framework we have worked towards. Organizations should focus their L&D agenda across multiple dimensions like technical acumen, digital acumen, commercial acumen, and relationships.
How can women gain more visibility in all business functions? What hiring trends do you see among consulting firms?
It’s a meritocracy. Because in the end, it’s all in our client’s hands and what they see as value adding. If your client or partner thinks that you add value, you stay. There is enough data to show that when we have more diversity, we do a better job, whether it’s a specific project or any key decision.
I remember an instance where I was part of a large cross territory global pitch, and the client wanted to see what diversity - gender, racial, age - we are bringing into the project because they felt they would get a better outcome that way. In the UK, the regulator looked at how many of the large audits have women as lead auditors, and is encouraging firms to add to their numbers. So from the perspective of business outcome and what our external forces are telling us, we want to drive more diversity because we believe that we will have better results.
There is enough data to show that when we have more diversity, we do a better job
PwC provides thought leadership consulting in HR. How do you follow the same practice in your organization? How different is it?
While the underlying principles are similar, the advantage in one’s organization is that you can have focus on longer-term impact - look at a 2-3 year horizon as against consulting engagements which would be of shorter duration.
In my current role, I can have a more systemic view on all teams and the business as a whole, including teams that I was not earlier part of. So that’s a big advantage. And what needs to be done is really no different. It’s really about seeing how we are looking at the people side at the house for business success. It’s about looking at where we need to drive whether it’s leadership development, talent management, and up-skilling for workforce productivity or looking at driving diversity.
What are going to be your key focus areas in your new role at PwC?
I think the one energizing aspect of the “people” role is that it’s part of India’s leadership team. So anything we have as a business strategy, there is a people aspect to it. Therefore, there is a seat at the table to participate in thinking about the strategy.
We are growing in different areas, and how we build talent is a priority. Upskilling and productivity are other priorities for our people and for the firm. Driving diversity is a key focus. We are also focused on driving flawless operations in terms of HR technology and people experience. But, I would say diversity, up-skilling, and talent leadership and development are the key focus areas.
You shared that many CHROs are becoming CEO. One of the biggest roadblocks considered for CHROs is that they have to play the bad cop in the company. How should they deal with it?
Not in every situation. But if the CHRO shirks from playing bad cop when it’s needed, they’re not doing their job well. One thing I realized as a leader is that you have to balance three stakeholders - your financials or shareholders, your clients or customers, and your people. It’s possible to make one constituent happy at the cost of the other, but that’s not sustainable in the long run and building a sustainable business requires that balance to be met.
So the important essence of leadership is to balance all three things. I think from the HR perspective, you have to be an employee advocate, and not let just short term financial results dictate your decisions.