Article: Prabir Jha on leadership, culture and future of work


Prabir Jha on leadership, culture and future of work

In an interaction with People Matters, Prabir Jha, the Founder, and CEO of Prabir Jha People Advisory talks about leadership, digital transformation, and future of work and jobs.
Prabir Jha on leadership, culture and future of work

Prabir Jha is a Human Resource leader, columnist and active Tweeter. Prabir has diverse industry experience, from civil service to engineering, information technology, pharmaceuticals, automotive and a conglomeration of Hydrocarbons, retail, and media and telecom/digital services. He has worked as the CHRO of two New York Stock Exchange listed companies and two Fortune 500 companies. Prabir has the experience of working in all facets of HR and organizational effectiveness and led several large-scale transformations.

Prabir has recently left Cipla as President and Global Chief People Officer and announced his new venture called Prabir Jha People Advisory.

What experiences, people, or philosophies have most influenced the way you view and practice leadership and why?

Having traversed my career across both the civil services and a range of corporate jobs, I realize leadership is most about authenticity, the willingness to ‘give’, to influence with inspiration and not authority. Outcomes naturally happen, and in a more sustained way. More importantly, you build people who take the leadership multiplication agenda forward. 

Have no particular role model to my leadership belief and approach. But have observed and imbibed many things from my parents, my teachers, some of my bosses and senior colleagues, some of my peers and even labor union representatives and some relatively junior colleagues. More importantly, I have chosen not to make the leadership mistakes that I thought I saw equally many make across these decades. 

How has your view of leadership changed over the years, in your years of involvement in leading and running the people show at several big companies?

In many ways, it has not. While I started in the government at a senior level and never have worked as an individual contributor ever in my life, I realized that it is the genius of leadership that gets you to create magic even when you don’t have the luxury of reward and punishment as we see them in the corporate sector. So from my days as a young civil servant, it was about connect, collaborate and celebrate. I did not understand Positive Psychology then but when I look back a lot of my leadership in my early years got anchored in it. As I moved through various large corporate roles quite early in my career in the private sector, I realized this leadership belief worked just as well here. And across the world. Listen to ideas. Take a bold decision. Stand by the team when the transformation agenda you set starts rolling. Give credit more generously. You must say no, you may disappoint but do so with empathy and respect. It is really not all that complex. But, many leaders still struggle to be in positional clout more, micro-managing more naturally than inspiring and leading. 

What's your take on the digital transformation initiatives organizations are going through? Experts say it's more about culture and mindset shift than technologies powering it.

I have been an ardent champion of digitizing plenty of stuff in companies. In my last tenure, we had moved almost eight decades of paper & pen doing to most of it on the mobile in less than 12 months. It allows us to democratize information flow, improve stakeholder experience, build a more transparent culture and enhance agility in the corporation.

But getting the system and the process change and technology options off-the-shelf is easy. It is about influencing leadership and culture change. Most people live status quo. They enjoy the political turfs they have ring-fenced. A digital transformation journey will challenge much of that. It may change the skill needs that the organisation needs, identify redundancies of roles or processes. And most, expect people across levels to work in a very different way. This needs conscious resolve and sensitive support for the transition to happen. That is why, as I have blogged and tweeted enough, the challenge of digital is less in the technology or the mind; it is more about the heart. 

If you look back five years, what developments have posed the most important new challenges to talent leaders of global organizations and how has the CEO-CHRO evolved over these years?

Conceptually a lot has changed. The trio ( G-3) of the CEO, CHRO, and The CFO is the most strategic axis to get right. Much has been published too of late. The Boards and the CEOs value the CHRO’s impact to help firms transform, especially in the strategic areas of leadership, talent and culture. 

However, I see a range of experiences in the deployment of advocacy. Part of the challenge is with Boards, promoters and CEOs. But part of it also rests with the CHROs. While everyone loves to talk the talk, not everyone is fully ready to bite the tough bullets. Not everyone wants to rock the status quo. Old relationships are either too powerful to let go or soft intimacy prevents the willingness to recalibrate the shifts for the New World. Many struggles to comprehend the nuances of dealing with an agenda they have historically not been trained to handle. It looks far too fuzzy for them to deal with.

This is where many CHROs have not adequately stepped up. They need to explain and push the strategic shift in the language of business. They need to explain enterprise risk from this lens. They need to be more bold, self-assured and independent to speak up and risk their positions. I don’t see enough of this. Many hang on for years for the sinecures of their roles but at the cost of not doing enough to challenge the past and prepare the new. There is no alibi. It is the CHROs job to imagine and push this agenda.

It is surely one of the toughest roles in a company. Everyone believes they know HR; everyone has a point of view; it is an agenda where the one who is the trustee is not always the one alone responsible for delivering the experience. That is why we need to go from beyond convenience and connivance to challenge and coaching. 

While everyone loves to talk the talk, not everyone is fully ready to bite the tough bullets. Not everyone wants to rock the status quo. Old relationships are either too powerful to let go or soft intimacy prevents the willingness to recalibrate the shifts for the New World

If you could rewind the clock to when you first joined the industry, what path would you have followed about being an effective leader?

I am reasonably happy with my effectiveness as a leader across roles and contexts. I would not really change most of my leadership style. But I would have loved to do some non-HR roles earlier in my career. Maybe a stint in marketing, something I believe would have leveraged me better. Maybe even do a formal business role. But overall it has been a dream career and the HR jobs were big and early and very strong business transforming. And I have only to thank God and the people I served for all their benevolence.

There is no denying that the world is going through an intense digital disruption. A lot of work is being junked and the mode of doing work is getting subverted. Many older skill sets will have no place in the future workplace

What's your take on the dilemma of how to nurture an environment of trust, accountability, and respect in the workplace? How can organizations create and sustain an ethical business culture? How important is this today for leaders?

The biggest irony of this question is the popular assumption that trust, accountability, respect run counter to sustained business impact. It is absolutely not true. The pressure of near term performance has made many managers trigger happy slave drivers; in many ways, they behave with others the way they are behaved with. Boards should realize this short-term thinking destroys value eventually. Today talent lives in a world of choice and needs all these as base expectations. Your brand as an individual and a corporate is diminished if you don’t have a reputation of trust and respect. 

Eventually, the tone has to be set right from the top. If Boards and promoters expect only quarter on quarter results it doesn’t matter which way you get them! This is where you start losing the plot. Your talent culture, the performance and rewards philosophy, and the recognition norms all will get aligned to what you think matters. You start celebrating much of misplaced behavior and create a company which over time starts corroding.  These are the strategic questions that don’t typically get the attention they deserve. Everything that can be measured doesn’t always count; what really counts can’t be easily measured is how Einstein once remarked. This is what the top leadership, pushed by self -assured CHROs, just need to get right. 

What is your take on the future of jobs now that technologies such as AI, IoT, and big data are making inroads into business DNA and transforming traditional jobs?

There is no denying that the world is going through an intense digital disruption. A lot of work is being junked and the mode of doing work is getting subverted. Many older skill sets will have no place in the future workplace. Many routine junior and middle management jobs will get technology solutions with better stakeholder experience. The opportunity is about designing a new agile organization. Create newer roles and skill sets. Coach and help migrate as many to these newer possibilities. Help those not making the cut socially relevant and productive in other ways, with empathy and self-respect. Create a leadership culture and an eco-system where the new digital reality will naturally enable the experience. And ensure that technology does not eliminate the possibility for greater connect, collaboration and confidence. In this new world, CHROs have a dual agenda: to fight for the balance for a more productive and contemporary workplace with a sharper collaborative, creative and empathetic culture. 

We have huge opportunities ahead as a nation in the next 10-20 years. But we need to build more hope, more belief, more leadership, more inspiration, more skills, more talent, more governance at every level and in every institution

Who is the most effective leader you have ever known personally, and why?

I don’t want to limit this to one name. Have known many outstanding leaders but each with huge blind spots and failings. I have learned to observe and imbibe the good from each and equally avoid the mistakes I thought each one was making. And in the process, I have built my share of strengths and equally my share of failings. But quite clearly the leadership I have learned to admire are pivoted around thinking bold & disruptive, high humility & authenticity, talent obsession, exemplary trust-centered inspiration, ability to let go and fundamentally positive hearts & minds. 

What is one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring leader?

In two words: Go Beyond yourself. Why clone someone when you can go beyond? Learn from anyone and everything. Be curious. And inspire people to attempt the impossible and stand by them if they fail in their effort. Never be cynical. Challenge yourself. Take the risk. And celebrate everyone around you. They make you the leader you wish to be. Otherwise, you would have stayed a brilliant jerk.

What are the top two books that have most influenced your leadership?

I have loved Patrick Lencioni’s “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” equally Bill George’s “Discovering Your True North” - both have been seminal books that I cannot ever forget. Because I have specialized in HR, a poem that has been on my soft board for three decades is “ If” by Rudyard Kipling! Every word seems to have been written for an HR leader and through all my highs and lows I have read it again and again.  

What's next for you? How do you plan to be part of the larger conversations on nation-building?

I have had a rare experience of having worked in the civil service and the corporate sector. I think both have given me exposure and bias that has always kept me anchored on building a better India. I believe we have huge opportunities as a nation in the next 10-20 years. But we need to build more hope, more belief, more leadership, more inspiration, more skills, more talent, more governance at every level and in every institution. I hope I will have a greater opportunity of helping the government, the academia and the corporations (public and private) to sharpen this narrative. I will only be too happy to bring my own range of experience to shape a new discourse. Once we are willing to think different, we can do different. 

Can you give our readers a sneak peek into the books you are working on currently?

This has been a growing popular demand and also been on my bucket list. Some very interesting meandering is in the works. Some way to go though, I promise it will be something many readers would love to get their eyeballs to.

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Topics: Culture, Leadership, Life @ Work

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