I believe that it is my job to prepare this organization for the coming five to seven years. So I personally spend time with all the budding leaders
I am a very pushy, action- oriented person by personality and I get bored sitting on a desk. Even in ICICI today, I don’t sit on my desk for too long
Q. Tell us about your journey, your early days and how did you move from Chemistry to Social work to HR?
A. When I started, I had no idea about HR. I did not even know that there was something called an MBA. The only obsession I had throughout my life was to be an engineer. Unfortunately, the Indian education system did not find me good enough to be admitted to an engineering college. I was extremely angry and heartbroken because I had scored 92 per cent in the qualifying exams, which was very good as per the standards of those times. Someone told my father about Madras School of Social Work so he asked me to write the exams for it. He said, “Engineering is not the only way to achieve what you want in your life, there are many other things that you can do. If you are good, you will make it; if you are not good, no matter what you study, where you study, you will go nowhere.
That is how I got into social work. I did not know anything about management or HR or anything, all that I knew was that this was a ticket not to be a clerk. And once my father told me about it, I started exploring about what it was and it interested me. I used to be a well-known student union leader in Chennai between 1979 and 1982 and I carried very strong allegiance to socialist and communist principles. Therefore, this course interested me. I understood that this had something to do with managing labour and I was pretty naïve to believe that I would be fair to all the workers in the world and I will be the union leader who will be embedded in the management. That’s how I started my career, a very confused unusual path.
Q. So how did you start looking into HR and moved up the ladder?
A. In the period in which I joined, there was no word called HR. We didn’t understand those terminologies. In those days, there was Industrial Relations and the most successful people in “HR” were those who handled labour well. I completed my course, joined Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and since then I have had outstanding mentors, who played a big role in creating the person that I am today.
My first mentor and boss was Pramod Fernandes, currently Group Head HR, Manipal Group. Apart from being a wonderful man, he was an outstanding person in the way he handled unions. He was not the manipulative, trickery based insincere personnel manager, which I believe many were in that period. He set an ideal for me in terms of how you can be straightforward in your dealings and how you can say no to a union leader and still be respected. My entire thinking about how one should conduct oneself in the domain of industrial relations was entirely shaped by him. He also convinced the General Secretary of the HAL union, Mr. Mahadevan , also to mentor me and interestingly I was mentored not only by a management person, but also by a union leader. Because he took me under his wings, the rest of the union network in HAL almost adopted me and they were all very amused and impressed that I was a communist turned manager and I was a manager who knew more about Marx than they did.
For the initial 10-12 years of my professional life, I was in the factories on the shop floor, handling workers and training them. That changed my outlook to what HR should be. All I thought in my first 10 years was how do I become core to a setup, how do I make my word count and how do I move things. I didn’t care about my title or function. The major part of my job in those days was shop floor management, training both technical and attitudinal and employee communication what we call town hall meeting today.
Q. What inspired you to think the way you do, and make you so focused to the business?
A. I am a very pushy, action oriented personality and I get bored sitting on a desk. Even in ICICI today, I don’t sit on my desk for too long. This and my love for engineering made me be where I thought the action was and that was the shop floor. Another thing that motivated me was that I wanted to be core to the organization. So I looked around myself and asked, “Who are the people who are respected and powerful? And I found Pramod to be respected and powerful. Despite being very young the senior management consulted him not just about HR but many areas that impacted the business. This was because Pramod could deliver productivity well, he had great relations with the workers, and he in fact knew all 4, 900 employees by name. I was inspired by him and wanted to be like him.
I owe my career to the mentors I have had and the various people I have come across. After Pramod, the other people who mentored me were Sanjeev Kathpalia and Satish Pradhan. I have always trusted my seniors and followed their advice. Satish taught me how to facilitate trainings. He used to take to behavioural training programme as a co-facilitator and then in the middle of the programme he used to handover the session to me, without the participants realizing about it. If I had not stumbled upon Satish, I would not have developed into a conceptually strong HR person.
I never had these fixation that I will do OD or change management, those days we didn’t even know these terminologies. So whatever people threw at me I never asked if it was HR or not. All I could care about is that they were senior to me and this project appears to be important at this point of time for this particular establishment and if I get into this I will also be important. Simple selfish attitude.
Why I am saying this to you is because most people end up thinking, they know what is good for them, and they know that these are good jobs, these are bad jobs, this will take them to where they want, this will not take them to their goal. I have never done that in my life. Even today if my boss Mrs. Chanda Kochhar were to call me and say Ramkumar from tomorrow you have to take care of security I will do it. I will not argue with her. It is not servility. I can tell you all through my life I have done it and it is because I obeyed Anand Bhatia my VP and Sanjeev Kathpalia my factory manager at Lipton and went and did production, I am on the board of ICICI today otherwise I would not have been.
Q. Tell me how that foundation of the early days was useful in ICICI and the role today that you playing as part of the Board. How has all this foundation helped you in playing an Executive Director role in the Board?
A. In different parts of my journey, different people hand held me and took me to the next phase. After Pramod, Sanjeev and Satish I had Kalpana Morparia as my mentor. She was the one who had recruited me for ICICI Bank. Before I joined ICICI, people used to tell me that it was almost impossible for me to be on the Board because I was forthright, direct, blunt and challenging with authority figures.
Between 2001 and 2007, Kalpana took it upon herself as a personal challenge. She used to tell me “Ram it is not about whether you want to get to the Board or not, if you don’t get to the Board, you have wasted your abilities and the only person to blame is yourself”. She was the one who taught me political acumen. In early 2004, between Kalpana and Mr Kamath they started getting the top six to seven young people to participate in board meetings even before we became directors.
So I, along with few others were selected and permitted to come in the board meetings as observers and slowly they would also get us involved in conversations. Kalpana never asked me to hide the truth or not speak up, instead she asked me to say it in a better way. Over the next three to four years, she painstakingly made me somebody who could learn a political sense, what to say, what not to say, when to say, when not to say, how to say, without necessarily feeling that I am being untruthful to myself or to the context. She took me to the next level.
Next came Mr Kamath, who broadened my vision, he always asked the question, how will the world look like tomorrow, day after tomorrow and the day after and warn us not to get caught with the world of today. That’s Mr Kamath’s contribution to me. He takes you to the future. He asks you questions about how the future will look like and before it comes can you visualize it. If you can’t see it, do you have the boldness to attempt to see it instead of getting caught up with today. He constantly set the bar up. He would market aggressively my achievements to the world at large. He constantly moved me to assignments which are beyond HR. He discovered the troubleshooting ability in me.
I should mention that even today I am not a finished product. I am striving to learn from Chanda’s restraint, emotional balance and clear thinking even under tremendous pressure. She exemplifies poise and dignity, when and to whom one should give trust and space and yet hold the person accountable to his commitments. Some of my peers like Vaidyanathan, Madhabi, Kannan, Bhargav Dasgupta and Vishakha have been great teachers and mentors for me. They have always doubled up for me and managed my weaknesses and amplified my strengths.
Q. So what is the focus of your role today?
A. In my current role, the major chunk of my work is to prepare the organization for tomorrow. There are other people who are running the organization for today. And I ensure that I ask them the same question that Mr. Kamath used to ask me. Whenever they find themselves at a roadblock or a dead end, I try to help them with ideas, set them free. Setting people free has been the obsession of my life and I attempt to help others the way my seniors have helped me and shaped me into the individual I am today.
Even today, I spend most of my time on employee communication. I move around and sit in groups of 50. In fact every year, I meet about 8-10,000 people face-to-face in my company. I write to my people constantly. Another important aspect is leadership development because I believe that it is my job to prepare this organization for the coming five to seven years. So I personally spend time with all the budding leaders.
Thirdly, I have created an innovation forum that comprises many current and future business leaders. I spend close to three days in a month on this forum encouraging people through well defined processes on business innovation. That forum is helping young budding business leaders to come up with innovation that will help position ICICI competitively for tomorrow. I spend a lot of time in forums where we work with customer service and customer insights. This is how the bulk of my time is spent.