With more than three decades of experience in the agricultural and food processing sector, Siraj A. Chaudhry, former Chairman of Cargill India, has been instrumental in building businesses involving commodity trading, risk management and food production and distribution across the globe.
Chaudhry, who is also a member of industry associations such as CII, FICCI, AMCHAM and USIBC, shares his insights and advocates for policy change in the industry. Apart from his business acumen, his social interests include food and nutrition security, education and livelihood.
During his tenure at Cargill, the company pioneered the process of including Vitamins A and D in edible oils in an attempt to address the nutrients’ crisis in India. Chaudhry also happens to be a founding member of the India Food Banking Network that has led to the creation of a chain of food banks across India as well as the United Way of Delhi NCR.
In an exclusive interaction with People Matters, Chaudhry discussed the trends in the agriculture and food industry, how digitization is reshaping the need for talent in the field and how leaders can adopt automation in agriculture, keeping in mind the evolving nature of the food industry.
Having been an active contributor to business for thirty years, how would you categorize the trends in the agri-food space over the last few decades?
Since the agri and food trade has historically been a family-run business, the leadership roles were often associated within the families. When I started my career in this field, there were only a few professionals and neither of the institutions provided training except for the Institute of Rural Management founded by NDDB (National Dairy Development Board) in Anand. It was the arrival of multinational food companies in India during the 90s that encouraged professionals to join this sector. The limited access to Internet in the early times has changed with the technological evolution. Some elements of agri and food are nature dependent and the demand and supply of food in the global market is impacted by politics also. The new protective measures imposed by countries in a changed geo-political scenario is a good indicator of opening and closing of trade.
Serving the role for sixteen years in acquiring and growing businesses, do you think the checklist for qualities as a leader has changed over time and if yes, how so?
The basic concepts of a leader as the one who sets the vision and culture in the organization and the one who is responsible for the results have not changed. Acknowledged as the flag bearer of the existing culture, the leader is vested with responsibilities like building the team and allowing members to express themselves. The leader’s job still includes bringing together all those expressions to a meaningful action. One of the major changes that occurred in the current environment is a culture of transparency and it gives a critical role to the leader. Since there is no way to hide, the organization must follow the law and do everything right whether it is related to employee health and safety or food safety. The ways in which the data is constructed is under greater scrutiny than it was in the past and the stakeholders have become a lot more demanding. Market challenges of today are starkly different from what they were earlier. Thus, prompting not only the leaders but also the employees to deliver more quickly as the need for results is more acute. The diverse nature of teams with people who talk about gigs rather than long term careers has also brought a change in the leadership role. At the time when I started off a leader, it was about finding, building and retaining talent, empowering them and creating a succession pipeline. Today, it is more about delivery than building and I use the phrase “I come from an era when organizations were built to last but now build to sell” to indicate this visible trend.
As a business leader, how do you think the HR should increase its ability to navigate in an operating landscape both in India and globally to help businesses to grow?
We follow the dictum that people are the backbone of business and it by default makes the HR professional the most important ally of the leader. In order to understand and to communicate with the organization, the leader needs the assistance of HR which necessitates them to work hand-in-hand by securing the confidence of each other. HR, with its accessibility, acts as the eyes and ears of the leader when the latter wants to communicate directly or subtly to the employees. If the culture is set up by the leadership, it is the HR leader who facilitates and monitors its nurturing in the organization. The shift in the designated function of people policy administration to the unautomated people level activities demands HR to measure or to keep an eye on the pulse of the company. Today, HR is a bigger contributor to the organizational success by playing an intellectual role as it gets more time and opportunity in business leadership. It allows the organization which has multiple divisions to combine their HR responsibilities and creates opportunities for HR personnel to rise above the hierarchical structure by being more tuned into the leadership thought.
Does the job automation have the same impact on the agri industry as it has on the other industries?
The agri business in India is always people intensive since the larger portion of our population is engaged in agriculture. Unlike other industries which use sophisticated automation, the agri industry is less impacted by technology and is more people intensive. An advanced level of creativity is required when it is related to the food consumption in our country. There is a strong global processed food trend compared to the limited trend in India where demand for snacks like biscuits and noodles has increased though the basic food items like chapati are still made at home. In India, the increase in the number of restaurants and the ability to order food has resulted in the people-intensive trend of eating out or ordering in.
You have been an active voice in the media. So, how do you think the social and commercial media can build thought leadership for the talent space?
Today, information is easily available to people in their palms through the various platforms such as commercial media, print media as well as the social media which ensures the active participation of millennials. Even though it has provided wide opportunities in communication, it has become important to know how do you stand out of the noise created by the overloaded information. The organization needs to highlight its value system in the talent perspective since the millennials are socially aware and ethical and they exhibit stronger views on equality, diversity and environment friendliness. I think the media can guide such a mindset to help the organization to express its commitment to sustainability and diversity for building the employer brand. A word of caution though, with so much information being available out there, it should be about being judicious on what to consume and what not to believe.
What is the role played by millennials in the agri industry?
The average age of an Indian farmer has increased drastically in the last 3 decades. The younger generation in the rural area is less interested in continuing the profession of their ancestors. It is necessary to get the population to do some other jobs as it is impossible to have 50 percent of the population in the agricultural sector which generates 16 percent of the GDP or to transfer them to the cities in search of employment. So, special emphasis has to be laid on finding rural employment entrepreneurship and engagement to keep the rural youth active, even if they are not attached to the rural activities, business and services. Otherwise, they will be forced to migrate to the cities which might create social issues and lead to crime and more unemployment. I think the biggest challenge lies in creating opportunities in the rural area itself which the organizations try to overcome through skill development by providing training to those who are less than graduates for achieving meaningful employment.
As the talent space is getting competitive, what is your advice to HR about attracting and retaining the right talent?
There has been loss of employment in the unorganized sector due to demonetization and GST and now that space is overcrowded. The employment situation is worsening in each industry than what it was fifteen years ago. Though there is a rise in the quality of education and the skillset of the talent, the employment opportunities remain the same even in airlines, automobile, solar or power sectors. The job scenario is getting tougher at the global level because nations have raised the barrier to entry and of employment. Presently, it is not easy for Indian students to get a job in the USA, UK or in UAE and those intelligent ones who secured their graduation from abroad are also left with no employment opportunities in their homeland. It creates a huge surplus talent than deficit talent. If you look at the large industries, a lot of mergers are happening with an objective to reduce the number of employees. So, the fight for finding talent and for retaining talent would always be a challenge for any organization.
What are the talent challenges that you face at Cargill?
I was in Cargill for twenty-four years. Cargill has been an excellent employer brand and most of the employees who left the company speak very highly of the organization. It is mainly because of the organizational culture which encouraged a non-political environment where everyone could express themselves freely without any fear. Moreover, Cargill maintains high ethical standards and the employees need not fear about facing anything or about being asked to do anything against their own value system or the law.
What is the core issue that you have identified about talent acquisition?
The alignment of HR to business is crucial in the business sector. All the functions performed by HR provide touch points to the employees to deal with the organization. It has a lesser role as a service provider but more as a censor or sounding board for the rest of the employees. So, it is important for HR to reinvent itself in order to connect with the organization and to manage the millennials. There are e-commerce organizations with people of different vintage points such as younger organizations or traditional companies having older leadership. In such contexts, it is challenging to the HR to manage how the senior leaders from another generation establish a connection and understanding between the millennials. It might be easy for me to talk about diversity based on my exposure, but it might be difficult for a middle-level manager who would have unconscious biases. Therefore, HR has to ensure how this philosophy permeates down and breaks through the organization. Efforts are needed to change the mindset of the people as it is unthinkable to change their background. The policies like work-from-home and flexible timing would help to shatter the traditional perspectives and would enable us to bring out the stated practices into real practices. HR should also try to bring the young set of employees relevant to the present employees and to create more connection with them for sustaining the organization.