Article: Pankaj Bansal: Sales is a stepping stone to CEO


Pankaj Bansal: Sales is a stepping stone to CEO

HR professionals must work in sales and the best will emerge as CEOs
Pankaj Bansal: Sales is a stepping stone to CEO

HR professionals have low risktaking abilities and are reluctant to step out of their comfort zone


In HR you become an epitome of power and control and that gives you a false sense of growth. A stint in sales makes you humble


HR professionals must work in sales and the best will emerge as CEOs

I was very clear that I wanted to be an entrepreneur right from the start. The HR profession just came my way. Rather, I would say, it found me …. I believe the universe conspired to align me to something that I naturally connected with and I realised early that this would help me create a base for myself.

However, looking at the way I was growing, I realised that I would have only become a VP HR in a large corporation and that would pretty much be it. That thought did not click well with my larger entrepreneurial dream, so I was all the time tinkering with entrepreneurial ideas in my head related to the HR space.

Destiny found its way with me and an opportunity came my way when someone, who showed belief in my ideas, offered to incubate me. This gave me a soft landing and equipped me to handle the challenges and problems I could not have tackled on my own, had I started alone. It also exposed me to a plethora of learning I wasn’t even aware of.

From HR to CEO entrepreneur

I was very good at the people side of business and had a high emotional quotient. However, I wasn’t exposed to the other critical parts of a business ie investors and clients. Although I knew the clients, I never went out and acquired a client. Despite having a sales orientation, I didn’t have the skills. The second critical skill that I lacked was handling investors and financial acumen.

I soon realised that without financial understanding I will not be able to win the trust of investors. However, it wasn’t easy because understanding term sheet, understanding investor management the whole financial and capital structure wasn’t an easy thing and I wasn’t exposed to it. Thankfully my volunteer experience came to my help. I had worked a lot in NHRDN. In NHRDN when I was playing the role of an office bearer I used to understand balance sheets, read and present them so there was a fair amount of understanding that I had.

Alongside, the incubator team trained me on honing my sales skills by coaching me on sales centric processes, thus transforming within my head my natural flair for sales as an art form into a methodology I could institutionally follow. I got many opportunities to work alongside entrepreneurs who practiced this methodology, thus gaining immense confidence and sharpening my ability to sell fearlessly.

I realised that to ultimately be an entrepreneur, I first need to be a successful Sales Warrior. I had to forget that I was Pankaj Bansal - a “somebody” in HR. I told myself that I am a sales man and if people want to make me wait, I will not feel bad about it. So I rebooted myself with the realisation that my job was to bring business alone, and not to feel offended if someone questioned my concepts, or made me wait, or showed me down. Everything else that followed, I learnt by experience.

I was lucky in getting a really good financial advisor. I was also blessed with the opportunity of sharing my entrepreneurial dream with a few other fellow travelers - senior professionals in their work arena, who would give me genuine feedback on our journey of scale up.

During board meetings initially, investors were wary that I did not have a good control over finances. At that time, I was completely dependent on my finance person. I told my finance person to enable me to develop financial skills and learnt how to present numbers. Once I learnt that, I started telling my story in financial words - looking at the organisation on a monthly or quarterly basis. This changed my story.

HR as CEO?

Human resource professionals by nature have not become CEOs for a variety of reasons. Two things don’t allow them to operate like a business head – one is a limited understanding of financial linkages, probably because of the lack of exposure and that is a hindrance to their CEO role. Two, they are not able to connect to the holistic picture and understand the market.

To add to that, they are reluctant to step out of their own comfort zone and have low risk-taking abilities. In the US, HR heads talk about technology, business impact and impact on decision making. In India, most of the HR heads still take pride in talking about headcount, leadership programmes, OD interventions etc. They rarely talk about the cost structure of HR decision making, technology they are using to change employee experience. And this is a big problem. This may not be true for everyone however this is true about the majority.

Having said that, the younger breed is different. They are ready to take newer roles, which they see as job enrichment, are ready to work in relatively lesser known brands and ready to take chances in terms of geographies. They are adopting technology, they want to be a part of decision making and they are conscious of costs. And I think they will make to the board, it is quite likely to happen.

The path to a business role

My advice to an HR professional is to have a compulsory stint in sales. In HR you are in such a powerful situation, the controlling aspect of your personality goes very high. So much so, that sometimes you are viewed as a power center than a counsel. Because, at times you are deciding the CEO’s salary, deciding compensation across the company, which is an important thing. Knowingly or unknowingly you become an epitome of power and control, which is not a good thing.

That position of power gives you a false sense of growth. A stint in sales makes you humble. If you have a conscious six month stint in sales, it will really nurture you. My advice to those in their 30s is that you must have such a stint in sales, after which you can come back to HR. Have a stint in sales and the best of you will emerge as CEOs.

Pankaj Bansal, Co-Founder & CEO, PeopleStrong

As told to People Matters. Excerpts from this interview were published in the June 2013 issue.

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Topics: Leadership, Strategic HR, C-Suite, #PersonalJourney

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