You must have the humility to acknowledge that you don't know and have the willingness to go out and learn from anyone
Once you've decided about your goal, ensure that you do your existing job well; excel in it, because it gives you the internal credibility to ask for something different
Ask all your questions, no matter how trivial, in the first 90 days – After that you need to start providing answers
I did have the desire to play a business role even when I moved into the HR leadership role at Wipro almost 11 years ago and I waited for the right opportunity. It was not because I thought a business role or a CEO role was more glamorous, but I simply enjoyed the rhythm of a business role, interacting with customers to know their expectations and challenges etc.
The more you push yourself, the more you learn. Even while playing the HR role, I never restricted myself to functional boundaries and did not miss any opportunity to get exposed to aspects of business which typically would fall beyond the stricter functional fences. Besides, Wipro always encouraged people to explore and look beyond. This played an instrumental role in preparing me for the business role. I shared my career aspiration with my manager who was very encouraging and said as long as I could work towards it I could play the role. In 2010, I was offered the opportunity when my colleague was transitioning from the business I am heading today and I grabbed it with both hands.
Getting into the CEO’s shoes
HR is an integrated function and expectations are business aligned. When you are a part of this function in a leadership role, you get a very diverse and rich exposure to all aspects of the organisation, including the business side - it almost becomes part of your own growth and development. The more time I spent in HR, the more comfortable and confident I felt. It was not a difficult transition for me.
The basic rhythm of a leadership role does not change. A leader has to drive and manage change, build a good solid team and put the building blocks and foundation for a long-term sustainable business. In all our businesses, we have a clear mandate to build on the existing and grow, make it more global and be able to proactively make the best of the opportunities before us. What does it mean? It means being able to build the right kind capabilities, identify the opportunities and to be able to drive and manage change. Having been an HR practitioner, it made me far more sensitive to the whole process of change, and I have to acknowledge that it did play a significant part in my own transition and my ability to lead the team.
When I moved into the business role, I understood that I had to go through a learning curve. I acknowledged I do not know enough, asked all my questions no matter how trivial, no matter how simple they seemed. You need to realise what you know and what you don’t know and be open to learning from others. For someone new to the role, you have to do it quickly - ask all your questions in the first 90 days, no matter how trivial or simplistic they seem.
Let me tell you about one instance that I can recall. This was right in the beginning and I was asking some very basic questions about our product and one of my colleagues sensed that I was finding it difficult to visualise. He suggested that I come to the plant. I was not sure what to expect but we agreed on a date. When I went to the plant, he took me to the R&D workshop where he had dismantled the complete product into multiple components and neatly organised and labeled them. He then explained each part and its functionality and suddenly it began to fall in place. It was an invaluable experience for me. The bigger lesson that I learnt was the realisation that all of us have a learning gap but it is equally important to know the best way to address that. I keep telling my team members that as long as you have the humility to acknowledge that you don’t know and the willingness to go out and learn from anyone, people will reach out to you.
If you want to be a CEO
I think it is an individual thing, I don’t want to generalise it. There are many angles to it – first, you have to enjoy what you are doing, which is so important because one should never think of moving from one role to another as an escapist. You have to actually build that plank of success, which should give you the confidence, the credibility for you to be able to look at other roles which you think will help you grow.
I think there is a clear trend emerging - there is a much greater expectation from the HR leadership and the function to play a role which is much more broad and impactful. Some of those old stereotypes, whether the person is commercially savvy or not, whether the person understands the business enough or not, whether the person understands the finance part of it or not are very rudimentary and given. Those used to be classic differentiators of the yesteryears – not anymore. At least not for successful HR leaders and function. Such transitions are more likely today.
Continuous learning is the key to progress, no matter which role you are in. Once you have decided about your goal, ensure that you do your existing job well; excel in it, because it gives you the internal credibility to ask for something different. You must always speak from the plank of success and the plank of credibility. Second, ask yourself if you have the genuine desire to move into this role and what do you need to learn and get prepared for it. Third, have a very honest discussion with your manager about your interests and aspirations and ask for feedback. Most of the people in HR actually hesitate because they think that it is a very unconventional task so they never ever raise their hand if there is such an opportunity.
Last, one has to be honest to oneself; ask yourself what you enjoy doing. It is carrying a big responsibility and you have to enjoy it in all its shades. If you want to be a CEO because of the common world view of the position of a CEO being a point of arrival for any functional head, it will be a big fallacy and a mistake. It is better to be good leader in a function than to end up as a mediocre CEO. One should never do that. Make the move when you have a good reason to believe that you are going to enjoy it and have reasonable chance to succeed.
Pratik Kumar, President, Wipro Infrastructure Engineering, Member of Corporate Executive Council and Executive Vice President Human Resources of Wipro
As told to People Matters. Excerpts from this interview were published in the June 2013 issue