Article: Prefer progress over perfection: MARS Inc’s Kavitha AK

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Prefer progress over perfection: MARS Inc’s Kavitha AK

In an insightful discussion, Kavitha AK, the recently appointed Director - People & Organisation for Mars Inc’s Royal Canin division, spoke about how HR is back in the co-pilot seat of business leadership.
Prefer progress over perfection: MARS Inc’s Kavitha AK

In today’s world of work, change is the only constant. Having dealt with multiple disruptions over the past few years, modern HR professionals today are taking a people-centered approach to leadership – whether it is creating policies that are intentionally flexible, empowering managers to take charge, or working towards creating a positive work-life balance.

People Matters spoke to Kavitha AK, Director - People & Organisation for Mars Inc’s Royal Canin division, about the growing pet care industry in India, India’s emergence as a manufacturing hub, and her views on leveraging technology to not only improve employee experience but also stay ahead of the competition. She also discussed evolving expectations of employees and her recipe for building relationships – very appropriately called the ‘CAT’ model!  

Here are some excerpts:  

A wave of automation is hitting the HR function and essentially changing how we work. Will leveraging tech be a big focus area for you? 

It's a sign of maturity when a function is hit by the automation wave – I think of it as the tech-enabled transformation of the function. Organisations are investing in HR technology and moving to highly-evolved operating models for HR. At MARS, People and Organisation directors are leveraging digital systems to drive data-backed decision-making for business and are empowering line managers to be in charge of people's decisions. This leaves us with time to focus on the things that matter for the business, which is keeping an eye on the external forces that disrupt business direction, building a robust business driven by our purpose and nurturing the cultural nuances that deliver a high-performing organisation. Tech savviness is a very underrated competency for HR in today's world and I'm looking at leveraging and unlocking the power of HR tech. 

In light of the evolving work environment and changing expectations of employees, what strategies do you have in mind to enhance employee experience and ensure a positive work-life balance?

We consider our employees to be partners in the business – that’s why we call them associates. We have taken note of how associate needs have changed over the past few years. I would bucket them into five themes: 

  1. Purpose: Our associates want to make a lasting impact through their work and contribute meaningfully to this world. They are able to resonate well with our motto ‘The world we want tomorrow starts with how we do business today’. As a family-owned business, we have the freedom to shape our future instead of chasing short terms goals for quarterly profits. Our 100k+ associates in Pet Care help pets in 130+ countries lead a better life through nutrition, veterinary care, diagnostics and other services to make this world better for pets everyday. 
  2. Flexibility: Our associates prefer flexibility so that they can bring in their best selves at work and MARS’ Future of Work program offers hybrid work options and flexible hours. Our P&O processes and policies are very people-first and intentionally flexible to cater to our diverse workforce. 
  3. Meaningful work: This is an aspect in which technology plays a crucial role because we've been able to automate mundane work so our associates can focus their energies on our purpose, pets, customers, and society. We have an evolved job architecture that ensures that each job is meaningful. We've invested a lot in both design and technology and job architecture to ensure that the work that our associates do is meaningful. 
  4. Careers: MARS has over 1,40,000 associates across the globe. The organisation believes in growing leaders from within so you will find many leaders who have grown by working across multiple brands across multiple geographies. Mars is also a great place for women to build long fulfilling careers without hitting a glass ceiling. E.g. the Royal Canin India leadership is a gender-balanced team. The other enabler is the job architecture that caters to vertical and lateral career moves, thus setting associates up for success in their career journeys. The Mars University provides development programs for our associates to build capability for their ‘Next Best Move’.
  5. Work-life balance: We have invested a lot in the health and well-being of our associates. Recently, we've launched a global program called Be Well Together which focuses on holistic health and well-being of our associates. We use the annual MARS Associate Survey to measure our associate’s energy levels, and each Line Manager works intentionally to improve it. Many of our offices are pet-friendly, and we believe pets help improve the stress levels of our associates. 

My role is to ensure that I build strong interlocks within the People and Organisation function so we can deliver the full value of all the MARS offerings to its associates.

Can you provide some insights into your approach to building strong relationships with employees, business leaders, and key stakeholders to promote collaboration and drive organisational success?

Over the years I have developed a personal recipe for building relationships, which I like to call the CAT Model. C stands for credibility. Early in your career, you're hired for your potential. But once you progress into senior roles, you are hired for what you've already done. You're expected to bring in the functional expertise needed to solve problems. And your peers respect you and want to build mutually beneficial relationships because of your functional expertise. So that's what credibility is – the perception that you can solve problems and that's the first aspect you need to focus on to build great relationships. The A stands for alignment. Waiting for people to come to you with problems to solve is counterproductive as it can take away time from building strategic partnerships. I believe we should instead spend time understanding real problems on the ground, co-creating solutions, and reaching a mutually agreeable norm of working so that they can be a strong foundation for high performing leadership team. Lastly, T stands for trustthis is the toughest one to attain and the only way to build this muscle is to be authentic and show the courage to call a spade a spade and persistently advocate for win-win solutions. 

What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities you foresee in managing people and shaping the organisational culture within the pet care industry in India?

The pet care category is among the most promising in the FMCG industry. Because this category is so promising, there are more global and local players looking to capture a share of the fast-expanding market. The Make in India initiative has also created a favorable ecosystem and companies today are looking at India not just as a demand hub for sales and marketing, but also as a manufacturing hub. And that means there's going to be a lot of job opportunities and staffing is going to be a challenge. Since pet care products are rooted in science, there is a need for upskilling investments while onboarding new hires and launching new products. Hence, organisations will need to invest in building capability in scientific communication. 

Our associates deeply value the culture, purpose, our leaders’ people-first mindset and a deep sense of belongingness they experience in the organisation. It is very common to meet associates who have long tenures across different departments and we see this as a huge competitive advantage for us to retain our #1 position. 

I am very excited about partnering with the business in unlocking this opportunity for Royal Canin India. 

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Topics: Leadership, Appointments, #Interview

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