HR gives you a 70 degree view of the business whereas when you are a CEO you need to have a 360 degree view
HR taught me about the value drivers of diverse businesses, being on the boards gave me a holistic view of the business
Adequate homework, varied roles can help prepare to be CEO
I did not have a grand plan of becoming a CEO. But, every opportunity that you get opens up new possibilities. I did enough homework to get up to speed about Carbon Black’s business before I took over as CEO because I didn’t want to fail. I didn’t want people to believe that HR people don’t succeed in business roles. Personally, I was not afraid of failure, but I didn’t want to let down the HR community. At Aditya Birla Group, I had established a certain amount of credibility and people had expectations of me, so failing was not an option.
I joined the Aditya Birla Group 17 years ago as the Vice President of Human Resources. Aditya Birla group is a conglomerate and has a diversified portfolio. By virtue of that, I had exposure to the dynamics of diverse businesses and that improved my mental agility. Then we entered a phase of inorganic growth in our business. In 1998, I was put on the board of directors of Indal, a listed company. Soon I joined boards of other listed companies of the Group some of which were acquired such as the PSI Data, UltraTech and that improved my understanding of business significantly. When you join the board of a listed company, you get very substantive exposure to business processes, corporate governance, accounting standards, accounting norms, risk management etc.
Before I headed Carbon Black, I was offered to head the Group’s IT function and that exposed me to business processes from another perspective. While being in HR taught me about the value drivers of diverse businesses, being on the boards gave me a holistic view of the business. All of this mentally prepared me to take up the opportunity to lead a business.
While I was prepared, there were many challenges and I can write a whole book about them. I didn’t know what the business was about, I didn’t know what the technology was, I didn’t know the equipment pieces, I didn’t know the customers, the market, all I knew were few people in those businesses. So, I made a plan and invited the then Chief Learning Officer from the Group to be my coach and requested my Chairman to announce this transition six months ahead so that I got time to prepare. I reached out to a friend’s friend who had been in the business to be my coach. I also visited the plant of one of the customers of the business to understand their expectations from us and also a colleague in Aditya Birla Group who had worked in Carbon Black Business about what works and doesn’t work in the business and the issues.
Being in HR, I always had the ringside view and watched many business leaders closely, helped them solve their problems, understood problems of business from the people’s point of view and had dealt with many long-term issues of the organisation like change, culture building and capability building. Those proved to be basic ingredients of the business.
Having said that, I had never worked under intense performance pressure of quarter-to-quarter. Output in terms of numbers had never been a strength, most of HR outputs are qualitative and you try to somehow force fit a number to it, but that is not the same as an EBIDTA number or a PAT number. HR gives you had a 70 degree view of the business whereas being the CEO you have to have a 360 degree view. Handling a business requires a kind of dexterity that you don’t need being a part of HR.
Mr. Birla had told me, “You will find yourself at the deep end of the pool. You need to brush up your finance and accounts.” To brush up my finance, I requested a retired CFO from a Group company to be my guru. I went to some of my senior business leaders and asked them to tell me how to do a business review. I reached out to everyone I could, and along the way I realised that if you don’t have an ego, and if you believe that asking people for help is not a weakness but a sign of internal security then you can leverage your ecosystem far better.
The road to being a business head
The first and foremost question that you need to ask yourself is: Why do you want to be CEO? It should not be about proving to anyone else that you can be a CEO, instead you should have a desire and have a sound reason for that. If you are proud to be in HR and enjoy your role, be in HR and be an excellent one at that. Once you realise that your calling is in business, ensure that you are outstanding in your current role i.e. HR. You can’t be a mediocre HR professional and claim to be a successful CEO. Last but not the least, you must be prepared to fail. You must know what you can leverage as your strengths and be willing to prepare yourself with specifics to get there. It is not that complex but at the same time it’s not easy.
Dr Santrupt Misra, Director, Group-HR, Aditya Birla Group & CEO of Carbon Black Business
As told to People Matters. Excerpts from this interview were published in the June 2013 issue