In order to move to the CEO position, HR professionals need to have a deeper understanding of the business
To create a culture of change you need to exist in reality and have a positive confrontation with the status quo, which may also involve the belief system of the top
Number-crunching CEOs, eyeing quarter-on-quarter results, cannot focus on long-term sustainable goals
The full potential of the HR profession is yet to be realised and we need to prepare for that. HR is in a better position to become a CEO because CEOs in these challenging times cannot be just number crunchers and controlled compliance types. We require CEOs who are inclusive, understand the issues of diversity, develop chemistry with their workforce, work in teams, energise people passionately and this is the core competency of HR. They need to work on intangibles like leadership, brand, governance, culture and technology. Bureaucratic CEOs with emphasis on rules, procedures and hierarchies cannot align their organisation to an environment that requires speedy leadership. Viewed in this context, those HR professionals with proven skills in people management and who have contributed to successful transition of their organisations to operate in a competitive environment, can aspire to the corner office. However, mere HR skills are not enough to reach the CEO position.
In order to move to the CEO position, HR professionals need to have a deeper understanding of the business. Based on my own transition from HR to business, I strongly feel that organisations would do well in providing opportunities to HR professionals midway in their career so that they would be able to undertake line assignments in a planned manner. It is during these assignments that an HR professional should be able to demonstrate with his specialised skills that he could achieve better business results through people. It will also test his learning aptitude, resilience and adaptive orientation. If he passes this test and demonstrates successful transition from HR to business, he would certainly be qualified to be the CEO.
HR – the current reality
In the last 10 years, due to emergence of technology companies and multinationals operating in India, the entire focus of HR has changed to talent management, performance management and compensation management. The HR courses in management institutes have also developed similar orientation. There is no holistic orientation to HR discipline that at one time involved understanding of social system, social work, study of trade-unionism and collective bargaining, conflict-management etc. In fact, a head of HR in a large company recently lamented the fact that the new recruits in HR are reluctant to work at the plant level even for training purposes. Similarly, a professor in a management institute recently confided in me that courses in industrial relations are not popular in management schools. The HR discipline, which manifested itself with understanding of people, their aspirations and the role of employee collectives, is now tilted more towards the issues of HR productivity and utilisation to suit the culture of high performance in the change context.
In my opinion, the role of HR is to have a holistic understanding of the organisation -- its history and culture and people at large. HR has to continuously work hard to create the alignment between people and organisation and ensure that this alignment helps the organisation to be resilient in these changing times. HR professionals have to be harbinger of this change and they would require thorough grinding in understanding the social system of the organisation and not merely have the expertise in implementing western HR techniques. The main job of the HR is to create culture and to create that culture you need to exist in reality and have a positive confrontation with the status quo, which may also involve the belief system of the top.
When I moved to operations, I noticed that managers felt the business would be affected if they deal with labour problems. However, I broke that myth. I told everyone to let me correct the human equation while they run the business. So they found a collaborator in me and this collaboration had a positive impact through my tenure.
When you get involved in problem solving and change the visible culture, then you develop the respect for your profession. A new culture for transformation, where there is a trusting relationship between line managers and the top, a culture which can demolish bureaucracy and build collaborations to achieve the business goals. The essence is not in designing a format but in human processes by which you collaborate with business leaders and work with them to solve business problems, to create an environment where everyone can succeed. And collaborative relations exist when HR managers have something to offer to line mangers other than sermons and techniques.
If you are in a manufacturing organisation, your journey must begin at the plant level, you should understand the actual manufacturing process, the human processes like motivation, work culture at the grassroots level and then maybe you move up designing systems and all that.
You also need to understand the existing pattern of communication, reward, of how people are assessed etc. And then at some point of time a business responsibility is important. But it must be planned by the organisation, people should be prepared through a proper induction. It should be part of career planning to get a business responsibility to an HR person. This enables them to be in a better position to understand the human processes and engage with line managers and deliver. It also gives them a good business acumen and famialirises them with the constraints that a line manager operates in. I think an HR professional is in a better position to be a CEO if his/her career is planned and HR is also grounded in the reality.
Dr Anil K. Khandelwal is Ex-Chairman and Managing Director of Bank of Baroda and Chairman of Anugyan Consulting
(As told to People Matters. Excerpts from this interview were published in the June 2013 issue.)