Do engineers make good HR leaders?
Human Resources (HR) has transformed from being an admin-only function to a business-partnering approach, encompassing talent attraction and operations. Operating with a 'People First' mindset, agility, data-oriented approach, and driving for business growth with a multitude of generational diversity as priority will be the key to it in the transformed world after the pandemic.
In such a scenario, can HR be left to its traditional practitioners or should it be open to a wider spectrum of professionals?
Engineers, particularly, have managed to build very successful careers in HR. The technical skills that they bring onboard, their analytical skills and the value they see in getting to the root cause – all helps on the job.
“HR is a core business function today that heavily relies on insights, decision making, and people skills. Engineers are trained for years to systematically analyse, reason, use frameworks and be innovative in problem-solving. I’ve worked with some excellent HR practitioners over the years who are engineers by education and have built very successful careers in human resources based on their own strengths grounded in their engineering training,” says Bhavya Misra, director and head - HR, Lenovo India.
People Matters spoke to a few engineers-turned-HR leaders to know how big a leap it was in their career and how well their academic degree applies to the role as an HR professional.
Shifting from "understanding circuits to what wires people”
An electronics and communication graduate, Amulya Kulkarni Kanade today heads People Operations at Bengaluru-based advanced battery technology startup Log9 Materials.
Kanade was conscious of having an understanding of industry/domain knowledge to help solve people's challenges for organisations as part of her career trajectory.
“Given my background in engineering, it helped to make my career choice to pursue HR with technology giants across storage, hardware, and EVs. Also, I did my Bachelors in Electronics and Communication, and was always keen to be part of the technology industry,” she says.
The transition, however, was initially a bit challenging for Kanade .
“When you move away from understanding circuits to what wires people, it does get fascinating. However, this definitely has helped apply a more strategic and quantitative lens and helped me build the HR-Business partnering muscle. Applying first principles and getting to the root cause of understanding why what works has been a basic principle that I apply till date,” she notes.
Having seen her colleagues, seniors and mentors transition between engineering/ business domains to HR has been a great learning for Kanade with perspectives being offered from both the sides.
“When business priorities and people impact come together, it is a perfect recipe for a growing organisation,” she says.
'Everything technical you learned, gets applied in some way'
In her career, in addition to the technical/functional roles, Arathi Rajeswari, AVP & head of talent advancement and excellence, SunTec Business Solutions, has handled people management aspects as well.
This included engaging with the team, mentoring, discussing career aspirations and providing guidance and sometimes inspiring individuals. And over time, she realised that this is her strength.
“I like tasks with lots of interaction – be it actively engaging with our clients or with our associates. So, when this opportunity came up, I decided to go for it. My organisation has always provided the right platform to refine/redefine my career in line with the aspirations of the organisation's vision and therefore, I went ahead. The talent function is all about knowing your associates and inspiring them to be the best version of themselves. And that is something that excites me,” says Rajeswari.
The technical analysis skills have always come in handy to Rajeswari, who did her MS in Software Systems from BITS Pilani.
“You think about the root cause that needs to be fixed and not just about putting out the fire. You believe that every task can be planned like a mini project. You believe in stand-ups and continuous feedback loops. So, everything technical you learned, gets applied in some way or the other,” she says.
Also, as a technical person, you always think about automating routine or repetitive tasks, says Rajeswari.
“You are trained to think of engineering solutions to every problem statement. You think about documenting the process for someone else to pick it up. Your risk assessment of projects really helps in applying the same to the situations that you are drawn in to resolve. And of course, the most important one, we will be better equipped to understand the organisation’s vision and help to align with that to accelerate the journey,” she contends.
The transition, she says, is an ongoing journey.
“It was easy and difficult at the same time. Easy, given my experience of 23 years in the same organisation which provided enough insight to understand all the functions and the needs of the stakeholders. Difficult because a lot of unlearning and learning had to be done to fit into the role. Stakeholders expect you to be on top of matters, and the learning curve does not come to your rescue. So, you need to run at a faster pace to stay ahead – because we are dealing with the most valuable assets of the company – our incredible talent,” she adds.
'Interesting to leverage tech to drive HR processes more efficiently’
Priyanka Bhor, co-founder and creative head at uKnowva, also heads the HR tech startup’s HR functions.
“In a startup, everyone is required to wear multiple hats. Every organisation's pillars are its people. To build smarter software, we need smart people at work who can take the vision to the next level. Hiring, motivating, and retaining employees was the key to our success, hence as a founder, I took it up. I find it very interesting how we can leverage tech to drive HR processes more efficiently,” says Bhor, who did her Bachelor of Engineering (BE) in Computers.
She feels engineers can make good HR professionals.
“Engineers utilise smart HR tools for enhanced talent acquisition, management, and development. For example, we have a happiness meter. We can overview or audit the employee’s happiness index data at any time to relate it to their productivity. This helps us find the right time and reason for timely motivation or training sessions,” she says, adding that engineers should bring the human factor into AI-backed technology to clarify that AI cannot devalue human work.
‘Follow your passion and then the transition is easier’
Kanade’s advice to those engineers who wish to switch to HR as a profession is simple. “Follow your passion and then the transition is easier.”
“As an engineer, our zeal for output is a natural inclination. But, HR is all about resilience and qualitative weaving together. It is a transformation and it goes through a journey of evolution before beginning to showcase results through a culture in the organisation,” she notes.
'Not every role excites everyone'.
Rajeswari says one needs to be sure of what they want to do and will enjoy doing.
“Feedback from mentors, seniors do help in making a decision. At the end of the day, the talent function may be at the receiving end for anything that does not go well. Your resilience to adapt to that and the courage to get up and be back on track matters. Once you are clear, then it would be good to charter out a plan of action on how you want to reach that point. Talking to a good mentor is key. If you aren’t very sure about your decision, then these conversations with a mentor will definitely help,” she says.
That mentor, she adds, can be someone in your organisation or someone outside who is an expert on the job. “This is a general guideline, not just for HR roles, but for any career related decision that one takes.”