Sunitha Lal, Chief Human Resources Officer at Ather Energy, in an exclusive conversation with People Matters discusses the key aspects of creating a thriving ecosystem for high performers, how proud she is of the new generation, reminisces impactful global leaders and finds common ground between tech-adoption and people-focus.
Sunitha comes with over 25 years of experience in core HR functions, spanning diverse industries and has worked with companies like Matrimony.com, Mphasis Limited, AIG and Société Générale. She has led transformational change and organizational development, implemented innovative HR strategies and fostered a value-led culture across leadership roles. As a student of behavioral sciences and organizational psychology, Sunitha has a keen interest in Group Relations work in the Tavistock tradition.
In the last 15 years Sunitha has developed consulting and advisory experience advising Boards and senior leadership teams on shaping the organization vision of prominent brands.
Q1. What triggered your interest in HR?
From a very young age, I have been interested in reading stories around Anthropology and Psychology, this along with some aspects of sociology, increased my interest in HR. I believe HR is the only field where one can see different aspects of these three subjects come together to define the practice. HR is a science that is fast evolving. What keeps me interested in the field is how we experiment and work, as things change externally.
Q2. Who have been the top 3 influential leaders in your life that inspired you to reach where you are today?
My love for reading comes from my father, a balanced and very well educated person who encouraged me to be authentic, to be who I am today. I thank him for the freedom he gave me to grow and experiment. There are others though, who have fascinated me with their ability to inspire change. Mahatma Gandhi or Maya Angelou brought about a paradigm shift while Dalai Lama inspired a generation to be compassionate. These personalities are fascinating to me.
Q3. After spending years across e-commerce, banking, insurance and IT services, how has your experience been working in a niche segment within Automotive?
I have been working at Ather for the past two years, and it has been an exciting journey so far. We are doing a lot of new things at Ather and there is a sense of pride in creating something, in being part of a story. There is also an immense pride in the new generation that will move the work ahead in terms of leadership among other aspects. We bring in talent that is beyond automotive, essentially people who are experts in their field and can apply themselves to this new domain. Attracting and retaining this talent has been a fulfilling experience.
Q4. We now hear that HR is no longer the soft aspect of an organization; there is so much more of technology involved and business being impacted from here.
As a function, HR is critical in determining how one wants to move forward in their business and arriving at what the organization wants to do. Next we translate these goals into organisation design, understand what roles are coming out of it and the type of talent we need to bring into these roles. And hence, HR is definitely not the soft aspect of an organization. Once employees are onboarded, engagement becomes important. Engagement here refers to checking back if the right people were hired to work on the primary task of the organization as well as focus on the capability building and career progression of the employee - working towards their aspirations.
Q5. Having worked across companies in banking, insurance and IT, e-commerce and now a niche in automotive, what are some of the workforce’s challenges that you came across irrespective of the sectors?
One of the concerns is for fresh graduates - the gap between academics and what organizations actually need. This divide when they come to organizations and see how much they can apply in real life scenarios can be discouraging. The industry needs to engage with educational institutions and bridge this gap. For experienced folks, the ability to get into the details and be first principle thinkers has eroded. Being able to adopt an interdisciplinary approach, to build something from scratch are other aspects that need to be encouraged.
Q6. What do you think can organizations do to bridge this gap and build a high performance culture?
When speaking of high performing culture, there are three aspects to it. The first is the individual, then is the manager, and the third is the organizational culture. As an individual, I have to take responsibility when it comes to learning and ownership of my work. Secondly, its a managers responsibility, to work on how they build their teams and provide clarity on the role and responsibilities. The responsibility does not end at giving feedback but also receiving feedback and resolving conflicts within the team. Thirdly, it’s the organization’s responsibility to be transparent, recognize talent and celebrate performance.
Q.7 What are you doing at Ather to build a high performing organization?
One of the things that stands out in our values at Ather, is that we don’t accept mediocrity. This we believe goes a long way to help to build a high performing team culture. I feel the issue we encounter with performance culture has a lot to do with sharing feedback. It is essential to be articulate with our goals, in setting expectations and see how these are helping the employee and the organization. The other thing is how much importance is given to the values at work, particularly ownership. Are you recognizing people who treat it as their own? This is the reason that at Ather, we take some time before we hire someone. We scout for talent that is high on intelligence and ownership.
Q.8 Technology is also starting to play a major role in HR practices. Any advice for talent leaders who are trying to find common ground between technology adoption while being people-focused?
Technology is disrupting the HR space at a scale never seen before. It helps by providing not only transparency and speed but excellent governance as well. Technology should be looked at as a platform on which we can build HR innovation. We have to keep in mind however that core areas of HR and people practices - org design, defining roles and hiring the right talent - relies heavily on people.
Q.9 What are you most looking forward to in the final three months of 2019?
In the next 6 months we are planning to venture into new geographies, build a new factory and add to/improve our existing products. Though we might be expanding rapidly, staying true to our goals and culture is very important.