An industry leader with over 22 years of experience across Head HR roles, HR Global COE Leader roles, business consulting roles with Big5 Consulting and large scale transformation leadership, Mahalakshmi R. is currently serving as Director HR at Mondelez India. She has led the HR function for diverse industries and organizations in the likes on Airtel, Ranbaxy, EY and Aon, among others.
In an exclusive conversation with People Matters, Mahalakshmi talks about the startup ecosystem within Mondelez, restructuring workforce structure, and striking a balance between business and people as operating models and workforce needs undergo a dramatic change.
Read on for highlights from the conversation.
What has been your biggest learning or observation about leaders, managers and employees in the post-COVID workplace?
The pandemic has been a great reset for the industry – and has in many ways created a forced pilot of Future of Work. Whether it is embracing digital or remote work or even putting Skill on demand/fluid workforce as a REAL possibility – we can surely credit COVID for being the true DISRUPTOR.
My observation has been that organizations which placed the consumer/shopper at heart and pivoted in an agile manner, are the ones that are coming out strong.
Leadership surely got redefined – with a strong focus on:
- Agility and growth mindset: Now more than ever before, leaders are getting closer to consumer insights; reimagining business delivery models and moving decisions closer to the ground, to quickly pivot
- Leaders as ambiguity absorbers: This period demanded of leaders to provide clarity amid an unprecedented and unpredictable environment and build muscle on how to inspire remote teams
- Navigate the dual focus of “bouncing back in the short term” while “planning for tomorrow's new normal”
- Last but not the least, this period got all of us to focus on safety, gratitude (for what we have) and kindness (humanity to help wherever we can)
To what degree has Mondelez experienced a shift in business model and priorities? How has that impacted your people strategies?
At Mondelez India, our people are at the heart of everything we do. This really comes from –
- Retooling the organization to grow
- Embedding our winning growth culture
- Pivoting towards new normal
This vision lies at the core of our people strategy, which was further strengthened at the back of a new focus of ‘Stronger Together’ to navigate this unprecedented change period. And in this, some things remained constant – while some things went through a reimagination and reset.
What remained constant was four elements of:
- Prioritizing colleague safety: Safety & Care is core to our ethos. Of course it took a whole new meaning with the pandemic
- Keeping consumer at the heart: This, again, is a core value and leadership imperative. This period saw us connect to consumers using our KYC app and digital immersions – and pivoting our route to market accordingly
- Encouraging agile test and learn: Over the last four years – we have been intentional about encouraging test and learn through our “shark tank” approach – where we engaged extended teams in future forward growth projects.
We have embedded agile pilots & methodologies of sharing learnings from pilots – thereby creating a startup like ecosystem. This played a seminal role in our success during the pandemic where empowered teams had to take spot decisions and pivot in an agile fashion – not only to changing consumer asks, but also to shifts in regulatory norms
- Being a workplace that encouraged flexible and remote working: We always had remote work as an integral part of our policies. The pandemic brought two changes. Remote work went from being a choice to being forced, and second, working from home has, of course, found adoption in interesting ways—not only in head office roles but also in non-traditional areas like R&D and Innovation
What was reset & reimagined: -
- Retooling the organization for growth: We dynamically pivoted the organization design and talents towards growth channels. Equally the focus on consumer and shopper insights to see the more long term and fundamental shifts to prepare for. We also pivoted our capability agenda to curate programs on resilience and delivered over 10,000 hours of relevant learning virtually
- Workplace and workforce for our strat-plan horizon: Reimagining the workplace of the future as collaboration spaces – and reviewing the shape of our workforce and policies came centre stage
- Digitization on steroids: Tech became our biggest ally – enabling engagement, capability, even onboarding/ hiring et al – enabling moments that matter without us losing out on the signature Mondelēz experience. There was an accelerated adoption of digital tools—not only as an enabler of virtual work but also as an enabler of learning, hiring and engagement!
- Geography became history: We embraced more and more roles as location agnostic – thereby broadening the talent pools we tap into – both in terms of geography, as well as other forms of diversity (including gender, multi-generational and differently abled) into our workforce – so as to represent the consumers we serve
Going forward we hope to use the opportunity to experiment with workforce models, including gig and flexible work constructs.
How are you restructuring your workforce to match the business needs? What are some of the most creative talent management measures you have put in place?
At Mondelez India, we put people at the heart of growth. Our talent strategies are focused on unlocking the growth potential of our business and our people. The strategic talent review processes continue to allow us to differentiate our talents and curate segmented development plans around “many ways to grow”. We continue to do these and have a healthy 80% internal fill rate/ build index.
In this period – we continued these efforts virtually and leveraged curated project experiences for our entry talent – so as to ensure that their learning stays on focus.
Equally for our high potentials and diversity talent – we curated development opportunities leveraging functional and shaping experiences – ensuring that they continued to work on stretch projects and build their muscles to scale higher levels of growth.
And while Mondelez India continues to be a sought-after hub for talent for roles in other markets – we have also been bringing back talent that had moved into other markets, to take on leadership roles in India.
In this period, we also engaged our high potential Extended Leadership Team members in mapping our ‘new-normal’ plans and creating the game plan on work, workplace and workforce of the future. The frontline incentives were also dynamically pivoted to enable right input parameters.
We also dynamically pivoted the workforce from channels that had no/ low offtakes to channels like e-commerce which saw unprecedented growth. We are further amplifying our four talent brand pillars to build an agile structure that empowers our employees to thrive by focusing their energies in the right direction.
- Loved Brands: We believe in providing an opportunity to all our people to be the creator of the next most amazing brands to come in the market
- Courageous Challenges: We are encouraging talent across levels to take courageous challenges and try new things. Mondelez has experimented with root to market, licensing partnerships, product innovations like 30% less sugar etc., which are some of the successful outcomes of these test and learn activities
- Mindfulness: While focusing on our business goals we also have to be mindful of giving back to the planet with our sustainability initiatives and certifications
- True Colors: In addition to the classical ways of celebrating diversity which we call true colors – we are high on living the whole peak on absolute divergence style
What talent opportunities do you foresee given the greater need for fluid workforce structures and organizations opening up to the concept of a shared talent pool?
From an industry perspective, there is no better example as the current scenario to reiterate the benefits of a fluid workforce to stay relevant through an evolving and digital landscape. At Mondelez India, we are in the midst of reviewing the business case and benefits of embracing this construct and have planned a few pilots – aligned to our ethos of test and learn.
What would your advice be for HR leaders as they navigate their way through the pandemic and strive to strike the right people and business balance?
Like any other CXO – the CHRO is challenged with the dual task of propelling the business to bounce back, while also thinking and planning for the sustained new normal (with the changed consumer, shopper and even workforce behaviour). With that in mind, there are five areas that all the leaders should take into consideration:
- Keep pivoting: Agile pivoting on what you focus energies on, as you continue to focus as a People Team on unlocking the growth potential of business and people
- Opportunity to accelerate the future: Leverage the fantastic opportunity that the crisis has provided – by accelerating the future, whether it is around digital adoption, empowering agile teams or emotional wellness
- Leverage Purpose: Discretionary efforts are maximum when people can see the bridge between their purpose/ dream and the organizational purpose.
Leverage purpose to propel inspiration.
- Balance short term recovery with long term reimagination
- Last & perhaps the most crucial is to ensure we pause as a leadership team to celebrate the grit, innovation, and courage shown by our colleagues in these tough times