Blog: Reflections on bidding adieu to a 'singular' career

Learning & Development

Reflections on bidding adieu to a 'singular' career

HR veteran Krish Shankar shares insights on successfully managing a career in HR amid times of change.
Reflections on bidding adieu to a 'singular' career

On a scorching day in May 1984, I reached the Chandigarh guest house of Eicher Tractors after a three-day train journey. Fandhi Ram, the caretaker, warmly welcomed me. He gave me a room and prepared dinner for me. That was how I got ready for my first day at work at the Parwanoo factory of Eicher Tractors. That journey has taken me over five different organisations, and five different industries, working and living in three different countries, across many cities, and working with phenomenal people and learning from them. I have seen organisations change. Likewise, HR has also changed significantly. I think I have been very lucky.

As I was reflecting on this 39-year journey in my ‘retirement’ from the ‘singular’ corporate career, I thought I would share some of my perspectives. 

These are not lessons or advice by any means. I’m just sharing some insights on careers in HR in the context of change. 

In a way, our careers are made up of two intertwined strands, like DNA. The first strand is what I call the "CV." This is about what you have done in your career, the different jobs and experiences, and recognitions. The second strand is your ‘leadership legacy’: what people say about you, how you make them feel, and your leadership skills. Both these strands of the career DNA work in tandem.

In the early part of your career, your CV is more prominent—what you have done. But in the latter half of your career, as you take on leadership roles, your leadership brand becomes more important.

When companies look to appoint people in senior roles, what’s more at play is your leadership brand, not your CV. You can’t build it overnight, and you have to work on it over the years. In fact, you start to lay the foundations of your leadership brand as you build your CV in the early part of your career. So focus on what kind of leader you want to be and work on it, even as you get your early wins. I kind of stumbled upon this as I worked through my career, but I guess the more successful folks have clarity on what they want to be and have worked on it assiduously. One additional insight: we have to also define what it is that we will stand out for. What is your ‘edge’? We can’t be good at everything—it's impossible. But find that one ‘edge’ for yourself and nurture it. That’s your unique strength, which helps you establish yourself as a standout professional.

Another realisation I have had over these years is that people do change. And they can do extraordinary things, even things that you would not normally expect them to do. It needs the right mix of the right job, the right team climate, and the right boss. In fact, context is so important. And for your own development and growth, look to work in different contexts. There is a caveat, though. Of course, you should like the different contexts, but working in different situations helps you develop your own versatility and flexibility.

I was lucky to work in five different industries, with lots of different bosses, in different countries. While there are many people who have built phenomenal careers in just one company, or in some cases, in just one type of role, I would err on the side of variety! Early on in my career, I moved out of HR to do an operations role. I wanted to do that to experience business; while that delayed my promotions at that stage, I caught up very soon. Nowadays, I see a hesitation amongst young HR folks to move to different jobs with HR or even to do cross-functional roles. I guess it is a sign of the times, as people want to build on what they have already done. Again, there is no one answer, but the principle is this: you will build your flexibility and versatility by working in different contexts. Another thing I learned here is that what works brilliantly in one industry may not be right for another, so it teaches us to understand the business context and evolve the right solutions. 

Work is not always a bed of roses. We all go through tough situations, bad bosses, and disappointments. I have had my fair share of these downturns. In fact, in my late 30s, I had a heart attack, and as I was getting back to work, I thought I wouldn’t be able to make it in the competitive corporate world. I felt that people were writing me off, and I seriously considered quitting corporate work. A change of scene and a different role helped me. Similarly, I found it very challenging in the first year of moving to new organisations. You sometimes felt unwelcome and wondered why you were even hired! (Companies in India with strong cultures have a natural ‘organ-rejection’ tendency; new hires find it tough, but once they cross a year or 18 months, they then stay on.) I have also been through periods of leadership transition where you may wonder if you are still seen as a part of the team. I am outlining these as such challenges are ‘par for the course’, and we all normally stumble through them. Is there anything I learned from all this? First, we have to accept that these are all part of work life. A mindset of ‘this too shall pass’ is needed, along with lots of patience! Second, during these times, it is best to just put your head down and work—as a colleague used to say, ‘stay under the radar’ and keep doing the basics. The best is to avoid gossip groups and avoid becoming part of cliques or camps. And the last learning is that you need to have some routines that you could stick to like running, walking, meditation- whatever you choose. It could be 30 to 40 minutes; these truly help you focus. I took to running to keep my mind calm; it probably helped. Also, keep something aside from work that you can focus on—a hobby or a passion project—so that you can build an identity for yourself other than the job. 

HR has changed significantly over the years, and corporate India has truly changed. Those days we were called ‘Personnel Department’ (this was pre-email days and we would send handwritten notes, oddly called memos, and the address that still is in my mind is ‘HO-Personnel, 2WW, referring to the HUL Personnel Department on the 2nd floor West Wing of the wonderful Backbay Reclamation building). I think we probably had more freedom to do stuff. As a personnel manager in a factory, I have developed and run supervisory development programmes, etc. (These days, we may have to use templatised design and material and get someone from the central training team to help.) The ‘Management Development’ team in HUL in those days used to be just three people: a Head of Management Development, a Recruitment Manager, and a Training Manager (all other ‘Personnel’ folks were in the factories)! I remember the change we made to the HR Business Partner concept around 1999–2000. HR has now become more sophisticated, with more science, more data, and more processes.

Those days, I remember the common grouse amongst HR folks being whether HR had a seat at the table, which I think is now firmly set at rest. HR is now seen as a significant driver of business success. While many things have changed, the core role of the HR function has not changed over the years. What has changed are the tools and processes that help HR achieve its role, and maybe some additional focus areas like DEI. A couple of days ago, I was looking at the job description of a ‘Personnel Manager’ from an HUL booklet published in 1996; the role hasn’t changed much. Well, I am rambling now, distracted by the memories (age has its effects!). But here are two key insights that I think could be relevant: First, the basics of HR don’t change. Always go back to the basics—be clear about your objectives in terms of what you want to achieve. Second, the "how" you could do it is changing every day. Keep learning the new techniques, and the new ideas that you see around you. I think successful HR leaders are the ones who stick to the basics, execute them well, and yet keep learning and trying out new tools. One test you could try is to write your CV every year and see if there is a significant change in terms of projects you have done or new things you have worked on. An additional thought- there are tremendous opportunities for us to learn – newer projects or challenges, leaders around us (I have learnt virtually everything from people around me), other companies/peers etc. However, the thing that differentiates continuous learners that I observed is that they have a learning mindset- all their senses are tuned to learn and they put things into practice and experiment,

Finally, it is all about the people. My most enjoyable moments have been when I walk around and speak to people. Whether it's Netar Lal and Devraj in the transmission assembly or Lakshmi and Bhavna in the finishing/packing section, Whether it’s the management trainee who has recently joined us or the gentleman close to retirement, While the motivation for this connection in the early part of my career was to get the IR pulse or understand issues on the shop floor, it morphed into a more ‘get to know people and what people are doing’. People give me feedback that I remember names. Maybe that’s something to do with what Father McGrath taught us in XLRI. He asked us whether we remembered the names of the rickshaw driver or the security guard. that struck me. I firmly believe that in the end, what marks a successful HR person is the authenticity and credibility you bring. The individual makes a bigger difference in HR than in any function- in a way, I guess HR is more of an ‘art’. In addition to skills, behavours, and experiences, it is the mindset that is important to become a great HR person. A collaborative, solution-oriented, and enabling mindset is key.

When I chose HR, it was more of an accident, but I have no regrets. It has been a fulfilling few years. This is what I told my team recently: HR has the ability to make a lasting impact in an organisation. When people quit organisations, they don’t discuss revenue growth or profits. They will talk about the culture of the company, the people's practices, and the people they worked with. We have an opportunity to make a lasting and meaningful contribution here. And the impact you would have on hundreds of people, in their lives and careers. I am thankful to everyone for this wonderful opportunity for me to work with many people and help with what little I could do. I am signing off with immense gratitude to all and counting my blessings for being so lucky with this. Cheers!

PS: Do get a copy of my book ‘Catalyse’ – I have tried to summarise many of my professional learnings there.


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Topics: Learning & Development, #HRCommunity

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