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BW Businessworld

New Lateral Moves

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Two months ago, sudhir singh was a man whose talents were very much in demand. The 51-year-old vice-president of engineering and projects at Essar Oil was looking at five job offers to head the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) business at Essar's competitors. "I was enjoying my job, which was more of a marketing role," he concedes. "But there is a stretch point in every job. For career advancement, I might have looked out." Before he could do that, Essar made him the CEO of Essar Projects' pipeline business, with profit and loss responsibilities. His new role is much bigger in scale, as he is tasked with growth of the division. "This level of responsibility is something I have always wanted," says Singh.

Sukant Ratnakar, 44, is another old Essar hand; he has been with the group for 14 years. His last assignment was retail business development in central India for Essar Steel. Now, he will head business development for Essar's EPC projects in Oman. "I wanted a demanding role," says Ratnakar. "Now I will be in a different country, building the business from ground up."
Singh and Ratnakar have moved on to new jobs with Essar because of a human resources initiative to keep the best talent within the group. Befittingly, this variant of an internal job market is called Next Moves. In the five odd months since it came into being, Next Moves has filled 140 positions across group companies. At least 18 of those jobs were senior management positions. Last year, the group hired 1,500 people from outside. But this year, it has hired only about 100 so far.

Here, There, To Everywhere
Creating an internal job market is not a new concept in most global companies. Nor is the idea of grooming talent internally to head new business ventures or for succession planning for firms within conglomerates. The Tata Administrative Services (TAS) is the earliest example in India. Many of its alumni have gone on to head different businesses and companies among the 90-odd companies within the Tata group. What is different is the growing recognition amongst Indian business groups that human capital is as important as financial capital if you want to be a global player of scale; or even being a significant national player, for that matter.

"Our exit interviews indicated that several good guys were leaving us to take up opportunities that also existed within our own group," says Adil Malia, group president of HR, Essar. "Through Next Moves, we are giving our employees the first shot before we search outside." Essar's attrition rate varies between 6 and 8 per cent. Through this new strategy, the group hopes to bring down the rate further.

Apart from retaining talent, Next Moves also gives employees a chance to realise their "true calling". Take Poulomi Pal. This 31-year-old who works with the branding and marketing team for Essar Steel has always been interested in the social sector. So when they required a programme development officer in the group's corporate social responsibility division, she jumped at it. She wasn't exactly qualified for it. "I am a Mudra Institute of Communications Ahmedabad graduate, best suited for branding and marketing," she says. Still the Next Moves team thought she was the right person. Abhyajit Sinha, 30, who worked in business development in Essar Power, now does investor relations at Essar Energy in London, helped, no doubt, by his past experience with JP Morgan's treasury.
Next Moves comprises a team of six people from the group's central HR department. Before it was set up, people moved using an internal job portal. But now, the new dispensation reaches out to employees the way headhunters would. "We are trying to give people long-term perspective to plan their careers," says Sujaya  Banerjee, chief learning officer of the group. "When the career proposition is delivered, engagement quotient will also go up dramatically." 

The unit borrowed the idea of a Chinese puzzle, the tangram. "The tangram can be put together to form a million shapes," says Nishant Dangle, a member of the Next Moves team. "We want to communicate that staff can use their skill sets and experience in numerous ways." The team even created a mascot, Tanman, for the programme. Today 20,000 Essar employees across India can switch jobs under the Next Moves. However, it does not include the BPO staff of Aegis, which has about 50,000 people, many of them overseas. 

A New, New Thing?
Ganesh Shermon, partner and country head of human capital advisory at KPMG, says the internal job market is a 1980s concept. "Multinationals such as HUL have used it extensively," he says. R.K. Premarajan, professor at the Xavier Labour Relations Institute in Jamshedpur, concurs: "Lateral transfers have been used as a retention tool, and as a platform for career progression and professional development." At IBM, for instance, cross-brand and cross-functional short-term assignments are not unknown. Thomson Reuters, which publishes legal, scientific and healthcare data, initially puts its business school recruits through a series of 6-month rotations through different units.

Mahindra & Mahindra has talent councils across businesses and functions that serve a similar purpose. In the past two years, 57 senior management personnel have been moved to different functions across businesses. In a fast- changing economic environment and amid growing competition, the need for leaders with diverse experience cannot be overstated.

You can find internal talent even for new businesses. For instance, Essar won a bid to build an airport in Papua New Guinea, a new business for the group. Through Next Moves, it found four people with experience in airport development, helping it avoid external hiring. Malia says Next Moves has helped explode a few myths. "It's not true that talent available in the market is superior to what is available internally, for one," he says. "Or that it takes people in a company longer to scale up; headhunting does not have to be a third-party job." The first few months of Next Moves seem to be a success story. How and where it will move next will be interesting.

Next Moves offers Essar employees:

• Challenging new job profiles within group companies
• Opportunities to work across geographies• A chance to find a new role where one can apply oneself better
• A chance to move around in the same group, and feel at home
• An opportunity to realise the ‘true calling' of an individual


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 01-08-2011)