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'The Biggest Challenge Is Finding The Right Talent'

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There is a needless debate in the industry about HR being core to business or partnering function or support function, feels  Anand Bhaskar, Vice President, People Success, Sapient India. There is no business which can run without people or intellectual capital. When it comes to selection, the biggest challenge is to maintain a balance between "business’s urgency to hire talent" vs. "availability of right quality talent", says Bhaskar. Though he counts his days in industrial relation (IR) early in his career as the biggest achievement in his career, it is in enabling people to make success of their careers at Sapient that he has found his forte.

Excerpts:

What made you to choose HR as a profession?
When I had to make a career choice at the young age of 16, I was clear about what I did not want to do. No science, no arts… so that left me with only one option way back in 1985 which was commerce. I loved maths and business always interested me. Hence, I chose to pursue commerce. Since, it was something I loved, I excelled and completed my Honors in Financial & Cost Accounting with distinction in 1989. The second career choice I had to make while in Business School was marketing, finance or HR. While my first love was finance, I chose HR for three reasons: (a) the finance batch only had a class of 2 people, (b) I did not want to do marketing & (c) HR had better placement opportunities. During the period of 1989-91, campus placements weren't easy, so one had to be more pragmatic. Interestingly, when I think of my career choices in hindsight, it was through a process of elimination followed by selection.

What has been the biggest achievement in your career?
When I think of achievements, I do not prefer to categorise achievements as bigger or biggest. I believe a career is a journey and there will be peaks that one would scale at a given point in time. Each one is valuable and close to my heart. However, some of my big achievements have been in the space of employee relations and achieved at considerable risk to self and family.

I used to work for a reputed MNC as a cluster HR Manager leading HR for a cluster of five factories in Pondicherry between 2002 and 2004. This was probably the most challenging assignment ever in my career as I had to deal with close to 10 Unions, 2,000 workmen, hundreds of contract workers, a hostile local environment surrounding the factories, unhelpful government etc. Besides, the unions had not signed wage agreements with the management for over 2.5 years and there was huge industrial strife in all the Units. Within five months of taking charge, we succeeded in not only signing agreements in all factories with unions, we also signed prospective wage agreements, introduced productivity linked wages, got the unions to agree to TPM (Total Productive Maintenance, a JIPM methodology) to improve productivity and over a period of next 2 years, led three of the five factories to TPM Level 2 certification. This was a record in its own right during that period. We also introduced a significant culture change initiative using the CAP Model (Change Acceleration Process Model), which introduced Factory Development Committee (FDC) in these factories, united multiple unions which were often at conflict with each other and united the workmen for their own benefit. During this period, there was significant level of tension and some violence, which resulted in a near fatal attack on one of my colleagues. I was a high risk target during that entire period and having spent 2.5 years in an extremely challenging and stressful environment under constant life threat makes me think of this as one of the most challenging assignment thus far in my career.

What have been the primary traits/qualities that have helped you attain your present position?
There are many qualities that have helped me over the years in my career. Besides the foundational traits of honesty, hard work and value based leadership - I have learnt to adopt different leadership styles for varied situations. I have also learnt to use styles like – directive, coaching, pace setting, inspirational and leading from behind etc. depending on situations. I have learnt that as we grow, we need to reinvent ourselves and that a few qualities that have got us to a certain place, may not help us to get to the next level. Hence, constantly revisiting one's strengths and critically evaluating what one needs to build afresh has been my simple success formula. Having said that, one quality/trait that I hold very closely to my heart and would never give up is "leading with authenticity" at all times. No matter what price I have paid for the last 22 years in my career, I have never compromised on being "authentic". I always have had the best interest at heart for the other person.  I have no regrets if that resulted in slower growth at times in my career, since I think it kept my conscience clear and I could sleep well at night.

What are the challenges you are facing in your organisation?
Sapient has had an incredible growth story for the last so many years. The company is led by value based leadership, has a strong culture and is very people centric in its philosophy. Sapient has mostly grown organically and now has business in more than 16 countries across the world. This has created unique opportunities for the company and also a few challenges. Creating a strong internal leadership pipeline is both an opportunity and a challenge given where Sapient is today. Talent development agenda is today central to the business strategy and its future success. Sapient's leadership continues to believe in the philosophy to grow leadership from within and this has resulted in adoption of talent review processes and leadership development as a key focus area. 

What are the steps a company should take to develop and motivate future leaders?
Leadership is a scarce resource in today's highly competitive world of talent. Gone are the days when companies could acquire ready leadership talent and allow them to lead. Business models are no longer unique. Even if they are, the uniqueness is short lived as another company easily copies and replicates the business model and strategy. What makes a company uniquely positioned is its culture. Hence, by acquiring leadership from outside one cannot retain and grow one's own culture. Therefore, companies that are willing to think long term, should invest in developing leaders from within, who understand and promote its culture. A few tested industry practices like talent reviews and succession planning are relevant to all companies.

An enhanced value in such processes is likely to be seen when it is aligned to the company’s cultural attributes. The trick is in getting this alignment right. Further, to develop and motivate future leaders, it is about taking bets on people. There is no way to scientifically assess 100 per cent readiness of any future leader. Assessment Centers are indicative and provide data points to predict probability of success of a particular leader if deployed in role. However, the key is  "betting" on such people and providing them with an "ecosystem" in which to succeed. Entrusting people with higher order responsibility is a huge method of motivation. In all these decisions, HR has a key role to play in both enabling the decision and supporting the leaders as they work through the emerging challenges in their role.

What is your rate of attrition? How do you prevent it?
Sapient's attrition is far below the IT industry average. At Sapient, we believe in promoting engagement rather than preventing attrition. We have team based engagement surveys that we conduct through the year and keep a tab on our engagement scores. We leverage these surveys to understand the issues our people face and work with them to address the same. We also have internal social network community called Vox, where people express their thoughts openly. At Sapient, we have an open culture and encourage our people to express themselves at all times. This has helped us in knowing what is top of mind of our people and we make all efforts to address concerns if any.

How do you retain talent in your company?
At Sapient, we do not offer jobs, we offer careers. We have many tenured people at Sapient. Most of our leadership is home grown and have been with the company for 10-17 years (of its 22 year history). We have a culture of betting on smart people and supporting them to be successful. We offer multiple job rotation opportunities for people, which enable them to grow both horizontally and vertically over time. It helps them build capability and also grow in their careers.

What sets your company apart from other companies as far as work culture goes?
Sapient has a unique culture. It has a culture of true openness, non-hierarchal working style, open offices, deep client centricity and people focused environment. Our focus on people is so strong that we call the HR function, “People Success”. HR is not considered a good word at Sapient, since we do not think of people as resources. We think of them as just people. Our language describes how we think and feel about our people. We believe HR exists to enable peoples' success, hence the name, There are many companies that propagate openness but having worked with some of the most respected names in the industry for 20 years in my career, I can say with utmost conviction that Sapient has a different level of "openness", which clearly makes it stand out from the rest.

What is the biggest challenge you face when selecting people?
In today's world, the biggest challenge is not about finding talent, it is about finding the "right talent". There are many engineers who do not know enough of engineering; many MBAs who do not understand basic concepts of management; many specialists who are not deep enough in their domain.There are plenty of problem areas with regard to talent. So when it comes to selection, the biggest challenge is to maintain a balance between "business’s urgency to hire talent" vs. "availability of right quality talent".

How has HR been important to the bottom line of the company?
In a services company like Sapient, all that we have is "talent". So our ability to attract, develop, engage and retain talent becomes the key to our success. Sapient is what it is today due to its people processes and ability to grow leaders from within. For any company measures of work by the HR  function is linked to how HR manage its investments in talent, E.g. Revenue per employee; people cost as a percentage of revenue or profits; profit per employee etc. as measures which show direct correlation to bottom line. Other intangibles such as how many new leaders grown from within, succession planning indices of the company (which is a measure to the leadership pipeline of a company) etc. are other measures which have indirect correlation to the bottom line and revenue growth of the company.

How has the downturn affected HR?
Any economic downturn has only enhanced HR's relevance to business. In a difficult environment the key is to retain your talent, manage your people processes better, invest in the right talent and grow them etc. Therefore, HR each time has played a key role in ensuring both business sustainability during the crisis and thereafter its revival.

How should HR be integrated with the core line of business?
In my mind, HR is an integral part of the business. There is a needless debate in the industry about HR being core to business or partnering function or support function etc. The true test is that there is no business which can run without people or intellectual capital. HR brings in these people, grooms them and grows them. In that case, how can HR not be a part of business?

(As told to Poonam Kumar)