Culture, Leadership, Empowerment, Agility and Evolution of HR

Rajeev Dubey, in conversation with Sunil Singh & Arup Roy Chowdhury

Sunil Singh: Sir! You are a legend. You have seen the journey of HR in India and across the world. You have HR evolving from an administration function to a pure HR function. The good part is that you have seen this transition, both from the Business and HR sides.

Rajeev Dubey: Sunil, you do me far more honour than I deserve, and obviously, I’m just short of words, but I’m neither a legend nor do I have that kind of deep experience that you refer to, but thank you for your kind words.

Sunil Singh: Welcome Sir! You have been part of two large organizations, Tata Group and Mahindra & Mahindra Group. You have seen this journey and evolution of HR in its entirety. I would like to hear from you about this HR evolution.

Rajeev Dubey: Thank you, Sunil. So I have first to make a confession that I got into HR in the year 2004 as a function. Before that, I was purely on the so-called business side as if HR and business were two separate things, but actually, they aren’t, and that’s the point I’m going to make.

Yes, it is true that in the early days, I started working in 1975, and I joined Tata Steel, which was a significantly evolved organization as far as dealing with human beings was concerned and in its recognition of the fact that human beings are actually very critical to the business. Even there was no department or function called HR. It used to be industrial relations. It used to be personnel, and I don’t remember any Department called HR. There was a training department. There was Technical Training and there was management development.

But words like performance management system, talent management system, or any of the HR levers were terms that I came into contact with after 2004. They weren’t really part of the nomenclature. But I guess It was all there. Maybe it was called by different words. It was not so active. The kind of prominence that I now see rightly for the criticality of humans in unleashing the full potential of an organization, that wasn’t overtly talked about. Many of the people’s functions had more to do with the administrative side than the developmental side. Not that the development side was not there, it was there but maybe it was called by different names.

I started seeing a shift in the whole approach to human capital and the importance of human capital to the fact that human beings were not merely resources. But in a sense, they were actually the source of the greatness of an organization. That shift, at least, I became conscious of in the 90s. The seminal work that started it off was from this book called “Good to Great” by Jim Collins.

So, I think that book really started a paradigm shift. Where from a tacit or sometimes a very explicit belief, that to do good business, you needed to be tough, you needed to be insensitive. People were Commodities. Maybe even a belief that all people’s costs were short-term costs to be minimized and not really looking upon human capital as one of those rare assets that, instead of diminishing in value, actually appreciate.

Instead of depreciating, it appreciates if you treat it appropriately. If you provided the kind of input that you have. And then, if you were to do a cost-benefit analysis over a period of time, the benefits would far outstrip the costs. Therefore, the approach that now is or at least is being paid lip service to, even if it is not consistently being fully implemented, is that if we invest wisely and appropriately in human beings or human capital, We can actually get huge returns over a period of time, that far outweigh the costs.

I have seen this shift in the 90s, and the shift is only accelerating. I believe that, with the Advent of technology, this shift can take various shapes, and a lot of it has to do with the power of computing. Artificial intelligence or related terms like machine learning are input to this change. These technology inputs will be like electricity. Everybody will have access to it. The real question is how do you use this power, and do human beings become irrelevant? And I’d like to suggest that far from becoming irrelevant, human beings actually will become even more critical, and the so-called soft skills will become as important, If not more important in some instances, than the hard skills, so it’s not a question of either or.  It is the power of and. We have to get away from what you may call the tyranny of either/or. Is it human beings or is it machines? To acknowledge and realise that it will be machines, but it will also be human beings, how the two work together in pursuit of purpose and in pursuit of a goal is what will define an organization.

I looked at human beings from a business point of view till 2004. In 2004, when I joined Mahindra Group, I got into the HR function. And I have always had a business role. So, I was able to keep a very close link between the two, and I think that it was really important that human HR practices are an integral and seamless part of that ecosystem called management.

HR actually goes across everything because it deals with human beings. The fundamental role of HR Is to create a culture, and I will Define culture for you in a minute. It is to create a culture that results in sustained business outperformance while simultaneously showing extreme care for all stakeholders and nurturing and nourishing the core values of the organization. The role of HR is this dance between sustained business out-performance, extreme care for stakeholders, and the core values of the group.

HR plays this role of how you, instead of getting a cacophony or wild random movements, produce a beautiful Symphony, and you produce a meaningful Opera out of the interplay. That’s the role of it.

And what is culture? Culture is how we behave in our everyday lives, especially as we go around making business decisions. So that is my understanding, and that is what I have whenever I have had a role to play in HR, which was with the Mahindra group, where I headed HR at the group level. I always looked upon the role of HR as “unleashing the potential to the achievement of a purpose by the interplay of outperformance, business outperformance, extreme care and core values.”

And the purpose, of course, and the starting point of everything is, what is the purpose of your organization? Why do we exist? And all, when I talk about unleashing the potential, it’s in the context of achieving the organisation’s purpose.

Sunil Singh: You have been part of two of the largest groups, Tata and Mahindra Groups,  both of them are regarded as one of the best known for their culture and values. When one meets people from these two groups, one can feel the culture. How is it possible to ensure this level of culture building across levels? It must not be an easy task; it will require a lot of things to do.

Rajeev Dubey: Yes, of course. So first of all, I am very happy to hear that. You do get a sense that the people of these two groups exhibit their cultures, and it had nothing to do with me. So, I’m not taking any credit for it. I’m just expressing my happiness that you can make out. Yeah, these people seem to be living and breathing some values which the group espouses. If that is true, it’s good. Both these organizations have thousands and thousands and thousands of people, and there are some who are not necessarily living every day the values of the organization, and that’s a constant struggle.

But how do you create this? That’s your question. How does an organization Ensure? Or try to ensure that every person in that organization lives the purpose, culture, and values as they go around doing their business activities on a day-to-day basis. So the technical answer to that is: it’s done through what are known as the HR levers.

That’s the technical answer and that’s also the correct answer. But I mean, the word HR levers may or may not mean much to people who are not perhaps in the HR profession. That’s why I’m saying that’s the technical answer, and I will quickly get into that.

What are these HR drivers?

I think It is how leaders walk the talk or don’t walk the talk. It’s the behaviour of people who are in leadership positions. And leader for me is anyone who has at least one person looking up to him or her, so in a sense, it embraces everybody. But clearly, it starts from the top. So does the leader? live, breathe, talk, do, and think about the values or the purpose or the culture, that they want to see in the organization.

I mean if you go back to Gandhiji, he said that be the change that you want to see in others.  think at the end of the day that is the most important because all of us are actually looking at role models. There are people who influence us. We see how they behave, and either consciously or unconsciously, we are trying to do exactly what we see them do.

Yes, you need to align all the HR levers to these values and to this purpose and to the culture. What are HR levers? It is things like the performance management system, recruitment system, onboarding system, talent management system, reward and recognition system, Learning and Development system, and communication system are the HR Levers. There are seven or eight of them. So you can also break them up into smaller parts. But this is the ecosystem of HR Levers.

Every organization has these HR Levers. How do you bring these HR levers to life? What is it? Say, for example, let’s take the reward and recognition system. What kind of people do you reward? And what message do you give to other people in the organization? If you are rewarding people living your values, then the message you send out and the role models you create are of one kind. But if you reward those people who don’t live the values of the organization, then you are sending out very confused messaging and no matter how much you try through the other liver no matter what you say how you communicate what you put into the KRAs, that could be one thing but you know, you are ending up rewarding people who are doing things just very different from what the professed purpose and values and culture. Then it won’t work.

I think that you certainly need to align all your HR Levers, and that’s a massive ongoing task. It’s not a one-time thing. You have to keep on reviewing it. You have to keep on course correcting, you have to keep on creating more and more Apostles and Champions of the values. But ultimately, it’s the behaviour of the leader. The top leader and then the leadership levels as it percolates down. Now, that is really the most powerful thing, and it has to be supported by the alignment of the HR levers.

That’s what I think is required really to create a culture and it’s not a hundred-meter dash. It’s an ongoing marathon. And you can never sit back and say that we have arrived and done it. No, you can’t do that. It’s all the time in churn. All the time in churn. All the time, there are people who will deviate from it, and there is fear; then the external environment changes, business models change, and then how do you need to redefine your culture, or there are some things that change, some things that don’t change. For example, you may adjust strategy and tactics in KRAs, but do you make frequent changes in the values, do you make frequent changes in the purpose, and what’s the difference between a purpose and goals? So these are questions that all organizations and leaders have to deal with, but they are there.

One cannot try to make it appear simple or simplistic. I mean, you have to keep it simple, the KISS principle, but it’s not simplistic. You have to understand and appreciate that there is complexity, and you have to deal with that complexity. But yet deal with it in a simple manner for people to follow and do.

Keeping it simple is the mantra.  but you can’t make it simplistic. You see, you can’t sort of ignore the complexity of reality. And at the same time, you have to keep it simple. So that people can understand what is to be done and not be overwhelmed by too many KRAs, too many initiatives, and too much information. There is a balance that you have to keep between how simple you’re keeping your processes and your metrics and yet you are not ignoring the complex forces that are at play. To come up with a simple answer, you have to go through a lot of complexity and then arrive at something that is simple but captures reality. This difference between simplistic and simple is important.

Arup Roy Chowdhury: There are lots of sayings that large organizations cannot be entrepreneurial. However, when we reflect on your leadership era, either in Tata group companies or Mahindra and Mahindra, we find employees on the front lines have the autonomy and the business literacy to think and act like entrepreneurs. And the outcome, we all know, is there to see. So you have facilitated the creation of far more value than the competitors have, higher return on Capital, and much higher engagement scores. My curiosity is to know how you imbibed such a culture of transformation and belief that we can turn every employee into an entrepreneur with all the positive impact that will have on productivity growth.

Rajeev Dubey: Let me put it this way. It has now become a business imperative. And I will explain why.

We empower people to be able to make decisions at all points of the value chain. Why is that so? Because we are living in what is called a VUCA/Baani World. Which means that changes are taking place. Then there is also a pushback by stakeholders at all points, whether it’s customers or members of the supply chain, upstream and downstream, the communities, our employees, and shareholders.

So, on the one hand, there is complexity and ambiguity, brittleness, whatever you call it, in a VUCA or BANI. Then, there is a pushback by stakeholders because stakeholders have much more information and ability to push back.  And third, everything is interconnected. So, if you see that, then what this implies is that the organization has to be able to make iterative and proactive decisions continuously at all points in the value chain. And that is only possible if we empower our employees to make decisions and we don’t have a very long and stratified command, control, and chain of decision-making.

Therefore, it’s an imperative, a business imperative, that we empower our people. And which is what you’re calling, I guess, entrepreneurial that there is discretionary power given to people, of course within limits, to respond to the business necessities. This is one part.

The second part is that we constantly require Innovation. There is so much competition because there are so many changes taking place. We must forever keep innovating the solutions we provide to our stakeholders so that we give them more value than our competitors.

The combination of the need to take proactive decision-making right through the chain, plus the need to be innovating, which means risk-taking, requires us to have what is called distributed leadership, which is another word for empowerment, which is another word, I guess in some sense for entrepreneurial behaviour.

Now, do large organizations find it easy to encourage entrepreneurial behaviour? And I mean, in a startup, you have no choice. You have to be entrepreneurial. You don’t have an organization. You have fewer people. You have even less certainty about what you want to do.

On the other hand, when you come and when the organization scales up. By necessity, scaling up requires you to have processes, systems, and metrics. The real challenge is how you combine, how you create in the structure and the processes and metrics, enough space for people to have discretionary power for people to be able to take risks, for people to fail, and not have their heads chopped off.

So I think that this balance, first of all, a recognition that this is required. And then creating in the sort of ecosystem of HR levers, entrepreneurial risk-taking, failure, and all these kinds of things. Now, this is easier said than done. Because, In an organization, they say we have our KRAs done. KRA is done, But how are these KRAs? Do the KRAs have flexibility built in? What happens if you miss a KRA? What happens if you fail? How does the organization deal with that? Answering these questions will let us know how entrepreneurial an organization is. How much empowerment are we giving? How much are we able to trust people?

So it’s a business necessity, and yet it is something that in a large organization, as we scale up, becomes increasingly more difficult. So it’s a constant if you interplay a dance between the requirement for empowerment and entrepreneurial behaviour versus the need to have. Because you’re scaling up some structure, some processes, some metrics.

But I think there is a possibility, obviously, because, you know, how do large organizations continue to survive and thrive because they are successfully doing things? Therefore, one has to accept that innovation must be taking place. There must be some empowerment, and yet, in any organization, some parts are more entrepreneurial (that have more Innovation and more empowerment), and others don’t. The management and leadership have to keep on reviewing and seeing where you need to make changes. Where are we doing, Okay? Where are we going the other extreme? We have to see that as well. That also happens. So it’s a balancing act all through.

Arup Roy Chowdhury: There is another buzzword which is moving around called “Agility”. We encountered many people who say that we are agile. When you ask the leadership team?  They say they are agile. What does that mean? 10 people around the table, I find ten different definitions. What is meant by being agile? Agile to what end? Where is the value creation? What are we trying to get to, and over what period?

Rajeev Dubey: I have also lived with this word called agility. I can only tell you that, to me, Agility means the ability to keep making changes, as and when required by the circumstances around you. Sometimes, these changes must be proactive, and sometimes, they are a reaction, so they also become reactive.

But you must guard against becoming a prisoner of your past. You have to be open to the possibilities that exist. Once you are open to the possibilities that exist, you have to make a conscious Choice. Which of these possibilities do you need to proactively or sometimes reactively respond to? To me, that is agility. It’s a mindset. It’s also how you structure your systems processes and metrics. So that if the situation demands, you can make shifts and you can make changes and not be stuck totally in your past. That’s what agility means to me. God knows there must be 1000 definitions of agility. But to me, this is what it means. It’s a mindset that says we must be willing to shift to adjust. Yet It’s always a struggle. Do you keep changing your strategy all the time? Do you keep changing your purpose all the time? How often do you change?  Do you change strategy, or do you change tactics? Those are questions? There is no cookie-cutter answer.

I think each organization has to figure out its own set. Sometimes, you can also have too many changes, too many initiatives, and Initiatives being changed too often, and there is no right answer; nobody knows, so you have to keep checking. Are we making too many changes or too little changes? Are we changing too slowly, or are we changing too fast? And there is no answer. Nobody can say it’s only with hindsight. And as they say, nothing succeeds like success. So I think to be aware that there is this kind of uncertainty, there is this kind of ambiguity, and to try your best to deal with it on a changing basis, without getting stuck into one mould. Yet, at the same time, it is not about changing too much all the time.

There is a balance. As I see it, the whole thing about leadership and management decision-making is all about balance.

What do you balance? So again, you have to ask, what am I balancing? So is it the short term vs the long term? Is it intuition versus facts? Is it strategy versus tactics? There are many dimensions along which a continual Dance of balancing is going on, and I don’t think there is any one answer, a cookie-cutter answer, which tells you what the right balance is.

You have to experiment. You have to try it out. In each situation, each organization will have to find its balance. We’ll have to find our truth and hope it succeeds, but there is no guarantee. I don’t think there’s any such thing.

I think one big thing is also: how do you deal with failure? That’s a part of the agility issue. Because if you want agility, then how you handle failure becomes important. There will have to be a failure. There has to be risk-taking. How do you handle failure, which becomes a big issue in agility?

I don’t know, am I clear? Keeping on saying I don’t know, but that is the truth. Nobody knows I think a person who comes up and says I know. You have to be really careful of that guy.

It’s nice to think that the leader knows, and now we can trust him. We don’t have to do anything. But as you know, no leader is sure. He hopes He is right. And yet there is uncertainty, and I think good leaders are aware of that. But they know how to balance. They can’t stand up and say that I am completely confused, I don’t know what to do. They can’t say that.

On the other hand, they cannot be blind to changes. They cannot be blind to the fact that they don’t really know everything. So how do you balance that in their Communication and their behaviours again is going back to balance?

Sunil Singh: Thank you for your insightful inputs on the Evolution of HR, Culture Building, Empowerment and Agility. This will be a treasure trove for our readers, and they will have so many takeaways from the insights of a legend.

Rajeev Dubey

Rajeev Dubey

Chairman of Mahindra Insurance Brokers, Mahindra Steel Service Centre and Mahindra First Choice Wheels.
He retired in 2020 as the Group President (HR & Corporate Services) and CEO (After-Market Sector) and a member of the Group Executive Board of Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. He joined Mahindra in 2004, after a career spanning 29 years in the Tata Group, which he joined in 1975 as a member of the TAS. He spent 21 years with Tata Steel, and the next 7 years as CEO first of Tata Metaliks and then of Rallis India. He studied Economics at St. Stephens College, Delhi University and at the Delhi School of Economics, and did his MBA at the Yale School of Management, USA. Rajeev is a Member of the Governing Body of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Geneva, the International Organization of Employers (IOE) Geneva and the National Executive Council of FICCI.

Dr. Sunil Singh

Dr. Sunil Singh

Founder – Mindstream Consulting; HR TODAY; Happy Pace To Work Institute
He is HR Transformation Leader and an Executive Leadership Coach.
He has 25+ years of experience with various groups (Cadila Pharmaceuticals Ltd., Reliance Industries, PunjLloyd, Gulf Oil, Sasken, and MECL) across diversified industries (e.g. Pharmaceuticals, Oil & Gas, Exploration, Drilling, EPC, Construction, Telecom, and IT organizations).
He brings expertise in leadership development, coaching, learning & development, Board Handling, Board evaluations, managing large scale transformational change, talent management, performance management and leading HR function & operation.

Dr. Arup Roy Chowdhury

Dr. Arup Roy Chowdhury

He is a member of the Editorial Board of HR Today. He is a Professor at School of HRM, XIM, Bhubaneshwar. He has worked with Tata Stell for more than 15 Years. He has published in multiple national and International Journals.

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