I don’t think everybody wants to be a CEO. Personally, I feel that it’s better to be a first rate HR professional than a second rate CEO, so although a lot of people might feel that every senior HR professional is dying to become a CEO, I don’t think so. If I had not got the CEO’s role, I wouldn’t have been heartbroken.
In a freewheeling chat with Executive Access India, Santrupt talks about his journey as an HR professional and what it takes for HR professionals to move to CEO roles. He delves deep into how HR is transforming businesses and how it has moved from being a support function to a strategic partner to businesses.
How has been your journey heading the Carbon Black division of Aditya Birla Group?
Has it been a challenging time for you?
My journey with the Aditya Birla group as a whole has been an exciting one, including this stage of the journey where I have been leading the Carbon Black business for the last 3.5 years. It’s been during this time that we have moved from being the world’s fourth largest player to the world’s largest player in the Carbon black business.
We have recently made a huge acquisition. The global downturn, revolution in Egypt, the Euro crisis and floods in Thailand, all of where we have our plants for Carbon black, has made the journey all the more exciting and challenging. There has not been any stage where we have been in a steady state situation. To sum up, things have been adventurous.
The challenges are always greater but it depends on you as to which aspect you wish to focus more on.
Has your background helped you in the process?
My background in HR has certainly helped me in achieving this role at Carbon black because as an HR person, I have seen how business leaders react to business challenges, how human behaviour changes and gets impacted because of business issues and challenges and also where business leaders have trouble getting their arms around those problems.
I have been a bystander, watching many people through those processes and there have been other leaders who have used me from time to time on their founding boards, so that latent learning has indeed helped me. But to be more specific, my experience in a lot of acquisitions within the Aditya Birla group from a human resources point of view has been a great learning experience. The understanding of what could impact team dynamics, performance, insights about human behaviour, helped me take a more reasoned view on things. Of course dealing with a range of performance matrix and incentives etc has also helped look at what could be a right matrix to set in.
Also, my experiences in HR, like dealing with an organizational structure, people dynamics, integrations, managing costs, and also helping other CEOs to transition has helped me a lot in understanding business.
What was your major challenge when you took up the top job at Carbon Black?
The challenge was basically of getting into unfamiliar territories of P&L, quarterly results, vendor development, capital investments, CRM and things of which you were a part of in other ways were now things you had to submit to. I had to manage the board so all of these were new experiences which threw a learning challenge. But all throughout I remained acutely sensitive to the fact that I was not someone who was a veteran at running a business and once you become sensitive to this fact, your way of dealing with things changes. So I reached out to a lot of people to understand what this business was about, to understand the issues of finance and accounting etc. I think that once one has his ego in check and there is a willingness to learn, one can leverage on his network and goodwill as a business leader.
You are one of the few HR heads who have moved to CEO roles. Why according to you are HR heads not being able to transition to the CEO level? How can they be nurtured to take up the top job?
I don’t think everybody wants to be a CEO. Personally, I feel that it’s better to be a first rate HR professional than a second rate CEO, so although a lot of people might feel that every senior HR professional is dying to become a CEO, I don’t think so. If I had not got the CEO’s role, I wouldn’t have been heartbroken. Secondly, some HR heads while they want to become CEOs, do not want to deal with the complexities and challenges that come along with the role or the demands of the external world or perhaps the time pressures it adds on to you. Some may be personally not comfortable making those sacrifices that you ought to while handling a role like this. Thirdly, there may be HR professionals who just don’t have the skills to migrate to a CEO level which is also true for people coming from every other level like Marketing, Finance etc. More importantly, I feel that the number of people in the Marketing or finance stream is far more than the number of people in HR. So naturally the number of people who move to CEO levels are more from these streams. Also, historically many HR people have not got the opportunity to be close to the business and that is basically because the business itself has not leveraged the HR enough. HR people have therefore remained at the periphery of the business and have not got a good enough look at the business issues in the absence of which there has been no development of skill sets. But having said that, if we look at the last 4-5 years, the trend has significantly changed and I think it depends on personal interest, ability and availability of opportunities and when all three come together, you see HR people as CEOs.
HR people first need to be outstanding HR professionals to be nurtured for the top role. They need to be at the top of their own profession because if they can’t do that, how can they lead an entire organization? Secondly, if at an early stage, HR people are given rotation assignments, be it in finance, marketing, sales etc, they will then develop the skill set such as managing budgets, clients, operations, territories etc, which they can add to their experience and take it to the next level.
What according to you have been some critical strategic changes in the HR function over time and what more could we see in future?
The most important strategic change in the HR is that now HR is becoming the heart of the organization in many ways. It’s participating in most of the critical business decisions and is expected to contribute significantly. The other change has been that a lot of HR professionals have developed strong business skills by being very close to business transformation, strategic implementation etc. I think that the strategic understanding towards the larger business issues has grown among people. Also, HR is more trusted to be an advisor to the board or the Chief Executive at critical moments in the organization, be it executive transformation or any crisis.
To summarize, I could say that the HR has moved from the periphery to the centre. HR, from dealing only with people issues is now also dealing with a lot of business issues. Sometimes, we blame the old-world companies for not accepting HR as a core function, but that’s not right. The HR professionals need to create a strategic agenda and use their intrinsic ability to drive that agenda. So instead of blaming the organizations that they have not been able to accept the value that HR brings to an organization, the HR leaders need to ask themselves if they have done the right kind of intervention. Have they done enough to tell people or their CEO or the system that they are ready? It’s a 2 way street where an open mindset is required by the organization but on the other hand, the HR leader bringing in value is also equally important.
What is your idea of Leadership? In a company as large as ABG, how do you do preserve organizational culture? How would you define ABG’s culture?
I think leadership is about mobilizing people to a common goal. The mobilization of people, their ideas, their commitment, and their energy towards a common goal is leadership.
ABG’s culture is highly empowering, risk taking and very absorbent. It is flexible because of which we are able to include people from diverse backgrounds and skill sets. Our culture is a combination of an Indian soul and a global mindset. ABG’s culture is built on its value system of integrity, commitment, passion, seamlessness and speed and since we have actively worked on building these values in people, maintaining or preserving our culture is not that great a problem for us.
Aditya Birla Carbon Black currently comprises of different companies in places as diverse as China, Egypt, United States, Thailand and India. How do you manage to connect with the employees and how do you make them feel a part of the family?
We have 17 plants in 12 countries as diverse as Brazil and China, but like every other global organization, continuous communication, repeated reinforcement of the same messages, providing people access to the benefits of the organization, have helped us build a feeling of trust. By providing people with equal access to the advantages of the organization, you build that culture of oneness and trust amongst people. The story is shared using a common language, common performance evaluation, common logo, access to common portals, participating in organizational initiatives, learning programmes at leadership centres etc. When you have access to common infrastructure, institution and advantages, then you start feeling like a part of the family.
Is availability of top talent a concern for ABG? How do you train and nurture your employees to transform them into top level global professionals?
It’s a tricky question as it depends upon how we define top talent. If you are looking at only the crème de la crème, then talent is always in short supply. Also within this layer, you will have a normal distribution from time to time. So, I think at one level there is shortage of talent , at the other level, since we develop people right through, we have been able to develop a systematic pipeline. There will be at times some specialized positions for which you will have a shortage of talent; there will be some locations at which talent does not want to go, for example remote locations in India. So at one level, for a great role in an urban setup there is no shortage of talent, for a specialist position based in rural India, there is a shortage of talent.
There are several ways by which we train our employees. First of all we have a systematic talent identification process, with robust performance and development analysis. We put people through training all through their careers, both through e-learning, outreach programmes and through our leadership centre “Gyanoday” in Mumbai. We have certified coaches within our organization and we also provide external coaches. So I feel there is a network of learning infrastructure which supports our people. We also provide global exposure to our employees
Finally on an informal note, what does your average day look like? What do you prefer to do when you are not working? How would you describe Santrupt Misra when he is not at work?
I am lazy fellow. My average day starts at 8; a little bit of newspaper reading and sometimes exercising. I leave for office by about 9:15 though our office starts at 10. In the evenings there could be meetings or just catching up with people.
When I am not working, I like spending time with my family and friends; watch a lot of movies and love reading. Whether or not at work, I’m a pretty fun person to be with. I have a good sense of humour and I enjoy myself at work or otherwise. I’m never weighed down by events around me. I am very laidback and my wife, my daughter and even my mom would second this. In fact my wife was joking the other day that some day I might get a robot that would do everything for me, but then my daughter added that I would also want someone to press the power button on the robot for me. So although I am always charged up at office, I am probably laidback at home because I give too much in office
Having said all this, a message that I would like to give out to budding professionals is that they should be honest and true to their profession. There is no substitute for hard work and it is as important as intelligence. Also I think HR is a great profession for many reasons and I feel people do not take full advantage of being in this profession and I would urge all young HR people to be proud of this profession and to gain maximum out of it.