The Great HR Debate: How leaders at RPG cultivate a happy work culture

'RPG's Venky Venkatesh suggests ways for organisations to look out for the 'people' aspect with active contribution from the leadership


Organisations today want to embrace people centricity. They wish to bring in people who will focus on the human capital and help build human assets of the company. However, in reality, very few companies truly embody this principle and follow through with their words. This is where leadership plays a significant role, in fostering such a culture. And this is what was discussed at The Great HR Debate, Session- 5, on 17 February, 2023.

In a special address at The Lalit Ashok, Bengaluru, respected industry veteran, S ‘Venky’ Venkatesh, president-group HR, RPG Group, explained how it’s important for organisations to look out for the ‘people’ aspect while getting the right leadership on board to create an inclusive environment within the company.

“It’s essential to focus on actionable steps within the organisation to make these claims a reality, rather than resorting to generic statements that everyone knows are the right thing to do,” said Venky.

He was of the opinion that it’s crucial to implement strategies that align with the organisation’s values and truly prioritise employee development. This is where RPG is different from other companies. Venky proudly shared how things are very different at RPG. Using a unique and interesting slideshow, he explained how RPG has fostered the culture of happiness in its core, which can give the ultimate answer to the question asked.

He explained how happiness is significant and the foremost element in any organisation.

“We at RPG, actually live and breathe happiness as a way of living in the company. The firm believes that it is the fundamental part of a leader, CEO, or business manager’s job to contribute to the company’s happiness quotient (HQ).”

S ‘Venky’ Venkatesh, president-group HR, RPG Group

Happiness at the workplace is no rocket science and that is why, one expects leaders and CEOs to actually contribute to this happiness, which one wants to propagate very quickly in life. Therefore, RPG, a diversified conglomerate that has been around for over 200 years now, aims to be a people-centric organisation that prioritises the well-being of its employees. Though “the company has diversified into various fields, the one theme which runs across the group companies is-happiness,” shared Venky.

RPG employs over 30,000 people in 180+ countries, with over half of its revenues coming from outside India. Like every other big company RPG used to routinely conduct employee engagement surveys with well-known brands such as GPTW, Aeon, or Gallup to measure employee engagement. However, the need to re-evaluate happiness arose when the pandemic hit. This was made the tagline of the Group.

“We questioned why we hadn’t used happiness as a metric for employee engagement before, especially for a large company like ours,” recalled Venky.

As per Venky, the Group conducted a survey and received an good response from around 5,000 of the 15,000 people surveyed. The responses helped the Group understand what it means to the employees to work for a happy organisation. They also conducted qualitative employee-insights interviews, similar to customer insights, to gain a deeper understanding and also had in-depth conversations with a smaller focus group. Based on these interviews, they came up with a happiness framework called ‘Happiness-ology’ consisting of six pillars, with about 45 to 50 different elements contributing to each pillar.

Venky proudly revealed, “We at RPG, actually live and breathe happiness as a way of living in the company.” The firm believes that it is the fundamental part of a leader, CEO, or business manager’s job to contribute to the company’s happiness quotient (HQ). “We’re very clear that measuring the HQ is essential, and we’ve developed a system to calculate it for each company, as well as at the group level,” shared Venky.

The company conducted a happiness survey and gathered a significant amount of feedback, which was then used to identify ten actions that employees wanted their leaders to take to maintain their happiness quotient. “The measurement of happiness goes beyond just a numerical value and encompasses factors such as purpose and balance in life,” pointed out Venky.

The RPG Group recognises the individual purpose and vision of each employee, such as climate activism or veganism. As long as the company does not directly contradict these values, employees are happy to work there. The company believes in pursuing environmentally-friendly practices and ensuring that the workplace aligns with its employees’ values.

Another great step to achieve the mentioned workplace environment is to understand employees’ interest, whether it’s about diversity, inclusivity or values.

“We have been working towards a different kind of diversity for many years and have achieved some industry firsts,” announced Venky, giving one example of the decision to hire a number of transgender individuals in the factories. He shared how the decision to employ members of the transgender community in their factories “was motivated by a desire for diversity as well as social responsibility”.

However, initially, the decision gave rise to many challenges, as a number of the hires left within a couple of weeks. We worked with an NGO to understand their concerns and found that they were struggling with the physical demands of the job, such as lifting packages or working on project sites.

They felt that it was easier to beg for an hour and earn the same amount of money we were paying them in a day. We had to explain to them that this was an opportunity for a dignified life and a chance to be known as an integral part of the RPG Group. It took us several years to get it right.

Another step towards inclusion at RPG includes benefits for the unmarried heterosexual partners of employees. “There is a shift in social norms regarding excluding even heterosexual partners from certain benefits. However, our company has chosen to take a different approach by including all partners, regardless of sexual orientation. While many companies focus solely on providing benefits to LGBTQ individuals, we believe that unmarried heterosexual partners should receive the same benefits as well,” shared Venky full of pride.

Introducing inclusivity and diversity in a team is just the start, the next big challenge is to make people understand it and accept it within the company, admitted Venky.

Being a 200-year-old company, RPG has roots in various fields. The Group has been involved in construction projects, such as building factories and airports, as well as in acquisitions. However, there have been people who were not accustomed to these new changes. Nevertheless, “we emphasised that the benchmark of our companies should not be local construction companies, but rather multinational engineering companies”.

However, the major responsibility of making people understand and embrace this inclusivity rests on the leadership. Hence, to maintain these standards, the company also follows a complete ‘360 degree reference check,’ when it comes to leadership hiring worldwide.

“To ensure that we are making the right decision, we don’t rely too heavily on psychometrics. Instead, we conduct deep 360-degree reference conversations. For instance, while hiring a CEO, we not only speak to the line manager and team but also the regulatory authorities, consulting companies they have worked with, customers and suppliers. We want to make sure that the individuals we hire treat everyone with respect and kindness, not just those who are important to their lives,” explained Venky.

Calling RPG’s hiring “extremely focused” Venky revealed that the top management, including Harsh Goneka, chairman, RPG is an important part of it.

“We believe in the RPG way, which combines our vision of unleashing talent, touching lives, outperforming and being happy,” enumerated Venky. He said this has been a part of RPG’s culture for years and “we are careful about whom we hire to maintain this culture”.

Little wonder then that RPG Group claims to be the company with the happiness emoji as the vision statement, unlike the usual long vision statements that are just there for show.

“We ensured that we included only one aspirational aspect in our vision statement, which is to outperform our competitors in all sectors,” admitted Venky. He revealed how RPG has successfully outperformed in four out of the six sectors it works in, and aims to improve in others. To identify the lagging areas, the Group also uses a 360-degree survey to identify areas of improvement for the business managers and other employees.

“While we have always valued integrity, respect, and openness in our RPG culture, we questioned whether we were truly a passionate organisation,” said Venky.

The business world faces numerous challenges, including pressures on both top and bottom lines, regulatory compliance, conflicts such as Ukraine and supply chain crises. With so many issues to manage, it’s difficult to blame CEOs for diverting their attention away from employee-focused initiatives.

That is why, at RPG, the major focus remains to drive the people’s agenda along with maintaining the other functions.

In Venky’s own words, “HR has to serve as the people champion compass. They must remind the CEO that no matter what the challenges, driving the people’s agenda should remain the top priority.” He explained how it’s easier to start a company, but takes decades to build talent, culture, and the right kind of people.

He further explained, “We have a strong belief in demonstrable behaviours, and our DNA is intertwined with many individuals who model personal excellence and have a role in developing others. Without these behaviours, there will be developmental needs that must be addressed.”

RPG also emphasises on creating a safe workplace. “It’s easy to talk about HR, happiness frameworks, and DNI, but the most important aspect is whether or not employees feel safe when they walk in,” pointed out Venky.

The ‘R Shield’ policy of RPG helps the employees deal with any kind of harassment. They also have trained counsellors available to assist the employees in managing their emotions. They also offer guidance if the employees wish to pursue a complaint.

Lastly, Venky talked about the rewards and benefits offered to employees, including the senior-level ones, to keep them motivated and feel recognised in the company. “We have a system in place where promotions, particularly for leadership positions, are linked to their effectiveness as people managers and their impact on both top-line and bottom-line results. Our goal-setting process includes a balance of 50 per cent quantitative and 50 per cent qualitative measures. This includes building and developing the organisation, succession planning, and ensuring the company’s long-term strategy is achieved through its people,” shared Venky.

Additionally, the company also has a bonus scheme that considers qualitative factors, in addition to top-line and bottom-line results. The purpose of this approach is to encourage business managers to think beyond profits and market share, as important as they are, and focus on broader aspects of the company’s success.

In conclusion, Venky pointed out the importance of incorporating the people aspect and values into the organisation. “While profits are necessary to sustain the organisation, looking at the people’s aspect is the most significant part. If one can see their company as becoming ready for the future generations, then one can say it’s on the right track,” summed up Venky.

The event is powered by Tata Steel Industrial Consulting in association with Keka HR. Other partners are Vantage Circle (employee engagement partner), Greyt HR (HR and payroll partner), Thomas Assessment ( talent assessment partner ) & NHRD Bangalore Chapter (community partner). The event is supported by XLRI Alumni Bangalore Chapter & XISS Alumni Bangalore Chapter. 

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