How HR can build business skills

Is having an experience in a commercial role a must to develop business acumen?


A study by a global recruiting and HR solutions firm — where more than 200 chief human resource officers (CHROs) from around the world participated — found that about 41 per cent of CHROs have noticed business skills or business acumen lacking in talent seeking HR roles.

Why is that? Well, most of the HR leaders HRKatha spoke to, feel HR professionals lack such skills because they love being in the comfort zone of their corporate offices. They are not really curious about the business side of things in the organisation.

In fact, many of the new breed of HR leaders do not even come from a plant HR experience. They have no understanding of how things operate at the plants.

Curiosity & willingness to learn

As per Nihar Ghosh, former president – HR, Emami, the individuals needs to have an inherent attitude to obtain knowhow of their business. Giving his own example, he explains that when he started his career, he worked in organisational development and learning & development roles. When he became an HR head, he did not have any plant HR experience and knew nothing about negotiating with the unions. He took it upon himself to spend time at the plants. During one such instance, he had to deal with the union leaders, and other business leaders also showed confidence in him. Eventually, he managed to handle the situation.

“As a CHRO, one truly gets a seat at the table when one knows what is happening in the business. Otherwise, one tends to be ignored”

Nihar Ghosh, former president HR, Emami

Need for field exposure

Ghosh also shares that at Emami, he made it mandatory for all HR people in his team to go to the field and the market along with sales professionals twice every month. Since he believes that they work in a hard core sales and marketing business, it is necessary for the HR professionals to go with the front-end sales team and see how they negotiate with retailers.

“In the market, one will also have sales professionals from one’s competitor’s side; one will get to see how they are dealing with the retailers or wholesalers,” says Ghosh. He explains that while in the field, the HR can get to see where their sales professionals lack, and while hiring/ during the interview, they can cite some situations or scenarios and question the candidates on how they would react to them. This will also make them realise what sort of soft or hard skills are required to perform that job well.

Participation in training

As per Ghosh, firstly, it depends on one’s curiosity or agility to learn more about one’s business, and secondly, the HR head should also take the responsibility to make sure that their HR teams spend time on the field or at the plants or with the sales teams, to learn more and not just stick to their function.

Rajeev Singh, CHRO, Solara Active Pharma, reveals that as a CHRO he also mandated that all HR professionals be part of some training they organise for the plant supervisors or the R&D teams. “Most often, the HR facilitates such trainings but fails to actively participate in these themselves. Unfortunately, there seem to be no formal training curricula developed for the HR. Therefore, I have made it mandatory for all HR personnel to be a part of such trainings,” says Singh.

“One is not required to be part of the sales team or sell products in the market to acquire business acumen”

Naresh Kumar Puritipati, CHRO, Lactalis

Ideally, spending time in a commercial role or a business role would be more helpful for the HR professional to build business acumen. Ghosh does agree with this. He shares that as an executive vice president of one of the known retail brands, he voluntarily opted to handle the retail business and eventually saw success. His leaders believed in him.

“As a CHRO, one truly gets a seat at the table when one knows what is happening in the business. Otherwise, one tends to be ignored,” says Ghosh.

Ghosh says that his commercial stint helped him earn the confidence and respect of his business leaders. “Eventually, people started fearing me during the executive leadership review meetings because I asked the toughest questions,” says Ghosh.

Naresh Kumar Puritipati, CHRO, Lactalis, says that as an HR professional, one is not required to be part of the sales team or sell products in the market. “It is more about having an understanding of the business. One does not have to sell products, yet one should have the ability to understand the people’s problems in selling that product,” says Puritipati.

Also, as Puritipati points out, the business environment keeps changing. The commercial experience gained in a particular role a decade or two back would be obsolete today.

For Puritipati, being closer to the business was more important. That is why, he emphasised on having an organisational structure which makes HR professionals understand the business better.

Top to bottom structure

Puritipati talks about having a structure, wherein for every function and vertical at all levels, one has HR business partners. “We will need to follow a top to bottom approach to create that kind of a structure. This is how one can develop business acumen in HR professionals,” says Puritipati.

“I mandated all HR members in my team to be part of all trainings organised by them for commercial staff as there is no formal training programme to build business acumen”

Rajeev Singh, CHRO, Solara Active Pharma

However, is it just the HRBP who should have business acumen? Should people working in certain other critical roles such as talent acquisition or compensation & benefits also have business understanding?

“The logical side of the HR function, such as recruitment or compensation & benefits, requires more business understanding than others,” says Singh.

However, for any HR professional who aspires to be a CHRO one day, Ghosh recommends having business skills.

“Business leaders always welcome HR people to learning programmes. Whether, as an HR professional, one takes that leap and makes it happen is entirely in one’s own hands,” states Ghosh rightly.


  1. Yes sir the above said words are correct. Most of the corporate hrs not having plant experience. When plant hr saying to any issues. But there are not understanding and they are not convey the plant problem to Management. My suggestion is when we recruiting the corporate HR. They must have knowledge in Plant HR.

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