“A CEO needs to acknowledge the silent majority who create the company’s fortunes” S Venkatesh

S Venkatesh, president - group HR, RPG Group, is a veteran HR professional with over three decades of experience in IR and HR. He has worked for brands such as Arvind, Vedanta and ITC. Venkatesh shares some great insights about the best HR practices and people policies at RPG Group, in an exclusive interview with Prajjal Saha, founder and editor, HRKatha.

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Q. RPG is a diversified group with businesses spread across sectors and domains. however, its brands have a strong individual identity unlike other business conglomerates, such as Tata or Reliance. Was the Company shaped in natural progression as it expanded through acquisitions, or was it a strategic decision?

A. Yes, you are correct, the RPG Group has grown through acquisitions. In fact, our founder, Rama Prasad Goenka, was known as the ‘takeover tycoon’. Growth through acquisition has been the primary reason for retaining the individual brands. There is another side to the story as well. you see, the old Reliance, before getting into telecom and retail, was primarily focussed on petrochemicals. Similarly, for the Aditya Birla Group, the early business was focussed on commodities. In our case, it’s all chalk and cheese with a diversified portfolio ranging from tyres to infrastructure to IT. all of these companies have been very strong brands in their own right, and we of course, did not want to alter or play with that. What permeates across the RPG group is a dual citizenship model – where one is both a citizen of say CEAT Tyres as well the RPG Group, and never the twain shall conflict. It’s a value proposition, which people approve of. Those who join our companies at senior levels, like the experience of not working for a standalone company, and yet, enjoy the independence of working in one. Besides, we also encourage people to move within the Group, and therefore, we run a programme called RPG Talent Plus! The transition happens very smoothly without people having to resign or let go of any perks, benefits or entitlements. We treat every employee as a group resource rather than a stand-alone company resource.

Q. The pandemic has changed many HR processes, functionalities and even the mindset of people, but one day, the pandemic will come to an end and everything will get back to normal. Which of these processes will be retained even after the pandemic ends?

A. Yes, the pandemic has resulted in many life-changing events. The biggest one has been that paper consumption has gone down drastically, and that’s quite a phenomenon. next, we have realised that all these years, we had been traveling far too much, and unnecessarily so. Going forward, business travel will reduce drastically. Personally, I love to travel, and that’s also because as an HR person, I need to build that emotional connect. So people will meet to build relationships, and that’s invaluable. Similarly, many processes in recruitment will remain virtual. In the last one and a half years, I have hired seven CXOs, including three CEOs, without meeting them. This is something we couldn’t have imagined in the past. But yes, I would still like to have a one to- one meeting with the final candidate.

“We treat every employee as a group resource rather than a stand-alone company resource”

Next, I believe all global development and leadership programmes will continue to stay virtual, because they increase the scalability. at the same time, however, learning interventions that last for a longer duration, say for six months or more, will be a mix of virtual and physical sessions. Review processes have become shorter and crisper, a trend that will continue. What used to take the entire day earlier has now been reduced to three hours. In fact, all our annual reviews have been paperless and onscreen.

However, activities such as annual conferences and new joinee orientation — where all organisations faced a challenge during the lockdown — and some development programmes — where meeting people from different businesses was the USP — will go back to the physical mode.

Q. Companies have realised that it’s not just great products, but great people that make successful businesses. So, the talent war is intense, with the new-age companies having an edge. The new generation is pulled by, and attracted towards these companies. does this make the job more challenging for traditional Indian companies? How does RPG plan to fight this out?

A. I hope you are not using any of those descriptions for RPG because we aren’t any of that. We are proud of our Indian heritage, and we consider ourselves as an Indian-origin multinational company. RPG has presence across 100 countries around the world, and all our employee related policies are as cutting edge as, or even better, than many MNCs. For instance, we have a new engagement model based on a happiness framework, which no other company in the world has. This is also why we have been able to attract some great talent.

Frankly, many years ago, I personally took a conscious call to move out of an MNC because I did not want to be dictated by someone in the US or the UK. Instead, as a global CHRO of RPG Group, I was influencing decisions and strategies across the world. It is also true that if Indian companies continue to remain traditional, they are bound to face the problems that you are referring to.

“Young CEOs should value relationships. They need to realise the importance of providing a long rope to people who may not be as quick or as bright as them”

Q. What’s your advice for the traditional Indian companies? How can they improve to compete with the global companies in terms of people?

A. There is no secret sauce, be it an MNC or an Indian company. Having said that, I also feel that first, the traditional companies should show willingness to change, be liberal, and trust their people. They have to believe that their only competitive edge is their people. I believe rules and regulations restrict people. We were probably traditional some 20-30 years back, and we have also changed ourselves. Much before the pandemic, we constituted an RPG task force, which was supposed to bring out a cutting edge, world class, sector-agnostic policy. They were tasked with presenting the policy directly to the group management board, without seeking the approval of their respective CEOs or HR. We have also created a bouquet of policies, such as flexi work or allowing sabbaticals. What many Indian companies don’t realise is that when they are in the war for talent, they don’t compete with local companies but with the Googles and amazons of the world. Tomorrow, if we want to hire a CMO – that person can come to CEAT, and even go to Netflix. Even in the past, we have both hired and lost people to these companies.

There is a lot of bad money going around, but one can’t use that to buy culture and talent overnight. There are many big Indian conglomerates running their businesses by scaring their investors, employees and suppliers, but for how long will this work? One needs to become an admirable employer, not a feared one. I always say RPG is a company where one enjoys balance in life. The truth is, no one gets everything in life, so don’t let go of eight out of 10 things just to get the other two.

Q. How do you identify a future CXO? These days, one has to catch them young.

A. Yes, if by the age of 35-40 one doesn’t demonstrate leadership potential, then one will never be able to. at the same time, if we do not identify and recognise potential early, then they will go somewhere else. at RPG, we have a very interesting programme called the Future Leadership Board, where some of our top young talent work on cutting-edge projects.

Q. The young CEOs these days are very dynamic and fast. they are capable of quickly turning around businesses and brands, but there is also scope of improvement on certain counts. What would you advise them?

A. At RPG we have many such young CEOs. The Company leverages their fresh and innovative thinking. also, they help the Company break away from the past, and challenge the status quo. What I would advise these young CEOs is to value relationships. They should realise the importance of providing a long rope to people who may not be as quick or as bright as them. These people are the backbones of an organisation, and they form 80 per cent of the workforce of any organisation. We should not forget that they are the silent majority who come in every day, work diligently and make signifi cant contributions to the company’s fortune. next, young leaders should have the emotional intelligence to know how to deal with all kinds of people coming from various backgrounds. They may not have the privilege to study in world-class universities, but they have climbed up the ranks, and they are all around in a broadbased company like ours. Therefore, the top young talent should not only interact with the directors and senior leaders of the company, but also have the courage to go down and have a cup of tea with the union leader(s).

“The point is, if the HR doesn’t do their job well, the union will step in to do that job. industrial relations’ challenges are fairly straightforward. Workers want their Basic rights – respect, liberty, fair wages, and the right to quality of life”

Q. Everyone is talking about AI in hiring, but what happens when AI-powered selection leads to very strange conclusions?

A. We do have AI technology for initial screening for video interviews, but that acts as a supplement to the decision making. Some of the AI tools will have some psychometric test features, but we use that as additional information only. at the leadership level, we still rely on traditional interview methods. after maybe 20 or 30 years, a bot may be able to handle the hiring in its entirety, but today that technology does not exist. yes, humans will always play a crucial role in decision making to judge the level of maturity and emotional intelligence (EQ) in people.

Q. Has the role of HR become safer than what it was three to four decades ago at factories?

A. Yes, industrial relations (IR) is not what it used to be in the 1960s, 70s, or 80s. However, one shouldn’t totally ignore the threat. We all know what happened at Maruti Suzuki a few years back. People had assumed that IR had vanished from this country, till the sudden explosion. The point is, if the HR doesn’t do their job well, the union will step in to do that job. Industrial relations’ challenges are fairly straightforward. Workers want their basic rights – respect, liberty, fair wages, and the right to quality of life. If that is provided to them, then they are naturally more appreciative and content. Industrial relations is not mainstream any more, and there are newer models available. at RPG, we have self-managed teams and these are all non unionised employees. We treat them as management, so it’s now employee relations or ER.

Q. What are the new set of challenges?

A. The new set of challenges is managing talent. It’s in a different dimension now, and they are more complex. Besides, one should also consider that the profile of workmen has also changed Modern Indian workers are not what or how they used to be. These are guys, who have the latest gadgets and are active on social media – be it in Hindi or any other regional language. The aspirations of these men are not the same as their fathers or grandfathers. That’s another challenging set of workers to manage. It is not as simple as it used to be.

Q. Do you think HR as a process is very centralised, and needs more autonomy and decision making power across levels?

A. Yes, HR has to be decentralised, especially in a federal structure. not just HR, but every business function should work in a decentralised manner. at RPG, I urge all HR heads to act as CHROs and feel free to take decisions. When I led the plant HR function as a youth at a factory, I behaved as if I was the CHRO of that factory. Very politely I used to tell the top management to leave it all to me to handle, because I knew my turf better than anyone else. I encourage my teams at RPG to behave the same way. In fact, it gladdens me to hear people say, “Hey Venky, do not tell me what to do, I will handle the situation”. Those are the kind of leaders I want to have at RPG.

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