It was a Friday afternoon, when the HRKatha team got the opportunity to meet a man who is not just a recognised leader but an inspiration to many HR professionals. Going back his memory lanes, P. Dwarakanath, chairman, GSK & Head – group human capital, Max India limited describes some experiences from his 40 years of career as a HR leader and also some useful tips for current HR professionals working in the industry.
When you look back 50 years, how would you describe your illustrious professional journey? You may have made some mistakes on the way while trying to get many things to fall into place? What are some of these defining moments of your career?
There have been ups and downs in the past 48 years. Sometimes you achieve milestones effortlessly, at other times there are challenges. I have faced both headwinds and tailwinds in my career, but the journey has been very satisfying.
My father has been my greatest support and influencer. From him I have learned to be ‘tough on issues and soft on people’. Moreover, there have been more mentors, such as peers, managers and leaders.
I started my career as a management trainee with the DCM Shriram Group. Dr Charat Ram of the Group was a visionary leader, and I learned ‘inspirational leadership’ from him. While sending me to Lucknow for my first assignment, he said to me, “Your luck starts now!”
He taught me about the Pygmalion Effect— inspire and motivate your team members and they will achieve anything for you.
I have not changed companies, but my companies transformed into new organisations following mergers and acquisitions. Being a part of M&A has been challenging and at the same time presented a great learning experience. Very early on in life I learned that if a leader panics during headwinds, the team gets demoralised. Therefore, a leader always has to remain composed and in control to be able to focus on leading the team out of crises.
Lastly, in my career I have not been just an HR employee, I have always played a strategic business role. In Glaxo Smithkline, I joined as a plant executive and then progressed to become a chairman, which was the most satisfying experience.
“People should recognise a leader without the leader having to brand himself as one. Social media has produced some influencers, but my question is ‘How relevant is what they are saying? Rather, are they missing the power of silence?’”
Your son is also a senior HR professional. Is this a case of the son taking on the father’s profession? Was it your influence or mentorship, or plain coincidence?
My father was a judge, but I never became one and he never imposed his professional choice on me. Though I studied law, I moved into HR as my interest lay there. Similarly, my son’s entry into HR was not pre-decided by me, but I would like to think that my career must have impacted him positively. I have neither encouraged nor discouraged him to join HR.
What makes HR professionals great CEOs? Do you wish to share some tips for senior HR professionals aspiring for the topmost position in an organisation?
It’s a great question. Leadership exists at all levels of an organisation, it is not a prerogative of just the top. The point is that, whether it is an HR head or any other person who wishes to climb to the top seat, the aim should be to first become a leader without a designation or a title. Having said that, HR leaders sometimes demonstrate lack of self-worth and self-belief when they feel they are not well versed with the business, and this thought makes them take the side seat. Depending upon the industry it is either the finance, marketing or operations head who takes the top seat.
At GSK, I never felt that I was sidelined or placed outside the table. Nothing ever stopped me from performing and making a significant contribution. My question is how many HR leaders make it a point to understand the business, read the balance sheets and think beyond people? Very few see the big picture.
Premier business schools have not produced seasoned human resource leaders who are capable of becoming CEOs. They have failed to produce leaders who have been able to develop cross-function knowledge to be able to see the business from the top.
Self-branding is very important for new age professionals across functions, so is in HR. Social media is a great tool that facilitates self-branding. What’s your take on the same especially for HR practitioners?
I know where you are going. I feel self- branding is not desirable. People should recognise a leader without the leader having to brand himself as one. Social media has produced some influencers, but my question is ‘How relevant is what they are saying? Rather, are they missing the power of silence?’
Storytelling and sharing of experiences are more important. Your successes and failures can help aspiring leaders shape their professional journeys. I would say, after retirement you can be active on social media, but one must introspect to find one’s wisdom and share the same with others. You can keep giving back to society while being in service.
To sum up, there should be an ongoing effort to mentor and coach by visiting business schools so that you can shape the leaders of tomorrow in the initial or budding stages of their lives.
“Age and authority have never threatened me. And my agility to learn from people at any age has helped me stay relevant even today”
In what ways can HR leaders give back to the industry and society post retirement?
Individuals on this planet live in debt for what they get from it. The only way they can pay back is by performing voluntary work, which is what we call giving back to the society.
The HR fraternity can contribute by preparing the next generation. They can do this through active career counselling, teaching and guiding graduate and post graduate students. Moreover, they should stay connected with professional bodies, such as the ICAI, NHRDM, and CIA. I have highly benefitted from this and for the last 25 years, I can say that my learning has happened because of reverse mentoring.
Age and authority have never threatened me. And my agility to learn from people at any age has helped me stay relevant even today. Personal credibility is more important than professional authority. For instance, I receive calls from employees seeking career advice and it is my duty to help them.
You have seen multiple generations in your career. Every ten years we have a new generation, which is very different from the previous one. How do you differentiate?
Interesting subject! I will be as succinct as possible. I saw different facets of a multigen workplace when I was working at Glaxo Smithkline, decades back. Of the multigenerational employees reporting to me, the senior generation called me ‘Sir’, while another gen called me by my initials ‘PDN’, and then I had the youngest generation of employees addressing me by my first name, ‘Dwarka’. However, their seniors called me ‘Sir’!
This is an evolutionary process; each one must go through it. Changing with times and accepting the new gen as how they are is important. Back in my time, even if I had a plan after work, I would cancel if my boss gave me extra work. Today’s generation will not do that. It will refuse the work citing commitment to other plans as an excuse.
This is the reality of the world we live in. By changing our mindset we can assimilate the change.
“Experience in IR has helped me acquire skills like board management, talent engagement, compliance and understanding human psyche. Unionisation is a prevailing issue and will keep cropping up when people are not happy. Certain sectors, such as media and healthcare, are not affected by it, though it is now seen in the technology industry. HR should not confine itself to only employee relations (ER), but have the necessary skills to engage everyone, from the mali (gardener) to the malik (chairman) in an organisation”
One policy does not fit all. People with different attributes have different expectations. What can we do to design policies so that they are not stringent but broad-based?
The basic organisational culture framework must be maintained but policies, practices and procedures should be flexible. Many years ago, a book was written-First Break All Rules, to do Anything BIG!
Today, flexi working, paternity leave and work from home is taken for granted. When I spoke of these 25 years ago, people opposed me saying these would make it difficult to keep control and assert authority. The control mindset has lost significance today owing to the tools and technologies we have in hand.
Change leads to resistance knowingly or unknowingly, but when employees are involved in the transformation process, they gradually grow up to the new idea. I believe in different strokes for different folks. You should have compelling reasons to change, and not just change because it is fashionable.
You officially retired in 2006, but you are still at the helm of things. How and what keeps you going? How do you manage to stay relevant in this fast changing world?
You see, I acknowledge the contribution of three corporates— first is DCM where I had a phenomenal journey! Although I was working as a management trainee, I interacted with senior leaders. I faced gheraos back then in Kolkata which was baptism by fire. It was always an outside-in look rather than an inside-out one for me.
Smithkline Beecham, it stands for four companies, names have changed but I have not changed! It was the organisation that taught me that everyone stays committed, and everyone contributes, a very inclusive culture of performance was seen at every level (not just in top leadership) of the company. In HR, delivery was important and not just talking to impress people.
Max has taught me very different things, for instance, how to have a career post retirement career. Analjit Singh is an enterprising risk-taker and it is a complete pleasure to work with him. From Max, I developed an ability to take risks and think beyond.
When you stay relevant with time, age is just a number. My previous employments have given me an opportunity to stay a few steps ahead of time and that gives me the confidence to work with the millennials.
Has the job of an HR become more safe now, given the volatile situation and the constant struggle between the management and labour unions in the manufacturing sector?
Employee relations have changed with time. Earlier it was more about industrial relations (IR). Certain belts in India are politically volatile. Back then, we had all types of union leaders, some were philosophical, and one could learn a lot from them but their approaches were different. In the late 1980s, after the failure of the textile mills, the government intervened through judicial rulings. Today, union uprisings are few and sporadic.
Experience in IR has helped me acquire skills like board management, talent engagement, compliance and understanding human psyche. Unionisation is a prevailing issue and will keep cropping up when people are not happy. Certain sectors, such as media and healthcare, are not affected by it, though it is now seen in the technology industry.
HR should not confine itself to only employee relations (ER), but have the necessary skills to engage everyone, from the mali (gardener) to the malik (chairman) in an organisation.