Friendly and jolly Niti Khosla, lead-people analytics and business impact, Novartis International, is a true HR leader with the ability to understand people and the business. For 18 years she has worked in finance and cherishes the cross-functional experience she brings to the HR table. In her interaction with HRKatha, she also describes the working culture of Basel, Switzerland, where she spent a significant amount of her professional life.
Most people enter XLRI aiming for a career in HR. Surprisingly, for you, it was banking and finance. And that too for almost 18 out of the 30 years of your professional life. How did the transition to HR happen for you?
After obtaining my degree in HR, I did not practise it for 18 years, even though my heart remained in HR. My core was formed when I worked with American Express Bank, which unfortunately does not exist anymore. It had some extraordinary people and leadership-led trainings. The reason to move into the HR role was more personal.
When I was working as the head of credit control, at Panalpina, I was expecting my second child. I was tired of working for long hours and making year-end financial reports. Luckily, my chief financial officer (CFO) became the CEO, and I was able to request her to let me do something else. She advised me to train the country managers in finance and non-finance, since I also had a passion for it.
Soon, I found myself very successful in that role, being able to pick up complex topics and explaining them to people in a simple manner.
You have spent a significant amount of time working out of Basel in Switzerland. How would you define the work culture out there? What’s good about it and what is it that you would like to change?
I love the great work culture in Switzerland as well as the people. There are no hierarchies, and people are very straight and direct in a way that you have to read between the lines. Novartis is a little different from Panalpina, which was very flat. People’s time is appreciated. Once I reach office at 8:30 in the morning, I do not return home before 7:00 or 7:30 in the evening but there is very little slack time in those hours. The weekends are beautiful but if work has to be delivered, it just has to be managed.
The best thing about working in Switzerland is the deep cultural sensitivity. I never had to worry about fitting in as an Indian. They valued the ideas that I brought to the table.
The only change I would want to see in Swiss culture is to have more women in senior management roles. Swiss women are known to stay home after motherhood, because day-care in Switzerland is very expensive.
What part of the Indian work culture did you miss in Switzerland? For instance, people who have worked in India miss the warmth among co-workers, when they move to Europe or America.
You are right about Indians missing the warmth of their co-workers when they move out of their country, and it happened in my case as well. I fondly remember my days with American Express Bank. In India people are warm and involved, and always there for you. Also, there is rivalry and competitiveness in Indian work culture. In Switzerland, there exists a sense of levelling. Everybody uses public transport, be it a CEO, the richest man in the city or a normal employee. So, I would want to take the warmth from India there and bring their levelling here.
The best thing about working in Switzerland is the deep cultural sensitivity. I have never had to worry about fitting in as an Indian. They value the ideas that you bring to the table.
These days people change jobs like they change clothes, but you represent a generation of people that stayed with one company for years on end. What do you feel about the pace, inconsistency and restlessness associated with the younger generation to achieve more and more without delving deeper?
I belong to a generation, where people stick with one company for years. The fact that in my 30-year long career I worked with only three companies further proves this trait. However, the one thing that has helped is that I was able to reinvent myself within the same company. I looked for challenges in my roles and I saw no reason to leave if I built both depth and breadth.
I love the fact that organisations allow you to move into different roles and experiment with different things in your current role.
The millennials are also looking for similar things, but simply fail to find them. The economy has changed over the past few years. The banking sector took a huge hit post 9/11, and then the recession happened and the stock market crashed. Due to these changes in the economy, the multinational companies forgot to focus on HR.
Another thing to be noted is that HR is still archaic in some respects. We continue to follow a pretty old-fashioned performance management system, which no longer serves the purpose it used to.
In HR, the technology uptake has been slow. Many people say that they have done it but if you dig down deeper in the surface, we can not even get a basic data right. Mind you, this is not just with the smaller companies but also the global ones.
I do not think it is something unique to the millennials, even Gen X are looking for newer opportunities, and are aware that going up the corporate ladder is no longer conventional. Talent management is about giving newer perspectives to people and helping them grow in life. If we do not get that right, people will move.
My cross-functional experience gives me the ability to ask questions which others may feel scared to ask.
Do people with cross-functional experience perform better in HR as compared to those who have been dedicated to HR alone?
Yes, undoubtedly. I am proud of my cross-functional experience. It helps me be real. I do not want to disrespect my HR colleagues, but if you work in the field with the line managers and get burnt in the heat it gives you a different perspective. For me, it has helped me remain simple and kill processes that failed to add value to the function.
It also gives me the ability to ask questions that people may be scared to ask. I have observed that those who have really taken the challenge to understand the business are the ones who have succeeded in HR.
How has learning changed over the years? Has there been any change in the desire to learn or has technology been pushing or trying to change the way we learn?
Imagine a world where we had to de-construct the processes which the HR is already so used to following! We would have to re-invent ourselves to see what we think we can add value to. I think that scares some of the conventional HR professionals. But I find that sometimes we get much more support from the business rather than the HR.
Technology has made it possible for us to receive information in no time, and at our doorstep. If you read about some topic on the Internet, I think you are able to gather enough knowledge to be able to go out and speak about it. Earlier, development programmes were seen as a privilege, a reward and a luxury as we were required to go to five-star hotels. But now, organisations are more careful about what they want and spend their money accordingly.
But some of the problems still remain the same. You are still trying to change leadership behaviours, but now you are also trying to adjust to different leadership behaviours. I see a convergence of classroom training and virtual training.
Another thing is that you’ve got to make knowledge available and accessible at every point. You cannot determine at what pace or with what method I am going to learn.
I also see that learning is all about giving back to the society. It is about going out and spreading whatever knowledge we acquire, to the underdeveloped world.
Re-inventing oneself is what scares some of the conventional HR professionals.
With so much learning being possible through smart phones, do you think organisations are using smart phones the right way?
I think we are getting there. I can see that organisations are beginning to deploy knowledge in different ways. It is important to know what we need and how to use it.
The language used is also of great importance. We should not be shoving content down people’s throats. The apps and channels are going to play a major role in the way knowledge will be consumed.
I do not think there is enough maturity yet, because we do not have much history of using AI and machine learning.
Globally, pharma companies are growing through mergers and acquisitions. How challenging is it to manage the diverse workforce and fit everyone culturally?
Not just in the case of M&A, but in every case it is a challenge. In the past, everything appeared easier, but now it is all virtual. Every day you are on a skype call dealing with people, and you have to be very inclusive while doing so. While some people will speak up, there are some cultures that do not speak up.
You are supposed to deliver content through different channels, mediums and unions. We deliver content in 36 languages. Every announcement that I have to make, has to be shared in at least a minimum of eight languages.
There is a huge focus on inclusion, and this does not mean geography alone but inclusion in all ways and from all directions.
Inclusion of the LGBTQ community and the fight between men and women over diversity continue to remain serious topics.
In HR, the technology uptake has been slow. Many people say that they have done it but if you dig down deeper in the surface, we can’t even get a basic data right. Mind you, this is not just with the smaller companies but also the global ones.
In the Industrial Revolution 4.0, will upskilling be the deciding factor for survival of the fittest?
The willingness and adaptability to learn will be the most crucial thing. I always think about learning on a daily basis. Knowledge can come from anywhere and anyone, and you should be open to all influences.
Difference between formal upskilling, casual upskilling and individual ways is becoming blurred because people learn on the go. We are not going to learn unless we experience. The ability to be open to different experiences is the key.
What is important for people to be successful professionally – attitude or aptitude?
Aptitude is something that we all have at some level otherwise we would not be in the organisation. But it is the attitude which will give you success because the ripple effect of negative behaviours tends to catch up fast. While the organisation takes time to act, we continue to feel it. The directors feel it and so do all the employees.
While the administrative process will be taken over by automation, the binding will be taken care of by human beings. The ability to take forward people with you is the key. Therefore, attitude is far more important than aptitude.