“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Adil Malia


Adil Malia, group president, HR at Essar group, has worked across industries, cultures, regions and functions. From FMCG to hardcore engineering and infrastructure; from a Global MNCs such as GE, Coca-Cola to promoter led companies such as Essar and Godrej; from India to West Asia from employee relations, training, HRM, organisational development to marketing in tactical and strategic roles.

He shares with HR Katha his candid views on the state of human resources function in India.

You have worked across sectors, functions and regions. From an Indian business conglomerate such as Godrej to a true blue global MNC Coca Cola to an Indian multinational group such as Essar, how has been the journey, learning and transition?

Yes, I think God has been kind. It’s true, I have worked across sectors.

I believe each experience was unique on its own. For instance, two companies from the same sector will have different set of challenges and identical cultures.

What I have learnt is that one should approach every new experience with an open mind to learn. It is important not to carry cultural and emotional baggage from one experience to the other.

During M&A, the bigger challenge is to prevent our own leaders from behaving like masters and conquerors of a new kingdom.

Another important learning has been that one should never try to solve problems at the present company in exactly the same way he/she might have done it in his/her previous role. It is important to observe and absorb the culture of the new organisation before deciding on a strategy. Remember, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Coming back to the transition from Coca Cola India to the Essar group, understanding the diverse portfolio of businesses that Essar was in, it offered a unique culture, the ‘family’ orientation in its style, the entrepreneurial mind-set, and different styles of leadership. All these were challenges of the new paradigm which I had voluntarily opted for. But none of these were difficult to cope with because at the core, the enterprise believed in the power of positive attitude and action.


Which one is more difficult proposition – acquiring new talent or retaining the existing one? In terms of talent acquisition, what is the biggest challenge that plagues the industry today? Companies have the tendency to look outside for talent and ignore the internal resources. What’s the reason behind this?

Any enterprise that values people and engages them meaningfully in its value creation journey will evolve a great employer brand reputation. It will neither have a talent retention challenge nor a talent acquisition challenge.

However, I believe the practice of scouting for talent outside the organisation every time- particularly for critical talent or its key managerial personnel – is endemic of the fact that the enterprise is not managing its internal talent effectively.

It is an easy way to label its internal talent as incompetent and search externally, but organisations are unmindful of the huge unintended consequences of such tacit messaging on their internal talent.

I know of many companies which suddenly discovers the internal talent only on the day the employee tenders his/her resignation to the company. Real shame!

In case of merger and acquisition (M&A), there is mostly a feeling that one party is the winner and the other a loser. How does the HR department ensure that no such polarisation come into effect?

A ‘Victor-Vanquished’ feeling is natural and inherent in an M&A situation. However, if it persists beyond the first few days, it is an indication that the new management has not effectively managed its post-acquisition organisational development process effectively.

The problem is not only how do we make the vanquished not lose morale and feel as if they have lost a battle. The bigger challenge is how do we prevent our own leaders from behaving as if they are masters and conquerors of a new kingdom.

Just because the CEO and the CMO are on the table the CHRO can’t expect a seat there. 

A well-defined integration process has to be put in place. Open and objective communication to all is critical – value driving process integration between the two organisations is crucial and selecting the best leaders from the two talent stocks – existing company and acquired company – becomes very necessary.

We need to be mindful that the M&A actually happened because someone really saw synergy and therefore invested money in the inorganic growth strategy and thus the acquisition. Anything that destroys that value needs to be eradicated.

HR plays a larger than life role in integration of culture and success of the new enterprise.

In most organisations, the GEN X is making way for the millennial generation. How do you think, the workplace culture is changing because of that? Do we need to adapt newer practices to mould the companies as per the need of the newer generation?

Organisations need to be prepared scientifically for this change. If you have ever got your house painted you would realise that for long-term sustainability of the paint, the wall and its surface has to be properly created.

If you don’t do that and merely layer new coats of paint on the old paint, then its look, feel, finish and sustainability will get impacted. Each business process has to be filtered through insights and lenses of the millennial talent.

An entire program for change management (process interventions) has to be designed and initiated. This will differ from one company to the other. What is critical is to put at least the diagnostic process in place.

Success belongs to those that evolve a flexible culture, which facilitates this change and not a rigid culture that is so traditional that it actually resists new challenges and thus changes.

Technology has changed the way we do business in the last decade. Several functions within an organisation have undergone transformation. But somehow the industry feels that HR seems to be reluctant in embracing technology and new media. Do you agree? If not, how has technology transformed HR as a function?

I disagree with this observation. In fact, in a rapidly changing world, HR has been at the cutting edge of digitisation.

Talent acquisition has been revolutionised in scope through social media platforms, employee induction has become a ‘zero’ day target and can be done online by using multiple platforms.

SAP and success- factor ERPS have digitally revolutionised practically all the people life-cycle milestones.

Employee communications have moved away from the glitzy company journal to online e-magazines. Employees participate in online relevant discussion forums on a daily basis. Senior leadership reaches out to people on live chats every day. All operational decisions happen on ‘self-serve’ basis with mobile applications.

If HR wishes to be like Rip van Winkle in a digital world: Good luck to them.

In fact, before policies are formed, quick employee polls are conducted on ‘monkey-bizz’ to know their perspectives. At Essar, 90 per cent employees voted for a 5 day work week when the debate was on and the management so declared a 5 day work week. These are only some experiences.

Does this in any way give a feeling that HR has been a reluctant mover in the digital adaptation?

Maybe it’s correct.

Certain forward thinking companies and HR leaders may have taken a leap forward. If that is so, the challenge is at the individual organisation level and the CEO must lead this strategic agenda.

Technology is ready, platforms are available, vendors have robust stand alone and also ERP products and good companies have also gone ahead.

If you wish to be like Rip van Winkle in a digital world, good luck to you.

There is an increased focus on enhancing skill set in the country. How will it shape up the future workforce?

Ours is an agrarian economy fast transforming into an industrial economy. To emerge as an economic super power, India will need hundreds of thousands of skill sets – higher quality of old skills as well as the new world skills.

Fact is, we do not have them and auditing our ability to build this capability does not give a sense of confidence that we can do it either.

Challenge thus is for us to ensure that this vision does not die and end up becoming merely a pipe dream due to skills penury. Many ‘PPP’ capability building institutions will have to be built for this to happen so that we can add value and shape our National Human Capital to fulfill our vision to make in India.

What is the importance of internal branding in today’s scenario? Do you think the HR function is well equipped to handle this and create successful brand imagery for the internal audience?

Internal Employer Brand perception is the net perception of how people believe you value and manage the people and talent resources in your enterprise.

Companies discover the internal talent only on the day the employee tenders his/her resignation.

Your organisation’s ability to attract, align, engage and measure its talent is a direct outcome of this internal talent perception. This internal perception has a unique ability.

This internal branding in return influences external brand imagery.

However, it is unfortunate that CEOs have outsourced direct responsibilities for such a crucial job to their HR Managers. Of course, HR has the capability and is ready for it but I disagree with the CEOs abdication of this responsibility in certain cases.

What role can HR play in meeting the overall business objectives in the company? Do you see them playing a more strategic role in near future? Do you think HR should also get a business target to meet?

You deserve a seat on the strategic table only if you can make valuable contributions. It cannot be guaranteed to you only for reasons of political equity. Just because the CEO and the CMO are on the table you can’t expect a seat there.

HR needs to transform from value guarding specialists to value creating business leaders.

HR needs to be ready itself by understanding the value creation process of the business and using his specialised knowledge in people management domain to contribute to it meaningfully.

Develop business acumen, understand finance, study markets and first-hand get to know the customers of business. Your people strategy, if you do so, would automatically undergo a change with acquisition of new knowledge of business and building of business capability.

Yes, giving responsibility to HR for business targets and roles is rather very important in this journey of transforming value guarding specialists into value creating business leaders.


  1. Eyeopeners for people who aspire to be like those seniors in the fraternity..

    Thanks for the share. I do appreciate all the thoughts from Mr. Malia..

  2. I appreciate Adil’s candid views.Hope some real message is getting down to the desired level of people. The gap between preaching and practicing should get reduced.
    Good views.

  3. clear message on the retention and identification of the skill set in the organization is the need of the hour.

  4. The message is clear, unambiguous and spelt out lucidly. Stand alone strategies of people management which if carefully administered will yield great results.

    Thank you for the sharing this nice article.


  5. Well Said !

    I believe today’s HR needed to be well equipped with the Business Acumen of Finance, Operations and other functions else it will be very very difficult to bring the changes required.

    To bring cultural changes its not only HR but the change agents across the shop floors needed to be trained on these aspect as well. The only they will be able to motivate and change the surroundings across.

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