“If HR leaders are in line with their CEO, they can never go wrong” : Kaustubh Sonalkar

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A core business professional turned HR leader, Kaustubh Sonalkar is currently the president-HR at Essar, and chief executive officer at Essar Foundation. He believes good people management is about idealistic thinking, and is more invested in the practical execution and achievement of those futuristic ideals through creative channels.

A high risk taker, willing experimenter and learner, and also an out-of-the-box thinker, Sonalkar is design oriented rather than control oriented. He talks to HRKatha about his experiences across industries and cultures and what future organisations will look like.

With a strong belief in proactive and predictive policies as opposed to reactive measures, how do you think technology in predictive analytics and AI helps the approach or is it human intuition and judgement that still rule the game?

People are people, and if you don’t connect with them at heart, then you’re really not connecting at all. Even though technology is a great enabler, emotions always take an upper hand. However, that should not undermine the importance of technology, which is vital to HR now. Unfortunately, while HR professionals talk a lot about technology, its actual application is still amiss.

This means, transactional HR is now passé, but still HR has been able to successfully automate only MIS. In reality, it is still far from the actual futuristic technologies in AI and predictive analytics. It is here that technology will take over human intervention, whereas transformational HR will always remain human driven. Nothing can really take away the importance of the human connect.

How important is human connect for HR professionals and also otherwise in the workplace, in times when technology is taking over every aspect of how businesses function? What is the role of HR in ensuring and establishing its relevance?

It is the HR’s job to keep the internal customer or the employee satisfied and that cannot be done sitting in the comfort of air-conditioned cabins. HR should always be on their toes to find out what’s going on at the shop floor. HR professionals should be so approachable that no one should ever have to book calendars to meet them. It is the prime responsibility of HR to manage the key account of the organisation—its people. Unfortunately, the HR professionals of today are already living in the future and tend to lose out on the human connect.

Share your journey transitioning from telecom to consultancy to manufacturing, mining, and so on. How do people practices differ across two different domains? How does people management in B2B businesses differ from that in B2C?

People are people, wherever you go, and therefore, people management does not really differ from industries to businesses. You meet and need to interact with different kinds of people, but a ground rule is that if you are humble, you will be liked by all.

The second rule that stays strong is that every organisation has its own unique culture, values and beliefs, which become the DNA of the organisation. Those HR professionals who carry a burden of their last organisation’s culture into their current or future organisations, are actually their biggest enemies themselves.

Technology will take over human intervention, whereas transformational HR will always remain human driven. 

Apart from that, there are also some basic differences in how various industries function. For instance, consulting is a business with too much focus on the individual, while manufacturing is culture-centric with people generally tending to stick on longer. While B2C organisations are more customer-centric, telecom is more product centric. Despite these external factors, people intrinsically remain the same.

Most importantly, HR should align itself with the business agenda and support it well as people for the base of any business. As an HR leader, if you are in line with the CEO, you can never go wrong.

We are at an important juncture of workplace revolution, which experts believe is the fourth industrial revolution. It is anticipated that we are at the threshold of yet another and bigger change due to artificial intelligence, intelligent automation and the Internet of Things. How do you perceive the workplace to be in the near future or say in the next five years?

The world of work is certainly changing dramatically. Take, for instance, the disturbing news that has been coming out in the last few weeks about MBAs and CAs applying for the post of constables. Robots and AI are taking over some of the jobs. We’re seeing a shift from BPOs to RPOs. Free apps on the phone now help people manage work remotely, and with that, plug-and-play workplaces will soon be a reality and contractual employment will become common.

The workplace policies of the future will be very different from the present day and these rules will be written by those who are currently 12–15 years of age and in school. Whenever I need to frame a futuristic policy, I just check if it appeals to that generation. To stay relevant, HR too needs to change with time. Change is approaching faster now and HR and businesses need to think how these will be able to excite the generation that is currently in schools —thefuture talent.

With the intensifying war for the right talent and the shortage of skilled professionals, talent management has become more critical to business results. In such VUCA times what do you think makes an efficient leader and a strong talent magnet?

An efficient leader is one who has an in-depth understanding of tomorrow, is empathetic and does not hesitate to stand up for his people. However, a big mistake organisations at times make in choosing leaders is that they look at the best performers. The best performers may not necessarily be the best leaders as well. It is the same as having Tendulkar as the captain while ignoring the traits of Dhoni. Not everyone can be a good people manager. Someone who can set meaningful visions and drive people towards achieving them is a good leader.

The workplace policies of the future will be very different from the present day and these rules will be written by those who are currently 12–15 years of age and in school. 

In the corporate sector, we have witnessed a sea change in the way companies approach people issues and management. How has industrial relations changed in the last decade?

Industrial relations is gaining even more importance now, but in a different perspective. In the past, it was more about managing the unions and negotiating with them. The unions still exist but they are more educated now. For instance, even IT folk today have a union to stand up for their rights as employees are now more aware about their rights.

Industrial relations, rather employee relations, in the modern era are not confined to merely the blue-collared force, but apply to the white-collared as well.

Having worked across sectors and geographies, and handled mergers and acquisitions, how do you think differences in culture and ideologies impact business and how can HR build bridges?

A merger or an acquisition is like a marriage. It involves fear, excitement, anxiety and insecurities that need to be managed well for a balanced future. People fear losing jobs and need time to settle into the new culture as well, and they should be given the required time and space for the same. It’s important to build trust and then the transformation will be smoother and faster. Organisations should not rush into changing things faster.

Industrial relations is gaining even more importance now, but in a different perspective. 

It is also important to keep in mind that organisations have individual cultures but your professional upbringing happens at the first organisation— and that is something that stays with you forever. As a professional, you grow up with it, which is why it is important that organisations hire for culture fit than role fit. Skills can still be built, but culture is inherent. After all, one bad apple can spoil the whole basket.

Gender diversity at the workplace is not just a social issue – it is also about how businesses gain from it. Why do you think there is a need to have more women in the team across levels? What are the tangible benefits?

Diversity for me is non-negotiable and is something that should not just be the mandate but the right thing to do, and that too, in its holistic form. It’s foolish for an organisation to just look at hiring women because of the mandate. Only a healthy mix of people in the workplace can result in great ideas. Women bring in warmth and are great at collaboration. Moreover, the natural rule of existence says all are important and have to exist in equality, and one can’t go against nature.

Do you agree that your keen interest in music and sports makes you a better person and also a superior professional? A lot of organisations are now using theatre, fine arts and so on for training and development purposes. How do you see these peripherals being used at the workplace and how can organisations leverage them best?

Everyone has a passion and my first passion was cricket. It taught me a very important life lesson – you can never win, if someone else doesn’t run for you to score or someone else doesn’t take a catch to get you a wicket. Such team sports teach you a lot of collaboration.

Also, music is my second big passion. That is why, despite my busy schedule I enjoy going for my recordings after a usual work day, and have released an album. Everyone needs a venting window after stressful days at work, and such interests come handy. Exposure to such things changes how people think. There are various media, such as storytelling, theatre, music, painting and sports that organisations can leverage to build more camaraderie and leave people happier.

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