“The big change has been that we have moved from jobs to skills,” Amaresh Singh

Amaresh Singh took over as CHRO, GE, South Asia in July 2021. A graduate in law and a postgraduate in HRM from the University of Allahabad, Singh has been a true-blue industrial relations (IR) person. In a freewheeling conversation with Prajjal Saha, editor, HRKatha, Singh shares the intricacies of GE’s leadership behaviour practice, and how HR will have to change in the new world of work

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Q. How would you define the culture at GE?

A. Having been present in this region since 1902, GE has been around for 120 years. It can be divided into three big businesses—aviation, healthcare and energy—which together employ 19,000 employees across 14 factories and 30 offices. Out of these, about 6,000 would be engineers and technologists, working out of Bengaluru. Similarly, there is another large set of employees from heavy engineering and manufacturing. We also have employees who work on project sites, which are remotely located and may have difficult working conditions. A wide variety of employees are part of the GE family, and as an organisation, GE has a strong people focus.

A strong focus on leadership development and a constant effort to build frontline leaders is part of the GE DNA. So much so that leadership behaviours are well built and integrated into systems. That means, every manager and every people leader will have to go through and revisit that regularly. There are very specific nudges through the life cycle of people and employees that appear again and again, that keep reinforcing the leadership behaviours.

Now we are focussing on diversity and inclusion, and fair employee practices. We have an open and transparent reporting system, which means employees are free to report instances and behaviours that don’t help the business. We are also working towards leaner structures and at the same time, have been dismantling structures that promote bureaucracy.

GE celebrates meritocracy and speed at which communication flows in both directions – upwards and downwards. That is what keeps GE together. I realised this when my previous organisation, Alstom, was merged with GE.

As you said, GE has a strong focus on leadership development – it believes in building its own leaders. What happens when a leader or a CEO joins from outside?

outside. It’s just that our internal focus is strong and even today, 40 per cent of all our hiring is through internal recruitment. We believe in promoting our internal talent as the integration in the new role is much faster. A senior leader may take at least six months to a year to understand the scheme of things. In a fast-paced business environment, we may not have that kind of time. Having said that, we now have a chairman who has moved in from outside. Similarly, there are other leaders who were external hires. It’s just that we strongly promote our internal talents.

Q. While hiring a CXO from outside, how does GE ensure seamless integration? How does the leader fit into the culture of the organisation?

A. What we have is a 90-day plan which is integrated into the system. And it is mapped in such a way that the leader gets to understand what GE is all about during this period.

This is done through interactions and exposure to different levels of leadership, sitting in one-on-ones, understanding the business, and so on. GE is huge, and therefore, it takes time to understand the processes and we don’t expect it to happen overnight. The immediate task, though, is to get the leader ready for the role.

There are few things about culture, behaviours, focus on diversity and inclusion, and so on.

We do all that early in the system so that they start to understand how we engage with the employees. We also have a manager integration process, which is done after 90 days. Besides, we have a huge repository of leadership acceleration and leadership integration that all leaders have to go through. Those who don’t, get reported and face action. This pushes and nudges all of us to go through the programmes.

Q. What has been the GE practice of integrating culture into leadership behaviours?

A. Leadership is like a bible for us, and it is practised across levels. In our performance-management system, all employees are asked to run their own leadership behaviour survey every year. This means, every employee or leader will have to ask six people of their choice to rate them on their leadership behaviour.

This rating has an impact on their annual performance, which is based on ‘performance on job’ and ‘how one practices leadership behaviour’. This is integrated into the system. Additionally, there are also ‘quarterly employee surveys’. These focus on elements of behaviour, and employees are asked to rate how they feel about safety, engagement, manager responses, diversity and fair employment practices.

These responses help us learn where we are going wrong.

Q. You have been in industrial Relations (IR) for many years. How do you think IR has changed in our country?

A. I’m one of those leaders, who still have the ingredients of industrial relations. I got into IR in 1992, and back then very few people wanted to get into this sphere.

Industrial relations is a very broad subject. It’s sad that people don’t want to get into the core of IR and fail to understand that IR is not just related to factory jobs or social security. With the implementation of labour codes, a lot of practices in manufacturing will have to change. The question is, whether organisations are ready for that change. What is needed is a change in mindset towards IR.
After all, IR will continue to be relevant because manufacturing will continue to grow.

An understanding of IR requires people to get their hands dirty and be on the floor.

How has the relationship between the worker and the organisation changed in the last three decades given the huge socioeconomic change that has taken place during this period?

I’ve seen the times when the workers used to travel in autos for a rupee, and now I see them coming in cars. Many things have changed. We are talking about times when information was not available. Now, everything is on the cloud and everyone has access to it. People who think a worker is someone who is on the shop floor and who doesn’t understand the change and the innovation, will make a grave mistake.

They have access to everything, and are much more knowledgeable than they were two or three decades back. That is the big difference. The information and knowledge they possess has also changed them.

Now they understand that they have to carry the business and partner. They know to earn more they will have to produce more. The role of the unions has also changed.

Unions have become more participative. They now talk about things, which will take one aback. They are more progressive in their thought processes than us. All my life I have approached IR by stepping into their shoes.

That always gave me the right perspective on what they said and what I should understand from the dialogue. If one is transparent with them and tries to build trust, the relationship with them grows stronger. I’ve experienced this all through my career.

“Older people have the knowledge base of so many years. They have so much to give. It is their responsibility to see that the younger generations learn those things”

Amaresh Singh, CHRO, GE, South Asia

Q. How do you think the new labour code is going to impact IR? What are the major changes you see happening?

A. It’s more transparent and simple. The old labour laws were framed in the 1940s, and therefore, were rather outdated. The newer codes will be beneficial and will go a long way in simplifying lives of both employers and employees.

Q. How do you think globalisation has changed the face of HR in India? Do you agree that the entry of global companies brought along global practices, which were a learning for many Indian companies?

A. The change has happened because there was a need for it. We have all experienced proliferation of broadband and internet and have seen how the world came closer and closer. Knowledge is now stored in the cloud, making most information available. With automated processes and technological growth, new kinds of jobs were created that never existed before.

However, the big change that happened over the years, has changed the ways of working. We have moved from jobs to skills.

Twenty years ago, getting a job was a very big thing for people, but now organisations have to work hard to retain employees. Retention of talent has become the utmost priority. Just imagine, HR didn’t even know about retention skills twenty years back, because people didn’t leave their jobs so easily.

Q. In big conglomerates such as GE, there are different pockets of people with different kinds of skills, age brackets and jobs. How does one cater to the different sets of requirements and aspirations? Can there be a oneness to the strategy?

A. I believe one has to have a more segmented approach. One has to be creative around solutions and while addressing the problems. Definitely, there can’t be one size that fits all.

What we have witnessed during the recent disruption is that employees have started asking a lot of questions. Initially, it was a bit of struggle to address these questions both at the leadership and HR level, because our policies and processes didn’t have ready answers for them.

For instance, hybrid workplace was one of them, and we didn’t have ready answers because we never thought about hybrid working or even imagined about permanent work from home.

There were different sets of demands from employees and that set us thinking and creating policies and processes to address them.

It’s time to change or die. One of the biggest skills the HR will need to acquire is to think about different segments, be open to the feedback, and be open to the answers one gets.

At the organisational level, one will have to have a model and guidelines in place that can’t be rigid.

Many organisations were forced to change because of how the work environment changed during the pandemic. Do we need to be more agile than before, because we can’t rely on the archaic principles or philosophies that companies have been traditionally following?

What one needs to understand is that change is continuous. It is everywhere, it is getting close and personal. And it’s very disruptive. I read a book that says one needs to continuously build awareness. One can only change when one is aware of it. If one is able to build that awareness, one will get the passion and drive to move. One needs to focus on people who are open to change because they will help with vicarious learning. Then, one can build on a strategy and act.

We all need to build organisational resilience to prepare our organisation for the future, anticipate what skills we need in the future, or the disruptions.

We need to build the right leadership capabilities for the future, and keep investing in people to take up larger roles. These are times of smart sizing the organisation. When there are job losses, people move but the content of the job remains the same. Someone has to do it. We need to have people in our system, who can do that.

“These are times of smart sizing the organisation. When there are job losses, people move but the content of the job remains the same. Someone has to do it. We need to have people in our system, who can do it”

Q. Many people in their late 40s or early 50s are being forced to take early retirement, or have lost their jobs during the pandemic. Is there a way out of this?

A. It is my responsibility too, to upskill or reskill myself. I started my career in 1992 as a hard core industrial relations person, and therefore, that is my foundation.

People should always ask how to reinvent themselves, and the organisations will keep building the skills in them according to their need. We need to continuously keep polishing our skills so that the value that we create is helpful and people are willing to pay for that value.

If I lose relevance for the organisation, I will lose the job. So, everyone must work to keep themselves relevant so that their skills are paid for.

Older professionals argue that organisations are replacing them due to their perceived learning capacity being less than young workers.

I don’t fully agree to this reaction, because the older people have the knowledge base of so many years. They have so much to give. They have the responsibility to see that the younger generation learns those things. There is a large potential in people who have worked for 20—25 years in their areas.

Q. When you keep squeezing the team or have a leaner team, is there a sense of insecurity that crops up within employees and is there a way to deal with it?

A. One always has to be efficient when one is trying to make the structures leaner. There will always be roles for people to play. This will not make people insecure. It will only motivate them. They look forward to speed in operations. I can tell you through my experience that people like working in organisations that are nonbureaucratic.

On the personal front, how did you land up in HR? Was it a strategic decision or accidental?

See, I come from the era when jobs used to be less. I am a law graduate from Allahabad University. In one of my interactions, someone suggested I should try my luck in HR. That’s when I did my MBA and was hired by Escorts as a management trainee in HR. There was a bit of thought from someone senior that compelled me toward this career.

Q. What is the big challenge for HR in 2022?

A. First, it is the safety of employees, both physical and psychological.

There is a continuous and relentless change, so the organisations should be prepared for more change. They should champion the culture and the leadership behaviours.

Start to be flexible. Adapting to the new ways will help in success. Build organisational efficiency and focus on the future. Lastly, use technology to cater better employee experiences that should be seamless. It should help you build collaborations.

(This article was first published in HRKatha Print Magazine)

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