Aarif Aziz: “It’s essential for leaders to learn and unlearn, and not end up as dinosaurs”

Chief human resource officer, Diageo India looks at challenges as a learning opportunity, and this passion clearly reflects in his voice.

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Aarif Aziz was working in the balcony of his office when I called him on a Saturday afternoon. CHRO, Diageo India felt blessed to be in Bengaluru, where the weather is pleasant, while I complained about the harsh Delhi winter. Having spent his childhood in Jaipur and done his engineering from Kota, he has had his own share of extreme North Indian weather.

Michelle Obama writes in her autobiographical memoir that she studied law without knowing what she was getting into. Her decision (checking boxes) was influenced by what people claimed as the formula for success. Aziz has a similar story. Though he comes from a family of doctors, he did not want to become one. His decision of ‘becoming’ an electrical engineer was influenced by conventional thinking.

After engineering, he chose to do a management programme in marketing and HR. His first job, which he landed at the campus, was with Kinetic Engineering. There, he was fortunate enough to work under the able leadership of Sullaja Firodia Motwani, the joint MD of the Company. Kinetic was undergoing transformation in business at the time, and Motwani wanted him to play a dual role of being an HR manager and also helping with the business.

“An opportunity came my way from GE, and that was like a dream come true for me. I had laboured with some of their case studies in the management programme. GE was then setting its operations in India, and I did cross-functional stints toiling in sales and manufacturing, and flirting outside HR for a couple of years”

“Being broader than a single stream and establishing a direction in those challenging times was a great learning for me. I worked beyond the role of an HR manager by getting closely involved with the marketing, sales and manufacturing teams,” recollects Aziz.

“An opportunity came my way from GE, and that was like a dream come true for me. I had laboured with some of their case studies in the management programme. GE was then setting its operations in India, and I did cross-functional stints toiling in sales and manufacturing, and flirting outside HR for a couple of years. However, I returned to HR just as a ship sails back to the port for anchorage,” shares Aziz.

This quick landing back into the HR space was because of the immense satisfaction Aziz got from the function/role that helps people build their careers. Aristotle said, ‘Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work’. These words best describe Aziz’s career growth — starting out as an HR manager (technology) and ending up as GE’s global HR head.

“When I say ‘helping’ people, I mean making a difference in the lives of people around me. The equation around culture is another facet of HR that keeps me excited. I have derived a formula— ?CULTURE = Behaviours x System & Structures x Matrix x Interventions”

“When I say ‘helping’ people, I mean making a difference in the lives of people around me. The equation around culture is another facet of HR that keeps me excited. I have derived a formula— ?CULTURE = Behaviours x System & Structures x Matrix x Interventions,” alludes Aziz.

Leaders are so overspent and caught up handling systems, structures, matrices and interventions that they have no time for behaviours. According to Aziz, behaviours are ambiguous and it takes time to articulate and change them. Therefore, it is the power of behaviour that forms the most important element in creating culture.

“Power of coaching is the biggest differentiator I have been able to bring in as a leader. Changing the leadership DNA, creating a talent pipeline and building a culture has been possible with the coaching tool. My ability to learn from my mistakes has helped me do so,” explains Aziz.

“I have made a difference by showing empathy and respect, and creating possibilities for employees going through a layoff. In 2002, I was assigned a project in one of the businesses at GE, which was going through a significant downturn. I had to not only execute a downsizing to reduce the workforce by 31 per cent but ensure that every single individual was re-deployed to protect the company’s brand and credibility in a new market (India)”

The reality of our business is that one must stay competitive to survive. Business situations, such as losing market share, discontinuing products, and so on may demand a downsizing. The power of HR comes to play as it learns to handle these circumstances with empathy.

“I have made a difference by showing empathy and respect, and creating possibilities for employees going through a layoff. In 2002, I was assigned a project in one of the businesses at GE, which was going through a significant downturn. I had to not only execute a downsizing to reduce the workforce by 31 per cent but ensure that every single individual was re-deployed to protect the company’s brand and credibility in a new market (India). We created opportunities for these employees outside the business and ended up not firing anyone at all,” says Aziz.

This not only helped him create great employee value proposition in the company but was a milestone in terms of learning experience. His tremendous success in this difficult assignment provided wings to his career and he was promoted for a role in the US.

“Sometimes one must terminate because of performance or compliance. I have been able to demonstrate empathy with the help of two ‘Rs’ — reality and respect. Genuine empathy comes with knowing that humans are prone to making mistakes and they should not be judged or disrespected for it,” reasons Aziz.

“My first boss at GE has been a mentor and I still seek advice from him. There have been many other people who have supported me in my career”

Each new chapter in a person’s life requires a new version of himself. Did the same apply to Aziz who took the role of CHRO at Diageo, a couple of months back? “I love the focus the Company has on brands and people. It is making investments in the field of technology to make it a path-breaking Company. I am very excited to be a part of a consumer-facing business. It makes the HR role more dynamic. I need to be proactive and think strategically to be able to meet the demand of the business. I look at this move as an opportunity to take this already successful company to greater heights,” remarks Aziz.

Experience is the teacher of all things. Aziz has done his share of walking on the tight rope many a time. In one of his roles at GE in his early career, the business got into a dispute with the union. He was sent to make peace with the union leader who was known to be a ruffian. This was his first role in IR, and that too at a time when he had not even completed a week in the new role.

He peeped into the restaurant, where the union leader was sitting with ten bulky and fierce body guards. Just a single one of them would have been enough to handle his own four body guards who appeared to be babies in front of them.

“I walked inside alone, shook hands with all of them and sat down. I spoke to them with respect and applied the listening tool. After eight hours of chatting, we not only resolved one important matter and built a relationship that helped us immensely in the future,” narrates Aziz.

“For my good work at GE, I was sent to the US for an assignment. My confidence was at its peak and I engaged with the business leader with that frame of mind. However, he ignored me, which frustrated me no end. The more I tried to warm up to him, the more hostile he became. Then, I changed my focus at work using all my energies for the benefit of the employees. After a few months, he called me and chatted with me for an hour or so before work. That broke the ice between us and he told me that that he felt I was trying to impose matters on him even before I understood the context and the new work environment. I learned to be connected to the ground and understood the importance of getting a feel of the pulse before starting to tell people what to do,” relates Aziz.

“My first boss at GE has been a mentor and I still seek advice from him. There have been many other people who have supported me in my career. Recently I read the book, Humans are underrated, a creative and insightful volume on leadership. Yet another great read is The Birth of Plenty. These two works have influenced me a great deal.

Being a good orator, a coach and a manager at work, as well as a runner, teacher and devoted father at home, Aziz wears many hats. He looks at challenges as a learning opportunity, and the passion comes across very clearly in his voice.

“The evolution of industries has been dramatic in the last few years. It is very important for leaders to learn and unlearn so that we don’t become dinosaurs,” concludes Aziz.

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