Hari TN: The unconventional HR thinker

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Hari TN, the head of HR at Big Basket is now known as the start-up HR guy. This IITian and IIM graduate, spent long years at Tata Steel, first as an engineer and then in HR. He has also been through two mergers and acquisitions. He believes, in start-ups, jargons don’t count because one has to execute, perform and make things happen in real time.

Hari TN has spent 14 years at Tata Steel – first as an engineer and then as a senior HR executive – he was head HR, new initiatives. However, what Hari is now better known for, is his successful stints with goal-driven start-ups. Hari is currently the head-HR at Big Basket.

Hari is also a successful author. He has co-authored three books — Back to Basics in Management-A critique of the fabled management mantras; Cut the crap and jargon: Learnings from the start-up trenches and Cutting the Gordian Knot-India’s quest for Prosperity.

An IIM degree for this IITian wasn’t an escape route from the shop-floor, instead he preferred Tata Steel at the Campus and started as a mechanical engineer on the shop-floor. For Hari, IIM was to get a broader perspective of how organisations work. This is also why at Tata Steel, he worked in various functions starting from procurement to corporate planning to design and also at construction sites before finally moving into HR, which he says wasn’t a planned move.

For successful mergers and acquisitions, mutual respect is critical for both companies, especially between the senior management teams.

It so happened that post liberalisation in 2002, foreign steel producers were dumping steel in India below the company’s cost prices. At this point, Tata Steel faced an existential crisis and had to restructure and right-size. Hari was chosen to be part of the core team that worked with McKinsey on making this transformation happen. It was a challenging task to create strategic business units, evaluate employees, right size the company, and find outplacement services for employees who were sacked because of the exercise.

It was unlikely that Hari would have continued in HR if he had stayed on at Tata Steel. However, the experience gave him the required exposure to pick up new skillsets.

Coming from an engineering background with an analytical approach, Hari took a non-traditional perspective to the HR role. He was actively involved in shaping the company’s strategy and analytics function, and HR was a case holder for him.

However, Hari found the bureaucratic set up at Tata Steel, a little pinching. He realised that it moved slow in terms of decision making and by nature he was a rule breaker with a bit of an entrepreneurial streak.

He decided to explore greener pastures, and his love affair with start-ups began with his next move to Daksh in 2002 and, in the process, he rediscovered himself.

A good HR professional becomes a good leader when he/she can balance employee advocacy with business realities without hurting either.

Hari discovered the kick in working for high-growth companies. At Daksh, he was instrumental in growing the employee strength from 2000 to 25,000.

Later, when Daksh was acquired by IBM, Hari got the exposure of managing the workforce during a merger and acquisition. The integration was a new learning experience, but given a choice, he says, he would not get involved in a similar process again. “For successful mergers and acquisitions, mutual respect is critical for both companies, especially between the senior management teams,” he says.

Hari believes that any change in reporting relationship from one organisation to another can lead to chaos. Hence, it is important to insulate the reporting relationships except for the top management for at least 12 months.

Next Hari landed up at Virtusa, a global IT services provider. Here he got the opportunity to work with a truly global organisation. It’s at Virtusa where he learnt that leadership flaws are exposed far more quickly in a global context than while working in a lone country.

From Virtusa, Hari moved to Amba Research and then to TaxiforSure (the company was later bought over by Ola) and later to his current role at Big Basket.

Sharing his experience of working with start-ups, Hari says, the biggest challenge has been to create the right culture and also stand by it. In a high growth start-up environment, those who are delivering terrific business outcomes begin to violate the culture in small ways. Hari feels dealing with blatantly deviant behaviour isn’t difficult, but dealing with the subtle violators is the biggest problem.

HR leaders need to stop hiding behind HR jargons and demonstrate a deeper understanding of the interplay between human psychology and business performance.

So far, for Hari, the biggest personal challenge has been to let go of people due to business challenges despite their good attitude and good performance.

Hari feels, a good HR professional becomes a good leader when he/she can balance employee advocacy with business realities without hurting either. He says, “HR leaders need to stop hiding behind HR jargons and demonstrate a deeper understanding of the interplay between human psychology and business performance.”

Startups are extremely chaotic and fast paced, with uncertain goals. “Here HR needs to be agile,” Hari says.

He believes in the idea that those who can learn, unlearn, and relearn will be more successful than those who are well educated.

He has learned continuously, exhibiting a child-like curiosity at every stage in life, and still reads Feynman’s lectures in physics as a pastime.

In his spare time, he likes reading books on contemporary science, start-ups, history and geopolitics.

Hari is also a strategic advisor at Fundamentum – a growth fund established by veterans from Indian start-up system. He likes to offer a helping hand to budding and seasoned entrepreneurs, by being their sounding board. He enjoys connecting the dots and finding patterns, whether in business, history or science.

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