Transition from a true-blue sales person to a seasoned HR leader

Abhijit Abhyankar is currently regional head of people, South Asia, Middle East and Africa, Cathay Pacific Airways


Abhijit Abhyankar grew up in Mumbai, spending his childhood amongst medical professionals. not only was his mother a doctor, but the apartment where they stayed was mostly occupied by medical professionals and doctors. The children in the colony were also a studious lot. Abhyankar thinks he was the odd man out there – an average scorer among the toppers. However, that didn’t act as a deterrent for him. “My parents never allowed my confidence to drop by comparing me with them. They gave me the freedom to do whatever I liked,” he shares.

He owes a lot to his friends as well. Abhyankar recalls that initially his communication skills in English weren’t that good, but the encouragement from his friends to participate in debates and elocutions, sharpened his skills and enhanced his confidence as well. Just like normal youngsters, Abhyankar too kept changing and shifting his dreams and goals. at one point, he aimed to become a teacher. It was because he was just fascinated with them. “Though I myself was not that good in studies, I wanted to try my hand at teaching,” he quips. At one point, while in college, he wanted to join politics, and tried his luck at becoming a student leader. Post his graduation, he got a job offer as a sales executive with Mahindra Holidays, which he chose not to pursue. Instead, he enrolled for a master’s degree in management studies – marketing and public relations, from the Mumbai Education Trust – Institute of Management.

“My parents never allowed my confidence to drop by comparing me with others. They gave me the freedom to do whatever I liked”

After completing his master’s, Abhyankar tried his luck in advertising and wanted to be a copywriter. “I applied to a lot of advertising and media agencies in Mumbai. unfortunately, I could not land a job. At the time, the advertising industry wasn’t in a great shape,” he says. Finally, he found a job in the hospitality business, and joined as a sales executive with The Ambassador Hotel in Mumbai. “I had two other job offers at the same time – all in sales. However, I chose to go with the hospitality sector. I thought The Ambassador Hotel would be apt at that point of time, even though the offer was the lowest paying one.” He has no regrets and is only glad he made that choice. “It helped me groom myself as a professional.” His first job also helped him shape up as a person and taught him to stay cool in adverse situations. Abhyankar shares how in his first job, he had to face the misbehaviour and anger of clients. However, the good part is he learnt to deal with such tantrums with a positive attitude.

Back then, his manager and his first mentor, Ajay Sharma told him, “It’s just like how great swords are fashioned, by heating and hammering them into shape.”

“I had two other job offers at the same time – all in sales. However, I chose to go with the hospitality sector. I thought the Ambassador Hotel would be apt at that point of time, even though the offer was the lowest paying one”

It is Sharma who also taught Abhyankar the importance of punctuality, to be on time, or actually before time to prepare oneself well – a habit that he still treasures. As luck would have it, The Ambassador Hotel property in Mumbai fell into some dispute. Being forced to look for new pastures within two years, he landed up at Le Meridian as an assistant sales manager.

While at Le Meridian, Abhyankar received a call from a head hunter with a job opening at KLM Airlines. When Abhyankar landed at the venue for the interview, a hotel, he saw 120 other candidates waiting in anticipation of the same role. Abhyankar claims he is still clueless how he bagged that job – being one among 120- odd applicants. “Frankly, I had done nothing extraordinary during the interview,” he admits.

At KLM, Abhyankar brushed his skills in the aviation industry, and later joined Jet airways as senior manager – a role which was specifically crafted for him. In fact, initially, Jet Airways offered him an assistant manager’s role, which he refused. However, after a few months, Jet Airways came back to him with the role of a senior manager, which was a big jump for Abhyankar. The other thing he learnt at KLM was to value numbers. His manager back then, Arvin Alagh, was very particular about numbers. He could not tolerate even the slightest of deviations, which pushed everyone in his team to do better.

“I was a little hesitant initially to take up an HR role since all my life I have been in a Sales profile”

His stint with Cathay Pacific, his current company, which he joined some 11 years ago, has been his longest. He believes that Cathay Pacific is the place where he actually got the opportunity to transform into a corporate leader and handle some key leadership portfolios — as regional head of marketing and digital sales; and as country manager for the Africa region where he was leading all the operations. According to him, “Cathay does whatever it says”. Abhyankar is now responsible for managing the people strategy at Cathay Pacific for South Asia, the Middle East and Africa region.

Initially, when this opportunity was offered to Abhyankar, he was hesitant. His worry was whether he would be able to even justify the position given the fact that he had been a sales professional all his career.

He then realised that his primary job would be to design employee experiences and carve out people’s journeys, and that lured him. Besides, with HR increasingly taking up a business partnering role and requiring commercial acumen, he felt he would have an advantage. “The HR role is actually not really new to me. as we always say, every manager is a people manager first, whether in sales, marketing or operations,” points out Abhyankar. His journey so far, leading the HR function, has been smooth and exciting. It would be interesting to see how it unfolds.

(This article was first published in HRKatha Print Magazine)


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