Unlocking Human Potential: Insights from a Non-HR Manager

Read Time:15 Minute

Raghuram Ramakrishnan, Head-Supply Chain Strategies, ITC Ltd

G Prakash, GM-Manufacturing, Toyoto Kirloskar Auto Parts, Y V Lakshminarayan Pandit, Chief Executive of Pinacle Leadership Consulting, Krish Shankar, EVP-Group Head, HRD, Infosys and President – NHRD

Though many companies follow the carrot-and-stick approach for motivation, according to author Daniel Pink in the best-selling book, ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,’ three things essentially drive performance:
1) Autonomy or freedom to do what people want to do.
2) Mastery in how one can stretch and expand one’s boundary and master new skills. It is about achieving something which we have not done till now and which makes us feel that we have grown as a human being.
3) Purpose to ensure that work does not become drudgery and that there is a larger purpose to it. There is a story of two people who were cutting stones. When someone asked them what they were doing, one of them said that he was cutting a stone and the other said he was building the best temple in the world. We can easily say who was the better motivated out of the two.
Bringing Up the Lower Rungs
How do we help people who are in the lower rungs of Maslow’s need hierarchy? Unlocking their potential will ensure the economic well-being of the nation, propel us towards $5Tn economy and support the Make-in-India campaign. We have to reach out to that layer in the society and unlock their potential. It will also bring meaning to our lives. This is not just a responsibility of those in leadership positions but also, a once-in-a-life opportunity for the leaders. Thus it is of paramount importance both from the economic and social point of view.
There are numerous quotes on leadership. I like the one by John Seely Brown which reads:
The job of leadership today is not just to make money, it’s to make meaning.
We need to make meaning for ourselves, for the enterprises that we lead, for the consumers and for the society at large. When we do that, it creates a virtuous spiral of value and engagement, leading to economic and social value in the long run.
There are FIVE LESSONS that I have learned in unlocking human potential.
All lessons are based on some assumptions. Recruiting the right person for the right job is very important. There is a couplet in Thirukural, a collection of verses written in Tamil 2000 years ago, that says, ‘Entrust a job to a person after identifying and ascertaining if he is the right person for the job.’ Nobody joins a company to be unproductive or waste their talent. After 5 to 10 years, they lose interest due to lack of motivation. Leadership lies in keeping people productive, making them to contribute and learn, and developing them further.
Lesson 1: Purpose
The leader must envision a purpose and keep it alive. The purpose of the organisation must be communicated to the teams irrespective of their levels and they must be made to realise that they are part of the mission. There is a famous story of a janitor in NASA who said that he was helping a person land on the moon, when asked about his role in NASA.
I was running one of the factories at Pond’s. ‘Safe operation’ was a purpose in Pond’s. In operations, we do not want anyone to get hurt.
In 2004, there was a terrible fire accident in a Kumbakonam school and many children were charred to death. That shook the entire country. We had a safety meeting immediately after the incident. Many employees felt strongly about the accident. The workers were mentally disturbed and they were also worried about the safety of their children in the schools in which they were studying. They were given a day off by the factory. The workers divided themselves into small teams. They voluntarily did safety audits in many schools around and especially in schools where their children studied. They gave their findings and recommendations to the schools. It was so well received. This was not part of their KPI but the workers lived their purpose. They integrated safety in their workplace. Instead of enforcing safety through monitoring, giving warnings and memos, this act made safety a part of their life. When such a shift happens, the purpose of the organisation gets translated into the identity of the person. The worker no more requires any supervision.
Lesson 2: Power of Self-Worth
Each of us wants to be worthy. “Even a brick wants to be something,” said Louis Kohn. When the sense of self-worth is enhanced by a leader, people warm up to the environment and unlock their full potential. Psychological safety has now gained importance. We may not be perfect but everyone wants to contribute. If a person, for instance, is good only in gardening, we can assign him a task in the garden and make him realise his self-worth. In our factory, a worker did only one thing with passion and that was Rangoli. Every time there was an opportunity, we made him do Rangoli and that made him feel a great sense of self-worth and motivated him.
In Pond’s, when for the first time, we decided to produce talcum powder in 20gm packs, it was a complex engineering challenge. We empowered a team of workmen who eventually solved the complex engineering problem and helped create a new business segment. They demonstrated their self-worth and secured the future of the company.
Lesson 3: The Best HR Policy
We may have many volumes of documented HR policies but the best HR policy is “Human Conscience.” Let’s me illustrate this with the Autonomy Vs Discipline framework.
We are all afraid of landing in a situation where there is High Autonomy and Low Discipline. Because of this we choose a High Discipline environment and use a lot of rules and regulations to manage this. This leads to Low Autonomy and we eventually drift into a Low Autonomy-Low Discipline environment. However, the sweet spot is the quadrant where we have both Discipline and Autonomy. Successful organisations stay in this sweet spot.
Even as early as the 90s, Pond’s had a rating system for the workers and it was shared with them transparently. This motivated people to do well and produced a positive environment for performance. It requires a lot of judgement and transparent leadership to run this process in a fair manner but when done, it produces magic.
Exception handling is also very important. In 2002, I was working in Pondicherry. One of our workers died in a road accident while returning home. He was one of the best workmen in the factory. It was the first loss of an employee since the factory started its operation in 1985 and it impacted everyone in the factory. We at once created a trust to take care of his wife and two kids instead of giving a lumpsum payout. The trust was in place for 18 years till the kids completed the college and the family was fully self-sufficient. Last year, it was dismantled and the corpus given to the family.
We also had an educational trust to help the needy children of workers. 12 of them have become doctors including many girls; 55 kids have become engineers. More than money, these initiatives need imagination and a high level of engagement. All these eventually create sustainable development in the society.
Lesson 4: The 20-60-20 Rule
In any organisation, 20% of the people are good performers (A-Listers) and another 20% are poor performers. The rest 60% are average performers. When we take over, we have to begin our journey with reinforcing the A-listers by communicating with them and through various rituals. People will realise that this is the behaviour that is good and is wanted of them. The people in the middle will sway towards the top-20. The bottom 20 has to be effectively contained and sometimes through tough decisions. Getting the middle 60% to move towards the top 20% instead of the bottom 20% is a key task in running any team effectively.
Lesson 5: Don’t Look for Big Things
Instead of looking for big things, just do small things with great love.
When one of the best supervisors retired after putting in 40 years of sincere work, we asked him to address the organisation on the lessons that he learnt in those 40 years. He proudly shared those lessons and they are:
a) Engage genuinely with employees and find out if they need any help.
b) Catch them doing the right thing and recognise them for the same.
c) Engage employees beyond work, like by attending family functions.
d) Treat the factory as a community. Organise a family day where employees and their family members can meet. These will result in a stronger level of performance.

Mr G Prakash shared his insights on improving the self-worth of employees from his Toyota experience:
In Toyota, every frontline manager is called a HR Manager. The organisation lays stress on:
• Commitment to beliefs, philosophies and common values
• Total employee involvement and empowerment
The Toyota Way 2001 is about continuous improvement and respect for people. It is not just wishing them ‘good morning.’ Communication with employees must happen like that between a mother and child, where even if the child has not learned to speak, the mother understands the child’s needs. The leader must empathize with employees and assign challenging roles.

Cross-functional Quality Circles and JISI IUKCN (to facilitate self-learning) are vital aspects of the Toyota Way. Through such forums, we could identify a worker who was so good in computer-aided design; our operators and supervisors designed and developed ‘Low cost automation.’ We conduct competitions for creating value out of waste, recognise and reward the ‘Scrap Buster Champions.’ These are ways in which we motivate our employees and make them realise their self-worth.

Mr Y V Lakshminarayan Pandit shared his insights on how we can unlock human potential in sales based on his long experience in managing the field force at Pond’s and later in the mobile industry:
There are THREE main challenges that the sales people face:
• Working in far-off locations
• Working in difficult conditions and staying away from families for long periods
• Facing multiple rejections every day
Sales people are located in places far away from either the Regional Offices or the Head Office. In those days, they would meet the supervisor or the sales managers two to three days in a month and visit the regional office, maybe once in a quarter. Of course, with technology, the scenario may have changed now and it is possible to keep in touch with people more frequently. But in those days, this was one of the major challenges.
They work in very difficult conditions. Whether it is hot summers, cold winters or rainy seasons, they have to be on the move and out in the field. They have to travel by overnight trains, buses and vans in difficult conditions. They have to be away from their families for 15 to 18 days in a month and transportation to and from their homes is not easy. They had to face rejection every day. If they call on 25 to 30 retail shops in the day, in about 15 shops, they will be told, “Please go back. I have nothing to offer you.”
How do you unlock potential in a group of people like this? In Pond’s, we had one of the highly motivated, engaged and productive sales team. A large part of our success in the marketplace was due to the efforts of our sales force. That is why, everyone joining Ponds in marketing spent the initial several months or even years in the field working with the sales team. We motivated them in FIVE ways.
• Treating them with compassion and care
• By focussing on performance
• By ensuring discipline
• By focussing on integrity and values
• By recognition of the individuals, their self-worth and linking it to rewards
Compassion and care was one of our main pillars. We treated them like human beings. Everyone in the organization—from the CMD to the last person—understood their difficulties. We gave more importance to their family problems than the products. We had no HR department. The sales managers were the HR managers. How well the sales managers looked after their sales team determined their success.
While compassion was important, the company nevertheless focused on performance. There was regular monitoring of sales results against plan and budgets. The whole sales team was focused on delivering their goals, and this motivated them enormously. Those who did well were clearly on top. Thus, the feel-good factor was driven through performance.
We ensured discipline in the team. We had a daily route plan, travel plan and monthly journey plan. The salespersons had to adhere to the daily route plan and they were not allowed to deviate from the plan. However, while drawing up the plan every quarter, we consulted them and took their inputs.
Another key aspect is focus on integrity and values. We took stringent measures when a salesperson was found not adhering to values of financial integrity and integrity with regard to dealings with retailers or authorized dealers.
We motivated and unlocked potential of the group through recognition and rewards. We recognized that the salesperson made a huge difference to our business and contributed immensely. Recognition gave them a sense of self-worth. Financial rewards meant a lot to the sales force. There were two components—one linked to achievement of targets and the second through sales contests which generated a lot of buzz and enthusiasm in the team.

Krish Shankar shared his insights on managing HR in large service organisations:
How is HR different in the service industry? Essentially, there are three major differences.
• The size of the industry
• People and the different places where they work
• The role of the continuously changing technology
The scale is huge in a service industry compared to a factory where there may be 2,000 to 3,000 workers. Infosys has about 2.5 lakh employees and TCS, 4.5 lakh employees.
About 30 to 40% of the people in a service industry are not in the company’s premises. They work on the client side or on projects somewhere else. They may not even access emails on their company’s portal, possibly because they are on a client network.
In the IT industry, another major challenge is the change in technology and the need for employees to learn and do something new. The life of a job in IT is about three to four years. After that, they have to do something very different. These are broadly the three major challenges. Therefore, individual managers in service industry have a vital role to play.
We can address these challenges in THREE ways:
• Create a culture
• Have core values
• Offer a value proposition
Culture: We must create a culture that will enable individual managers to do things like they do in factories. As people sit in various places, culture will ensure that there are leaders who take responsibility.
Core values: The values of the company should spell out some of the core things that are important to people.
Value proposition: We have to offer a value proposition to our employees. Today, a young engineer who comes from an engineering college does not think of working in a company for a long time. He works for three years and then thinks of doing an MBA or taking an on-site posting; if not, he may choose a different career. So, the HR must take care of their career horizons in their initial three to five-years.
The young employee today needs THREE things:
• Career growth: Every 2 to 3 years, they want to see some growth.
• Learning: They want to work in a great learning environment, have good teams and bosses.
• Compensation: They study the market and the skill sets needed to perform a job. They want compensation linked to their performance.
In Infosys, we gauged this and created the value proposition which essentially consists of THREE things:
a) Give them meaningful and purposeful jobs where they can make an impact.
b) Provide them with continuous learning and growth.
c) Create a culture where an employee’s experience is valued.
Companies must focus on vertical engagement. Because of the scale, managers have to engage their teams on the challenges in the job, create a purpose for the role they do for the clients and have various team events through which they understand that purpose. They feel that they deliver it to their clients and that there is scope for innovation and continuous improvement (Kaizen).
In Infosys, we got something called the ‘Navigator,’ where employees do design thinking, understand the problems of the customer and solve it on their own. We create learning paths and give them a lot of rewards so they keep learning. In India, online learning was not very popular. But in the last six months, learning through online courses has steeply increased.
Companies have to build the culture, create a value proposition and ensure that they train the right managers and send the right messages. Leadership must keep the focus on these and they need to do them at scale.
So the difference between a factory and a service industry is probably the mindset of people. While at the base they are the same, their career horizons are different.
The Role of HR
The HR must build systems by which they have the right managers and train them. These managers in turn, must provide the right ecosystem for their teams to perform.
As the mindset of people is continuously changing, we have to be agile and keep changing our systems too. The HR must play a key role in creating the right leaders and managers who can live up to these challenges and deliver.