A discussion on the theme of the book “Leaders in the Making – The Crucibles of Change Makers in HR” authored by Dr Arvind N Agrawal, Managing Partner, Lead Associates & Former President, NHRD and Mr T V Rao, Chairman, T.V. Rao Learning Systems. The discussion with the authors was led by Ms S Vijayalakshmi, MCC MP Master Coach & Mentor.
Vijayalakshmi: What was your vision for the book? As co-authors, did you intuitively share the same vision?
Arvind Agarwal: To be honest, I didn’t have any grand vision. I had just some childlike curiosity. I had rubbed shoulders with many super professionals in HRD forums. I used to always wonder, ‘What are they really like? What has been their life journey?’ I would love to write about it. I also thought that since these are super professionals, their stories would be inspiring for young professionals in their career journey.
T V Rao: For a professor, teaching and learning continuously is the only vision I can think of. So I was looking for learning from the HR leaders and then passing on the knowledge. And that’s what we’re doing through this book—learn and disseminate.
Vijayalakshmi: Can you highlight the essence of this 462 page book?
Arvind: We have been touched in our lives by a lot of people in our journey—parents, friends, teachers, bosses and even professional bodies like MMA. That’s how we have become who we are. The book is all about those experiences in the life journey—like how you have been impacted? By whom? In what moments? What were those points of inflections? What choices did you make?
TV Rao: The first lesson is, leaders make themselves by learning from various other people and experiencing both positive and negative crucible experiences. They convert each crucible moment into an experience, learn not to repeat mistakes or learn from both mistakes and good things. Each one uses other people’s experiences, which include family as a source of learning, which they acknowledge only much later.
One remarkable thing we discovered is that more than what teachers teach in a class, the way they treat students outside the class and connect with them makes a lot of impact. That is a big lesson. The bosses largely have positive impact but you also learn from bad bosses. Nobody designates people as leader. But once you assume leadership position, you start contributing in a big way to the society. Leadership is not really impacting people in your organization but people around you also. There are about 14 different categories of lessons that we have drawn.
Vijayalakshmi: Two words hit you when you go through the book. One is crucible and the other word is baking.
Arvind: I read a work by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas. They talked about crucibles of leadership and that resonated with me. I thought it would be great to discover what crucibles of experiences HR legends have gone through. So that was our inquiry. Crucible, in the medieval time, was a vessel used by the alchemist to convert metal into gold. That was not an easy process. Likewise, when you go through life experiences, in that moment, it may be violent, unpleasant and sometimes positive. But much later, when you look back, you realize the importance of it and lasting impact it has left in you. That’s the shaping of the personality, the character and the mind of the person. That connected well with both of us. Once we heard the stories from HR leaders, we cherry picked their crucible experiences and analysed them.
Vijayalakshmi: I think even the last three years of the pandemic have seen huge, global crucible experiences for all of us. Hopefully, humanity has emerged better. You have featured 30, impactful, inspiring and heart-warming narratives of HR leaders. Can you share some learning from that process of having deep conversations?
Arvind: It was an overwhelming experience for me personally. I had known most of the people featured in the book. But in the process of talking to them over six hours, I realized how little I actually knew them, perhaps not more than 10 to 20%. The second is, all of them unconditionally responded to my questions and gave me time.
Vijayalakshmi: You have identified the settings of the crucible experiences and presented them in 14 categories, ranging from family to volunteering to social causes. Could you talk to us a little bit through some interesting revelations, as you put together those categories of experiences?
TV Rao: If you go sequentially, first it is dealing with the childhood and parents. We had leaders who were born in a variety of backgrounds. So one lesson is, it doesn’t matter what family you’re born in, but it matters what kind of values, examples and socialization parents have given you, even in difficult times. Second is the impact of teachers, schools and colleges. We have leaders who have come from top institutions like IIM or the XLRI but we also have leaders who have studied in not-so-well known institutions but still made it big. But having said that, I think it is not the institution itself, it is some of the faculty in the institutions who seem to matter. Some of the leaders recall even today, the kind of impact the faculty had on them, both in the school as well as the college. So if the professors gave you an assignment or a project where they asked you to go and work with the poor, or the labourers or study the beggars and things of that nature, it leaves a great impact. So teachers make a phenomenal impact.
Third, one can see the importance of the first job. Sometimes some of them get very routine kind of tasks but they have got the best out of it. Like if you’re asked to maintain attendance of people or you were asked to look at the employee records, the person may treat it merely as a routine job. But understanding that maintaining attendance register and employee records is the best way to know the entire organization, is another way of looking at it. So, how people treat their first job creates an impact. Bosses who mentored and understood you also make an impact. People who handled industrial relations in the early part of their life seem to have learned quite a lot, which we were discounting earlier.
In fact, many times I’ve said HRD is separate from industrial relations. I used to say HRM is equal to industrial relations plus personnel management plus HRD. But today, I have come to the conclusion that all three are integrated. There is no HRD without both IR as well as personnel management. Contribution to professional bodies like National HRD Network, ISTD, NIPM and to social causes has helped people to grow.
Arvind: One additional thread that we picked up, apart from everything that TV Rao has already said is the power of immersive business experience. Out of 30 people we have featured in the book, there were 17 people who had accountable business role, at some phase in their career. Either they would have come from business role into human resource or they would have gone from human resource to business. Listening to their stories, the importance of business experience equally comes out very strongly. So if people want to build their career in the HR profession, they should definitely look for industrial relation experience and equally for some business system, if they can.
Vijayalakshmi: What were the surprises or revelations in what you have narrated as HR Legends’ competencies?
Arvind: Our approach was unique. Mostly around the world, when people do any competency mapping, they will do behavioural interviews and from that, they conclude the other competencies. Our approach was that from the stories of HR legends, we have culled out what their competencies are. To our surprise, the findings resonated well with the popular competency models of human resource. Whether it’s SHRM, CIPD of UK, Bill Wooldridge model or NHRD network’s own model HRSCAPE, the findings align very well. Only one new dimension which came up and which we don’t largely find across other models is the social relationship and its importance. Aspects such as being mindful of larger causes, giving back to the society, making a difference in the lives of other people came very prominently, right through the 30 stories.
TV Rao: I strongly recommend every HR manager to take some time off every year and work with an NGO or work for a social cause. In many conferences, I keep on repeating this. A little bit of a surprise is why is it that except for some leaders, most of them wait till they reach 50s or 60s to become socially more conscious. I wish the future leaders do it much earlier in their life.
The other most interesting competence is the HR eader’s integrating ability. They are not merely HR leaders but leaders in their own right and could have handled any other leadership role with ease because of their HR background or orientation. They have an ability to integrate business with larger causes, put things in a larger perspective and talk of contemporary issues like work and its meaning, life and its meaning and so on.
Vijayalakshmi: Can you list out the top three to five HRM values that stood out for you?
Arvind: Trustworthiness comes on top, followed by integrity, authenticity, respect for people and connecting with others.
TV Rao: I may add openness, collaboration, proactiveness, confrontation and experimentation.
Vijayalakshmi: One of the limitations you have acknowledged is the number of women HRLs who are featured—just two out of 30. Is there a larger issue out there that we need to acknowledge as professional bodies and as industries?
TV Rao: The larger issues are always there. We have moved a great deal, but we still have a long way to go. Recently, we had a reunion of IIMA 1982 batch after 40 years of coming here. Nearly 100 of them came but there were only about seven or eight women. This speaks something about what was happening between 1982 and 2022. Arvind and I have started encouraging some people. A group of them in in Bangalore have volunteered to undertake the task of writing the next part of this book on women leaders.
Dr Arvind N Agrawal also led a conversation with Mr Sridhar Ganesh, Leadership Development Mentor and Executive Coach and Mr S V Nathan, Partner and Chief Talent Officer, Deloitte, South Asia & National President, NHRD.
Arvind Agarwal: Sridhar. You were a Calcutta boy, going through a very prestigious St. Xavier’s college. You mentioned that you were very much influenced by French/Belgian Jesuits. What has been the influence of the people you met in St. Xavier’s?
Sridhar Ganesh: I was very fortunate that I studied in a local, Tamil society school. Then I moved on to St. Xavier’s to do my Physics. What impressed me about the Jesuits was they were very simple, extremely humble, had tons of knowledge and were hugely committed to their cause. They would go to any extent to help a student. For example, in my case, there were some books on subjects like heat and electricity, which were extremely unaffordable for me. They would lend them from their personal library on only one condition—make sure that you return it. They were so supportive.
Arvind: You have also talked about the influence of other teachers as you grow further in your education. You went to IIM Calcutta and chose HR as a profession. What made you choose HR?
Sridhar: I was enamoured by two things. One, the quality of my teachers. They were all stalwarts. In those days, it was not even called HR. It was called Personnel Management. I was enamoured by what they had to offer and the science of psychology and people science. I could relate to it and it sort of touched me and therefore, took it up as my career.
Arvind: Nathan, you studied in The Steel City at XLRI. What are your impressions of XLRI that seems to have produced a large number of HR legends?
Nathan: XLRI is a great place. It teaches you three things. One, service before self. The second thing is, most of the professors we had, built in us a sense of values, without seemingly so. The third one is to be industrious. You have to work very hard.
Arvind: If you were to think about one or two impactful teachers from whom you really learned something, which even today you remember and apply in your profession, what would be that?
Nathan: There was an old lady professor by name Neelima Acharya. She taught industrial relations and we would be bored to death. But I remember she once made a statement: Every management gets the union it deserves. I applied that in many walks of my life. You only get what you deserve because of what you do. That was a very powerful statement for me.
There was another professor—Professor Gangopadhyay. He taught statistics which is not an easy subject. He was a cerebral professor. There was Subbu, a student in our class, who was very brainy and very good in mathematics. One day, as the professor was writing some very complicated mathematics –finding out the inverse of a matrix, I think, Subbu walked to the board and solved that. Immediately the professor stopped him and said, “Subbu. You now get an A. You don’t have to attend any of my classes. But if you want an A plus, you must write the exam.” Subbu never came to the class again. I remember as if it happened yesterday. Sometimes we just overbake things. If there is something which is already done, then don’t do that more.
Arvind: You both are serial authors. Can you share one or two messages that you would like to give to the people here today?
Sridhar: Be driven by a sense of purpose. In HR, we tend to be very insular. Employee connectedness is very important. That’s where everything of a business rests. The third thing is being business aware. Most HR people are not even aware of what the company’s revenues are or what EBITDA means. People should become be more immersive in the business of the company.
Nathan: All of us have a story waiting to be told. It is important for us to say that story. Sometimes we discount ourselves. I don’t think there is any need for us to do that. Second, they say data is oil and all that. Personal data is worth nothing. So share and care. In the eight hours that we spend in office, the fact that somebody listened to me shows that somebody cares for me and my story. The third one is, we do a lot of ground work. But somebody else maybe doing a lot more than what you’re doing. So have respect for that. It doesn’t matter whether you work in a multinational or you work in an Indian company, as HR professionals. Multinationals take extraordinary people. Many times, they falter at the altar and don’t get the best of results. They could do much more. But Indian companies take the so called ordinary people and get extraordinary results out of them. It is all about getting the best out of yourself and others.