Guest AuthorMahalingam

HR — beyond Hiring and Retaining

Source | Business Line : Interview of C. Mahalingam by D. Murali

A people-passionate person I met at the recent Nasscom HR Summit was C. Mahalingam (Mali), Executive Vice-President and Chief People Officer, Symphony Services, Bangalore.

During the course of a coffee break, I listen to Mali’s ready HR gyan for the IT industry CEOs, as follows: “Pay attention to hiring your HR leader as you will do to hire your CFO; remember you are in people business. Review HR initiatives beyond just hiring and attrition. And remember you carry the title of CEO — to remind you every single day that you have three equally important stakeholders, viz. Customers, Employees and Owners, in the same order.” The bell rings and the next session is about to start; and so, my conversation with Mali moves on to the email mode.

Excerpts from the interview.

You have been observing the Indian IT industry for some decades now. What do you see as the constants in the world of IT HR?

Well, change seems to be the only constant in IT HR. We have become “Accordion Managers” expanding and shrinking workforce at will.

Yet, speed has been a success criterion, always. As also competence — be it in hiring or right sizing, be it in rolling out benefits or in rolling back, battling attrition and rattling jargons, and in the continuous search for the elusive best practices with the hope of finding the “yellow brick road” to the secret sauce of employee engagement and retention. Let me not leave out the amazing productivity differences between the best and average, the innovative intellect of the thinker-creators, the amazing talent for grasping technology, and more.

Apart from issues such as attrition and mobility which get talked about a lot, what in your view are some of the challenges of IT industry’s HR that do not get adequate air-time?

Well, there are many that deserve air-time but get clouded beneath attrition and mobility. For example: (a) appreciation of deep differences in performance, but unfounded fear to differentiate reward and recognition; (b) paradox of people leaving for lack of learning, yet unwillingness to invest in people development for fear of losing people; (c) values around respecting individuals, yet the rude but result-oriented leaders getting rewarded and the like. Other issues that perhaps deserve more attention could be diversity and inclusion, employee effectiveness beyond engagement (smiley faces), insufficient investment and attention to innovation.

Can you give a few examples of effective innovations in the IT industry’s HR practices ?

Many innovative HR practices have proved to be effective. Here are a few examples:

  1. Stay interviews (as different from Exit Interviews) that help understand what makes people feel good about the company and stay longer.
  2. CPO Club in Symphony Services; I run the Chief People Officers’ Club and invite already successful managers to explore becoming exceptional managers with passion for business and people.
  3. People Manager certification/training (IBM does it best) – Learning how to manage and maximise employee engagement and productivity.
  4. Green Channel recruitment (Infosys stands out) – welcoming back former employees keen on returning.
  5. Peer-to-Peer recognition: You don’t have to be a manager to recognise another employee.
  6. Technical ladder/career path based on peer recognition (Texas Instruments excels in this practice).
  7. Building leaders across levels – IBM, Wipro, excel in this.
  8. Work-life navigation/balance: Hewlett-Packard is a great example.

As someone who tracks research in HR, would you like to mention a few recent insights of value to HR practitioners in the IT industry?

Gallup Research finding: ‘People join corporations, but leave managers!’ IT companies implicitly understand this and invest in improving quality of first-line managers.

Hawthorne Effect: A study way back by Elton Mayo that “Paying attention to people pays.” Many of the engagement initiatives in the IT industry focus on this finding.

Study by Gallup Organisation and by Prof Martin Seligman relating to “positive psychology – leading to focusing on strengths people bring to work, not weaknesses.” Reminds me of what Benjamin Franklin said: “Wasted strengths are sundials in shade!”

HR practitioners in the IT industry are leveraging this to bring a strength-based movement in the industry.

Frederick Herzberg’s ‘Hygiene Factors and Motivators’ theory which established that these two are not two sides of the same continuum, but different – Presence of hygiene factors do not motivate, and absence of motivators do not de-motivate is a revelation. Employee engagement initiatives by HR teams today revolve around this truth and revelation.

Research by Deloitte and other consulting firms: When it comes to HR practices, best fit is more critical than best practices, so HR folks do not waste their time and budgets with frou-frou practices!

To the typical IT employee, your message as HR head.

Quite a few!

A rocking horse moves; but does not make progress. Be careful, therefore, about job-hopping.

Invest in your continuous learning. The illiterate of tomorrow is one who has not learned to learn, unlearn and relearn.

Be realistic in managing your ambitions and aspirations. You cannot go into the forest endlessly; beyond the midpoint, you are actually beginning to exit.

Deserve before demanding pay hikes, promotions and fancy titles.

Watch your actions and tendencies to become Alpha Male/Female: The higher the monkey climbs, remember more of its back is visible to everyone.

What motivates is the hierarchy of need, not hierarchy of greed.

Remember the thin-line between self-esteem and ego, the difference between a strong ego and a Big ego.

We have become “Accordion Managers” expanding and shrinking workforce at will.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 22, 2011)

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