Rendezvous with Dr. Santrupt Misra, CEO, Birla Carbon; Director, Chemicals; and Director, Group HR for the Aditya Birla Group

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Dr. Santrupt Misra, an HR professional and a business leader of standing for over 30 years, Santrupt has worked at Board level for close to two decades as Non- Executive Director and Executive Director in publicly listed companies, unlisted companies, and not for Profit Organizations both in India and overseas.

He is a Director in several companies of the Aditya Birla Group including Aditya Birla Capital Ltd., and other professional bodies. He is an Independent Director on the Board of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd., a leading Government of India enterprise, and the Chairperson of the Board of Governors of the National Institute of Technology, Rourkela. He is also on other professional bodies such as the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) U.S.A. He was also on the Board of the Xavier’s Institute of Management Bhubaneswar and the Worldwide ERC. He served as a member of the SHRM Certification Commission, USA, for a three year term.

He holds two Post Graduate degrees in Political Science and in Personnel Management & Industrial Relations, respectively. In addition, also holds two PhDs, from India & UK, in Public Administration and Industrial Relations, respectively & an honorary D.Sc degree from Aston University, UK. He is a Fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources (NAHR), USA; Hon. Fellow of the Coaching Federation of India; also an Eisenhower Fellow, an Aston Business School Fellow, an AIMA fellow and a Commonwealth Scholar. He has been awarded several professional recognitions for his contribution to Business and Human Resources.

Q- You are one of those great and inspirational business leaders who have rich experience from Human Resources to CEO of a top Indian MNC. How do you look at your career journey today?

Every journey has three parts to it – past, present and future. As I look back, the past has been a phenomenal journey through life in a factory, in research, academia, consulting, international education, working for a global MNC, and being part of building an Indian MNC! One has had the opportunity to interact with a range of people at all levels of management and business leadership, and an opportunity to deal with a range of situations – local and global; strategic and operational, problem solving and future proofing, designing unusual programmes, experimenting with unchartered innovation, business building, acquisitions and divestments, leading professional bodies, being on Boards and many more. So the past has been educative and exciting.

Currently, as I lead the Carbon Black and Chemical Businesses of the Aditya Birla Group (ABG) along with HR, these all provide multiple frames to create value. Both Business and HR roles have significant global dimensions, multiple culture, diverse regulatory environment, different market contexts, different competitive fields and different technologies. So the current journey continues to be both educative and exciting.

Looking at the future, I cannot say what exactly it has in store, but whatever comes my way; I will give it my best shot. I have never believed in planning a career and have just taken on anything that has come my way and have always given it my best. I believe that giving one’s best is the only controllable one has.

Q- Looking at your Career Journey, what have been the key milestones and most significant changes that you brought to the ABG (Aditya Birla Group)?

I would more like to use the expression ‘turning point’, than a milestone because turning point gives a dynamic view of one’s life than milestone, which has a static connotation. Deciding not to pursue Civil Services but to stay on with the private sector was itself a ‘turning point’ in my career.

When I decided as a fresh graduate of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) not to (despite being the topper of the batch) take up fancy management trainee programmes of MNCs, but to take on directly a role with an Indian company, that too in a remote area, that was a ‘turning point’. Experience with the Indian company as Industrial Relations Officer, with four Assistant Officers reporting from day 1, taught me how to lead people much older and experienced even at a very young age. I made mistakes sometimes from being too deferential to being too demanding. Handling different industrial relations issues and being a part of contemporary management initiatives of the time, such as Quality Circles, TPM etc provided critical experience. Substantive responsibility at a young age teaches you not to take an over-simplified view of life or issues. Moving from there, to take on teaching assignment with TISS brought about the opportunity to consult with forty different kinds of organizations. These experiences accelerated my maturity quotient, client orientation, contextual strategic thinking and interpersonal skills. Doing my second PhD at Aston Business School brought me in touch with both academic and business celebrities and taught me the rigor of research and exposed me to the vast literature on Management.

Joining Hindustan Unilever in 1994 proved another ‘turning point’ as it brought me face to face with a hugely successful Global giant, which had an entrenched culture and a deep rooted meritocracy learning to break through the old boys’ network, managing to get a higher budgetary approval from the Board of Directors and conceiving new ideas while preserving the proven ones were all part of my new learning. It challenged me in terms of prudently exercising executive freedom & for the first time, introduced me to the world of M&A as HLL (now HUL) started dabbling in it. Moving out of the set and secure environment of HLL, to an unchartered ocean of Indian Conglomerate called the Aditya Birla Group, opened up immense new possibilities. In the last two and half decades, the number of significant transformations that the Group has undergone will be far too many to be narrated in the space available. The important thing to note is that all the significant changes were certainly not the outcome of my ideas or leadership but was the outcome of collective endeavour lead by our Chairman, Mr. Kumar Mangalam Birla.

Q- Currently, there is a lot of noise around CEO and CHRO relationship, what is your take on collaboration between CEO and CHRO when it comes to developing a winning talent strategy for organization?

The noise is loud only because we are close to it. If one were to listen to the noises at the bottom of the pyramid, their call is for leadership to collaborate more than before. Developing a winning talent strategy or even a business strategy begins with clarity on the bigger picture & alignment towards creating a legacy. No strategy can be created in a silo & complex times call for collective intelligence which can only be achieved through collaboration.  Both CEO & CHRO need to be sounding boards to each other on future dilemmas, or delivery challenges or people issues. There has to be alignment between what the business needs in the future and what type of talent can help the business win. Together they need to align leadership towards the co-created talent strategy, listen to the voice of the people, act on their issues, help their people become successful, ensure business sustainability & build a culture tolerant of diversity in thinking. Both need to wear the organizational cap and think win-win. If we expect people to find solutions to business problems by collaborating at the bottom of the Pyramid, the role modelling needs to start at the top.  

The CEO & CHRO must have a relationship of mutual respect & trust to be abl e to craft a winning strategy even if, they have very divergent views. The CHRO must give credence to the strategic vision & the competitive insights of the CEO. And the CEO must take careful note of the CHRO’s perspective on the employment market, employer brand and the internal points of need & stress.

Q- Organizations face a radically shifting context for the workforce, the workplace and culture transformation. Where does ABG stand today and how do you manage these changes?

The context has always been shifting but the pace of change now is much faster and shifts, more uncertain. We are no strangers to managing change and we have always fallen back on our core principles that have stood the test of time.

Values form the bedrock of our culture and a management tool that guides us in times of uncertainty. These principles anchor us and help us to deal with ambiguity and with unfamiliar situations.

In Business, we aim to be the last man standing and we play for long term and ensure that our decisions reflect that. So we hire people who are long term oriented but are willing receptors of change.

As a conglomerate, we move surplus people from one part of business to be utilised in another, making restructuring relatively more painless. Leadership communicates more effectively and frequently to ensure employees understand the situation and our intent.

We invest a lot into the learning and education of our employees so that they remain adaptive and continuously internalize changes happening around them, which help them to see changes as opportunities and not as threats.

Q- In today’s digitally enabled word, technology plays a vital role in delivering business outcomes; People apply technology to create positive changes, how do you ensure human centric and value driven digital transformation at ABG?

Digital and Technology are omnipresent – it is not a choice any more. Hence, using it to better the lives of users is perhaps the only choice. The two big users of technology are Business and People and hence, delivering business value and enhancing user experience become the inevitable focus areas for us. A good deployment requires a fundamental change in the way we think of the process and about the consumer of the process.

As important as the technology we choose, it is critical to understand the way people access technology in real life – like the Amazon app, social networking apps, web-check-in etc. This is where the user experience is critical. The portal, the chatbots etc. are our success stories and we deployed similar thinking in setting up our Shared Services called Seam Ex – for Seamless Experience.

While making investments in Digital we are very conscious of the ROI, we also plan for upskilling and reskilling of all people who are likely to come in touch with the new technology. We also make sure that instead of grand plan on technology, we use the agile methodology to do small experiments in different parts of our Businesses & organization to make the pilot project low cost and are able to scale up speedily & cost effectively. The most important insight we have on this journey is that there is no one place from where the digital transformation can be driven (e.g. From Group Human Resources only). It can start anywhere, in any business, in any region. The important thing is collaborative working, discipline and alignment. Irrespective of where it idea came from, it all aligns with a unified source of data. This is the cultural transformation that we are seeing in ABG.

Q- Employee experience is the new battleground for competitive advantage in business and new challenge for HR, what is your EX strategy to attract and retain employees?

Differentiated experience and learning, defines how we manage and Retain Talent. Our Employee Value Proposition is a World of Opportunity.

We have been fortunate to have a great Employer Brand to attract & retain employees. We focus on their professional growth, career advancement; continuous learning and we actively listen to their experience and feelings to design our HR programmes & solutions. Strong employee engagement has been a core part of our HR strategy for a very long time.

Q- The world of work is changing – and some jobs are changing faster than others. According to the latest research, soon we’ll only be as good as the skills we possess. What is your take on reskilling and developing continuous learning culture?

In this rapidly changing world, individual’s ability to learn / unlearn will become the key differentiator. The availability of skilled staff remains the biggest issue that firms face. Skills that are unique and are in short supply will get premium and organizations will do their best to retain and engage people with such skills. While organizations are creating many opportunities for reskilling and continuous learning, the challenge is to convince employees that their own interest is integrally involved in such a process. We believe in making learning available in small packages to employees, anywhere and anytime, to encourage them to invest more in learning. Senior management have a great role to play in role modelling and in continuous learning themselves.

Q- Tell us about ABG’s work culture, what are the values and behavior of your company culture? And why is it a great place to work?

ABG’s work culture is predominantly underpinned by its five Values i.e. Integrity, Commitment, Seamlessness, Speed & Passion. These five broad Values, have in them embedded many cultural nuances. For e.g. Integrity & Commitment when combined with Seamlessness lead to respecting others and their views and their perspectives. Historically, ours has been an entrepreneurial culture where individual and team empowerment are greatly valued. A community spirit reinforced by the sense of trusteeship guides our motto of doing well, by doing good. The culture to an extent is competitive & meritocratic. So the organization recognizes achievements and results. The Values make sure that the end does not justify the means and one is ever vigilant about our reputation as a trusted brand.

It is a great place to work because of the diversity of talent, the diversity of opportunities, the empowerment, the high investment in peoples’ self-development, the concern & the care for the individual& the family and its orientation in doing the right things. As I said earlier, that is what we call the World of Opportunities

Q- What are your investment plans in near future and how many jobs is ABG going to create in the coming years?

The Aditya Birla Group is ever-growing & evolving. Our growth comes from both organic & inorganic expansions in Domestic & International markets. We have recently made huge investments in Cement business, Telecom business & perhaps every other business that we are in. I am confident that the next five years we would have grown our employment by at least another 20,000 jobs. However, many of these jobs will be more technically oriented skilled jobs, rather than manual work.

Every investment plan of ours carries an estimate of direct and indirect employment it will create, and in designing our jobs and organizations, we try to make those more meaningful enriched & capability centric. Our own business models are also evolving. So job creation may not always be direct. In many cases, our business investment may lead to job creation for our Partners in the network. So, the concept of direct job creation by the firm at the firm level is an idea of yesteryears.

Q- What is your advice to HR professionals who aspires to be in your shoes one day?

In the lighter vein, my shoes would be too worn out for them to find exciting. One of the key choices that every professional has to make is whether to stay with their chosen profession or to venture out in other lines of work like general management or running a business or being an entrepreneur. That choice is not to be driven by the consideration that one is better than the other. Rather, everyone should consider the fit between their own personal values, temperament, aptitude and skills with what they aspire to be. Every day new knowledge is created and therefore, I would advise all HR professionals to be curious to learn more and more, not as narrow specialists but as broad professionals who enrich their specialization with multiple perspectives. Technology is another frontier with which every HR professional must be comfortable with, to use the same in different facets of HR Solutions. Lastly, the higher up they go, the more courage and more conviction they will have to bring to bear. Therefore, being faint hearted is not an option. Most people aspiring for leadership roles underestimate the power of courage and conviction.

I wish all your readers all success in whatever they plan to do.

Thank you Santrupt!

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