Raj Raghavan on where does HR stand today and how to evolve business ecosystem to manage best employee experience

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In an exclusive conversation we have Raj Raghavan, Senior Vice President, Head of Human Resources – IndiGo (InterGlobe Aviation Limited).

Raj leads HR function at IndiGo, India’s largest airline by market share. A key member of IndiGo’s Executive Committee, he has responsibility for all aspects of Human Resources including ifly (IndiGo’s Learning Academy) and Administration functions.

Prior to this he was Amazon’s Head of Human Resources (Asia Pacific & Middle East) for their International Consumer Business and Global Technology Development Centers in the region.  He joined Amazon in early 2011 as their India Director of Human Resources and supported the launch of several Amazon businesses and technology development centers in the country. Earlier, Raj was Head of HR for GE’s Global Research and India Technology Centers. He initially joined GE in 1999 and held various senior HR leadership positions supporting several businesses in various locations. Starting his HR career in the late 80’s, Raj has held several senior HR leadership positions across geographies in organizations such as Hindustan Unilever, Ford Motor Company and HSBC.

Q-You are an influential HR leader, having vast experience of more than three decades working with multiple eminent companies across various verticals, how do you look at your Career Journey?  

Having worked for well-respected companies in amazing roles, in hindsight my career looks like a well-planned set of companies and roles. However, even as I consider myself blessed with a great career, only some of it was planned and lots of it was a result of being in the right place at the right time. One big learning for me in all of this is that most of what I have been able to accomplish has been by having a can-do attitude, asking deep questions of myself, able to dive deep with data as well as anecdotes and be willing to push the limits by challenging status quo and with a strong backbone. In addition, I have also had great managers and mentors throughout my career who trusted me to make long-term decisions in the interest of my company. That may sound like a lot of nice words put together in three lines but let me explain.

Early in my career I had the privilege to work with some very honest managers who were not easy to work with but who were never political and only wished well for me. Not everyone gets this and hence I referred to being lucky. I still remember a tough industrial relations situation during my Brooke Bond Lipton days and how Praveen Dave, my manager whom many of us fondly refer to as Dave Saab stood by me like a rock! I vividly remember the conversation Dave Saab had with me before offering me the Factory Personnel Manager role at one of our oldest manufacturing plants near Hyderabad. He was upfront, honest and straight-forward. “Raj, this role is not for the weak hearted but remember I will be always around to help”. Without going in to a lot of details, that was when I immediately knew that I had a boss who had my back. Someone who trusted me and cared for me immensely. Later on at GE, I had the pleasure of working for Murali Kuppuswamy, currently Hertz’s Global Head of HR. Now a dear friend whose family I know closely, Murali was never an easy boss to work for. He had immense ability to dive deep and also fly right up to 30,000 feet and ask strategic questions. By way of his somewhat intimidating and deep questions, Murali made you find your own answers rather than solve it for you!

I can go on and on but the long and short of it is what I finally learned at some of world’s most well-known companies and by working for some awesome people. Briefly, these are:

  • Trust your people to no-end but always look for evidence and data.
  • Know them well enough but never make decisions based on just your relationships.
  • You don’t have to make a hundred decisions a day but the handful of ones you make better be high impact ones.
  • At Amazon, I learned the art of being “wicked-smart” … a term that we often used for thinking beyond the obvious, thinking on behalf of our customers, and for the long term!

Q- Recently you have joined IndiGo, what are HR challenges in Indian Aviation Industry and how do you mitigate these challenges?

I should first admit that I am not so new at IndiGo anymore! At a time of great uncertainty and rapid change in many industries, aviation stands out as one of the fastest growing and most dynamic sectors in India, and broadly the global economy. With the industry landscape shifting constantly, the momentum of this change looks set to accelerate in size and scope, calling for a new generation of air transport leaders. To stay ahead of the game, my CEO often seeks my support to think in possible scenarios and rapidly adapt our business models to changing market conditions even as I provide the organization with clear guidance. Most importantly, most airline CEO’s want to ensure that they have the right leadership qualities on board and that they adopt appropriate talent management practices.

Although continuity in leadership has proven to be a strong asset in the complex air transport industry in the past, there is now widespread belief that today’s market calls for a new type of leader. Indeed, a survey by global firm Egon Zehnder a few years ago, stated that most of their respondents saw a strong shift in leadership competencies against a background of severe competitiveness and accelerated change dynamics in the airline industry. Gaps in leadership competencies are perceived, for example, in areas such as change leadership or innovative thinking. To close these gaps, strengthening the internal talent pipeline through holistic, highly professional talent management as well as recruiting external top performers is widely considered a promising way of bringing fresh thinking and experience into the industry.

Q- The role of HR is constantly evolving and currently companies are looking for more innovative, tech savvy and business aligned CHROs. Please tell us what do organizations expect from Human Resources and where does HR stand today?

I would safely say that this is probably the best time to be a CHRO of a company that thinks long-term and wants to solve complex business problems. It is probably in the last 5-7 years of my somewhat long HR career that I am seeing evidence of HR providing solutions to some of the hardest business problems and not being a fringe player.

Sadly, we now have to play a game of catch-up because all other business functions including production, operations, marketing, finance and supply chain long ago shifted to a more innovative and tech savvy business model. One of my goals at IndiGo is to make the HR function here become “more scientific”. What do I mean by this? My colleagues and I are nowadays constantly discussing on what experiments we can carry out in the function for it to solve its most difficult business problems. It is not about using HR buzzwords but going behind the hard business problems and solving them. For example, it is a well-known fact that globally the airline industry will face a severe shortage of trained pilots in the years to come. So, how can we be ahead of the curve and do things today that will bear fruit 3-4 years down the line! More importantly, are we working at those things that need to be done now but are long-range and have long-term impacts? While doing this, my team and I are constantly checking ourselves against these goals so we can make short-term corrections. I am very clear about one thing. My long term goals will stay firm but I am more than happy to make short-term redefinitions. In short, I am flexible with the details but firm on the vision.  This means that my team and I are on course to developing ourselves to be a scientific function and not one that is simply traditional and administrative.

So, what is the difference between a traditional HR mindset and that of being scientific? While there are several traditions that need to be kept up, sadly traditional HR functions have relied heavily on the use of past practices. Although these practices probably once reflected the most effective approach, they are probably still used even though the business environment, the technology and even the workforce assumptions under which they were created may have changed dramatically. In contrast, doing HR experiments, assumes continuous change, so it uses data and facts to shift towards the latest, most effective HR approaches continually.

Q- An effective HR policy helps an organization to grow and evolve. How to create an effective Human Resources Policy when it comes to developing new generation leaders?

I am not sure that just a “policy” can help develop new generation leaders. It requires focused attention and sponsorship from the business leadership and HR’s role is to make that happen. Often we turn to Top B-Schools to hire for our key roles and developing new generation leaders. These young people don’t hesitate to question status-quo, have a data-based and evidence backed approach to problem solving. However, the question that I am often asked is “Raj, I am certainly happy hiring from top-notch B-Schools but how are you going to help my existing folks grow and take these sexy roles”? This is a very important question for my team and I to answer.

At Amazon we said, “We manage HR as a business.” So, rather than simply“aligning with business goals,” continuing with the previous question, the scientific model focuses on HR actions and resources so that they produce the maximum direct, measurable impact on business results.

The two primary areas where HR can traditionally produce the highest business impacts include increasing the productivity of the workforce and improving the volume and speed of product and process innovation. Under this approach, HR focuses on solving broad strategic business problems (e.g., decreased sales, product development or missed deadlines) rather than tactical HR problems. And finally, under this model, HR problems and results are converted to their monetary impact on revenue (e.g., the retention efforts on salespeople allowed us to maintain INR 25 million in sales revenue). Reporting results in revenue impacting currency allows executives to quickly compare HR’s impacts to those from other business functions.

Q- How to evolve business ecosystem to manage best employee experience?

In order to manage employee experience, it is first very important to measure it. Much like a corporation measures customer experience, there needs to be a mechanism to measure employee experience too. There are several ways to measure this but the most common way is via employee surveys. However the issue with traditional surveys is they are too long and too infrequent to measure immediacy of employee feedback. I remember in one of my earlier roles, we were challenged by the business leadership, “if I can get to know what my customer thinks of our products and services almost immediately, why is that so difficult to know what my employee thinks”? As a result, the global HR team worked on a variety of options and finally implemented a “question-a-day” model where a single question is asked each day and the data is then made available across employee populations. The intent was to find quicker ways to understand employee perceptions and largely employee experience and find ways and means to address it.

To answer your specific question, I do not think one can evolve a business ecosystem to manage employee experience unless one measures it. By measuring and having voluminous data available at your disposal across various employee related parameters, then one can find several ways of making employee experience better. The problem though is lack of scientific measures and as a result organizations typically first have a solution and then find a problem to force fit it!!

Q- What is an “Agile HR” to you and how HR leaders can help organizations to create & stay Agile?

Quite frankly, I am not a big fan of buzz words, probably as a result of working at organizations that have been focused on realistic and factual solutions. What I explained in previous answers on using science and data with a human face is what I would consider “agile HR”.

Q- What are top trends for HR in 2019?

I think this question needs to be read in the context of the specific organization that one supports and also specific to the industry. While I am not an expert across industries, I would probably think of the following from my own current context. And, the list is not many, but a handful that is most relevant to me at this time.

I believe that “Culture” is very important to us at IndiGo. We have been very successful at building a young organization ground-up from just about 12-years ago, much of which had never been done before. That’s allowed us to invent everything from being On-Time, to providing Low Fares and supporting a hassle free customer experience. Because we have so much innovation and experimentation going on at any one time, it feels like we’re a network of a hundred startups. And we love that.But it also creates the challenge of keeping that consistent culture that has made us successful.As we grow, we have to be mindful of not losing sight of what made us successful in the first place.

We want to see IndiGo as a magnet that attracts top talent, and this is not just about hiring great talent. Employees love coming to work at IndiGo so they can fulfil their personal dreams of working at a top class organization. This means that my team and I need to make it a frustration free employee experience for our colleagues. To join, grow and to leave IndiGo (if at all) should be frustration free and this needs to be done by a combination of HR technology, analytics and with a heart!

Q- What is your take on the HR Technology trends ahead?

I strongly believe that HR should rely on data-driven decision-making rather than only relying on past practices or intuition. Under the scientific model that I reflected on earlier, important people management decisions are made based on performance data. Decisions on the most effective approaches for hiring, retention, development and incentives are based on the latest available data. Data and objective criteria are also used to determine when needed work should be done by employees, outsourced labor or using technology.

So, what about HR Technology? In my mind, it is not just about using machines to help with recruiting or overall HRMS but how do you become scientific and create a culture of experimentation within your HR function. Google HR has long been a supporter of hypothesis testing, especially covering the factors that actually predict new-hire success. Amazon includes its focus on hypothesis testing in one of its HR Tenets, “We form hypotheses about the best talent acquisition, talent retention, and talent development techniques and then set out to prove or disprove them with experiments and careful data collection.”

An important component of HR technology is based on facets of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. As it pertains to recruiting, the differentiator on AI-based recruiting is, how do we figure out biased decisions that machines make? After all, Machine Learning based Artificial Intelligence relies heavily on what these machines learn and the inputs to these learnings come from past data that has heavy human bias! To be able to figure out what these inputs are that derive the outputs is key. Unless we do this now, future will tell how HR professionals failed in teaching machines to be unbiased!

Thank You Raj!

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