Trust Your Team Members and Respect Them for Their Decisions.

Shivgauri Rajan, a HR Leader with over 18 years of experience is a versatile and strategic planner with experience in driving strategic HR to realize bottom-line results in the pursuit of organizational objectives at global level; offering cross-functional experience in managing the entire gamut of Human Resource Management, Merger and Acquisition, Work Force Administration, Project Management, Process Reengineering.

Some of her key achievements are -

  1. Building "high performance" culture for small and mid-size high technology organizations
  2. Developing and Executing strategies to motivate teams and to exceed corporate objectives
  3. Creating business value through traditional HR methodology overlaid by solid data/analytics
Thank you, Shivgauri Rajan, for agreeing to do this interview with us. Kindly be as candid as you can.
Let's Start!!!
We would be pleased to learn about your professional journey from the beginning. So, please share with us about your first job interview.

My first job as an HR professional was with TATA Serwizsol, as a Manpower planning and analytics executive. Prior to that, I worked as a sales representative with Citibank - InvestOne and TATA Serwiz Solutions was one of my clients. I knew the HR team there quite well having worked closely with them.

Anupama - the recruitment executive asked me if I would be interested in an opportunity in their department and scheduled an interview. Kaushik Gopalan, who would eventually become my boss, a friend and mentor was the one to interview me. I still remember his first question. He asked me what I knew about HR, and I honestly replied, "Nothing, but I'm interested in learning and I learn fast". His response was quick. He said, "Excellent, you are just the person I am looking for and when can you join?".

It was the smartest decision I made, and Kaushik taught me everything I needed to know about being a strong and professional HR executive.

As the first job holds a special memory, let's discuss your first year at your first job. How was your experience? What were your expectations of your employer and your role? Were they all fulfilled? What did not coincide with your expectations?

Most people join as recruiters, shared services, or as an Human Resource Business Partners (HRBP). I, however was lucky. I got to be in analytics from day one - which completely changed the way I looked at the function. I have always enjoyed looking at data and the patterns which flow from it. And it seemed that the job was tailor-made for me. I was taught different techniques to analyse data, construct patterns, combinations, make suggestions based on data - which allowed to me to have a data-driven approach throughout my career.

My first year was a roller coaster - I did everything. Starting with the collection of the prints, to sitting in on C-level meetings to making cut-outs for employee engagement activities. Kaushik was a teacher, a mentor from day one and I learned something new every day. He introduced me to numerous HR activities, for example, engagement - which at that age I enjoyed immensely. I made friends for life, and I also built a strong network of colleagues who would help me with future queries and concerns.

It is never smooth sailing at work, but you need to pick yourself up and move ahead. Every day will not be a win, but remember it will not always be a loss either.

Do you think workplace mentors and coaches play an important role in settling fresh graduates in their first job? How was your experience?

I believe a workplace coach/mentor plays a significant role in one's professional nurturing. I have been surrounded by supervisors and colleagues who have helped shape my career and professional decisions. Starting from my first boss at Citibank to the one I currently have at Holidayme - all of them have coached me with positive and constructive feedback.

I don't agree with the phrase "The boss is always right". I believe in a healthy conversation if one disagrees and my experience has taught me that a good debate always results in innovative ideas.

Not everybody is lucky enough to have mentors or coaches. Sometimes it is because they choose not to and the other times they are unable to find someone willing to work with and on them. Either way, choosing to have a mentor or a professional coach, is a choice. They don't necessarily need to be in the same workspace as yours.

Your colleagues, friends at work, seniors, and juniors all can be mentors and coaches. It is your choice what to take and what to leave.

Why did you choose HR as a profession? What was the motive and what was the motivation?

HR wasn't my first choice, growing up I wanted to be a designer and for a short period of time, a police officer. Eventually l landed in sales to eke out a living. But my heart was never in it and I took an MBTI test which said, I could either go with human resource management or the armed services.

I chose management and soon enough had enrolled for a management degree and eventually chose HR.

I have enjoyed the journey so far and look forward to the future. Data drives me, which I believe is my strength. HR is a beautiful well-rounded profession, and if you are passionate about it, it will be a fulfilling experience.

COVID-19 has changed workplace dynamics in many ways. What have been your learnings during this phase? What permanent changes do you foresee at the workplace post-COVID-19?

I work within the travel industry, which has suffered significantly due to the global lockdown. It was a wholly unprecedented situation and we had to take some quick and drastic measures. Apart from salary cuts, renegotiations with vendors, and prolonged lease discussions, we had to let go of a significant number of our staff, and close down business units - decisions which affected all of us.

At the same time, the pandemic completely changed the way we work. Processes like WFH and digital learning which had minimal focus earlier, have now become the new normal. It took some time, but teams now are more productive and interactive. Of course, the occasional Chai pe Charcha is missed. However, safety and health has taken precedence, and all of us have adopted a new way of life.

While many businesses had to close, we saw numerous new products and services spring up which have been quickly adopted into our everyday work lives. Issues surrounding mental health were openly discussed, and we had just each other to rely on, which brought people closer even though they were miles apart.

Organizational Culture is a key differentiator between successful and not-so-successful organizations? What determines the organizational culture? What is the role of HR in creating organizational culture? How does HR develop a culture that ensures employee engagement?

In my opinion, organizational culture is always driven top-down. The leaders hold an especially important role in defining and driving organizational culture through values, ethics, and their own behaviour.

An employer-employee relation is like a parent-child relation. What they see is what they promote and also inculcate. The responsibility of setting the values and behaviour within an organization is largely on its senior staff.

HR Executives are facilitators in driving and spreading that message. An employee is engaged within an organization if they feel that the organization is invested in their growth along with that of the company's. This can be done through various activities such as individual development plans, succession planning, compensation exercises, performance based rewards etc.

What is your take on "Career Gaps"? We come across many people who are forced to hide certain aspects of their employment history because organizations do not shortlist their profiles because of career gaps. How do you address such cases?

I have personally taken two gaps in the last seven years of my career, some were forced and some were by choice. However, I have no regrets there.

One should be comfortable with the choices they make. We live in a highly volatile market where things are often not in our control. Career gaps are normal and they also give individuals fresh opportunities where they can explore new ideas.

I ventured into hospitality and tried my hand at entrepreneurship for two years while I took a break from my usual career path. Even though it was unconventional, these breaks allowed me to expand my skillset, views and goals.

What are your thoughts about layoffs? What is the role of HR in layoffs? According to you, what is the appropriate way of managing layoffs?

Most of the time, layoffs are unavoidable. However, as an HR leader, the first thing you must remember is not to take them personally. You must be invested in doing what is best for both the employee and the company. You are a mediator and that is it.

However, we are all empathetic beings and often find these to be the most difficult conversations in our careers. The best thing you can do is be fair, unbiased, and transparent in your communication. One needs to ensure that employees are provided support within the purview of our role.

What do you think about Talent Shortage? What are a few practical tips you want to give to CEOs and Hiring Managers to manage the challenge of Talent Shortage?

I don't believe in the concept of Talent Shortage. Every individual comes with unique skills and learnings. You have to make the best choice for your company from that pool. As an HR professional, you should also be ready to train and provide individuals with a learning period within the organization which allows you to manage talent or the shortage of it.

Based on your experience, what are the primary expectations of a CEO from HR Function, in general, and HR Head, in particular?

Synergy - Ensuring your people work together to meet the common objectives and goals of the organization

Revenue per employee and cost per employee - HR has a vital role to play in understanding the business closely and should be responsible for providing modern and innovative ways of controlling its costs.

These two points are important for an HR professional while working with leaders within an organization.

How do you motivate your team?

You need to talk to them every day and provide ideas, thoughts and projects. I communicate constantly with my colleagues and encourage an environment where self-learning opportunities can be built. Parallelly, I ensure that we maintain an environment where everyone can be relaxed and enjoy their work. It is essential to provide a platform where hard work and innovation is recognised across the board which allows individuals to grow.

Have you ever realized you had said or done something that may have been offensive to a colleague? How did you respond to that realization, and what was the outcome?

During a team meeting, some of the senior executives laid out plans for a project - with a timeline which in my opinion was not feasible. I expressed my opinion publicly and asked for a change - an action I should have taken privately with my supervisor, who was understandably offended. I learned from that experience that it is smarter to express a difference in opinion and ask for a change in private rather than creating a scene in public.

I apologised to my supervisor at the time and I have ensured since then that I do not make the same mistake. This is one of the many lessons I have learnt over the course of my career. The important lesson is to never be opposed to changing yourself for the better.

How would you describe your leadership style? What values are most important to you as a leader?

Provide direction to the team and meet the requirements they may have, but ultimately allow the team to solve the problem. It is astounding to watch the ideas people come up with when they are given the freedom and resources they require. I offer support only when it is urgently needed or asked for.

I have learned to trust the people around me and also respect them for their decisions. Micro management stunts the growth of the leader as well as the people around them.

If you need to draw a landscape of the future workplace, how will it look like? What disruptions do you foresee in HR over the next FIVE years?

Conventional HR structure and policies will become obsolete soon. We are looking at a constantly-evolving talent pool from baby boomers to Gen Z working on the same platforms and levels with open doors and common workplaces. HR needs to evolve and create an all-inclusive workplace for people that is safe, innovation-centric, and productive.

People today want a healthy and encouraging culture to work in, instead of a dress code policy and a conventional office. HR needs to move alongside the needs of today and partnering with businesses in creating a people excellence platform.

Lastly, what is your message for fresh HR Graduates? How should they prepare themselves for a career in HR?

Choose HR if you have the passion and love for it. Working with people is inspiring and perhaps more challenging than writing code or building products. Your employee is your customer, and if your internal customer is happy, then they are motivated to perform and excel to provide the best service for your external customer. You are responsible for them, so join the team only if you are ready for it.

Thank you, Shivgauri, for your insights.
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