In an exclusive tete-a-tete session with All Things Talent, Prabir Jha, President & Global Chief People Officer Cipla, talks about his journey in the corporate World, gets candid on the working culture of Cipla and shares his deep and valuable insights on leadership and talent management.
Prabir Jha is the President & Global Chief People Officer at Cipla. He moved to the private sector after almost 10 years in the Indian government. His diverse and rich experience ranges from the civil service to engineering, information technology, pharmaceuticals, and automotives.
Prior to Cipla, he has served as the Group Chief Human Resources Officer of Reliance Industries Limited (RIL). His area of expertise includes- Strategic HR, Change Management, Leadership, Organizational Transformation, Talent Management, Coaching, Training He is an alumnus of the reputed St. Stephen’s College, Delhi and XLRI Jamshedpur.
Q. You have vast experience in varied industries; you have been the Head of People at two fortune 500 companies. Tell us where it all started, what motivated you to be in HR and how has been the journey so far?
A. My journey into HR has either been an act of destiny or a pure accident. I was a young civil servant, fresh out of St. Stephen’s College, this was a dream start I had always wanted. But seven-eight years down the line I was comfortable but restless. I wanted to study further. And given some exposure to unions and people management in my civil service job, I thought best to specialize in HR, rather than Finance or Marketing that did not seem relevant then to my bureaucratic career.
I accordingly took a two-year sabbatical and did my MBA at XLRI, specializing in HR. Some months after I resumed my civil service responsibilities I quit the government for ironically a lousy HR experience with it! And my tryst with corporate HR then started. So, it’s really been a matter of chance rather than a conscious choice.
I worked with Thermax in the energy & engineering space and then in IT with what is today TechMahindra. I spent the next eight years building out the HR ecosystem for Dr. Reddy’s in the pharmaceutical sector.
I then took on the challenge of helping Tata Motors transform as its CHRO of Tata Motors. I then had an opportunity to lead HR and hand hold the organization transformation at another Fortune 500 conglomerate – Reliance – as its Group CHRO. For the last three years, I have been the Global Chief People Officer at Cipla leading the organization change agenda of an 83-year-old iconic pharmaceutical giant.
Hence, this has been a journey across sectors, size, age, varying challenges and different maturity levels of HR. At one stage it was unions and federations and related IR issues. Then it was about elements around downsizing and organization redesigning. Then it was a global scale buildout, building a top employer brand, building high talent ecosystems, designing reward and recognition programs and so on. In so many years as a CHRO, my effort has been really about organization re-shaping and a concomitant HR ecosystem build out.
Q. What do you consider as the most complex problem in terms of management of human resources especially when it comes to the Pharma industry?
A. I don’t know whether it is necessarily restricted to pharma, but the most complex part of the HR function is about visualizing, influencing and hand-holding outcomes. HR in itself is a small function but has to deliver impact by getting everyone across functions, geographies, and demographics to own and implement the agenda. This makes it one of the most complex jobs in any company.
Many a time people confuse the HR function with the HR agenda and vice versa. The HR function anchors the HR agenda but HR agenda is typically the organizational agenda and not just the H.R. function’s agenda. You have got to execute the HR experience, the HR agenda through so many line managers, line leaders and individual employees. The challenge is thus of building credibility, developing a strong point of view and to stay true and fair to the larger organizational context.
Currently, one of the biggest issues at least for the pharmaceutical industry from an HR perspective is how to ensure competitiveness and sustainability. It is a much-regulated industry and one of the biggest challenges is getting the right talent in and equipping the talent to actually deliver it to the highest stringent regulatory tasks in a hyper-competitive market reality. Unfortunately, the industry does not get adequately prepared young talent as it would need.
Therefore, HR’s big job is to redefine catchments to attract the right talent; to develop the niche skills to meet the high ask; to engage and retain this talent; to then groom the right talent for more complex leadership roles. As an industry, HR must also need to make the young students see the pharma industry as the exciting career choice it indeed is but has historically not been seen so.
HR’s big job is to redefine catchments to attract the right talent; to develop the niche skills to meet the high ask; to engage and retain this talent; to then groom the right talent for more complex leadership roles. As an industry, HR must also need to make the young students see the pharma industry as the exciting career choice it indeed is but has historically not been seen so.
Q. Tell us about the corporate culture at Cipla. What is the one thing that Cipla is doing radically different from other organizations in terms of people management?
A. Cipla is a company with a lot of history. We are an octogenarian company with a very inspiring history. In many ways, we were the product of the freedom struggle and Mahatma Gandhi’s call to help fight the medicine scarcity that India faced at that point in time. Therefore, caring for life, which is the purpose of Cipla, has very deep roots.
Everything that any associate in Cipla does, whether in India or anywhere in the world, everyone is in the service of the end patient. “How can we make the life of our patients better”, is the essence of our culture. Our ‘OneCipla Credo’ really talks about this fundamental tenet of culture that how do we play as one team in the pursuit of serving our patients whether it is in terms of our quality practices, in terms of the integrity that we uphold or the way we innovate.
Having said so Cipla is also a fairly young company since the average age of a Cipla employee is thirty years. Our focus lies on how we empower our people. How do we make sure that people learn to work in the most collaborative and seamless way? To me, the most distinctive aspect about Cipla is its Pride, Purpose, and Passion. There is a very strong legacy that we’ve inherited and there is a stronger future that we are playing for.
And everyone in Cipla, therefore, believes, caring for life is what defines our culture. So, it doesn’t matter at what level you are, how many years you’ve been in the company or which function you work in. If you are wearing the Cipla jersey, anywhere in the world, it is that sense of responsibility and purpose that actually sets you apart.
Q. What is the leadership to you? What are the best practices implemented by you and your team to keep the workforce motivated and engaged?
A. Leadership is about making sure we lead people in a manner that they don’t think they are being led. It is about making sure that the teams feel empowered, feel backed up so that they are actually able to do what they are supposed to do. Leadership is all about envisioning and inspiration. Leadership is all about making sure that you are able to calibrate and recalibrate the talent that is needed to respond to the challenges and the opportunities that the world is presenting before you.
We at Cipla have a very clearly articulated leadership framework called the Cipla Leadership Essentials People, Performance and Health are the three essentials that we look for in any leader at any level and each one of these has two dimensions, with each having five specific behaviours.
So, in a way, it’s a 3 X 2 X 5 framework with thirty specific observable behaviours, which we want everyone in Cipla or joining Cipla to be aware of. They get assessed in their hiring for that. It somewhere gets reflected in their appraisal and rewards mechanism, also in their talent assessment and career progression.
And as we speak, we run a nine-month leadership immersion program which is a multi-module combination of coaching and classroom sessions and projects. We do a fair bit of talent assessment, a different cohort groups at different levels of hierarchy.
We run two flagship programs called LEAP and LEADx for first level managers and the next level of managers so that we are making sure that the Cipla leadership essentials actually get imparted as practical skills and which gets supported in action. We learn a number of virtual and digital libraries which people can access 24*7 anytime, anywhere.
Our virtual Cipla University has different functional academies which drive the strategic skill building agenda in the company. So, there’s a lot of stuff which we do. But at the core of it is really the Cipla leadership essentials and that is really something that we believe defines a Cipla leader as distinct from a leader and some other company and in some other context.
Q. How has talent management evolved over the years? One of the major issues that organizations are facing is the management and retention of top talent in the firm. What steps do you think are important to tackle this issue?
A. It is important to first put a caveat here. The definition of talent is a moving definition. What is talent today may not be talent tomorrow; what was talent 10 years back may not be meeting the threshold of talent today as we live in a very dynamic environment.
The first job of talent management is to be clear as to what the current task is and what the likely task of the talent is in the future. What is that talent going to mean? Because this itself is something that most practitioners of talent and leadership don’t fully understand.
The second job of talent management is – how do you ensure that people get calibrated as fairly as possible under the given framework. How to make sure that you make the best assessment against the most relevant and valid constructs of talent. Talent management must not degenerate into becoming a socialistic exercise. It must differentiate, always an inconvenient leadership exercise.
And once you’ve differentiated how you make sure you track the talent as relevant. How we develop and track people is key because some people who seem to be promising might continue to hold onto that promise or they could flatter to deceive. So, talent management is a mix of all these different things even as the definition of talent keeps changing.
Q. With more and more youngsters joining the workforce, today’s organizations have become truly multi-generational in nature. Various organizations have been working on different policies to accommodate the needs and aspirations of the young workforce. Which is the policy changes you think are important to cater to the aspirations of a young workforce?
A. We stereotype demographics very casually and possibly erroneously! We must understand that young has many connotations, many strands. Two human beings are not identical. We should be a little wary of dumping everyone under one overwhelming but simple definition of “young”. Because even among young some people may have a drive for aggression, some may want passivity, some may want public recognition, some will be embarrassed with it. Some are introverts and some extroverts, some are urban and some rural. Hence, we have to first be very careful about broad stereotyping.
But the biggest thing that many younger people want is choice and space. But when they come to organizations they are expected to conform. And I think the art is about giving them some choice even if that is scoped. There should be opportunities for expression, opportunities for collaborating beyond a hierarchy, opportunities for being creative, and opportunities of being heard. The more we democratize organizational cultures the more we break away from classical command and control culture.
From a policy construct perspective, it’s very important to recognize the life stage that the youngsters are in. How could sabbatical policies get redefined? How could some things around family get redefined? How would policies around a mid-career break work? How would flexibility in terms of recognition norms change? In many organizations, the people who decide policy changes are unaware of what actually matters to people for whom these policies are getting redesigned. Getting the younger workforce to be included in ideation is a very simple but very thoughtful way of building a sense of engagement with the workforce.
Apart from getting some very relevant ideas, there won’t be a single formula which will apply to everyone just because they are ‘Young’!
Q. Human resource departments around the world have experienced profound shifts in recent few years and one of the most important factors driving the change is, data. How has the advent of technology and data impacted the HR function at Cipla and how has been the change like?
A. Within my first year at Cipla we ushered in a substantial digital shift in HR operations, enabling much of the transactions on the smartphones. We accordingly downsized HR by 40 percent, which is dramatic. That was drastic but that is what technology can do. You don’t need to do many classical jobs if you’re willing to reimagine! Many classical old jobs don’t need to get done.
Secondly, technology has enabled individual employees and their managers to do most of the old HR work. HR does not need to do transactional work. They must do far more strategic work than transactional support. Technology has simplified it and we have put almost every part of our HR actioning all on the smartphone. You can do all your transactions yourselves and HR in most cases does not have to get involved. This frees it to focus on its strategic responsibility.
And today technology has enabled us to democratize information, simplify every process and therefore change the culture of a workplace. This is not very comforting to every manager because suddenly your information is no longer the source of power.
For example, today, at the click of a button we are able to see our data, trends, insights. Analytics and data-based decisions have become a lot easier. So, when we do an engagement survey there is qualitative data and at the end of the day I know seeing a word cloud what things are best perceived by people and what things are not at all received well. It gets me to intervene very strategically rather than throw some darts on the dartboard.
Likewise, in terms of talent assessment, we make sure that which campuses should we go to, which campuses have better recruits from our point of view, stickiness and impact. Everything is now lending itself to getting insights from data.
When HR as the function engages with the line, it is actually showing data which talks about ROI on the investment on the talent, whether it is actually turning out the way it should be or are we spending money the wrong way. Today every dimension of HR which gets tracked lends itself to very sharp insights which allow us to reframe, to refocus, to prioritize or de-prioritize and finally make sure that every minute and rupee of organizational time is utilized to its best.
In terms of talent assessment, we make sure that which campuses should we go to, which campuses have better recruits from our point of view, stickiness and impact. Everything is now lending itself to getting insights from data.
Q. As part of Cipla’s journey to strengthen their internal culture, how important has diversity been to the organization? What are the things you focus on D & I front?
A. Diversity is not entirely about gender which is a very classical start point. As an industry, pharma does not have much of a gender diversity reputation since classically manufacturing had more men, if not only men, and sales continued to be a strong male preserve because not many women choose to come forward for various societal and other reasons.
Cipla has about 11 percent of its workforce as women. We have 4 women on our Board of Directors, something not many India headquartered companies can claim. Likewise, our management team is 40 percent women! Our R & D has one- third of its workforce as women. Many corporate functions and Quality have a healthy female representation. This year almost one-third of all our campus hires are women. So, we are consciously trying to improve the mix at Cipla. Over the next couple of years, we will look quite different.
More importantly, Cipla, being a global pharmaceutical company, is very conscious of the need for diversity and inclusion. How do we ensure that all the diverse experiences, cultures, mindsets, ideas get together because that is what makes Cipla so unique? There are 28 nationalities in Cipla’s workforce. Our ‘OneCipla Credo’ is an initiative that unifies and integrates all these different diverse thoughts, practices, cultures and ideas. And we do a lot of reach out programs.
For example, on two Fridays in a month, we run our internal radio globally which is called ‘Cipla Unplugged’. And we use it to communicate different things happening in the organization, conversations with different employees, and most importantly playing a range of global music which represents the soul of diversity and inclusion. We run our digital magazine which is a quarterly exercise that has videos, audios, and photographs. It is to make sure that such initiatives are representative of the Diasporas within the company.
A lot of what we do is about making sure that the people in Cipla celebrate diversity and yet come together in the spirit of inclusion, in the true spirit of ‘One Cipla’!
Diversity is ingrained in our DNA and a culture of inclusion is intrinsic to Cipla. If we don’t work together as a team then we can’t really serve our patients and live for the purpose of caring for life. Therefore, it’s an integrally woven framework that we sustain through all the engagement practices that we do.
Diversity is ingrained in our DNA and culture of inclusion is intrinsic to Cipla and if we don’t work together as a team then we can’t really serve our patients and live to the purpose of caring for life.
Q. What changes do you foresee in the HR Function in the near future? What is your advice to budding HRs who look up to you?
A. Currently, we are living in an era of transformation. HR is not just restricted to the H of HR. HR is actually morphing into a true organizational function. A different new world has opened up, whether they are start-ups or established organizations.
H.R. will be the most strategic conduit for change and transformation. Right now, anyone who wants to pursue a career in this arena must not see HR in the standard classical constructs that we have historically been schooled in. They must see themselves as strategic change architects. They must be transformational advisors. HR is going to be less about executing orders but will be more about helping the goal setting agenda.
In all this transformation, we have to remind ourselves that it is all about influence. It’s about credibility. It’s going to be less about transactional activity and more about reimagining the future of work.
We need to understand how technology and digitalization are going to disrupt the world. We need to look at HR in a new light as opposed to the classical school of thought which considered it just a mere personnel management function. It is really about strategic architecting. And I think it is an opportunity where HR will be very strategic, very relevant, very impactful and that’s really what we need to deliver in our careers.