In an exclusive interview with All Things Talent, Mr Indrajeet Sengupta, Executive Director and Chief Human Resource Officer at Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited talks about his journey, the importance of HR as a Strategic Business Partner and various initiatives HCCB is undertaking to build a strong employee brand. He also shares insights on design thinking and how it can drive a successful organisational and culture change process.
Mr Indrajeet Sengupta is the Executive Director and Chief Human Resource Officer at Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited. He is a seasoned HR professional with 20+ years of building and leading cross-cultural teams across geographies and various industries. Mr Sengupta is a trusted business advisor, talent developer, innovation and change leader, adept in leading teams, collaborating across stakeholders and problem solving complex business challenges. Before joining HCCB, he has led HR at Johnson & Johnson – India & South Asia for eight years, guiding the transformation of the HR function to a progressive business partner. Prior to this, he had worked with organizations like Mars and GE Healthcare in leadership roles. He is an alumnus of Xavier Institute of Social Service Ranchi from where he did his Post Graduate Diploma in Personnel Management and Industrial Relations.
Q. With your rich experience of 20+years of building and leading cross-cultural teams across geographies and various industries, how has your journey been so far? Any life experience which took you one step ahead in achieving your life goals?
A. I feel enriched by the experiences gathered over the years. This is filled with innumerable instances of failures and successes that I have learnt from. I am very grateful to all my leaders, peers, direct reports, colleagues, ex-colleagues and often individuals outside my function/ industry/companies who have contributed in their own ways of helping me along the way. One of the life-changing experiences for me was when my Father-in-law was diagnosed with colon cancer, which was around the same time I was pursuing a career opportunity in the US. Until then I saw career and family as two parallel lines going along. The situation made me realize that career and family priorities form a single line. And the family will always be first. After that it was easy; I dropped the US opportunity and focused on helping my father-in-law get the best medical attention. All the family members were fully engaged with him. I stayed with him in the hospital until he was operated and I am glad he is now doing well. The stay in the hospital was an excellent “me time” to reflect and clarify my purpose. The Coke opportunity came soon afterwards, and I am very happy personally and professionally today.
Q. Only a few expect the Human Resource to be a strategic driver of business results in their organisations. How can this misconception be changed? In your opinion, why is It Important for HR to be a Strategic Business Partner?
A. This may be partly true. I am lucky. All the companies I have worked with, have viewed HR as a strategic partner. More so in the case of Coke and HCCB, where it’s a privilege to be counted as a genuine partner by the business. The business shows huge trust in HR’s ability to bring in business perspectives, lead change and impact business results through the people and culture.
HR has a seat on the leadership table because we bring the voice of the frontline and customers. Through the external and internal insights, we can impact a business by advancing our values, hiring/ developing the right talent, building capabilities and creating strong cultural glue that binds employees and our communities together.
HR has a seat on the leadership table because we bring the voice of the frontline and customers. Through the external and internal insights, we can impact a business by advancing our values, hiring/developing the right talent, building capabilities and creating strong cultural glue that binds employees and our communities.
I have learnt so much about the business by connecting with the frontline that serves our customers. This is a must for all HR Leaders at all levels. We also need to learn finance – the language of business and develop strong business acumen skills. While doing so, we must continue to invest in building our HR capabilities too. Never to forget that we should also keep our eyes and ears open to learning about various functions around us so that we remain agile with innovative ideas and perspectives.
Q. In the context of transforming an organisation, we often see business or line leaders leading the charge – not HR leaders. Do you think companies still lag behind in ranking HR as a top function in their company? How do you collaborate with your management to drive a positive culture?
A. I have a different perspective as I have experienced both types of situations. In fact, in my previous role, HR led the way of developing a new organisational model for the company which is now being replicated by other functions.
For me, creating a compelling story of change and communication is very important. Understanding the stakeholders and their facts/perceptions are very critical. It should be very clear from the start, as to what the problem is that we are solving and who will benefit from it. It does mean our preparedness to have difficult conversations, demonstrate courage and resilience and above all learn to the trade-off between conflicting priorities. The worst thing to do is to get caught in the middle.
Q. When we talk about going beyond the conventional ways, what initiatives Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt. Limited is undertaking to build a strong employee brand to attract talent? Also, how can a job candidate’s experience affect your employee brand?
A. Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages, stand-alone and is already one of the largest FMCG companies in India with a strong heritage of brands that consumers relate to. We continue to grow rapidly and will become a company of significant size and scale in the coming years. Therefore, how the employer brand is perceived by potential future employees matters a lot to us. E.g. we are taking the help of social media such as LinkedIn to develop reach and build positive experiences using technology.
We are participating in external benchmark studies to see how we fare against the best employer brands and craft our position accordingly. We have recently partnered with IIM Bangalore’s International Business Summit to create experiences for various external stakeholders to get to know us closely. In summary, we have started the journey towards creating our value proposition – for employees, future employees and communities around us.
Q. Even though hiring for ‘Culture Fit’ has its benefits yet it sometimes can act as a shield for hiring discrimination. According to you what should be a midway approach when hiring people without over-indexing the importance of culturally fit parameters?
A. Coke and HCCB believe in being inclusive. We love to bring in talents from everywhere as we believe that our company should represent our customers and consumers. Our values of inclusivity allow us to “culture add”. We have benefited from the varied perspectives that individuals from all walks of life bring to the company. So I always advocate “culture add” as we have enjoyed the benefits.
Q. It is a time where the world around us is always changing and handling change becomes critical to an organisation’s success. According to you, what is the right strategic approach to ‘change management’ and how can one ensure preparedness and stability for change by empowering the human resources department?
A. There is no one size fits all approach. There are common principles of change management but the biggest piece of the puzzle in change management is the problem to be solved and the context. It’s a paradox that change and stability can’t go together. However, in reality, a compelling story of the change, support mechanisms, inclusive training and tools as well as constant communication can create a strong sense of progress and stability for the future. Therefore, our skills in storytelling and creating a compelling reason for change and communication are fundamental skills that HR Leaders should develop. Having gone through the change journeys multiple times, I feel these skills are as important as the tools and techniques of leading change.
Q. Speaking of change, design thinking is now being widely adopted by organisations to develop new strategies. In your opinion, how can we incorporate design thinking in the change management process to drive a successful organisational and culture change?
A. It’s fascinating that Human-Centered Design or Design Thinking is now used in every possible scenario. It depends on the companies approach to leading and managing change. It’s both cognitive and practical which is probably why it is popular. It’s an interesting philosophy of problem solving, knowledge building and creating a common language of change across the company. It’s easy to learn. As an HR team, we have tried it in multiple ways to solve business challenges.
Q. AI is on the verge of becoming a critical part of business infrastructure. According to you, how will companies need to rethink their traditional business models in the face of the AI movement?
A. It’s early days and companies are experimenting in their own ways. We are ready too with the launch of our AI bot in support of employee experience. I strongly believe that today we are inundated with data from everywhere. Interviews, performance discussions, coaching employees, consulting with senior leaders, supporting our communities and with newer communication methods on social media. Our ability to make sense of the data in a fraction is being tested practically. I believe that AI will help augment HR and business in understanding situations and trends. Therefore, the need for business to invest in AI, deploy smart tools, re-skill employees to become agile. Let’s take an example of Union Relations.
In the future, the data needed for negotiations will be readily available with HR Leaders through various AI tools to be better prepared for negotiations. However, creativity, innovation and relationship management will continue to remain as critical skills for HR Leaders during and after union negotiations.
Q. As an HR leader, how important is it for you to continuously motivate and empower your team members? In this era of disruption, what do you think is a leader’s role in delivering a great employee experience?
A. We believe in genuinely empowering our employees. I have a great boss who trusts me, supports me and fully empowers me to deliver on my commitments. It’s a value that we cherish in the company. It’s part of our Growth Behaviours. Empowerment is a trait most candidates look for when joining a new company and I believe that we are uniquely positioned compared to many other companies. We recently solved a problem most companies face. What should be the new travel policy? In a typical company, this would have meant a large number of stakeholders, meetings, data crunching, back and forth stakeholder management and I am sure it would easily take 6 months to a year to solve. We solved it in 3 days using an agile framework. We invited all the required stakeholders, provided them with all the necessary data and gave the team 3 days of dedicated time. During this time we ensured they were not disturbed with regular work and other members in the respective teams covered for them. At the end of the 3 days, the keys stakeholders reviewed the proposals and took immediate decisions. Therefore, I believe empowerment in Hindustan Coca- Cola Beverages means having the freedom to express and experiment without worry about failure as well as have the collective power to solve real-world business problems.
Q. In India, demand for short- duration talent is increasingly gathering momentum, with skilled professionals seeking flexible work arrangements. What does the emergence of the gig economy mean for the future of work? Also, how can companies expand their reach beyond traditional hires to benefit from the gig economy?
A. It’s exciting and challenging at the same time. It’s exciting as it opens new pools of talent that we never had before. It’s accelerating for niche skills such as digital, AI and deep learning. Other skills are far behind. It will surely help companies in the future from both capability and cost standpoints. However, we are far behind on regulations and social security for this pool. It’s critical and precious for the future and hopefully, the regulations will change in favour of these talents.
Q. With the changing landscape of business there is a need and opportunity to shift from managing performance to enabling performance. In your opinion, how can ‘employee enablement’ help in employee empowerment and changing the focus from the company first to people first?
A. We have taken the first step to ensure all employees have goals aligned to the business results. We focus on continuous feedback and coaching and are moving away from the old system of rating employees at leadership levels. We believe that it’s having a positive impact on business and employees. By removing calibration processes, multiple discussions and managing deadlocks we believe that we are freeing up time and energy to focus on the most important entity – our employees. Coaching the employee and helping them develop skills faster is indeed a better investment of company resources. However, it’s early days and we are learning fast along the way.