Reinventing Work to Win in the New Normal and Beyond 0

Rohit Kumar, Director HR, Kellogg South Asia in conversation with All Things Talent discusses overhauling people-strategy and processes to adapt to emerging challenges and opportunities, the importance of emotional intelligence for leaders, and driving engagement and inclusion to stay relevant and win in the new normal.


JOURNEY

Q. With your rich experience of 24 years across diverse industries, geographies, and cultures, how has this journey been so far? Any favourite life experience which took you one step ahead in achieving your life goals?

A. Your life experiences define who you are as a person and a professional. I grew up in Bhopal where my father was a professor at the National Institute of Technology and the aspiration was pretty much linear – crack your pre-engineering exams and secure admission in a reputed engineering college. But it seems like life had another path planned for me. My pre-engineering entrance scores were not sufficient for me to secure admission in a coveted college. That was the first inflexion point in my life where I had to do some soul searching pretty early on to find out as to what was my calling. The first big decision that I took, barely knowing if it’s going to be the right one was to choose a different path. However, looking back on my journey today, it has been a gratifying one and something that I am proud of with the way I have adapted to the curveballs life threw at me. I have been lucky to get an opportunity to work with some great people – leaders, peers, and team members – across diverse industries. One of the biggest advantages of being in a function that is industry-agnostic is that you get to experience the diverse scenarios and that really helps to broaden your perspective and make you learn on the fly. In my professional journey, my biggest learning is that as we climb the corporate ladder, it becomes less about you and more about enabling others to succeed along your journey.  

HR STRATEGY

Q. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, organisations are rethinking how they foster talent, deliver services and strengthen their organisations through a forward-thinking HR strategy. How has this crisis made HR the most important job in sustainability? What does the future of human resources look like after COVID-19?

A. This global crisis has taught a lot to organizations and business leaders. Different sectors faced their own set of challenges; some saw opportunities to reinvent. The initial response to manage the crisis, organization-wide efforts to resurrect the business, and all the trials on the new evolving ways of working have imparted new learnings and a lot to reflect & reimagine.

To win in the new normal, HR Leaders will have to think differently. We will have to overhaul people-strategy and processes to adapt to emerging challenges and opportunities. I believe there are five critical points that form the basis of such re-imagination:

  1. Manage organizational energy and engagement in a hybrid workforce by mastering the art of inclusion, remote engagement and coaching teams with empathy.
  2. Reassess workplace infrastructure by repurposing and redesigning offices to transition from more seating space to spaces that encourage one to meet, collaborate and connect.
  3. Leverage technology to enable all people processes, elevate the employee experience and empower line managers to own employee life cycle.
  4. A wider universe of talent can be leveraged for the gig and location-agnostic roles with workplaces now geared up for flexi-working.
  5. Democratizing learning & up-skilling by leveraging e-learning like never before, making best in class cutting edge content available and empowering employees to take charge of their up-skilling in the process.

EMPLOYEE WELL-BEING

Q. More than ever, promoting employee health and well-being has become a key focus amid the COVID-19 pandemic. How is Kellogg India monitoring COVID-19 closely, from both a holistic employee and a business perspective? What initiatives and programs are in place to support the health and well-being of your employees during these testing times?

A. The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly changed life, and no one can fully estimate the degree of influence it will have exerted on our lives, both personally and professionally by the end of it. In the last four months, employees at Kellogg India have really stretched and given their best. While our frontline heroes across Supply Chain & Sales are out there in the field, others have been relentlessly working remotely for a prolonged period of time. Such a complete overhaul of ways of working has been evidently novel for employees but being an organization with an agile spirit, we were quick to adapt. Communication was vital to ensure that employees stay connected and anchored. 

At Kellogg, we have moved to a structure that enables both Macro (organization-wide) & Micro (within teams) connections. Our every 10-day leadership connects with a wider organization ensures that employees feel connected even as we continue to work from home. Equally important is the micro engagement, where each line manager ensures that they are in touch with their teams across levels and they understand the diverse needs of their teams and the challenges they are facing and how we can help them. We rolled out our very own KARE program, a holistic well-being initiative of our employees that encompasses medical, financial and mental wellness support. It started off initially with the care around our frontline colleagues in our plants and sales function and included initiatives like heightened safety protocols, employment protection through job assurance, health insurance for all employees, hardship allowances, enhanced local travel support, protection of sales incentives, etc. It now envelopes the entire organization and includes continuous intervention in the form of medical, financial and emotional wellbeing. The most recent initiative is ‘Pit-stop’, which encourages the organization to take breaks, recharge & refuel and maintain a good work and personal life balance.

As organizations reinvent themselves, creativity and innovation will be at the core. Employees will be able to fearlessly contribute, collaborate, and reinvent only if they feel included, belonged, valued, and feel secure to be ‘themselves’. This can happen only if the leaders truly believe in diversity and more importantly, inclusion.

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE

Q. We often talk about how the talent we recruit must be high on the Emotional Intelligence (EI) scale, but often fail to turn the mirror back on ourselves. Do you think EI is undervalued in HR? Also, how can it become a key human resource management competence in these turbulent times and make us a better employer?

A. In the current times, the ability of the leaders to make behavioural shifts to adapt to the situation is becoming critical than ever before. Emotional intelligence affects everyday decisions that leaders make. At Kellogg, empathetic leadership was at the core while we all dealt with our own unique challenges during this pandemic. Often HR leaders face the danger of getting stuck in the realm of policies and procedures and struggle. As organizations respond to change and evolve their processes and ways of working, it is critical for all HR leaders to influence and lead the change keeping employee centricity at the core. Emotional intelligence for leaders and line managers will assume a new criticality in the post-COVID workplace and the HR fraternity need to lead this change first by examining their own capabilities and proactively building this critical skill.

Q. Furthermore, how can an understanding of EI help leaders achieve the best possible outcomes? Research suggests that amid the Covid-19 pandemic, EI has emerged as a top skill for this year, particularly in the context of AI and automation. In your opinion, with the rise of Artificial Intelligence, why has Emotional Intelligence become so crucial?

A. Organizations look for emotional intelligence (EI) as a key skill at the time of hiring or to assess leadership potential. Leaders and managers with higher EI can help teams to collaborate more effectively and identify the specific drivers that motivate people. In the new normal, managing a remote workforce will require empathy and authenticity in every communication. 

Often HR leaders face the danger of getting stuck in the realm of policies and procedures and struggle. As organizations respond to change and evolve their processes and ways of working, it is critical for all HR leaders to influence and lead the change keeping employee centricity at the core.

Those who wish to stay relevant in their professions will need to focus on skills and capabilities that artificial intelligence has trouble replicating — understanding, motivating, and interacting with human beings. A smart machine may be able to diagnose complex business problems and recommend actions to improve an organization, but a human being is still best suited for jobs like spurring the leadership team to action, avoiding political hot buttons, and identifying savvy individuals to lead change. It is these human capabilities that will become more and more prized over the next decade.

DIVERSITY & INCLUSION

Q. With businesses battling the immediate challenges of COVID-19, why has it become vital to redefine the whole concept of Diversity and Inclusion? Can you highlight why inclusive leadership matters more than ever?

A. As organizations reinvent themselves, creativity and innovation will be at the core. Employees will be able to fearlessly contribute, collaborate, and reinvent only if they feel included, belonged, valued, and feel secure to be ‘themselves’. This can happen only if the leaders truly believe in diversity and more importantly, inclusion.

Inclusive Leadership will matter more than ever before now. Leaders and line managers will have to be adept at managing the inclusion of a split workforce – part of them working in office and part of them working remotely. Organizations have to be flexible to adapt to the diverse needs of employee cohorts. One size will not fit all. 

Driving engagement and inclusion will be the key for organizations to win in the new normal. Also with new ways of remote working, attracting diverse talent is the opportunity which organizations should clinch. The charter of D&I will no longer be a nice to have but will be the key strategy to win in the new normal.

INNOVATION

Q. Last, but not least, a word on disruptive innovation. Can you give our readers a few hints on how HR can manage volatility and enhance adaptability, and enable a company to stay agile in markets that change faster and faster?

A. As I said, organizations will have to reinvent and innovate to stay relevant and win. The agility of an organization is a reflection of its agile employees. HR leaders will need their employees to stay ahead of the learning curve during volatile times and enable them to respond with agility. For example, while virtual learning hasn’t taken off so much in the past, in the current scenario there’s a need for it and will see better traction across organizations. 

To stay agile and ahead in the game, leaders will have to reflect on aspects like – is the organization’s culture one that truly promotes a growth mindset, innovation, empowerment, and seamless collaboration? Is there an opportunity to de-layer the organization’s structure to make it more agile for faster decision making? How deep is the empowerment? Is there a need to rebalance resources & investments in line with emerging trends?  Is there a clear charter to build future capabilities?

There could be many more such points to reckon. As we gear up for the new normal, innovation, and agility to adapt, and resilience to build on will be the key for organizations to win.

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Rohit Kumar is a seasoned HR leader with over 24 years of varied HR experience across diverse industries – Pharma, FMCG & Telecom. Having worked across geographies and cultures in India and an international stint in the UK, Rohit has handled scale and complexity across industries in driving organisation transformation & growth. He has been Director HR, Kellogg South Asia, since December 2016. Prior to this role, he was associated with Sanofi India Ltd. where he was the Director - Business HR for Pharma, Consumer Healthcare & Pasteur divisions. He brings expertise in HR Business Partnering, Talent Management, Organization Effectiveness and Employee Relations. He has done his Masters in Personnel Management from Symbiosis Institute of Management. His personal interests include cooking and playing squash.

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