The Enigma of Organizational Culture

The Enigma of Organizational Culture

In an exclusive interview with All things Talent, S.V Nathan, Partner and Chief Talent Officer at Deloitte India, spoke on the importance of core values in building and sustaining an organizational culture and why inclusion is now becoming a top business priority.

SV Nathan is the Talent Director for Deloitte U.S. Firms in India. He has over 30 years of professional experience in Human Resource management across diverse industries including Manufacturing, Services, Telecom, and IT. In his career spanning over eight years with Deloitte, Nathan led the team that helped build the U.S. India Region from a humble beginning of 1,000 people to the large firm that it is today. He helped establish Deloitte as a destination for top talent in India.

Along with his responsibilities in Deloitte, Nathan serves as the National Secretary of National HR Development Network (NHRDN), the Chairman of the Global In-House Center, Hyderabad Chapter of NASSCOM, and the current Chair of the Indian Society for Training & Development (ISTD), Hyderabad Chapter. He is also a Fellow at Sumedhas, a not-for-profit education and research body on organization development, and an active member of the distinguished WILL Mentoring Council “Forum for Women in Leadership” in India. Nathan graduated in Mathematics and did his post-graduation from XLRI, Jamshedpur. He is acclaimed as a well-known speaker, expert, coach, mentor, and a behavioural specialist in sensitivity training. He is also fond of reading and writing and enjoys cooking. He blogs regularly on matters pertaining to life in all its many-splendoured hues and wonderment. 

Q: Throughout your distinguished career, you must have had a fair share of highs & lows. What has been the most remarkable professional experience that changed the shape of your long vocational journey?

A: I think the one that shaped me completely both as a professional as well as a  leader, was something that happened to me several years ago. I was then working as a junior officer for a top British company, posted in a small town manufacturing high-end explosives. Having come from a top end business school and being a topper of my batch topper in my batch. I expected that I could carry this on my shoulder. One day as I walked into this factory, the boss called me and told me that I would be the new Administration officer. I was not sure what this meant. The first thing I was asked to do, was to take charge of the Guest Houses and the Transport function. This was a big let-down for me. Guest Houses and Transport!!

In transport business, a key performance metric is the ready availability of transport modes. I was always being checked about what my up-time and the availability of transport.  In those days we did not have the luxury of ‘Olas and Ubers’ or even taxis on hire, so we were managing all company owned and company maintained transport.

You must be wondering what’s the big deal and why do you need a person from a B school to do this job. This is where I learned so much.

One day we didn’t have enough cars. It so happened that someone wanted a car and I had just the emergency car available, as per protocol that car could not be released. I turned down the requisition for a car. The matter got escalated and I found myself in the General Manager’s room. It was my first awkward moment of facing the General Manager’s wrath.

I was an Admin Officer reporting to the Administrative Manager and where I was getting a dressing down and told that all my education was useless as I am not even able to manage Transport. I was devastated and tried pleading my point of view that many cars were in the garage and on maintenance. The GM would not hear of it and kept ranging. Just then, my boss, the Admin Manager barged right into the office of the GM and stood in between the GM and me. He looked at the GM in the eye and said: “Sir, though this boy is responsible, I am accountable, please direct all your ire at me.” He looked at me and said, “Nathan you may go”.

I had no idea what happened next. I was so scared, I didn’t wait a minute to run away. It takes courage for any boss to stand for his subordinate. I will never forget Captain Nautiyal in my life. He didn’t come from a B-school. He came from the army. He taught me a great lesson in leadership that remains with me throughout – ‘a great leader stands up for his people’. There are multiple stories I can share about this great leader because it is from him I learned the art of leadership.

Q: There has been a paradigm shift in the way Training & Mentoring is perceived and provided by organizations. How do you think learning can be provided to enhance an employee’s sense of belonging to the organization? 


I think the sense of belonging is not something which is acquired by learning and development there are a lot of things that develop that sense. In my story above I felt I belonged to my organization because of my boss. Usually, the sense of belonging develops in an individual’s professional journey starting with his boss. A great manager is able to inject a sense of belonging by helping individuals learn and grow in the organization. Just a simple way to let someone know that s(he) is valued is enough.

Many times we need to enter into something called the crucial conversations which involves, meaningful talks with individual contributors about their strengths and development areas. While working on development areas it is important it’s significantly way more important to play to their strengths and finding opportunities where people can use their strengths.

Organizations need to clearly let people know how they are doing and what they would do to help people grow. I remember that years ago when I was asked for seven passport size photographs to be sent to the head office in London, it was the organization’s way of letting me know that I was considered a ‘high performer’. I felt belonged. Today, it may not work. People want a more direct feedback!

Training & Mentoring

Crucial conversations give a good understanding of what people want and what motivates them. These conversations are the ones which people may have on a weekly basis, monthly basis, quarterly etc. There must be some way in which they are recorded. Over a period of time, if you play that to the individuals they will know their strengths. This is the essence of mentoring.

Sometimes people are exceedingly good at their jobs but there is something that stops them from getting where they wish to be, that is where it requires Coaching. So there is a gap between where they ought to be and where they are and this is where the coach helps.

Mentoring is an opportunity for somebody completely outside of the line of reporting to gently guide an individual towards his long-term goals. A mentor is a person who can help increase the belongingness quotient. The next step would be to help Individuals talk about what they are good at what they should do more and what they should do less. The most important thing is that all this happens in a non-threatening way.

Let me add a third one here, clearly today as we are trying to be more inclusive and have more women in leadership roles we need sponsors.

Sponsors are the people who would espouse the cause of their team member. They would put forth their views in their favour and stand up for a team member. Sponsors play an important in getting inclusion in place in companies. Considering that it is still a male-dominated the organizational environment, generally, it would be good to have sponsors who can create inclusive teams. Today we see some organizations which have done a remarkable job in getting women leaders.

Ms. Shikha Sharma of Axis Bank, Ms Chanda Kochar leading ICICI bank, and Kalpana Morparia, CEO of JP Morgan Chase – had wonderful sponsors in Mr. Kamath. He did not notice whether they had suits or sarees. He gets them to be the opportunities based on merits and stood by them. We certainly need more of those sponsors who could guide and create leaders.


Age: 58

Hometown: Chennai ( have been all over India, last lived in Chennai some 23 years ago), now in Hyd, works in Mumbai.

Values Most: Being Authentic, Simple, Curious, Caring and Honest

Passionate Pursuits: Books, Movies, listening to people.

Greatest Influencer While Growing Up: My grandmother, who taught me to bring dreams to life, and an early boss. My mother who taught me to save and my dad who taught me to spend.

Sports He Follows: Cricket – T 20 mostly. Tests – tests my patience.

Favourite Books: Complete short stories of Hercule Poirot ( Agatha Christie), Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less ( Greg McOwen), Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone (Satya Nadella), and  Autobiographies (they are authentic)

Many times we need to enter into something called the crucial conversations which involves, meaningful conversations with individual contributors about their strengths and development areas. While working on development areas is important it’s significantly way more important to continue playing on strengths and finding areas where people can use their strengths.

Q: Millennials and Gen Z have an eye for instant feedback. Nobody wants to wait for a year-long Performance Review. How can we create a real-time continuous feedback system, to overcome this hurdle at an organization?

A: It’s a brilliant question because its related to what we do here at Deloitte.We have got a new Performance Management System. Instead of evaluation at the of the year, we meet people regularly and give them feedback. To answer why did we have to do it, we started with a problem statement, which was “85% of the people in the firm were millennials and they didn’t want to wait for a year to be told of their feedback”.

Hence we started encouraging managers and team leads to meet people who worked for them on a weekly basis. During these conversations, feedback could be given both on how they were doing and also as to how they could improve performance. This is called ‘check-ins’.

We also used the opportunity to provide them Coaching. This helps people to grow in the firm. It also gives individuals the much-needed fillip to their careers. Career development mentorship and coaching. A Coach helps identify and develop an individual in his or her areas of strength, examines performance, and advises on professional development across projects and over the course of a career.      

The Team Leader also provides an assessment of Team Member’s performance, at the current point in time, based on the first-hand experience. We call this Performance Snapshots. First of all its non-threatening because it’s not an evaluation where somebody is going to get pigeonholed on a certain number on a grid scale of one to five so when you provide continuous feedback it gives a sense on how you are moving in an organization.

We also encouraged people to provide upward feedback. Pulse surveys – a  short survey, taken by Team Members that provides Team Leaders with confidential insights into proven predictors of both performance and team engagement helps the Team leaders know about what the team thinks is missing or what the leader is doing well. This leads to greater engagement.

Coaching and correction happen on the way so one doesn’t have to wait until the end of the year to understand their strengths and plan their growth map. Lastly, we do Talent Reviews – a business reviews its people based on their performance.

The goal is to identify next steps in career development for each person reviewed. This leads to early identification of top performers who can be given different assignments and coached and readied, and laggards, who can be coached for improving their performance. 

Q: The concept of ‘corporate hierarchy’ is slowly fading away. What are your thoughts on this debate?

A: Today it’s the hierarchy of skills and hierarchy of competence. The hierarchy of competence is here to stay and will not go away so soon. What we are not able to see is those younger people who are hierarchy agnostic and are focused completely on competency and if they are able to understand that right and play to their strength we will have a much stronger and competent organization.

Smarter organizations figure this out very quickly. In many organizations, for instance, it took 25 years before somebody made it to a certain level in the hierarchy, today that work span has been reduced by 75% to 50%. Can we reduce this time span to 12 years instead of 25 years? Organizations are examining that and certainly, in Deloitte, we are always continually looking at possibilities of doing this.

Many firms have Young Talent Councils and they do a finer job of getting a meeting’s output better. We have started an initiative called ‘Reverse Mentoring’ and this is for Leaders ( read senior professionals), to learn from the younger and talented professionals. We have this in our firm and it has paid rich dividends. If we are to look at inclusion as an agenda, we need to also look at the inclusion of thoughts and views of diverse sets of people. This process needs to be more robust. I have a council of ‘Young Talent Minds’ who advise us on what is relevant and what is not. They give me good advice, something I need loads of.

Q: What KPI’s do you use to measure the effectiveness of the HR function especially Talent Acquisition?

A: The KPI’s time to hire, cost of hire, the funnel ratio which means 100 people coming for the interview, how many get shortlisted, if 20 were to be hired then how many people were in the funnel and the last KPI is offered to joining ratio. All these KPIs are of the past not that these are unimportant, these are business as usual and will continue to happen.

However, the new ones are – how many have you hired through Social Media and what’s your Social Media quotient. This means evaluating the strength of Social media presence. Social Media Metrics are becoming hugely important because the world is changing and you have to match up and being innovative with the latest technology can benefit the organization in direct and indirect ways.

I was in a long debate on what can we do to make it easier on our recruiters, possibly with the help of artificial intelligence because they go through very laborious 30 min calls with people. It takes away a lot of time and effort, yet it’s not error-free. There is one thing that I admire about them, how many people they have hired and how long they have stayed in the firm. A good recruiter will hire the people who are closer to the company culture. More importantly, they stay and contribute to the firm. So, one more metric is how many hired have become top performers.  We also have metrics as to how many we hire into the firm at senior levels vs the ones we developed for taking on those roles.

We also have metrics around Learning –beyond e-learning and facilitator-led, we check on what new technologies are used. Innovation does not have a metric but we are focused on that element. We don’t focus too much on attrition, as much as focus on attrition of top performers.

 The new KPI’s for the talent acquisition team is, how much have you hired through Social Media and what’s your Social Media quotient. This means evaluating the strength of Social media presence. Social Media Metrics is becoming hugely important.

Q: As an organization/ a startup grows bigger, there can be a tendency for the “institution” to dampen the “inspiration”, which goes against the ‘organization culture’. How can we prevent this from happening?

A: Having worked in startups, I can tell you this culture does change.When you are in a startup culture there are a whole host of things that you do, you treat your organization as your very own, it’s almost as you spend on something you spend from your own pocket.

As the startup continues to grow, you start to bring people from outside, the people from outside who are not necessarily from other startups, they are all used to different cultures. One cannot run away from this reality. Policies have to be brought in. At a startup, a lot of things can be done which a large or midsized organization cannot do. When you are a large organization, sometimes it’s not possible to retain an entrepreneurial culture.

There is a missionary zeal in the startups and as they grow into an organization, that zeal is only left to the people who started the organization. Now to keep that zeal intact there is a need to build a culture. Culture is stated values in action. Leaders state clearly what is the expected behaviours and ensure are not diluted.

Eg: If an organization values innovation, leaders have to make sure that a culture of innovation is established across the hierarchy. If the organization wants to build a culture of trust then being responsive has to be one of the integral values.

A startup has a sense of purpose. The sense of purpose is guided by beliefs and aligning behaviours, and all of this starts with the integration of values and principles. If an entrepreneur is able to bring all this together along with the vision and a crystal clear understanding of what values need to be provided to customers and markets, it’s a phenomenal great start.

It is important to monitor the kind of commitment an organization has created with each new employee, established in a way that maintains the way the organizational journey began. Excellent cultures manifest themselves over a period of time, regardless of whether people stay in the firm or leave the firm.

I was in a company in Bangalore called Microland and a gentleman called Pradeep Kar was heading it. Pradeep was an outstanding leader. I worked with him for a few years. Even though I have separated from Pradeep almost 20 years ago, I still get a personal note from him on my birthday and I am sure I will continue to get this because Individualization culture deeply is built in the organization. An outstanding culture of Personalization. Parts of which I carried it into other organizations I worked for. Cultures can be changed overnight, also different organizations believe in a different set of things. Even If you can subtly influence, bring in something which is enriching, enlivening, elevating and empowering, its a good job done.

Excellent cultures manifest themselves over a period of time, regardless of whether people stay in the firm or leave the firm.

Q: In the space of diversity and inclusion, what do you see are the main challenges going forward for businesses? What might be few of the key reasons Diversity might fail?

A: Let me rephrase this, it’s not just diversity that is the agenda, it is Inclusion. We take Inclusion to mean ‘Diversity’. Agreed it will take 30-40 years before there is even gender parity. There are a lot of companies working very hard, even in the developed countries, the gender ratio continues to be 30% for women. It’s going to take a very long time. The one thing that is very important today is inclusion.

India is easily one of the most diverse countries in the world. You have more than 1000 languages and dialects. For every 10 km, we have a different culture. North is different from South, East, and West. We don’t have this kind of diverse culture anywhere in the world. Many of them are culturally very rich and each one draws a great sense of pride from his/her culture.

The real issue is inclusion. In the workplace 85% of our people are millennials. They are defined as people between 25 and 35. The question we need to ask is are we including them? Do we make sure that we include people who may be differently abled? Are we creating a society where we only include people who are straight fitted, and in roles based on their academic and experiential backgrounds? Are the leaders able to dig down and check into the pulse of the people who really want to be included in the conversation?

Today organizations are looking for inclusion. Employees are also looking at gender inclusion. How can the organization be more inclusive? For example, many organizations have started to do something called young employee council or young talent councils, these are made up of top performers. Inclusion implies an exchange of thought and more importantly a check on whether the management is listening.

At Deloitte, we consistently work towards building an inclusive culture. Generation Z of today doesn’t care much about educational background, qualifications, or what language we speak etc. One that matters a lot to them is their talent getting recognized and do they have a say in taking a step. That is the Inclusion the multigenerational workforce is looking for.

We need to create products for the organization while we create ease of doing work for individuals. Managing the talent experience is the key question in a leaders mind.

Q: What, according to you, are the most pressing challenges being faced by leaders globally?In this new age of digitization, what conventional practices should HR leaders break away from?

A: We have always believed in the adoption of technology. We have to break away from adoption into stirring and using technology. It is something which will enable talent experience. If we focus on that it will really go a long way in creating a cultural transformation within an organization.

Going digital is just not looking at automation at once, It is almost like a continuum starting even before a person joins and continues even after the person leaves, all along the way it is all about talent experience. I think we must focus a lot on that. Our biggest challenge is how do we make sure this is:

  1. Seamless
  2. Integrated
  3. That which adds value to both the organization and the individual.

We don’t want to have one system not talking to the other We need to create products for the organization while we create ease of doing work for individuals. Managing an experience is the key question in a leaders mind.

Q: What are some of the questions leaders must answer as they design Cultures for new firms and expand them to growing organizations?

A: I think if there is one thing that HR leaders can really do is, is to add value to the culture of the organization. Today when organizations grow, and as you refer to that startup growing into an organization they merge into other bigger organizations. Mergers and acquisitions create companies. When this happens a lot of people come in from outside. How to maintain and enhance that culture? It’s time that we start looking into sustenance of culture. Because that’s something for which people move cities. Leaders need to answer these questions –

How do they ensure a culture of fairness to their people? How would they build an appreciative culture? Build a Performance and Innovative culture and finally how do organizations build a caring and developing the culture of a place where as Poet Laureate Rabindranath Tagore said – ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head held high’. Finally, how do they see their core values, in the form of cultures and behaviours across a multi-generational and multinational organization?


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