Leadership in VUCA World: It’s People Over Power

Leadership in VUCA World: It’s People Over Power

In this tête-à-tête with All Things Talent, Mr Raj Gupta, General Manager – Human Resources at Tata Consultancy Services talks about his rich experience of building and leading cross-cultural teams in the industry for over two decades. He also brings to surface the need to train Managers upfront in people skills and create an ecosystem where people development is at the forefront of Leadership mindset across levels. While talking about skills, Raj also emphasizes on the importance of having a learning culture; according to him it is no longer a choice but has become an imperative.

Raj Gupta is a veteran HR Professional with 25 years of experience in diversified roles and brings a combination of Ops, HR & L&D expertise with exposure to the US, UK, Europe and Indian multinationals including 10 years each in GE & TCS. He founded HRsuccessmantra.com to help budding HR professionals build HR & Leadership credentials and is a speaker at various Industry platforms in addition to being a Guest Lecturer at various colleges. He has authored 3 Books Walk Through HR Maze, Caterpillar To Catalyst & Workplace Romance & Its Perils. He has been honoured with 100 HR Super Achievers in India by World HRD Congress and Global HR Excellence Exemplary Leader Award at the Asia Pacific HRM Congress for his contribution in HR Arena. Raj is a certified Leadership Development Coach from Coaching Foundation of India (CFI) and has a Bachelor of Education and Postgraduate degree in English literature and has been an award-winning student in MBA (HR) from Institute of Management Technology, India.


Q. You are a veteran with 25 years of rich experience of building and leading cross-cultural teams in the industry. Please tell us about your career and how you got up to where you’re at now?

A. I have always believed that a combination of work and education is a great cocktail if you can see through both of them with merit and this is exactly what happened in my case.

During my first job interview at the age of 19, I was asked to prepare a plan outlining where I would see myself at the age of 40. At the age of 19, you do not think about 40 – getting a job was a priority right after Graduation due to my modest background. While I was getting admission in MBA as I was a College Topper all through, my father told me that he had done the best he could and given other priorities, I must fund my further education.

Then, I came across an article in an Indian daily which talked about the evolution of HR. It was in the year 1993. HR at that point in time used to be more of Personnel Management and Administration. Having gone through the article, the thought of building a career in HR struck my mind and HR professionals must know bits and pieces of each and every function and be able to attract, retain and grow employees. Accordingly, I built my future career plan and decided to work in various functions before moving to HR.

In a nutshell, at GE I got cross-functional exposure and built my HR credentials, Xchanging India gave me rounded HR Leadership Exposure and ~10 Years with TCS has exposed me to multiple HR roles including an international stint with scale and complexities.

Having progressed where I wanted to as per the document – “Where I see Myself at 40” at the age of 34 itself, which included doing Bachelor of Education, Post Graduation in English, Learning a Foreign Language (German), MBA and growing from an Associate to Assistant Vice President in 2006 in GE and becoming Head HR for Xchanging India in 2008, I decided to work on contributing to larger HR Fraternity through writing and sharing my knowledge. This led me to set up HRsuccessmantra.com through which I help budding HR professionals build HR and Leadership credentials and I also began to speak at various Industry platforms in addition to being a Guest Lecturer at prestigious Colleges.

Now my expertise lies in setting up end to end HR spectrum, enhancing productivity and cost optimisation and partnering with business leaders to optimise organisational effectiveness with exposure to transformation/change management.

Global HR Excellence “Exemplary Leader Award” for contribution in HR arena at the Asia Pacific HRM Congress’ 2010 and 100 HR Super Achiever Award by World HRD Congress and various Books that I have written are testimony and tribute to excellent Leaders that I got the privilege to be associated with directly or indirectly.

Q. What has been the most defining moment in your career to date and why? As an HR leader, what are the top challenges you face at work and how do you overcome them?

A. There have been quite a few defining moments in my career. However, two of them stand out the most. The first one being my movement from business to HR in the year 2000 at GE and second was when I became the Head of HR for Xchanging India – a stint that made me a well-rounded HR professional.

The top challenges that I face include – 1) remaining relevant amidst the fast-shifting business dynamics in general and changes taking place in Human Resources space in particular. 2) building capability amongst the workforce leading to higher productivity and enhanced customer experience. I ensure that I read a lot to remain relevant, leverage the ecosystem to help build people capabilities and as a general management principle.

I have found that the best way to avoid regrets is to avoid causing them in the first place. I practice one habit that helps me a great deal in this regard. At the end of each day, I mentally review the day’s events and conversations to take a second look at the people and developments I am involved with and do a requisite course correction, as appropriate.

Q. You’ve also authored 3 books. Tell us a bit about them. What motivates you to write? Also, what’s it like to be a commentator within the HR, leadership, and talent space?

A. Writing is a part of the larger goal to contribute to the success of HR fraternity. So far, I have published 3 books –

Walk Through HR Maze help readers in providing a conscious and objective overview of the entire HR Value Chain & its strands and Management institutions to bring up HR Managers thereby enhancing their success rate.

Caterpillar To Catalyst help Readers in providing oversight to overarching principles that if practised in right earnestness, will help them develop their Leadership credentials

Workplace Romance and Its Perils – This is my first HR fiction that touches upon Myriad web of relationships that exists in the corporate world, Shifting socio-economic scenario amidst generational shifts, D&I, LGBTQ, Sexual Harassment and Mental Health issues and what it means for the organisation, employees and society at large.

Motivation to write comes from within, with an objective to share my experiential learning with the larger fraternity. This is sort of a hobby for me.

Being a commentator within the HR, leadership, and talent space helps me consume quite a bit of content including writings of industry veterans within and outside of HR Industry. Interfacing with HR colleagues from the Industry, Academia and Millennials keep me relevant and add to my experiential learning on an ongoing basis.



Q. We often hear that people leave managers, not companies. Do you agree with this statement? In your opinion, why are people more likely to jump ship when they have bad bosses?

A. To a large extent, I do agree that People leave Managers and not companies.

It is an accepted fact in the Industry that 80% of employees leave their Managers instead of their organisation. In spite of this fact, in the Industry, we continue to promote people for their operating skills and then make them in-charge as Team Leader / Assistant Manager and align career of 8-10 employees with them.

However, we do not spend time upfront in developing new Managers people skills. They continue to do what made them successful so far i.e. Individual Excellence and make a mess of people’s career working under them. People are more likely to jump ship when they have a horrible Manager as they find lack of development opportunity for capability building, undergo emotional turmoil, lack of job satisfaction and respect at work.

In my view, we in HR should focus on capability building and creating an ecosystem where people development is at the forefront of Leadership mindset across levels.

So, where should the focus be in this most complex organisational challenge? The answer is on developing Leadership — an art to get things done, what you want to get done because others want to do it.


Q. From what you’ve seen over the years, what have been some of the big changes and digital disruptions in HR and how do you see the trend going forward.

A. SMAC, an acronym for Social, Mobile, Analytics & Cloud alongside Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Machine Learning (ML), Deep Learning, Augmented Reality (AR), and Chatbots are disrupting the way we conduct our business. They present industry with exciting possibilities of growth that is non-linear and also an opportunity to play a critical role in reshaping the market and workforce landscape.

It has become imperative for HR Leaders to start thinking about how to help Global CEOs deal with the Human Capital Challenges amidst technological disruptions by visualising the shape of the future workforce, developing a diverse and accountable leadership pool, keeping a step ahead of a paradigm shift in engagement practices for the 21st-century workforce. As digital is revolutionising the global economic firmament and also the ways and means of employment, I see the emergence of following key trends in HR —

  1. A paradigm shift in Workplace Learning Dynamics
  2. Out-sourcing or Automation of HR Transactional Spectrum
  3. Analytics in HR has taken a centre stage
  4. Gig Economy, Shared Workspaces are developing roots and taking shape
  5. HR Role dynamics undergoing Major Shift

Q. According to you, what traditional HR management roles, may become more automated over the next few years? How do you see the HR role evolving?

A. In my view, the entire transactional spectrum in HR, the hire to retire cycle, will get automated or outsourced. If we have to automate or outsource is not the question nowadays, what and how much is the question?

In a fast-evolving business landscape where digital is at the centre and efficiency is no more a luxury, with an increasing demand to provide Japanese quality at Chinese price – HR Leadership needs to align the business demand to the ever-evolving workforce needs and strike a balance in a manner that they manage to retain knowledge and contribution which requires agility & constant revisiting of HR strategy and its impacts.

In my view, in times to come, Human Resources Leaders will play a critical role as —

  1. Conscious Keeper to ensure that policies, practices framework are deployed across organisations in letter and spirit
  2. Custodian – ensure application and alignment of the laws of the land so that CEO’s could sleep peacefully
  3. Be par excellence Facilitator more of a consultant role where you guide the workforce and help them enhance their productivity and customer satisfaction through designing of contextual interventions and last but not the least act as a change catalyst.


Q. The development of a learning orientation is seen as an organisation-wide responsibility but how can HR practitioners play a significant role in the promotion of learning in the organisation? Also, why is a ‘learning culture’ crucial to any organisation?

A. Learning today is in the midst of a dramatic change. Gamification, Curation, Augmented Reality (AR), Mobile Learning – Personalisation and Customisation – be it the phone, or tablet, mobile devices are changing the game of learning delivery and interaction and sharing. Use of multimedia and open education resources : Digital media, YouTube videos such as TED talks or the Khan Academy, and, increasingly, open educational resources (OERs) in the form of short lectures, animations, Massive Open Online Short Engagements (MOOSE), simulations, or virtual worlds enable Learners to access and apply knowledge in a wide variety of ways.

Days of learning for learning’s sake have evaporated. The more closely learning providers work in partnership to fulfil business strategy with measurable Return on Investment (ROI) or Return on Engagement (ROE) or Return on Time Invested (ROTI), the more rapidly L&D will be viewed as catalysts for innovation and learning rather than course or program providers.

Learning Heads needs to keep themselves abreast of the changing mindset of generations and how the workforce is evolving, what are their needs, what is relevant in the current scenario and what has become obsolete. They need to align the business demand to the dynamic workforce needs which requires agility & rethinking of learning strategy & its impact.

As Alvin Toffler says, “The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.

Having a learning culture is no longer a choice. If an organisation is not learning agile amidst technological shifts & disruption in Industry 4.0, It’s days, in my view, are numbered.



Q. Do you think it is possible to cultivate leadership and innovation? If yes, then how can the HR department help managers become effective leaders? Do you think that all managers have the capability to become good leaders?

A. “Nearly all men can stand adversity but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power” – Abraham Lincoln.

Leadership is at its core all about power and influence. I believe, it is possible to cultivate leadership and innovation provided there is willingness and people are ready to run the race.

CHRO’s have no choice but to create interventions for the optimisation & development of workforce across levels. HR Leaders can help Managers by designing contextual interventions including Talent Audit, Competency Gap Analysis, Alignment of Coach / Mentor who can guide and help Managers navigate through organisation interpersonal dynamics amongst other challenges.

To further answer your question, Yes, I do believe that all Managers can be helped to develop their leadership capabilities.

Q. As someone who holds experience of working across all HR functions, what general career advice do you have for all professionals to succeed in their careers?

A. I would recommend the following –

  1. Have clarity of thought, ability to express that thought and wherewithal to execute it.
  2. Develop your Thought Leadership
  3. Command respect, not because of your position but the disposition
  4. Focus on Competency Building rather than Titles.
  5. Last but not least, Ethics and Strong Value System is Pivotal for a sustained long term success.

(The views expressed are personal)


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