Our Aim is to Fill 80% of Our Product Management Roles Internally: Sahil Sharma, RateGain

Our Aim is to Fill 80% of Our Product Management Roles Internally: Sahil Sharma, RateGain

, Senior Content Manager, Naukri
, Senior Manager - Editorial & Content, Naukri
Sahil Sharma, CHRO, RateGain

RateGain Travel Technologies introduced a Product Orientation Led Opportunity for its employees and never hired an external product manager ever again. CHRO Sahil Sharma reveals how grooming internal talent can have excellent payoffs.

Please give an overview of RateGain’s growth in terms of business.

RateGain provides SaaS solutions mainly for the travel and hospitality industry. Simply put, we provide our clients with the cognitive intelligence to price their products well and unlock new revenue opportunities. We have also begun to provide our hospitality clients with a guest engagement platform that allows guests in a hotel to request things like extra towels, services, etc., through a power-banked chatbot called Engage AI.  

We have about 700+ partners globally- in Noida, the US, Europe, Japan, China, the Philippines and Singapore. Some of our prestigious clients are Marriott Archipelago, Wyndham, Starwood, Xpedia, Booking.com, Singapore Airlines, Indigo, and Air India.

What were RateGain’s challenges during COVID, and how did you overcome them?

Being in the travel and hospitality space, many clients requested a pause in billing. But despite this, we were clear that our employees came first. In fact, our company was the first to announce a work-from-home policy. We also did not announce layoffs because our employees would lose their medical benefits, insurance, etc., which were essential to them in the event of hospitalisation. 

Instead, we announced a furlough and graded pay cuts for everyone. However, one month later, we restored salaries, especially for those at the junior-most level. The leadership team continued with pay cuts for six monthsWe also did not stop promotions and bonuses because the ones on furlough needed the money. While many organisations took the opportunity to lay off employees, we started to bring our people back as soon as we began to go above the financials we had adjusted during that period. 

Also read: Around 20 to 25% of Hiring is Centred Around New-Age Technologies: Shalini Nair Kumar, Amadeus Lab

A lot of the spending is now on learning and development. Our aim is to retain our employees and fill 80% of our product management roles internally. We run a successful programme called RG POLO once a year, which stands for Product Orientation Led Opportunity for our people.

What was the long-term impact of your approach from a business perspective?

Of course, there are always tangible and intangible outcomes. The intangible impact was about establishing ourselves as an organisation and an employer for our people. It created a brand- a brand that cares for its employees. I remember getting calls from our employees and their families saying, “Please take him back.” I have cried and rocked myself to sleep on some days. It was a very emotional time. But everyone was back in the organisation in about six to eight months.

In addition, since COVID was challenging for many, we set up a COVID task force, which did a phenomenal job during the second wave. The team ensured that whoever needed medicines, oxygen cylinders, oximeters, tests, hospital beds, etc., received them. They even sent sick employees interesting goodies like fruit baskets. In fact, people were thrilled by these small gestures and even posted them on LinkedIn. 

We also set up an 1800 number and had a doctor on our panel who was accessible at any time. The tangible benefits, however, were a testament to our organisation’s strength and focus. In December, we stood at the NSE, rang the bell, and went public. Furthermore, our people got more than they would get in a performance appraisal. For example, instead of a 10% raise, they probably got a 15 % raise because we wanted to make it fair to our people and retain them. 

Where is the highest spending currently from an HR perspective?

A lot of the spending is now on learning and development. Our aim is to retain our employees and fill 80% of our product management roles internally. We run a successful programme called RG POLO once a year, which stands for Product Orientation Led Opportunity for our people.

Employees from any country, belonging to any department, who have been with the company for at least a year and have a performance rating of at least 4 in their last appraisal are eligible. They pass a stringent battery of tests, and if they are selected, they are trained for nine months, after which they can apply for any product management role.

Last year we got 22 applications from the US, Europe, Japan, Mexico, and India, out of which we shortlisted 10, and eight have already been placed in product management roles. Since we announced this programme, we have not hired an external product managerBuilding talent internally is beneficial for both the organisation and the employee. It saves on big compensations for external hires, and employees aspiring to more significant roles can fulfil their ambitions. It also saves HR time and money in the hiring process. 

Also read: Tourism Sector Revival Stimulates Job Growth

What are the skills you look for in your product managers?

Product management is a very niche skill. We need our product managers to act and behave like the CEO of the product—to drive the top line and the margins and be responsible for the growth of the product. You cannot find these kinds of business-minded product managers in India.

How do you create the internal communication and interaction that enable upselling and cross-selling to clients? Does HR continue to play a role here?

All the product managers report directly to the founder, who has a very “product” mindset. All of them meet to discuss and communicate what is happening. They also have forums on which they can interact, reviews, best practices, and a Monday call for all the product managers- I’m sure they are interacting with each other. HR does not organise anything other than the town hall for the product management team.

What were you spending three years ago compared to now on L&D?

We were spending about Rs 1.5 crore. This year, the spending is likely to be the same or a little higher because we have invested a lot in digitising learning and providing great content to make it interesting. But the cost of physical training will go down. We have invested in a mobile app that is not just for work-related learning; you can learn anything, anytime, anywhere. For example, you can learn gardening or even how to make soup. It is a huge bouquet of about 80,000 courses!

What is your talent acquisition vision for the next few years?

I want to continue to hire fresh graduates from campuses and help them grow so that my mid-level people are growing too. In 2019, we hired seven people from campuses, which has gradually increased to 40 people this year. All these people are still in the organisation because we allow them to grow and move up.

Also read: Learning Accounts for More Than 50 to 60% of Our Overall Budget: Saurabh Deep Singla, upGrad

How did you keep the people on furlough motivated during this time?

People on furlough did not have a monthly income, so we had to figure out how to keep them engaged because they were still our employees. We gradually began to use the pool of furloughed employees to reinfuse talent into the organisation.

We also followed a proactive approach, for example:

Communication: We updated our retained and furloughed employees via regular town halls and emails about rehiring, salaries, raises, promotions, appraisals, bonuses, and how the company was faring. This reduced their anxiety because they knew the organisation was honest, transparent, and thinking about them.

Compassion:  We ensured that the employees felt valued and cared for. Compassion involves recognising and empathising with the emotions and challenges faced by our people. We had life coaches who helped with self-discovery and boosted morale.

Competence: Assisting Employees in upgrading their skills and knowledge through various programs, facilitated by RG. When employees feel competent and confident in their abilities, they experience a sense of satisfaction, accomplishment, and fulfillment.

How do the L&D programmes help retain employees and manage attrition in your company?

If a technology person wants to be a product manager and applies externally, they will never get the opportunity because few companies will take the risk. But our organisation is strong enough to take the risk, and invest a lot of money to train them through the University of Maryland -it is not an in-house programme.

Hiring and retaining for the technology function was a challenge three years ago. But because our head of technology is very vested and open to learning and development,  attrition is now down to less than 10% from 35% in the technology functions

Can a retention clause be expected in the future?

We can’t bind people by signing a paper when investing in their growth and careers. The whole mindset of genuinely investing in people’s careers is backed by a not-so-genuine thought I don’t subscribe to.

Although we did not introduce a retention clause last year, all the 10 employees who took the training are still with the organisation. If the organisation invests significantly in their careers to help them meet their aspirations, why would they not reciprocate? 

Therefore, although I am under pressure, why should we introduce a clause if our people are not leaving? 

Also read: Managers Must Focus on Rebuilding Organisation-Wide Erosion of Social Skills: Kavita Kurup, UST

Given different models of working after COVID, including hybrid, how do you inculcate a learning culture?

We make it clear that it is work from the office for the first two months. I think this is now a challenge that many companies face- people working from home don’t even know the company’s core values, forget about the culture. So, we decided we had to be in the office because we didn’t want to lose the culture that we had built.

Did your employees push back because of the decision to work from the office?

Although it is a hybrid model now, people are in the office almost daily. A handful of people are remote, but the preference is to work from the office. I am a board-and-pen kind of person, so I like working from the office – you cannot do all of that on Zoom. Nevertheless, I’m sure many other people like being at the office too.

About the Author: Sahil Sharma joined RateGain in 2016. His illustrious career is marked by his performance, due to which he was promoted to the CHRO of the company in 2022. He is experienced in complex organisational processes and workforce during acquisition.


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