AI Will Not Replace Emotional Intelligence: Himanshu Misra, Head HR, Axis Mutual Fund

Importance of empathy, self-awareness, understanding & coaching people will only get amplified in a big way says Misra in an exclusive conversation with Krishnendra Joshi, Editorial Lead, BW People.


You have a diverse background in HR domains. Can you share an example of a particularly complex HR project you have led and the outcomes you have achieved?

It is difficult to narrate just one but a couple of them that stand out purely in terms of the complexity, impact, and the learning I derived are as follows.

  1. Transition from a legacy recruitment system to a cloud-based solution across the organisation: an extremely complex and large-scale exercise that involved not just replacing a legacy system but also driving mindset change in a very large team who were not really aligned to the change. Through a detailed workflow mapping and carrying all stakeholders along by co-opting them in the design and implementation process of the new system, we could create good buy-in from the end users. In the absence of this leg work, the entire process was at the risk of getting derailed, as had happened with an earlier system implementation.
  2. Wage settlement negotiation with representatives from 4 different employee unions: this was a masterclass in collective bargaining, understanding varying motivations in a group negotiation process, and leveraging game theory to drive desired outcomes.

Given your experience in HR Analytics, how have you used data driven insights to inform HR strategies and decision making in your previous roles, and what impact did this have on the organisations you worked with?

I have used data-based insights and decision-making across all my roles and not just in HR Analytics. When you are managing a large workforce, that generates even much larger data regularly, you must make analytics your ally in navigating everything you do. I have used data based insights for several real life problems/situations  in organisations including analysis of job searches over time periods, employee attrition, data based model for volume hiring at entry level roles, studying trends in candidate applications for jobs in the company, analysing overlaps in KRAs across individuals in a team and defining KRAs more sharply, analysis of common characteristics of high performers in a specific role in an organization and using the findings in hiring decisions. However, the impact doesn’t come by just doing an analysis. Impact happens when you take actions basis what the analysis shows you and after taking the action, again carry out an analysis. So, it’s an iterative process. The more action you take post the analytics, the higher the impact which could range from saving dollars for the organisation to helping business managers take more informed decisions instead of relying on gut-feel. I would also like to add that HR Analytics is not just about crunching numbers. It is about being able to generate a hypothesis and test that hypothesis using data/information. The latter is the real skill that HR practitioners need to develop.

You've worked on large-scale HR Technology projects. Could you provide an example of a significant technology implementation you led and how it improved HR processes and overall organizational performance?

I’ve led multiple large scale HR Technology implementations across various companies. There are a few common learnings across all HR Tech implementations, and I would share the key insights across all of them instead of getting into learnings from one specific implementation:

  1. Most HR Technology interventions are prone to what I call as “putting the cart before the horse” fallacy. What this means is: vendors pitch a HR software, and its capabilities and HR teams fall prey to the vanity of the product, without analysing in detail if the software solves all of their existing (and future) issues. 
  2. Almost all HR Tech implementations are only 20% about Technology and 80% about Change Management within the HR team and the larger organization. An average technology solution with excellent post-implementation change management is likely to deliver far better RoI as compared to a great technology product with poor change-management.
  3. Many HR teams think that Technology will resolve their data issues; but Technology itself cannot produce data. If junk is entered that is what will come out. Focus should be on having extremely simple user interfaces that ensure data entry is easy, intuitive, and coherent.
  4. Technology cannot solve for bad or patchy process design. Fix the process journeys end to end first. 
  5. Finally, there’s a lot of hype around AI, predictive intelligence etc. When you are dealing with people, it is still a lot more about common sense, intuition and first principles thinking.

Joining Axis AMC from Axis Bank, how did you approach the transition between these two entities, and what strategies did you employ to align HR practices with the specific needs and culture of a new organization?

I had spent almost 7 years with Axis Bank which is the parent company of Axis AMC, and hence the transition was relatively easy. My first task was to get the HR strategy aligned with the business goals of the organisation. While this was easily done, the more difficult part was to get the execution engine sustain since the backend systems were disparate legacy systems and a lot of stuff was getting managed offline. As first steps I got in place some key HR systems (Talent Acquisition, Emp Engagement & surveys etc). The second part was to completely align policies with processes; this eliminated a lot of exception management, queries etc. While these improved the efficiency of the HR organization, I also started work on long term org health metrics viz. organisation design, leadership development, employee capability building interventions and building a diverse organisation. Between June 2022 (when I took over the role) and Sep 2023, our attrition rate is down by ~30%, our diversity ratio has increased to 30% (from 26%) and our employee base has grown by 33%, while our operational expenses on employees (excluding wage cost) is down by ~5%. I am now focusing on building a value driven resilient organisation, while ensuring a healthy balance between productivity and employee well-being.

Performance management and succession planning are critical aspects of HR. Can you share your philosophy on these areas and any specific initiatives or best practices you've implemented to nurture talent within your previous organizations?

In my view, the philosophy of performance management is the same across all for-profit enterprises i.e. to maximize individual and organisation performance through continuous measurement and improvement of performance and employee capabilities. Now even through there is a universal performance management philosophy, companies have different approaches to performance management and varying frameworks & processes around goal setting and performance measurement tools. Unfortunately, most HR practitioners get attuned to loosely using the term Performance Management and misunderstand it as the annual appraisal process. In reality, if done properly, Performance Management is a powerful business tool to help achieve organisational goals and deliver shareholder value. In fact, performance management is integrally linked to almost every other function in HR including employee training & capability building, feedback & improvement, succession planning and feeds into the rewards outcomes. Individual and Organisation performance are also correlated with employee engagement with clear goals & sharp articulation of the same and a fair, objective measurement process being big levers of driving engagement amongst employees.

On the other hand, succession planning is quite often overlooked in most companies despite it being an extremely strategic and crucial process. Given the long-term timeframe of outcome, most companies may tend to underinvest in succession planning. One of the good practices to follow in succession management is to not just focus on immediate future or ready now talent, but also spend time shaping medium- & long-term talent outcomes by focusing on a pool of ready later talent. I believe succession planning is like a life/health insurance plan – you don’t realise its value till the day you need it.    

How have you managed matrix reporting structures and led large teams effectively in your HR roles? What leadership approaches have been successful in ensuring collaboration and alignment in such structures?

I have really enjoyed working in matrix reporting structures – it’s like a 1+1 free offer - you get to learn from 2 managers instead of 1, are able to view problems and solutions from 2 different perspectives, learn to influence and negotiate better and get to drive win-win outcomes. In fact, if you perform well, you may end up having 2 sponsors (or mentors) in the system which will help you immensely in building more advocacy and brighten your career prospects in the organisation. 

I have had the opportunity to lead large, diverse, geographically distributed teams. When it comes to leading a large group of people, there is no one size fits all approach. Team management becomes even more intricate if the team is also generationally and culturally diverse. I believe a leader’s job is to help his/her team achieve what they think is not possible to achieve; in other words, help them realise their true potential and that is what I tried to drive in all the teams I managed. It is also important for a leader to fire the team’s imagination by articulating a strong shared purpose – something which is beyond their KRAs. This helps drive collaboration and alignment within the team. 

Since last many years now, I have been managing individuals who themselves are people managers or managers of managers. When you are managing such large teams, it is also important to remain accessible to the larger team beyond your direct reports and invest time in coaching young team members. I think it really helps to be always genuine with all the team members; its ok to admit your failures or shortcomings or mistakes and give room to the team members for making the same – this helps build trust. Finally, if you are intentional about your team’s growth and development, and authentic in your dealings with them, I think it all falls in place.

In your experience with mergers and acquisitions, what challenges have you encountered in terms of HR integration, and how have you facilitated a smooth transition for employees in these situations?

Mergers & Acquisitions are extremely challenging but enriching learning opportunities especially with respect to individual behaviour. One can observe a range of varied emotions amongst employees of both the organisations: insecurity, anxiety, resistance to change, feeling lost, discomfort with an uncertain future and many more. In my experience, I have realised that the single biggest thing that HR teams need to focus on during the integration process is to ensure sufficient psychological safety regarding their jobs & careers for both sets of employees. Accordingly, the people integration plan should be predominantly focused on building a sense of belongingness for all the employees, whether in terms of ensuring minimal change in pay & benefits structures, retaining identity markers such as designation/grade/role etc to whatever extent possible and helping employees feel secure in the integrated organisation. Another complex challenge in a M&A situation is addressing duplicity of leadership roles. Since this is an extremely sensitive area, many organisations may just kick the can down the road, which may lead to the undesirable consequence of both the role holders feeling insecure and disengaged. However, at some stage the integration team needs to bite the bullet but by then the damage may already have been done. What helps is having a very clear plan from the beginning for superfluous roles and helping the incumbents in these roles either transition to a similar role or help them get a graceful departure while completely honouring the laid down severance benefits. 

With your educational background and experience in industry-academia partnerships and early careers, how do you view the role of HR in bridging the gap between academia and industry, and what initiatives have you undertaken to develop talent pipelines for your organizations?

I have deep personal interest in the area of early careers. We are at an interesting juncture in the development journey of our country – the demand for skilled talent is going to remain very high for the next couple of decades and there is also enough talent supply also available. However, large skill gaps exist in entry level supply pool, and this is where I believe huge opportunity can be unlocked by upskilling talent at scale through innovative industry-academia partnership programs. The NEP (National Education Policy) is going to be a game changer in preparing a young workforce that is a lot more readily employable by the corporate sector. As India gallops towards its goal of becoming a $ 10 trn economy, it will need to create some 10 crore new jobs for its 20%+ young workforce that is unemployed. And this is where this space becomes interesting. We have worked on curating quite a few programs through academic partnerships to build sustainable talent pipelines across multiple skills such as Technology, Analytics, Relationship Management among others. Through these programs, we don’t only build talent for our company, but this pool is highly employable across the industry.

As we look ahead to 2023, what do you consider the most significant development or trend in the HR space for the coming year, and how do you plan to adapt or leverage this development in your HR strategy? Looking forward to 2024, what trends or changes do you anticipate in the HR field that will significantly impact HR leaders' roles and responsibilities? How do you plan to stay ahead of these trends to remain effective in your position as Head of HR?

I think there are several more accomplished management gurus who are skilled at predicting the future. That was on a lighter note. But let me respond to this in an unconventional manner. 

As much as things may change, certain things will remain constant when it comes to managing people. With the advent of AI etc, HR practitioners will only need to be more humane in everything that they do. Artificial Intelligence will not be able to replace Emotional Intelligence and therefore the importance of empathy, self-awareness, understanding & coaching people etc will only get amplified in a big way. Youngsters entering the workforce seek a lot more meaning, purpose, feedback & guidance, and transparent communication from their supervisors. In a high growth country like India, expansion and hiring will keep buzzing and therefore talent acquisition skills will continue to remain in great demand. Most HR folks who shy away from doing recruitment will be missing out on opportunities created by this growth wave we are witnessing. Finally, employee wellbeing and equity & inclusion will continue to remain big differentiators at workplace. 

At Axis AMC, we are focusing on all of the above with an objective to build a workplace that is equitable & inclusive, with a strong emphasis on mental well-being. With generational shifts in the workforce, we are also getting our senior leaders and people managers sensitised on nuances of people management to ensure they manage teams with more empathy, equity, and humility. We also spend a lot of time listening to our employees through surveys etc on a real time basis and drive conversations so that problems get surfaced proactively and employees are well informed and empowered to perform their duties without any ambiguity. The idea is to build a culture of open & candid conversations, transparency through regular feedback and improvement and create a sense of purpose amongst employees.       

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