HR Policies Can't Be Rigid or of An Earlier Era: Sunil Kant Munjal

My father never carried any bitterness inside about the past struggles; he saw his many challenges as crucial building blocks.In the companies that I know of, or have worked with, most family members are mentored or groomed by a senior in the beginning; there is no short cut.


It is often missed out that the largest employment and value creation across the world comes from family businesses. Do you think there is a change in the way Indian business families work these days?

There is no doubt that the Family businesses are aware of the need to be globally competitive and many are making appropriate changes. The younger generation is far more professional: they progress organically in most cases; working in middle management, working across divisions and departments. And this is backed up with quality education and a modern outlook. Another interesting trend is the changing role of women and daughters.Not only is their desire to be involved in the business growing, they are also being actively supported by senior members of the family in an increasing number. Their entry is resulting in further professionalization and the free flow of ideas.

Do you think the environment is conducive enough for the operation of business families? What are the challenges for running family businesses in India?

Business families have flourished in India and the world ever since commerce started, irrespective of the business and policy environment. There was a long phase between the 1960s and 1990 when the environment wasn’t friendly for business; but two decades of reforms have improved the ground situation considerably. Nevertheless, even today, despite efforts made by this government, cost of finance, red tape, rigid labour laws, and corruption at the local level are some issues that pose challenges to enterprises, especially small firms. The family businesses have an added complexity of multiple influences on business including, in some cases, individually like non-working family members or in-laws of working members, etc. There is an additional challenge of the optics of family business to demonstrate optically that the choices of roles of individuals have merit.

What has been the tradition at your family and how did you understand the family business from its root?

Our family business was built from scratch. My father and uncles started small; they did everything themselves—from meeting customers, dealers and suppliers, finalizing business partners, supervising at the factory etc—this tradition of being personally involved, of taking full responsibility for both success and failure has always been a family tradition. This is the way I learnt about running a business. The family’s ethos and value system also has a lot to do with the practices that got ingrained as business philosophy and allowed many of the enterprises to grow and become successful at a global scale.

How you have nurtured your kids to take on the challenges of running a family owned business?

Just as I learnt on the job and through observing and gaining new experiences with the help of my father and uncles--- my daughter did the same. She went through an internship after finishing her education and was given tough responsibilities at a relatively junior level. After a period of mentoring, she was given responsibility of building a new business in the technology area – which is what she liked and enjoyed. Since then she has gone on to successfully lead a business that is a large global scale Insurance distribution business and she also works in our foundation and not-for profit activities and also acts as a sounding board for me – that helps me get a younger perspective on many decisions.

Do you think running a family business is much more challenging due to obvious comparisons with your elders and along with pressure to carry forward the legacy?

Eras cannot and should not be compared. But naturally, our elders set very high standards in terms of business practices, moral codes, and relationship management--- and we have tried to emulate these over the years in our own ways. Carrying forward the legacy has not been so difficult, because we have been taught how to distinguish between decisions of the head and the heart. Watching our elders, we also learnt to do the right thing in business and in our lives.

Did your father ever tell you stories about how challenging it was for him to manage the business?

My father (and our other elders) all told us such stories often—yet he never felt any angst or carried any bitterness inside about the past struggles; he saw his many challenges as crucial building blocks; he was convinced that he would not have been able to develop a successful enterprise without the many setbacks he went through.

What has been your leadership style? Is it different from what your elders practiced when they were running the company?

Compared to my elders, I like to delegate more. They were more operationally involved, perhaps because the size of the business was smaller, and there were fewer trained professionals to handle leadership positions. As for me, I always like to empower people and give responsibility. Unless there is a sense of ownership in a business or a project, it is very difficult to sustain energy and commitment. Building a successful business is all about passion and a strong sense of purpose. At the same time, I do stay involved in the strategic aspects, and when required, I step in and track some of the moving parts. I believe that every business owner must be in the car, even if he is not driving all the time. the dashboard of the business must be right in front of him. This is something that as a family owned business many of us learnt to practice.

With the booming millennial workforce, how do the companies need to evolve the HR policies and practices? Any instance, from Hero Group.

Today’s youngsters need to be given much more responsibility to grow themselves and to deliver growth for the organization. Also, HR policies can’t be rigid, nor can they be based on management practices of an earlier era. It is important to recognize that the world has changed. If we want to retain talent, our outlook towards work, decision making and hierarchy needs to change. At Hero Enterprise, we are trying to build an adaptive and adoptive work culture— where fluid decision making is encouraged, along with accountability. Over the last six decades the multiple enterprises set up by Hero created endearing relationships amongst the suppliers, dealers, employees and service providers that have continued for two or three generations in many cases. This is because people and relationships are seen as an important aspect and feature of our businesses.

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