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In Conversation With Santana Ramakrishnan, CHRO, Carl Zeiss India

HR teams embedded In business are effective advisors and problem solvers says Ramakrishnan in an exclusive interview with Krishnendra Joshi, Editorial Lead, BW People

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In your role as CHRO for Carl Zeiss India and neighbouring markets, you mentioned collaborating with global teams. Can you share insights/opportunities for collaboration efforts that aid transformation in alignment with the company's vision of ONE ZEISS?

Most recently, one of the business divisions based in Germany, sought to increase their talent absorption globally and identified one of the premier engineering institutes in India for a pilot engagement. The HR team from Germany ran the initial process of campus recruitment for postgraduates and PhD’s, making a significant impact both in terms of their engagement and number of offers extended. While our initial steps were inspired, it wasn’t lost on us that these students would soon transition to full time employees of ZEISS in Germany, a shift that will present its own challenges. In ideation conversations between the Indian and the German teams, we agreed to collaborate and jointly drive a post-offer engagement experience with these students. We now have a structured program that is built on the best practices across the industry while drawing heavily on our legacy both in Germany and in India. Our counterparts in Germany, rely on us to bring in the cultural inputs, understanding of the local market and demographics, while the India team delivers leverage to a global recruiting program.

Specific to the business, we are currently building a multi-business facility in India that represents one of ZEISS Group’s largest single investments outside Germany and will likely be operational by 2025. We have already invested the efforts and hard work of hundreds of employees and partners collaborating across Germany, India and China. While the organisation’s expertise in doing this over the last 100 years is strong, and the India team manages the project on the ground, we rely deeply on the experiences and learnings of countries that have preceded us in this endeavour. We have work teams from across the globe who fortify our knowledge and progress.

At a global organisation level, our transformation pipeline over the next five years, will cut across Technology, Culture and Customer Experience. It will involve multiple countries leveraging each other, established and complex processes requiring simplification, simplified processes needing automation and integration. None of which will be successful without strong people relationships, a deep respect for what we have already built, and keeping our eyes firmly on the future.

HR Ecosystem Building:

You've worked across different geographies and in various roles within HR, including in multinational corporations and the Indian start-up ecosystem. What strategies have you employed in building HR ecosystems that scale to reinforce business priorities, especially in the dynamic environments of both large corporations and startups?

HR ecosystems don’t always reflect the growth and evolution in the business. Therefore, a concerted effort from both the business and HR leaders becomes imperative for a partnership. Some of the things that have worked for me include prioritising the predictability and reliability of HR Operations. When this end of the spectrum functions efficiently to address all aspects of the employee lifecycle, it relieves the pressure from the rest of the HR functions. Discussions with business does not devolve into topics around TAT and grievances. Moreover, it provides a strong base to build meaningful employee experiences and policies. I had the benefit of learning early in my career the importance of understanding how the business/company makes money. A good understanding of the business commercials, failure modes, and growth levers gives one a credible perspective on HR practices that are relevant to the business. I also have a bias for a high engagement way of working. HR teams that are embedded in the business are effective advisors and problem solvers. They can identify early warning signals and proactively address potential derailers like employee grievances, org design gaps etc., while partnering to build sustainable people practices.

Start-up Experience:

Having worked in the Indian start-up ecosystem with Udaan.com and DealShare, how did your experience in startups differ from your roles in established multinational corporations like AXA and Goldman Sachs? What unique challenges and opportunities did you encounter in the startup environment?

Startups, inherently, are ambiguous environments with quick pivots that need to be orchestrated to keep moving forward. There is a premium on iterative problem-solving. Whereas most MNC’s are heavily invested in delivering carefully curated and finessed outcomes that are expected to sustain for at least a few business cycles.

Some of the problem statements that I have worked with are existential in nature – ‘How do we build an organisation that will effectively navigate crises and build employee trust’. This is at the core of both financial stability and employer brand. While Founders have a responsibility to both, the engagement & the creation of a cohesive employer brand is largely driven by the HR organisation. In the e-commerce world of wafer-thin margins directing operational decisions, a challenge that one grapples with is continuing to stay relevant for both the customer and the employee. While, I may not have effectively resolved these challenges, I have certainly gained wisdom from these experiences. Over the duration of my start-up tenure, I have enjoyed a ring side view to the often-competing forces of growth and profitability. I think we can agree that most challenges also present an opportunity to learn, recalibrate, stand your ground and in the process contribute meaningfully to both the business and the workforce.

Balancing People Advisory with Business Priorities:

You mentioned enjoying assignments that balance people advisory with building HR ecosystems to support business priorities. Can you share an example where you successfully achieved this balance, and what were the key factors that contributed to the success of that assignment?

One of the analogies I frequently use to illustrate the role of HR as an enabling function is that of a midfielder in a football team. Each time the striker looks up, the midfielder needs to be available and attentive to receive, pass or hold the ball. For an HR professional to play that role is a privilege.

Early on in my career with AXA, I was managing HR for the South zone in India. Our geography was four states with two established channels of business and two experimental. The HR function was primarily a recruitment & training organisation. However, in the first six months, we re-organised the function into two teams – one closely aligned with the day-to-day operations of the business and one dedicated to establishing processes and employee experiences. This provided the business with higher control and fewer breakdowns on their operating side while simultaneously delivering engagement, resolution and advisory services that contributed to stability. Staying the course on this model, and consistent implementation over a three-year period saw the HR function transition from an operational function to a partnering function. During this transition, the HR team had to get up to speed on understanding the business and the ground realities they were contending with. Strategies that worked for the Agency channel would not be relevant to the Broking channel. Moreover, while we were committed to standardising our people agenda, we had to be equally quick to respond to shifting business cycles. Reward & Recognition programs as well as incentive schemes couldn’t just be templatised. If they failed to impact monthly or quarterly sales, the business wouldn’t benefit. Finally, and possibly the most critical – as a late entrant to the Indian market and the relationship-oriented nature of the business, we relied on other organisations to meet our talent needs. Integrating individuals from diverse organisational cultures and assimilating them into the AXA way of working anchored most HR initiatives.

In your role at Goldman Sachs, you were responsible for building a robust global HR operations practice. What were the key challenges you faced in this role, and how did you ensure that HR operations aligned with the global strategy of the organization?

At the time of my joining, the global HR Operations transformation was well underway and had the sponsorship of key partners within the Group. One of my initial challenges as a lateral hire, was understanding and navigating an unfamiliar and matrixed organization with a deep respect for the years of experience and expertise within. As I began to understand more, three aspects stood out as areas of improvement. (1) Adoption of Technology, (2) Willingness to challenge existing processes and (3) Commercial savviness. Leveraging technology to simplify was not an intuitive approach within the team. Here, I relied heavily on the expertise of the HR Analytics team, trained in using our proprietary database and language. They developed a series of algorithms on HR transactions that significantly reduced effort and time. Showcasing this in multiple forums created automation and simplification opportunities with teams across the globe. While this made individuals and teams sit up and take notice, the real traction was out of two actions consistent delivery on tight timelines and the result-oriented engagement of the team with internal customers. We gained recognition as a centre of expertise, which in turn created multiple avenues of conversation and opportunity. The Commercial savviness, however, was a longer process of education and adoption. While the outcomes mattered, purposeful engagement with stakeholders and decision-makers, equipping them with information and having them speak for us in meetings we weren’t present in, was integral to our progress and achievements.

Multinational Experience

With extensive stints in Asia and across client groups in Europe and Americas, how do you approach managing HR functions in diverse cultural and geographical settings? Can you share strategies you've employed to ensure consistency in HR practices while respecting and adapting to local nuances?

I have been fortunate to have these experiences and meet people who have inspired me. In my view, there are two aspects that need careful tending to. 1. Awareness and respect for the business operating model 2. Mindfulness and nuance in navigating the web of relationships. Some of my guiding principles for delivering strong business partnership and outcomes are:

· Listening to understand.

· Seeking diverse points of view.

· Taking the time that is required to build consensus.

· Pragmatic realism over short term opportunism.

· Investing in people and in relationships without a hidden agenda.

· Willingness to go back to square one and restart the conversation if required.

· Being politely persistent.


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