In Conversation With Sunitha Lal, CHRO, Ather Energy

The HR function has increased expectations to play the role of a business transformation agent or a growth catalyst who delivers, or rather stitches, value for all stakeholders says Lal in an exclusive interview with Krishnendra Joshi, Editorial Lead, BW People.


Ms Lal, what motivated you towards a career in the HR domain? 

Human Resources was a fairly new and emerging career back then, with a lot of opportunities to learn and grow. I have always been fascinated by fields like Psychology, Anthropology, and Sociology that focused on human behaviour. Interestingly, HR is in the interconnecting space between these three disciplines - to understand the conscious and more importantly the unconscious processes in individuals, groups, communities, and systems. 

How have you seen the role of a CHRO evolving throughout your journey? 

For this, we must take into account the development of HR as a practice in and of itself. From being industrial economies, businesses have transformed into knowledge economies. Since there was no formal structure in place for managing people in firms, HR became necessary. 

At a time when people were viewed as inferior to machines, the first HR departments were established to meet social welfare concerns. These divisions were in charge of duties including hiring, compliance, and remuneration. The emphasis has gradually shifted from welfare connected to labour compliance to empowerment which includes bettering role clarity, creating organisational culture, and discovering purpose. 

I have experienced the increased expectation to play the role of a business transformation agent or a growth catalyst who delivers, or rather stitches, value for all stakeholders. This pushed me to enhance my tacit understanding of finance, data, technology and business operations, apart from the core expertise in evolving sustainable people practices. As HR practitioners, we need to stop focusing on damage control and instead transform organisations into communities of shared purpose looking to fulfil people's ambitions in line with the organisation's purpose. 

You are an organizational culture expert with a keen interest in the space of unconscious processes in individuals, groups, and systems. How to identify and eliminate any form of bias that may creep in, at work? 

Bias is a natural human tendency. Our brains are wired to find the easiest solution and detect patterns. Offices are a microcosm of the macrocosm, a reflection of the community outside. When someone joins a team, they not only offer their knowledge and competence; they also bring their beliefs and worldview. It's more crucial to foster a culture of open communication, recognise that everyone is equal but that no two people are the same, and engage in frank discussions about culture. Accept that you'll have to figure things out iteratively, and confront prejudice in all of its forms—from the language you use to communicate or describe rules and policies to the systems you develop. 

What are the top three leadership lessons or insights you would like to share with our readers from your leadership journey? 

Organisations that will be successful in the future are not the ones who can innovate the fastest. The ones that’ll be successful are those who will invest in introspection, pay attention to changes in the outside world, and adapt quickly.. Therefore, developing resilience, comfort with being scrutinised, and inculcating a willingness to get into the depth and details of work has been my lessons from my journey. 

Can you share an example of a successful cultural change initiative you have led and the outcomes achieved? 

I strongly believe that one person can’t lead a cultural change, it’s always a team effort. One example that comes to my mind is how we coped with the initial months of the pandemic and moved to a remote way of working at Ather Energy. Shifting the entire workforce to remote working was quite a change for a product organisation like ours. 

We are a unique amalgamation of software, hardware, and mechanical engineering verticals, along with manufacturing. The thought was that only a few teams could transition to remote working with ease. The underbelly of a change of this scale was ambivalence and anxiety. We leaned on being present - a willingness to stand there and talk, to collaborate, find new ways of working that work for us, to accept, to receive support and share feedback, be vulnerable, and to stay connected. 

We spent a lot of time on context setting and over-communicating by creating interventions and spaces like Out of Office (for offline informal conversations), Rumor has it (to address and acknowledge the truth behind gossip), Noise Vibration and Hoarseness (Ather’s own internal podcast), Egg Noodles (to find spaces to relax outside of work), and hold frequent All Hands by our CEO. This was possible because our team members were committed to embracing changes, holding the fort, managing non-routine responses, and delivering results. 

How do you encourage employee engagement and create a sense of belonging within the organization? 

Ather doesn’t have a unique role or department for employee engagement. Instead, we believe in creating avenues for employee empowerment. Empowerment for us means developing a depth of expertise in what you do, creating spaces to ask difficult questions, and having the freedom to make decisions. 

We have spent enormous time iteratively building our matrix organisation structure, calling out the roles and responsibilities for every unique role, spending time with functional managers and P&L Owners in building their roles and crafting competencies for each role. 

This combined with a swimlane (cross-functional teams) way of working based on Agile™ methodology has helped create empowered teams, where team members at all levels have the space to make decisions in these swimlanes. Everyone gradually began to adopt the founder attitude as a result. Team members started to consistently show up every day and display ownership and accountability in their decisions, which created belongingness and developed engagement. 

How do you ensure that the HR department is aligned with the overall business strategy and goals of the organization while managing employee expectations? 

Over the years, our journey towards organising the way we work has seen many changes. Today, with several office locations, and a number of expanding and specialised teams, we are heavily invested in organisational alignment, efficiency, and working in collaboration. This is possible because most people at Ather are aligned to swimlanes or cross-functional teams. 

Every swimlane is aligned with the Objectives and Key Results of the organisation - a philosophy that keeps us aligned to achieve our moonshots. Similarly, the HR team has its own goals aligned with the OKRs of the organisation. 

What message would you like to give to HR and corporate professionals on embracing change, upskilling and achieving success in the current disruptive work environment? 

Build resilience as a competence. In these unprecedented times and disruptive work environments, business transformation and innovation don't just happen; it is envisioned and unlocked by resilient leaders who thrive in the face of challenges posed by adversity. Always question your role; why does it exist and whom does it really serve? ‘Loyalty’ and HR leaders have a difficult dance. 

Most leaders in an organisation expect allegiance from their HR Head and team. But the difficulty is in figuring out what or whom you are allegiant towards. The ask is for the HR Heads to be loyal to the leaders heading the organisations. But a true HR leader must be loyal to the organisation; their role is in service of the organisation. If the organisation’s head asks for loyalty to them, then it is probably time to look for a new leader. 

At the same time, loyalty is earned and cannot be an entitlement. It’s the same reason I hate instant coffee; it kills the whole process of patiently brewing a lovely cup of my favourite South Indian filter coffee. In the same way, there are no instant loyalty mixes. Like trust, it is slow to build. 

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