In this edition of ‘CHRO Insights,’ as part of the Great Manager Awards, we have Mr. Krishna Raghavan, who is the Chief People Officer at Flipkart. In his conversation with Rahul Mahajan, Country-Lead of Great Manager Awards, he shares with us his experience as a CHRO.
Rahul: How did you get into the HR field given that you are not from this domain?
Krishna: I have a background in math and computer science, but I think the first sort of exposure for me in this domain was when I did my undergrad in the US from a liberal arts college. They have a rule that everyone must take one course from every discipline; otherwise, you cannot graduate. So, I sort of got intrigued by the multidisciplinary and multifunctional approach to how you look at people or how you look at life in general and the realization that it is not bucketed into one space.
I was on the technology bandwagon for 20 years. However, over the last four or five years, I started to spend more and more time in the arena of the efforts required in terms of building a strong workplace culture in an organization in a team and nurturing people in a truly meaningful way. Even as an engineering leader in Flipkart, I have been privileged to have the opportunity to build several teams numerous times over and understand the things that go into building effective teams.
It piqued my interest, and I started to partner with HR over the last three years in terms of drafting various policies and practices. About two years ago, I enrolled myself in a coaching course, and was particularly intrigued by the methodology of providing people a way to help themselves in a safe environment. These two universes intersected for me to create my own personal journey in coaching, and I am extremely fortunate to have been given the opportunity to leverage my learning, experience and passion for this role.
“When you look back, you can connect all the dots to figure how you landed up where you did.”
In fact, the pandemic has been an incredible learning for me as a HR professional. As an organisation, Flipkart has focused on helping people in very troubled times and finding a way to take care of the workforce. I feel like it was the universe’s way of nudging me to use my interest and passion to be able to make a difference.
Rahul: What have been your key learnings over the past year?
Krishna: One of the key learnings has been about people centricity. It means keeping people at the center when you are making those tough calls. I will cite an example. While we were completing our annual appraisal cycle in Flipkart in April 2020, we were faced with tough choices as there was no clarity about the business outlook. We could have deferred all the increases and the campus hires, but we had the conviction that employee centricity could not be sacrificed. And I think that paved the way for our employees to rise to the occasion and to go beyond the call of duty.
“We went ahead without having any clear knowledge about how the business is going to play out and promised to honor all the increments and new hires.”
Another learning we had was that when you are building a policy—it is important to ensure that it is customizable to different types of employees and get consensus on whether all the groups are on board with the new policy. Given the diverse employee base at Flipkart, we have been conscious that all the factors like demographics, age, gender must be considered before drafting any employee-related policy.
“You cannot paint the entire employee landscape with one broad brushstroke.”
Rahul: What should be an ideal relationship between a CEO and CHRO?
Krishna: The ideal relationship is one where you trust each other, have each other’s back t, and challenge one another. CHROs are not just HR leaders; they are the leader of all the people. They need to understand where the business is headed and proactively tackle business challenges and opportunities on the horizon. When you start doing these things, then automatically, you have the trust and the credibility, you become a thought partner to the CEO. Then you are no longer an administrative and support function, but a strategic function that can drive a cultural transformation.
“With respect to the age-old question of whether HR should have a seat at the table or not, HR will have a seat at the table when it earns the trust and credibility of the business.”
Rahul: According to you, what has been the board’s role in terms of driving the cultural transformation in Flipkart?
Krishna: It starts with defining what your employee value proposition really is. Where do you want to take the company and its people? The core of every company remains the same, but there are certain aspects that you want to heighten in a particular environment/context. Defining the culture becomes important. For instance, in Flipkart, three principles of autonomy, mastery, and purpose by Daniel Pink are major drivers. These are three things that also reflect our values which are audacity, a bias for action, customer-centricity. Integrity and inclusion were added last year.
“Define your EVP and align the CEO, the leadership, and the board, on the strategy and your differentiators.”
Defining a very clear strategy and aligning the board on the focus is critical. It is often said that culture eats strategy for breakfast, so getting the culture right and treating it as a strategic focus area with the Board’s buy-in is critical.
Rahul: If you could ask one question to someone, and basis that decide whether to hire that person or not, what could be that question?
Krishna: It would be to know what their primary purpose is. What is the reason for them to even come to our company and apply? I think most often than not, this depth of a question also brings about ideas, thoughts from the candidate and allows them to express what really motivates them. Their answers could vary from monetary stuff to title to the work culture, and that’s okay. However, that answer for me gives a lot away in terms of the candidate.
Rahul: What is the most crucial competency required for a great manager who is at mid-level?
Krishna: The biggest thing for mid-managers would be about how they empower. Because when you grow from being an entry-level manager to a mid-level manager, there are points that you will need to step back, and it is not a skill that naturally comes to people but something which needs to be developed. It is a delicate balancing act between empowerment and detail orientation. You need to have both because the more you empower and delegate, trust starts to build between you and your team. It creates a virtuous cycle that is self-reinforcing.
Rahul: What will be the two or three guiding principles while designing a robust leadership development program?
Krishna: The first thing to do would be to understand the overall business context, key roles in the organization, and understanding what those roles look like in the future. The next step would be an assessment of the current talent. Then comparing the current talent, contrasting it with the future roles, and assess the development needs. Looking at the technical side, it is important to gauge leaders’ people skills, self-awareness, strategic acumen and thinking, multidimensional approach, enterprise thinking before designing any leadership development program. Another factor to look at is the pace of volatility in the industry and determining the volatility index. We need to stop trying to cast leadership development into a square box. Focusing on a few key competencies of the leaders in the development program and harnessing them to the fullest is what matters the most.
“Your ability to harness the spikes is what you need to focus on.’”
Rahul: If you were to choose a successor, what qualities would you look at from a CHRO perspective?
Krishna: It would be the ability to build and connect with a variety of stakeholders effectively. Secondly is having courage because you have to deal with various important matters alone. There will be times where your courage and decisions will be tested, and you will have to stand firm with your belief as you prioritise people.
“Always do right by your people”
The next important quality would be business acumen because earning the credibility and the trust of business partners depends on your understanding of various functions’ business strategy, and finally, you need to have the ability to hold the organization to a certain set of ideals and cultural tenets.
Rahul: What is the most common piece of advice that you find yourself giving the younger generation?
Krishna: My advice would be not to constrain yourself in a particular role. Keep your options very open and fluid, and explore as much as you can. The second piece of advice would be to develop the ability to do detailed work and not get distracted easily.
‘Sample and test as many roles as you can in your early career.’
At a personal level, indulge in physical activities, be it running, sports, or anything which gets you out in the world. It is important to practice something daily to develop your ability to do deep work. You need to have an undistracted quality time where you are focusing on one thing and one thing alone. That is a skill that can probably differentiate you and set you apart in the times to come.
About Rahul Mahajan:
Rahul is the Country Lead of Great Manager Awards and has played a pivotal role in strengthening the Great Manager Awards program in partnership with The Economic Times over the last 6 years in India. Rahul closely works with Business & HR leaders to help them identify and develop successors for their organization.
About Great Manager Awards:
Great Manager Awards Program is an initiative by ‘People Business’ to identify, recognize and reward “Companies with Great Managers” in India.
This program enables the participant organizations to compare and benchmark themselves and their managers across the industry. It helps organizations create real competitive advantage through its managers.