K. Ramkumar is presently Executive Director on the Board of ICICI Bank and is responsible for Human Resources, Customer Service & Operations. He completed his postgraduate diploma in Personnel Management from Madras School of Social Work in 1984 and a B.Sc. Chemistry in 1982. Prior to joining ICICI Bank in 2001, Ramkumar had over 16 years of experience in companies such as Hindustan Aeronautics, Brooke Bond Lipton India Limited (now Hindustan Unilever Limited) and ICI India Ltd. His work in these companies has mainly been in the areas of Human Resources Management and Production Management. At ICICI Bank, Ramkumar has been responsible for Human Resource function, initially for the Bank and then for all the companies in the entire ICICI Group. He has worked extensively in the areas of recruitment, competency design, succession management, learning and development and Leadership Development. Under his guidance, ICICI Bank has implemented cutting edge practices and methodologies in the domain of leadership development, learning, creation and use of psychometric tools. Ramkumar also has extensive experience in the areas of process design and quality management to create scale and efficiency. At ICICI Bank, he has driven cost productivity across the organisation through work methodisation & norming and process & structure optimisation.
In an interview with Sanjay Joshi, Ramkumar shares his views on the realities of the workplace, sustainable leadership, HR curriculum reforms in B-schools, gamification, and evolution of HR terminology.
SHRM India: A happy employee makes a happy customer. Should companies focus on customers or employees to grow business?
K. Ramkumar: I am afraid, workplaces are not retreats or theme parks to create happiness. These are like competitive sports arena. When the game is played it is hard, tense and filled with pressure. Some hard tackles happen, occasional fouls do happen. There is envy, and jealousy co-existing with collaboration and support as on a sports field. It is a poor cliché that satisfied employees create satisfied customers.
The levers of satisfaction vary from one employee to the other and are context and life stage-determined. On the other hand, if the workplaces are purpose-filled and provide a vehicle for most employees to try and achieve their personal goals - for some it is satisfaction and others achievement - offer scope to express oneself through one’s ability and overall are non-abusive and non-exploitative, they will indeed deliver value to all the stakeholders, why only to the customers.
Billions of dollars of investor money goes into creating workplaces. So no one will put money to create fun and frolic. If it is our money, we obviously will prefer purpose over fun and nebulous satisfaction. Will we invest in an institution which is purposive, serious, committed and competent or in an institution which provides fun and satisfaction to its employees? In my experience, the feeling of happiness and satisfaction is a result of the outcomes which one achieves at a workplace, just as on a sports field. It is after the match. Ask Alex Ferguson of Man U or the legendary Jean Todd of Ferrari or Amir Khan or Sachin, or Illayaraja, what dominates at workplace. They will all say great work ethics and a never-say-die resilience and not served up fun and happiness. That comes as a result of the sweat and toil.
SHRM India: With business leaders in great demand in India, what are some of the specific actions Indian companies can take to promote sustainable leadership?
K. Ramkumar: Invest in people along with monetary capital. Focus not only on the top deck. The pipeline is the lifeline. Today's middle level managers are the leaders of tomorrow. That is what will prevent leaders from overstaying into their old ages - denying opportunity for the next gen to step in, on the false pretext of their inevitability.
Bare cupboard of leadership is the result of the incompetence and greed of the overstaying opportunist. The boards have to be brutal in demanding visibility into the two to 3 levels below the CEO leadership talent. It is a shame to seek alibi for scarcity of leaders in a young India. Instead of feting and celebrating these selfish, overstaying geriatrics, the media and the public should accord them the same status that they give overstaying politicians. Organizations which ignore their middle management will also struggle in translating their strategies into efficient execution. The future is not in the top deck, it is in the meaty portion of the burger - the middle part.
SHRM India: The importance of labour law and personnel management in HR curriculum cannot be overemphasized. Do you see the need for curricular reform in our B-schools in view of the tragic happenings at the Manesar plant of Maruti Suzuki?
K. Ramkumar: Let us get it straight that Maruti was not a problem of a B-School curriculum or an ill-informed, young IR professional. It is a combination of bad management practices and criminal union leadership. So let us hope the big boys of IR, central unions and the boards will re-learn the terms of engagement.
Violence is not new to IR. The 60's, 70's and 80's were littered with violence at workplace. This was when the so called legendary IR brigade ruled the roost. Having said this, do we have a problem in the B-schools and the boards of our organizations? Yes. At the B-schools, it is firstly the interest of the students, followed by the faculty who has not been there and not done it and finally the curriculum. The hands clean generation of B-school products do not want sweat and messy dirt of the coal face. This is the problem of fun and happiness seeking hedonistic fixation.
I must add that fortunately there are still enough young people who are willing to slog it out in the non- AC settings and tough roles. There is a saying, “armies which do not sweat in peace time bleed in wartime." Similarly, the youth who do not sweat when they are young will bleed in the boardroom many years later. They will also cause untold misery to others due to their poor judgment due to lack of exposure and experience in this area. Those who want to play cricket, without wanting to field or play football without bruises or box without a black eye, dance without their feet aching, should seek out sedentary pursuits like watching movies and reading novels - products of others sweat.
Unfortunately mis-alignment of interests, unacceptability of means and unhappiness with inequity is inevitable in commerce. This leads to conflicts at places of work. They will not go away because we are a happiness-seeking people or because we meditate or pray or preach goodwill and values. And if we want to be employed and keep bloody workplace conflicts away, we should sweat in peace, so that the conflict can be managed with minimum causalities.
SHRM India: Given the growing numbers of Gen-Yers in India Inc’s workforce, what are some of the ways companies can leverage the idea of gamification for higher employee productivity and engagement?
K. Ramkumar: I am not someone who subscribes to the Gen Y idea. During the last 4000 years of civilized world, there should have been at least 100 Generation Ys. Yet fundamentally humans remain the same over this period. The change is more in the environment and context. Humans adapt to it. It was the need to communicate that gave rise to the language, and knowledge explosion which brought out the written text, and codification of knowledge that gave rise first to rock edicts, and then to writing materials like palm leafs, papyrus, parchments and finally the arrival of the printing press. Now we have all of this information in the digital form. Essentially, only the means have changed. The multiplicity of competing content impacts the attention span and interest range. Digital format makes text, voice and images to converge and create the magic of interest grabbing, vivid comprehension of knowledge. Digital medium permits manipulation of images, creates both private and group space for sharing and learning and above all replaces the physical teacher and the nervousness with evaluation and public knowledge confirmation by the significant others. This gives security to the learner. So skill refinement and knowledge updation becomes real time.
Gaming offers a rare opportunity, which hitherto was not available. This is to us the digital space for skill building. Books and texts do not build skill. Game-based learning in a single or multi- player mode provides huge simulation and skill building opportunity. Sales skills and service skills can be honed in on gaming sales and service simulator. This makes it comfortable for anyone young or old to reboot and learn in bits that they are comfortable with. So it is not about Gen Y. My mother who is 77 years old is comfortable with the tablet. So the Gen is more in the technology and content and not people. The half-life of knowledge is much shorter. Hence experience and memory are no more a USP.
Learnability is the key and willingness to learn is the differentiator.
So individuals and organizations who use the digital space for learning will by a mile be more skill-oriented and knowledge productive and thus will achieve more in their life spans. If anyone can do more in 24 hours than the other and yet can make time to do a variety of things, then he is more productive in life. The same person will create productivity wherever he goes and whatever he touches. The Gen current tech makes all generations productive at work and life. All this is possible provided we all do not overdo the work life balance fetish, a euphemism for brain-dead laziness. If work is part of life, then the choice to categorize what is work is in our hands. Thirty-five hours a week devoted to earning for a living and lazing around is not my idea of living. Here also the productivity matters.
SHRM India: The latest HR terminology increasingly describes human resources in terms of 'capital' or 'assets,' somewhere placing greater hope on the economical rather than the personal element. What are your views on this lexical shift?
K. Ramkumar: It is not necessary for one or the other to be true. There is a place for both. But over-emphasizing the resource metaphor or the human one, leads to unleashing certain behaviors which are not in balance. Hence, I favor de-emphasizing the 'Human capital." However, as I have stated in my response to other questions, we should come to terms with the realities of the workplace.
We should focus on the right elements of Humanness. These are genuine care, support and investment for performance, empathy with the fears and anxieties of our staff, guidance for our staff to manage life stage challenges - professional and personal, being there for the colleague in the need of the hour, leading your colleague into the next level of ability by demanding personal stretch but being there to hold when s/he occasionally trips and providing space and scope for self-expression. Deeds and not words of humanness. Deep and not frivolous human gestures. Walking the distance shoulder to shoulder and not pulling or pushing forward. Lastly, valuing human dignity under all circumstances and not using the colleague as an instrument for your achievement. This is what maestros of art, music and sports have done and given the world next generation legends who did these maestros proud and made the world richer in everything that is human.
SHRM India: Do organisations over do the stretch and tasking aspect of managing performance? Many organisations expect their employees to work long hours and pitch in on weekends and holidays, in the name of performance culture? What is your take on it?
K. Ramkumar: My position on the aspect of work life balance has been consistent over 20 years. My views on non-exploitation of employees or colleagues in order to achieve our professional aspirations have also been consistent for over 20 years. To work hard and put in the extra miles, I believe is not under discussion. What is in question is, whether this will be at the whims and fancy of the boss and the senior management or whether it will be pre-planned, contracted and handled with care? The moot point is whether bosses and seniors can cover up their incompetence and poor planning, by whimsically ordering people to turn up on Sundays or work late? The behaviour of bosses in helping and showing the way to perform and not merely demanding and driving through numbers and reviews is the key for voluntary effort from team members. If I as a boss do not know the "hows", is it not hypocritical to ask my team to find it on their own and deliver what I ask, even if that is required for me to meet market aspirations. If I believe that what I ask is so evident and the means simple, when it does not materialize, should I not ask the first question, "What did I miss and why are my team members struggling?" "How can they do something that even I do not know how to?" And If I know the "how tos", why am I not able to communicate it well enough for my teams to go by it? Can money and recognition by ability? Can money and threats get anyone to bring in discretionary contribution? Though I am mild in my behaviour during reviews, are my reviews which are not addressing the “hows” shaming people and creating in them a sense of despondency and desperation? Do my people cumulatively spend disproportionate time preparing for and attending reviews, leaving very little time to perform? If cumulatively all reviews eat up more than 10% of the available work time in a month, then there is very little time for people to get the positive high of playing the game on the field and getting the high of winning or trying to learn the ways of winning? As a boss, am I an unimaginative person, who feels threatened with time at my disposal, so I have to fill it with reviews, in order not to come in touch with my incompetence to conceptualise or strategise? Crowd the day with transactional tasks and give myself the alibi of, too much to do and too little time and hence the great me is not finding time to conceptualise and strategise?
If the role of the seniors is to identify opportunities in the market, espouse the investors needs and manage their own personal aspirations, who will address the key issue of showing the employees the "how to" and take care of their anxieties and personal shame, when they fail to deliver what is demanded, even after working long hours and on holidays? A boss who does not know the "how" or cannot find and teach the "how" to his team members is a titular at best and worst a heartless slave driver. So this is the issue under deliberation. It is not a few days of working late or an odd Sunday to be made a working day. When the junior staff, see and hear most bosses confess that they do not know the "hows" and believe that more feet on the ground, working longer and harder will make up for the lack of knowing the "hows", they privately hold the boss and the seniors in disdain and publicly go through the motions of obedience. They then question the fancy term performance culture. A boss, who cannot earn respect by showing the way, can rarely get the team to rise above their own abilities and achieve anything. So the next time when we discuss, let us remember that the key issue is not only respecting the personal time of the staff (which is important), but it is, are we the kind of inspiring leaders, where our team members at all levels will, willingly give their discretionary personal time to achieve the institutional and personal aspirations?
Sanjay Joshi is an Editor at SHRM. Republished with permission. Copyright ©2012 SHRM India All rights reserved.