Suppose Amitabh Bachchan jokingly in an interview ask a person if she can fly an aeroplane? She will probably answer no. But ask her, can you act? She will respond along the lines of 'never done it before but sure will be able to if given a chance'. HR management is somewhat similar. All leaders and managers at heart fancy themselves as HR specialists. Shankar puts it mildly to say everyone has an opinion on how to manage people.

That is perhaps the reason why many traditional organisations, like the one Shankar and I cut our teeth in, promoted people from disparate functions such as finance, marketing and manufacturing as HR directors. This was fine till the environment was stable. The companies had well set culture and processes developed over years. But now, even before Covid-19 hit us, the business context changed radically. Disruptions have become a way of life. Average life span of companies has shrunk. “Runways” to demonstrate results are shorter. “Half-life” of skills and career tracks have reduced with changing business needs and personal priorities of employees. In short, the world of work has transformed beyond recognition.

Then came along the pandemic to turn the universe on its head. Some of its impacts are already visible, such as hybrid remote. Others will be accelerated in the form of rapid digitisation. These will in turn reshape career paradigms and bring up newer issues like stress and mental health. It is putting new challenges before leaders who move jobs more frequently and are “taking on end-to-end business roles earlier on in their career than before” or heading startups without having enough exposure to people systems.

Consequently, the demands and expectations from the HR profession are changing and will undergo further and faster changes in the coming years. From pure functional focus on activities like recruitment, training, performance management, it is integrated into every aspect of value creation. Therefore, for example, managing employee cost is no longer about headcount reduction, salary surveys and long-term wage negotiations but it is about quality of talent and maximising the return on investment of human capital.

Shankar writes from a vantage point having played in different points of the people-business continuum in three unique organisations and industries – Unilever (FMCG), Bharti Airtel (telecom) and Infosys (technology). Of the three, Unilever can be considered as more than one company given the diverse range of its businesses and the evolution it has undergone in the last thirty years or so. Therefore, Shankar brings in a wide-angle perspective to the book. In addition, he has obtained first-person insights from peers in the industry – who have handled organisational change and transformation as CEOs and CHROs.

This is most certainly a book for young C-suite aspirants. But it can also be a valuable eye-opener for senior leaders and professionals who are trying to transition from old-age organisations to businesses of the future. It will help them understand why ‘diversity’ is not just something good to do but an imperative. Even more, diversity is not just about gender but also covers race, nationality, disabilities, neurodisabilities, beliefs, sexual orientation, age-group and socio-economic background.

From his personal experience, Shankar can share nuggets such as why Unilever had to dismantle its famed “lister” system to become more inclusive in talent development. People change, he says, and it is a mistake to ‘hard-code’ labels. Why from unidirectional, upward hierarchical career progression organisations are moving towards multidirectional purpose led destinations – where experience is placed at a premium over jobs.

It is fascinating to read about the learnings from fast-growing budget airlines like IndiGo, which must deal with diverse groups coming from across the country with contemporary and liberal views but are held together by a common thread of middle-class background, family ties and desire to be successful. Equally, the changing profile of blue-collared workers – whose children hold professional degrees and are doing well as engineers, doctors and chartered accountants. They require a very different level of engagement from the traditional industrial relations (IR) approach. It is important to understand these nuances for building a ‘future fit’ organisation, as he calls it.

Shankar’s book is like a rapid-fire masterclass. It has been written like a flow of consciousness packing in his three decades of experience and knowledge acquired at the cutting edge of the trade. The book could have been better structured, as that would have helped retention of the learnings. The reader would do well to slow down her pace of reading. Allow time to absorb the rich wisdom contained in every page. As Shankar writes in the epilogue, “passion can be useful, but it can also lead to noise”. The people ecosystem has to be co-created one step at a time.

(Book review: Catalyse: Power Up Your People Ecosystem by Krish Shankar; Rupa Publications)

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