Mr. Roopak Vasishtha – Vice-President (HR), Dr. Lal Pathlabs

Congratulations on achieving your present eminent position.

Samatvam: Looking back to the early stages of your career, what was the impetus that helped you choose (or transition into) HR?

Roopak Vasishtha (RV): After completing MBA, I began my career journey as a Management Trainee with Escorts Ltd at their Yamaha Motorcycle Division. As a newly joined MT, I was supposed to be rotated through the various departments of the manufacturing plant. The first of my rotary assignments was with the HR department, headed by the veteran Mr.

Subhash Jagota at that time. During my 2 months’ stint with the HR function, I was so impressed with Mr. Jagota’s style of guiding employees (especially the workers) that I started to imitate him.

With a mere 100 employees at the beginning, the company was in the process of launching the famous RX-100 Yamaha Motorcycle. The realization that we – the HR folks – were supposed to be hiring the best talent for the entire plant excited me a great deal. In a short span of two months, we hired at least 200 persons in the plant. The resulting sense of fulfillment was so much that I decided to choose HR as my career. The company management was also pleased to place me permanently in the HR department, instead of continuing with the rotational schedule. From then on, there was no looking back. In this way, HR became my passion.

Besides, from my student days, I always relished every opportunity to use my oratory talent. In fact, I even became a Radio Jockey at All India Radio. Deploying one’s conversational skills to convince and guide human beings was high on my agenda while I was looking for directions to choose a career stream. In this milieu, Human Resources (earlier known as the Personnel function) became a natural career choice for me.

Samatvam: Throughout your distinguished career you must have had highs and lows. What has been your peak moment? What has been the one most fulfilling professional experience in your long vocational journey?

RV: Before joining Dr. Lal Path Labs, I was the Corporate HR Head at the Apparel Export Promotion Council (AEPC), New Delhi. The Apparel Training and Design Center, comprising of nearly 25 training institutes across the country, was a subsidiary of AEPC. In addition to leading the HR function at AEPC, I also headed the entire Design Centre for about two years.

My high point experience came in 2004, while at AEPC. That year, I visited Sydney, Australia along with a delegation of Indian apparel exporters. The Sydney Chamber of Commerce organized a function in the delegation’s honour, and invited me as the Chief Guest. Further, Rag Trader – the most popular magazine in the fashion world – interviewed me and prominently published the interview in the magazine. I really felt at the top of the world then.

Another peak experience also occurred during my AEPC stint. In the High Court and subsequently the Supreme Court, we handled a sexual harassment case of a female employee. AEPC had terminated the male colleague who had harassed this lady. We had fought the case to maintain the dignity of that female employee.

The said case is actually still considered as the most important judgment pronounced by the Supreme Court on this subject. We not only won the case, but were also instrumental in getting the relevant law amended. This was probably the most fulfilling professional experience in my entire career.

Samatvam: What do you value most about yourself as an HR leader? What are the top three strengths / talents that have helped you reach your present position?

RV: In any organization, there are thousands of occasions during which one or the other employee is at a crossroad. He or she may be looking for directions, for help, or for a shoulder to cry on, or simply to share his / her feelings. In all such cases, the HR person has to play an immensely supportive role. During my 26-year journey in HR, ranging from automobile industry to fashion and now in health care sector, I feel that my ability to supportively connect with the employees at even the junior most level has been my core strength.

Secondly, I feel that the greatest strength of an HR leader is to remain easily accessible to the entire organization, and to be considered as someone who would invariably listen patiently. It is not that HR is able to resolve every issue every time. However, intent listening is an art that every HR leader must develop.

Apart from these, my humorous disposition, oratory abilities, and thorough knowledge of Industrial Relations have helped me reach where I am today.

Samatvam: What do you value most about the HR Profession? What about it makes you enthusiastic?

RV: I always advise my team members that HR decisions and actions deeply affect the life and career of our employees. Therefore, we should be extremely careful and considerate while taking decisions. The fact that our decisions can result in decisive change, and make a significant positive difference to the life and performance of the employees, makes me glad to be a part of the HR fraternity.

Besides, employees have multiple market opportunities available to them these days. So, it is the mandate of HR to help create a conducive and enabling climate in the organization for employees to contribute to the best of their ability.

In fact, the organizations in which the HR function has developed a reputation for transparency, proactivity and an unbiased approach are found to have excelled. On the other hand, the autocratic style of HR functioning prevalent in some organizations – whereby decisions are taken on the basis of personal likes or dislikes or for the ‘so called’ maintenance of discipline – leads then to doom. Such organizations continue to struggle with a high attrition rate.

I also feel that the HR function needs to keep itself updated with the newest HR practices, and also take the help of new technology for delivering better service to the employees.

Samatvam: When the HR function in an organization is operating at its best, what does it look like – in terms of people, structures, systems and practices?

RV: A function can rarely be declared as operating at its best. However, we can talk about near- best practices.

Now, India is a country where the specie known as the “human being” is available in abundance. However, the industry finds it difficult to locate genuinely employable stuff. If HR is able to hire the rightly talented people even 80% of the time, I think we would have made an immense contribution to the optimal functioning of the organization.

Next, it is the HR function’s mandate to help develop an appropriate organizational structure. These days, the “matrix” structure is in vogue. The biggest challenge faced by us today lies in creating and maintaining such a matrix structure, since the practice of reporting to multiple bosses is not something that Indians are generally accustomed to. The HR function may deservedly pat itself on the back if it is able to institutionalize the matrix reporting structure in the organization.

I feel that systems and practices should be looked at as enablers to a positive employee experience, rather than something valuable in and of themselves. We may feel proud of the robust HR systems and practices in place only to the extent that employees understand these well, and are comfortable using them.

In this context, I am reminded of the anecdotal story of a lady carrying a baby in her hand, and pushing a beautiful baby pram at the same time. Someone asked about the nice pram, and she said that it was an imported pram with stereo to play lullaby and the music would also start if the baby would wet the pram, and went on and on in describing the features. She was then asked as to why was she carrying the child in her hand, and not letting her sit in the pram. She replied that the child would spoil such a nice pram!

The same is often the case with the HR systems and procedures in an organization. They are treated as ends in themselves, and not as the means to employee delight that they actually ought to be.

Samatvam: What measurable results could HR achieve? Which of those results are the most meaningful?

RV: Continual growth of the organisation, minimal attrition rate, number of requests pouring in from the ex-employees to rejoin the organization, and an emotional thanks from an employee who was helped in his difficult time are a few of the results which an HR leader can help achieve.

Out of all these, I feel that the last one – emotional thanks from the employee – is the most meaningful for any HR leader. Though not measurable, it is equivalent in value to millions of rupees.

Samatvam: If you could change three things about HR practice, what would they be?

RV: The first and foremost practice which most of the HR teams imbibe is “bossing around”, by virtue of their control on entries/exits and the increments. The HR functionaries tend to forget that their actual mandate is to support, coach and counsel the entire organization. Instead, they start to intimidate employees through their bossy behaviour.

The second unworthy HR practice that is unfortunately widely prevalent in many organizations today is to provide shabby treatment or give the cold shoulder when an employee approaches us with a grievance. Normally, an employee seeks out HR either when in distress, or when (s)he is aggrieved from his boss or peers. This is the vital chance for HR to act as a fatherly

figure, and provide the necessary counseling and coaching. HR folks often err in such situations by refusing to even listen to the employee’s issue, or to curtly inform that ‘rules do not permit‘.

Constructive HR practice would mandate the provision of a sympathetic shoulder for the distressed employee to cry on, irrespective of whether the employee’s problem can be taken to a suitable resolution immediately or not.

Finally, the HR practitioners in India must renew their knowledge, skills and attitudes ever so often. Newer and more effective HR paradigms, concepts and techniques have been available for many years now. However, many HR leaders cling to rusty, age-old systems and practices – and avoid reinventing themselves.

Samatvam: What are your dreams and aspirations for the HR profession? What three wishes would you make to heighten vitality and health in this profession?

RV: In the good old days, HR – especially in its ‘Personnel Management’ avatar – used to be a simple support function that maintained an arm’s length distance from the business functions. Today, most of the progressive organisations actively involve the HR leadership in business- related decisions. In many boardrooms, one finds the HR Head sitting with the Business guys.

However, this is yet to become a trend in the industry at large. Often, HR is merely informed about the decisions after they have been made. I would be delighted if HR is actively involved in the decision making process at the highest levels of the organization.

My other wish is that the HR function must deliver more and more potential contenders for the CEO position in an organization. Presently, the Marketing and the Finance functions are the preferred sources of CEO candidates. With the HR role now quite synchronized with the business, I am certain that the HR guys would begin to reach the hot seat in greater numbers.

Samatvam: What is the best training you have ever experienced? How did this influence your development as a professional?

RV: The best training I have ever attended was an HR programme organized by the CII. The trainer was so practical in his approach. He asked us not to switch off our respective mobile phones, but merely to keep them muted. This was contrary to the general practice of trainers asking everyone present in the room to switch off the mobiles.

This particular trainer’s logic was that only the participant and his/her employer know about the former’s participation at this training program. The rest of the world does not know. So, he advised us to freely step out of the room to receive any calls that we needed to attend to.

The trainer provided the most wonderful practical arguments to support all that he was teaching

– so much so that I have started using the same principles in the internal training programs which we conduct at Dr. Lal Pathlabs.

Samatvam: What emerging trends do you forsee with respect to executive education worldwide?

RV: Executive Education is fast gaining popularity, with many B-Schools now better known for their Executive Education programs as compared to their post-graduate degree education. The best part is that the faculty members teaching the present-day Executive programs carry

immense industry experience with them. They are perfectly in touch with the realities of the business environment.

This is a very good trend. In the future, we may have faculty members who combine high academic qualifications with significant industry experience. That would work really well, I feel.

Samatvam: Finally, any advice that you would have for Samatvam Academy?

RV: In my quarter-century long career, I have come across many organizations in the field of Executive Education. Samatvam Academy ranks near the top amongst these. The Academy has been successful in maintaining very high educational standards for quite some time. Many of our senior-level colleagues have attended the various programs run by your Academy. In the training report, almost each one of them has expressed immense appreciation for the program content as well as the faculty. Dr. Sunil, I would like to share that some of my colleagues consider you as one of the best training faculty they have ever met.

Having said that, I would like to suggest that the Academy must develop training programs for the middle and junior level executives too. There is a real dearth of quality programs in this sphere. I am sure that Samatvam Academy would review its strategy soon, and include programs for the junior-middle levels in their future training calendar.

Samatvam: Mr. Vasishtha, thank you for your time!

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