As an HR Head, you cannot divorce understanding of the business and do your job: Pratibha Priyadarshini
Mar 23, 2022
In an interview with ETHRWorld, Pratibha Priyadarshini – VP – HR, Shell India, talks about how the company is leveraging technology to streamline its HR processes, the senior leadership commitment towards diversity & inclusion, and the future of work.
- “From an HR team of about 40 people in 2018, we are now at 140.”
- “We want to go Hybrid. But that flexibility of providing the choice to natural pockets of our teams, would remain”
Shell, a leading global energy company with presence in over 70 countries, has currently 50 per cent gender diversity on its board globally. At Shell India, women hold 22 per cent of leadership positions across all locations. Understanding the importance of gender balance at the very initial stage of hiring, Shell also has had success with 40 per cent of campus hires being women in 2020.
Pratibha Priyadarshini, VP – HR, Shell India, is a passionate and accomplished HR leader with over 19 years of professional experience in multi-cultural and multi-location businesses. She has been working with Shell India for more than 17 years, managing the HR function for Shell's multi sector businesses in India with over 10,000 employees.
Priyadarshini has an exceptional expertise in integrating human resources post acquisitions and managing shared service centers locally and globally. She has worked for Shell Finance Shared Services across Europe and Asia in overseeing Change Management, Capability Building, Critical Succession and Talent Management.
In an exclusive interview with ETHRWorld, Pratibha Priyadarshini talks about the senior leadership commitment towards diversity & inclusion, women empowerment practices, employee first approach, and other HR strategies being adopted by Shell India to become an innovative energy company.
Q1: You were trained as an engineer and then you moved on to the HR profession. How did this transition happen? Why did you choose HR as a profession?
I grew up in a South Indian Tamil Brahmin family. The most popular choices we had as children were to either become an engineer or a doctor. I clearly chose the former. However, since I grew up in a joint family set up, I was exposed to the nuances of relationships, empathy, authenticity, and people management at a much deeper level at a much early stage of life. I think it was something I was good at even then and it stayed with me.
Initially, HR as a profession wasn't even on the radar for me at that time. I was geared to be an engineer and joined REC Surathkal, now known as NIT college.
My first job was with GE selling cardiac Dopplers, after Surathkal. I had a senior in college attending TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) at that time. Through them, I came to know of HR. Then on one of my sales trips of these cardiac Dopplers, I met a lady working for Cisco at that time. She was also a graduate of TISS and with more information from her I got my first foray into HR. Although I did not study HR, the result of that conversation on the train was that she gave me the number of one of India's old veterans in HR. His name is Hari Iyer and at that time he used to be in Sasken. I just went and called Hari on a Monday morning and said I'm quite interested, gave a brief on my background and expressed my interest in HR. In those days, conflict management was in trend. On that thought, I expressed to him my interest in conversing with people, stressing I was unafraid of conflict. By the end of the day, I had a job in HR.
When I got married and moved to London, I decided to take a formal degree and applied to Shell on a graduate management programme. Now I'm the first Indian graduate to have been made a Global VP in Shell.
Q2: 17 or 18 years ago as an engineer when you opted to choose HR as a career, how did your near and dear ones react?
My mother was very skeptical and thought that after studying engineering in one of the foremost colleges, I was going to be calculating leave days and submitting to payroll. She's an engineer herself who graduated in 1971 and worked in the State Electricity Board for 39 years. So, for her, the concept of HR was limited to calculating annual leaves and encashment, submission to payroll etc. My father on the other hand was more nuanced. He has done industrial relations before and hence was more informed and aware.
But we are in a different world at the moment. I've joined a very different kind of a company with a unique fabric. People didn't understand the power of HR at that time because they weren’t familiar with kind of impact efficient HR could have on an organization.
Q3: We have moved to a day when the Head of HR has become the Chairman and Managing Director of ONGC. How do you see this as a transition?
I'm ecstatic at multiple levels. Firstly, being a woman I am delightful to see another woman get a well-deserved position and secondly from a cultural landscape it is even more appreciated. An HR woman leader is a powerful combination! Along with the content and functional knowledge of the business it is also about adaptation, leading, managing communities of people, direction, vision and inspiration. All of that becomes a great concoction. She (Alka Mittal) has clearly established that and showcased her ability to lead a big Indian government body. So, I believe it is a fantastic news. Her, and Leena Nair going to Chanel... so big and very positive news!
Q4: In that context, what would be your message for women at large?
“Break the Bias” is very topical because that is the IWD (International Women's Day 2022) theme. I've been fortunate enough to not have felt the bias as much. I was in a progressive family where my mother had broken the bias and had graduated in 1971 in engineering especially at a time when there were three women in her batch. I've been fortunate to have gone through a life where I've never felt that because I'm a girl, I am two steps lesser. So, for me, the message of break the bias translates to people testing against their own vision, their own abilities, their capabilities and to bust these societal and personal myths and to just go after their dream. You see the rainbow, chase it; don't give up thinking, oh it's just really too far away. Every step matter, no matter how big or small.
If you are going to ask me, what next, I would say, I would be Shell India Country Chairman.
Q5: You have been a part of Shell for 17 years, what's so great about this company?
There are three fundamental reasons as to why I have not jumped ship. There is something in the very fabric of Shell that has kept me here for such a long time.
First and foremost, Shell has allowed me to be who I am. It is so important to turn up at a workplace being your authentic self, in terms of how you engage, collaborate with people, the way you work, the effectiveness, that all sets up the foundation of a positive cycle for one’s professional goals. The company's ethos and values, which are respect, integrity, and trust, are a true match to mine.
The next reason is the support system and space to be flexible. Shell has given me immense support throughout my journey. I've taken maternity leave, work flexibility, sick leaves for mental health. Shell has a sick leave policy of 999 days, and it's 100 per cent based on trust. I've had a time when I've not been mentally well and required time to attend to my mental health. I was given off for about six weeks to cater to my health. Shell truly has walked the talk when it comes to recognizing work-life balance and catering to the wellness of their employees.
My husband and I have a dual career; he was constantly in Delhi, while I was in Bangalore. I was raising my son on my own while doing a global job. I wasn't turning up into the office. Life just was difficult and there was just not a time when I was happy. And I took six weeks off at that time. Throughout these difficult times, I didn’t have to lie or make an excuse to my employer. There was a mature understanding of an employee not being in a good mind space and taking time out. Even when my husband moved to Delhi and I requested for a transfer, and it was done.
The third and the biggest element is leadership. I've had the chance to work with some great bosses and world-class HR leaders. Archana Bhaskar used to be in Shell before and now she's CHRO of Dr Reddy's, a fantastic leader. Suri Rajagopal used to be in BG and now has moved on. There is immense opportunity to get inspired, learn and grow.
Q6: How the company helped its women employees in general to become future leaders? How does the company create a leadership pipeline among women employees?f
At Shell we believe the journey starts from the beginning. There is an assessment of wanting gender balance. We always seek gender balance for 50:50. Right from the point of recruitment, when we pick up CVs, we want a 50:50 representation of CV shortlists. We want as many women on the shortlist as there are men.
From there onwards, we highlight talent, gender, and potential as key points. A person may not be ready for a leadership role 100 per cent. But we believe in taking chances and to provide that person enough cushion to be able to grow whilst in the role.
We also believe in recognizing early on the leaders and especially women leaders, mentoring support, and sponsorship to them. It’s a very nurturing environment, supportive at all times. At Shell, we see mentors as people who are constantly available to you, helping you grow. There is a space for conversations, apart from your boss, acting as an extra pair of eyes and hands.
Most importantly, there is a concept of sponsorships where very senior leaders sponsor and stand behind women leaders who are talented and have high potential. Their role is to act as support system, creating space for them unapologetically. I will not categorize it as positive discrimination, but it's one of capability and support to be able to push out better environments for women employees, because if you don't have that 50:50 diversity and inclusion at the very top, it's never going to trickle down to better averages and numbers below.
Programs like WCDP or Women's Career Development Programme are specially tailored help women employees take a broader look and evaluate their careers right from writing your own CVs, guiding to an accessible mentor, sponsor, inculcate and groom the skills and assessment that it takes to have an executive presence and build yourself as a brand itself. There are some very hard questions we need to ask to keep up with practical know how and then be able to help women leaders grow. Just like it takes a village to bring up a child, it takes an entire company to be a conduit in an ecosystem where women can grow and manage through a talent pipeline at a process.
Q7: You mentioned that the process starts right at the CV stage where you try to ensure that there should be 50:50 gender ratio.
Yes, it is one of the forward-thinking ideas, although we may have not been able to implement all of these for e.g. we would like to have women's advisory councils when senior leaders get promoted. The idea is very simple that if you are a strong senior community leader, we will access you to enquire if you are D&I savvy and have a proven history in the company around being a champion for women. And therefore, a senior women advisory committee that would sit and advise on promotion boards and recommend individuals with solid backgrounds and effortless credentials churning out strong senior leaders. We at Shell do recognize that such forward-thinking ideas, come with their own set of difficulties, but it is the outcome that keeps us going.
Q8: Is there also some initiative to get women in technology roles?
One of the biggest and the flagship ideas Shell has introduced is second career women break re-entry programme. We've been very open to women's re-entry, especially for technology roles, because that's where the flaws and misses lie. Mid-career women, with their nuanced lives and humongous set of responsibilities are trying to find a balance between life and work, very often resulting in drop off, not just for childcare, but also increasingly for old age care. We at Shell, make the employer part of this process because the encouragement starts with acknowledgement that there is a bigger and challenging system that these women are a part of, and that acknowledgement means that we're open with flexible working patterns.
We had a woman employee who shifted to Hyderabad post marriage, but we didn't have an office there. So, we made a one-year flexible working arrangement for her. We've had people who've said we need to move bases but are not yet in a space where they can come back to work and need a three-month time out, and we accommodate them.
For women, especially in technology we have a very important maternity programme, called Mpower, which is more than just policies, insurance and hospitalization. We've got WhatsApp groups where we put women that are on maternity leave in touch with women that have come back from maternity leave. There's an actual help group about reintegrating into the workforce. It's got everything from which children’s toys to buy to what is the right time to give booster shots to interview tips. We top it with line managers, and it enables them to empathize with a returning maternity woman. We even do scenario plays with them around how to have conversations with women who are coming back from maternity leave.
Q9: You are an engineer yourself. So, could you please share one or two examples how Shell is leveraging technology to streamline its HR processes?
Shell is a global 125-year-old company with large scale offices and ever-growing roots. So, anything that we try and implement, immediately brings the question of 85,000 employees in the world that have to be streamlined. This gives a peak at the complexity of our HR digitalization journey.
Until as recent as 2018, we had a very standard HR model. We used to do payroll input on Excel spreadsheets, put a password protect, send it to the payroll office. We used to have HR people in person at an office where employees would walk up with queries, query management etc. It was a very one-to-one, very standard old-world model.
But the HR transformation, which began in 2018, has caused a complete digitalization at the base with the entire model being changed from one-to-one HR support to a model where the first point of contact for line managers or employees is HR operations and HR operations is enabled by technology. You can WhatsApp them, you can chat with them, you can email them, you can call them and anywhere in the globe you can find an HR person with a very streamlined standardized model. India is supported out of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for this first level of HR operational support.
We have also moved to a state-of-the-art system for jobs like computing leave days and encashment.
We are able to put in requests for employment verification letter, able to attend and understand leave online and compensation structures at the click of a button. Then there's big HR MI and analytics organization that was specially created as a part of this transformation journey to standardize reports. As an HR VP, I used to ask my HR managers to give me what is the status of FTE and employees in this business versus in that. All that are now available via Workday, at the click of a button.
Q10: Has the greater use of technology in HR domain created more jobs or reduced the need for HR professionals?
India is a house of talent. Gone are the days when it was only about costs. Now, it's much more about capability and for the Shell Group, we've showed how much India can actually deliver. So, from an HR team of about 40 people, we are now at 140.
Globally, we've got learning solutions being driven out of India; we've got recruitment for different businesses being driven out of India. We've now got consultants that work on global projects, sitting in India. So, for India, it's actually meant bigger and more value-added opportunity. Since digitalization has taken care of all the basics, we've now got people freed up to contribute more strategically and that's the India opportunity for Shell, with the third biggest footprint in terms of talent for the Shell Group, after the UK and the Netherlands, and continuing to grow.
Q11: In which year, did you have about 40 people in HR?
Until about 2018 we were no more than about 35-40 and after that we have significantly grown and we are now 140, in terms of global HR presence in the country. It's because the opportunities have steadily increased. And learning solutions brought in more jobs for us. Last year, we had a big overhaul programme at Shell, called Reshape, a realigning of our purpose and strategy, and everybody in Shell, all the businesses and functions went through that. We simplified our structures, we increased spans, reduced layers, and in all of that learning brought in more jobs. We moved from 90 to 140 just last year alone.
Q12: In the last one year or so, there have been lots of unprecedented kind of news like companies with four days working in a week, salary being paid on a weekly basis, Valentine's leave, open salary where each employee can see what others are getting. What is next?
Every company has their own way of working, attracting and retaining talent.
From a Shell point of view, we are not going to move things in a big hurry. We are a very established company with very solid HR practices.
The biggest thing that is changing for us is the future of work and we've never been a remote first organization. We've never had more employees working online than offline. However, we've managed efficiently in these last two years, fundamentally piggybacking around the world-class systems, the world-class processes, and our flexibility.
For us, the focus is on keeping the engagement and managing the employer-employee relationship. We've had 2,000 joinees over the last two years, that had joined our IT, finance, and operations, who'd never really worked for Shell before, for whom the brand is not as alive as it is for people who have worked for 17 years. I recognize the ‘Sound of Shell’ music anywhere, but there is no brand affinity that's actually built for these new people.
So, for me, it's more about how, in these times, are we going to be keeping who we are and our fabric alive and getting on board and working this through with lesser face-to-face time. And for our leadership to be more empathetic and prepare for unprecedented scenarios.
Q13: Now that Covid has subsided and things seem to be getting settled down, will you ask all the employees to come back to the office or do you think that it's a Jinn that has come out of the bottle and it's not going to go back?
We have very clearly said we're not going to be remote first for everybody, for the very emphatic reason that we do believe coming back to the workplace means that there is workforce productivity, workforce health, the collaboration, the social networks that people turn up to and psychologically the feeling of wellness. Man is essentially a social animal and to be able to build all of those and to find that in your workplace is really keen and critical.
I think our ethos have really been that the Covid pandemic has shown us what flexibility can do and it's also shown us that everything is possible completely online. From an industry standpoint, as well as Shell’s viewpoint hybrid is where it will inevitably end up. But that flexibility of providing the choice to natural pockets of our teams, would remain.
We also acknowledge that it is an experiment right now. There is no one size that fits all. We've opened satellite offices, something we hadn't thought about ever before, in Bangalore, for example for IT, and people can choose to go to an office even closer than what they used to go before.
We are doing this more cautiously and more experimentally, but also with steer on what is good for the wellbeing of our people.
Q14: With HR Heads becoming CEOs, how important is it now for HR Heads to understand the business and behave like a Business Head?
It was important. We also have always understood it, the difference is now it is being recognized. I think you cannot divorce understanding of business and do your job. Because we're not in that world of tabulating leave. I keep going back to that world of mechanized processes. India is big on biofuels, big on electric mobility, big on charge points, so many opportunities and if I don't understand the mechanics, the dynamics, what it actually means in terms of the P&L, how am I even going to be able to understand what talent strategy I'm going to adopt, how am I going to offer a good EVP to these people, what it takes to weather the supply demand dynamics. I will not be able to do any of that if I don't understand the business.
True and good HR professionals always understood it (the business). Now it has been brought to the fore and I'm so glad that even on HR roles we are breaking the bias, and getting to business roles from HR.
Source: ER HRWorld