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Janine Milne

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Talent spot: Hari Thalapalli, chief people officer at IT services firm Mahindra Satyam

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Hari Thalapalli, chief people officer at IT services firm Mahindra Satyam, has worked for technology firms since the 1980s, joining each organisation when they were at the cusp of a huge growth cycle.

“This is the third IT organisation in my career,” he says, “and I’ve had the opportunity to join them when they were just starting out and had the chance to grow with them.”

One of the interesting things about working in IT in India, says Thalapalli, is: “It’s probably the only industry where only a negligible proportion of revenue comes from the domestic market.”

That means his focus has always been outward facing, understanding the working styles, cultural differences and requirements of a global audience.

Thalapalli’s first venture into IT, fresh from university, was in the HR department for a computer aided design, manufacturing and engineering firm, OMC. It was 1986 and the technology industry was beginning to take off in spectacular fashion in India. Thalapalli was happy to be part of the action.

When he joined, OMC had 150 people and computer aided engineering was a new and niche area. Within a couple of months, Thallapalli was off visiting India’s equivalent of the Ivy League universities, scouring the campuses for engineering talent. “It gave me the opportunity to really understand the business. When you’re hiring, you’re aligning people to the needs of the business, so you have to really understand the business,” he points out. “It was really important to pick up the right talent and not just those with the technical skills.”

By the time he left the company seven years later, the organisation was 500 or so strong and he was acting head of HR. He joined another IT firm, DSQ, a new company which had just received a hefty upfront investment of US$14m.

There weren’t too many Indian start-up firms with such a huge investment behind them in 1993, so it made Thalapalli’s job of attracting top talent easy. When he joined there were roughly 40 employees; six years later when he left, there were nearer 1,700 with operations in Japan, the US and Europe. He travelled widely and became part of the customer acquisition process. “My role was to meet customers and convince them that this was a people business and were able to acquire talent,” says Thalapalli.

Then in 1998, Thalapalli joined Satyam Computers, now called Mahindra Satyam, the IT services firm in India where he still works today. The IT services industry in India is big business and competition is fierce. One of the key ways Mahindra Satyam differentiates itself from its rivals is the quality of its leaders and it works hard at identifying and nurturing potential talent. It began its leadership programme by creating a real-time leadership centre, where potential leaders within the company were given the opportunity run a part of the business like a chief executive. “Our marketing recruitment campaign was ‘Think like a CEO’,” says Thalapalli.

Altogether, they identified five percent or 1,000 people from different levels within the 20,000 strong company who were potential leaders to join the programme. The hard work has paid off and the company has since won many awards. Today, the scheme has been rebranded “mini CEOs” and these people are given the chance to run up to $100m businesses. Ultimately, one of these mini CEOs will take over running the company – it is succession planning on steroids.

There are three things Thalapalli has learned about leadership which he tries to put into practice. First: HR is not about talking to people, but listening. Second, leadership is not about learning new things but understanding that you don’t know everything and third, leadership is not about communicating with people, but connecting to people with heart and mind.

He learned these lessons during a dark period in the company’s history in 2009 when certain financial irregularities were exposed in the organisation. It was not an experience he would like to repeat, but he concedes that it taught him a lot. “The greatest work opportunity someone can ever get is to be in a huge state of uncertainty and flux and still keep everything running and making sure on a daily basis that people know what is going on and involving them in all key decisions.”

It was at this time that Mahindra stepped in and bought Satyam. The company’s solid reputation did much to calm the nerves of people both within the company and the market at large.

With the company back on track, the focus is very much on the future. ‘Mission 2015’ stands for its goals for the coming two years. The ‘2’ stands for doubling the revenue of the company to US$5bn; the ‘0’ represents the differential between the company and peers with the fastest growing margins; the ‘1’ is leadership at its best and social inclusivity and ‘5’ stands for leadership in five areas such as mobility, engineering services and security.

Thalapalli will support these goals by creating the leadership pipeline, not only through the mini-CEO programme, but also other initiatives such as the shadow board. This is comprised of individually chosen people, on rotation, who have eight or nine years experience in the business. They are expected to mirror the real board and to come up with “unconventional solutions to conventional problems,” says Thalapalli.

A third leadership initiative involves employees with four to 10 years experience, who act like commandoes and are deployed into pain points within the company.

All these initiatives add up to a “leadership fuel line,” believes Thalapalli. The company has outlined different types of leaders: young leaders, emerging leaders, global leaders and game changers which it invests time and money in.

Mahindra Satyam is clearly serious about leadership, but Thalapalli is quick to stress that fun is just as important.

“We’re probably the only company which has defined the ability to have fun as a competency in our competency framework. For us fun is a serious business,” jokes Thalapalli.

Successes are celebrated, but so too are failures. “I want people to be able to stand up and say ‘I failed at this but this is my learning from it’. We want to give people the feeling that it’s okay to take risks and to fail,” observes Thalapalli.

Who do you admire most and why?
For me, it’s some of the people who’ve come up from them. I do admire people like Jack Welch for the dramatic changes in the way he ran his business or Steve Jobs for his amazing risk-taking ability, but closer to me, on a practical level, it’s some of the youngsters in the business.

What’s your most hated buzzword?
“Strategic initiative”. To me every initiative that’s trying to force change is transformational and strategic.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Early in my career the head of HR told me: “Always be happy, never be satisfied.”

Many years later I’m still finding that balance between the two. It’s a lesson that keeps me grounded.

How do you relax?
Three or four days in a week I manage to get my entire family round the dining table and chat. That’s the fuel that keeps me going.

Hari’s top HR advice

1. Having the right answer is not as important as asking the right question.
Google has become a verb now and almost everything can be found online. The cherry on the cake is social media which keeps us connected in real time. So, we don’t really have the excuse of not knowing or not being aware of things; every piece of information is available, but what’s more important than this knowledge, is the curiosity and commitment to seek new ways so that results can be even better than in the past.

Just as we have to use the right keywords to search for any information on the web, we have digital clarity in our minds so that we find the right solutions in the shortest time.

2. Reverse mentoring is more effective if one has an open mind.
As businesses evolve with the changing economic landscape and technology advancements, companies are more aware that knowledge no longer comes from traditional sources. Reverse monitoring – that is, tapping into the knowledge of younger leaders – sends a strong message to employees and is an effective attraction and retention tool. But it works only if we are open to their feedback and suggestions, and shed our traditional methods, mindset and inhibitions. We need to adapt, manage and react to the information that is around us – irrespective of where it comes from – and show progress based on it.

3. Role models can also teach you what you should NOT do.
We all have role models who we look up to, but rather than simply imitating their approach, we should try to build on their successes to improve on the norm. This is also as much about watching leaders and understanding what behaviors should NOT be replicated. We should remember that if certain behaviours do not seem right to you, then maybe others also have a similar opinion. Learning what NOT to do is an even more important lesson.

4. How we learn to deal with adversity is more important than spending time trying to avoid it.
Life is often an unfair mix of good and bad. There are moments which are an extreme test on one’s capability and strength. The ‘issue’ is not important. There are definitely ways to address them. Having the courage to look at the issue in the eye, assemble the right team and to work with them as part of the journey, is more important than anything else

Trying to prevent mishaps is important. What is more important is to have the courage and conviction to face it when confronted.

5. Are we designed to manage or are we designed to scale?
In the current business climate, scaling for the future, rather than just focusing on ‘survival’ has to be the game plan. It’s important to recognise that what helped us to succeed so far may not be sufficient to help us to scale further.

Furthermore, what we can achieve in the future, is dependent on what we invest in now: to this end, we have invested in creating an HR hub, which is a one-stop solution for all HR-related processes and transactions and helps us to prepare for the future. What is key is that we have ensured that HR staff strength does not have a linear relation to the business growth.

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