Tough Times Never Last, It’s The High Tide That Makes Great Sailors

Vijay Rai, Managing Director –Enterprise Business, APAC & EMEA Markets at Saviour US INC. believes that one should be a lifelong learner and never give up. In a conversation with The Human Factor he shares his exciting corporate journey from a CHRO to a CEO, the challenges he faced along the way and much more.

Q. What has been your journey like as an HR professional?

A. I was raised in a renowned oil township in a remote place of northeast India. Coming from a small but oil rich town, I always dreamt of working in a large public sector company.

My journey in HR started during the early 90’s after I completed my MBA and started work as a P&A officer. Those were the initial years of liberalization and emphasis was given to compliance, labor welfare and industrial relations. Having an MBA degree was an advantage but in those days HR was largely perceived as a cost center and not a mainstream function.

The next phase of my journey started during the late 90’s. This time the work demanded more process orientation and efficiency from people and work practices and this continued right till the first half of 2005. I got tremendous learning opportunities and subsequently moved to formal HR, quality and training areas. This was the most exciting phase to work as it helped me evolve as a professional in many ways. I gained a wide exposure as I got to work with different line managers, business heads and CEOs across geographies especially from North America, Middle East and South Asia region. I progressed well and was soon identified as a high potential leader for the role of a business head in an international company operating globally.

As luck would have it, I continued working full steam in multiple sectors as group HR & Training head and got the additional opportunity to be a strategic business partner with profit center heads. As a key player of the top management team, I got the opportunity to not only learn various aspects of the trade but to understand the intricacies of running and growing a business.

In my next role post 2006, I was working as a CHRO leading the group HR &Training functions of a large business conglomerate before switching gears and moving into business strategy, marketing and SBU head roles. Later in my career, I took the risk and decided to move out of my comfort zone. I was fortunate to get an opportunity to lead an alternative energy company, and I think this was one of the best decisions that I took.

My entire career journey has been full of ups and downs but it led me to work through different cross cutting business terrains where my ability of managing the enormity of various challenges was tested. A couple of years into HR including many varied business roles helped me operate on a 360-degree horizon. I now truly and practically understood the ‘business of business’ and the ‘business of HR’ both at the strategic and granular levels.

I would describe my journey as a simple saga of a self-made professional who enjoyed the journey more than the destination. An individual with tremendous humility and candor, whose heart lies in empowering and enabling people to achieve excellence and deliver outstanding results for the larger good.

I continue to learn and unlearn new things, but never stop having fun. I love to inspire others to take risks. I want to continue to explore and evolve with time and make a difference in the world.
My tryst with HR continues from a CHRO to a CEO on the go, as I now lead a global IoT, cloud and sensors based connected devices company. My intrinsic passion for people flows from the soul. I am happy to share that from January 06, 2017; I am honored to shoulder the responsibility as the elected President (Delhi/NCR Chapter) of India’s most prestigious National Human Resource Development Network.

My Life mantras:
*Learning should never stop, be a lifelong learner.
*Tough times never last, its only high tides that make great sailors.
*Don’t stop till you achieve your goal.

Q. What were the biggest challenges you faced?
A. I have faced different challenges at different stages of my career. The biggest challenge, as I moved between various roles was more in terms of integrating HR into the core of the business, and helping business managers see HR as a value adding function rather than a cost center.

Making HR achieve a strategic seat at the table was a daunting task and still remains so. As an HR professional it is also never easy to retain high performing talent, manage politically affiliated unions, manage M&A’s and manpower costs.

Q. What are the challenges HR faces in the new era of the ‘digital age’?
A. In an ever-changing hyper-competitive market, both big and small companies face unique challenges. Talent acquisition, development and retention are common themes, which continue to be relevant in varied degrees across businesses. In a VUCA world, organizations must move from complexity to simplicity, from information to data analytics and from resource based to digital and lean HR.

In a cashless, faceless and digital era, HR needs to be alert and agile and prepare itself to take the enterprise to the next level by aligning itself to the changes on the horizon. My advice would be to let HR focus on the basics without getting caught up with the next buzzword. Most businesses should focus on delivering goods and services by keeping their talent close to their customers. This means optimizing the talent-market effectiveness in real-time and re-calibrating the systems, structures and processes internally.

The biggest challenge facing HR will be finding ways of doing more with lesser people. Add to this the challenges regarding leadership, learning & innovation, developing high performance culture, engagement and succession planning. All these issues will have to be dealt with keeping in mind the best business-value that HR can deliver, as organizations struggle to survive and compete with each other for the best talent.
I also strongly feel that HR leaders should look at continually developing their skillsets to make themselves more effective and deliver exponential ROI to business. HR leadership effectiveness and value creation for business impact would be the key requirements in the future.

Q. Any advice you would like to give on how to manage people/teams as the workforce becomes more diverse, and the ways of working change?
A. A new paradigm of management and leadership requires to be cultivated in order to overcome the challenges of unprecedented change and disruption. Human capital and talent remain to be an incredible source of value creation . Volatility and uncertainty becoming the new normal, managers need to find new ways for speedy execution by getting maximum performance from ‘smart processes and people’. On the other hand leaders need to be nimble and flexible in co-creating an environment of trust, integrity and ownership. Leaders should essentially develop a culture that helps creativity and innovation thrive through experimentation, global thinking, collaboration and competitive differentiation.
Managers and leaders should use both their left and right brains effectively so that one can unleash and leverage the diversity of talent and people power within organisations. HR leaders specially should have the ability to map organisational risks and develop customer aligned employee-employer value propositions. There is a greater need for HR leaders to be trusted business partners, organisation designers, talent architects and deep functional experts.

Q. How effective and how important are rewards and recognitions in strengthening employee engagement and retention?
A. It is often said that if you reward a particular behavior it gets repeated. This is true in case of rewards and recognition programs, as they are important agents of driving discretionary effort. Pay for performance and a mixed bag of performance oriented reward schemes are most suitable in an uncertain world.
However one must keep in mind that the drivers of engagement and retention are changing with times because the new generation workforce has different career-value orientations. So a judicious mix of rewards and recognitions based on the needs of various work-groups would be ideal. For HR leaders it is equally critical to find out new and innovative ways to engage with the workforce, as the future talent seeks more autonomy, purpose and meaning at the workplace.

Q. How can a company attract the best people?
A. Agility is a key factor in attracting the best talent and establishing a stronger employee value proposition. That said it’s also true that finding the best talent is not so simple given the fast pace of change and the requirement of “just in time talent”.
One must take a smart call, and decide cautiously and carefully whether to buy, build or outsource talent. There are no ready talent pools or custom-made talent factories, which can be programmed and built into an assembly line. Scouting for talent in terms of specializations and right skills is most important. Besides the use of technology, referrals and networking are also very useful in hiring the best people.
The talent marketplace has become global hence one can campaign to attract and crowd-source talent based on specifications. The company’s credibility and reputation both in terms of governance, culture, ethics and transparency are critical in attracting today’s best talent.
Developing a strong employer brand and a compelling work culture before creating an attractive talent value proposition is a prerequisite. Best talent gravitates to the “great place to work” organizations.

Q. What is the secret to hiring the right candidate?
A. “Hiring and placing people right” for various positions is crucial for businesses. Understanding of the business landscape is important since the type of talent and skills required today are largely different from the ones required in the past. The trick is to evaluate and assess people for the traits one is looking for through case studies and behavior based interviewing. Testing for a combination of hard, smart and soft skills is the best way to find the right candidate. To give an example, if one needs to hire for a managerial role, how does one know whether the person is cut out for the position? Besides assessing domain and technical knowledge we need to assess if he also has the fundamental skills like: leadership skills, people skills, thinking skills and work style skills.
Therefore it is important to put the right candidate in the right job and get the perfect fit. The right candidate in the wrong job can result in poor productivity. While hiring it is also important to keep in mind that IQ is not enough. You need to look at both IQ and EQ.
In the end I would like to say that the right candidate is one who fits into both the job and the culture of the organization. A “job-person-culture fit” is the most effective approach to hire and place talent for various roles.

Q. What advice would you give young candidates if they want to stand out and get noticed during an interview?
A. During the interview it is not what you say that is important. What’s important is how convincingly you can portray your personality package in terms of key professional and behavioral traits, attributes and competencies. Attitude, agility, confidence, drive and great communication skills are the winning qualities that every employer is looking for. One must also remember that first impressions create a huge impact and the first three-minutes of an interview count in a big way.
So my advice to young candidates is “Weave your story into an attractive and compelling value proposition; right from the moment you introduce yourself till the time you finish.”