Starting up your career in HR??

Wednesday, 08 October 2014 00:00 Written by
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wpid-question-markWriting this is an attempt to share my views and experiences collected after making a decision to be in the field of HR. I will just rattle out some thoughts on various things which matter when one is at the campus and thinking over HR career in general and placements in specific.

 

 

WHICH SECTOR TO FOCUS AND CHOOSE

We'll go sector wise. The thoughts around manufacturing are of course first hand, while those on other sectors are as observed and collected from my network of friends working in those sectors. While I have tried my best to give you a neutral picture and keep biases away, I cannot deny some of them creeping in :-) 

Sector 1: Manufacturing

 I took some download on the latest trends before writing this and it was good to know that FMCGs are back as top recruiters these days. I feel at least as a first job, there is no match for Manufacturing. Yes, all of us want to land up in a well paying, comfortable job eventually. But for the first few years, I believe the focus has to be on exposure; and the more rugged, tough this exposure is, the better it is. It should show us various kinds of business units (Factories, corporate, Sales setups), should let us work for various kinds of workforces (Senior Management, white collar and blue collar) and should take us to various geographies of the country (you will be surprised on how much one learns merely by working in different parts of the country). ONLY a manufacturing career covers all of this. 

We are a support function guys. More than any other function, exposure matters to us since we have to customize our approach ALL THE TIME. This doesn't mean we have to bend backwards in front of anybody, but it is highly desirable for us to be focussed on the internal client - his needs, demands, vagaries etc. This is where the whole customization bit becomes crucial. And this attitude of flexibility and presence of mind gets developed best in manufacturing. 

Factory HR stints deserve a space here. I know, they are not amongst the favourite these days. I feel there are misconceptions about a factory stint, and I really wish to clear them. Lets go misconception wise

Misconception 1. A factory HR stint is all about Labour Laws

No. In fact if a factory situation has already reached a point where all rests only on labor laws, the factory simply needs a lawyer more than a HR person. An HR person's biggest agenda is to make sure the Industrial relations are managed in such a way that legal option is minimally used. Yes there were times when workmen and unions resorted to courts and tribunals very frequently, and hence dealing with them involved a whole lot of labour laws. The tendency has come down heavily in the past 10 - 15 years. India is a young nation these days, and same applies to the workmen pool. They aspire for money and want to build a good career for themselves. Hence, they don’t run to courts every now and then as they used, however they expect that their aspirations are managed like any other pool of workforce. 

Not to say that Labour laws don’t matter. In the day to day operations of a factory, especially managing statutory compliance which is an essential part, HR person is the call out person for anything related to Labour laws. Hence knowing them well earns an HR person respect and clout in a factory. But Managing Industrial Relations involves only a sprinkling of Labour laws. What it involves most is understanding the shop floor and connecting with the guys working there. Trust me, there isn’t a more intense HR than this. And that is why it is valued so much. It will always be. I have seen consultants hunting for a senior corporate HR job, with the rider that the candidate HAS TO have a Factory exposure somewhere in the career. And since HR people opting for Factory HR are rare by the day, the value attached is only increasing. 

A Factory HR stint demands acceptance, tolerance, tact, and a basic intent to support the guys. And yes, it does test us tough - our nerves, our presence of mind and our ability to take people together. What it gives in return is an experience which moulds us in such a way that we can take on almost any HR challenge, anywhere. What working with this pool teaches us, nothing else can. 

Misconception 2. Unions are all about nasty behaviour and strikes. 

No. They have also evolved heavily with time. As I said above, the workman pool itself has evolved - so the Unions have too. And even when they were more of the rebelling kinds, the key always lied in how the management moulded them. They have to be recognized as an entity, and it is our, the management's responsibility to show by example that Union and management are not adversaries but allies. Yes, there is diplomacy involved, pressure tactics play a part. But the real trick lies in what I mentioned above - management's understanding of the shop floor and the guys working there. No union can simply turn a worker against the management if the management has genuinely worked to attend to the worker's grievances and aspirations. It is when management gets high handed, short sighted or transactional that incidences of violence happen in factories. Goodwill, respect and connect with workmen is a management's biggest pressure over a union. That is when the Union listens to a collaborative tune. This kind of positive Industrial relations are much easily described than established, and making them happen is the biggest role of factory HR. An aligned union is a great strength, and only a sensible HR can mould them so. 

An added note on Unions. An interesting insight will always lie in the story of WHY was a union constituted in the first place at a particular factory. Workers NEVER unionize for fun. A union becomes a formidable entity after it is established, but the group which takes the initiative to form it does so under tremendous stress, and does so only to counter a disconnected management whose actions are seen as an attack or an unfair imposition. Wherever a union is made, especially in a factory owned by a private sector entity, it can be said with fair degree of surety that the management somewhere fell short in understanding or supporting the workers and thus seeds of unionization were sown. External factors matter, but lesser and lesser by the day. 

Misconception 3. Strikes happen at the drop of a hat.

They used to. Not any more. When the workman pool has changed, and the unions have changed, their tendency to strike can't remain unchanged. Worker pool is a much more practical pool these days which clearly understands that one day of strike is X amount lost. If they are young, goes without saying that they aspire for money. If they are middle aged, they have EMIs to pay for Home loans and education loans for kids. Either cases, a strike is highly undesirable for them purely out of financial reasons. The overall practical approach to careers these days is an added reason why workmen stay away from strikes. 

Yes, the risk of strike happening can never be zero. But only when management looses the connect. Until we as HR are working genuinely towards the workers, we have no reason to be scared of a strike. These days strikes mostly happen as the last resort to a failed or stalemated settlement process. These are also avoidable, given there is a confident, proactive factory HR person at the helm who can anticipate things and who is ingenuous enough to work out a smart middle way. Doing this is the most difficult when the Industrial relations become purely transactional (Read - money and benefits driven). It is an unfortunate truth that again it is the management which sows the seeds of making Industrial relations purely transactional. Still, there is always a middle way, Devil lies in the details. 

An added fact regarding a Factory HR stint. Factories have a large white collar pool as well - Executives, Managers, Senior Managers working in Production, Engineering and Quality departments. Handling them is as much a part of a Factory HR's job as handling workmen. This fact actually makes a factory HR stint much more wholesome than any other coz we get to handle blue collar as well as white collar workforce. We may not want to be in a factory ALWAYS, but it is definitely invaluable as an experience. 

The second interesting HR role in Manufacturing is HR for commercial set ups (Sales for FMCGs and Sales + Service in case of auto companies). This role is very different from Factory roles. Sales workforce is a volatile, fast moving, highly demanding workforce. The biggest challenge for us here is to keep pace with them, develop an understanding of the business and hence become a part of the world they live in. Since unlike factories, Sales HR is a new concept, here we have to prove HR's usefulness. Sales guys did their Sales even without a Sales HR, and being the revenue generating arm they are also quite proud of this fact. The key for us lies in developing an understanding of the business and the ground realities of Sales. In a factory, you may still get away with not knowing the output tonnage of your factory or the efficiency of your lines or the latest quality complaints. But in Sales HR, if you are not aware of the latest product launch, the largest distributor of the region or the most lucrative territory, you are seen as a dinosaur very quickly, and hence run a risk of being sidelined. The positive side is, while Sales guys may be a dismissive bunch for someone who doesn't speak their business language, someone who does speak their business language becomes their friend very quickly, since basically a Sales job runs on relationships. And once this happens, sky is the limit for a Sales HR person. The more initiatives you take, the more aspects you get involved in. Sales HR is a lot of fun then, along with the learning’s. It also calls for a lot of travel, which I see as a huge positive. Lastly, any good thing done by you is a direct impact on the revenue of the company and hence gets you good visibility. 

Generalist, business partnering roles are in strong demand these days. I believe this trend will continue, since a business partnering HR role, being closer to the business, brings immediate and sustained benefits to the business. And Sales HR is an excellent teacher for business partnering. In HR we run a risk of getting disconnected from the business realities, and the more unfortunate part is we may get away with it for quite long and hence may not even realize we are disconnected. A Sales set up will never let this happen to you. You just need to take interest, it will automatically suck you into the realities of business. 

Sector 2: General Management

Wont say much on this - simply because General management recruiters more often than not will land you in non - HR roles. Nothing bad in this, given it is a conscious choice (Simply put - you are dead bored of HR ;D ) 

The best thing General management roles will offer you is choice. Choice of companies within the group, and choice of roles. However, like any other situation with wide range of choices, this wide range of choice may also tend to spoil you. Hence, I believe that in making this choice the same rule of getting your hands dirty in the initial stages of your career has to apply. Out of the range of roles you will get to choose from, on one hand there will be those like Frontline Sales ( As an Area Sales Manager with Sales people reporting into you ), or a senior HRBP or into Business development. On the other hand there will be roles which offer a cosy, relaxed schedule where the desk, the laptop, and one particular CXO of the company whom you report to are your world. I will any day recommend the former above the latter. The latter is a highly attractive option, but may not be the best in giving a foundation to your career. Every Management trainee has a certain honeymoon period with the company; those coming in thru general management roles have a longer one. But it ends sooner or later, and then the General Management trainee has to step into a senior role and show performance to stay afloat and counter competition with peers who have risen thru the ranks to get comparable senior roles. This bunch of guys will more often than not be envious of the fact that the role you got was " Offered in a platter to the Kid, just coz he/she was from ABC campus " . That is when a hands on role done in the " honeymoon period " helps, and the cosy one may not help. Trust me, 5 years down into your career, and in a high visibility, demanding role, you do not want to be on a sticky wicket where you have not smelled the dust. There is no going back to management trainee days of learning from there. Nobody will handhold you, nobody will give you enough rope to err and learn. Everyone will just expect delivery. 

Sector 3: Banks

This is a very different world. In a Bank things are highly process driven, which leaves comparatively less leeway for an HR person. HR jobs in banks hence tend to get routinal, and dominated by only maintenance of set processes. I should not be taken wrong here - I do not wish to pass any judgments. There is no Good or Bad role in absolute terms. It is just that like General management, getting into a Bank also has to be a very very conscious choice at your end, knowing clearly what you are getting into. As compared to manufacturing or a hands on General management role, opportunities to explore and innovate are comparatively less in banks. There isn’t much of "Baptism by fire ", which will be aplenty in manufacturing. It will mostly be a desk bound corporate kind of a job for you where suave people and cosy cabins will be your world. If a role like this suits you and you feel it will continue to interest you even when it gets monotonous, only then should it be taken. 

It should also be kept in mind that a banking professional may be confined to the banking sector for their entire career, maximum they can diversify to consulting. Hence it is really important that a banking job is taken when you are convinced it will keep you interested for long, if not forever. 

Bank HR jobs pay astoundingly well (all of you know this right :D) I could never fully understand why. It is certainly not proportionate to the workload :-). Possibly the fact that a particular bank's HR department is full of premium B school grads adds to the overall Brand of the bank. This kind of money is enough to attract anyone to a job. But, at the cost of sounding Uncle - like, money should not be your prime concern. At least not at the beginning of your post B school career. I repeat, it has to be exposure. Money follows an HR profile which stands on a solid foundation. Any sector is accessible to a manufacturing profile later in the career. The other way round may not always be possible. 

Sector 4: Consulting

Going by the sheer number of grads taken, Consulting had started to rule to the roost in campus placements during my times. The trend reached the peak few years later. I think it was the 2008 - 09 recession which reversed the trend in terms of numbers, if not presence. 

Consulting is again high paying, but far more demanding than banking. The intellectual component is highly crucial for an HR consultant. Second aspect crucial for a HR consultant is the ability to network. Also, since an HR consultancy's revenue is partially linked to the number of man-hours put by its consultants, the third crucial demand for an HR consultants is constant physical mobility across clients and locations. It is the third aspect which causes burn out to many consultants. But in my opinion this is also the feature which adds the most to a consultant's profile, going again by the yardstick of exposure. 

Scoring well on the first two points above is tough. There is no clear way to measure if a role which mostly demands intellectual application and intellectual talking will keep you interested. If you are more of a hands on person, it may not. The second point on networking again is fuzzy. One rarely is a " conscious networker ". it kind of comes to you naturally or doesn't come to you naturally. However, assuming these two points work fine, I view consulting as a worthwhile option in the long run going by the exposure aspect. There is just one catch. 

The catch is - to gain this exposure, is it necessary to get into consulting as your FIRST post MBA job, or does it make more sense to get into consulting after doing a Line role for 3 - 5 years first. I tend to gravitate towards the latter, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, A consultant's words carry more weight if he/she has a past record of implementation. Second - related to the point on networking. It is better to come to a consulting firm with an established line network. This is because a senior consultant has business development and profit centre responsibilities also. And to carry these out, network is crucial. 

There is a third point, more of an apprehension on getting to consulting directly from campus. A consulting team broadly consists of a senior consultant who is the project leader, assisted by Junior consultants to carry out the implementation bit - collecting data, analysing data, making the presentations etc. When you join a consultancy fresh from campus, it is the junior consultant role you get. And you will need to do this role for a good 2 - 3 years, while it will be your project leaders who will do the real consultancy stuff of engaging with the client. And half of the time, your project leader will be a lateral hire from outside, hired because he/she has line experience. If that be the case, does it not make sense to take line experience and then get into a consultancy ? I have no black and white answer here, but definitely a matter to think thru. 

A consultant's job also has a few occupational hazards. One of them I have described - the burn out factor. Constant travel, away from family may cause it. The second hazard is the possibility that for a particular project, you clearly see your hard work reaching a futile end - not getting implemented, or worse, getting implemented contrary to the spirit you did it in. You may also get projects where you clearly see that the senior manager who has hired you only wants to use you as a shoulder to put his gun on and fire. This hazard can weigh a bit higher on you if you are the kind of person who is highly attached to your ideas. Or the kind of person who can't tolerate the feeling of being used against your will. 

Some final thoughts

These are some thoughts which I have picked up with experience - some things the curriculum doesn't cover. I will be brief, enough "Gyaan " already right :) 

1. Accepting Shades of Grey - We tend to hunt for right or wrong answers after we are Fresh out of campus. However, most organizational situations have a component of ambiguity. Almost every initiative, plan, person, will be a shade of grey. Accepting this makes working as well as learning easier 

2. The importance of reaching out to work - A common mistake done by Fresh MBAs is to wait for work to come to them when they join an organization. A larger mistake is to wait for people to reach out to you. Let me pose a thought to ponder upon. What is the difference between a management trainee and lateral hire. A lateral hire has an immediate use in an existing vacant position. A management trainee may or may not have an immediate use - he/she is more of a long term bet. And hence, it is crucial that when we join as Management trainees, we reach out to situations and relevant people so that we learn and also build a platform to deliver. Probably no one will tell this to you in so many words, but the biggest expectation from a management trainee is initiative. This is something which makes us stand apart. 

3. Last but not the least - Making the best of campus time is very important. I made the mistake of spending most of my 2 years at XL in books and libraries. The real returns of campus will come from connecting and talking to as many people (students + professors ) as possible. And this is more relevant to us in HR. Yes, knowledge will matter, and so will grades. But a basic flair of initiating conversations, showing interest in others and building relationships are essential traits in an HR career. Everything else will come later. 

It is very important to enjoy these days as much as possible, and making friends is a crucial part of the campus experience. I understand, to some it comes naturally, to some (like me ) it doesn't. But that is precisely why we are at campus right - to learn what is essential but may not come naturally to us :-) 

For first year students – Summers/ Internship is a good opportunity to test these hypotheses live. You can build up some preferences, but if you feel that beyond a point the answers should be left to experience, Summers is an apt opportunity. Network well during and after summers, and you surely will have a better perspective on where do you want to go by the time you reach finals. All the Best! 

Editor's Note: Avijit Shastri is a dedicated HR Professional with a flavoured experience in Manufacturing, FMCG, Pharma and Automotive industry. Has been in varied profiles thus adding up to his  versatility. A PMIR 2006 batch from XLRI. Award winner at Economic Times Young Leaders Award 2012. Also awarded for his strong initiatives of increasing Leadership connect at Tata Motors. He believes in making HR relevant for business by adding real value on the People front.

Avijit can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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