Levers has long enjoyed iconic status for leadership development and Nair estimates that 440 of India Inc’s CEOs and heads of global boards today are Levers alumni. Less documented is the spread of HR heads across India Inc, most of whom have had substantive careers with Levers. “Look around you,” says Nair, “From ICICI’s Ramkumar to Aditya Birla’s Santrupt Mishra and Colgate’s Debashish Roy, Lever-ites occupy top HR posts across India Inc. 80% of Confederation of Indian Industries’ (CII) HR committee is ex-Levers .”
Interesting, but what happens when HR chiefs, after lengthy and successful tenures at Levers, retire? Taking board seats is old hat. In what seems to be a trend, they are choosing to become executive coaches, whizzing about the country (and worldwide), helping high-performing top management achieve that critical edge. With strong foundations in management development and organisational transformation, their role of coaching CEOs has become a natural extension.
RR Nair, who retired from Unilever in 1999 as advisor, organisation development and training for Central Asia & Middle East, is a case in point. His potential as a coach was recognised by Keki Dadiseth , then outgoing chairman, who requested him to continue as mentor to Vindi Banga and Harish Manwani after retirement. A few years later, when his involvement with Levers ended (“ to make room for others” he jokes), Nair’s multicultural exposure to the human dimensions of M&A (Unilever Arabia at one point comprised 36 nationalities) was priceless to other firms. Today, the lion’s share of his time is spent on addressing issues of succession and leadership effectiveness in Indian companies. “With an ageing senior management , creation of a robust leadership pipeline is a huge preoccupation ,” he says.
Other companies have produced respected independent HR consultants — Infosys’ Hema Ravichandran, Cadburys’ Radhakrishnan Menon, ITC’s Zahid Gangjee, Bharti’s Jagdeep Khandpur — but no company has produced them in greater numbers than Levers. And all of them are juggling packed itineraries, with most Indian companies on a growth binge and in dire need of HR advice.
After three decades in HUL, Prem Kamath decided to “go it alone” a few years ago, as a specialist in executive coaching and leadership development. When Kamath deals with issues of organisational restructuring he knows what he is talking about — handling the testing HR integration of the 1993 Tomco-HUL and Brooke Bond-Lipton mergers was lasting learning. “We all had to re-learn the paradigm of labour-management relations,” he says.
Dadiseth, for his part, passes on the credit for introducing non-HR people into tough industrial relations jobs to former chairman Ashok Ganguly: “I simply built upon it. At the end of the day, he believed that if you have the necessary IQ and interpersonal skills, then very quickly you can make up the experience deficit and go on to do a very good job.” “I think those of us line managers who used to crib the most about HR were pulled in to head the key HR subfunctions ,” says Kamath.
Kamath isn’t the only operations-turned-HR executive to take up coaching. Naren Nanda, a chemical engineer with experience in manufacturing and factory management, eventually retired as head of HR for Unilever’s global Home and Personal Care business. He then founded Enen Consulting through which he has been extensively coaching clients in the UK, India and Japan.
Natarajan Sunder, former VP, global reward, Unilever and today an independent HR consultant to leading multinationals in the UK and India, had a background in science and banking before being drawn into the remuneration function of HR in 1986. “Unilever decided India needed a full-time remuneration manager and I was probably picked because I could both add and spell ‘human resources’ ,” he jokes.
Sunder made the switch between finance and HR thrice. When he successfully piloted the work level remuneration program in India , Unilever’s HR director invited him to design and implement the integrated global remuneration policy. “It remains Unilever’s largest global HR project till date,” says Sunder, who now darts between designing expatriate packages for moves between an Indian company and acquisitions in Europe and developing clarity of job roles for a FTSE 10 company.
Former Levers HR chiefs thus score over pure-HR players in the consulting space because of their experience in other functions. Many of them were heads of strategic business units before being brought into HR. “It has always been Lever’s policy to move people into different roles and experiences across various commodity groups and geographies,” says Dadiseth. Gurdeep Singh, a chemical engineer who retired as HR executive director HUL, says: “Developing potential came naturally to us as business unit heads because large factories had 60-70 managers and thousands of workers. Besides, Keki was always more comfortable having the right mix of business fundamentals with people skills.” Back in 2003, Singh recalls he was alerted to a “problem”
That must have built up his capacity for coaching because today, it is Singh who holds that mirror, while the CEOs at the receiving end squirm in their seats. “CEOs are still very sensitive about selfdisclosure ,” explains Singh. He derived much of his capability from the challenging environment that he had to function in. It was the late 90s and multinationals had swarmed into India drastically altering the way careers were being shaped. HUL was going through a slow growth phase as well as faltering in its long-held perception as preferred employer. “It was a huge challenge to maintain the mindset of risk taking and entrepreneurship,” he recalls.
Besides situational learning, a lot of HR competence came from the drill of administering Unilever’s renowned leadership development mechanisms. “While other organisations hired leaders, Unilever, for its own good reasons, developed its own leaders and so, quickly designed the systems to identify potential,” says Singh.
RR Nair says part of what he tries to do with companies is build the kind of top leadership that focuses on “200 potential leaders with the skills and credibility to deliver” . “There were several reasons why Levers was so good at it but two key values helped- meritocracy and professionalism,” he says.
Tarun Sheth, who retired from Levers in the 80s after an 18-year career and joined his wife’s recruitment consultancy Shilputsi (where he’s added on the practices of HR systems and strategy building), agrees with a touch of caution, saying that while the systems were strong what helped more was a “solid underpinning of commitment from the line” . Sunder agrees, saying, “I wouldn’t oversell HLL’s HR system. It has performed well partly because it has all along been largely owned by the line managers.”
And if commitment rose bottom-up , there was even more flowing top-down . There is collective pride in crediting chairmen like PL Tandon, Ranjan Banerjee, MK Sharma and Keki Dadiseth . “Prakash Tandon set the standard for the CEO to play the principal HR leadership role and that tradition just continued,” says Sunder. Or, as Sheth puts it: “HR is only as good as the top management — if both are aligned you can move the world.”
The top management’s involvement begins with HUL’s management trainee programme, which recruits an elite cadre from the best engineering and management institutes. “Management trainees weren’t recruited without at least two directors on the panel; I had four,” says Singh.
Still, the extent to which they replicate Levers’ standards ends there. While they all acknowledge the HUL “stamp of quality” they are very clear that there is no place for lionising HUL as a “fountainhead of wisdom” . These gentlemen prefer to tailor make solutions for their clients. “I did initially wonder if organisations hired me so they could borrow from Levers wisdom,” says Kamath , “but I quickly discovered that other less high-profile companies have now got great HR systems too, all they need is the push from top management and the environment to deliver.”
Sunder is less guarded, “Sadly, since the late 1990s, HUL would not be considered by the market as one of the best performers , while everyone will admit they continue to have outstanding people. It would be naive to think that people are interested in replicating what HLL did.”
Still, their continued enthusiasm for Levers is thinly veiled, and you cannot escape the unanimity of reactions, references, even rhetoric. ‘You can get a man out of Levers but not Levers out of a man’ might just be the aphorism that underscores the shared culture.
“All of us make it a point to stay connected. The network of our relationships, besides being hinged on collective pride, is what provides sustenance for caring and growing ,” says RR Nair. What about returning to coach top management at Levers? Singh laughs, “There has to be a strong succession plan even for coaches.”