SHRM India Conference Imparts Leadership Lessons for HR

By Sharad Verma Sep 30, 2014


GURGAON, INDIA—Over 700 delegates from India and neighboring countries attended the 2014 SHRM India Annual Conference & Exposition—the country’s largest HR event—held Sept. 25-26 in Gurgaon.

The conference explored the transformation of HR, the future of work, the role of social media, the evolution of women’s leadership, HR as a business partner and the War for Talent.

I personally felt the conference theme “Connect, Inspire, Grow” as the energy-packed conference wound down to a close, leaving long-lasting connections, takeaways and impressions.

The Attendees

I was struck by the diversity of attendee profiles, their goals, and the unique angles they brought to the event. I was able to identify the following distinct types:

Beginners. Quite a few of the attendees were business students anticipating an immersive experience into real-world issues. They came from all over the country and appreciated the full-blown exposure to thought leaders, senior professionals, and the topics and issues being discussed.

Professionals. This is the seasoned lot looking for specific know-how, expertise, techniques, insights and takeaways that can help with initiatives back at work. They are interested in new initiatives and change programs, better ways to partner with stakeholders, and ways to motivate their teams.

Seekers. Many in attendance were in various stages of their careers and seeking different things—new knowledge, insights and perspectives, trends, and case studies of failures and successes.

Life changers. These are people looking for the “life-changing moment,” something out of the ordinary that has long-lasting impact. Many of this type are veterans within their specialty, with a “been there, done that” attitude and looking for big, disruptive ideas. It was clear from the enthusiasm displayed that this group was not interested in routine HR discussions.

Networkers. Not mutually exclusive to any of the above but perhaps easily identified by their overwhelming desire to “network,” meet people and make new connections, these attendees believe networking is the most important outcome from the event. It was fascinating to see the extroverts working the networking areas to meet as many people as possible, rapidly evaluating the value of connections for future purposes, while the introverts sought out “comfort zones” where they could meet someone for a more meaningful conversation.

On the whole, SHRM India did a fantastic job of catering to all the attendee types, by creating various breakout and networking areas, greeting attendees personally, and attempting to ensure that people were comfortable and integrated within the conference and larger audience.

Creating a Culture of Excellence

The most popular session on Day 1 was best-selling author and management consultant Ron Kaufman’s keynote on creating a culture of service excellence. I approached the topic of service excellence with a certain amount of skepticism as this topic has been in vogue since the 1990s. I was pleasantly surprised that Kaufman has his own original take on it, and it’s an approach that’s refreshing, entertaining and comprehensive.

The big question for attendees was how to apply lessons of service excellence to their own HR departments. Kaufman covered two ways to do so:

  • HR, as change catalysts, can apply the lessons in building the organizational culture.
  • HR can apply service excellence lessons within its own functions.

Here are four specific takeaways from the presentation:

Service excellence is an experience. HR has to think of the overall experience and to build all the pieces that go into creating an amazing experience.

Look at the big picture. Much of change management and transformation requires “big picture” thinking and interlinked components.There aren’t any quick-fix solutions or shortcuts when building a culture of excellence. Kaufman’s approach covers excellence from all possible angles, including:

  • Mindset, inclusive of attitude.
  • Culture, the entire universe of organizational behaviors.
  • Systems and processes, and how they serve as enablers or disablers.
  • Education and training, essential for sustaining the culture.

Simplicity is hard work. While everyone knows that simplicity—boiling down a concept to a level where the message can be conveyed instantly—is important, achieving it without diluting the message is extremely hard work. It can only be achieved by creative thinking. Much of what HR does sometimes becomes hard to understand, cumbersome and more complex than it needs to be. Focusing on memorable takeaways and simplifying can help.

Evolve a method. This goes with building the big picture. Diagnose what’s wrong: Kaufman’s six levels of service provide a way to diagnose and identify current service levels without overcomplicating things.Visualizing the end goal and formulating an easily recalled vision is the starting point to energize employees.Then put the building blocks in place that need to be built.

The Meaning of Personal, Professional Leadership

Two other sessions had important leadership lessons for HR professionals and business leaders and were among the most popular, creating a buzz.

The first of these was Ashok Alexander’s session titled “Leadership Secrets from Commercial Sex Workers.” Alexander is the former director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in India and an ex-director at McKinsey & Company. He spoke with intensity and passion about his momentous decision to leave McKinsey and his involvement with HIV-infected sex workers. Calling it a move in “discontinuity,” motivated by the thought of “what would life be if I did not take the step out,” he told an emotional personal story. Some of the key takeaways:

  • Get out of your comfort zone.
  • A structured work environment teaches you analysis and management skills but not necessarily leadership in the larger world.
  • Traditional methods of data analysis and problem solving may not be relevant in the larger world.
  • We mostly operate in a “frame of reference,” and when the context changes, prior actions do not have much relevance.
  • Conviction is extremely important.
  • Above all, leadership is about humility.

On Day 2, Sudhakar Kesavan’s story of how he became chairman and CEO of ICF International, a global management, technology and policy consulting firm, resonated with the audience. Kesavan highlighted the importance of relationships, emotional intelligence and self-promotion. People who are intellectual and analytical sometimes fall behind those with the initiative to connect with others, he said.

These sessions brought the “Connect, Inspire, Grow” theme to life. Connecting with stakeholders, taking an audacious step, building bridges, and finding inspiration resulted in growth and meaning for both individuals.

Faceoff: CEOs vs CHROs

SHRM India hosted a “faceoff” between CEOs and CHROs. The session was watched with gripping excitement and proved to be very engaging, as a number of questions were posed to each side, aimed at exposing points of disagreement and confluence. Here are the key points made by each group:

CEOs believe HR leaders should:

  • Understand the business, and display a knowledge of numbers.
  • Strike a balance between the urgency of short-term results and long-term focus.
  • Demonstrate understanding of business acumen when advocating employee issues.
  • Serve a stint in business and operations to develop a fuller understanding of the enterprise.
  • Champion innovation and unleash the true potential of employees.
  • Become strategic advisers, stand their own ground and aim for leading the organization.
  • Establish a strong connection between employee behavior and organizational excellence and performance.

HR leaders believe CEOs should:

  • Appreciate and speak the culture-building and people process.
  • Move from mere talk to action when they say “people are our most important assets.”
  • Show greater respect and trust for HR partners as specialists and leaders.
  • Include HR in key decision-making and strategy.
  • Lead from the front and delegate hard people decisions to HR.

The debate had a constructive ring to it and lessons emerged for a productive partnership between business and HR:

  • Mutual respect and trust are foundations for a constructive partnership.
  • Insights and nuanced advice from HR is respected and sought out.
  • Understanding of business and financial numbers will establish and enhance HR credibility.
  • A sense of short-term urgency should be balanced with long-term institution building.

Takeaways from the 2014 SHRM India Annual Conference

It’s important to understand the “conference outside the conference.” The SHRM India conference is more than just the actual sessions. The expo, networking groups and events are an extended experience that adds great value.

Participate in the event via social media. The SHRM India conference is a very tech-savvy event where tweets are displayed and the entire experience becomes multi-layered.

Having fun adds to the learning, inspiration and growing experience.

Get to know SHRM folks. SHRM has a great team ranging from subject matter experts, social media experts and conference planners.

Take advantage of networking opportunities. There are many opportunities for connecting and people are more open and active about networking than at other such events.

Sharad Verma is senior HR director, SunGard Global Technology, based in Pune, India.

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