CEO-CHRO Partnership Got Stronger in Pandemic

By Shefali Anand January 5, 2021
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​The workplace disruption caused by the novel coronavirus has made the role of CHROs and their partnership with CEOs more critical than ever before. 

CHROs have been involved in every aspect of business - from strategic conversations about growth, costs, to productivity, and now, to chart out the new models of the workplace for the future. 

How did the CEO-CHRO team navigate the upheaval of 2020? We heard from two global companies at the recent SHRMI 20, the annual conference and exposition of SHRM India. 

HR is Everyone's Agenda: Genpact

"We've always had the view that the most important aspect of our business…is talent," said 'Tiger' Tyagarajan, president and CEO at Genpact, a professional services firm.

This philosophy is part the company's heritage which was earlier a unit of General Electric. GE's former CEO Jack Welch has long held that the CHRO is as important as the CFO.

Whether it is the amount of time leaders spend, or the connection of the HR function to everything that the company does, the importance and frequency of those conversations, people have always been top priority, said Tyagarajan.

One of the main pillars of career development at Genpact is to move people from business roles to functions to business, said Piyush Mehta, CHRO, Genpact.

This makes it incumbent on all managers to care for talent. HR "is actually everyone's agenda," said Mehta.

When the pandemic hit and forced their offices to shut down physically, the company leadership strived to strike a balance between the wellbeing and safety of employees, and continuity of service for clients, said Tyagarajan.

Genpact provides back office services to a wide range of companies, including credit card companies, supermarkets and retailers, who needed these services to function at all times. "There were stories after stories that we are very important for the world economy to keep moving forward, otherwise livelihoods are going to get impacted," said Tyagarajan.

He said one surprising benefit of the pandemic was the speed with which Genpact's 90,000 plus workers took to the virtual environment. Within two weeks, we were "able to embrace, use, and refine and improve the technologies that are needed to make all of this to work," said Tyagarajan.

The company rolled out several initiatives to keep employees connected in the virtual workplace, said Mehta.

Tyagarajan held more frequent town halls, and he recorded videos and sent those out to teams every week during the peak of the crisis, said Mehta.

"One of our big learnings through this period is that to create a strong, inclusive culture, is fundamentally about listening, acting on feedback and valuing all inputs that the organization, across the board, provides us," said Mehta. "For that, a two-way communication between leaders and employees becomes really really important."

Genpact relied on its artificial intelligence-driven chatbot, which takes feedback from employees in real time, including about how they are feeling.

"Technology has enabled our work to be an equalizer," said Mehta.

He said they have technology and processes to create virtual water coolers, and replicate communities, informal and formal.

However, one challenge he said they want to solve for is how to integrate new hires, who have been brought on remotely, in as effective as way as was the case before the virtual workplace.

"We have not cracked the code," said Mehta.

Partnership in Every Phase of Business: Unilever

At global consumer goods company Unilever, CEO Alan Jope and others before him have always put the HR function at the center of everything, said Leena Nair, CHRO.

"The partnership has only strengthened and accelerated in this time," she said.

Nair said she and her CEO speak every day. Every Unilever standup starts with an update on people safety, health and wellbeing. Every board strategic meeting has a huge section on capacity, capability, culture.

"My partnership with the CEO is in every phase of the business," said Nair. Whether the discussion is on unleashing growth, or on costs, or productivity and efficiency. Without the right people, including in the leadership, even the best plans may not get executed well.

"It's so important for the CHRO to give the right perspective on how to drive strategic intent into reality," she said.

Nair said CEOs face two key decisions: where to put the money, and where to put the people, and the CHRO has an important role in both of them.

"If you put money without the people ready, it aint gonna work," she said. "If you put the people but don't give them the money and the resources, it aint gonna work."

In the pandemic, Nair said they've ramped up communication and engagement with employees. 

They've held weekly calls in which the CEO talks to the whole company, in which she joins very often. In addition they have open and internal platforms for communications, and peer to peer communications.  

"Our productivity has gone up, our collaboration has gone up, our external orientation has gone up. All this in Covid times," said Nair.

The company has invested in technological tools to provide personalized engagement to employees, and also to provide data to better the employee experience, she said.

For instance, she said data showed that parents were having a tougher time in the work from home scenario, so they put together programs to support them, she said. 

They have Unabot, a chatbot which answers routine HR queries for their more than 160,000 employees, like conveyance allowance, or where can the employee get masks. Unabot has freed up as much as 1 hour a day for their HR staff. It has "given them the time to do things that drive performance, like interventions for teams, getting people focused on big things," she said.

Nair said it bothers her that HR is thought of as a back office, and said what is being taught about the role of HR is outdated. Its "is what I did 20 years ago. It's not what I'm doing today," said Nair. 

She said the pandemic has put people in the spotlight, making it a fantastic time to be in HR. "But it also means that we have to step up and deliver."

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