About Hari TN
Hari T.N is the head of HR at Big Basket and is known as the start-up HR guy. Hari is also a successful author. He is an advisor and mentor to numerous young entrepreneurs and startups. He has co-authored three books — Back to Basics in Management-A critique of the fabled management mantras; Cut the crap and jargon: Learnings from the start-up trenches and Cutting the Gordian Knot-India’s quest for Prosperity. We are happy to have him with us on our interview series today.
Welcome to another episode of the peopleHum interview series. I am your host Aishwarya Jain and let's begin with a quick introduction of peopleHum. peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work.
We run the peopleHum blog and video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month.
Welcome Hari, we’re thrilled to have you.
Thank you Aishwarya. It’s a pleasure being on your show.
Thank you so much.
Hari, you've had an incredible journey right from the day you graduated. Would you mind telling us a little bit about your story?
So I don’t know if it’s an incredible journey but I'll certainly tell you my story. So I have been a quintessential small-town boy. I grew up in a small town in Orissa where Hindustan Aeronautics Limited had a factory and manufactured big engines in those days and I studied in a company or factory-run Kendriya Vidyalaya. We had people from all over India who were coming there, working and my colleagues in school, other children also came from different cultural backgrounds.
So for me, interacting with people from different cultures, from different parts of India was in itself an education and that has proved to be invaluable. Even today my wife is a Maharashtrian, I am a Kannadiga, my daughter speaks Hindi, I speak about seven Indian languages. So I think my childhood proved to be very, very beneficial for me. I was interested in science, particularly physics in my school days and my interest in science led me to pursue engineering, mechanical engineering from IIT Madras.
While I was interested in science, I was also interested in history, in literature and in subsequent years, even during my working years, I continued to read books from history, books on literature and I didn't read those with any specific objectives in mind or thought that I will have some tangible outcomes by pursuing my interests in those but I’ll tell you why I am talking about this.
Later on it went on to benefit me in a very tangible way. So after my engineering from IIT Madras, I did a back to back MBA from IIM Calcutta and the reason why I did an MBA was not to get a foothold outside of engineering but to get a holistic perspective of how companies, especially engineering companies particularly were run.
And I was deeply interested in engineering. And my first job at IIM Calcutta was also picked very thoughtfully. I joined Tata Steel. I worked on the shop floor for 11 years as a mechanical engineer. It was absolutely exciting. When you see on a schematic diagram, a valve when you are studying engineering, a valve is just a simple two triangles back to back. But when you see a five-tonne valve erected at a height of 30 meters on a pipeline, it is absolutely fascinating - macro engineering at its best.
So after 11 years of working as a mechanical engineer on the field, I moved into HR and my move was I would say very accidentally. At that point of time, we were going through as a company, an existential crisis because post-liberalization many CIS countries were dumping steel at below hard costs, and therefore we had to do something to restructure, to rightsize, to cut out costs dramatically. 70,000 people at Tata Steel were producing 3.5 million tonnes of steel whereas 700 people in the US steel company like Nucor or a South Korean steel company were producing the same three and a half million tonnes.
So, we had to do something very dramatically different. So we hired McKinsey to help us with thought processes and I was a part of the core team from Tata Steel that worked very closely with Mckinsey. This was largely a human capital problem, and I think I understood the strategic power of human capital in any organization if dealt with in the right way. So at some point of time at Tata Steel, I figured out that that was not the best place for me to work because I was a bit of a room-breaker, I was entrepreneurial. I wanted to work with speed, did not want to consult ten people before doing something. So I moved on and I found this company called Daksh.
Daksh was a BPO company at that point of time. Along with Spectramind, they were the two best BPO companies and for me my movement from Tata Steel to Daksh was in some ways like moving from an oil tanker to a fighter jet. That was the contrast that I experienced. And I was there at Daksh for some time and in 1 1\/2 years, Daksh was acquired by IBM. As part of the contract and part of the deal, the management team had to stay at IBM for two years. I was there at IBM for exactly two years, after which I joined an IT services company called Virtusa.
This was a Boston-based company and part of the management team was in Asia, and a large part of it in Boston. So, it was for the first time, I was experiencing a global, truly global and diverse leadership team and that was fun for me and we eventually listed this company on NASDAQ, a startup being listed. That was a dream come true for most people. It was a dream come true for me as well listing this company on NASDAQ, took it publicly in 2007 August.
At some point of time, my, the urge and the itch for doing another startup continued and I moved on and joined this startup called The Amba Research. I was there for nearly five years, after which it was acquired by Moody's and then with Taxiforsure, acquired by Ola and then with Big Basket.
At Big Basket, last five years, I have been doing multiple things. Prior to that, the first 13 years of my startup journey, I really looked inwards and focused on building the company that I worked for, helping it scale without its wheels coming off and help it find an exit. But at Big Basket, I think I have been able to fulfill myself on many fronts.
I have been able to find the time to mentor multiple startups. I am a mentor at three accelerators like Techstars, Yuba as well as Silicon Road, the time to mentor multiple startups. I have written multiple books. I am associated with an early-stage VC fund Arkam Ventures and a late-stage VC fund, which is Fundamentum. I am getting to meet very interesting people and doing a lot of interesting things.
A lot of what I write today draws from what I read in my early working days and student days of history, literature. So I have been able to take examples from history and illustrate management lessons. I never thought I could do this. When I studied history, read history, it was just for fun, I never knew that it would pay back in such a tangible way at this point of time. So, the lessons that I learned was, do the fun things in life, don't really hope that everything will get you some tangible returns. It may or may not get you tangible returns but at least you will enjoy the ride while doing it.
“Do the fun things in life, don't really hope that everything will get you some tangible returns. It may or may not get you tangible returns but at least you will enjoy the wild while doing it.”
So that's broadly been my career. I think when people ask me, ‘Did you plan your career?’, I have always said, ‘I have never planned my career. Every move of mine was an accident. It was a bit random. But then when I look back and I think about it, I realize that there was a pattern and that pattern was about a couple of things.
One is, I was curious. I have been extremely curious, always since my childhood, trying to get to the root cause of an issue, whether it was studying physics or history or today solving problems about organizational scaling. It is always about getting to the root cause, being curious, innocently asking a lot of questions, and in the process helping others, helping me figure out new things as well. So curiosity, I think has been a very foundational element for me.
Second thing is that I have tried experimenting, which is that I’ve not shied away from doing things, which are beyond my comfort zone, gone out to get new industries every time. I’ve not stuck to any one industry, from steel to BPO to IT products to investment research to consumer internet to e-commerce. I think I’ve seen it all, pretty much. Engineering, mechanical engineering, projects, procurement, corporate planning and now human resources. So I think I have experimented, that’ll be the second component of my career.
The last one is associating with interesting people. I have never looked for compensation. Never mattered for me, I have never looked for promotions, designations. I think those were completely irrelevant. Associating myself with interesting people from whom I would like to try to learn a few things and with whom I would like to hang out. So I think interesting people, staying in touch with them, associating with them, and seeking them out were was what mattered in my career, so these were the three things that really mattered in my career. So I think that sums up in a way what I have done so far Aishwarya.
Thank you so much Hari for that explanation. I think you had a wonderful, stunning journey and it sounds so gratifying, so I mean your experience would have been much more enhanced. And I completely understand where you're coming from, just following your passion and doing things that you just liked without thinking about the consequences, about fame, money or success, that’s just was the consequence so that in itself is a huge learning.
And now that you are into human resources, what do you think of the most interesting aspects of human resources and why?
So after having spent so many years, close to 20 years in human resources, I have discovered a few things. I think HR, unlike medicine or law or mechanical engineering or computer science, is not a rigorous body of knowledge. You can’t even dream of practicing as a lawyer or even a doctor for even a day if you haven't studied these fields, but you can expect to be reasonably successful in human resources, even if you have not studied HR formally.
So HR is not a rigorous body of knowledge like law or medicine, for instance, or even engineering. As a result of which, you can find that people who have never studied HR can be some of the best people managers, can understand how to manage people, motivate people well.
Sometimes you might find that your mom or your grandmother or your father might be very good at motivating people, and you have learned a lesson or two or many lessons from them on how to manage people even though none of them have studied HR. So HR in some ways, I think has a lot of common sense and fact is that common sense is not very common like everyone says, it is absolutely not very common.
And I think there are two components to a successful HR professional. I’ll just simply call them prose and poetry. The prose is understanding of numbers, balance sheet, profit and loss, problem-solving, clear thinking, understanding business models, I think that is the prose component of it. A large number of people who have formally studied HR have actually done HR because they want to run away from this component, which is such a crucial element, I would say in managing the people function.
The second component is poetry, which is understanding of human psychology, softer elements. A lot of HR professionals don't seem to get either of them very well and as a result of which they end up doing a lot of admin related stuff and saying the very standard things. And so to be very effective, I think you need to have a good understanding of both the prose and poetry of HR.
And therefore I have found that the best HR folks or the best people managers are those who get these and don't have to necessarily come from an HR background. I have not come from an HR background, many folks that I have seen have not come from HR background. So I think HR really is about a lot of common sense, understanding prose, which is clear thinking, understanding business fundamentals, which is P&L, balance sheets, those components as well as a deep understanding of human psychology and how to get the best out of people.
It's about being able to figure out what kind of people or human capital programs or initiatives will help you accomplish business objectives. Establishing that linkage, understanding it well, I think is about being a great HR professional.
Absolutely. And it's amazing how it's just really a unique blend of factors, and you need to learn how to really manage or just understand the psychology, which makes it so interesting and the way you put it is so interesting.
And there is another aspect to it, which is technology. So according to you, how much should we invest in technology for a function like human resources?
I think technology is an important component of every function. Every function has some grunt work, some clerical work, some structured and repetitive work. I think a lot of that needs to be automated and if we can automate all of that, then the people in the function can focus on delivering value, on doing some of the most strategic stuff that machines can’t do. I am a strong believer that anything that can be automated, should be automated. Anything where technology can play a role and make life easy, you should use technology.
“If we can automate the grunt work, then the people in the function can focus on delivering value, on doing some of the most strategic stuff that machines can’t do.”
And I think technology is finding a place in every function, and it is finding its place in HR as well, so we have a lot of HRMS's which are getting more and more refined, sophisticated, tuned to have conversational AI bots in place. So, I think a lot of it is all happening and will continue to happen. It should release the time of HR professionals to do some of the things that they were supposed to be doing in the first place. So I think it helps in a big way.
Also, talking about startups, you have been heavily involved in managing startups, you have seen a lot of leaders coming up. What advice do you have to give to the new age startup leaders who have taken a pause now due to the pandemic and due to the financial crisis?
I would very broadly like to say, cultivate good habits before a crisis like this strikes or any crisis strikes. Recession is not the best of times to start picking up new skills or trying to learn new things, the habits of learning and risk-taking, they need to be cultivated well before the pink slip starts getting handed over. And complacence in good times coupled with frenzied activity in bad times is an awful approach to life in general. So I think it is very important to realize that good habits are cultivated well in advance.
“Complacence in good times coupled with frenzied activity in bad times is an awful approach to life in general. It is very important to realize that good habits are cultivated well in advance.”
A lot of expenditure, wasteful expenditure is incurred by individuals and companies in good times, and they undertake desperate cost-cutting measures in bad times. I think this is a sign of poor character. I think this applies for startups, this applies for individuals as well. In the context of startups, high growth companies, I have seen that there is a wild swing in focus between reckless growth followed by an equally blind push for profitability at a later point of time. I think that is not good in any way.
So I think companies and individuals have a tendency of displaying such wild swings in these kinds of behaviors are less likely to bounce back from crises and those do have a balance between the two. So I think that is very critical. So I think startups, some of them I have seen them very closely, in good times, especially if they are well-funded startups, have built large, unwieldy, and widely expensive teams. As some of them went on to acquire, went on an acquisition spree by hallucinating synergies that have never existed in the first place. So many of them are in trouble in having to resort to large-scale layoffs at this point in time when crisis has struck.
But startups that were a little more thoughtful in terms of hiring and built course with a lot of thought, consideration, and after a lot of discussions, they're the ones that are able to handle the crisis a little better. So I would say that if you have been struck by a crisis, this is the time to rethink. It is the time to revisit some of your beliefs, your approaches and to figure out how you will manage things when things begin to return to normal, how you will start cultivating some of those good habits which can stand you in good stead.
So, if you’ve been having some of these good habits in the past, I think and if you have been impacted by this crisis, bouncing back will be a little easier and you would not so badly be impacted as well. But if you’ve had those bad habits, if you’re now hit badly, this is the time to think back and introspective and figure out how you would do things differently if things were to get back to normal.
Absolutely. I think startups that have stayed lean, have stayed prudent are reaping the benefits at this point of time but the ones that have gone extravagant now are suffering. And that kind of follows into my next question.
So a lot of startups that finally grow into bigger organisations, they go through a lot of dynamic shifts, right? So, with respect to leadership and with respect to culture, what do you think are some changes that come into place and some of them can also be an adversity, a factor that's negative when you grow larger teams. So how do you maintain that culture of a startup but still ensure growth and performance in teams?
This is a great question but I don’t think we can answer this in such a short time because it's a very, very elaborate response. But let me try and keep it short. So I would say that startups go through different phases as they scale from being a startup to becoming a mature company, and people who have studied this have identified five different phases that startups go through. Each phase requires it to change in some very fundamental ways.
So, for example, the first stage of growth is called growth through an idea where the founder just has a very disruptive idea but nothing else. The founder may not even have management skills to give feedback or the management skills to hire, maintain a team, conduct interviews. But if the founder learns some of these skills, the founder is going to get through the next phase of growth, the startup gets to the next phase, which is growth through direction, where the founder begins to tell everyone, this is the way we do things around.
I won't take you through all these five phases, but I can just tell you, startups go through different phases of growth, each phase is different from the previous phase and is different from the subsequent phase. It's important for founders to recognise these phases, adjust some of the leadership styles, figure out what are some of the largest applications of these changes and how to deal with these changes. So I think that is very critical.
In terms of culture, I think culture is something that you need to maintain even as you scale. While your phases change at each step will mean different things, what is going to be constant is the culture that you have built. So, culture is very, very foundational, that’s not something that is going to change as you scale.
So for example, I would say, very few people really and deeply understand culture. So culture is about demonstrative behaviour. It's about the kind of behaviours that are awarded, recognized everyday. It's about the behaviours that are penalised, it’s about what leaders in the organisation or the startup do everyday.
Irrespective of what you say, what you do matters. What you say, nobody cares about. You can say that we are the most customer centric company in the world, you can print beautiful posters and hang them on your boardroom and your eating rooms, but if you don’t demonstrate customer centricity, nobody is going to believe you. So 1000 CEO speeches are less impactful than one single demonstration behaviour.
"Irrespective of what you say, what you do matters. You can say that we are the most customer-centric company in the world, you can print beautiful posters and hang them on your boardroom and your eating rooms, but if you don’t demonstrate customer centricity, nobody is going to believe you."
So, I think it is very important even as you scale, even as you go through changes, even as you evolve to maintain that culture. And the only way to maintain the culture is to live it every day by example. Demonstrate that by example every day. Build it into the performance management process where leaders who demonstrate this culture, get into the next level, get into bigger roles.
While performance on other tangible business metrics matter, cultural alignment is also very critical, and that should be taken into consideration and evaluating people for key roles and evaluating overall performances. So that broadly is my response but I can give you a much, much longer response but that will take forever.
Sure, sure. Thank you so much for that, I think, as you said, it's important to not just hang it on your walls but live culture every single day of your life in offices.
So I am going to wrap this interview up by asking the last question, if you have any other important soundbites that you'd like to leave our viewers with.
I think in particular what I would say is that we are going through extremely difficult times just now, these kind of times never come more than once in a lifetime of a person, I have never seen this, I don’t think I will ever see something like this ever in my lifetime.
We’ve seen 2008, we’ve seen 9/11 but they were no way comparable to what we’re seeing today. Today, we’re seeing something which we don’t understand, which is a pandemic. We all understood the career crisis, we all understood 9/11 but we don’t understand how this is likely to unfold.
So, all I would say is that stay positive, hang in there if you are impacted, use this time to think about your post-covid life. Find your purpose and meaning in life and figure out how you are going to bounce back when things begin to get back to normal.
Wonderful. Thank you so much Hari. It was a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for the enriching and learning experience. Let's keep in touch and have a safe time ahead of you.
Thank you, Aishwarya. Thanks a lot. Thank you so much.