The Magic of Human Touch

I have read many books and articles, attended many lectures by experts and celebrity coaches well known as great motivational speakers on how to develop a bond between the employee and organization. I have also taught a course called ‘employee management relations’ in the middle of my career as a HR professional. Times have changed. The welfare approach has given place to the ‘engagement’ approach. Employees are expected to feel and act not just as process owners but like owner of the organization. Inculcating a sense of ownership is a prime responsibility of HR heads. They are trying to reinvent their titles instead of honing their application tools. Fancy titles like Chief Happiness Officer, have come into vogue. However, the content of the job needs to be addressed instead of changing the signage. The moot question is, “How can an Organization get the best out of their people?”. I thought of addressing the issue by sharing some of my experience as an employee.

In the summer of 2004, while I was working in my Faculty Chamber at the Xavier Institute of Management, an elderly gentleman walked into my office asking, “How are you doing Saroj?” The voice sounded familiar and when I looked up, I saw the smiling face of Mr. SC Patnaik, a very senior colleague for my SAIL days. After retiring as General Manager – HR of the Central Marketing Organization of SAIL, he had moved to the Tata Group as Head of HR, somewhere is all that I knew. After the exchange of greetings, as he settled down, he proposed to me to consider returning to the corporate sector as Chief of HR at Tata Metaliks. I was at that time getting ready for visiting Seoul to present a research paper at annual Conference of the International Industrial Relations Association (IRRA). I had settled down in my academic career at XIMB for over three years, completed my Ph.D., taken up two major consulting assignments, conducted half a dozen MDPs including one for the Board members of Odisha Energy Regulatory Commission, one for senior Civil Servants, besides teaching four courses, written a dozen case studies and developed a new course.

I had joined XIMB on 2nd July 2001 as an Assistant Professor and was promoted out of turn, as an Associate Professor in December 2003, by the Director, waiving the minimum eligibility criterion of ‘five years in the grade’. Fr E Abraham SJ, the Director of XIMB, kept his promise without any reminder. He had candidly told me during my recruitment as a Faculty, that I did not have a Ph.D – a mandatory requirement to hold a position above Assistant Professor level. He said, he could offer me a higher position on limited tenure contract like a Professor of Practice, keeping in view my corporate work experience, but if I wanted a regular position, I had to start from the bottom, and prove myself first. He told me that he would promote me the very next day after I get awarded with a Ph.D. I registered for Ph.D work on 7th July 2001, invested four hours every evening for my doctoral research while continuing with all other assignments including teaching as a regular faculty. Fr Abraham walked up to me, on 31st December, while we were in a Faculty Get-together at Puri, put his shoulder around and whispered in my ear that I should check my mail in the morning. There it was, my promotion letter, right on my desk. I felt touched again by Fr Abe’s gesture. I remembered how in SAIL, I was denied an out of turn promotion, under pressure of the Association in blatant violation of a Company Policy just to appease a section of managers who would have been superseded on merit.

Everything was going fine for me in my academic career. After a brief conversation with Mr Patnaik, I was persuaded to meet Mr Harsh Jha, the Managing Director of Tata Metaliks at Kolkata, on my way to Seoul. Mr Patnaik was respected widely by generation of young managers in SAIL as a great mentor, who had a passion for helping people. One morning, I appeared before him as a stranger who worked as a Junior Manager at RSP, Rourkela, in search of some statistical data from a number of organization with offices at Bhubaneswar. He was the Head of HR of NINL headquarters at IPICOL Tower in Bhubaneswar. During our conversation, he learnt that may parents lived in Puri. He asked me to first go and see my parents and return the next day. I returned next morning to find that he has got all the information collected from all the places I had mentioned to him. I was touched.

As I entered the office of Tata Metaliks at 20th Floor of Tata Centre in Kolkata, I was courteously escorted to the Visitors Room. I was greeted there by Mr Harsh Kumar, Vice President of Marketing, Mr Amit Ghosh, General Manager of Finance and Mr Subhashis Dey, Company Secretary. Soon Mr Jha arrived and greeted me. Mr Jha had a saintly presence and his voice matched his personality. Mr Kumar looked very warm and flamboyant and his attire reflected his class as a marketing professional. Mr Ghosh looked very much the quintessential accountant but with an open mind. He seemed to be interested more in value add rather than cost-focused and prided in his upbringing as a Calcutta boy and Tata man. Mr Subhashish Dey looked very much secretarial, but was also very welcoming. There queries were centered around my past and my queries were centered around their vision for future. I had worked for a Steel Plant in SAIL and the daily turnover of SAIL was more than the annual turnover of Tata Metaliks. I was looking for a good reason to consider the shift back to corporate. The meeting lasted for about half an hour, and when I was leaving, Mr Jha saw me off at the door. I wanted to see the Plant at Kharagpur and my visit was readily arranged. The Chief of Operations Mr Daniel Kumar, personally accompanied me through the Plant visit and explained the process.

On my return from Seoul, I had several conversations with Mr Jha, and the final conversation was in Mayfair Hotel, Bhubaneswar over a Thai Dinner. I decided to join Tata Metaliks as Chief of HR based at Kharagpur Plant location. The day I reported at Tata Center to join, Mr Subhasish Dey helped me personally with the joining documentation and invited me out for lunch. He was driving his car personally, and on the way asked me if I could do him a favour. He wanted my help to select a new car he was thinking of buying. He parked his car at a Tata Vehicle Showroom. He was looking for an Indica Car, which was a craze in the market then. Mr Dey sought my views onabout the colour, upholstery and music system etc. Then we left the showroom, had lunch at a decent restaurant and returned to office. In the evening, while I was to return to the Guest House, Mr Sukumar, the secretary of MD asked me to see Mr Jha in his office. I saw Mr Kumar, Mr Ghosh and Mr Dey already present there. I thought there must be some urgent issues that might have come up at Kharagpur, as I was supposed to leave for Kharagpur the next day. They all looked serious and then suddenly Mr Jha asked me when was I planning to go to Kharagpur and how. I told him that I was planning to take a train. Mr Jha smiled and extended his hand towards me offering a car key. He said, “Here is your New Car, enjoy the drive”. I looked at Mr Dey. He was smiling. All of them were smiling. I was touched deep within. We had a cup of tea together before I was seen off by Mr Dey. This was the first perk-car in my corporate career. The way in which the Car was given to me was a classic act of “Human Touch”.

I suddenly remembered the day Tata Indica was launched by Mr Ratan Tata. I was watching the ceremony on TV along with my wife. I told my wife, that I wish Mr Tata gifts this car to me, some day. It was indeed no less than a gift from Mr Tata himself. Wishes do come true. During my tenure in Tata Metaliks, I had the privilege of meeting Mr Tata thrice, twice at the Regional Annual General Managers Meet in Taj Bengal, and once at the TBEM Meet in Puket. The very sight of Mr Tata is an overwhelming experience.

When I reached Kharagpur with my spouse, we were taken to the Plant Guest House. In the morning we had breakfast with Mr Jha. We were not expecting to see him but he was there. He inquired about our choice of residence, and offered a house which was earlier used as Guest House in Prem Bazar. We saw the house the same day. It was a huge 3-storied bungalow, with a large courtyard and a boundary, almost fully furnished. We decided to make it our home. Our children were in school and they joined the DAV School inside the IIT Campus. The choice of staying closer to IIT campus and choosing a school inside IIT campus, was taken assuming our children will be inspired by the IIT campus, as they see the hallowed IITians, students and professors around, every day, in flesh and blood. The IIT and DAV environment has instilled in them values that will last a life-time with them. I have been a workaholic and I did not have enough time to help my students in their studies. But I chose the schools carefully, schools that has had the finest learning environment, Loyola and DAV.

In May 2005, after completion of the performance appraisal process the increment and performance bonus was announced for all eligible employees. I know as the process owner that I was not eligible for I had not completed almost three quarters of the year in the assessment year. After all the letters were distributed, I received a sealed envelope from MD’s office marked confidential. When I opened the envelope, to my surprise, I had been awarded a substantial increment and a bonus of Rs. 100,000/. This was first time in my life I saw a Bonus of this magnitude.  While I was in SAIL, the maximum Bonus we could get was about Rs. 20,000/ for the whole year. I was delighted to read the handwritten letter of Mr Jha appreciating my work in such a short span.

The next year, I was assigned the major role as negotiator to acquire a Pig Iron Plant in Western India, and double the capacity in Kharagpur, dealing with two different unions in different geographies involving cultural sensitivities. Both the missions were successfully accomplished before the end of FY 2005-2006. I was expecting that my role would be appreciated but had not expected the way it was done. I received a promotion, a hefty increment and a bonus of Rs. 500,000/. This was beyond my wildest imagination!  On top of it, to my utter surprise, my wife was requested to come over to Kolkata to select a new Car, a premium sedan. The eligibility criterion was again waived. It was like magic and I had entered the wonderland of the Tata Group. From here on only a fool could have thought of leaving the Tata Group. “What goes up, shall have to come down one day”, my senior in SAIL Mr GS Mishra used to say.

I quit Tata Metaliks in May 2007 to join as General Manager – HR at POSCO India Project. I joined POSCO with dreamy eyes to be co-founder of India’s largest steel plant at the Bay of Paradip, with the worlds most advanced steel making technology – FINEX, completely pollution free and most environment friendly. I dreamt of turning into an architect of modern Odisha, and helping to build Odisha as the most developed State in India. When an employee quits a job, there are always two opposing forces at work – a pull factor and a push factor. The pull factor was strong on both sides here but my dream weighed heavier in favour of POSCO project. I felt great pain parting with Tata Metaliks, and a leader like Mr Harsh Jha.

Before I quit Tata Metaliks, I had requested MD not to announce my resignation until the last HOD meeting was over. I took part in the deliberations to decide if Tata Metaliks would take part in the TBEM assessment cycle for the year or take a break, prepare more and take part next year. The financials of the company had dipped in FY 2005-06. Everyone voted against participation. I was not contemplating to opine, but MD asked for my opinion. I said that the process of participation will keep us in a better shape and if we skip a year lethargy might creep in. Mr Jha agreed with my parting advice, and announced his decision to go ahead and participate in TBEM assessment. While announcing my resignation he stated his deep appreciation for my attitude to work and contribution.

As I was leaving his office for the last time, he came up to the door to see me off and told me I would be welcome if I find the journey in POSCO not going the way I had thought of. He texted me an SMS too as my train was approaching Bhubaneswar the next morning. I was touched again. He has been one of the finest persons I have worked with and I consider it an absolute honour and privilege to have worked under him. In the month of July 2007, I received a sealed envelope from Mr Jha with a handwritten “Thank You” note and a cheque of Rs.2,50,000/ as a Reward. In his note he recalled my advice in the last meeting and how the Company went on to be adjudged as the Best in Tata Group that year in TBEM assessment cycle, thereby bagging the JRDQV Award for FY 2006-07. This was magic revisiting me again. I showed that handwritten note to all my POSCO colleagues with pride.

I have experienced the magic of human touch many times later in my work-life, but there has been no experience that can equal the feeling I got during my work days at Tata Metaliks under the leadership of Mr Harsh Jha, who empowered his direct reports, with trust, training and self-belief to go beyond the limits of boundary-thinking, and excel. The human touch always percolates down the line.

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