S02 E02: Managers as Mentors in Driving Personalized Employee Engagement

Soumya Samuel
18 min read

For the second episode of the second season of CultureClub, we have with us Manoj Sharma, Joint President and CHRO of Aarti Industries. Manoj brings with him over 25 years of experience in the field and very eloquently sums up for us the evolution of manager roles and expectations in the last 2.5 decades.

During his stint as a people leader, Manoj has held several leadership positions at the factory and corporate level of multi-billion and multi-geography based conglomerates including Grasim & Hindalco, Vedanta and Chemaf SRL. He has been instrumental in providing strategic direction to HR interventions around Rewards & Recognition, Performance Management, Job Analysis & Evaluation, HR Policies & System Standardization, online HR systems, and more.

Manoj believes that managers are key to employee engagement and points out that even though terms like engagement and employee experience are very new to the field, the effort to engage/motivate employees has always been around. He emphasizes thereafter that even when he began his career and up until this day, there is an irreplaceable role that managers play in how employees feel about their work. Quoting his own example, Manoj says that the feedback from his first manager who identified the leadership potential in him has played a crucial role in how his career has evolved.

He further goes on to touch upon how managers drive individualized engagement and talks about some very important ways in which managers can build team engagement. Mapping employee roles to a purpose, enabling people in career development, providing clarity in job roles, are a few to name.

So for everyone who wants to delve deeper into how much the role of a manager has or hasn’t changed, and want to know some hands-on ways in which managers can improve engagement, here’s an insightful videocast of Manoj with Ketan (Head of People Function, Rentomojo) and Senthil (Founder & CEO, CultureMonkey).

Listen to the entire conversation to know more about this insightful session.


Senthil [00:00:02] Hi all, this is the second episode of CultureClub. In this season, we are talking about questions around the evolving role of managers. Today, we have Manoj Sharma from Aarti Industries and we have our good old Ketan, hosting the episode. So before we start, I just want to give a quick introduction about CultureMonkey. I was an engineer for more than a decade and worked in different countries and cities. Globally, I observed the point of view of an engineer or any worker for that matter, is not taken seriously by managers, even with multiple feedback sessions.

Senthil [00:01:11] There's no anonymity in one-on-one communications and even if we managed to communicate, there's no action taken, and all the feedback felt like it went into a black hole. So with all of this lack of traceability and lack of action on feedback, I lost hope in this whole process. That's when I started my own company, where we built software. I observed for a year that all the stakeholders in the company, including customers and employees, had zero attrition. That's when I realized, why don't we scale this? And we wanted to build SaaS on our own. We knew immediately that it must be a culture software.

Senthil [00:01:58] In 2018, we built CultureMonkey and now we have a lot of enterprise clients. It's so fulfilling to see that we can solve the same problem that I had faced, for more than seventy-five thousand unique employees. We have more than 2.5 million individual data points in just two years to learn a lot about engagement and culture. And with all this data, we realize that the managers have a very important role to play in engagement and culture, and they are the ones who are personalizing engagement for you and the team. Therefore, we have this season focusing on the evolving role of managers.

Senthil [00:02:44] While we have built all of this, we realize that we are highly technical and we need support from people leaders and that's why we have Ketan, who is supporting us in people science and concepts. Now let's start the episode. Ketan, over to you.

Ketan [00:03:13] Thank you so much, Senthil. We have a very special guest today Manoj Kumar Sharma. I call him Manoj Sir, you would understand why there's a sir attached to that. Not that I ever reported to him, but the kind of mentorship he has provided to me. Manoj sir is the Joint President and CHRO at  Aarti Industries. He's worked with brands like Grasim & Hindalco, which were part of the Aditya Birla group. That's where I interacted with him. He spent about 20 years with these two companies combined. Then he moved to Vedanta and Chemaf. Now he works with  Aarti Industries.

Ketan [00:04:10] He brings with him 25 years of experience in Human Resources across reputed brands which have a national and international presence. He is an alumnus of the University of California, Berkeley and did his two masters from Barkatullah University. I know him from the Aditya Birla Group days. In June 2006, I landed up in Renukoot, Hindalco is a flagship manufacturing setup for the Aditya Birla Group, and I was hired there. So most likely I was going to get placed but during my initial stint, I was supposed to get exposure across various companies.

Ketan [00:05:00] After (work) hours, I used to play badminton with Manoj sir and we used to have a lot of conversations.  He didn't spend time with us on transactions, but the conversation was meaningful and futuristic. He would think about things that nobody would have thought about. And I remember when I was moving out after my two-month stint, that's when sir also got called to Mumbai corporate office for a larger role.

Ketan [00:06:25] We've been watching and observing him. Few days back, we connected and when I was speaking to Senthil about a topic around sustaining and growing engagement and how the role of managers has evolved, I couldn't think of anybody else but to speak to Manoj sir. We are grateful to him that he's given us his time. So welcome again Manoj sir to the CultureClub Masterclass session powered by CultureMonkey.

Ketan [00:06:55] Before we get into the questions, if you could tell us more about you, your organization and  broadly about how important is the role of managers in the various organizations and industries, that would be really helpful.

Manoj [00:07:20] You have made me nostalgic. I have spent 19 years with the ABG and 12 years in the plant locations. It is very close to my heart. That is where my foundation comes from, that is the formative years for me to be amongst people and managing the transactions and seeing things very closely from the experience point of view. Then came the moment in my life when I was asked to report at the corporate office. Since then life has been great.

Manoj [00:08:13] I spent close to nine years in the corporate office and not only brought success for myself but success for a company like Hindalco, which grew from a four billion-dollar company to a close to 20 billion-dollar company in the current year, which has its footprint all across. The job has taken me to various places worldwide. And I had the privilege to interact with people of all communities; privilege to travel on many occasions to Australia, US and Brazil and to learn from the various communities. So that has made me a very fulfilling person and a very happy person to work in the people's business.

Manoj [00:09:09] Coming to your questions, I would say the role of the manager is demanding and it is evolving powerfully. When I look back at my manager and if he had not been in my life, I think I would have been nothing. I still remember my first appraisal. In that appraisal, he had written feedback that - “Manoj has strong leadership potential and he has the business acumen to do this job in an entrepreneurial manner.” I don't know why but this has always remained in my heart.

Manoj [00:10:31] The manager played a very significant role in my career. When I was working closely with my manager, I realized I have a lot to learn from him, so I requested him that I want to be his shadow. I spent a lot of time with the manager, sitting in his office and doing my job but observing him on how he is conducting himself. I got a lot of grips to do business communication from him.

Manoj [00:12:04] During those days, people didn't want to type letters/emails themselves when they had secretaries. But he used to sit with his secretary and give dictation. And the thought process which he brings in, that inspired me. That's not small. It's very powerful because leaders create leaders and for creating leaders, you have to be with them. It cannot happen in isolation. It can impact your leadership which may become your natural state of action, which may become your competitive edge to deal with the issues, situations and proposals.

Manoj [00:13:25] In the end, they make you fulsome and holistic in terms of what you have been able to drive through your proposal and work. And that knowledge, awareness, sensitization and experience come when you are deeply engaged and your manager is also deeply engaged with you. I never heard of engagement during my formative years, but now I realize it - that psychological connection brings the best out of you. Yes, that role was fundamentally played by my manager and I used to call him sir or boss. But that language has changed today.

Manoj [00:14:36] I had about five to six bosses and I enjoyed the relationship with those individuals. Everybody has put in those efforts in me, and whatever I am today is because of my managers and their willingness to contribute to bringing change in me. I have been given brutal feedback in my life. And fortunately, I have taken those feedback as a point of action. That brutal feedback can be given only when you share that rapport. The relationship that I shared with my managers is more like a coach, mentor, anchor and life partners for my success.

Manoj [00:16:05] I would say God has given them that authority in the form of a manager to impact and influence anyone. So the manager does play a powerful role in the lives of people. We are successful because of the role that the manager has played and credit goes to them. Yes, in the end, you have to work on yourself and improve your listening. You have to take that brutal feedback as your action point rather than feeling victimized about it. You should feel responsible about it, act on it and move on. It's a process that is where the individual needs to work and the managers are there for their guidance.

Senthil [00:17:21] It's a great point because for a transformation to happen, for anything to be born as new, it takes pain. So we need to embrace that. You talked about your first manager and it's a clean sweep for me. I quit my job and I was going to join another company, but my first manager was so sure that I'm going to become an entrepreneur.

Senthil [00:18:03] I started my first company after my first job. Once you are an entrepreneur, there's no escape. So like you rightly said, as a Founder, all the things that I'm doing can only be attributed to that person. I was able to completely relate to all the points you said.

Manoj [00:18:26] Thank you so much

Ketan [00:18:32] There's a concept that you talk about how managers differentiate between output and work. Could you give a quick perspective about that? I've always admired that. I'm sure it's going to add a lot of value to people who are on the other side.

Manoj [00:18:55] It's a fundamental and an important question to know exactly what is an outcome and what is work. And to know how your manager can bring in the workplace to move you - in your life - or the team members. So the output is more like creating a purpose. Why do you exist, why does this role or job exist? What is this job delivering to the people or the internal and external stakeholders? For example, one of the fundamental jobs of the HR head is servicing the basic needs of the people in terms of timeliness of things or the hire-to-retire process and all are transactional and routine. The purpose of this role is to serve the basic needs.

Manoj [00:20:42] To serve those basic needs, you need to have goods, contracts, team members and operational discipline in place. Those are your roles and responsibilities on a day-to-day basis. But the fundamental output is servicing the basic needs. If I relate this with Maslow's model of hierarchy, the basic need is where everything rests, what is expected out of you, and then the resources required to deliver that job.

Manoj [00:21:41] Members of the team are not able to relate to their job. So the manager needs to create that clarity on the role and the output before hiring a person. I realized clarity brings capability. You hire capable people but because of clarity issues, most of them lined up as non-performers. So the clarity in the lives of the people is an important aspect, and the role of the manager is to bring that clarity.

Manoj [00:23:20] What is promotion? The grey area for a team member is, I'm not promoted by my manager. But what exactly is promotion. Why are they targeting their manager for that? If you go to the depth of it, promotion is nothing, but it's a factor of two things, the opportunities and capabilities. Managers create opportunities and create a platform for people to develop themselves. People have to learn, unlearn and upscale themselves to be ready to grab those opportunities. So promotion is always a factor of opportunity and capability. And if you are capable, the manager has the authority to create those opportunities.

Manoj [00:24:34] Clarity is the fundamental role of the manager to bring in the eyes of the people, to work on their engagement and to have a larger stake in the game because the individual wants to see what is the impact of his/her role in the game. How it is fulfilling the overall mission, purpose and motto of my company. How it is related to my vision and mission. People want to see that meaning and that is the whole aspect of purpose. That is the role played by the manager.

Manoj [00:25:27] The manager has a unique responsibility. It's evolving fast and dynamic. Nowadays people are saying we are a hierarchy free company. We are a hierarchy agnostic company. But the hierarchy is more of an anchor, mentor and leader. Even the command and control organizations are transforming.

Ketan [00:26:14] So do you think that organizations without a manager could be a reality of the future?

Manoj [00:26:26] That's a great question. By nature, I'm a big optimist. Twenty years back, I had a thought in my mind, the computer is your subordinate. Today, it's becoming reality in terms of machines and AI. The jobs are getting very independent without much of an interface. It's getting more automated and program-driven. That is the power of technology. But that fundamental aspect of knowing your people, loving your people is still a big question.

Manoj [00:27:52] That's why I do feel managers are going to be there. They cannot be taken out of the system. When I say that, it means the hierarchies will remain in the system. How those hierarchies would operate is transforming. It's not operating the way it used to operate 10 years back, it is now more of an enabler and mentor. Many become managers because of the tenure. Those are the fundamental changes coming into the system. People may not become a manager because of the tenure. But, yes, we would need some level of human touch and personal touch in the form of a coach, guide or anchor to channelise the energy and thought process of the people.

Ketan [00:29:32] I heard two parts of the world, one saying that engagement is the headache of HR and another saying that managers have the maximum impact on engagement. What's your point of view? Why do you think the world still stays divided? At least my point of view is that managers are the most significant people who create an impact.

Manoj [00:30:07] HR is such a function where everybody has views.In a way, everybody plays the role of a HR. If you throw a question everybody would have their own view on HR. It is the function where everybody can provide a perspective without knowing the know-how of it. It's interesting and challenging from that point of view. Everybody has a view of HR or HR practices, and they feel their view is the best. So that is how the world is operating, that is how people are operating, and there is one side of HR function per se you know which is the custodian of the various policies, practices and  system and culture and they try to create their own world and they try to impact that world to these people.

Manoj [00:31:33]  Now what is happening depends on at what stage the organisation is in. They need to coexist in my view. It's not something at the cost of the other. They need to coexist and that coexistence needs to be co-created. So HR functions per se need to think, how they have to align and collaborate with people and these people need to be imparted with tools, techniques, frameworks, guidance, know-how or knowledge to do that work. That balancing is needed, but in my opinion, it will coexist and it has to coexist. Then only a more balanced, sustainable and robust approach can be created.

Manoj [00:32:50] So for sustenance purposes, coexistence is a must. I might have not answered your questions directly. It's not a binary question though, but I feel that coexistence is the one. And that balance is important. Fortunately, this is a big realization with the new generation and a lot of people are now taking up this as a career. In a class of eighty, only five people took HR as a major when I graduated. Nobody wanted a career in HR. But today that's not the case. It will be coexistence. It will be more of a co-creation and coexistence. That is something I'm trying to create in the Aarti Industry.

Ketan [00:34:46] With whatever we have gone through the last year where digital became a way of working, interactions started to happen remotely. Do you see a change in the expectation that organizations or employees have from their managers? What are the major shifts that you have seen over the last year which is going to stay for long in your opinion?

Manoj [00:35:12] I have a couple of hands-on experience here when I'm dealing with  people in manufacturing locations and metro locations. In both these perspectives, the role of the manager and team members is different. HR people have always been proposing to have five days a week or four days a week. And most of the corporates were not inclined. But this pandemic, which is a big event in the lives of the people, has got all of us. Now people are thinking of working from anywhere.

Manoj [00:36:28] So the point here is, I think the fundamentals and the thought process has been disrupted big time. All of us have learned a lot at the cost of our safety and people have realized that we could remain productive, relevant and still do our job. And the managers have realized that they don't have to watch people. Since we are learning this process, there is a lot of a productivity issue which managers are facing because everything is calendar-based and time-based.

Manoj [00:38:14] Since managers were not equipped to understand and deal with this world, they try to develop their mechanisms to deal with the situation. As a result, a lot of work gets shifted. I initiated a project, I thought it could get over in three months but it took six months. So we need to understand that to what extent work from home is feasible. We need to understand if it's practical for the organization and it may vary from company to company. In a hardcore manufacturing company, people need to show up to manage those assets.

Manoj [00:39:24] In the manufacturing locations with the help of my managers, we re-organized the shift pattern and rostering which is unheard of in Indian organizations. We had four days, three days and two days roster. We put in our efforts to learn the technology and automatically everything did fall in place. The situation teaches human beings better. Yes, work got delayed. But from the HR point of view, we didn't demand productivity during this time. The softer aspect is important, and that is what we created. That is where the manager has played a big role by remaining level-headed rather than talking about non-performance or productivity issues.

Manoj [00:41:13] I think for that, most of the organizations take a lot of initiatives to re-orient their people and the people managers on how to conduct during these kinds of scenarios. In my case, I have done 120 days of work with my people in terms of orienting them on how to deal during this period so that they feel confident to deal with the situation. So these are a few thoughts.

Manoj [00:42:03] Work from home is a big possibility now in our context, especially in India. It's going to be a big flexible system. Many companies have given up their office space. I remember when HR proposed to introduce five days a week, they face tremendous resistance from their stakeholders. Today, stakeholders are clear on flexibility, as long as people can deliver their job to a reasonable level of performance.

Ketan [00:43:14] This question has more to do with the younger generation. With the average age coming down of the workforce, what is the one thing that you would want any manager to focus on?

Manoj [00:43:43] How they relate to their job is the fundamental thing and that clarity is provided by the manager. When they are out of campus, when they come to the corporate or to the locations, how they relate to their job, where they see their skills and capabilities are used, how it is used, and how they can ramp up their skills and capabilities and the fundamental aspect is they want to feel responsible. It's not about their career, it's about their life. When they start their first job, there's always this question that arises, what am I doing? This is the fundamental question to address. And only the respective manager can address that.

Ketan [00:45:06] You said that the younger generation is more purpose-driven, meaning-driven and managers need to create a connection between their life and how career will enable them rather than career being the end.

Manoj [00:45:23] It's about their life, not about their career.

Senthil [00:45:27] I'm curious, sir, what is the best answer you ever received for this question?

Manoj [00:45:49] I have not yet received the best answer. But it's a big painpoint in the eyes of the manager and team members. Every year, I interact with not less than two thousand people. I used to interact with more than five thousand people earlier.  Every year, I interact with 3000 youngsters. I go to various campuses to address people. This remains a fundamental concept. And I think some level of clarity is needed here to disrupt the jobs at this level. Because it's run of a mill kind of a system. And when you bring your people from campus and you put them into that run of mill, people are not ready.

Manoj [00:46:53] They want to see a bigger meaning and purpose because it's about their life. It's not about the money they're getting in their bank account at the end of the month. Today's generation is far away from this. That is one area in which an organization needs to introspect and take a shot on how they can disrupt this run of the mill. Every year, you hire 200 to 300 people and put them into one year, six months, or two years of rigour. And at the end of two years, you expect that Eureka will be there. If you see the attrition level of the first two years in the job, it's very high. My estimate is to the extent of 50 to 60%, or maybe 70%. In some companies, it's 100% in two years and I'm talking about bigger brands.

Manoj [00:48:14] The fundamental reason is that the organization and the manager are not able to create that purpose and clarity in the minds of the youngsters on how they relate to their job.

Ketan [00:48:46] I wish we had an hour or two more with Manoj sir, but that takes me to the fifth question, there's something that we've been trying to solve and understand at CultureMonkey. Do you think that engagement of the future will see a huge shift towards personalization rather than the one-size-fits-all practices? Do you think technology is going to enable that? What's your point of view on this?

Manoj [00:49:19] I'm a big advocate of shelf-life. Each practice has a shelf-life. And that shelf-life needs to be continuously disrupted to remain relevant. Personalization or customization of individual needs is important to enhance the shelf-life. That depends on the organization or the leaders of that organization. Because most of the organizations initiate best practices. But while executing those practices, the objective becomes something else. So that is the larger concern and that is where the role of technology is going to be important. Because technology brings reliability and integrity.

Ketan [00:51:38] I have four rapid-fire questions for you. That's the most interesting part of the conversation. So the first one is, if not HR as a profession, what would you have chosen?

Manoj [00:51:55] People person.

Ketan [00:52:01] Is there a professional or personal goal that you are chasing right now and would like to talk about and inspire us?

Manoj [00:52:11] I'm chasing two goals. One is a professional goal, rather than being called a CHRO, I have given a declaration to my people and my declaration is, I'm an enabler and a medium for them to realize their vision. So I want to live up to that.

Manoj [00:52:48] My personal goal is to contribute my experience in the form of a book which is something I want to write along with my wife.

Ketan [00:53:10] One book that had the maximum impact on you and you would prescribe to the audience for them to pick up?

Manoj [00:53:23] Two books that I liked are, First Break All the Rules and The First 90 Days.

Ketan [00:53:32] One thing that you would personally thank COVID personally for?

Manoj [00:53:45] During the lockdown, I managed to reduce 18 kgs. For that, I thank COVID. I regained my confidence and my health. And I'm ready for the future challenges now. Personally, a lot of good things happened to me during COVID days. From the professional front, I was able to maintain business continuity. And improve the health of my mother. Shifted into my new house in Mumbai.

Ketan [00:55:02] Thank you so much, sir, for such a wonderful session. I have my three-page note here. Got a lot of interesting nuggets and insights. I've got a few problems that I've been trying to solve, I could see some fundamental outcome for that. Senthil, thank you again for bringing me here and helping me connect to people who have always inspired me.

Senthil [00:55:32] Thanks a lot. It was an extraordinary episode. I don't want to say anything new and deviate audiences from all the points that Manoj sir has mentioned. We have a lot to catch up on offline. I'll book more meetings with you and get inspired just like Ketan. Thanks a lot to both of you gentlemen for your time. Let's meet again for the next episode.