S02 E03: Redefining Manager Roles for Impactful Employee Engagement

Soumya Samuel
20 min read

In this episode of the second season of CultureClub, we were fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to chat with Sunil Naik, Director of Human Resources - India & South Asia for DHL Global Forwarding. Sunil who started his career on the business side says he stumbled upon Human Resources 15 years ago, and there has been no turning back ever since.

In this fun-filled, insightful chat, Sunil candidly talks about how the role of managers as we once knew it has transformed into a newer avatar that goes with the current needs of the workplace and the workforce.

Along with being a people leader, Sunil is also a coach and foodie. He completely believes in the magic that lies within each of us and works with individuals to help them discover “ridiculously good” versions of themselves.

In his overall career spanning across Sales and HR, he has been instrumental in building strong teams, setting up successful channel partners, developing people policies and HR practices, and making the organizations he has worked with great places to work for. Above all, Sunil cherishes the great stories of people, achievements, and initiatives that he has managed to collate along his journey.

In this interaction, Sunil speaks about the changing organizational structures, be it because of remote work or project-specific teams that are being formed, and how this change impacts the roles of managers. From a control-and-manage standpoint, managers are now expected to coach and mentor teams. He also goes on to add that the role of managers has clearly evolved beyond designations and tenure, and managers are no less than leaders now.

Further on, he talks about how a shift in perspective can change the way engagement is managed within an organization. He proposes that leaders see engagement as necessary for driving business results than as a mere KPI of the HR team. And for this to happen, he believes it is important for everyone from the top management to frontline managers to be in alignment, feedback taking to be a part of the organizational culture, and actions on the feedback to be communicated to employees.

Furthermore, he also shares his point of view on technology’s role in people management and how a changing workforce is impacting engagement.

So, if HR conversations around employee engagement, the evolving workforce and the manager’s role in engagement are something that interests you, here’s a chat hosted by Ketan (Head of People Function, Rentomojo) and moderated by Senthil (Founder & CEO, CultureMonkey) that you will thoroughly enjoy. And who knows, you might just stumble upon some ideas to enhance engagement within your organization.


Senthil [00:00:15] Hi all, this is Season Two of CultureClub, and this time we are talking about the evolving role of managers in company culture. Today, we have Sunil Naik from DHL joining us and we are going to have some interesting points around the usual questions that Ketan fires. And all of those questions are very carefully curated by Ketan to spoon out the most valuable content from our honourable guests. Soumya from CultureMonkey who's leading marketing is also joining us. She's connecting from Mangalore.

Senthil [00:00:51] This episode will be hosted by our good old Ketan and he needs no introduction. So before we go to the actual episode, we have the habit of talking about what CultureMonkey is, a small story always does justice. I'm the CEO and Founder of CultureMonkey. I've been an engineer for 11-12 years of my life. And being an engineer, there's so much that people can empathize with. So that's a privilege to us.

Senthil [00:01:41] I've worked in many places across cities in India, Europe, Singapore. Engineering is a mathematical function. With managers, I was never able to communicate how happiness and freedom can enable maximum productivity in engineering teams. So with all my point of view, I was never able to successfully communicate the message across to all my managers. I was scared to be open because it's not going to be anonymous. Even if they understood the messages, it almost felt like all my feedback went into a black hole and there was no closure on those feedback and no traceability.

Senthil [00:02:35] That's when I lost hope in this process and started our own software consultancy company called Effy in 2017. Joseph is the Co-founder and we started working with smart engineers and we were able to deliver zero attrition, both on customers and employees. We were sitting down and thinking, what is it about us that everybody enjoys? All stakeholders were enjoying the way we did it.

Senthil [00:03:11] The DNA of our companies, the way we treat people, has made a major difference in how we run companies and the maximum performance we were able to deliver. So we felt, why don't we take this and scale this? That's when in 2018 we realized that we'll build this culture software and call it CultureMonkey. We have a lot of enterprise clients and it's so fulfilling to see that we are impacting seventy-five thousand unique employees. We are solving the same problem that I had faced years ago. We have 2.5 million individual data points that talk about the culture and it feeds us to understand the pattern of what's going on in companies.

Senthil [00:03:58] That's when we realized managers play a key role in personalizing engagement and culture for their teams. And therefore, we have this topic covered in CultureClub Season Two. Being engineers, technology is our first mother tongue. So with that, we always felt we needed a people leader. We need someone who is a master of people sciences to join our team and advise us and mentor us to give the right mix of humans and technology. And that's when we started working with Ketan. It's been more than a year now and we’re enjoying the journey.

Senthil [00:04:42] In CultureMonkey we listen, analyze, act, personalize and grow. These are the five things that you can do with CultureMonkey in your companies and without any further delay, let's get into this episode. Ketan, back to you.

Ketan [00:05:01] Thank you so much, Senthil. Feels good to hear that I am considered an expert in the people area. For our audience, we have a very special guest today. His name is Sunil Naik, he is the Director - HR for India and South Asia at DHL Global Forwarding. He's also a career coach. And the most important part is he's a foodie. That's the most interesting experience that I take back with my interaction with Sunil. He's worked with brands like IPCA, Exxon Mobil, Home Solution Retail, Aditya Birla Retail and Fortis prior to DHL.

Ketan [00:05:38] And if I remember correctly, Sunil has been a businessperson and then moved into HR. That was a shift that he carried on for him. There's something very interesting on his LinkedIn profile that says, the people explorer and coach who loves making magic happen by working with individuals to support and enable them to become ridiculously good versions of themselves.

Ketan [00:06:09] Sunil is an alumnus of XLRI Jamshedpur, IIM Kozhikode and Cochin University. I've known him from the Aditya Birla days. I started my career as a management trainee and I was full of energy and I would take loads of work to do. I could deliver them, but I struggled. I thought I will only get work, which I can do, but I was having far more work than actually what I could have delivered.

Ketan [00:06:46] I used to observe Sunil clearly, he's somebody who would be there on the timeline and the deadline that has been given. I never heard about Sunil or his team saying that we are delayed and not that he had less work, that was because he was doing something different. He would always have a notebook with him and would write down everything. I would see him either on the system or on his notebook. And that's a huge lesson that I picked up from him, that is to note things and break it down to tasks.

Ketan [00:07:28] The practice continues with me for the last 13 years. And this is Sunil who introduced me to the concept of writing my daily goals and following them through. My productivity improved, I was far more structured in the approach, and that's the kind of impact somebody like Sunil has left in my life. I've been fortunate to have worked with him so early in my career. Sunil, I thank you again for this and this chapter is there in my book also. It is so important for me.

Ketan [00:08:18] Thank you for agreeing to this one. I'm sure there's a lot that I would take from the session and everybody who's watching the session can take it from you. Sunil, welcome again to the CultureClub Masterclass powered by CultureMonkey. As Senthil said this season, we are talking about “Sustaining and growing employee engagement: the evolving role of managers”. Before I get to the questions, could you tell more about yourself and your organization.

Sunil [00:08:57] Absolutely. Thank you very much, Katen. An absolute pleasure and an honour to be a part of a session like this. Senthil, Soumya, thank you so much for having me here. Before I start, maybe I need to show that I still have the notebook with me. I still write everything in the notebook. I just can't do without my notebooks. I have more notebooks than my children, and my wife keeps complaining that I have more stationery than they do. But it has helped me a lot.

Sunil [00:09:28] Ketan you're being too kind. When you go in and tell me that you've learned a lot from me, I think we have learned a lot from you. At least I have learned a lot from you and it's been an absolute pleasure working with you.What I enjoyed was when Senthil started by saying good old Ketan. I always saw Ketan as the management trainee and I felt extremely happy when you addressed him as good and old. Ketan welcome to this side.

Sunil [00:10:11] I'm a part of DHL. I represent DHL Global Forwarding at the moment. We are part of the Deutsche Post DHL Group. We are a Bonn-based German company in logistics. Our basic ethos is to be the logistics company for the world. We genuinely believe that we have an opportunity to go ahead and connect people and improve lives. And when you spoke about culture and about what we represent, I think that's exactly what we do, which is not just moving goods from point A to point B. But what we do is connect people and improve lives. I've been with the organization for around nine years now and I'm thoroughly enjoying myself.

Sunil [00:11:04] Ketan also mentioned that I started from the business side. Many of my old friends and colleagues still ask me, what am I doing in HR? I've stumbled into HR. It was not my lifelong goal or passion to get into HR. But for almost 15 years I've been with HR and I've completely enjoyed it. I genuinely mean what I have written on my LinkedIn profile when I say that I want to make people ridiculously good versions of themselves because I think there's a great opportunity for that.

Sunil [00:11:48] I'm a foodie. I have one wife and two daughters. Both my wife and I have survived the lockdown without killing each other and enjoying life. I've enjoyed working in an environment before Covid. Covid taught us a lot and I've also enjoyed working in the Covid environment and I'm looking forward to what the future will bring to all of us.

Ketan [00:12:20]  I'll come to the first part of the question. Do you think organizations without a manager could be a reality of the future? There's a lot of conversation that's been happening around a topic like this. We thought, why don't we pick your brain to get your point of view on (this). Do you think that the world without managers could be a reality?

Sunil [00:12:56] It's an interesting question, Ketan. If you had asked me this question a year back, my answers could have been potentially different. But what I have seen over the past year is that as far as the role is concerned at least from a front-page standpoint, the role seems to be slowly losing its importance. We've got teams that are working remotely. We've got people who have been working on their own. If you see the past, what I believe is that most organizations were running trying to go ahead and build on efficiency or effectiveness, et cetera. But now, we are looking at working towards ensuring that there's more transparency, accountability and more ownership.

Sunil [00:13:48] If you look at the role profile, I don't see a requirement for a manager coming in. But what I also realized is that managers become managers not only because of the experience or the tenure that they bring in, but also because they are good leaders. What's expected now from a manager is more towards leadership. In the future, we will need managers to handle teams, but the structure of the teams is going to change. Hierarchies, organizational structures are going away and you're getting these sort of networks or groups that are being formed which are very functional and you will automatically have somebody who's managing work from those projects coming up. They will be the managers of the future.

Sunil [00:14:45] What's expected from these managers are to be good listeners. You need to be that sort of person who is a problem solver. You need managers who will be able to take care of their teams. Those are the things that are going to be important and we need to start building or developing skills for our managers for the future. So the short answer to your question is, yes, we will continue to have managers, but it's not going to be designation-driven or tenure-driven. You need to earn your respect as a manager. I don't see it coming in just because you've got a designation of a manager and hence, you are becoming a manager. That's my take on it. I hope I've been able to make sense.

Ketan [00:15:46] What I hear you say is that the role would still be there. But it'll be in a different avatar and I liked the point that it has to be earned and it will be more about leading. One thing that I can add is coaching would become a very important element for the managers of the future because the role would be less about control, more about how we keep them aligned to a larger purpose or a mission.

Senthil [00:16:32] I want to insert this one quote that complements what Sunil said is that “Leadership is taken and it's not given”.  

Ketan [00:16:52] So that brings me to another dimension. Now, with the concept of engagement, I have been hearing two opinions. One, it's HR's responsibility and second, it's managers who have the maximum impact on engagement. What's been your experience? Why has the world been divided about the impact that the manager has on employee engagement?

Sunil [00:17:25] It depends upon the definition of what you consider as engagement. When you look at engagement as one of the people practices that you are going ahead and doing in an organization where you are only collating information as part of your KPI, then it loses value. The moment you look at engagement as an equally important factor for driving business results, then it makes a difference.

Sunil [00:18:03] There are enough studies to go ahead and prove the fact that an engaged organization gives better business results than a disengaged organization. In that aspect, if this understanding can be provided to your business leaders, business managers and the business line, the ownership will come automatically because you will realize that, if I can communicate or relate to my teams better, I will be able to get a better response from them.

Sunil [00:18:40] I can give you an example of connecting people and improving lives. Now, as a statement, this sounds very grandiose. But can I get my teams to be engaged enough to understand how the activity that they are doing, the role that they're doing translates to connecting people and improving lives? That is a way in which you can understand how engagement works, and that can only happen if there is a connection or communication from the senior management to the first-line leaders, from the first-line leaders to the supervisors, from the supervisors to the team members. And if everybody is in harmony, then we can get an engaged workforce who knows exactly what they are doing.

Sunil [00:19:38] I would look at it as maybe three steps. One is, of course, to go ahead and seek feedback. When you talk about engagement, try and understand what works and what does not work. The second would be to communicate whatever is happening, and the third would be to go ahead and take action based on whatever has been provided. If you take the necessary steps to do whatever is needed, then people will start to understand that there's a value behind it and we need to reach out and work together as a team.

Ketan [00:20:11] Interesting. The major point that I picked up from what you said is, it has to be beyond KPI, where it is the responsibility of a function. It has to be the way or it has to move into the belief system of the organization saying that we have to be engaged for the organization to do better. Then it becomes joint ownership rather than being one person or one department's responsibility. That was great, thank you.

Sunil [00:20:44] One more interesting point that I had from the name that you have for the organization, CultureMonkey. So if you look at the term culture, there's a very interesting statement or phrase which says that culture eats strategy for breakfast and that's true. If there is a culture of engagement in an organization, then any strategy that you want to put into place, any action plan that you're putting into place will work. If that is not a part of your culture, it's not going to work.

Ketan [00:21:35] The recent changes where the world has gone digital, do you think that there has been an impact on the expectations that employees or organizations have from their managers? Because things are different and suddenly the walls are gone, people are working remotely. So do you see a shift in the expectation?

Sunil [00:22:02] Oh, without doubt, Ketan, I think over the past years, many myths have been broken. We are a typical operations-driven organization that works in the supply chain. So when you talk about supply chain, again, the answer lies in the word itself. We work as a chain and you've got different links that are supposed to be linked to each other and in a particular sequence. So there was always an assembly-line kind of a structure in terms of what we do.

Sunil [00:22:39] Now, COVID came in March, and suddenly these links are all in different locations. People are working at different homes. There was such a lot of anxiety and interestingly, the anxiety was with the managers, not with the teams. The teams are pretty confident saying, we'll be able to work. So I think the only thing that sort of holds this together and what we need to now understand as a part of any strategy that we are putting in is the advent of technology or digitization.

Sunil [00:23:16] I shudder to think if COVID had struck 10 years back, what we would have done. We would have had challenges with technology. We would have had difficulties with connectivity. We wouldn't have been able to have a conversation like this. And I believe that all of this is possible because of technology. So from a manager's perspective, this is a whole new gamut of responsibilities. As a team member, what I expect from my manager is somebody who is more tech-savvy. I can't be scared of technology. As a manager, I need to be comfortable with new tech. I need to be willing to invest in technology. I have a strategy saying technology and digitization, but I don't follow it and I still want you to go ahead and use a notebook. I don't know whether that's going to work.

Sunil [00:24:23] The second aspect that's also getting worked on is data savviness. Are we using data appropriately? Because I can't ask you, I can't see you and take quick feedback from you in terms of what's happening. Because there's a lot of analytics that is being done. There's a lot of information that's available for us. Now, are we using it appropriately or not? Maybe just to give you an example, as an organization, we have a huge amount of tools that are available in the system.

Sunil [00:25:00] You have survey options available. You've got branding options available. But we never tend to use them or until COVID we never used them. Just giving an example, they keep saying that as Indians, the only DIY tool that we use is the telephone. I don't use any tool to go in and fix my plumbing issues. I call up a plumber and sort it out. That's exactly what we do as managers as well. The moment there is a concern, I can reach out to somebody around for EDM work and PowerPoint presentation rather than finding out what tools are available. Suddenly technology has come to the front and centre. Now, we have to use technology and be comfortable with it.

Sunil [00:25:57] So I believe that for the future if you're looking at it from a manager's perspective, we need to be more comfortable with technology and willing to risk it. We need to be more data-savvy. We have to make use of the technology that's available to the full extent. I think you also need to understand that it's a combination of people and tech. The workforce for the future is no longer going to be just people, it's going to be a combination of technology and people. And we need to understand how to value, appreciate and make full use of both these.

Ketan [00:27:06] You've already captured that because the question that I wanted to ask was what are the new things that managers have to adopt but I'll add a new dimension to that. You've spoken about the impact covid had on the expectations from the manager. The workforce, especially in the context of India is also getting younger. Now, with that, do you see that the managers of today need to drive some changes, look at things differently? Does it have a potential impact, in your point of view?

Sunil [00:27:51] I firmly believe that every decade brings in a shift. Based on our working life, at any given point in time, you're going to have maybe four categories of people who are going to be a part of a team. Maybe right now, the 80s, 90s, 2000, 2010. You are going to have people who started their career in one of these decades being a part of our teams. Now, what worked for the 80s is not going to work for the 90s. What worked for the 90s is not going to work for the 2000s. And what's working for the 2000s is not going to work for the people who are there in 2010s.

Sunil [00:28:43] Now, what I mean when I say this is their experiences, their thought processes, the technology that they're using and what their motives are, are all going to be different. If I can give you an example of something as simple as our compensation structure, assuming I'm hiring somebody who is in their mid-40s or early 50s, I'm going to be more interested in my statutory benefits, my provident fund, the gratuity benefits that I'm going to gain, while if I'm looking at somebody who's in their early 20s, I'm looking at cash, take home and employee assistance programs. I'm looking at work from home, flexibility and sabbatical opportunity that's available for me.

Sunil [00:29:39] The motivators for them are going to be completely different. So can I go in and say there is a single size that fits all? No, it's just interesting to note that finally, the ball seems to come and get stuck on the managers again, it's the managers who will need to understand how to handle the situations. And they will have to look at different strokes for different folks. They need to understand how to handle the guys who are in their mid-40s and 30s? I don't see one being more difficult than the other. It's more in terms of us understanding their priorities, understanding their needs, and then seeing what best we can do for them.

Ketan [00:30:28] You also spoke about one size fits all may not work. There's a question that I have around that. Do you believe that engagement of the future will see a shift from this one size fits all to more towards personalization? If yes, what can organizations do to enable managers in this journey? Do you see that the engagement is moving towards personalization?

Sunil [00:31:03] It is only about personalization. I don't see us going ahead and working with one size fits all. What engages me or what's going to drive me is going to be completely different from what is going to drive you or Soumya or Senthil or anybody else, because our needs and requirements are different. I think what's also important for us to understand is that when you look at engagement, there should be an underlying theme that connects everything. So that is what we mean when we say culture. Now, what is the tool or how we can explain it to each of these different groups is what will change. So when you say that it has to be personalized, I don't see the theme or the culture or the vision mission changing. It is how I communicate with our people that are going to shift from one to another.

Ketan [00:32:11] Before I bring this to the end, I have five rapid-fire questions for you. And I'm sure with you this is going to be fun. The first one is, if not HR as a profession, what would you have chosen?

Sunil [00:32:40] Food critic. I would have loved roaming around and getting paid for telling people that their food is good.

Ketan [00:32:53] Between cooking, cleaning and mopping during COVID, which was easier?

Sunil [00:33:06] I enjoyed cooking. I loved the fact that I could keep experimenting. Now, don't ask this question to my wife because she had to do the cleaning and mopping and she was worried about the mess that I left on the kitchen counter. I tried doing that and I'd rather cook than clean  

Ketan [00:33:53] What's the next goal that you're chasing? Could be personal or professional that you're looking forward to?

Sunil [00:34:00] What I would like to do is, try and do something that can bring all my passions together. What I am looking forward to is maybe opening up a cafe. Have a place where I could get people together, allow people to express their views, allow me to talk to people and hear their opinions and in the meantime, also have fun.

Ketan [00:34:46] Bangalore would be a good place to start your first unit.

Soumya [00:34:52] Yeah, that was my question as well. Where is this going to be set up?

Sunil [00:34:58] So I haven't decided. I've got a few years left, but I'm definitely up to find out if there are good locations because I genuinely feel it's a great opportunity for me to get all of us together. I got a good name for the place. I'm thinking of what the menu will look like and how do I personalize the menu.

Ketan [00:35:29] One book that had maximum impact on you, and you would recommend it to the readers?

Sunil [00:35:35] There's this book called The History of Nearly Everything by the author Bill Bryson. I love trivia. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I would recommend it to everybody.

Ketan [00:36:35]  One thing that you thank COVID for?

Sunil [00:36:42] I would thank COVID for giving me the time to be at home, spending time with family. Allowing us to understand and respect both the different parts of our life. Our work life. I appreciate my teams and office. I appreciate my home.

Ketan [00:37:10] That's it from my side. Thank you so much, Sunil. It has been an amazing experience interacting with you. Thank you for your time. Anything that you want to share with, Sunil?

Sunil [00:37:28] Thank you very much, Ketan, and thank you Soumya for getting this organized. I enjoyed it and I loved the Rapid-Fire round.

Soumya [00:37:49] Thanks so much for joining us. Through the conversations we had, I just had one question that I had to ask you. So do you think that employee engagement is going to be this constant puzzle that we are going to be solving in years to come or do you see that we'll get to that point where we have solved the puzzle?

Sunil [00:38:11] From my experience, I've been working now for the past twenty-five years and I think my journey has been filled with learning. There's a famous saying that it isn't over until the fat lady sings. So I don't see us reaching a situation where we have said, listen, we have done it and we have learned exactly what needs to be done. I think engagement is similar. It's something that's going to continue. What we have done in the past is not going to allow us to go ahead and be successful in the future. As we go along, we need to keep modifying it.

Sunil [00:39:01] Having an engaged workforce, ensuring that we are working to drive engagement with our teams as managers to try and get them to explain what the role is about and showing that we care for our teams, giving them the right opportunity,  that is going to remain. I think that there is no question, but how are we going to do it with our teams? That's a work in progress. As we go along, we need to keep on modifying it. We can't have a template. Anyways, thank you so much for the very enjoyable session.

Ketan [00:39:51] Thank you so much. This was a really insightful session.