S02 E06: Day-to-day Role of Managers in Engaging Employees

Soumya Samuel
16 min read

Yet another new episode of CultureClub is here! And this time, we have with us Sunitha Lal, CHRO - Ather Energy who discusses the day-to-day roles and responsibilities of managers in engaging employees.

Sunitha emphasizes how important it is for managers to invest heavily in the growth and wellbeing of their teams, to not only engage or retain the employees but also build an A-team that can enable the organization to meet its goals.

Sunitha draws an interesting parallel between a kanjeevaram saree and an organization’s culture. She points out that the culture of any organization has to be carefully woven just like a kanjeevaram saree - with a keen eye for the intricate details, and a focused and slow approach to create a sustainable culture.

About Sunitha Lal

Sunitha is a seasoned Human Resource professional and an expert in organizational culture whose work focuses on the unconscious processes in individuals, teams and systems.

Prior to Ather Energy where she has been working for over 4 years now, Sunitha held instrumental roles at Matrimony.com, Mphasis, AIG Systems, Talentpro India and others.

She is also a published author and speaker. Her book ‘Dotting the Blemish and Other Short Stories’ is a collection of short stories on inherent prejudices surrounding women in a society.

Here’s a gist of what Sunitha speaks about in this video:

  • The secret recipe for ensuring top-notch business delivery by teams: Managers who disproportionately focus on personal development of each team member
  • Employee engagement by managers seen through a day-to-day lens: From listening to employees to capacity building, managers build employee engagement in small yet significant ways
  • Can managers rethink their hiring practices - hire people who are more talented and capable than oneself to grow the overall capability of the team.

Catch all this and more with Sunitha Lal in Episode 6 of Season 2 of CultureClub and don’t forget to share your views in the comments below.

CultureClub is open to all employee engagement enthusiasts. Click here to join.


Senthil [00:00:13] Sunitha, thanks a lot for joining us today. We always start the episode by talking about CultureMonkey’s story. I was an engineer for more than a decade. I started as an engineer, and I always struggled with this one problem where managers never realized that employee happiness, employee productivity and the employee delivering their maximum always depended on the freedom given to the engineers.

Senthil [00:01:14] I have worked globally in many cities in Europe, Singapore and I always felt that freedom was denied to the employees when it comes to honest feedback. I had multiple feedback sessions with managers, nothing moved, and I was scared of being open because there's no anonymity and, also all my feedback felt like it went into a black hole. There was no closure. No action was taken on the feedback. I lost hope in this process.

Senthil [00:01:48] In 2017, I started a software consultancy service with my co-founder, Joseph. Whatever work we did, we were successful. We noticed that we had zero percent attrition both from customers and employees. We were able to make all stakeholders very happy. We talked about this. Then we realized its culture.

Senthil [00:02:37] We decided to take this culture piece and scale this. So we decided to build a culture software. That's how CultreMonkey was born in 2018. Now we have a lot of enterprise clients. And it's so fulfilling right now because whatever problem I faced, now we can solve it for a hundred thousand unique employees, and we have more than 2.5 million individual data points in just three years. With all of these data points, we realize that managers have a key role in engagement.

Senthil [00:03:20] That's why we also have a separate module for managers. They are the ones who are personalizing engagement for their team. So all this gave birth to the theme of the evolving role of managers in employee engagement and culture. Without any further delay, we can get started. Over to you, Ketan.

Ketan [00:03:46] Thank you, Senthil. Always interesting to hear about this story. That's one of the reasons why I decided to be a part of this journey to help them connect to people who can bring insight. For our audience, a quick introduction of Sunitha. She's the CHRO of  Ather Energy. She's also an author and a speaker. She's worked with brands like Polaris, AIG, Talentpro, Mphasis and Matrimony.com over her last twenty-three years of experience.

Ketan [00:04:53]  She is a firm believer in the power of storytelling. She is an oral tradition storyteller. Her book is named ‘Dotting the Blemish and Other Short Stories’. It's a collection of short stories about women and it reflects and comments on the prejudices that we have in society.

Ketan [00:06:09] Welcome to CultureClub Masterclass powered by CultureMonkey. In this session, we are going to talk about sustaining and growing employee engagement, the evolving role of managers. Now, before we get into some of the interesting questions that we have for you, could you tell us more about you and your organization and your experience and your point of view about culture?

Sunitha [00:06:50] Senthil and Ketan, thank you for the invite. Ather is an amalgamation of an organization that has hardware engineering and software engineering. It is in the EV mobility space. We are the frontrunners and probably pioneers. We believe that we have shaken the status quo in the two-wheeler segment with the product we have come up with. It is all being designed and produced at our space and our factory. We are very proud of what we have put out there. There is an enormous amount of learning for us.

Sunitha [00:08:18] The last seven years’ journey has been about how to build a hardware engineering company in India and continue to disproportionately invest in culture. How to consistently be in the space of culture-building when you are going through the highs and lows. We also saw the journey on a lot of highs and lows. That's what our commitment to culture is.

Sunitha [00:09:14] It's not that we are committed to culture when things are nice and happy. It's when things are not very nice. That's where the commitment of culture comes in. In our case, it starts with the founders and then the first 50 who made Ather possible. It was important that they cohesively built it.

Ketan [00:10:06]  How do you see culture? And I would call out the story that you shared with me about the Kanchipuram saree. It was wonderful. Could you share it with our audience?

Sunitha [00:10:27] When I joined Ather, no one expected that someone would come into the conference room and start talking about Kanchipuram saree and culture in the same sentence. You have to remember that we were a very young male organization then. So the diversity of thought and diversity of any other shades were slightly difficult. The moment we become aware, then we start acting on it, building on it. So the first point always is being aware, accepting it and moving on.

Sunitha [00:11:11]  When I say culture, I say weaving culture and not crafting culture or curating culture. Handloom weaver weaving a saree is very therapeutic. It's so beautiful. They have the picture of the saree in their mind, and with so much love and patience, they pick up the right thread and then work on dyeing and then start weaving it thread by thread. To me, each of these threads denotes the decisions we make or decisions we don't make and the conflicts we resolve. All these are the threads that weave into our culture.

Sunitha [00:12:07] How do you make those decisions? How do you resolve conflicts and solve problems? How do you recognize it and reward it? All of this is what your culture is all about. It is not about anything tangible that you can pick it and say this directly correlates to that. It is like the whole process. You have to have the end objective that you want to reach. Then you have to have the patience of the weaver to weave it.

Ketan [00:14:31] This brings me to the first question on this topic of sustaining and growing employee engagement and evolving role of manager. Do you think that organizations without a manager could be a reality of the future? What is your point of view?  

Sunitha [00:14:55]  I will give you an example from Ather. In Ather, we have what we call horizontals and verticals. Vertical functions are hardware engineering, battery engineering, manufacturing engineering.  And there is a whole horizontal switch which is the execution team. The cross-functional teams come together and solve problems. They work on a component or subsystem. They work on solving problems like the transition from the Whitefield factory to the Hosur factory. They work on sales and opening up new experience centres.

Sunitha [00:15:39] It is not one function that sits in a silo and works. The cross-functional teams come together and work on the swim lane. But the question is, what is the role of the manager here? Because the manager is supposed to depute their team members to the swim-lanes. They have to depute the best person who can solve the problem. In the swim lanes, they are authorized to make a decision. They're not supposed to say that I will go and check with my manager and come back. That's not acceptable.

Sunitha [00:16:10]  If the swim lane person needs time to do research and figure out something or is still not confident in the decision, that person can spend some more time figuring them out and coming back to the function and asking for the expertise and resources. There is a person appointed as the decision-maker. There is no manager in the swim lane. Swim lane is cross-functional members coming together working for the problem statement. That problem statement can be services, products or managing crises. They can do any of this. They can make decisions and move forward.

Sunitha [00:16:52] I'm giving this example because your question is related to this one. What is the evolving role of a manager? When we shifted to this model of working, functional leaders and managers became lost, thinking, what is my role now? Our functional leaders were experts. They know the subject, they have the experience, capability, competence and all that. Now, they realize they're not making any decisions regarding any of these things. Then they have to look for a new role for themselves.

Sunitha [00:17:45]  What is the new role? The new role is about building that function in-depth, competence, capability and capacity. How do you build capacity? Either the capacity can be, in the next three years, this is where my organization is going, and this is where the world is going, and I will need certain technology and experience. Do I have the capacity for what will come as an ask from the cross-functional teams? Do I have the capacity in terms of people? Or do I have to hire or cross-train or quickly mentor someone into that space?

Sunitha [00:19:13] The second part is about the managers looking at capability building. What does the organization require, and how do I build my capability? The managers need to build their department and function. Then people who work with L&D or talent management departments can work on the capability building roadmap. That roadmap can be about training, special projects and on-the-job training. It's a huge shift in the role of a manager.

Sunitha [00:20:34]  We have done this at Ather, and I know it is still a work in progress for us. An enormous amount of communication is required. Otherwise, you bring in so much fear in the managers because they don't know what their job is. Some of the managers themselves might be in the cross-functional teams, but I'm talking about the functional leaders who were having large teams. What is their role?

Sunitha [00:21:15] So, do you need managers? Yes, we need managers. I'll explain why we need managers. But do you need managers for execution?  We don't need managers for this. You can hire team members who are self-motivated and who can deliver and have managers do something else.

Ketan [00:21:49]  So what I hear from Sunitha is, we need managers but not in the form that existed and the expectation that existed historically which is administration and execution. And we'll talk about that as we go ahead.

Ketan [00:22:15] Why has the world been divided on the impact a manager has on employee engagement? What's been your experience of this divide? What's your point of view on that?

Sunitha [00:23:01] Firstly, we have to ask what is engagement in the mind of these people? The next question I want to understand is, why are we divided? What you are asking is a huge change, Ketan. We are used to a certain model and asking to shift that model. It creates an enormous amount of anxiety in the system. The other thing is, am I relevant to this change? That is the biggest anxiety.

Sunitha [00:24:14] They are used to a pattern, and it's hard to shift from that pattern. It requires enormous commitment. They should have resilience and grit to pull it off. Resilience is because you have to commit to staying in the course. It is not true that managers are not required for their team members' effectiveness. Managers are required. Managers need to have a conversation with team members about their well being, talk about their responsibilities, talk about complexity changes that are happening.

Sunitha [00:25:41] We are just sitting there listening and asking questions. We need someone to be there to ask the question to invest in them. How do you show that you care and are invested in that individual? That is the engagement we should talk about. If you're willing to make that investment, it results in affiliation to the department or the organization. It builds excellence. Excellence builds a high level of effectiveness. It also builds mastery. Because there is a master or a person who is slightly more aware of things, willing to sit and work with you.

Ketan [00:27:29] I'm sure you would be interacting with a lot of these managers. We've been talking about the changes that employees are expecting, the transitions that everyone is going through. I'm so glad that you're speaking from a manager's perspective, trying to understand how they see engagement, what does it mean to them, what are the kind of difficulties they're possibly going through and what are the answers they're looking for themselves.

Ketan [00:28:00] Do you think recent changes in the workplaces going overly digital impacted the expectations organizations and employees have from their manager? What are the top three expectation shifts you have seen organizations and employees have from their managers now?

Sunitha [00:28:52] Traditionally, managers were more like authority figures. They have been authority figures who took decisions, and some managers were prescriptive. And on the other hand, they were also held responsible for delivery. They give assurances to the organization. So their neck was on the block. That's how the whole model worked. Do you think this model would work in the current generation? Every year you bring a new set of people. Wave after wave you're bringing all the new generations who have grown in a different environment.

Sunitha [00:30:24] It is in the context of what sort of an environment they have grown. And what sort of access do they have for information and how they process that information. And what type of people you're bringing inside. Now, saying what was applicable in the eighties or nineties, the same is applicable in 2021 is not right. It just says as HR and leadership groups, we are generally a little bit lazy. We're just using the same models.

Sunitha [00:31:09] What are employees looking forward to from their managers? They're looking forward to their managers for mentorship. They need a mentor who is disproportionately invested in their career. And not in their career as a manager. How do managers display that they are disproportionately interested in employees' careers? Not every year I can give you a promotion. I can build their competence. That is the only gift we can give as manager.

Sunitha [00:31:55] People can hate me for not being a great manager but can never take away if I have spent enormous time building capacity and capability in that person because that is the gift the managers have. The second is organizations looking for building a very competent function. The third is the human element. All three have to join in, the role of the organization, your team members and yourself.

Sunitha [00:32:55] The team members are looking to invest in themselves and their career. The organization is looking at building a competent function. And what are you looking for as a manager? Your joy should come from your team's success. A team that is extremely strong in terms of delivering. So, your joy should come from your team and not from you doing something. That is a big shift for a manager.

Sunitha [00:33:35] The manager should feel satisfied through a team delivering it, not him being the rockstar standing there and telling how to do it. We have to rewire ourselves. And all these three have a huge role in empowerment, capability building and mentoring. It is at the intersectionality of these three things the organization is sitting. It's built on your model of managing the team members.

Ketan [00:34:26] This question is for all the managers who would watch our episodes. What are the things that you would want them to start investing and start focusing on? Being a manager, I can tell you they are at the cusp of expectations from the top and expectation from the team. So they are the one who get pulled a lot. Now, you've spoken about how important it is for them to build on competency and capability. So, what's that one thing that they should focus on?

Sunitha [00:35:00] I always ask, how do you hire talent in your team? Do you hire people who are smarter than you? At Ather, we always say, please hire people who are smarter than us. Now, you should take great pride in just saying I hired this person. Fundamentally, you have to build the whole team. If you want self-directed groups, then you need to have people who are like that.

If you hire people who need a lot of validation, it's not going to work in self-directed groups. They will be lost because no one is going to be sitting there validating them. There's nothing wrong, but that's not the type of person required in that type of organization. So that's about talent hiring.

Sunitha [00:37:25] Then it's again about capability building. What is the role? Why are these roles required? What competency and what proficiency level does the role require? What is the assessment you have done in your organization to say that your organization has the competence? Or do you want to start capability building on that?

Sunitha [00:38:09] As a manager, it's your responsibility to understand everyone's job because you are responsible for the delivery. Investing in your talent and enormous learning is the new shift of the manager. If you are going to manage a set of people, work on their career progression, capability and competence of your department, please remember your job is just not delivering the task. Your job is beyond that. Delivering a task is nothing. I think the young folks are better than us. I'm sure my department has so many people who are smarter than me.

Senthil [00:42:33] It's very interesting. I was reminded of the story by Dr Abdul Kalam. In 1979, the project was to put the satellite in orbit. But the computer said don't launch it. Abdul Kalam was the Mission Director and Project Manager. He bypassed the computer and launched the system. Instead of putting the satellite in orbit, they put it into the Bay of Bengal. The mission failed.

The Chief of ISRO would go to the press meet and say, this mission failed and will take another year to make it a success. And the next year, when it succeeded, the chief Sathish Dhawan would ask Dr Abdul Kalam to go for the press meet, which shows true leadership and I feel this story relevantly aligns with what you’re saying here.

Ketan [00:44:16]  Do you think, in the future, engagement would shift more towards personalization from a one-size-fits-all approach? If that happens, what role do you think managers would have to play in a transition like that?

Sunitha [00:45:18] It will naturally become tailored to the department. It's not only the managers, but organizations also have to play a role there. The first drop starts from the way you design your systems, processes and policies. It's not one-size-fits-all. For example, we have the R&D centre, protolabs, factory and experience centres. Initially, we put together policies and rolled them out.

Sunitha [00:46:05] Then when we looked at our policies, we thought it was funny because Dusehra was celebrated big time in the factory, but in the R&D lab, hardly anyone noticed it. People did not celebrate, but in the factory, they celebrated it in a big way. How to curate it? I'm saying a very simplified version. We went back and curated our policy.

We said our policies would not be the same for all. In the same way, capability building initiatives also have to be curated to the departments that are there and their departmental needs. Then the manager will ask, what are their departmental needs? What type of team members do I have? How do I work on engagement with this team?

Sunitha [00:47:06]  I don't say it's difficult. It is going to be different because it is not an easy job. There are two things, which I am also observing in the young generation. One is that they are the ones who do not like authority figures and telling them what to do, but at the same time, this is the generation that wants a lot of feedback.

Now, how do you balance both? Now, the leadership team has to use different sentences to curate the feedback. They should not just say it's working, not working. You are doing well, not well. Those are not the sentences they are willing to listen to.

Sunitha [00:48:15]  It is not that we are doing some window dressing for the feedback. Your mental model of that feedback has to change. And also, most importantly, take feedback from them. Things are going to be very difficult for managers as they go. The organization has to start putting work in all the places, whether it's policies, systems or execution.

So there has to be a commitment from the organization, from its leadership team on all these things. And it cannot be brushed on by managers. I'm worried about people dumping it on managers because it's an organisational commitment that goes into different layers of leadership and we all work with it.

Ketan [00:49:46] Thank you. What I gather from Sunitha is that, yes, it is moving toward personalization. This is not something that only the managers should be responsible or accountable for. It starts as an organizational commitment.

Ketan [00:50:31] I have five rapid-fire questions for you. The first question is, if not HR as a profession, what would you have chosen to become?

Sunitha [00:50:59] I'm a storyteller, so I would have written stories.

Ketan [00:51:13] Second, between cooking, cleaning or mopping during the lockdown, which was easier?

Sunitha [00:51:19] Cooking.

Ketan [00:51:19] Third, what's the next personal goal that you are chasing?

Sunitha [00:51:40] I'm writing another book of short stories. The other one is, I'm trying to put together a book called HR - The Cusp People And Their Stories. It's just a work in progress. I'm just a little bit too occupied with work now, but I hope I finish all those things.

Ketan [00:52:04] One book that had the maximum impact on you and you would like the audience to grab a copy of that.

Sunitha [00:52:09] The book I struggled with and tried to work with and grew out of after a long time is In Search Of The Miraculous by Ouspenskii.  It took many years for me to work with it. And whenever I felt lost, I went back to T.S. Eliot's poems.

Ketan [00:53:12] One thing that you thank the lockdown for?

Sunitha [00:53:23] The pause it gave. The pause taught us a lot. It taught us to cry, be jealous, feel helpless and acknowledge we don't know all the answers. So we become more aware, more human and more mindful.

Ketan [00:53:52] Well, I wish we had at least two more hours with Sunitha. Thank you again.

Senthil [00:54:39]  It's going to be very useful. So thanks a lot.

Sunitha [00:55:19] Thank you very much. And thank you for inviting me here. I appreciate it.