One of K. Ramkumar's favourite films is Matrix, the 1999 sci-fi action flick that has Keanu Reeves as a secret hacker with the alias "Neo". Neo, who is fast-forwarded in time to the year 2199 and who is prophesied to end humanity's war with intelligent machines, has a socket in the back of his skull that allows him to upload knowledge directly into his mind. That helps him pick up numerous martial arts disciplines and also fly a military helicopter by getting a helicopter programme uploaded into his brain instantly.
"Matrix was a great inspiration," recalls Ramkumar, Executive Director in charge of HR at ICICI Bank, the country's second-largest bank. "I believe Matrix-like skills can be uploaded into a human brain to get the desired results. We (ICICI Bank) have to take ownership to give that knowledge and skill. Employees, for their part, need to come with the right attitude," he says.
Ramkumar, 48, is the bank's first HR head to be elevated to a board-level position (it happened last February). An alumnus of Madras University, Ramkumar joined ICICI Bank as General Manager (HR) in 2001 after spending 16 years in manufacturing organisations. At the bank, Ramkumar also looks after the Operations and Credit and Treasury functions apart from the human resources.
"Every organisation recognises the role of a CFO who manages financial resources, but there is another equally important function of managing human resources," is how Chanda Kochhar, MD and CEO at the bank put it to BT, recently. It's people focus that has helped ICICI Bank emerge as numero uno in the banking sector in the BT-Indicus-PeopleStrong study of the Best Companies to Work For in India.
Ramkumar's entry into the bank in 2001 was strategic as it coincided with the mega-reverse merger with development financial institution ICICI Ltd. "It was a Herculean HR task as a bulk of the workforce had project finance skills," says a bank insider. Those days, the bank consciously decided not to acquire resources from the market. "We follow an HR policy of creating a learning organisation and not a recruiting or compensation management organisation," says Ramkumar.
That emphasis on learning has stayed with ICICI Bank. In 2006, it became the first bank to partner with NIIT for training freshers in financial services by launching the Institute of Finance, Banking and Insurance and awarding a diploma. Two years later, the bank set up ICICI Manipal Academy to offer specialised banking and insurance skills to train probationary officers. Almost 20,000 people applied when it started two years ago. "We selected about 1,000 people in our first batch," says Ramkumar. The first two batches of probationary officers numbering 2,000 have been absorbed by the bank.
In 2009, the bank also took another path-breaking initiative by launching an online executive MBA programme for probationary officers who have completed The post-graduate diploma in banking. These graduates are rated on a par with IIM grads, and absorbed as managers at the bank. There are also specific programmes and exercises for leadership development.
In 2005, all senior general managers—who are potential directors—were invited to attend board meetings. "The board encouraged us to participate in the deliberations," says Ramkumar, who was one of the senior general managers to have attended those board meetings. That experience would have played a part in Ramkumar getting his place on the board!