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The insiders club

Bharti Airtel's employee-first strategy seems to be working for it. The firm makes a debut on this listing.

Saumya Bhattacharya        Print Edition: February 7, 2010

Manoj Kohli is no Steve Jobs, but he knows a good idea when he sees one. At his corner CEO office in Gurgaon, visitors can't miss a steel plaque with Bharti Airtel's ambition of becoming the top brand in India by 2010 for customers and employees.

For employees? Kohli is clear: "People are our biggest asset. And, then the brand." The employee-first focus is not new. At Apple, the philosophy has been made a fine art by Jobs and others such as Google and, closer home, HCL Technologies are at it, too. But it's Airtel whose efforts seem to be paying early. It is the only telecom operator in the top 10 of BT-Indicus-PeopleStrong's Best Companies to Work For listing. Potential employees are attracted to it by career growth opportunities and company prestige.

The head of a leading recruitment agency, who wants to stay anonymous, says Airtel's charm works three ways—it's a market leader, has a system of rapid promotion, and ensures transparent assessment.

This, together with an entrepreneurial DNA, a go-getter sales force and respect for professionalism internally has helped Airtel top $8 billion, or Rs 36,445 crore, revenues with its about 17,000 employees (plus about double that working dedicatedly for it in outsourced jobs) in just 14 years. "Our secret sauce is our culture," insists Kohli. (Come April, Kohli, credited with much of that growth since he joined the Bharti group in 2002, himself will make way for deputy Sanjay Kapoor.)

Promotions, at Airtel, on average, are handed out every one-and-a-half or two years for the young after entering the company, and every two-and-a-half to three years for levels above that. Up to 80 per cent of new positions at the company are filled by internal movements. "Even when this internal talent is only 70 per cent ready, we prefer to fast-track their careers," says Krish Shankar, Airtel's Director of HR.

Higher up, Airtel has built a leadership pipeline—of some 300—in the last 5-7 years to bring in stability at top levels to buffer it in a highly competitive market for talent. These 300, which Shankar claims can run any telecom firm in the world, are ring-fenced well. "We treat our top 300 leaders differently," says the HR head. On offer are sessions at INSEAD and Indian School of Business, external coaches for specific capability needs and leadership programmes with consultancy Monitor Group. With new competition and bruising call rates, Airtel will need all hands on deck.

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