Ancient kings always had a trusted advisor in their courts. He was usually the most senior minister or a man of religion or great education. Prince Philip of Macedonia had Aristotle, who also tutored his famous son, Alexander the Great. The pharaohs of Egypt had their viziers. Closer home, Vashishta was the advisor to all the kings of the Ikshvaku dynasty - right down to Maharaja Dasharatha and after that, to his son Lord Rama. In the Mahabharata, Veda Vyasa was the principal advisor (and protagonist of the epic), revered by both Kauravas and Pandavas, even though the Kauravas had other advisors such as Drona and Kripacharya. Chandragupta Maurya had Chanakya as his principal advisor. These men were considered the ultimate repositories of all wisdom and knowledge. They would advise the king on subjects ranging from the treasury, state craft, espionage, art of negotiation, weaponry and so on.
As key people would have to be entrusted with these critical tasks for implementation, the advisor had to possess a deep, 360-degree understanding of the skill sets, temperament and past track records of those individuals. Besides their loyalty to the king, which was non-negotiable, such men had to be chosen with care, based on these parameters. After their missions were completed, these key 'human resources' (a term not discovered until the 20th century) would have to be rewarded to ensure that they remained loyal to the king. The families of those, who unfortunately lost their lives during their missions, would be compensated and taken care of financially. It was an unwritten code of fairness and justice. And all this was done by these advisors to the king.
This thought brings me to the imperative question - who is equivalent of these advisors for today's heads of state? While seeking a response to this, I will exclude titular monarchies who are merely figureheads, but more pertinently ask this question of presidents and prime ministers of the countries belonging to the 'free world'. The Industrial Revolution and the consequent division of labour have now conditioned us to compartmentalise jobs into 'departments'. So, most countries now have a minister or secretary looking after the home ministry, defence, finance, commerce, foreign affairs and so on.
More often than not, the pecking order ensures that the finance or the home minister is the most powerful person, followed by other departments. India, too, had a long history of distinguished and capable finance ministers. The finance minister is, indeed, the chief financial officer of the prime minister (PM). But does anybody remember who was responsible for advising the former PMs on people issues? Unfortunately, such a position does not exist. While there are ministries dedicated to human resource development (HRD), labour or personnel, there is no integrated chief human resources officer (CHRO) for the PM.
What would a CHRO do for Narendra Modi?
Identify leaders for appointment to key positions
We are talking about not just ministers, but also covering key positions in the bureaucracy. These include:
- Cabinet Secretary
- Secretaries for each department
- Heads of critical missions (like the Unique Identification Authority of India and the National Skill Development Corporation)
- Chairman/Managing Director of public sector companies
- RBI Governor
Chiefs of Armed Forces (by constituting a selection panel featuring the PM, defence ministry, retired generals or air chief marshals who will look into the recommendations made by the Army, Air Force or Navy as the case maybe and propose a name to the President of India for approval)
Vice Chancellors of major universities, larger IITs and IIMs (The smaller universities/IITs/IIMs should be brought under the control of their larger counterparts in regional hubs so that they can be mentored to grow into larger and fine establishments. Their leadership appointment can be decided by the governing council of the larger IITs and IIMs.)
The CHRO should be adept at helping the PM choose the most capable person for each role from a very diverse pool consisting of MPs, party workers and civil services personnel. A key requirement will be to source talent from outside this traditional pool such as a distinguished economist from the London School of Economics or a corporate executive. Examples of such talent in the government have been rare and too infrequent. We need more Raghuram Rajans and Nandan Nilekanis to add heft to the government. The government also provides a fantastic exposure and rounds off someone. As a rookie HR manager at ITC, my first company, I remember listening with fascination to our Chairman Yogi Deveshwar's account of his experiences as the Chairman and Managing Director of Air India, a role he took up by taking a sabbatical from the company. Indeed, there is a crying need for a greater infusion of great talent from outside into the government.
Create an autonomous and empowered structure
It is crucial for good leaders and talent to thrive and deliver their best without the fear of ministers and politicians meddling in their affairs. One can learn a lot from the multinational companies (MNCs) who are masters at this, having to manage from headquarters diverse geographies and regulatory systems with overarching governance and performance parameters. A clear structure with explicitly laid down powers of delegation can be developed to let leaders of public sector undertakings, government departments/missions to give of their best without fear of being pulled up, bypassed or investigated.
A strong assurance and governance structure can be inbuilt, akin to the assurance and internal audit function in corporate houses. The underlying philosophy is that unless proven otherwise, everyone is considered honest and ethical.
Instil a performance culture
We, the general public, hit an opaque wall while trying to understanding how ministers are assessed for their performances. Unfortunately, there is no professional score card. There must be a logical appraisal of all ministers and other key position holders on an annual basis, and sharp decisions must be made on that basis. It will require some major unshackling from the current service rules in the government. For instance, a minister found to be performing better than his/her counterpart should be given a better increment. Instead, we find MLAs and MPs pushing the system to get a uniform, generous raise without taking into account performance or meritocracy. On the other hand, if a minister or secretary is found guilty of misconduct after an internal investigation, they should be terminated with immediate effect. In effect, this would lead to corporate-style employment termination conditions.
Ensure fair compensation and rewards & recognition
If you ask any government officer about these, you will encounter a cynical reaction from most. The lack of a fair rewards culture and the wide chasm between private sector pay and government salaries have been at the core of our country's corruption issue. Successive Pay Commissions have improved salaries, but these are nowhere near what people in similar corporate positions earn.
In this country, we like to think that government work should be like NGO jobs. It is a service, a calling and one should be ashamed to think of money while discharging this noble duty in the service of the nation. Even the social sector is moving up the salary scale to get the best talent in the market. So, why is the government sitting still on this front?
If you pay for performance and benchmark with the best in the industry, starting with the key leadership roles, you will see a dramatic change in the way government officials' function, leading to a tectonic shift in the culture of these departments.
It must start right at the top. Just look at what some the world's leaders earn compared to PM Modi:
What leaders of major countries earn
Drive labour reforms in the country
'Make in India' is floundering due to two key issues - land acquisition and labour reforms. The CHRO should focus on the latter to drive ease of doing business. At the same time, it is necessary to ensure equitable and fair treatment of labour, again with a strong underlying performance culture. In a country like India, the organised labour force, which constitutes only 6 per cent of the total workforce, is the only beneficiary of the various statutes implemented to protect workers. It has led to an entitlement culture in the decades leading up to Liberalisation. Only in the past decade, with the threat of global competition and jobs going away to more flexible labour regimes in other parts of the world, the labour unions became more realistic. The CHRO will need to push this change further by ensuring that unions and workforce remain pro-business. Again, the CHRO has a great social justice role in ensuring that the unorganised sector also gets the benefit of minimum wages and protection against unfair labour practices.
Integrate the current disparate ministries
The above five key result areas (KRAs) represent a huge change management challenge to ensure reforms in government rules and more importantly, a change in the mindset of all key players. Once this is done and set on the track, the CHRO to the PM should run an overarching Human Resources Ministry, integrating the current ministries of:
- Labour and Employment
- Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions
- Skill Development and Entrepreneurship
There could be synergies with other ministries like Women and Child Welfare and Sports, but that will come later.
Great leaders need strong people advisors who can not only provide unbiased, neutral advice on complex issues but have the will and competency to push through the changes with explicit support from the PM. Modi should choose a stellar individual who has these credentials along with a clean, unblemished personal record. The ideal candidate could be one of his current ministers with relevant experience or a corporate leader who has managed large organisations with a large people dimension.
When Modi appoints this CHRO, it will be an epochal moment for India and will set the trend for the rest of the world.
Because if you don't have a CHRO for a country with 1.3 billion people, where else would you?
S. Venkatesh is President-Group HR at RPG Enterprises. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of his employer.