Practitioners Perspectives // December 07,2021

Lessons from an HR Leader on Empowering Employees the Right Way

Featuring: Balaji Venkitaramasubramanian , Human Resources Director, SAARC – Dormakaba


Balaji Venkitaramasubramanian Human Resources Director, SAARC – Dormakaba

What are you most proud of?

I have had wide exposure to all components of the employee life cycle within the organization. From hiring to superannuation, I have been making decisions on behalf of the organization. While I am happy about this, it has also put me in tough spots where I have had to retrench and point out performance inefficiencies.  Of course, these are not things that I am proud of but what I did in these situations which I will always cherish is:

  • Introduced Rehabilitation Programs for the retrenched employees with skills training in place. It helped them get some earning to compensate the loss of monthly paychecks. So, giving back in my own little way to these families was tremendously satisfying.
  • Redesigned an Assessment Centre which had a non-negotiable Pass/Fail component leading to stress and pressure on employees. I took the opportunity to redesign this Assessment Centre into a Development Center with the theme of Discover Yourself which gently allows employees to know where they stand from a skills and competence aspect and what they need to do to improve themselves. The relief on the faces of employees was extremely gratifying.

Which one thing do you wish you’d done differently?

There are many. Every project I undertake on leading transformation, I feel I could have done it differently, or used some other method to bring out the best in employees. It is never ending, but I am happy that I am learning everyday how to better these interventions.

Who are your role models and why?

Do you know that role models are everywhere? Even as I speak to you, I am thinking of picking up a thing or two from you. In fact, just a few days back I was impressed by the generosity of my local food cart vendor who quickly helped me pay my taxi bill when I was stuck without change.

In the workplace there are several peers, bosses and team members who have played a vital role in shaping me to be the person that I am today – all of them are my role models.

But where are we without our mothers? My mother instilled the right set of values in me and of course my wife keeps me grounded always and not to forget my daughter who constantly reinforces the “circle of life”.

What are the key aspects during deal making? Say mergers and acquisitions.

Frankly I have been several times at the wrong end of mergers and in fact faced redundancy at least, thrice. These mergers and acquisitions can be quite hard on people and constraints can be far reaching with a long-term impact. But I would urge organizations to look mainly for Value Alignment when these deals happen, once that happens the rest of it can be figured out on a step-based approach.

How do you keep your employees keen and motivated?

This is simple for me, because I follow a two-pronged approach:

  1. Love thy neighbour
  2. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

If you use your employees like an app just for its utility, always waiting for the next version, they would also treat the organisation for its utility now and when a better version arrives, they will ‘ctrl alt del’ you.

On the contrary if you create conditions for empowering them, they will contribute with a rare flavour of ownership which gives a competitive edge.

All major Airlines world over have the same aircrafts, food is also from the same/similar caterers but it’s the people that distinguish the best from the rest. The trick is not so much about going for the best but creating a unique smell of the work place where even the “average” employee delivers extra-ordinary results.

What’s the most important factor you consider when hiring someone?

Yes, this is a crucial decision for me, and I look at the following:

  • Alignment of their personal brand with the organisation’s brand.
  • Genuine team player – the belief that the common goals are more important than individual goals.
  • Focus on how he/she positively impacts the stakeholders and lets the performance do the talking.
  • Doing the right things as opposed to doing things right.

When would you make the decision to let a difficult employee go?

Simple, I don’t decide. I help them decide and support this transition. I firmly believe that being employed in our country is more than just a job. It is an emotive topic considering that jobs and the related outcomes have a social, psychological and economic impact.

As leaders we cannot shy away from this obligation and I regret to note that many leaders just don’t care about this. During a major down-sizing operation when I was part of a very profitable multi-billion-dollar business, I had to stand up for this perspective and I earned the wrath of the management.

The organisation was still profitable but the profitability was not very high. Imagine the huge trust deficit you would end up accumulating even amongst those that stay when good times return! Business is not a sprint but a marathon. I have been fortunate to stick to this perspective and ensure that outplacement was effective in the larger interest of all involved.

What’s the best book you’ve read this year?

I have read this book called Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values by Fred Kofman, and I would recommend this book to every business leader who wants to make a difference to the business environment he/she operates in. I can’t get enough of this book, and I am reading it again and again and every time I seem to gather valuable insights.


If you use your employees like an app just for its utility, always waiting for the next version, they would also treat the organisation for its utility now and when a better version arrives, they will ‘ctrl alt del’ you.


What is your take on the promotions exercise and choosing the right ones to get promoted?

Recognition must be an ongoing exercise. If you keep it as a surprise till the end of the year then there will be ill will among teams. Positive strokes given in public and encouraging good performance all through the year so that everybody knows who the best ones are helps in a smooth recognition exercise. This way the ambience is set for the growth to happen seamlessly and successfully.

Balaji Venkitaramasubramanian Balaji Venkitaramasubramanian

Human Resources Director, SAARC – Dormakaba

Balaji Venkitaramasubramanian has over 3 decades of HR experience spanning the entire spectrum of the employee life cycle across multiple industries and geographies. He has deeply studied emerging trends in competencies for the next generation global workforce and was involved in work force transition in Asia Pacific, North America and Europe.  He is passionate about people, their development and leading them in the right direction. Balaji is an accomplished speaker and visiting faculty. He received the “Contribution to the HR Community” award during the Asia HRD awards at Kuala Lumpur in 2019 for his pioneering work on linking the organisation’s diversity strategy with business strategy to deliver business performance.

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