Shalini Bhateja, director, talent and development, APAC at The Coca-Cola Company sheds light on the beauty of inter-functional communication and understanding, and how HR can maintain its credibility in the business. 

What was your first HR job, and how did you get into HR?

I am an electric engineer by profession. I joined Schneider in India in sales, and I moved to product marketing and then to strategy. When I was in the strategy role, which was quite exciting, I started thinking of our five-year-plans, and specifically, my career plan and what I wanted from my profession.

While in the strategy role, I was given the opportunity to open a technical training cell for customers, for channel partners, and internal employees. Training was actually very important at that time in both the marketing and strategy roles I had been in. In strategy, you train sales on markets, and within marketing, you train sales on products. I loved training, and I figured this was something I wanted to do

Then in 2002, when our HR model changed, and we introduced shared services and verticalised learning, the role for learning head for Greater India opened – and I was lucky to get that job. When I began the role, I realised I loved doing this. I worked in the leadership development space and talent management space.

Having worked in both marketing and HR roles, how do you think both these functions can work better together and collaborate more smoothly with one another?

I think it is very important to know the context. I am a very strong believer of getting the context right.  It is very easy to belittle other functions and wonder what exactly it is that they do, but it is very difficult to empathise with them. Everybody finds their job the most important. But since you don’t know the context of the other department, you don’t know their challenges and you don’t live those challenges.

Therefore, I think it is very very important to know the context of other functions. In fact, HR should know what is going on in not just marketing for inter-functional projects, but also what is going on in sales or finance or research and development. You need to know how each function works, to get that cross-functional design thinking and innovation.

Currently at your role at Coca-Cola, how closely do you work with other departments to lead projects?

I’m fairly new to the system, and trying to figure out how it all works. But I think the intent to understand other functions remains in any company. One function cannot work without the other, so system thinking and system understanding is very important. When I came in to Coca-Cola, I really made an effort to understand the business.

It’s what companies are wanting to do, but which is, however, not what is easy to do, as it becomes easy to become lost in day to day responsibilities.

What are some of the biggest skills HR leaders need to have to ensure their HR policies are aligned with business strategies?

A thorough business understanding is again important in order to be credible. This means knowing what exactly you, as an HR professional, bring to the table and to the business.

The other skill which is important is having the courage to stand up for what you believe. HR has evolved from being personnel management to being a business partner. This means HR has a point of view, and it is backed by science and facts – such as psychometric assessments. So as HR professionals, we need to believe in our credibility. We need to have conviction to believe in what we are.

We also need to learn, to meet new people and connect from them. Learning and being curious about what others are doing is also important.

What are some of the biggest areas HR can improve in or be more innovative in?

It can be better in being strategic and being more long-term. Every leader needs to be versatile. He or she can’t always be only strategic and never work on execution, and vice-versa. Hence, when you are working with teams, you can’t only be pushing strategy. Sometimes you have to push for it, and sometimes you have to pull. This is especially true for HR.

At the same time, HR also needs to sustain its creativity, and see how its projects bring results to the overall business. It needs to have the patience, and do enough planning to ensure its creative projects are sustained. I think this is another aspect of sustaining its credibility – to ensure projects are carried on not only when the function has budget, but they are carried out every year.

How do you ensure though, that HR can get buy-in from business leaders to get more such support, in terms of budgets and the like, to function well?

I don’t think this is a problem per se. I really feel the business understands that HR is important, that human resources are important. People get it, and leaders get it. It is our prerogative to keep it on top of business leaders’ agenda.

Convincing business leaders about the importance of HR is not a problem, but the problem is conviction. To be able to show how HR initiatives bring business results.

How do you think HR will change in the next five to ten years?

I feel that a lot of outsourcing will occur within the function. A couple of things will remain – such as business partnering, and managing the talent piece.

Another aspect of HR that is changing is that a lot of people from business are moving to HR, and vice-versa. However, that is not new, it has been happening for a while.

A lot of data-based HR decisions will be made in the future, and analytics will play a greater role in HR. We have previously shy-ed away from facts, but that is something which is changing, and which will change even more so in the future.

What is the best career advice you have ever received?

Actually, more than advice, I think a lot of people have helped me in my career journey and believed in me.

I was the youngest person in the strategy team in Schneider India.  It could get daunting at times, but various leaders gave me courage at times. A lot of people have taken risks on me, which I am very thankful of.

Please complete the sentence: ‘I cannot imagine HR without...’

A heart.

I think you really need to care for employees in your company as a HR professional. This is because you influence decisions which impact people’s careers and lives.

To do this well, you cannot not have empathy. You have got to have this, along with brains and the facts before you make such tough decisions.

It will be very disastrous if you are a HR professional or are working with one without a heart.

This interview was conducted at the S P Jain School of Global Management's HR Conclave 2016.