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In Conversation – Achiever

When a career break
was not a hurdle

Kala Venkatesh, Managing Director, Accenture India

Continuing our series of high achievers in Accenture, we feature Kala Venkatesh who has been a Talent Development professional for nearly two decades. A qualified nutritionist, Kala opted to take up a fun job in IT while awaiting the results of her graduation. She loved the experience so much that she dropped her plans to pursue an MSc in nutrition and instead opted for a post-graduation course in System Design even as she continued to work.

Since her husband had a job that involved extensive travel, she decided to quit to enjoy motherhood to the fullest. She kept herself engaged and happy watching her little one grow. She also took on a few part-time jobs to suit her schedule. As her daughter grew up and started going to school, Kala wanted to make better use of her time and capabilities. Luckily around that time, they also moved to Delhi with her in-laws that gave her more flexibility to opt for a full-time role. With this, she decided to look for a good job, but a lot of things had changed in the last five years. Her IT knowledge had become quite obsolete, so getting a job that mapped her experience was not easy. While she was contemplating further studies, she got a good career break.

NIIT was looking for people with an understanding of IT and good communication skills. Kala joined their Enterprise Learning Solutions group and worked with clients to develop their training solutions and went on to spend the next 14 years with the organization, working in various capacities in talent development and enterprise learning. In 2010, Kala joined Accenture and today is the India lead for the Talent and Organization practice in the Capability Network. She consults clients on talent solutions that help improve talent or organization effectiveness. She leads a team of 300 plus people based in India and currently focuses on large energy and chemical companies. In this conversation, she shares her experience in managing talent with Vaahini.

What are the biggest challenges in talent management confronting organizations?

Today, there is a lot of technology involved in every organization. Social media too has come up big time. The workforce is becoming much younger. Every organization is today grappling with how best to leverage these factors for growth. A lot of learning solutions are being integrated into mobile-based applications that the younger generation is comfortable with.

The other concern is when organizations undertake huge transformations. They spend a lot of money on these exercises and want to ensure the teams adapt to the changes well and become more efficient.

Then, of course, there are dynamic changes in the marketplace, which come with their own challenges. For instance, with oil prices going down a lot of clients are looking at talent solutions that will help them manage costs better. In addition, there are socio-economic changes in specific markets such as how to deal with an ageing workforce and how to capture their knowledge and make it available to the younger talent.

How disciplined is the workforce while using online training tools?

It’s not really about giving them a lot of content but we need to set up the proper ecosystem for learning. Our learning solutions have to be meaningful to them. They have to help them do their jobs better. We also need to recognize them for their efforts. How can we build in a competitive environment that will motivate them and lead to recognition? While some online courses are mandatory others have to be driven by good content quality.

What are the skill sets that you believe are absolutely necessary for today’s workplace?

As a fresher, you’ll have a lot of academic knowledge that you should be able to polish at work and make it suitable for the role you are in.

As a senior, it’s about managing not just your career, but also several other relevant stakeholders including your team. Along with functional capabilities, softer skills like stakeholder management, negotiating skills, conflict resolution etc. become critical. Some people pick these skills intuitively and some need to be trained.

At the mid-level, it is a lot about how you stay in control even after delegation, how do you take different personalities along, how do you manage tradeoffs. A lot of decisions are made at this level and often there is no single right way of doing things.

In a leadership role, you are operating on a much broader level. The key thing is to be able to think more strategic and long-term without losing sight of tactical issues. You need to think ahead without much concrete direction being there. At this stage, you are also dealing with more senior stakeholders. How you relate to their business problems and help them improve their business results become critical. At this stage, you typically wear multiple hats and seamlessly juggling your roles is important.

What does it take to effectively manage teams?

Firstly, one should have the ability to manage a wide range of things. The key is to trust your team, give them the responsibility, accountability but at the same time be available to support as required. I use different styles with different people depending on the situation.

The key is to interact with a lot of people—not just the direct reports but others as well to get a sense of what’s happening. This provides a well-rounded perspective of the situation.

How does one bridge the skills gap in the workforce today?

It’s very important to first identify the skill you need and the gap. Once that has been determined, there is the attitude aspect. If attitude is right the skill gap can be bridged. Ways to plug the gap are pretty standard—some of this can be bridged by training, but a lot of real-life experience and on-the-job training works well.

Tell me a bit about your experience handling change management for organizations.

There is a method to it and there are lots of tools in place today. The key is to be aware that different stakeholders will react differently to change, they go through different emotions—some are positive, some feel strongly about it, others are unsure about it, some others have questions.

We need to assess what is the organization’s commitment level to change. When talking of taking employees along, it is important that the leaders are dealing with change positively. Then it is about a lot of structured and planned communication that enables people to understand the rationale for the change and helps them handle questions that usually accompany change. Along the journey, it is key to measure the impact and level of adoption and make changes to make the journey easy and effective.

Was it easy getting back to work after a break?

Initially, it was tough. There were days when I had to stretch. I went through all the dilemmas a young mother goes through. But I kept going. Over time, it balanced out and today I am very happy with the decisions I took along the way.

How do you unwind?

Apart from my job, I am passionate about few other things in life. I describe myself as an introvert and love getting some “quiet” time for myself that I spend reading books, listening to music or watching movies. I also like spending time with my immediate family and close friends. I enjoy cooking once in a while, which thankfully my family also enjoys.