S Padmanabhan, executive director, operations, Tata Power, has been associated with the business excellence movement at Tata as a TBEM (Tata Business Excellence Model) mentor since 2003. In this interview with Sujata Agrawal, he explains how mentoring is a learning process for both the company as well as the mentor.
What is the role of a TBEM mentor?
As a mentor, you sit in and listen to the conversations between the team leader and the team, and you see patterns emerging. You dig into your experience to recall lessons that can add to the discussion and see where this company is and what more it can do. You have to be engaged. As a mentor, you cannot just go for the first meeting and then for the last meeting to sign the papers.
Does mentoring extend beyond the assessment period?
When I was mentoring Tata Metaliks in 2003, Harsh Jha [the CEO] was observing the comments and questions I was asking. Later he asked me if I could help his company in certain areas – how to deal with investors and analysts, how to make financial presentations to stakeholders, etc. At that point of time, I was at TCS and we were going through the drill of getting listed, which in the IT industry has very rigorous requirements. So I spent time with him and his team and explained the process. He was also interested in the extensive profitability analysis in TCS in various segments – geography, industry, horizontal, customer, etc. In fact we even did employee profitability analysis, and wanted to do a similar exercise at Tata Metaliks. This experience made me realise that the mentor, with the knowledge they have due to the various roles they play and the assessment process, can also give back to the company.
Similarly, Prasad Menon, who was then CEO at Tata Chemicals, wanted me to interact with the team, plant heads and the HR on how HR can be implemented in Tata Chemicals. At that time I was doing a three-year stint as head of HR in TCS. We had 2-3 sessions on best practices and what else Tata Chemicals could do in improving their HR processes, mobility, etc.
Could you take us through the mentoring process?
Before you actually start the assessment process, you have to spend time to know the industry, the sector and the company, so you can help the team leader look for this information. If I am the mentor for the second time, I give the team leader the background of the previous year’s assessment; this is not to influence the team leader towards any bias but so that the knowledge can be shared.
I usually have an informal meeting with the team where I share information and any knowledge which may help them during the assessment process. The meeting also gives me an understanding of the strengths of the team. And based on the meetings and on past experience, I usually have a chat with the team leader to point out things like where the team is strong, where it requires some help, and so on. The team leader keeps that in mind while assigning responsibilities and augmenting the team. However, the assessment is the responsibility of the team leader and a mentor should not interfere in the process; the team leader owns the assessment process and one should give freedom to him/her to schedule meetings, allocate responsibilities, etc.
The next step is meeting the team after the company presents its strategy and key business factors. It helps in doing a comparative analysis of what the assessment team has come up with, what the company is presenting and make necessary corrections or modifications.
The important thing is to do a fair and good assessment. The assessment process is not to tell a company how to conduct its business; it is to tell a company what else it can do or ways in which it can do something better. At the end of the assessment process, the company should have some indication of what its strengths are and what it needs to do. For companies that are doing well, it serves to reinforce the knowledge and becomes an improvement objective. As a mentor, I always feel it is my responsibility to aid this process.
I usually do a few things before the final meeting – I make at least one site visit, preferably not with the assessment team, asking questions and listening to the operations people. You get a general idea of where the company is. In my native language we say that when you cook rice, one grain of rice is enough to tell you whether it is done. Then I make it a point to spend time with the CEO, usually along with the team leader and a senior member of the assessment team. This meeting gives us the picture of what the CEO sees as the company's strengths and weaknesses. I also try to be there on the final discussion day, before the report is prepared, as that is when the pressure is at its peak. I am there more as a listener and an observer.
There is another role the mentor plays. During deliberations and discussions, the mentor may have to step in and provide a balance. Sometimes a dominant assessor will drive the team in one direction. I have found that the best way to bring in that balance is to give a parallel industry example. People start sharing their experiences and the balance comes in. You have to also understand that the assessment team is under high pressure and however knowledgeable they are, they have doubts about their comments. The way to address this is to have a discussion with the team and arrive at a consensus.
How does the mentor help a company in the assessment process?
Every outcome takes time and if there is a good, improving, maturing benchmarking process, the outcome is a matter of time, and we should respect that and assess the company accordingly. As a mentor, my job is to make sure that I am fair to the assessment process.
Are there any new areas in the assessment process?
There are other areas we should add – one is sustainability. I have become more sensitive to the issues of sustainability after joining a power company. Now I have a better understanding of social and environmental sustainability. Recently, some senior Tata executives attended a sustainability session at Cambridge and one statement impacted me profoundly, ‘Business strategy must be integrated with a sustainability strategy.’ When TBEM was initiated 15 years ago, people looked at business and TBEM as two separate initiatives and today people are looking at sustainability as a separate silo from business. That’s a huge mistake, because it won’t take 20 years to know the impact; it will happen in the next five years. We have to start developing business strategies integrated with sustainability strategy.
It is a serious issue and I think everybody has a responsibility. In striving for business excellence, the TBEM process will have to naturally incorporate sustainability in a more rigorous form. We have included safety, innovation, corporate governance; the time has come to also integrate sustainability into the TBEM process.
What about assessment of an integrated company or of divisions of that company? Is that a more difficult process?
The general guideline I give the team is that the purpose of the assessment is not to focus on how it is integrated, but how effectively. The purpose of it is how the process is maturing, how the process is being benchmarked and how they are learning from each other. We are not here to say, "This division is not integrated with that division." The TBEM and Brand Equity and Business Promotion processes have actually achieved that unification and integration in assessment.
TBEM now has assessors from around the world. Do they bring in different perspectives?
What has been your learning from mentoring?
Tata Chemicals saw its business stabilise during 2001-06, when it started getting into growth after a difficult phase. Then it started acquiring companies – Brunner Mond (now known as Tata Chemicals Europe), General Chemical Industrial Products (now known as Tata Chemicals North America). The two years during which I was mentoring there, the company had finished with its difficult period and was all set to go into a growth phase. I learnt how companies can overcome very difficult situations and grow. Tata Chemicals used to be a very Mithapur-centric organisation, but now it’s in four locations in India and four locations outside India. The company was able to globalise and assimilate the different cultures. So it is possible for a single location company to grow internationally. That is something unique I saw in Tata Chemicals.
Personally, we meet so many new people. The biggest learning has been the networks. I have met with five team leaders in the past five years, and each leader is very different – so you build a network.
Is there something you would change about the mentoring process?