When the Latika Roy Foundation got an opportunity to take part in the Vodafone World of Difference program as part of my Dasra Executive Education training, we said yes because we say yes to almost everything. You just never know, is my philosophy. But to be honest, my expectations weren’t very high. Corporate do-gooding, I thought. How much is it likely to achieve?
My thinking changed a bit at our first residential session in Mumbai back in September. Laura Turkington, Director of the Vodafone Foundation, made a presentation to the 25 Dasra organizations which had been selected to receive volunteers and I realized for the first time the level of passion and commitment both the volunteers and Vodafone itself brought to the endeavor. Volunteers from the previous year’s program spoke movingly to us about their experiences and how they felt their lives had been changed. Representatives from the organizations where they had been placed were effusive about how helpful they had been, how hard they had worked and how much they had accomplished.
I began to take the program a little more seriously.
One of the requirements for getting a volunteer was designing a project for the person to do while with us. It had to be in writing and well thought through. I decided to see if our volunteer could design an appraisal system for the Foundation – something we had long been in need of but never got around to doing.
The photo says pretty much all you need to know about this guy. He is fun-loving, energetic, imaginative and so enthusiastic it is almost impossible to describe. (On this particular day, just a week into his stint here with us, he was participating in our Republic Day function and dancing as a tribal from Nagaland. And yes, that’s a grass skirt he’s wearing!)
Apart from being an amazing dancer, Ritesh is also an HR expert with over six years of experience with Vodafone (to whom he is touchingly loyal! He really loves his job!).
For his first few days with us, he visited each centre, observing the work, asking questions, chatting with staff and getting to know people on an informal basis.
Or so we all thought. In fact, Ritesh never takes off his HR hat. Just through casual conversation, he was able to identify areas of concern in the Foundation: staff members unclear about their precise responsibilities and how they were being evaluated; some people getting promotions and others not and no one quite sure why; staff who couldn’t say how what they were doing fit into the overall vision of the organization . . . and while it was clear that we had systems in place, it was also obvious that they weren’t always implemented and when they were, they weren’t always effective in achieving our long-term goals.
Because that’s what all this HR stuff is really about. I’ve been a little dismissive of the importance of HR in the past. Many people have talked about how urgently we require a full department to deal with HR issues (we are now a staff of 110!) and I have to admit that I haven’t taken it seriously. It seemed a bit fluffy to me, a distraction from the real work we are doing, an excursion into leave rules and increments and comp time off. I’d never been interested in any of it and always hoped that if I ignored it it would go away.
Well guess what? It didn’t. Not dealing with HR is like not getting your annual medical exam or neglecting your teeth or forgetting to get the car serviced. Things keep working, but not as well as they might. The body creaks along, the teeth hurt when eating ice cream, the car doesn’t purr. Problems simmer beneath the surface.
And at one level, I think I have always known this. But the work, the work! Head down, keep at it, don’t ask too many questions, try not to notice the small, tell-tale signs. Pretend that everything is in order, that everyone is happy, that the systems are in place and working well.
Then someone like Ritesh comes in – a professional, with a trained eye and no idea about disability so he doesn’t get distracted by the great work going on – and he’s asking questions and looking into files and noticing gaps and pointing out weaknesses great and small.
It’s humbling and exciting at the same time. It takes courage to lay yourself open, to allow a stranger to review your work (your life), to give someone permission to make a list of your failings and write a prescription for your recovery. It takes courage because in your heart of hearts, you already know what’s been swept under the carpet, what’s been stashed behind the almirah, what’s been stuffed at the back of the drawer.
And you know that once it’s all out in the open, it won’t fit nicely back where it’s been hiding. It’s going to take hard work and discipline to deal with it all and then it’s going to have to be put somewhere neatly and taken out and reviewed at regular intervals and that’s the only way it’s going to keep on working.
I also know that sometimes it’s going to feel like a waste of time because there is so much real work to be done with the kids and that a little voice in my ear is probably going to keep piping up saying “Fluffy! Fluffy!” Or “You really think you have time for this?”
But then I come back to what I have always believed: In our work with children, nothing – no piece of equipment, no special furniture, no medicine, no procedure, no adaptive technology – nothing can ever take the place of human beings. And human beings, worldwide, work better and more effectively when everything is clear, when expectations are spelled out, when evaluations are regular and fair, when good performance is noticed and rewarded, when problems are spotted early and dealt with immediately.
Our staff. They are our greatest resource and they deserve no less than the best we can possibly give them.
So thanks, Ritesh, for helping me to see the light. And thanks, Vodafone, for making it possible. Zindabad!