Friday 10 Sep 2021
⏰ MELBOURNE TIME
11.00 am - 1.00 pm
⏰ LOCAL START TIME
Ms Sunitha Lal
Chief Human Resources Officer, Ather Energy, India
Sunitha Lal is the CHRO at Ather Energy. She is passionate about exploring and curating organizational culture and is a strong proponent of the oral tradition of storytelling. Sunitha calls experience the luxury of grey hair, and she swims in the overlapping spaces of words, mindfulness, yoga, tying the great unknown to the human experience. She is the author of Dotting the Blemish and Other Stories, a collection of short stories about women that reflect and comment on the inherent prejudices we have as a society.
Finding our Moorings during Uncertain Times
Ather Energy is an Indian two-wheeler design and manufacturing company, building an entire electric ecosystem, from scratch. We are a young organization that thrives on first-principles thinking, and speed, and believe that the future is truly electric.
There is great urgency around ‘knowing’ in organizations. Especially in Ather, we implicitly take pride in our empirical thinking. Remote-working was something we had quickly discounted as a workstyle we would not choose, or need. But, in March 2020, we braced ourselves for a series of lockdowns owing to the pandemic. We were introduced to several unknowns brought in by the global standstill, while fighting a cash-crunch and raising fresh capital, in parallel.
The pandemic taught us a lot about ‘not knowing’. There were large chunks of information that were unclear or emerging. We dealt with unknown variables every day – the spread of the infection, changing government guidelines, and supply chain fall-throughs. We constantly ideated and tried various plans, while we were conscious that they could all change at any moment. But, we quickly rallied to manage the not-knowing; crisis management with the underpinnings of change management.
The underbelly of a change of this scale was ambivalence and anxiety. For the first time, we experienced some talent pockets unaligned, cynical, or leaving us. Meanwhile, we also had members passionately driving change, holding the fort, managing non-routine responses, and delivering results.
‘Be Nice’ is one of Ather’s defined values, that is about exhibiting ‘trust by default’. This behaviour was tested as we began work in uncertain times, and in an indefinite remote setup. We needed to trust ourselves and others, to deliver shifting goals.
This fear of ‘not knowing’ mobilized the team to look for assurances from the larger system – the organization. There was anger towards leaders for ‘not fixing’, followed by disappointment, leading to giving up or withdrawing. ‘Me’ness was displayed – to protect the ‘Self’ from uncertainty and what it brings, leading to collusion rather than collaboration.
Coming to Know
During this time, we were both dysfunctional and formidable. We built a greenfield factory, raised two rounds of capital, adopted the Agile methodology of working, launched a new product variant, set up a pan-India dealership network, and conceptualized a new performance-management system: all in-house, during the pandemic. With our focus on bringing cross-functional teams together to solve problems, ‘negotiated’ rather than ‘delegated’ authority became our backbone.
The New Sortedness
While we achieved noteworthy milestones, our belief in the story called ‘Ather’ was tested by fear-induced anxiety. This period demanded of us to look inward, be centered, and continuously work on being better.
We adopted different methods to reach out to team members and engage with them in meaningful conversations to understand and alleviate their fears. We encouraged questions and inquiry to set context, create safe spaces, and build cohesiveness. We used the process of engagement and reflection to explore experiences, generate ideas, build resilience, and stay connected. We drove this transformation using mediums ranging from informal Chat-rooms, Culture Conversations (Focus Group Discussions), All-Hands, internal Podcasts, our intranet, and Ask-me-Anything sessions.
It is unfamiliar and difficult for an organization to accept that certainty is not guaranteed, and choose to be willing to learn and work towards ‘coming to know’. We have now long realized that the ‘not knowing’ is here to stay and we have to adapt with that in mind. We have made peace with ‘figuring it out’, instead of ‘having figured it out’.
This is the new state of ‘sortedness’.
Small group discussion; impressions of the paper and developing questions for the presenter
Discussion forum with the presenter; moderated for the speaker to elaborate their ideas
Discussion forum with the presenter; themes from the discussions
Whole symposium open reflection discussion