This interview was conducted on March 2012


As you walk through the corridors of the Happiest Minds office in Electronic City, Bengaluru, you’ll often hear phrases like sense of purpose, positive emotion and being valued. There is a good chance one might dismiss these words as mere jargons that don’t find a real place in the cutthroat world of business. Not at Happiest Minds, though.

Even as Ashok Soota, an IT industry veteran who held senior management roles at Wipro and then became co-founder and chairman of MindTree Limited, was getting ready to launch yet another IT company, he knew that he had to inculcate the concept of a happy workforce into the mix. It was an area he was passionate about for quite some time. It took concrete shape and he decided to implement a ‘happiness framework’ into the business process of his new company.

The venture aims to disrupt the IT services sector, not only through its focus on emerging technologies – like cloud, mobile and social media – but also through its emphasis on the theme of happiness, especially among its clients and employees. Shanmugam, the man responsible for people operations at Happiest Minds, is spearheading this drive. “I guess it all starts by defining what you mean by happiness. What is happiness for you is not happiness for me. So, when you have an organisation of 1000 people, how do you say this is how you should be happy?” he questions.

Shanmugam, who has worked with Soota throughout his 25-year career – first at Wipro and then at MindTree – decided to accept Soota’s offer to become the Chief People Officer and co-founder at Happiest Minds almost as soon as Soota put the question to him. “This is my first ever HR job,” he says. Shanmugam confesses that it was impossible to resist the temptation of working on something that could create a huge impact. He knows, as is always with Soota, happiness isn’t about management concepts, high-sounding statements or just differentiating the company. The 12-member founding team wants to take steps to ensure these statements end up being fruitful to employees and clients alike.

At 30,000 feet

“At a broad level, let me comment on our thought process. One, we certainly cannot guarantee happiness. It is the individual responsibility of a person to be happy. Two, we can definitely create the environment that will facilitate happiness. And three, there are some requirements for a person to be capable of being happy. We train them to build this capacity,” explains Shanmugam about the three main aspects of the happiness framework.

At the organisation level, people look for various factors like career growth, fairness and credibility. As individuals, people need to find a cultural fit and in general, have gratitude. “If you cull from all the research that has been conducted on happiness, if there is one quality that is important to keep us happy, it is gratitude. If you’re not thankful for the good things you’ve received, there is nothing that can make you happy,” explains Shanmugam. (See Idea in Brief box for specific steps taken by the company in this area.)

The company wants to figure out how to include the happiness factor into the day-to-day operations – be it engagement with clients or even employees communicating to the outside world about their jobs. “The difference lies in the overall package, in the value-added services to our clients and in the treatment of our employees. The approach has to be real,” says Shanmugam. On the client side, the company is working on putting together a structured framework, but a lot of emphasis is being put on the quality and nature of the client engagement process.

Taking action

Shanmugam recently hired a full-time person, who’ll spearhead research on happiness. The Happiness Evangelist, the job title of the person manning the role, is responsible for creating, deploying and then, measuring the impact of the happiness framework. At a broader level, Soota and Shanmugam want to inculcate the key values of Sharing, Mindful, Integrity, Learning, Excellence and Social Responsibility (S.M.I.L.E.S.) into each and every employee of Happiest Minds.

The company’s interview and training processes have elements to fulfill the overall mission. The interview led by the people practice team is focused on really understanding the person and his value system. “We answer questions like – is it possible to help this person further along the happiness curve? Is he aligned to our core beliefs?” says Shanmugam.

In the training process, in addition to technical, soft skills and leadership development training, there is a fourth level, which is called happiness capacity training. It starts with a program on self-awareness, during which time a person understands himself a little better and figures out areas he needs to improve upon. This is where concepts like respect and gratitude are discussed and possibly inculcated. Shanmugam says, “Of course, some of this is still unfinished work and we’re learning as we go along.”

The primary challenge

“The biggest challenge for us today is that we’re trying to convert a very emotional, very intangible concept called happiness into a hard-nosed business world. We need to show actions and results in tangible ways,” explains Shanmugam. For the chief people officer, this is the core issue he’s grappling with day in and day out. He wants to bring in this transformation without trivialising the core values. “If you rush and implement this too fast, you may end up with short-lived gimmicks, which may actually be counter-productive,” he adds.

 

“The biggest challenge for us today is that we’re trying to convert a very emotional, very intangible concept called happiness into a hard-nosed business world. We need to show actions and results in tangible ways.”

 

The second challenge is measuring impact. “Okay, you have happy people and happy customers. But what are your metrics? Five years from now, people are going to ask to see our results. We need to be prepared,” says Shanmugam, even as he adds he’s fairly confident it is going to work.

Shanmugam is convinced that an early-stage company is the best platform to try this out. Including happiness concepts into the complete business process and giving it time to transform into tangible benefits for various stakeholders is at the heart of Shanmugam’s role. The IT industry veteran, who led MindTree Foundation right before he joined Soota to build Happiest Minds, is extremely excited about his first HR job. “Here is a huge opportunity to make a big impact,” he concludes.


Idea in brief

While several companies try to adopt strategies to keep a workforce happy, there is no company today that has publically announced that the pursuit of happiness is their core mission. The Ashok Soota-led Happiest Minds is working towards building various happiness-related strategies into the company’s business process. The 12-member founding team at the company has been carefully picked so everyone is aligned to the core vision of happy people and happy customers. These are some actions taken by the company to ‘facilitate happiness’

•  Hired a PhD. in Organisational Behaviour as a Happiness Evangelist to lead the effort

•  Create a framework where the mission, vision, and business processes have happiness themes at the core

•  The interview process has an in-depth interview conducted by the people practice team to figure out if a person is capable of being happy and more importantly, is it possible to help him further along the happiness curve.

•  There is a specialised training module on happiness capacity building.

•  The SMILES centre at Happiest Minds is focused on conducting happiness research and publishing results and sharing it with the community.

•  The company understands that it cannot guarantee happiness. It is the individual responsibility of a person to be happy.