THE SMILING BUDHA OF HR: Tarun Sheth

ECONOMIC TIMES

While reflecting about the column on careers and business life, I asked myself what purpose could be served by such an effort.

ECONOMIC TIMES

While reflecting about the column on careers and business life, I asked myself what purpose could be served by such an effort. A simple idea, supported by a simple story, could be a positive format for learning and reflection and practising managers could find that useful.

Tarun Natwarlal Sheth, 73, passed away on Sunday 18th July, 2010 at the Bombay Hospital. Tarun probably had as much impact on Indian HR practice as the tallest among his contemporaries. What he could achieve with a smile and humane relationships was phenomenal.

Tarun studied sociology and became a teacher at the newly minted IIM Ahmedabad. He was among the first management teachers to be selected to undergo the Teacher’s Training Program at Harvard, which he completed in 9 months. To the early generation of IIM graduates like CK Prahalad, Arun Nanda, and Labdhi Bhandari, , he was a sort of ‘Tarun sir.’

In 1970, Hindustan Lever attracted him to join as Selection and Training Manager. That is when I first met this ‘smiling Budha of HR.’ From 1970 until 1987 when he left as top honcho of Management Development, he spent 17 fruitful years, serving under chairmen like Vasant Rajadhyaksha, T Thomas and Ashok Ganguly and under the watchful eye of his mentor, the late Dr Ranjan Banerji.

Tarun was a deep thinker on his subject, so he had a point of view. His credibility as an HR professional was first, that he solved problems with a disarming smile but he did not pretend to solve all problems; second, that he never carried his unsolved problems as furrows on his brow; third, that he could express disagreement agreeably. Above all, he never seemed hassled; it was as if he knew his own mortality. Not many professionals could display this combination of qualities in HR or any other function.

To gain industrial relations experience, he moved to the restless Sewri factory during the 1970s. Out of touching sweating shoulders, he understood human resources differently, at the grass roots; he did not want to be a mere theorist. He was always included in Unilever’s global exercises to figure out latest practice in HR. Sound organizational structuring and span of control became his speciality in the 1980s. Sometimes under pressure with his bosses on job classification, he would win his point of view by praising the boss first, and then pointing out the dangers of a particular decision. In an aggressive work culture, he was a balm. He was ‘agony uncle’ to generations of Lever managers.

Surprise of all, in 1987 at the age of 50 with four girls at home, he became an entrepreneur in the HR business. His wife, Pratibha, had started Shilputsi, a small recruitment firm, named out of a combination of the names of their three lovely daughters. As Pratibha would joke, it took a Brahmin wife to persuade a Vania husband to become entrepreneurial!

And what a firm they both built. Shilputsi still stands tall today. From recruiting, they moved on to consulting on organizational design and change management. There are few firms that have not gained from the sage advice of Tarun and Pratibha.

Tarun will not be remembered for propounding any startling theory. He will be remembered as a humane HR person, an epithet not easily ascribed to HR by line managers. He was a natural leader of hearts. More importantly, he will be remembered by the chelas and students he leaves behind in corporate India. That is the true mark of a teacher: that he taught many to fish rather than to eat fish!

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