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Hindustan Lever's IT strategist

After numerous, varied assignments, and considerable globe-trotting, KG Mohan has settled into his role as the Vice-President of IT at Hindustan Lever. He shares the highlights of his career with Deepali Gupta

Can you remember where you were twenty-one years ago? K G Mohan, Vice-President, IT, Hindustan Lever certainly does. He stood at a critical crossroad in his life. After a four year stint at TCS, he realised that IT work was not routine, and that it involved a fair amount of original thinking. The work profile of an IT person had a charm and the field had potential. Although, as an industrial engineer, IT was not his core competence, he still jumped at the chance of being a part of the team that set up HLL's IT infrastructure.

He started off as a Systems Manager and went on to head Lipton's IT operations. The Lipton-Brooke Bond merger put him in the hot seat and he was put in charge of integrating the IT set-ups of both companies. Mohan deployed an ERP system for the merged entity and ensured that the IT systems were combined in a smooth and seamless manner.

A New World

Circa 1996, the buzz was building around e-commerce and HLL wanted to establish a sound policy concerning the phenomenon. Mohan went on a special assignment to London to understand the fundamentals of e-commerce. Along side the learning, he was also assigned to another project—that at the time seemed to pose an immense threat—the global co-ordination of Unilever's efforts to tackle the Y2K bug. He visited the state-of-the-art IT labs that the company had set up around the world. As he travelled around the world, and observed different people and cultures, he picked up the European habit of going on an annual summer break. "We treat our summer break like a religion. It must be done, and it’s something we can do as a family," he says.

Homeward Bound

When he returned to India in 2000, Mohan was assigned to a project that would change the way business was conducted at HLL. He was given the mandate of establishing shared services for HLL's operations. It was a great career move, but this move hit him at a personal level, his children found it hard to adjust to the Indian school system after the self-learning approach UK schools took. The children needed parental guidance and support. Mohan was faced with a tough decision. Should he focus on his job, or was his duty towards his family more important?

He sought his wife's support and she looked after the children. The knowledge that she was there for them permitted him to concentrate and excel at work. "I feel reassured that she is taking care of them; that she is in touch with their needs and is supporting them. I can therefore focus on my job," Mohan says.

A Consolidated Approach

For the shared services project, all of the company's IT resources had to be centralised with the aim of running the core and common processes from one place. This has helped the business in three ways. It has done away with inefficiency. Now, people at the operational centres are free to focus on other work. It has simplified things as new services only need to be connected to one location rather than all 200 locations. Finally, Mohan and his team implemented Six Sigma at the central location. So, not only does each individual specialise in his or her task, the performance of every employee is measured to the last second.

The journey of Mohan’s life began as he went on hitchhiking and cycling trips with his college (IIT Chennai) friends...
He hitchhiked all the way from Chennai to Mumbai once, it took 6 days to complete the trip. He also biked with his friends from Coimbatore to Chennai
After just one meeting, a walk and a conversation on the beach, he found his better-half and partner for life
Once he retires he would like to tend to an orchard on his ancestral property, and run a primary school. Retirement, he believes, is a critical stage in a person’s life

Moving Up the value chain

A year later, Mohan was promoted to his present responsibility—Vice-President, IT—a post he has held for the past four years. His new role added two features to his earlier portfolio. The first is to analyse business, find business opportunities and enable these with IT. To this end, he travels extensively to factories, operational centres as well as corporate offices of HLL, where he interacts with business personnel to understand their requirements and vulnerabilities. “People have a lot of expectation from IT. I am happy to address and develop on them,” Mohan notes happily.

The second area is closer to Mohan's heart as it involves teaching his IT team about the business and its functions. His approach to teaching is such that he lets juniors develop multiple skillsets by finding holes in competencies and skills that he can plug through lectures and interactive sessions.

Mohan believes that every IT person should possess the art of "strategic influencing." What he means is that it is important for the IT team to convince the business to change. IT change requires a change in business processes. He has crafted his own convincing approach over the years. This is what he tells HLL officers: "To influence people, you need to get into their shoes. To do that you need to push aside your own assessment and attend to the problem from a new perspective."

Challenge of a lifetime

In fact, managing this change has been the biggest challenge of Mohan's life. "With change comes insecurity and fear, and people tend to put up covert and overt obstructions the minute you try to implement something new," he says. Ignorance of what IT can do for the business is something Mohan tackles during his visits and training sessions.

In his personal life he claims his biggest challenge is coping with the guilt that he’s not spending enough time with his children. He continues to play the part of the regulating authority at home, but is unable and sit with his son to help him cope with his board exams.

Health is wealth

All the issues Mohan has to continuously deal with make for a stressful life. Like many of his colleagues, Mohan counts on his regular fitness regime to help him cope with stress. He ensures that he takes a morning walk and meditates for ten minutes everyday, no matter where he is.

Mohan enjoys and takes pride in his work. He believes that the IT structure he has helped develop at HLL showcases India's potential to Unilever and other companies around the world.

The Book on K G Mohan

Currently reading: A Bias for Action by Sumantra Ghosh

Last book read: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Other Don’t by Jim Collins

Last movie watched: Lagaan—He’s not too much of a movie or TV watcher

Favorite music: Carnatic classical—He enjoys the melodious sound of his wife’s Veena

Hobby: Gardening—He grows roses and other ornamental plants on his terrace

Political opinion: He is disappointed with the way Indian politics works, but will not enter the fray as he feels that he will never fit in

Sports he still pursues: Badminton, Swimming—his son beats him on the badminton court

Advice to IT people: “Don’t get enamoured by technology. Always look for business value.”

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