Shift towards Agile PMS- conversation with Kalpesh Vohra

Kalpesh Vohra

Kalpesh is the head of performance management and total rewards COE at Strides Pharma Science. In his role within the Strides group, he works with Arcolab in rolling out HR services in the areas of job evaluation, total rewards, and performance management to the group entities.

Prior to this, Kalpesh worked as a practice leader for the life sciences industry and principal consultant in the HR consulting vertical at Mercer India. In his career span of 15 years, he has partnered with numerous Indian and multinational organizations through consulting firms such as Mercer, human capital consulting unit of Ma Foi, and Thomas Profiling Assessments. He has led and been part of several teams working on a variety of HR assignments in the areas such as organization design, manpower planning, job evaluation and banding, HR policies and processes, performance management, compensation & benefits, competency mapping, and development centers.

Here are his key experiences in the industry in relation to Performance Management.


What, in your opinion, performance management is?

Performance management is a widely spoken topic these days. Before we focus on what it is, let me share what it is not!

Performance Management is –

  • not an HR Process, rather it’s a crucial business process.
  • not a ceremonial or administrative annual appraisal process. On the contrary, it is a critical tool to drive right behavior in the organization across all levels – be it leaders, managers or team members.
  • not a mechanical process. As a matter of fact, it requires sound judgement and leadership commitment.
  • not a process which is liked by all the employees. It is a process on which most of the organizations are yet to get a handle.
  • not a process. It is more of an experience.

In my view, Performance Management is a key driver which helps achieve business its strategic objectives. The inputs for this are taken from business and the output is delivered to business.

Let us understand the inputs that the business should feed in. The key inputs are organization’s purpose, vision, strategic intent and what it wishes to achieve over a period. These inputs coupled with the internal culture, structure, policies and the industry context become the foundation of a robust performance management system.

Having recognized the inputs, let us focus on the process. It starts with what is of utmost significance – simply put ‘Goals’ – defining what we aim to achieve. Goal clarity and cascade is vital.

The next aspect is the conversation/review that takes place between a manager and the team member, followed by the outcome itself that is typically the performance ratings, behavioral and development feedback, career options, succession planning and compensation.

Whatever process we adopt, the PMS should help in achieving not only the immediate business goals, but should be far-sighted and sustainable enough to achieve mid to long term business objectives.

While this is from a business perspective, let us also look at it from an employee’s perspective. Based on my extensive stint with HR consulting firms and various assignments with client organizations, I can say that the top three priorities for employees in India are career development, learning and rewards. A good PMS plays an important role in meeting these expectations. The outcome of a robust PMS provides opportunities to employees to develop themselves, their career and ensure appropriate rewards.

How is the performance of the employees managed in the pharmaceutical industry? What tools are actually used in improving the process?

During my tenure at Mercer, I led the pharma industry practice in India between year 2014 to 2020 and got the opportunity of engaging with multiple clients. Basis that experience, I can say that most of the companies are revisiting their existing performance management system and some are even introducing this at an elementary stage. There are more than 3000 pharma companies in India at varying maturity levels. While foreign headquartered companies are ahead in ensuring an effective PMS in line with their global practices, many Indian pharma companies have also put in tremendous efforts in last few years in revolutionizing their PMS in line with their business and talent strategy.

Pharma industry being already highly competitive, in Indian context has witnessed a massive talent competition, which is also aligned with the growth that the industry has experienced in last 10-15 years. The PMS is playing and expected to play a very critical role in ensuring roll out of other HR processes in this competitive environment – including but not limited to career planning and pathing, succession planning, development, global mobility, base pay, incentives – both short term and long term.

The emphasis of the companies is shifting towards agile goals. The industry is focused on being agile and faster development of new products is very important. The latest and a very significant example here is the development time taken for Indian vaccines for COVID-19. The way pharma companies have responded to the whole pandemic is a great example of agility, be it vaccine development, manufacturing, partnership, commercialization or delivery.

Another example of agility is the whole adoption of technology be it on the operations side or on the commercial side. New and robust technologies are getting deployed at a rapid pace by the pharma companies. Also, on the HR front, a lot of pharma companies are going for technology enabled PMS which covers goal setting, periodic check-ins between managers and team members and the whole performance and rewards work is delivered through an online system. Agile business goals and execution is the focus of the industry.

In domestic market, we see greater use of technology in doctors and medical representatives’ engagement. Companies are also deploying robust CRM systems.  The focus from number of doctor calls is shifting to quality of calls and the outcome of these calls is getting recorded with the enablement of technology. This aids in tracking and improving the performance of the field force in the industry.

In addition, companies are aiming for high periodicity and quality of conversations. They are trying to put a culture in place for frequent conversations and developing managers to have effective communication with the team members.

Pharma industry in India has been ahead of time in ensuring rewards and recognition for its sales force. This has been in practice for many years and has led to scaling up the performance of the sales force. The rewards and recognition programs are now being rolled out in non-sales functions as well and many companies are launching innovative, frequent and engaging programs.

We are also witnessing faster movement to variable pay programs aligned with the overall company and function / team performance rather than just being limited to individual performance.

What aspects of performance management you think will improve employee participation in the PM experience?

The lucidity and coherence in the performance management process will help the employees gain clarity on their goals and process outcomes. Leadership commitment and involvement will also provide confidence to the employees.

Performance management should not be addressed with a carrot and stick approach, rather as a process that will enable employees to develop in their career. It must help them to diagnose what they are doing, how they are doing it and what are their strengths and areas of betterment.

Another element which would help employees to improve their participation, is shifting the focus from feedback to feedforward. Instead of spending a great deal of time in dwelling on what the employee has done, the focal point should be on paving the way for future betterment.

What are the key gaps in current pharmaceuticals industry practices in managing employees’ performance?

The major gap is the inability of the companies to provide a development and career-oriented PMS experience to its employees. Another challenge is the people managers, who are either not willing or not skilled enough to have difficult and growth-oriented conversations with their team members. In such a scenario, it becomes challenging to manage the employee’s performance.

Another gap that I see is performance appraisal being an annual process and linked with rewards outcome, the employees are averse in taking stretch goals. The focus is more on rating, annual compensation hike and performance bonus, and this is where the entire approach becomes very short-sighted.  Additionally, this becomes quite mechanized and instead of managing the performance, employees may tend to manage the outcomes of the process.  While there is a necessity to limit the linkages with rewards outcome, more linkages are desired with overall talent strategy covering succession planning, learning and career development.

Any best performance management practices for the future you would like to share.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. This is contextual to the organization and its realities. Indian market is very diverse with so many business organizations operating at varying level of maturities. So, I would like to share some of the potential ‘Next’ practices which may become the best practices in future for the industry –

  • In VUCA world, roles are becoming more multifaceted and ambiguous. Technical skills alone will not help employees to thrive, they will need to apply behavioural and leadership skills as well to achieve their goals. This will lend emphasis on the holistic performance of the employees.
  • Business environment and workplaces are becoming more agile, and change is expected to gain further pace. High growth organizations may not have annual goal setting exercise, rather may review the goals periodically in order to meet the rapidly occurring changes.
  • Employees will ‘own’ their career in the future of work. This indicates a probable reduction in the role of managers. The employees will work with and manage relationship with diverse internal and external stakeholders. We shall witness the shift in the focus from ‘me’ to ‘we’. The work environment will become more collaborative giving due significance to multisource feedback rather than manager being the only source of feedback. Artificial intelligence may play a vital role in this to ensure personalised development feedback and linkages with career opportunities in the overall performance management programme.
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