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Finding organisational bearings amid the pandemic – Harshbeena Zaveri

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As a seasoned business leader, Harshbeena Zaveri (Vice Chairman and MD, NRB Bearings) has picked up the gauntlet of many an organisational challenge. But the pandemic was a curveball that put her skills to the test.

Q. What are some lessons you’ve learned or reinforced over the last year since the pandemic began?

I studied Urban Planning and Anthropology at Wellesley, and my favorite adage has been “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed” from Charles Darwin.

This has been our guiding principle throughout the pandemic; disruptions and crisis situations showcase the strengths of NRB’s culture at its best. The ‘Collaborate & Improvise’ philosophy- to be flexible and to move with the flow helped us bounce back and keep our morale high.

The other learning is that trust can be best built-in uncomfortable situations of acute stress – as such life-threatening situations truly define us – and the same applies to an organization. The true legacy we leave behind is the manner in which we have touched the lives of others and how we handled ourselves in the most difficult phases of our lives. As a leader and the head of an organization, I had the opportunity to influence and use this in every way, each day.

Q. As a leader, what are the key shifts you have made over the last year? Can you tell us more about your responses to the unfolding pandemic situation in terms of the achievements of your business performance over the last year.

Even before the imposition of lockdown, I realised that this is a black swan event, which will not go away quickly and its impact will last for years may be decade. When the lockdown was imposed, I immediately made a plan for the next two years to ensure that our company emerges a clear winner no matter what happens. Recognising that we were in the grip of a life-threatening situation, I decided to display total calmness and an absolute lack of panic to ensure my people feel confident that we can together navigate the terrifying situation that we were faced with.

Within three days, for my first pandemic Townhall, I shared with my employees what my research on the Spanish Flu and my discussions with academicians made me believe the future holds. Why I was certain that this would last for years and that the post covid world would be a very different world than the one we were used to. Why we needed to make a longer term plan, rather than one which was a temporary change post which, we could go back to the old way.

My anthropology background made me aware of the pitfalls- how would we ensure that the “hard wiring” of the past will not come in our way of dealing with the unfolding situation? We debated this internally with my leadership team and decided against a short term solution and instead permanently restructured the company to make it more agile, creating faster decision making processes. Our systems were re-built for a fast changing environment- where plans were only made for three months at a time to future proof our company and protect our employees, customers as well as our shareholders.

We planned a series of Townhalls , so as to be visible to my team and get them to share their innermost thoughts and fears and instil confidence in them.

We decided our advantage was People and Culture. Culture needs to be adaptive to both external and internal realities else survival become difficult. In the same sense, culture or personality only matters When things aren’t going right. your flexibility and your character strengths really come out into the open and matter;

Our employee feedback showed that people understood this, and were willing to stand by the company and collaborate to keep us strong. We further enhanced outcomes with attitudinal training of our entire management team NRB adopted an approach of quick and agile decision making to enable the Company to regain financial strength and to mitigate the financial risk created by the pandemic; the focus shifted from post event review to collating information in advance each week, and then creating plans that were most likely to succeed. Our financial performance was exemplary and we did better on both growth and profitability than FY2019 in FY2021 and also have higher employee morale and a stronger, more agile culture.

We developed new products much faster, not just for BS6, and for global platforms that included products for a range of future-ready vehicles such as the latest Hybrid BMW models from Series 3 to Series 5, the hybrid mini Cooper, the latest Ford Ranger and Ford electric F150 Truck, and the Daimler electric version of their best Actros. We are all more confident about the future, knowing that covid has helped us build a culture that makes us a more resilient organization for the long run.

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