Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week we’re joined by Prabir Jha, founder and chief executive officer at Prabir Jha People Advisory, and a human resource strategist, coach, mentor, and TEDx speaker.

What does career development mean at a time when the world is just beginning to recover from a shared period of chaos? For Prabir Jha, diversifying your portfolio of skills, and charting your own course is inherent to building a robust reputation in your field.

Prabir Jha is a passionate, thoughtful, and experienced executive leader that has been responsible for the success of employees at organizations including Tata Motors and Reliance—two Fortune 500 companies based in India.

“A career is a necklace of experiences that makes you wiser, more effective at what you do, and makes you fulfilled.”

Prabir Jha

If you’re looking to take further ownership of your career trajectory, then tune in, check out the key takeaways, or read the transcript below.

Key Takeaways

  • The Number One Factor that Influences Your Career. Prabir thinks organizations have an impact on the way people build their careers. However, you as an individual get to choose and develop your career according to your personal desires and interests.

  • Designing Your Career with Three Simple Tips. First, identify the attributes that set you apart. Second, discover what you are best at and then invest more time into it. Third, think of your career as an interdependent process between your lifespace and workspace. Changing  circumstances challenge our careers.

  • Are Careers a Solo or Team Sport? People own their careers. But you cannot develop a fruitful career alone. It is ultimately a team sport, influenced by the work of colleagues, managers, and clients. To develop a successful career, it’s crucial to cooperate and build your reputation over your resume.

  • The Impact of the Gig Economy on Careers. Nowadays, there are more job choices. Prabir believes younger generations want greater job opportunities to learn new skills earlier and create their “necklace of experience.” For organizations, this can also be an opportunity to adjust their business processes to influence people’s careers positively.


Patrick Cournoyer: Coaching, mentoring, personal development, and career development. I would bet that every person listening to this episode is thinking about at least one of these and most likely all of them. As 2021 continues to unfold, these four will surely become passion areas for almost every organization around the world. We have the opportunity to all help each other as a global community to improve.

Prabir Jha is joining the conversation today. He is a passionate, thoughtful, and experienced executive leader that has been responsible for people’s success at organizations including Tata Motors and Reliance, two Fortune 500 companies in India. Prabir’s impact though goes far beyond his professional experience. He is truly passionate about enhancing the career journey of every individual that he has the opportunity to meet. I was impressed when I met Prabir and knew that we needed to introduce him to all of you.

Prabir, thanks for joining the conversation.

Prabir: Thank you, Patrick, for having me on your show. Delighted to be here.

Patrick: Great. Prabir, we have a lot to discuss today and I know you’re passionate about all four of these areas but today, let’s talk a bit about career and career journeys. I know you have some really meaningful thoughts on it but let’s first start with your definition of a career.

Prabir: I think that’s the best question to start with. What is a career because that is what is possibly most misunderstood. If at all, we are lucky, we understand it only partially. Careers are not really a string of titles. Career is also not about getting a higher compensation year on year. Career is not about what the world thinks of you. Career is actually a series of experiences, it is actually a necklace of experiences which make you wiser, more effective at what you do and most of all, it leaves you fulfilled. This dimension of fulfillment, Patrick, I don’t think comes from success.

Success is only one dimension of fulfillment or happiness. To me, career is really imagining. It’s a necklace, it’s a necklace of experiences, each one more profound, each one richer, each one very different from what you may have done. In the process, should your titles change, should your bank balance change and should you, therefore, be seen by the world as having greater stature and authority, that’s the cherry on the top. Fundamentally, it’s more inward than external.

Patrick: I like that imagery of a necklace of experiences because I absolutely would agree with you that as you think about career and career progression, and how our career evolves, experiences really are what set the tone for the future. Talking about career, do you think it is more an organization’s responsibility to drive someone’s career, or do you think that it is a personal or individual responsibility to drive a career?

Prabir: I mean, you’re really picking all the right nuances of careers, I’m so impressed. Again, prima facie, we’ve always grown up feeling that it’s the organization whose job it is, responsibility it is to create a career path, to give us careers, to allow us to move on our so-called trail of titles and better-sounding titles, but the right, I think, careers are more internal because at the end of the day, let’s also recognize careers are what people believe they seek to be. Each of us is unique. Each of our triggers, each of our motives for success, for accomplishment is very unique and very different. Unfortunately, organizations can only do a cookie-cutter modeling of what we call a career and we understand that so they do roll out career paths, they do throw out opportunities which people can grab in. They, of course, can identify talent and promote people to higher responsibilities, of course, and it is a win-win but I think the more important thing is for people to recognize who they are, what really is it that they are chasing, what gives them their sense of mojo, which could be very different from someone else.

I’ll give you a small example. People don’t recognize that appreciation could be a very integral part of a career, right. At the end of the day, some people are charmed, they are always seduced by appreciation. It doesn’t matter whether the titles change, but they feel complimented, recognized. They feel great and they believe that careers are happening, and there are some people for whom it may not directly matter, it is just the money in the bank.

The annual bonus, or your compensation, that is what drives careers, but very, very fundamentally, it is about us. You own your career, and only you understand. The organization can help, a coach can help but ultimately, you decide what your career is going to be like; will it be linear? Will it be more zigzag? Will it be flat, but it will be very rich in terms of what you do? Will it be what I often call a T-shaped career? Will you be on the horizontal of the T, which is an expertise thing? Or will you be on the horizontal of the T which is more about more strategic shifts? All of these are fair, but it depends on what you want out of your career. This is where a lot of people are confused, they are lost and they haven’t had help to rearticulate and really think about what their view of their career is. Many of them build their lives, following what others think should be their career, not what they believe should be the career and that is why the dichotomy becomes very dysfunctional at times.

Patrick: That really resonates with me, particularly around this idea of individuals designing their career, and that being a struggle point for many people and where it gets a bit confusing for people to really proactively design their career. How do you suggest people go about this idea of proactively designing their career for the future? What advice can you give to people?

Prabir: For many years, in the past, we lived in a world which believed in career planning, when the world was more predictable, stable, possibly boringly stable, you know, career planning helped because you know exactly what you would be doing, how many years of experience would get you to a certain job, and so on and so forth but because of what I just mentioned, A, the individual owns his or her unique career, and we live in a VUCA world, with all its opportunities and all its tribulations, and therefore, you need to design the career which best suits you.

Some things that I always advise my coaches, or people in my workshops to think about is identify your unique signature strengths. You know, if you look at classical career planning, it used to be, “Improve on this, get better at that, try and acquire this,” and so on and so forth. My view is career designing is a more positive and an optimistic philosophy.

When you design your career, you basically search and discover, sometimes you’re not even conscious of it but you take help of people, but you discover, what are your unique strengths? What are your unique triggers of passion, your deeply embedded life interests? What sets you apart? Because we know we are good at many things, but it doesn’t set you apart. There is one thing which can actually mark you very different from your peers. One is that sense of self-awareness and the other part is the discovery of trying to see what is it that will get the best out of me.

Not all of us can be great generals, not all of us can be best diplomats, not all of us can be CEOs, right? These are titles, but we can be great middle-order batsmen, we don’t have to be at the top. I always joke that you know, “Be the best barber in the world. You don’t have to be a CEO, but be the best barber in the world,” because that is you, that is your identity and that will be a sense of fame, recognition, and money.

You need to understand what it is and the space that you want to play. The third thing, which is very important for people to understand when they design their careers, is to understand the concept that I talked about life space and workspace. These are two different bubbles. Unfortunately, the myths that surround careers also suggest that career is all about work. It is all about my organizational context. Unfortunately, our careers are also supported, or possibly challenged by our life’s circumstances, what I call life space.

Sometimes, people are looking after ailing parents or you have a spouse who’s working or you have children who are doing very well in a certain school or a city and maybe the opportunity which is career-enhancing is somewhere else altogether and you say, “No,” right? These are career choices, but they are constricted by life situations.

Similarly, choices of interest. Some jobs and some careers demand of you to be actually 24/7, but you believe that, no, I’d like to play my golf, I’d like to go fishing, I’d like to go to my children’s school drama presentation. There are tradeoffs. Careers are also about tradeoffs between life situations and life space and your workspace. There is nothing right or wrong about it. You build your careers, identifying your strengths, or what sometimes you also call career anchors, what typically– There are instruments that can help us get an insight, help understand where it is that you’re likely to play, which will get the best out of you, give you the sense of fulfillment.

Just because it’s good for Jack, is good for you, is absolutely a no-no. This is one of the biggest challenges around our careers because we all look at our neighbors and say, if he’s done that, let me also do it. In the process, we really become very average or suboptimal in our career thinking. Finally, the entire combination of juxtaposing life space and workspace and then deciding what is it that works best for me and then making your choices.

Patrick: As we’re developing these careers, designing these careers, is it a solo sport in a lot of ways, or is it–? Who else is involved in this in designing an individual career?

Prabir: It’s a great question. At one level, let me re-emphasize, you own your career, but can you alone deliver all that you seek for yourself? Can you alone ensure that you will encash every unique strength that you have? The answer is no. Therefore, careers are not a solo sport. It is a team sport, it is a contact sport. Who are these people?

If you go back longitudinally, it starts [unintelligible 00:11:47] teachers, those who encouraged you, those who got you to look at the world and opportunities differently. Beyond what you may have thought about yourself, they helped you uncover yourself at some level, then you get into a more corporate reality, let us say.

Then there are managers at different levels who make a huge difference sometimes positively, sometimes in the immediate not so positive, but there’s a learning that that experience also gives you. Peers, they are very important to ensure your success. If you have peers who are also supportive and are able to actually cement the gaps in your skillset, and you are wise enough to leverage them, and thank them for doing that, oh, they can do wonders to your careers. I talked about a supportive boss. Does the boss give you visibility? Does the boss want to hold you or does he or she want to unleash you for other opportunities beyond oneself?

Make a huge difference. Our clients make a huge difference, right. At the end of the day, we are as good as our stakeholders, our end clients, whether it’s internal or external, how do they perceive us? It’s all really about the reputation that you start building your family later. Our children, sometimes they keep us honest. Some feedback that I’ve had from my kids have been much sharper than what I have had from my boss, what I’ve learned. Sometimes when your spouse compliments you when you’re feeling low, it gets you back the next day.

Many people at work and beyond work, and actually I will add one more dimension, beyond your organizational context, the way you are seen by the world, especially as you get more and more senior, are you seen as a thought leader? Are you seen as someone who’s writing, who has a point of view, is a mentor or a coach to people even beyond the organization?

These enhance your reputation. I’ve always, Patrick, said this, “Your reputation precedes your resume.” If you are a great career builder, you should not really need to be building out a resume. Focus on building your reputation, because in today’s networked world, your reputation has reached 10 more people beyond what your resume will.

A lot of influences and impressions get already molded even before you get to meet other people. You’ve got to look at it very strategically, and put your arms around anyone and everyone who can help you get to be a better you.

Patrick: That reputation over my resume is amazing and I could not agree with that more. That’s a very powerful statement. When people are young in their professional careers, a resume is very important. People think about titles being so important. “I need to get to this next level.” I was also like that when I was young in my career, as I thought that that was what career advancement looked like. You’re right, in the past, career was very focused on that, but ultimately, I think your reputation as you said, the perception of your integrity as a person, as a co-worker, as a peer, far exceeds any writing on a piece of paper.

Thank you for sharing that and for that [unintelligible 00:15:01] because I wholeheartedly agree with that and believe in that as well. You talked about mentorship. Another area that I believe is very important and can be very life-changing for people, especially career life-changing is having a great mentor. Mentorship, that’s a very unique relationship between people, very different from coaching, as you know. Mentoring is a very personal experience.

Could you share with us one point in your career, you’ve had a very impressive career over the years, one point that stands out to you, that was really, game-changing, or that stands out as like, “This was a moment where I was impacted, or I changed my career for the future, because of this moment.” Does anything stand out to you that you could share with us?

Prabir: Absolutely. I always remember, and I’ve actually shared this earlier also, in some of my fireside chats. When I became a CHRO, almost 16, 17 years ago, at a pharmaceutical company called Dr. Reddy’s, it’s a big global pharma company out of India, till that time, I was almost like the blue-eyed HR boy in the company; lovable, cuddly, always approachable. I had 80% of HR formally as part of my structure. One evening, they suddenly announced that my boss is moving to another role, and I’m going to be the new global head of HR. It’s a New York Stock Exchange-listed company, very [unintelligible 00:16:37] company. I was all of 36, I was quite young.

Cutting a long story short, four weeks, five weeks later, I’d moved the floor, I’d gone to the executive floor. The CEO, who must have taken the decision to elevate me and put me in that C-suite office, walked into my room, like you’re having your cup of tea or coffee, he got his cup of tea with him and he sat down. I said that one hour of conversation with him was possibly the most traumatic, but with hindsight, the most strategic career-enhancing one hour I’ve ever had. I’m so glad it happened so early in my life. Again, many, many things, he said, but a couple of things, he says, “Prabir, so many people are in line wanting to see you. When do you get time to do your CHRO’s job?”

I attempted to answer. I can almost recall attempting responses and I knew that none of this was impressing him. He said, “Prabir, why have you not filled your earlier job?” That time, we were going through a bit of a financial squeeze as a company. I thought I’m stretching and I’m saving pennies for the company. Here is the CEO and he tells me, “You are the CHR of the company. You should have judgment about which roles you must say no to and which roles you must fulfill. Please go and fill a guy so that it allows you to do your strategic role. You’re not the operational leader anymore.”

Finally, that was a time when we never had the phone or the internet connectivity like we have today. We had businesses in Brazil, we had businesses in North America. All these were many hours. When we were about to go to bed, they were getting up and I would stay in the office so that I could leverage the telecommunications network. I was thinking, I’m doing so much for the company. He says, “Prabir, I want you to go home at six o’clock. If you are needing to sit until nine o’clock, I will tell your wife that you should be worried why he is sitting till nine o’clock, because honestly, [unintelligible 00:18:34].”

Things like that in one hour. At that time, I remember going home and sharing that, is he [unintelligible 00:18:42] regretting his decision, and short of firing me? Is he hinting that I should move on? I reflected that it hurt. I’ll be honest, it hurt. Over the next three, four weeks, as I digested and I acted on some of those suggestions that he made. The rest, as they say, it’s been history. I turned out to be an outstanding CHRO, and it only got better with every new tenure. Had that not happened, I would have continued to behave in the manner I was behaving which got me to the job. As the great Marshall Goldsmith says, “What got you here won’t get you there.” It is so true.

I personally as I mentor people, and he’s continue to be a great mentor of mine, I remind people that never be a prisoner of your past education or experience because that could be the one reason why you will not grow. We are also tethered to our past. I have done this earlier, I’ve studied this. So what? So what? At the end of the day, it’s like any investment. I wrote an article sometime back which is available if someone Googles, that looks at your career like an investment portfolio. Like you review an investment portfolio, you do likewise with career investments, including getting out of your comfort zone, doing something which is different. You talked about titles. I’m saying I’ve taken, in my career, [unintelligible 00:20:02] decision, moving from a bigger title to a smaller title, moving out from a very big corporate to a job I was doing to train my hand at entrepreneurship and advisory right now. Does it mean I will do it for the next 20 years too? No. Tomorrow, I might be poultry farming for all I care, right?

I cannot be a prisoner of what I have done. I was a civil servant for the first decade of my life. When I quit the government with virtually nothing in the bank and with two small children to look after along with my wife who also left the service, I mean it was a big risk to take. Today, it all sounds very good because it [unintelligible 00:20:37]. Careers are about always being open to feedback, to criticism, and taking new risks. The leaps of faith are important and at every point trying to remold yourself beyond what you were. I think that is how the good mentor actually is able to put all of that together and put the perspective right for you.

Patrick: Prabir, thank you for sharing that story with us because it is very poignant and helpful in a lot of ways I think for people that are listening. Having feedback and honestly looking into ourselves when we get feedback, that is a hard thing for a lot of people to do. It’s uncomfortable, as you said, sometimes it can be a bit painful sometimes, right? But we grow from this opportunity to understand ourselves better. I very much appreciate that, thank you.

As we move closer to the end of our conversation, for now, I’m sure we’ll have many more in the future, but for now, a new aspect that is coming into the world of work is, well, the gig economy has been around for a while but this nonemployment aspect and the impact of it on career and career progression. Are they compatible? Is the gig economy and career progression- and I’m assuming your answer is probably going to be yes because we’re talking about individual career development. How do we look at it from the perspective of the gig economy and the future where that seems to be growing quite a bit?

Prabir: Let’s juxtapose to realities. Let us first remember what we started off with. You own your career, it’s the choice of the individual. No one else really has any stake in it beyond you, as much as you have, at least. The other reality is organizations need the right capability. I see a lot of flex there too. There was a time when organizations could not have visualized what we doubtedly call operating from the gig world. They either work for you or they did not work for you.

Since I like to share stories, let me share the story until I give you the answer. There was a generation before us which joined an organization and worked almost for the same organization their entire lifetime. Not that they were loyal to that company, not that they love that company necessarily but the choices were limited. That’s how the talent market was.

I call that almost the era of monogamy, it was a monogamist reality. Then came a generation, a little like mine where we [unintelligible 00:23:24] choice. There were more jobs chasing talent and you could actually move from company X to Y, from job Z to job A and so on and so forth. At any point of time you were only with one assignment, right? It was the age of corporate polygamy. You had multiple assignments and jobs but at one time, you are with one firm. Now when I look at the gig reality, I see this really as corporate polyandry. You are in similar relationships with multiple organizations of people at the same time. Almost as society, evolution has happened so has the corporate career evolution happened. I feel today, companies have a choice. If you want the skill and talent but he is only partly available, you flex. You say, all right, give me so many days so many hours or whatever else and they are willing to kind of configure a scheme for you. Similarly for individuals, which is now more self-assured or more entrepreneurial generation, let me admit that what we were, they are willing to [unintelligible 00:24:30] very early in their life, and they say, “I don’t really want to be only working for X or Y or Z. I want to be experienced.” Remember, I talked about careers as a set of experiences, and they want all these experiences quicker, faster, and more. They would rather fail early but learn something early as well. I think, therefore, the gig reality is a very convenient transition that I find the career world making. Of course, some industries, some markets will advance quicker than others. In some roles and functions that will be easier to adopt the gig economy than others. Directionally, I think, it is an absolute time of co-existence and in some ways I think that’s what is the exciting part of careers, that you look at careers so differently. You say that I’m going to try the next two years on my own, next one year I’m going to take a break, then I’m going to try my hand helping [unintelligible 00:25:27] people in the gig world. If I don’t like it enough or if I have learnt enough, I’m happy to go back in a better role as a captive employee of another company. This combination of mix and match is what companies are going to get more flexible with, and definitely the new generation of people surely are going to take the chances and try their hand at this kind of combination.

Patrick: Prabir, we’re coming to the end of our conversation today. First off, I just want to say thank you for your passion, your insight, your story of experience. Not only is it incredibly inspiring, but it’s also very helpful for the audience to just hear perspective and to be inspired for what the future can look like and how to help ourselves and also for the leaders that are listening that are HR leaders, executives at organizations to really think about how to empower individuals to drive they own career design, their career journey, and to really help think more about the individual perspective as opposed to just fitting into the world of we have this career track, this career track. Thank you for helping to inspire that.

One quick question before we go. Who do you listen to, who do you read to get inspiration from? I like to share in the community of listeners with the guest, what book you’ve read recently, a podcast that you listen to, someone that you follow on Twitter or on LinkedIn that you really like their post and their content. Who do you draw inspiration from?

Prabir: My honest answer is I listen and speak and read anyone and everyone. I don’t have a role model, I don’t think there is one great guy that I completely resonate with. People have asked me, “Who is your role model?” The answer is none but I read wide, I listen to a variety of people both academics and practitioners as much I enjoyed my conversation with my own household staff or the person I buy my veggies from because every experience teaches me a very unique perspective. When I look at some of these people, they may not as qualified but their insights are so sharp. I come from a world where I believe that learning is absolutely democratized and I try to make sure that every conversation counts. Every time my eyeballs move, whether on the web or in a book or my ears are listening to podcasts, observe, connect, see what it makes for me, try and invite the rest. You know you’re a human being, many things you let go.

Patrick: Good. Prabir, thank you again for joining the conversation. I very much appreciate it. A heartfelt thank you to you. For the audience, you can find out a bit more of Prabir’s perspective in our most recent Employee Expectations Report which is on our website so please check it out at Prabir, thank you again. It’s been a great conversation and I look forward to our next chat.

Prabir: Enjoyed your questions and thank you very much again for having me on your show. Take care.

Patrick: Thanks, Prabir.

Prabir: Bye-bye.

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