Charisma as Natural as Gravity :Dr AK Balyan (ONGC Director-HR)


As he enters the drawing room of his well-furnished bungalow, I am stunned by his imposing personality. Several questions cross my mind: Is he 60? More importantly is he is a PSU employee and many such questions typical to journalists?

When, with a smile Dr Ashok Kumar Balyan apologizes for the delay, a few more questions get raised. Tall, fair and handsome that he is, his modesty and politeness is so palpable that you cannot resist but ask, whose trait has he acquired? And shyly, he confesses- my father was my role model. Attributing his good looks to his dad, I also observe as he sits upright on his well-laden wooden sofa and speaks with pride about his dad, the qualities he acquired from him, like dealing with people, conducting himself and taking decisions that are not influenced by anyone.

While he gets a few pictures clicked with his two most important objects, his aquarium and his dog, I take a stroll around his drawing room and am impressed to see the different varieties of fish.

Balyan joins in and explains that a lot of maintenance goes into this; the temperature, PH level, mix of minerals. What is most fascinating and soothing is to look at the marine life and learn from them. "There is a fierce survival instinct, every creature inside fighting for his space and food," he adds.

It is here that I realise the sophistication and enthusiasm of this man and feel good about the fact that former iconic CMD of ONGC Late Subir Raha could not have chosen a better man than him to head the Human Resource Division of ONGC way back in 2003. Very few people can match his charisma, way of life and sincerity and dedication to work.

Being a research man, Balyan was hesitant to take up the new challenge of Human Resource when Raha proposed to him in 2002. Though hesitant, he took it up with a condition that if he did not do well, he be transferred back to his area of expertise- exploration and production.

Raha agreed and that gave him the confidence and he was posted as Chief HRD at Dehradun. A year later, in 2003, after clearing an interview, he was posted as Director HRD.

“Raha was a fantastic leader. A good part of what I am today is because of Raha. In retrospect I feel, he groomed me.”
His immaculate style, way of dealing with people and his meticulous nature is one reason behind the great turnaround, on the human resource front, at one of India's largest company, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC) that employs more than 33,000 people.

Balyan would retire one and half years hence, but at no point, from October 1976 when he joined ONGC, did he regret joining a PSU. With the quality of education and his excellent performance at every stage of his life, situations arose when he could have looked for greener pastures, but he relishes every day spent in the company.

“People tell me that I should have been in some private company, but I have enjoyed working in a PSU. It inspires nationalism, because whatever you do is with a national perspective,” he says.
Born to a farmer family, his father was a police officer. Due to frequent transfers, he did his schooling in a Hindi medium school at Agra and completed his 10th standard at the age of just 13. Thrown into a different and modern environment at such a young age when he joined the St. John's College, Agra, Balyan treasures the role played by his teachers who guided him in overcoming the sense of discomfort.

He passed his MSc at the age of 19 and recounts a funny incident he encountered when he applied for a job as teacher at Agra College.

“The interviewer told me you are too young to hold this post,” he laughs.

That was perhaps the twist of destiny, though he still maintains he likes the profession of teaching.

He topped at MTech in IIT Delhi and joined the Sriram Group in 1972. Having worked there for 4 years, his stint with ONGC happened in October 1976 as a Chemist at Dehradun.

Within a year, he got a Government scholarship for research in Germany from where he did his Phd. He recalls how tough it was initially adapting to the culture, weather and so on and shares a small anecdote on how he was forced to convert into a non-vegetarian during his stay in Germany. A quick learner and the ubiquitous fighting spirit that he had, he soon attained proficiency in the German language and did well in his area of expertise. "It was gratifying that the work of MSc students, who were tutored under me, was recognized,” he tells you with pride.

It was here that he got a job to work in Germany, but within him there always was a man who was not materialistically inclined. For him, his family, his roots and the sense of nationalism always overruled.

"Whatever I wanted to learn in Germany, I learnt. Emotionally I was inclined to come back to family," he says with candour.

Having spent 5 years in Germany, he concurs it was tough to settle down with a completely different working environment.

He recounts that during 1980s, ONGC was beginning to witness growth in terms of new people, new technologies and new discoveries. The adaptability came naturally over the months as seniors reposed tremendous faith in him and put him into challenging tasks, like setting up labs, undertaking tests and creating new capacities.

But the actual change in him came when he was transferred to Ankleshwar in 1989 where he looked after drilling operations and its efficiencies in Gandhar.

"These were the times when the actual change in me started to happen. From a lab-man, I became a field man and understood the actual functioning of the company," he says, as he gets nostalgic.
This change was necessary, he adds.

Challenges after challenges, changes after changes, this man has seen it all and handled them all. A thorough sportsman in his college and university days, he even played cricket in tournaments at ONGC.
He was transferred to Baroda (Cambay Basin) as Chief Chemist and it was here that in 1990, he was given the task of preparing the first 25 years corporate perspective plan for the company. This job made him a complete oil and exploration man as he dwelt into several aspects of oil and exploration - planning exploration and production activities and so on.

In 1993, he was made a Deputy General Manager. Recalling a trip by the then CMD, who was so impressed by him that he offered him a posting to Delhi to work under him. Wanting to secure 6 months time before making a shift, the management transferred him to Assam where he worked in the Dhansari Valley Project.
Such was his managerial skills and ability to get the best out of his team that he made tremendous strides at the Jorhat site in Assam.
"The technology was poor, work culture not good; but still, with better management of the work force, we could achieve stupendous heights," he says.

Within six months, he was elevated as the Project head, jumping four places up the hierarchy.

Giving sweat and blood, he says he had no difficulty in working in the troubled areas of Assam and Nagaland where there were incidents of Project heads being threatened and even shot at.
He worked there for 3 years after which the then CMD Mr. Bora wanted him to shift to Delhi and work under him. He shifted to the head office in 1996 and looked after the corporate communication division. Entrusted with the responsibility of organizing the 5th Energy Conference as Secretary, he made the event a huge success where the top echelons of world energy, Oil Ministers and Secretaries from 43 countries participated.

In 1999, he got back to exploration as GM (head of exploration) in Kolkata. A lot of activities were then happening in the region- Tripura, Mahanadi, Krishna Godavari, Andamans.

"We drilled 4 wells that flowed Coal-Bed Methane (CBM) and a new business was started in CBM," he adds.

At that time, exploration activities Tripura, Mahanadi and KG basin was going on in full swing and lot of gas was found.
Amid all the fast-track work pressures, Balyan, passionate about drama, cultural shows and classical music, took time out to visit theatres and unwind.

Mr Raha had around the same time joined ONGC and on his trip to Kolkata, met him and proposed that he shift to Human Resource department. Raha was confident that he had the capability and experience to lead the company's HR initiatives as he had an experience of the entire cycle of exploration and production.
The company was making great strides and a renewed HR policy was required to build a strong team of people.

It was during this time that the trust and faith of Raha made Balyan take up an assignment, he believed he was not equipped to handle.
But as they say, history would judge the individual; we do not have to wait for so long to assess the impact Balyan brought about in the company.

"These were vibrant times for ONGC as under Raha's tenure, the company went in for fast expansion and HR policies were revamped to suit the modern conditions," he reminiscences.

ONGC had then undertaken the biggest campaign of deep-water exploration, using new technologies, going through integration of projects and participated in SEZs.

For a man who works with utmost ease under pressure, he took to golf to stay away from the dim and bustle of files and enjoy the secluded environment.

Balyan revamped the entire HR policies of the company including job rotation, recruitment, staff training and development.
However, his ultimate challenge in human resource management came in the form of a tragedy at ONGC Neelam field when a helicopter carrying 22 ONGCians crashed in 2003.

"Those were tough times," recounts Balyan. Some sections of the employees, who had started feeling Raha was too aggressive in his functioning, took advantage of the tragic situation. They misled people, disrupted work and created problems for the administration.
These were the times when Balyan's experience in handling the rowdiest and shrewdest of men came to play. His work credentials and honesty helped in normalizing the situation as he was determined to communicate the right information to those who were misled. The families of victims were duly compensated with a job and the nuisances were severely dealt with.

"Within 1-2 months, appreciation came from all quarters that the crisis was handled well," he said, and this man had proved himself wrong that he would not be able to handle the human resource area.

After the copter crash, the management took several initiatives, like making sea survival training and helicopter under water training compulsory, safety drive was also undertaken and all installations certified.

These measures later helped the company in minimizing the loss due to the BHN fire in 2005. Balyan's another test came during the boom in economy where retaining the trained staff was a challenge and global companies paid hefty salaries.

"The company was getting hit in areas like drilling activities when the company lost specialized and trained manpower," he recounts in an utmost sombre mood.

However, the company revised certain policies like the pension policy, healthcare benefits and renewed its efforts in training and development of its staff.

The company's efforts bore fruits when it took out an advertisement asking ONGCians who had left to come back. The response, Balyan recollects, was immense and out of over 400 applicants, the company chose only 40-45 in areas they required.
His accessibility to his employees, talking and listening to them has given him an advantage of knowing the work environment of the people and how to address them.

A complete family man that Balyan is, he makes sure that he spends time with his family and plays around with his dog- Boozo. He confesses his liking for the missi roti, daal and chatni cooked by his wife and by routine plans once in a year trip with his extended family of five siblings to any part of the country.

As Balyan hangs up his boots in a year and half from now, there is no sense of regret and under achievement.

Having served the organization for such a long period and steered the HR policies in difficult times, Balyan offers to work after retirement only if he enjoys the work. But, till then, for the man from a small town in Shymali in western Uttar Pradesh, life has been a roller coaster of challenges, tests, and achievements.

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