Kalpana Kochhar on Taking the HR Reins at the IMF

Related Expertise: Public Sector

Kalpana Kochhar on Taking the HR Reins at the IMF

By Sharon Marcil

Kalpana Kochhar has had a long, storied career at the International Monetary Fund, holding a number of positions, including deputy director of the organization’s Asia and Pacific department and deputy director of its Strategy, Policy, and Review department. In June 2016, she took on an entirely different kind of role: director of human resources. She recently sat down with BCG senior partner Sharon Marcil to discuss what motivated her to take on the position, as well as some of the associated challenges she’s encountered and lessons she’s learned. Edited excerpts from the conversation follow.

Kalpana, you’ve had a long, enormously successful career at the IMF. In this latest chapter, you’ve assumed a much different kind of role: head of HR. Why did you decide to do that?

I’d always been interested not only in managing people but also in working through institutional issues. So when this opportunity came up, I felt that, even though I didn’t have formal HR training, I knew the business so well that I could add value. I also felt that because I’ve been at the organization so long and have built so many strong connections, I could use that political capital to help bring about needed change. So it was a combination of reasons.

What surprised you most when you took on the role?

I’m an economist by training, someone very used to working with numbers and facts and data. When I first took on the position, I was surprised that the same richness of data and facts that is so prevalent elsewhere in the IMF was not there—the organization hadn’t invested in it to the same degree. So I felt I was missing some of the analytical supports I expected to find. I was also surprised by how difficult it can be to convince people to accept change.

You referenced the political capital you had accumulated. Has that political capital indeed helped you convince people to accept change?

Yes, it has. It has allowed me to speak with credibility on issues. I’ve been able to say, look, I’ve been there, I understand the problems you’re trying to solve. And that holds weight. I think that that, coupled with my belief in the value of applying data to the issues and looking outside the organization to see what others have done (we’re clearly not the only ones facing these types of challenges) and the HR resources I’m now able to apply to these challenges—all of it has made a difference in how people regard me. And it’s helped me find solutions.

Based on the experience you’ve acquired, what advice would you have for leaders of public-sector organizations who are trying to drive change within those organizations?

Here, there is considerable value attached to getting things done as much as possible by consensus. So it’s important to recognize that and be able to achieve it. That’s one thing. The second is, we are a very successful organization, and one with a large number of long-tenured staff who have seen the organization successfully evolve and transform itself as necessary over time. Telling those types of people that there might be a better way to do things is bound to meet resistance. So in that sense, it can be harder to get people at a successful organization to buy into the notion that change is necessary than it would be at an organization that is obviously struggling. They don’t see the need to fix something that’s not obviously broken. So that’s something else that can make it hard to engineer change in such organizations.

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