Sekhar Ramaswamy is apparently unaware that he's a career man with Prudential Financial Inc. He's been with the Newark, N.J.-based financial services titan for 26 years, since he earned his bachelor of science in management and systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and began work at Prudential as a management-development intern.
Yet, unlike some corporate long-timers who might start to reflect complacency or rut-like disinterest, Ramaswamy sounds like he has all the gusto and creative vision of a new recruit. He says he relishes being an agent for change. Big change.
"I'm going to shake things around; I'm not going to keep things the way they are," he says. "I'm going to take a look at everything, the whole system."
In a global company such as Prudential, with about 41,000 employees, it can be difficult to challenge the status quo with a refreshed vision. But Ramaswamy applies the same principles he learned early in his career, when the company first established its international insurance business and he joined the ranks of management for the new business. "I tend to approach all situations like there are no boundaries, and I don't tend to manage teams like there are boundaries," he says.
In most large-company bureaucracies, however, there's a difference between having a bold vision of the business and trying to reboot an entire function. Nevertheless, that's what happened when Prudential tapped Ramaswamy as the lead HR generalist for the finance division in 2001. His success in answering that call was one of many achievements that led to his being named a 2009 HR's Rising Star.
Because Prudential was girding for an IPO that year, it needed to reduce the department's cost structure.
Again, Ramaswamy considered a course without boundaries, and ultimately directed a transformation team to outsource 11 transactional and administrative processes within HR to Exult (now Hewitt).
"That required clean-sheet thinking," he says. "We had to talk to people very openly about that, and we had to say, 'Not that you've done anything wrong, but here's the company imperative, and here's the HR imperative, as a result.' "
That kind of honesty paid off in loyalty, because many of those in the 280 positions that were outsourced chose to remain on to assist in the transition.
"We use this phrase like a mantra: 'running HR like a business,' " he says. "That can be a cliché, but we try to talk about what that really means."
To Prudential, it means an aggregate savings of more than $50 million since the completion of the transition, according to Sharon C. Taylor, Prudential's senior vice president of HR.
"Sekhar has an outstanding track record both as a driver of strategic change and a champion of innovative thinking," says Taylor. "His can-do, won't-quit, drive-for-results attitude is infectious, and his strong collaboration and problem-solving skills exemplify what we need from a leader in today's fast changing, highly interconnected organizations."
The transition also means another step into new territory for Ramaswamy. In May, Prudential tapped him to step into an as-yet undefined role in the company's talent management initiative.
Ramaswamy takes it all in stride. To him, it means continuous scrutiny of the HR function to streamline the processes and plan for the business beyond the curve.
"I'm confident that there will be new changes coming," he says.