Human Resources plays a much bigger role in the natural world by managing conflicts, ensuring sustainable use of resources, and improving the life of forest-dependent communities.

George Alexander, our next pathbreaker, Assistant PFM (Participatory Forest Management) Manager (on contract) with the PFM Cell of the State Forest Development Agency (SFDA), Kerala, works on enhancing the living conditions of the forest-dependent and local communities, especially tribal groups, through development projects, training and empowerment programs.

George talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the satisfaction of applying his background in human resources and people management to improve the lives of forest dependent communities and creating a win-win situation for all stakeholders including the forests.

For students, people skills is the need of the hour no matter where you work. So, learn the art of communication not just in the corporate world but in the real world as well !

George, Your background?

I was born and brought up in the Alappuzha district in Kerala. My father is a hardware retailer and my mum, a housewife. During my school days, I was interested in sports, drama and a bit of writing. Fortunately, I was selected as the head boy of the School and served in that capacity from 5th to 10th grade. I am also an author. So far, I have nearly ten books (non-fiction) to my credit as the author, co-author and contributing author. As of now I am in the process of publishing my first fiction novel. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

After my school, I enrolled for a bachelor of Arts in English language and literature. I did a Master in Social Work with a specialization in urban and rural community development. Moreover, I also completed a Master in Philosophy (M.Phil.) with a specialization in social transformation and empowerment. I was a school topper in commerce during my higher secondary school (even though I passed matriculation at 2nd attempt), passed with a high first-class in bachelor’s degree, was the first rank holder for MSW (University of Kerala), also scored a high GPA of 7.56 for M.Phil (MG University). Interestingly the thesis that I completed for my M.phil was on participatory forest management, which was also published as a book.  

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

I was quite fortunate to meet Sri Sunil D Kuruvilla (HRD trainer, career coach and founder-director of Insight Mission) during my higher secondary who was also my teacher at the school. His support and mentoring helped me choose social science as my stream of study. He provided me with a different outlook on career development. While many of my friends chose Engineering and Science streams, it was Sri Sunil Kuruvilla, who instilled great confidence in me to move ahead with a different academic discipline. Apart from that, Sri Jacob Mathew, a PFM (Participatory Forest Management) specialist and consultant to the forest department was the first person who opened the doors and guided me to this sort of work. There are others like Sri Dileep KG, an officer with the forest department who has inspired me. Dr Ajith Sankar (HR trainer and consultant) is yet another person who inspired me.  

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? 

From my higher secondary school days, I started to associate myself with Insight Mission (an NGO committed to youth and social empowerment) as its secretary and later as a trainer. Under the guidance of Mr Sunil Kuruvilla, I was able to learn the basics of training and human resource management. Over the years I started to deliver career guidance training, and organizing training camps for students. One of the most important lessons I learned was that success for a person depends on how he/she excels in managing others. During my college days, as a volunteer, I got associated with the event management team, counselling center and career orientation center, English association, and international film festival. I was seeking every opportunity to gain diverse exposure. While pursuing my Master’s degree in social work, I was fortunate to serve as a volunteering executive with the Kudumbhasree Mission, at one of the coastal regions in the State. The major task was to empower women’s SHGs (self-help groups). It helped me learn a lot about rural activities in the coastal region, particularly the functioning of the local self-government institutions and the dynamics of people’s governance. I also got associated with the Integrated Child Development Program (ICDP). The National Service Scheme (NSS) rural camp was a great experience. I was fortunate enough to associate with Grameena Padana Kendram (GPK), a rural research institute where I was exposed to several rural development projects at the Panchayat level. I also received my first training in Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) tools as part of preparing micro plans for Vana Samraksha Samithi’s (VSS). Even though my research project for the MSW program was on the living conditions of migrant workers, my final internship was with the forest department on a study on the effectiveness of VSS/EDCs (VANA SAMARAKSHNA COMMITTEE/ECO DEVELOPMENT COMMITTEE) in various Forest Development Agencies in Kerala. Upon completing my master in social work, I joined as an HR trainer and faculty at SB College, the same institution from which I completed my B.A. The major task was to provide soft skills and HR training to students in all streams, to cater for the event management team, take up joint programs with the counselling center, and campus recruitment. My challenge was to reach out to nearly 2000 students. Hence, I introduced a continuous training program through which I was able to cater to their training needs. I was able to recruit nearly ten bachelor degree students to banks and other organizations which was the first of its kind in the history of the HR department. My learning was that students can excel in job interviews provided they are given adequate support and attention. Such support should be provided regularly with rigorous follow up along with academics. After one year of service, I joined M.Phil in Social Sciences, a program where I was trained in rigorous theoretical frameworks of social sciences. This helped me to have a more objective view of social issues. Moreover, I was also able to complete my M.Phil research thesis in people’s participation in forest management that enhanced my exposure further to forest management. However, I thought that gaining international exposure may help boost my credentials. Hence, I moved to the United Arab Emirates in search of work in HR and training. After an initial struggle, I was able to place myself as an HR training officer with Aramex International, one of the leading corporations in logistics and transportation. I had to undergo six rounds of interviews and written tests to earn my position. I worked in the corporate sector for over 5 years. My major responsibilities were to deliver an orientation training program for new staff, assist in the recruitment and other general HR tasks. It was a new experience for me to work in the corporate industry. I was provided with certification in Training of Trainers (TOT) as part of my orientation. I earned knowledge in diverse topics such as risk management, environmental issues, climate change, logistics, risk and compliance to training employees. Training employees is exciting since you get a lot of opportunities to listen, learn and empathise with stories and life experiences of people from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. It contributes a lot to personal and professional development. Moreover, you need to be bilingual and shift yourself to the level of each group of employees to understand their needs as well as to equip them with necessary theoretical and practical knowledge. However, I did not limit myself to HR, rather I found new ways of engagement in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). As part of the CSR program, I was fortunate to speak at several academic conferences representing my company, and to take part in conferences. One of the most exciting and fruitful CSR activities that I undertook was to provide work internships to students from various reputed Universities in the emirates. It was a real joy for me to help students and to provide them with industry experience. During my tenure with Aramex, I was awarded best employee of the quarter, received special appreciation from the UAEU University for preparing and training young nationals, from Aramex Corporate University for adding value to training, special appreciation from Chief Risk and Compliance Officer, for the diligence in expanding risk and compliance awareness, special appreciation from HR Business Partner and Training Manager, for training employees above and beyond the call of duty. Sometimes it took me extra hours and rigorous sessions to fulfil the training of employees. I never felt exhausted since training has always remained my passion. Corporate life also provided an opportunity to complete certificate programs in HR skills from the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM), Anti-Bribery from TRACE International, Security Awareness Essentials from Global Learning Systems, and GRI Certified Training Program Certificate on Sustainability Reporting. Meanwhile, I made several international trips and I strongly believe that travelling will always contribute to personality development and to develop a wider world view. After returning from the emirates I worked as the HR Projects Director at Hubspire (IT company). The major task was to provide training and mentoring to employees, institutional analysis and recruitment. 

How did you get your first break?

The first break is of course meeting Sri Sunil D Kuruvilla during my higher secondary school days. He is the person who motivated me to opt for a future in HR and Social Sciences or else I would not have been where I am today.  

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

You may be challenged every day, maybe every hour in your personal and professional life. You learn 

Challenge1) One of the most important challenges for me was to determine the course of my area of study after higher secondary. As mentioned earlier I overcame it with the help of Sri Sunil Kuruvilla. I was able to do that because I showed courage and interest to listen to him at a time where most of my students were flying high with science streams. 

Challenge 2) It was not easy for me to find a job in HR, learning and development with a social science background. However, I wanted it because training has always remained my passion. With my limited HR experience, I made consistent efforts to get a breakthrough. It took me 250 job applications in the Emirates and received just 6 interviews before getting hold of the final one. I could over the challenge because I remained persistent in my efforts. 

Challenge 3) I have encountered several challenges at work in the form of managing difficult people. Empathy and patience is the only way I could overcome such people. I also make an effort to understand their ways of operation and if you get hold of it, you can easily manage difficult individuals.    

Where do you work now? 

I work as Assistant PFM (Participatory Forest Management) Manager (on contract) with the PFM Cell of the State Forest Development Agency (SFDA) which is an autonomous division of the Eco-development and tribal welfare wing of the Kerala Forest and Wildlife Department. The PFM Cell comprises Sri Lijo P George (PFM Manager) and Sri Ajin V C (Asst. PFM Manager – Marketing and Branding), myself. We report to the Chief Conservator of Forest Sri Pramod G Krishnan IFS (CCF-E&TW) and Sri Radhakrishnan S R, Assistant Conservator of Forest and the State PFM Coordinator.  

What problems do you solve?

The PFM Cell, an integral part of the SFDA (State Forest Development Agency), oversees the state-wide activities of participatory forest management. As part of my work, together with the PFM manager and asst. manager, I monitor activities of around six hundred and forty Vana Samrakshan Samithi’s (VSS)/Ecodevelopment Committees (EDCs) in the state. I also engage with various forest development agencies (FDAs), as they are responsible for the coordination of VSS/EDCs, whereas SFDA acts as the apex body in the state. The Cell is responsible for resolving technical, logistical and operational problems in the effective implementation of the participatory forest management programs in the state. I attempt to professionalise and strengthen PFM activities, thereby enhancing the living conditions of the forest-dependent and local communities, especially tribal groups. Together with my colleagues, I take care of the formation of PFM cells and training for its members,  monitor micro plan revisits through PRA ( Participatory Rural Appraisal), follow up with registration renewal/legal aspects of SFDA and FDAs (Forest Development Agency), acting as a consultant for problem resolution and feedbacks regarding the management of FDAs, act as a communication channel for data collecting, organize online webinars and discussion on various topics, delivering timely presentations to the apex authorities regarding PFM activities, provide need-based training for the forest staff, publish literature, and articles, field visits to understand ground realities, preparing letters, documents, notes and reports as required, drafting of working plan chapters, manage the PFM virtual platforms, act as a medium of contact between the field and the forest headquarters, provide consultation for the effective management of VSS/EDC, follow up on the utilization of funds by FDAs,  creation of a central database on PFM, analysis to identify the status of state-wide VSS/EDCs to provide the necessary support for revival, document and monitor ecotourism activites, initiate linkage between FDAs and government/academic/social institutions, engage with various external agencies. The PFM cell also manages the activities of Vanasree (marketing and sales of Non-timber forest produce -NTFP), Minimum Support Price for Minor Forest Produce and Van Dhan schemes, and provides support for the marketing, branding and sales of NTFPs. 

What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills?

Patience, observation, creativity, and rigorous follow up are very much required for the job. Follow up through emails alone won’t work.  Mostly I have to communicate with forest officers in person over the phone and make constant follow-ups to obtain the required data or to get things done. Moreover, it is important to understand the intense bureaucratic setup which plays a crucial role at work. As an Asst. PFM Manager, I am bound to engage higher (administrative officers) and lower levels (section officers and local communities) of employee dynamics. Knowledge of the local culture, politics, customs, and practices remain important. In a government sector, it is vital to understand and respond aptly to their instructions, especially from your higher authorities. Establishing smooth communication and relationships with people especially at the ground level matters the most. I take an extra effort to understand their ‘language’ and empathize with their situation. Sometimes I need to communicate in their ‘language’. In short, my success depends upon how well I manage and engage with people around me. There are no shortcuts to learn these skills. Take initiative, observe, ask and learn. 

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day involves a lot of rigorous brainstorming exercises and group discussions with colleagues, meetings with higher authorities, follow up on the progress of various projects through letters, emails, and phone calls, preparing presentations, notes and files as required, attending meetings of various line departments etc. Field visits are part and parcel of PFM activities, however not an everyday task. Fieldwork demands mental and physical agility and also involves face to face interaction with the tribal and local communities as well as with field-level forest officers. 

What is it you love about this job? 

What I love about the job is the volume of teamwork that we invest in every day at work. TEAM – “together everybody achieves more” is my guiding mantra. Sri Pramod G Krishnan IFS and Sri Radhakrishnan, my reporting authorities are highly supportive. The visionary approach envisaged by Sri Pramod G Krishnan on the prospects of PFM remains robust and highly practical. That contributes a lot to the ease of our job. He remains modest and highly approachable, way beyond bureaucratic eliteness. Moreover, I have two of the best colleagues (Mr Lijo p George and Mr AjinV C) and should confess that they are the best I have worked with so far and for me that matters the most. They are sharp and consistent when it comes to getting things done and above all, as a person, they sense my pulse very well. I feel like family and interpersonal connections remain strong that keep contributing to the consistency and success of our teamwork. 

 How does your work benefit society? 

PFM provides prime trust to (1) strengthening of VSS/EDCs (2) empowering tribal communities, (3) eco-tourism and sustainable development, (4) NTFPs as an alternative source of income for the forest-dependent communities and its sustainable and scientific harvesting (5) Eco-restoration. The most important benefactors of the society are none other than the tribals, forest-dependents and local communities. Through various programs and projects, PFM ensures the social and financial upliftment of these communities. Sustainable use of resources is given due importance in the PFM-model of development. It helps tribal communities in the scientific and sustainable collection of minor forest produce, value addition, storage, marketing and sales thereby ensuring better earning by avoiding middlemen and other exploiters. PFM ensures forest protection, infrastructure development, support for health and education, preservation and documentation of indigenous knowledge, developing an entrepreneurial mindset among tribal, local farmers and other forest-dependent communities. PFM also provides support for eco-tourism activities, the formation of SHGs and entrepreneurial development through development projects, training and empowerment programs. Over the years, PFM programs have been vital in reducing the friction between forest-dependent communities and forest authorities. It has promoted public-private partnership in forest management, sustainable development and conservation of natural resources. However, in the age of social media, challenges remain enormous and we are trying our best to find solutions for a better future for humans and forests alike. As someone stated, “Man and forests have a common future”. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

In 2020, during the first month of the reconstitution of the PFM Cell, we were asked to do a state-wide data collection to determine the status of VSS/EDCs. Based on an old database, our team prepared a pro forma and sent it across 36 FDAs. We made rigorous follow ups with forest officers in the field. It took us a few weeks to complete the data collection. We worked day and night to bring perfection to the data management project.  A lot of brainstorming exercises, discussions and debates followed. At the end of the process, we were able to produce a huge data source with extensive information regarding VSS/EDCs for the first time. A presentation was delivered on the same to the governing Council of the forest department which was highly appreciated. Based on the database, a detailed ranking and analysis was made. This database acts as one of the core documents for our activities.  

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Life is ever-changing. A lot of students are still confused when it comes to choosing an area of study. I would say that students should choose an area that they fit in the best. Never choose something because others choose it, choose an area where you can utilise your skills at the best. If you need help, never hesitate. Every person cannot be an engineer or a doctor. We need all sorts of professionals, skilled and unskilled people. ‘If you are a shoeshiner, then strive to be the best shoeshiner in the world’.  Big or small, never lose an opportunity to learn to grow and develop. Never stop learning. Always stay hungry for knowledge. Cultivate good values and virtues in life and at work.  There will be several setbacks, but never stop trying or attempting. You may face many difficult people in life. They come into your life to play their part and make you stronger. Always remember to treat people with respect and be kind to others. Real-life is outside social media way beyond the likes, shares and comments you get. We need sensible people with human values, not superhuman beings. Read books and travel whenever you can. They will open wide opportunities in front of you. Be what you are always and forever. 

Future Plans?

Training, learning and development remain a top priority for me. Our society is highly dynamic and with the present pandemic condition, life and work have undergone drastic changes. Sometimes we need to go with the flow until conditions are good enough to make the next best move.