STRATEGIC VISION AND LASER FOCUSED EXECUTION GO HAND IN HAND

In this ‘CEO Insights’ session, as part of the ‘Great Manager Awards’, Cisco, President APJ Service Provider Business, Sanjay Kaul discussed the evolving role of leadership with Great Manager Awards Country Lead, Rahul Mahajan

 

Rahul: What are the qualities that you look for in a leader?

 

Sanjay: I believe that every individual has more potential than what they think they have. 

‘If you take a professional and put him on a pie chart, you will there are 3 sections – the arena, the greyscale, and the blind spot’

The arena is what you know other know as well about your strengths. The grey area, is the potential you have that you are unaware of. And the blind spot, which you think you’re good at, other see you opposite of that. 

So, for me, leadership is about understanding your own strengths and weakness, because a good leader always surrounds himself with people that complement him. 

‘If you want to reach the moon, aim for the sun’. It creates a bit of a surplus. But, when you’re in that situation, innovation kicks in. You start looking to the left and the right of your responsibility and it forces you to go beyond your arena into the grey area. And that’s where net new gets discovered. When you motivate someone to move into their grey area, you are helping them discover their unknown potential and when they put that into an execution motion, they end up doing more. And that’s the recipe for executing beyond what you think is possible.

The next most important quality is the ability of a leader to understand how people are reacting to them, whether it creates a positive or a negative impact. 

‘To be a leader, you have to be a self-leader first’

I’m a virtual leader. I have teams in Japan, New Zealand, Australia, India, ASEAN and Korea. As a leader, you should have a set of values and a moral compass. Cisco has a set of core values, and as an individual leader, I subscribe to those and they reflect in my every action. 

The last one is the ability to be vulnerable. In an environment where you’re leading people digitally, your ability to say, ‘I screwed up’ or ‘I’m terrible at this’ and be comfortable with revealing something that you’re uncomfortable with, is very important. Because once you do that, you create an atmosphere of trust.

‘According to recent research done by Hopkins Medicine, 26% of American ages between 18 and older suffer from some sort of mental health issue’

We don’t know, we might feel uneasy, but we still keep quiet. As a leader, you should be able to bring it up and say that it’s okay to open up. 

 

Rahul: What are the things leaders need to know?

 

I call them 4C’s of leadership. The first one being an effective communicator, being able to translate your vision and strategy into tangible actions that make people believe ‘Oh I can get there’ is key to being a successful leader. 

The second one is critical thinking which is all about thoughts and innovations and coming up with new ideas, connecting the dots. You need to devote time to thinking. I put at least 2-3 hrs a week in my calendar. It’s called MWMS – ‘Meeting with Myself’ and I force myself to do it. The third one and an important one is collaboration. 

‘It’s not about you, it’s about bringing in the best to the party’

In business, you have to be selfless as a leader in the journey of cross-collaboration, where you’re working with teams, partners, suppliers, etc. 

And then the last piece is ‘creativity’. Even though Cisco is nearly a US$50 billion company, we still feel like we’re working for a start-up. One has keep inventing and solve for market transitions pro-actively. Cisco won Best Place to Work in the world, 2 times in a row. That tells you a little bit of our culture and how blessed I am to be leading in company that is so amazing in its people deal 

 

Rahul: How do you go about inspiring leaders to fulfil the vision of your organization?

 

Sanjay: I believe as a leader you have an accountability to set an audacious goal, and back it with tangible execution plan. I also think leaders should use vulnerability as a leadership tool. You have to be honest and transparent with people. When I set a goal / north-star, I paint a picture for my team and ensure they buy into it and are motivated to execute it. My belief is when you aim high and go after that target with full conviction, you will find many supporters along the to make you successful. 

‘Vision without proper execution is a myth’

In my business I set up a very aggressive goal couple of years back. Which was backed with thought though execution plan. Our strategy is further broken down into 6 execution programs, one being our ‘People Deal’. This program is all about telling people to do extraordinary things. We, as a company, have our own value system, but for our team, I have add another 3 values.

‘Be Collaborative, be Bold and be the Best’

When I say we have to be the best, it means that we have to be better than the customer we’re selling to. That means you have bring value in every engagement and interaction with customer. 

‘In our industry if you’re not learning every day, you’ll be obsolete in 6 months’

Vision, goal, strategy and execution are what make people fall in line. You’ve to make sure that your teams have line of sight between what they do and the overall goals of the unit. You have to ensure teams have ability to hone on to their strengths and lastly are empowered to make an impact. The second value Be Collaborative means bring the best together from your teams, partners and customer to create value and lastly Be bold is about creating culture of empowerment, ability to take risk and have the gut to make the decisions when needed. 

 

Rahul: What are the qualities that you look for from senior leaders

 

Sanjay: Senior Leaders must display certain qualities in order to be effective. Firstly, leaders must have great passion for what they do. When in the presence of a truly effective senior leader, their passion exudes out of them and is infectious. Secondly leaders must have emotional intelligence, which means that they are strong communicators and are able to expertly handle interpersonal relationships with an awareness of their own emotions and the emotions of those around them.  

Thirdly they have to Resilient, so they are able to withstand difficulties and get right back up again when the going gets tough. But more than that, having resilience also means that they are able to take criticism onboard without letting it knock them or result in confrontation.  Fourthly senior leaders must be proactive. They plan well and make space for potential drawbacks ahead.  Fifthly they must be creative, in order to succeed with an ability to come up with new ideas and initiatives. They must breed a creative atmosphere in their workplace, encouraging staff to try new things instead of getting caught up in hidebound routine.

Rahul: What’s the most crucial question you would ask a candidate during an interview?

Sanjay: Honestly, there isn’t one, it depends on how the interview went. People write great CVs. I would want evidence of personal contribution. Be it in any context, at the end of the day it’s what you did, the impact you created that matters. 

 

Rahul: What would you say is the most critical competency of a Great Manager?

 

Sanjay: I think it’s their ability to communicate. Ability to communicate a great vision into tangible actions. 

‘The more vulnerable you are as a leader the more trust you’ll earn from your people’

Ability to create a line of sight to the top goal for every individual in the organization 

We have this routine called ‘TASK’. It’s a one-pager that has four quadrants. The right two are the income statements, where they mention their goals for the next 3-4 years, and how will they go about achieving them. On the left are the balance sheets that talk about strengths (Assets) and Things that need to change (Liabilities). In Cisco, we encourage leaders to give feedback on individual and team Strengths so we can leverage them for better outcome. This inculcates positivity and creativity. We review this one-pager twice a year, to examine where we are in our execution journey. This creates a personal bond between the leader and the individual that works for him. 

‘Creating a line of sight between vision and aspiration to the last actions that a person is doing is what you need to do as a leader’

 

About Rahul Mahajan:

Rahul is the Country Lead of Great Manager Awards and has played a pivotal role in strengthening the Great Manager Awards program in partnership with The Economic Times over the last 6 years in India. Rahul closely works with Business & HR leaders to help them identify and develop successors for their organization.

DEFINE & CASCADE VISION AND MANAGE THE STAKEHOLDERS: ESSENTIALS OF A CEO

In this edition of ‘CEO Insights’, as part of the Great Manager Awards, we have Pankaj Arora, who is the Managing Director & CEO of Raheja QBE General Insurance Company Limited. In his conversation with Rahul Mahajan, Country-Lead of Great Manager Awards, he shares with us his experience as a CEO.

 

Rahul: What’s your leadership style and what are some of the do’s and don’ts around you?

 

Pankaj: For me, it starts with our people. My core competency is building businesses and I do that by recruiting the best talent, establishing a clear vision, inspiring them to reach their full potential and then empowering them to lead the company’s future growth. As a business guy, I connect more with the relationships and skills build on the ground more than the strategies made in the board room. My very first leadership role started with leading a team of 12 people across two functions. What clicked the most was my ability to really connect with people and that’s something that has stayed with me over the years. 

My personal philosophy on leadership is best described by the relationship between a coach and his players, it is not the job of the coach to put greatness into players, but rather getting the player to believe that greatness already exists inside of them. The role of a coach is to reach for a goal with vast challenges, develop the playbook and invest time/resources in the player so that greatness emerges.  I follow a participative model, where I initially lead by setting direction and sharing that playbook, motivating people around a set of principles and then stepping back to let them do their best work. I let them capitalise on my experience with their ability to bring in the millennial innovation to arrive at a combination which works best in the interest of the organisation. I’m a big believer in defend your people to the death when you have to so that they feel secure in their own ability to challenge conventions. 

 

Rahul: What’s the most common piece of advice that you find yourself giving the younger generation?

 

Pankaj: For me, leadership starts with a more human approach to business. I place huge value on sharing opportunities with the team and showing my constant passion for the brand whilst operating a complete open-door policy. I want our employees to feel as excited about Quintessentially as I do, and strive for them to feel empowered and inspired by me and the company, as ultimately it is a passionate and engaged team who will help drive our business success. Hence my advice to them would be to stay humble. The higher you go up the ladder, the more humble one should be. Once you lose your humility, arrogance kicks in which can be detrimental to your success and growth. You won’t notice it until you hit rock bottom with that attitude. So, stay humble and stay grounded. Try to learn from every conversation that you have as learning comes from everyone. 

‘No matter how successful you’ve become, always keep your feet on the ground’

Another piece of advice that I would like to give them is about trust. My boss always used to say that for every 10 people that you would bet on, one will always prove you wrong. But that doesn’t mean that you should stop trusting people.  Be the force beneath their wings and let them fly. This will help in building loyalty and strengthening emotional bonds and will eventually foster a culture that nurtures employees and puts the people first.

Also, whenever there is a crisis, I immediately get involved and help my team by giving them the required support. I’m a firm believer in small experiments. So ‘Experiment fast and fail fast if needed’ has been my motto. So, another piece of advice that I always promote is

‘Take small risks from a mundane thing that you do, and try to add value’

 

Rahul: If you were to choose a successor, what qualities would you look at from a CEO successor?

 

Pankaj: For me, it’s not just about the skills, but also their ability to see the bigger picture and to convey what each leader will contribute towards it, matters more. My role, as a CEO, is to identify the vision and to cascade it down the line. At the end of the day, it’s your responsibility to achieve what you’ve promised to the board and the stakeholders. So it is important, to understand what actually the priority is and what is important. And if that person has the wisdom to look at it holistically, then he can monitor around well.

Another major requirement is their ability to manage the stakeholders. Because, at this level, there will be tons of stakeholders who will be very demanding.  So understanding the requirement and getting back to them in a timely and appropriate manner is also a key factor to be kept in consideration.

Rahul: In an interview, if you have the opportunity to ask one question and based on that determine whether to hire the candidate or not, what could that question be?

Pankaj: So, I would ask, ‘What value add will you bring to the table’. We can always train people to develop skills, but what additional value add that person brings in, matters the most. It will also help me gauge the mentalityopenness, and positivity in that person. These are the skills that I look for while hiring. 

 

Rahul: How do you go about cascading down your vision to the leadership team?

 

Pankaj: You need to set up a vision in terms of what you want to do as a leader and where you want to reach as an organisation. Cascading it down to the leadership team is very crucial. It depends on the quality of leadership that you have built. As a result, selection of the team becomes very important. In my career, I’ve always picked people with positive attitude, who are willing to go an extra mile. I have looked at people who have proven themselves in smaller brand names, because their zeal to prove themselves is far more than someone who’s been working in a larger brand name. I look at people who can work and build process in a chaotic environment. Coincidently I have worked a lot in start-ups where I had to create an organisation and this skillset becomes very handy. 

Once you have a well-defined leadership team that is aligned with your thought process, half your job is done. Post that communication plays a key role. We conduct company-wide townhalls and team meetings to focus on each vertical. Having said that, I dive in only when required, as I leave it to the leaders to drive it. 

 

Rahul: If you had the opportunity to go back 10 years in time and advice the younger Pankaj on leadership behaviours, what could that be?

 

Pankaj: I have always been a very patient leader. Because I have always believed in people, I would often give long ropes to them and sometimes it would get into wrong hands as well. So, if I have the opportunity to go back in time, I would take corrective actions sooner than I did to reduce the damages that were caused due to that. In a group of 100, 90 would have done it exceptionally well. But even after identifying the remaining 10, I should have held back the ropes immediately rather than delaying it. So, to take actions sooner, is one learning that I always carry with myself. 

 

Rahul: According to you, what is the most critical competency of a Great Manager?

 

Pankaj: The most critical one is people management. As a manager you need to be a people’s person. It doesn’t mean that you should please everyone. But you should be able to know what to and how to get things done, and still have a good hand in dealing with people. The second one is the ability to understand the vision. As a manager you need to understand the expectations, the organisation has from you as well as your team. It is important for their performance as well. And the third one, which applies to all, is the willingness and the ability to learn. Learning should never stop. You should always have the will to learn more. 

‘Bringing in the small things that you learn in your day-to-day activities into your work life is very critical’

 

About Rahul Mahajan:

Rahul is the Country Lead of Great Manager Awards and has played a pivotal role in strengthening the Great Manager Awards program in partnership with The Economic Times over the last 6 years in India. Rahul closely works with Business & HR leaders to help them identify and develop successors for their organization.

SELF-MOTIVATED, GOOD LISTENER & QUICK DECISION MAKER: X-FACTORS OF A GREAT MANAGERS

In this edition of ‘CEO Insights’, as part of the Great Manager Awards, we have Ms. Farah Malik Bhanji, who is the Managing Director and CEO of Metro Brands Limited. In her conversation with Mr. Rahul Mahajan, Country – Lead of Great Manager Awards, she shares with us her experiences as a CEO.

Rahul: How would you describe your leadership style and what are some of the do’s and don’ts around you?

 

Farah: Metro has been an integral part of me for years. When I started my career, I had to prove that I was worthy of the job that was given to me. So I used to prepare myself far better than anyone else, to ensure that I was clear in my mind, as to what I need to do before I walk into a meeting. Now, 20 years later, I’m more collaborative in terms of decision making, allowing my people to build capacity for themselves, because the more they grow, the more I develop. Secondly, I enjoy and would prefer working with people who are enthusiastic and are excited about their work. It’s important for every leader to enjoy working with their team. 

‘Evaluate everyone in your team and ensure that you’re excited to work with them, because that’s what makes you a Great Manager’

If you’re not excited, it will be difficult to get work done from them. They will drain your energy as well. The company is focused on intrapreneurship. We encourage each person working for us to have an ownership mindset. They should be able to scale and grow or disagree freely and openly. The next thing which I appreciate the most, is integrity. We work in a retail organization and cash transactions happen constantly, but we never compromise for any cash-related situations. We have an open office concept. The idea is to enfosterr transparency and reinforce integrity in the entire organization. Communication and team alignment also plays a very important role. This instills passion and ownership. 

‘I believe that when you’re in a growth stage you need to have an authoritarian style of leadership. And as you professionalize the company to a larger degree, the leadership style tends to become more collaborative’

 

Rahul: What are some of the X-factors that you would like to have in leaders who work with you?

 

Farah: A passion and excitement for their work, integrity, being good listeners who think independently, aggression and being able to make decisions quickly weighing all the pros and cons. These are essential traits in the leaders who work with me. I like to work with people who challenge the status quo, are receptive and don’t hesitate to question me if they have a valid point to make.

In retail, you need to be adaptive, agile and nimble. The customer is ever changing. Yesterday’s wow is today’s now so it is important that leaders are able to evolve to keep up with changing times and customer preferences.

Rahul: If you could go back in time, let’s say 10 years, what advice would you give to the younger Farah? 

 

Farah: Honestly, it would be about working with the right people. Being a family-run company, we have an emotional bond with the employees which is a big part of our culture. But it has its pros and cons. Sometimes it stops us from taking harsh decisions and not getting in  fresh talent when required. I believe that it’s good to have a balance of both. 

So, being excited about your team would be one piece of advice that I would give to a younger Farah. 

 Whenever you have a new concept or an idea, it has a lot to do with people management. 10 years ago, even I wasn’t aware of it. From failures and mistakes, I realized that any project is almost 90% change and people management. I would also have told a younger Farah to aggressively adopt technology and digital.

 

Rahul: What is your long-term vision and how do you go about cascading it down? 

 

Farah: We believe, we have a strong foundation which makes it easy for us to expand. Our vision is to be the most innovative footwear, footcare and accessories company obsessed by customer delight delivered by passionate people. 

We don’t want to grow vertically. We want to keep  the organisation  relatively flat. In order to get our teams aligned, we do a lot. Recently we did a complete restructure of our supply chain team. It’s easier when you make the team, a part of the decision making . We give them the right tools to help them, come to a decision As a result, they will be as passionate about it, like you. 

When you give people the framework and the freedom to run it their way, it brings in a sense of ownership, which will help them make decisions similar to yours. If there is ownership in decision making, then you don’t have to infuse passion.

‘If you have a passionate team who strongly believes in your vision, and is fully aligned with where you want to take the company, then nobody can stop you from attaining success’

In addition, we set very clear and measurable goals and ensure that the Company Goals cascade into every employee’s KRAs. This way, through clear communication about expectations, the teams are aligned towards achievement.

 

Rahul: What is that one piece of advice that you find yourself giving to the younger generation?

 

Farah: Here’s my piece of advice to the younger generation – ‘Choose an organisation wherein the value systems are aligned. Personal satisfaction is most important. Enjoy the experience and maximise your learning’ 

 

Rahul: If you have the opportunity to ask only one question and basis that determine whether to hire a candidate or not, what could that question be?

 

Farah: Well, that’s a tough one. However, I would ask ‘Tell me how you’ll spend the first 90 days in our company?’ My expectation would be, the activities, questions, and people with whom they will be interacting.  This will help me understand, whether they have the right mindset or not. 

However, there is never that one question that determines the decision. It completely depends on the interaction. If someone interprets any question differently, I will have to come up with a different line of questioning. We give a lot of importance to reference checks. We do a three-tier reference check, where we check with people under them, at their level and above them. It’s like a 360-feel of the candidate. 

 

Rahul: What do you think is the most critical competency of a Great Manager?

 

Farah: For our front-end managers, I believe, that people who are super motivated and have an equally motivated team under them perform the best. We have a morning huddle at the stores, where the manager recaps the previous day and motivates their team, sets targets, reviews inventory, etc. 65% of motivation should come from within and 35% is from the way organisation works, learning, growth, promotions.

For our backend, it’s important for a manager to be to be a good listener and a quick decision-maker. It’s important to take data driven and well-informed decisions. 

Encourage and listen to new ideas that come from the team and put it forward, to ensure that such innovations and ideas are not killed at the lower level. 

 

About Rahul Mahajan:

Rahul is the Country Lead of Great Manager Awards and has played a pivotal role in strengthening the Great Manager Awards program in partnership with The Economic Times over the last 6 years in India. Rahul closely works with Business & HR leaders to help them identify and develop successors for their organization.

About Great Manager Awards:

Great Manager Awards Program is an initiative by ‘People Business’ to identify, recognize and reward “Companies with Great Managers” in India.

This program enables the participant organizations to compare and benchmark themselves and their managers across the industry. It helps organizations create real competitive advantage through its managers.

EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION & ACTIONABLE FEEDBACK: CRACKING THE MANAGERIAL CODE

In this edition of the ‘CEO Insights,’ we have Mr. Atul Edlabadkar, Vice President, R&D & Chennai Site Leader at Genesys Telecom Labs India Pvt. Ltd. In his conversation with Mr. Rahul Mahajan, Country-Lead of Great Manager Awards, he shares with us his approach and vision he looks forward to as a leader.

 

Rahul: What is your leadership style? And what are some of the do’s and don’ts when it comes to working with you?

 

Atul: My leadership style is a combination of various things and whatever works in a particular situation. To share an example – During our team growth in India when we reached a stage where we had the critical mass, we felt the need to establish employee led forums to drive engagement and CSR activities and I ensured that I am present and supported all those initiatives and events. One can say that this is leading by example, attribute of servant leadership style.

Another aspect of my style is Coaching – helping or guiding the people closely working with me. This involves connecting with people not only at a professional level but at the personnel level and this interpersonal relationship helps both ways.

 

Rahul: If you were to go back ten years, what would be some of the leadership lessons you would give to your younger self?

 

Atul: Ten years back, I was playing role of senior manager leading a team of software developers. Back then Genesys was 45-member business unit part of Alcatel-Lucent and focus was on delivering software. Looking back, I can say I had narrow focus. I could have definitely thought about developing leadership skills that would have shaped my career much earlier. We should have thought about getting technical edge and the scale to take the team to new height.

 

Rahul: What is something you have learned about leadership in the last year, a time of crisis?

 

Atul: When the Corona pandemic started spreading in India in March 2020, the first action was to move everyone to work from home. To be honest before March 2020, myself as well as anyone from our India Leadership team wouldn’t have thought that all of us can work from home. So, the first learning was that most of things which we think is not possible can be done if there is willingness and trigger for it.

The second learning is that pandemic situation has made all of us more empathetic towards each other and this helped understand that situation is different for different people and support each other’s needs.

‘Some people are able to do things on a normal working schedule of 9:30 – 6, while some people have chosen different timings, depending on their activities or whatever fits them.’

Finally, the current situation provided opportunity to learn something new or do something different by taking advantage of the time saved in commute. I have started doing meditation and walk regularly.

 

Rahul: How do you go about defining your vision and cascading the same down to all your employees?

 

Atul: It is clear to me and other leaders in Genesys India that we need to go beyond just being delivery or operations or technology center and focus on the value we can deliver from India. The cost arbitrage is definitely an advantage for India but that is not something that we want to talk about or harp on rather we want to establish center of excellence delivering end-to-end by taking advantage of co-location of multiple functions under one roof.

‘That is the first and foremost objective, to go beyond the goal of being a delivery, operations, or a technology center and build an organization which delivers the value to the corporate.’

While we are self-contained team in India, the aspiration is also to go beyond India and do things that affect the global business. We are looking to hire or develop people for global roles.

We would like to contribute to business in India and develop solution that caters to local or regional needed. The fact that India development center has presence of multiple functions and close to 15% of total company strength out of which 50% comes from R&D gives us the leverage to build that story and that is what we are looking for.

 

Rahul: What are some of the qualities or X-factors that you look to develop at the leadership level?

 

Atul: First and foremost quality that I stress upon in every new employee orientation program in Genesys is “Effective Communication”. Irrespective of the role for which someone is hired, I value this the most and look for people who are good in communicating with others and articulating their thoughts.

I would put Innovation as second most important as we need to look for future while working on current set of activities.

‘It is important that the innovation that we bring into our day-to-day work, and I’m not talking about disruptive innovation. I’m talking more about incremental innovation in terms of process or product innovation.’

The third quality is being tech savvy, and this is applicable for any role and any function. The fourth one for a leadership role is to be organization savvy. The individual has to know how the organization works, what the processed and policies are and how you maneuver to get things done and how you can influence. IMO combination of all these things is what I consider important to look for in a leader.

 

Rahul: If you’re in an interview with limited time, and you can ask just one question to a candidate and basis that question, decide whether that candidate is the right fit. What would that question be?

 

Atul: I would ask him about his success and his failures in his career. Through this question, I’m trying to gauge the experience that he has, which will be brought out as an answer to the same, and the successes will tell me to what extent he was able to deliver and what he has delivered, whereas the failures will definitely give us insights into what he has tried and was not able to accomplish.

 

Rahul: What are the most critical or crucial competencies for a Great Manager?

 

Atul: The first and foremost competency, as I mentioned earlier as well, is interpersonal communication. It is important for a manager to interact well with team members, share updates and prepping the team.

The second important competency is providing actionable feedback and developing the team members. Many times, I have seen that one-to-one discussions revolves around discussion of tasks only. The discussion should be about challenges team members facing and what support they require, their development plan etc.

The third would be to definitely be a subject matter expert, as a manager; you need to know the ins and outs of the function, the project, or the product that you are working on. Only then will the team members respect you or even listen to you and also be able to guide them.

 

About Rahul Mahajan:

 

Rahul is the Country Lead of Great Manager Awards and has played a pivotal role in strengthening the Great Manager Awards program in partnership with The Economic Times over the last 6 years in India. Rahul closely works with Business & HR leaders to help them identify and develop successors for their organization.

ACT LIKE AN OWNER, DO MORE WITH LESS, AND LOVE FOR FOOD – CORE VALUE AT EATFIT

In this edition of the ‘CEO Insights,’ we have Mr. Ankit Nagori, who is the Chief Executive Officer of Eatfit. In his conversation with Mr. Rahul Mahajan, Country – Lead of Great Manager Awards, he shares with us his key insights about his journey and leadership.

 

Rahul: What is your leadership style? 

 

Ankit: Like anyone else’s style, my style has also evolved over the past decade. If I talk about some of the things which I really believe in and which worked well for me is one of my first strategies, i.e., growing talent internally.

“My strategy always has been and will continue to be is to hire at one level lower than what no one should actually hire at and then give that headroom for the person to grow.”

Because hiring a person at a higher level is always possible if you have good talent and pitch. If you’re able to get someone at n minus one level and give a three-year roadmap to grow into level n, the motivation and the passion which the person dedicates or shows is unbelievable, because they always continue to see that empty slot right above them, and they don’t feel that there is any need to be stifled. It also gives them an opportunity to not be under daily supervision or daily micromanagement because if you are working at an n minus one level, then n minus one to n plus one gap is significant for the manager not to have daily supervision.

The reason that I believe in this model is that my journey at Flipkart is exactly the same, I was hired at an (n-3) level and was always playing ‘n’ level roles. And the bar kept going higher. I got the opportunity to grow on many levels. So probably, I grew five levels in a period of three or four years because there was no one above me. I got a lot of opportunities for independent risk-taking and got chances to correct my mistakes. So that’s how I have personally grown, and I continue to believe in that model very aggressively.

Rahul: If I ask some of your minus ones to point out what are some of the do’s and don’ts when it comes to working with you, what would they say?

 

Ankit: I think, post the pandemic, a lot of changes happened, which I’m still trying to understand. I think, a lot of frameworks, structured things have gone away, and there’s a lot of chaos. One thing that you have to follow if you have to work with me is you have to have a very structured approach. Like before the meetings, you have to have a very clear agenda, minutes of the meeting, tracking of minutes of the meeting on a fortnightly level.

Also, I am a big believer of lists. I make a list for every single thing and make sure that it is struck off and that too on a hard copy, unlike a digital list.

Now, with the pandemic, because the number of meetings has shot up, this whole thing went away. And I can’t expect everyone to follow this. So now, a lot of conversations have moved to WhatsApp chats, and I personally am a very slow WhatsApp user. So now chat as a channel has come up, which has made it less structured. But if I have to say, what works for me is structured thinking like doing lesser meetings, but sending a pre-meeting note, minutes of meeting and if we finalize on certain action items, sending reminders on updates, etc.

The other thing which I really used to value, and I think it’s gotten better with the pandemic, is punctuality because now people don’t have to physically move around for meetings. Previously, people would have to travel between buildings or floors. So, there was inherently a 5-7 minutes delay in the start of meetings. That is something the pandemic has solved for us, and now we literally have to just switch between windows.

Talking about the don’ts, there are two things which do not go down well with me, and it’s very clear to all the people who work with me. One is bringing bad news first. It is a very important mantra for me because it’s very easy to sugar-coat all the good things and keep delaying the bad news; it happens a lot, where managers or senior managers actually delay the bad news with hope that they would rectify it before it goes up. But in 90% of cases, this doesn’t happen, and the bad news actually reaches much later. What I tell my team is to bring the bad news first. There is a quote in medical terms, “if you have any ailment if you reach the hospital within the first 60 minutes, then the chances of survival are very high”.

The last thing, which I think the team would definitely know, is that I don’t like problem-solving in a third-person mode. So very often, it happens that person A will come and say that person B is not doing the job. As soon as I hear this, I would say, wait, let me call Person B. And let’s resolve it. I do this because I know I am not needed in such situations; person A is only doing this because they don’t have the courage or energy to have the tough conversations with person B.

Rahul: What is your vision for your organisation? What is your approach towards achieving it?

 

Ankit: So, for any company, and for all set of people to come together, there has to be a common goal, a common vision. We call it purpose. And the purpose of Eatfit is to make honest food that customers love. So, every single day people show up to make honest food.  The idea is to have an umbrella statement, something which has a long shelf life. We then have core values; core value is how you achieve your purpose. Our core value is to ‘act like an owner, do more with less, and love for food.’

If you really love food, then you will make the food honest. It’s a shortcut to put chemicals, colours, artificial ingredients to make food look good.

Do more with less; food is a very low margin business. If you want customers to pay less, you have to have a very frugal structure. You can’t have frills.

And act like an owner: When you operate 10s of kitchens across cities, and every kitchen is a secluded area, are you able to build a culture of ownership in that distributed model? Tomorrow when you have hundreds of kitchens, the kitchen manager should still operate in the same fashion.

 

Rahul:  If you were to hire someone for a senior leadership level, what will be that one question you will ask that candidate?

 

Ankit: I would ask them which is the most impactful project they have been a part of to date. It’s because people have very long careers and you don’t need in a 10-year period to be successful; you don’t need 40 quarters of success, you need 25 good quarters, 15 bad quarters. A person shouldn’t be asked about his last two years of experience. People should be measured by their spikes, not by averages or troughs. What was it that he could deliver during a purple patch? You know that is the most important aspect because for people to be successful timing of the product is really important.

One more thing I would ask them is, why do you want to work with our mission? We are here to make honest food that customers love; suppose you are a social media marketer, how will you contribute to our purpose?

Rahul: If you’re to find a successor for yourself, what are the two or three qualities that you look at?

 

Ankit: I think I’m also learning in that area. The quality I would look for is the ability to take a 5 to 10 years view of life and have that patient way of building business. I believe even successors or CEOs should be hired with a minimum five years term. It’s very difficult in the start-up world because it’s very dynamic. But in larger companies, I really believe that anyone who takes up a CXO role should be given a minimum five-year commitment, regardless of the results.

Rahul: What is the most common piece of advice that you find yourself sharing with the young generation?

 

Ankit: I think I often use the word sponge; I tell them that they should be like a sponge; they should just keep learning. Learning can happen in various ways. My biggest way of learning is by observation. Another piece of advice would be to read a lot. I believe that if I read versus I watch, I retain a lot more while I’m reading.

One new piece of advice that I give to young people on the basis of my experience in the corporate sector is 45 minutes of workout and meditation. There is no doubt that there’s 10x better productivity if you’re able to dedicate the first 45 minutes of the day to yourself.

Rahul: What is the most crucial competency of a manager, according to you?

 

Ankit: Work allocation. How you are able to break down the goal into a 7–10-member team is key. In most cases, managers end up having favourites or permanent enemies because of perception. I think the equitable distribution of work is the most important aspect of a successful manager.

Rahul: What are the most common challenges you face in people management?

 

Ankit: People’s motivation is a unique problem. We work with a unique set of people, all of them in different, are in different phases of life. And to be able to get a sense of their motivation is super tough. And you don’t want to be pressing on the wrong side. Like you don’t want to tell someone that you could not finish a task and later find out that her mom was in the hospital. So, it is super tough to get everyone on the same motivation level throughout the week. It’s not a new-age problem. It must have existed forever. I feel human emotion itself is not designed for such a competitive world where your competition is the same every day, but your variables change on a daily basis.

Rahul: If I take you ten years back, what advice would you give to the younger you in terms of your learnings till today?

 

Ankit: I would tell myself that it’s a very long journey. There are so many cliche quotes about life being a journey where the destination is not important; the journey is, and it’s actually true. Like when my son was born, I was working 12-15 hours a day. And now I realized that probably I could have worked three hours lesser. So, somehow in life, we all end up prioritizing work because it is something that others have given us. And whatever you have, you will always trade that for a responsibility given by someone else. I think there is a balance to be made. So, I think being able to take regular breaks is super important.

About Rahul Mahajan:

Rahul is the Country Lead of Great Manager Awards and has played a pivotal role in strengthening the Great Manager Awards program in partnership with The Economic Times over the last 6 years in India. Rahul closely works with Business & HR leaders to help them identify and develop successors for their organization.

 

About Great Manager Awards:

Great Manager Awards Program is an initiative by ‘People Business’ to identify, recognize and reward “Companies with Great Managers” in India. This program enables the participant organizations to compare and benchmark themselves and their managers across the industry. It helps organizations create real competitive advantage through its managers.

ACHIEVEMENT ORIENTATION, COURAGE & CONVICTION ARE ESSENTIAL TO BEING A GREAT MANAGER

In this edition of the ‘CEO Insights,’ we have Mr. Amit Malik, who is the Chief Executive Officer of Aviva India. In his conversation with Rahul Mahajan, Country-Lead of Great Manager Awards, he shares with us his approach and vision he looks forward to as a leader.

 

Rahul: Who have been some of your influencers and mentors in life?

 

Amit: When it comes to mentors, there are people who I have worked with, and there are influencers I’ve read about who inspired me a lot. So, the first person to come to my mind is Mr. P Dwarakanath, who used to be the Head HR for GSK Consumer Healthcare. As I started my corporate career, he advised me that, it’s easy to write a cheque, but as an HR person, you need to understand how much revenue we have to earn to be able to write that cheque, and that has been a philosophy that prodded me to understand business.

There are other personalities that I look up to, like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, who have inspired me with their perseverance and grit. Their ability to let go and move on and not holding on to things really impressed me a lot. If you look at Nelson Mandela, despite being held captive for 24 years, he had never held on to any grudge against the white population. And if you look at Mahatma Gandhi, his ability to let go and move on with his own mission has been a great learning experience for me. 

I’ve also been influenced by a lot of young people. I seek the company of young people who I want to talk to, understand, and who challenge me to build a mindset that pushes away the feeling that ‘I have been there and done that, and ‘I know it all.’ It’s about where I can learn and get challenged. Their conversations give me the opportunity to think differently and to challenge my own perception.

 

Rahul: What advice would you give to other HR leaders who aspire to become CEOs in the near future?

 

Amit: I believe that to become a CEO is a very individual aspiration, and I don’t think everyone has to have that aspiration. So, becoming a CEO should not be the ultimate aim for any HR person. It should be about what they want to do in life. 

Secondly, if you want to become a CEO irrespective of whether you start in HR, finance or marketing, you need to understand the business. I think we are in an age where we need to understand the business starting from the customer and should be able to link it to how you can influence those customers. A lot of HR professionals underestimate the opportunity that they have in the organization to be able to link and influence the customer. Secondly, they have to see HR as leadership or a driving function and not as an enabling or a support function. HR is as much as a support and an enabler as finance is to distribution. The third thing that I always tell the HR people is to not shy away from metrics as it always helps. If we cannot measure something, we should be the first person to stand up and say that it is intangible and cannot be measured. But on a scale of 10, 7-8, things should always be tangible and measurable. 

If you have an aspiration to do something other than HR, seek that opportunity early in your career, as it’s easier to do that and then come back to HR rather than doing it later in your career. The higher you go up in the hierarchy, the more difficult it becomes for you to have a parallel move outside of HR. 

 

Rahul: What is your approach towards defining the vision and ensuring that your leaders and employees are working towards it?

 

Amit: I think the tone is set at the top. Many a time, we just explain what we need and leave it to the people to drive the project. 

‘If the customer is your focus, then you should ensure that you ask about the customers at the executive level and should also understand how to deal with the customers at the executive level.’

Secondly, the team should concentrate on developing the 2-3 things which the organization will need to get behind the focus. Now, whether they are drivers or business goals, it depends on the organization and the leadership team. But whatever those two or three things are, the leadership team is committing to stand behind and drive, that has to be woven into the fabric of everything you do. Just like the organizational values, your key areas for your strategy for your vision need to be focused on. 

And the third one is communication. You need to communicate to everyone how they will be contributing to that vision to build the linkage, as a lot of people often forget about what they need to contribute as a leader towards the vision. I agree that it becomes difficult and fuzzier as you go lower down the hierarchy. But at my level or at a middle management level, it gets clearer because the organization goals and individual goals start to overlap far better at a higher level and far distant at the junior level. For example, a call center executive may have a very different goal than my goal to increase the profitability and growth of the organization. Growth can come from two parts – from acquiring new customers as well as from retaining the existing ones. And as leaders, we should be able to ensure that linkage.

 

Rahul: If you had the opportunity to ask only one question in an interview and decide basis that whether to hire the candidate or not, what could that question be?

 

Amit: Everyone can talk a lot about their achievements. But it takes a lot of courage, vulnerability, and authenticity to be able to talk about your failures and your learnings. I can go on for three hours talking about my achievements in 22 years of my experience and would still need more time to think about my failures. Often people confuse failures with regrets. But those are two completely different things. So, I would ask,  

‘What are your top three failures, and what have you learned from them?’

And if you have a person who is able to do that, it tells you about the amount of risk that the person can take, and also their quality and ability to deal with adversity. It also tells you about whether the person has learned from his or her failures as well, and that’s the reason why I said three and not 1. So, the learning ability is what I look at. It’s okay to make a mistake, but it’s what you do after that, matters the most. 

 

Rahul: What, according to you, is the most critical competency of a Great Manager?

 

Amit: The first and the foremost one is achievement orientation. Do not confuse it with ambition because achievement orientation is your willingness to own a task and do it. 

Second, I think, is courage and conviction. Because while a lot of leaders are expected to develop this, I believe that it has to start from the fabric of an individual. Courage and conviction to be able to talk to your superior and to disagree with them are important because if you don’t build on it now, then you’ll never be able to build it up as you’ll start getting a feeling that you won’t be needing this to grow, and it will gradually stop you from developing on it.  

The Third thing would be to understand your team and getting them to deliver. As a leader, I need to understand each one of my team  personally, what their individual goals are, and how do I go about having a conversation with them individually to help achieve that goal. 

 

Rahul: What are some of the leadership lessons that you have learned in the last year?

 

Amit: I believe that this was the first time that we all experienced VUCA in our professional lives. But imagine the world coming to a stop one day; you are enclosed in your house, having to run a business with everyone in your house. I think that’s the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity that we looked at. The economy was going down, people were losing jobs, and we were staying at home and running business.

During this crisis, I learned a lot about resilience. I believe in our value called ‘never rest,’ which is ‘I will never rest until I do more for our employees and our customers 

‘When in crisis, you need to look at the best person to do a job, and you should be able to cut across the hierarchy if that person can take responsibility, irrespective of experience and age.’

Sometimes it is important to not have the baggage of the past. How soon you can shed the baggage of your past becomes very important in a crisis. I think empathy becomes a big leadership trait that has manifested itself as a need for leaders to be successful. In a crisis, empathy is equally important to your achievement orientation, drive, and execution. It has to be balanced by the right amount of empathy.

 

Rahul: What is the most common advice that you find yourself giving to the Gen Z population?

 

Amit: The one piece of advice that I would like to give is to understand and accept the consequence of their choice. They have a lot of choices that my generation did not have, be it in career, personal or a profession. But they must understand that once they make a choice, they have to deal with its consequences. This will help them become more mature and stable. Be it good or bad, try to understand the consequences, and you should always try to stand by your choice.  

 

Rahul: What is the challenge that you face as a leader when it comes to people management?

 

Amit: A lot of people believe in ‘I look good because someone else looks bad.’ I think that understanding of ‘I look good because I am good’ solves a lot of problems when it comes to teams. And if you get this together, then you extrapolate it to say that we all look good as a team because we are good as a team. And I think that full understanding across all levels of hierarchy is something that I always want people to have, and that is what I always communicate to people. 

 

About Rahul Mahajan:

Rahul is the Country Lead of Great Manager Awards and has played a pivotal role in strengthening the Great Manager Awards program in partnership with The Economic Times over the last 6 years in India. Rahul closely works with Business & HR leaders to help them identify and develop successors for their organization.

Learnability & Curiosity : Qualities of Great Managers

In the first edition of our ‘CEO Insights’ session, as part of The Great Manager Awards, we have Sunil Goyal, the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of Sopra Steria, in his conversation with Rahul Mahajan, Country Lead of Great Manager Awards, he opens up about his life as an entrepreneur & a business leader

Rahul: Who do you look for inspiration?

Sunil: It isn’t just one person for me. As I started my career, it was my first Manager Ravi Sharma, who still happens to be one of my mentors. Being a senior from my college, I initially got groomed under him. I got to learn about trust, delegation and how to give responsibilities even to a fresher. Once I jumped into Entrepreneurship, it’s been different people. I did learn a lot from my business partner, Pankaj (Also my senior from College).

“I was never into sales, and as an entrepreneur I think you always are in a selling mode to either an employee or to a customer or even to your partners”

Pankaj was always on sales and strategy side, and all my initial lessons came from him. In the current set-up, where I introduce myself as a professional Entrepreneur, I consider my chairman who is also the founder of our company as my mentor. Despite all the challenges, he built this organisation from 0 to now a 4.5 billion European Company.

On a personal side, it has always been my father who inspired me the most with his values, culture, and ethics. Coming from a village, he got married at the age of 14, became a commerce graduate and a CA at the age of 21 and then became a VP at 31. I have seen him dealing with people and at the end of the day it’s how you treat your people that matters the most. These are the things that I’ve learned and continue to learn from him. Apart from them, there are different personalities from whom everyone learns, like Mahatma Gandhi.

“I picked up one habit from Steven Covey’s Book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People-Trust, which even today I’m trying to sharpen myself on”

I believe that we learn from everyone. Today, I learn a lot from the housekeeping boys and the security guards in terms of commitment and ownership. Even after getting paid so little, their passion and commitment towards work is very high.

Q. What was your first big break that led to a larger trajectory in terms of your career?

I always wanted to do something on my own since my Engineering days. I started my career at Unitel and was there for 1.5 years and then 2 years at Wipro. Pankaj and I almost spent a year talking about entrepreneurship while working at Wipro. And on 31st March 1993, Pankaj informed me that he is resigning from the company. I was curious and when I asked him if he had a plan on what to do next, he said ‘we’ll see’. The very next day I too resigned and decided to jump onto the Entrepreneurship bandwagon. My daughter was only 25 DAYS old. So from a career perspective, I think this was my first big break as we were getting into something without actually knowing what it is going to be.

Once we started our business, we didn’t have any money to invest on as PE/VC were non-existent in India and Banks would not lend to us. But we are grateful to the Management team of Wipro as the help and support they extended was great. They gave us the dealership for Wipro notebooks by have a special dealership policy for Notebooks. They deferred our deposit, which gave after earning from the sales. We wouldn’t have been here if it weren’t for the support of WIPRO. They have built many entrepreneurs. So from a business perspective, our second big break was this dealership that Wipro gave us when we could not afford it.

Since Notebook was a new concept, it was not easy to sell. We had our initial struggles. Our third big break happened towards end of 1993. It took us 6 months to sell 1 Laptop and 1 Printer to a big Japanese organisation. But soon later, they gave us an order for 16 more sets and then a Large order to Integrate their offices across the country. Rest was history. And then we never Looked back.

“Success is by Hard work, ownership, commitment – all these are like t hygiene factors, so that when an opportunity comes, one is prepared”

It’s all about the right time, the right place, and the right opportunity. I’ve heard Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems, say that-when he tries 100 things, 95 fail and 5 succeed. Hence, we need to continue to try new things

Rahul: What advice you find yourself sharing most often when you are coaching and mentoring people?

Sunil: One factor which I find myself telling everyone is ‘Curiosity’. I tell all my people not to stop learning as you need to constantly upgrade yourself in terms of professional and technical skills because that’s what your co-competency is.

‘A surgeon doesn’t say that after 40 he will stop learning and will tell you how to do the surgery and the same applies to a lawyer as well’

This should be applicable to other industries as well, especially in the IT sector. I try not to spend more than 15-20 hours per week with my direct reportees. Because I believe in hiring the right people with ability and then support and be available when ever needed. You have to trust them with their responsibilities. They need to have their space to work, and we need to encourage them to experiment. You have to be a hand’s-on leader but it’s important to become hands-off when needed. So Curiosity, Learnability and Trust would be my three advices.

Rahul: What are some of the qualities that you feel are important when they step into a managerial role?

Sunil: Professional skills and ability are the most important ones. You could always sharpen your skills, but not ability. So, I think the key is to have trust, professional excellence, and ability. I got quite inspired by the book, ‘5 Dysfunctions of a Team’. People are bound to make mistakes, and it won’t be fair enough to question their capability based on one mistake.

‘Being transparent, authentic and open – we all as leaders will want to leave a story around it’

Today, people hesitate to say, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘let me learn’ or ‘I’m willing to learn from my junior’. They should keep themselves vulnerable. Openness and Transparency is really the key. Even if you have the best of people but as a team you can still fail if people are hiding facts from you. We need to create an atmosphere around the team, where there are no boundaries for success.

‘I know in a professional world goals are important, but I personally believe that as leaders we shouldn’t keep boundaries to what someone else can achieve.’

As leaders, we should be open to suggestions and encourage people. The reason what made us successfully navigate this pandemic is the kind of atmosphere that we provided where people could give us any ideas knowing that there will be leaders to encourage them. For example, the idea to shift Desktops to homes came from one of our manager’s as we could not get enough Laptops on rent. You can challenge your person in terms of the idea which he puts forward but don’t drop it just because you don’t believe in it. Honestly, even I didn’t think that desktops could be shifted but I didn’t shoot it down instead encouraged him with his idea. As Jack Welch, the author of the Winning once said, ‘the best of the ideas don’t come from the guys who have their offices in the corner but from people who are sitting in a desk in some corner, but you have to create the ecosystem for him to be fearless to speak and contribute.

‘But at the end of the day, the most important one is to keep your ego on the foot’

I’ve been telling my team to reduce bureaucracy, hierarchy and to accept advice, suggestions from anyone and see if it can be implemented.

Rahul: If you could ask somebody one question in a job interview and decide based on their answer whether to hire them, what would that one question be?

Sunil: I’ve never made a job description for myself and neither do I hire anybody by job descriptions. In fact, if you look at our CHRO – Vimmi Chachra and our Talent Development head – Aparna Kaul, both have come from delivery and taken a lateral movement in their careers.

‘Ability and Learnability are the two factors that I look into while hiring.’

Even if they don’t have the technical skills, it doesn’t matter. All that requires is their curiosity and willingness to learn. But it’s a tough one to consolidate all these factors into one question. Maybe I would ask them to talk about some of their success and failures or the times they felt uncomfortable in a role, which will help me to judge their ability and learnability.

Rahul: What would you say is the most critical competency of a Great Manager to lead through crisis – we had witnessed one in 2020 and it is still ongoing?

Sunil: Crisis demands Agility and Agility is responsiveness driven by intellect. In a crisis situation, a Great manager has to continuously sense and pick information, assess, and anticipate, and line up alternatives. It means adjusting to the developing highs and lows, and correcting course. Rethink, React and Reinvent.

‘Agility is the sustainable advantage you can have over others in a crisis’

For Agile minds even a crisis is an opportunity, with the maxim: “Never waste a crisis; catch the adversary off-guard.”

About Rahul Mahajan:

Rahul is the Country Lead of Great Manager Awards and has played a pivotal role in strengthening the Great Manager Awards program in partnership with The Economic Times over the last 6 years in India. Rahul consults organisations in identifying & developing successors