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