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.