Where the head is in clouds, feet on ground

Date:   Saturday , April 01, 2006

Shanker Annaswamy, the Managing Director of the 38500 strong IBM India has brought 28 years of industry experience in running multi million dollar organizations to IBM. His operational strategy is to work like an entrepreneur inside a huge multinational—stemming from his belief that an entrepreneurial mentality brings in an ever-lasting percolation of vision, integrity and value systems at all times, good or bad. As a leader, he’s assuming responsibility to discourage complacency and motivate the team to shoot for bigger goals. Annaswamy’s goal is clear: To take the company to greater levels.

Annaswamy identifies two different levels of situations for a leader. The first, where one has a chance to turnaround a company’s entire performance from bad to good, and the second where the leader is faced with an opportunity to transform a company from good to great. “When things are bad, marginal improvement is easier to showcase. However when the business is performing well, it takes tremendous effort to bring more conviction in the team and take the company to a different level of achievement,” he says. Interestingly, it is often not different leaders who can change things, but different leadership qualities of the same leader. Every success story whether bottom to top or good to great demands multiple facets of leadership. “In the former you may need to be a tougher and assertive leader, while for the latter case you need to be a strategic and a collaborative leader,” he says.

Fortunately or unfortunately, very few leaders have an opportunity to wear such dual-leadership mantle in their career. “However, the ones who have had the opportunities to experience it and emerge successfully out of it, are a privileged lot,” says Annaswamy.
A self confessed passionate learner, Annaswamy claims to have learnt something from everyone he has met - his young daughter is also in the league of teachers. “When I moved in as the Country Head, I was a novice to the IT industry. However, my openness to learn and the conviction within, has never let me bite dust,” he says. Translating learning to execution is what Annaswamy does the best.

Nothing-happens-overnight is a chapter in his virtual book of leadership. “People who don’t focus on execution do not prosper in their career, but the ones who do, stand out as leaders,” he says. During his early days at IBM, as an outsider, the first execution was to prove to himself, and then on to execute with the team to collectively perform and beat all expectations.

Collaborating with teams and motivating employees is a leaders’ forte believes Annaswamy. This is his learning from his earlier assignment at GE Medical Systems where he rose from being a project manager to the President of the company. Currently in IBM India one of his objectives is to focus on small and medium businesses and to deliver value in the segment. “You add business value to your company and the company adds value to your country,” he says speaking of IBM in India.

In order to infuse the spirit of leadership in his team, he launched an India Leadership Program across various divisions of his organization. He tells his young employees: “If you rest upon your laurels then you may not turn out to be a good leader. Good leaders maintain sustained growth in the company, and the success is an integrated coming together of the vision, goals and execution.” Personally, raising employee spirits is his energy booster. “We are a large company and we need leaders at every stage,” he says referring to IBM. He is also aware that his leadership traits have some sway on his employees. So he often leads from the front, rallying teams and motivating them. He feels Executive Presence is a key leadership quality. “Executive presence is not about wearing a great suit or a tie,” he quips, “but an inside presence which enables the leader to connect with people internally and externally—employees and customers.”

Annaswamy thinks value addition, whether to employees or customers, should be a true motive of every leader. He professes that a company adds value to its country, ecosystem, clients and industry. “Value through extraordinary depth of industry expertise, content and innovation can change the entire industrial landscape,” he says. However, delivering such value can only be done by cross functional teams in large corporations and not by few leaders alone. He emphasizes, “In big companies a country head is not the only leader, all of the business heads are leaders too.”

Strategic risk taking ability is a key success factor for leaders as per Annaswamy. He wants every leader in his company to be responsible and take calls on strategic investments on newer market segments. At the same time, Annaswamy’s job is to make sure that these newer areas are in line with his organizations charter. Leaders need to back their strategic investment plans by market analysis, data and contingency actions. “There would be a day when you have to prove yourself not just quarter-by-quarter, but even month-by-month and day-by-day. 24 hours a day is often quite inadequate for a CEO,” he says. Along all these lines of leadership lies Annaswamy’s most important aphorism: A good leader has his head in the clouds visualizing about his company’s future and his feet deeply rooted on the ground carrying out day to day execution perfectly.