Leading through the Labyrinth
Date: Monday , April 16, 2007
Vikram Shah is the President, India Operations, of Network Appliance (NASDAQ: NTAP, market cap: $14.15 Billion), an enterprise storage and data management software and hardware products and services company.
To have achieved all one wanted in life doesn’t mean that it’s all been done the right way. That is exactly what Vikram Shah believes about being a leader: “It is not just results always, but the process of achieving it also.” Process, in Shah’s lexicon, is not simply about the man-hours, man-efficiencies and man-standards (that often need to be met), but more importantly the man (people) itself. Being people-oriented throughout the journey of any endeavour is the absolute definition of success. And his elixir: involvement.
After a long service of 28-years in the information technology industry, if there is anything I still want, it would perhaps be an opportunity to contribute; to bring my learning to my work place. It is in search of this opportunity that my stints in different companies have happened overtime. Given that my search has produced results, what are my learnings to impart?
1. Listening:It is the most important quality of being a leader. Every time a comment/advice passes by you, stop a moment to adjudicate it. At the start of my career, after I finished my masters in Berkeley and wanted to take up a job in hardware, I was advised by my professor to take up software in lieu. Having taught me he knew my interest lay in getting back to India and working from here; and his knowledge could tell him India’s potential in software was higher than in hardware. That piece of advice helped me get where I am today.
2. Process not just Results: Since school days, it’s only the results that have mattered in most societies, irrespective of the process one takes to achieve them—some people study the last month and some a complete year to achieve same results. I was a product of such result-oriented society until one of my managers at Tata Unisys corrected me. As the youngest VP then, there was never a target that I had left unachieved. I was so brutally result oriented that I forgot to understand that my team members had to be aligned to my goals. As we reached our targets, a few engineers would be left behind without knowing what ever happened to the project. Although I was growing as a manager, I was dying young as a leader. It is important to realize that while working with performers, it’s not just their performance that needs to be monitored, but their personal side as well. And that is what I call people orientation. In a cutting edge industry like ours, the process of people orientation is a must.
3. Accepting Inputs: A distant cousin of listening, inputs are often what you take from all your employees as opposed to listening to your mentors. Accepting inputs from individuals and using them as a part of decision making would thrust that individual under the burden of their input or suggestion. Few years back, when I decided to move to Bangalore, I took inputs from my kids who were six and seven years old about our relocation strategy. Although, they were comfortable staying in Bombay, they agreed to relocate; they were under their burden of ‘yes’. And that in some ways made them liable for their acts. It is these external inputs that make up for the 360 degree view that most leaders have over issues.
4. Involvement: Interestingly, the act of involving people around you is the bedrock of all leadership qualities. Only when you involve people do you get to listen to them, learn how to be people oriented, and get inputs from them. But how does one involve oneself? First, there are no set theories of self involvement. It is all in the analogies of leadership. Like F.C. Kohli, the father of Indian IT industry, who was succinctly honest in dealing with people. I would say he had two eyes, one that could censure you for your wrongs, while the other always promising a hope of right. Like Pitamabar (of Mahindra British Telecom, then) who put people first to his company. And Dr. Hebalkar who was a cut throat action oriented leader. People look at each one differently, but can see only their involvement for their work.
While involvement is infectious, there are certain traits that are common to people who can develop such involvements. And those are the people who shoot up on my managers’ chart every time in my workplace. Their characteristics are simply palpable (if not in each of the following, collectively at least)
Risk Taking: The ability of risk taking is a must for any manager. Since risk taking is an important trait of leadership, training such managers yield in development of second line of leadership.
We and not I: True involvers have a natural ability to talk for teams rather than themselves. Their communication consists of “we” and “us” always indicating their teams, as against “me” and “I” of a pseudo single manager.
Positive Attitude: “Can do” attitude is a given for most managers who have the innate potential to involve. One may not know everything, but the very positive attitude solves 50 percent of the problem; while the other 50 percent is just preparation.
Environment and Value System: Often the companies the manager was involved in, in his previous roles form a clear picture of his environment and the value system he’s been exposed to. Managers bred in good companies and having family values that allow them to care for others are a sure shot to success.
Now with these learnings on my back and a great team of managers (also involvers) to help me impart them, my role as a leader is to set goals in alignment to the company’s vision for each of these managers. On this journey of setting goals, leaders make paths for the managers to follow. And managers follow them with great execution strategies. It is important to realize that leaders simultaneously chart their paths for the company and themselves—judiciously taking calls on the right and wrong paths inside the labyrinth.