An inability to realize human relationships would be detrimental to the prospects of a good leader

Date:   Tuesday , September 04, 2007

When I first flew across the seas with my family to the U.S.—I was apprehensive of how an Indian girl would fare in the high-technology arena—little idea did I know that years later I would call this country my home and be immersed in high-tech in Silicon Valley. I had merely intended to pursue my college studies in the U.S., what I perceived as a well-to-do country, with a great socio-economic environment.

After graduation in electrical engineering, an offer to work for a U.S. semiconductor firm came my way, and I accepted it simply to get some professional experience. I was determined to return to my homeland, India. Few years later while I was at AMD (Advanced Micro Devices), I met my husband Vijay who was in a rival company, Intel. Both of us were attracted not only to each other, but to common dream and pursuit to return to India some day.

Return I did, temporarily, to the glee of my grandfather (whom I was very attached to), to set up the Cisco India facility ten years ago. He was the pivot of my desire to return to India and it was a great joy to see him smile. Why am I mentioning all this seemingly unessential trivia?

It is to answer a question I am frequently asked but rarely seem to have a clear answer, which is “What was your plan for success? The truth is that I did not have a mega plan of what I would do in my years ahead nor did I plot a grand graph of my career.

Like most professionals, I wanted to excel in what I did and be successful. I took one step at a time; success came in small doses and often success begets more success, with occasional set backs too. For example, after the demise of my grandfather, I took a break since I longed to balance time with my family. Thoughts of how the break would affect my career did surface, but I gave precedence to my personal priority. Therein lies another major lesson of my life; there can be no substitute for human connections. I realize today that the very same realization lies at the core of a successful CEO.

A good leader deals with people, understands people problems and analyzes, questions and adapts frequently. An inability to realize human relationships would be detrimental to the prospects of a good leader. It would be naïve to say though that I owe all my leadership skills to being sensitized to people alone. My school/convent education, which is otherwise steeped in conformity, equipped me with communication skills that have held me in good stead. We may all have many good ideas, yet very few can synthesize and then articulate them well enough to convince others. A deep understanding of people and communications skills can make a powerful combination.

Equally important are your mentors and supporters. I have enjoyed the support of my loving family as well as prominent leaders such as John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems. Being groomed in marketing under erstwhile CEO of AMD Jerry Sanders in the 1980’s was also a unique experience of real-world training. Though I was in an engineering role then, the company gave me opportunities to learn the ropes of marketing and the necessary guidance. My transformation from engineering to technical marketing and later general manager, propelled my desire to find what I was really good at (not just average at).

My early presentations to customers were marked by nervousness and a ‘butterflies in the stomach’ feeling, yet I turned those feelings into a positive energy and adrenalin to connect and engage with my presentation topic and the audience. Technologies too have changed from connectivity to the internet to semantic and social networking (such as Web 2.0), but the skills continue to be foundational and vital, throughout these technology transitions.

Unlike my earlier years in semiconductors/chip design, where one needed to predict the future in 3-5 years, the concept “internet time” has reduced development and deployment cycles from years to months. Adapting to that requires a technical ability, combined with customer analysis, and extrapolation of industry position. Even today, I tend to do fair amount of pattern matching; for example looking at trends in data center and correlating with security and vice-versa. Past history can be a great indicator of the future trends.
A certain part of the decision, of course, has to be taken in the realms of the unknown and the ambiguous. That’s where the role of ‘gut’ comes in; one must learn to trust in ‘gut’ to leap and think ahead , without all the facts and data.

Speaking of leaps, India taking giant strides today in economic and global affairs, where the world is taking notice. They are realizing what we all knew years ago, of India’s tremendous potential. A well-kept secret is now become a big hype. I am hopeful that rising above this hype, more and more Indian leaders assert themselves at leadership level globally.