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Getting the best out of average
Harish Revanna
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Bhaskar in Sanskrit means ‘The Sun.” But for Bhaskar Pramanik, Sun has always been a visionary company that has kept redefining the future of computing. As the Managing Director of Sun Microsystems India he often talks on how goals are achieved at Sun with the three-fold mantra: Innovation in engineering, marketing and partnering. “To be successful in an innovation driven technology company, you have to be passionate about technology,” he says. Strangely, he has had no stint as a technologist; his first job as a management trainee at DCM, prepared him for the functional management aspect of business. From then on, his managerial flight has never stopped. As a Stanford management alumnus, it is not strange that his passion for business superceded his academic education as an Electrical engineer from IIT Kanpur.

Since his arrival at Sun in 1998, the company has never failed to achieve its targets either in revenue or profitability. “In the last 8 years we have grown at a CAGR of 40 percent and our revenue has doubled every two years, while employee count has multiplied 6-7 times,” he says. Sun India currently houses 1000 engineers working on the philosophy of sharing innovation and building communities at the forefront of the next wave of computing: the Participation Age. Pramanik also emphasizes that 90 percent of India’s telephone and Internet traffic passes through Sun’s systems.

Recently Pramanik was awarded the company’s Leadership Award in recognition of his contribution to the growth of the Sun business in India and for being a role model for all of Sun. He is currently the Co-Chair of the company’s Leadership Awards Review Board, which identifies and recognizes the outstanding leaders inside the company who models Sun’s values in the delivery of business priorities. For Pramanik, this coveted chairmanship is new at the outset, but personally it’s a jury he’s been all his life—at different companies.

In early 70s, like every ambitious IIT-ian, he had formulated his own theory of success: work with the best and you become better than the best. And, he had got his theory right. Today, name some 10 CEOs in the country; chances are that Pramanik would have worked with at least five. “I was fortunate to have come in contact with some of the leading CEO’s in business. They are all visionaries, who knew how to execute and get to be successful,” he says.

Pramanik learnt his leadership lessons by watching and emulating, while some others were self-taught and inherent. Interestingly, Pramanik’s first company taught him how to manage senior employees who were much older to him. Today he’s learning how to work for managers who are much younger to him—both his boss, Lionel Lim, President for Sun Asia South and Scott McNealy, Chairman and CEO, Sun Microsystems Inc. are younger to him by 5 years. “That’s the fun of it all,” he says referring to his openness in learning from anybody. Albeit his graying hair doesn’t indicate his age, it surely tells a story of change he’s seen in his 54 years in life. “I’m a leader in my own world,” he says indicating the situational leadership, a term which he closely relates to.

He believes leadership is situational: different situations require different types of leadership styles. A good leader knows when to lead and when to follow. He often takes a back seat when one of his direct reports take charge of a situation and he watches them perform. “There is no harm in my offering advice while not taking the lead. If one of my Directors is leading a particular situation, I support him,” he explains. After all, success they say is better enjoyed as a team.

Of late, Pramanik is engrossed in creating a vision, a winning culture, and an environment for sustained growth at Sun Microsystems India. “Advantage being the head of an MNC company in India is that the broad global strategy is already defined and laid out,” he says, contrasting leadership with some of the Indianised MNC companies like HLL or Citibank. “Any MNC’s head need not have to worry about India specific products and offering as long as the country amounts to 3-4 percent of their overall revenue,” he says. However his perception is that the challenge to adapt to the strategy for India and executing it would be the same for all. “I have to provide the vision, the goals and direction, make sure everyone knows their roles, reward performance, and make customers appreciate us. It’s about prioritization and managing resources effectively,” he tells emphasizing how leadership is at his level.

Guess it’s this level of achievement or even aspiration that often takes leaders towards loneliness. “Leaders are lonely at the top,” he says. And immediately pauses to say, “That’s why you need to have a supportive spouse and a balanced life.”

Leadership, for Pramanik today is a combination of internal propensities, environment and experience. “A good leader is always humble and one who understands his weaknesses really well,” he tells. So far Pramanik’s evangelizing as a leader has helped him identify some of the brightest minds within Sun to build a second line of leadership. “As a leader your average successful decision rate should be high and consistent with performance,” he says. But he agrees that, “Great leaders are not infallible.” Infallible or not, being a part of McNealy’s team means winning at Sun.

At Sun, surprisingly, Pramanik is formulating his second theory after 30-years. Now as a leader, he believes in creating an atmosphere of excellence, rather than looking out for one. “Sun in India is a school, where average performers are made to compete and excel in any environment to be great performers in the industry,” he says. Leadership according to Pramanik is about leading the average. It’s about taking average people and making them do the impossible.
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