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June - 2006 - issue > Leadership
Sammy's Situational Leadership Theory
Harish Revanna
Thursday, June 1, 2006
Alum of Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur), an erstwhile painter, and a nimble communicator, Soumitra (Sammy) Sana middlingly epitomizes his company’s motto: We’re scientists. We’re artists. Most of all, we are a global communications leader…
A Motorola egghead for the past 16 years, Sana relocated from Canada to India in 1997 to head Motorola’s Global Software Group as the Managing Director. “It was the heydays of technological advancements, things were all going boom,” he snaps his fingers to explain. Sana’s initial focus was to bring in a chummy atmosphere within the workplace. “Routine monotony was broken, a proportioned blend of structured and unstructured work styles was brought in,” he says.

Growth was quick, and complacency was setting in among the employees. “Add value to your work,” he emphasized (still does). “If you can do this for cheap, then there is someone else in the world who can do it cheaper.” For once, the employees realized that here is a man who not just has meetings in restaurants, but will make you work there as well.

In 2003 winds of change blew away some serious business at his parent company and the entire telecom industry—the tech bubble had burst, eventually there was a telecom meltdown. Sana, suddenly was in the midst of great technological, organizational and people change. While Motorola, Inc. was slashing large number of jobs in the U.S., mornings at its India center was glutted with employees’ truths, half-truths, lies and imaginative talks on company’s status. “Junior employees needed guidance, while the senior sensitive folks had suddenly lost their colleagues overseas,” he reminisces.

Ramping up the India center was perhaps the only inevitable thing for Motorola. However, for Sana it was challenges unlimited. “We had to handle the multiplying individuals, different teams, and umpteen technologies across India center,” he says. Intriguingly, there were times when Sana had little knowledge about what was happening at the other end. “We are 12000 miles away and to communicate any message takes a while. Also, initially, the parent company never realized the message was awaited on the other side of the globe,” he says. Balancing on a rope he was walking was hard, but Sana feels a leader should be disposed. “At the same time, one should know to extract information from your sources and pass it on succinctly, decoupling personal and professional issues,” he says.

Sana believes in the two Cs: Communication and Candor—the pivotal bridging-tools during uncertainties. “Getting them right would mean winning half the battle,” he says.

However, to manage 3000 people across Motorola India meant that the company needed more leaders. So Sana brought the entire research and development under one-roof, identifying smart techies and empowering them. “My first line-managers are my biggest asset,” says Sana.

Sana believes in a philosophy: fight and come out bloodied from the meeting, but go out and face associates as a single team. “But still, remember, individual satisfaction needs to be met,” he says.

Sana’s perseverance to keep up the quality of technological work happening at the India center is inimitable. Throughout the changes on the people-side of his company, he’s enhanced the technological inventions as well. “I had to explain constantly why change is needed. How it can turn the corporation without hampering employees lifestyles, or even areas of interest,” says Sana. Motorola India center today, claims to be on par with its U.S counterpart for the quality of work. “It is a world class design center and contributes 40 percent to Motorola’s global products,” he says.

“A leader in the technology industry should be agile to technological changes happening around,” he says, “while making people comprehend how technology could get obsolete at the wink of an eye.” To drive this tech-instinct across his employees, he formed a technical council. “The idea was to bring in innovation,” says Sana. Innovation was translating into patents and the next on the anvil was a patent committee. “Employees didn’t know what patent actually meant to their careers. And the misconception was ‘patent is only some senior research employees’ prerogative,’” he notes. To cultivate research instincts among his employees, Sana entered into a tie up with the Illinois Institute of Technology. And brought home Motorola’s global initiative called the Early Stage Accelerator, which finances notable technical ideas.

In retrospect Sana says, “Change brings hope and misery, but it is also the only constant.” In secret, now revealed, Sana claims his understanding about human science and history has always helped him handle HR issues and organizational changes more rationally—he’s an avid reader on genetics, psychology and medieval history. “One tells me about people and the other the social changes they underwent for centuries,” he says.

Interestingly, some of Sana’s notable HR achievements emanates from a single source: Anonymous Question Box—a web-based Q&A through which his employees communicate with him. “I read and review each one of the comments personally,” he says, “and immediate action is taken on important ones.” Sana’s communication within the rank and file of his organization happens primarily through this venture.

Motivation is a byproduct of such interaction and comments. One thing that motivates Sana the most is the sheer number of his employees, the other is his hobby of ocean-spotting—an act where he constantly looks at the ocean for hours just to draw some leveling-effect from the ocean to within.

Like every leader, there are two things Sana dislikes: an employee pigeonholing oneself into his/her role. He often advises his very competent employees to stop basking in their glory and get their next act right. “You should nudge yourself to come out of your comfort zone,” he says. Second, people who try and mimic him as a leader. “I expect managers to bring to the party some skill sets, which could really complement the team,” he says. In Sana’s world, decided consensus are discouraged; dissenting views are welcomed. To kill the smugness within the company, Sana belives in bringing in as much new blood as he can into the organization. His motto is to reward the best employee not just with money, but power—through new roles and tougher assignments.

Sana’s enriching assignments nowadays is to keep his skilled people challenged. He tells his employees, exactly what Andy Grove once said, “Only paranoids survive.” Interestingly, Sana is not a habitual subscriber of all management theories, but he concurs with a few. His is a DIY—do it yourself—strategy. If so, don’t be surprised to see Sana have his next manager meeting on a hilltop. However, he will make sure that his managers know that there is a higher peak to scale.
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