A leader may or may not be in power. However, there has been a constant fight to demystify the subject of whether a leader is born with leadership traits or whether leaders are made! The never-ending debate on this has not opened any window of consensus till now. Leadership is not necessarily an innate quality, but a skill that can be acquired through over time, just as in any other field. General Colin Powell, former US Secretary of state argued, “Effective leaders are made, not born. They learn from trial and error, and from experience. When something fails, a true leader learns from the experience and puts it behind him. You don’t get reruns in life; don’t worry about what happened in the past.” Sir Richard Branson is an archetypical protagonist of Mr. Powel’s claim. He has had a series of failures but he has never given up and tried time and again with the same brand name Virgin but with different products. There were many mistakes which he made while positioning his brand which ultimately led to the failure but despite having gone through the hardships of his ventures not working out, he has had the opportunity to make most of them work! And they worked marvelously, churning out fortunes for his shareholders and continues to deliver value to customers. Of course, what always excites people about Richard Branson is his initiative to 'Dare and to Win' which may be lacking in entrepreneurs today. Dhirubhai Ambani's experience is no laggard either. The son of a school teacher, he was making his living with a meager salary of Rs.300 per month working with A. Besse& Co. which after two years of service became distributor of Shell and gifted him a promotion in Yemen. He was transferred to Aden in Yemen to manage the filling stations at Aden’s port, from where a dream of owning an oil company originated and nurtured. The dream eventually became the biggest motivator for Dhirubhai’s quest, which made him the legend that he became. His persistence was backed up by a sheer genius, the traits which surfaced even during his stint in Aden. However his entrepreneurial instincts compelled him to return home and started a business of his own with just Rs.50,000 in his pocket and went on to become the biggest Indian business house completing a remarkable journey on the way. Steve Jobs, best known as the co-founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Apple Inc, lost a power struggle with the board of directors in 1985 and he left Apple and founded NeXT. By 1996, Apple had failed to deliver a new operating system, Copland. Gil Amelio turned to NeXT Computer, and the NeXTSTEP platform became the foundation for the Mac OS X. Apple was quick to realize their mistake and Jobs returned to Apple as an advisor, and took control of the company as an interim CEO. Jobs brought Apple from near bankruptcy to profitability by 1998. The list is endless, so are the leaders and their contribution to the corporate world. But one thing which is common amongst all these leaders are that they learnt from their experience and are recognized as great leaders today!
Back to School
Leadership is required at every level of an organization. Many people confuse this concept with a myth that a leader is one who has what it takes to be a leader and knows it all and if he doesn’t then he lacks traits of a good leader. However, reality supports the contrary! It is often seen that anybody whom people follow, can be considered as a leader. Leadership, therefore, can be ordinary people doing extraordinary errands to make a difference to the world. In today’s scenario, anything done with utmost dedication and passion to achieve the set goal can make one a leader. And it’s often contrary to the common perception that a great leader must be a prototype of a superman or at the very least a macho man! However, day to day reality vindicate a different tune. A noted leadership scholar, Bernard Bass, noted, “the leader must be able to know what followers want, when they want it, and what prevents them from getting what they want.” One might think that these conversations lead to an unsaid controversial statement that introvert people with average people skills cannot make it to the list of great leaders. Well, the answer is No. One only needs to have a vision and aspire to have leadership position and then the best solution is to focus on self development plans. The best estimate offered by research is that leadership is about one-third born and two-third made. This theory was best understood by Infosys founder, Narayana Murthy who started thinking on establishing its own leadership institute named as Infosys Leadership Institute (ILI) and focused on creating next generation leaders. Murthy followed an open door policy. He always believed that, “If you want good ideas to come from the people, then there should be a sense of pluralism, there should be an environment of openness, there should be an environment of curiosity, an environment of questioning, an environment of enlightened democracy and that will happen only in a campus environment. All doors must be open, anybody must be able to walk into your room, and anybody must be able to send an email questioning any of your decision.” Infosys believes in a concept where the company should train its employees at its own on various facets of leadership and named the process as C-LIFE which stands for C – Customers' Delight (a commitment to surpass customer’s expectations), L – Leadership by Example (a commitment to set standards and be an exemplar for the industry as well as people), I – Integrity and Transparency (a commitment to be ethical, sincere and open in the dealings), F – Fairness (a commitment to be objective and transaction-oriented, thereby earning trust and respect), and E – Pursuit of Excellence (a commitment to strive relentlessly to improve themselves, teams, services and products so as to be the best). As a part of the curriculum, each of the C-suite was supposed to spend nine days in a year in teaching at the ILI. Narayana Murthy, in an interview to CYCBTH revealed that he himself used to mentor the company’s executives for three times in a year. They usually have 50 people at Tier-1 just below the Board. At Tier-2, there are 150 and at Tier-3 there are 450 executives. In simple words, for every one person at Tier-1 they have three people at Tier-2 and nine people at Tier-3. ILI works on the basis of leadership dimensions which are categorized as strategic leadership, change, adversity and transition leadership, operational leadership, talent leadership, relationship and networking leadership, content leadership and finally entrepreneurial leadership. They have 650 leaders in the company (figures till last year). These 650 people then would have to be trained; they are to take about between 9-12 days of training every year. Some of them may get trained outside India like Harvard, Oxford, Stanford etc. because they would be working there. Not everyone will take the same course for the same layer. Therefore, Infosys decided that it can give 3-day course thrice a year and that shall fulfil the purpose. These courses are primarily interactive. Narayana Murthy recalls, “my course would talk about the various attributes like courage, meritocracy, integrity, team work, etc. and I would spend about may be maximum 15 minutes in talking about it but there will be 45 minutes of discussion which would be mostly question answers. Intern would say, “I don’t agree with you because this is being my experience.” Then I’ll come back to them and explain that, “This is my experience, why I am saying this, why I believe in what I say. My own course, I used to give 50 situations to the attendees about three months before the course and I would tell them to choose one situation out of 50, and tell them as part of the course, how you handle this situation, what decision you took, why your decision is right? Other participants would question the speaker’s decision; they won’t agree with him etc. in other words, ample opportunities were given to the attendees to understand the complete structure of an organization.”
A fresh new form of learning that comes both from the senior management and the junior cadres bring in a breath of fresh air to the organization with the help of “Reverse Mentoring Process.” It’s a new module, where the solution might come from the senior management or it may also come from the junior cadre. In a usual organizational setup, a new entrant is trained by an existing employee of the company who has got experience, knowledge and instances to share. However, a new concept allows the younger generation (mentor) to share their expertise with the existing employees (mentee) and this concept is all about reverse mentoring which was conceptualized by Jack Welch. It has started to find its foothold in India with various companies adapting it as a part of their training structure. One such company is SRS Ltd which has changed its training module in accordance with reverse mentoring and specifically designed teams for different projects in such a way that they have an eclectic mixture of people from different age groups and skills. Talking to CYCBTH, Mr. Tinku Singh, Group President, SRS Ltd said, “among the other duties assigned to every group, we make sure that there is a positive exchange of knowledge and ideas amongst the team members and that people are able to develop ancillary skills that, in the long run, prove beneficial to our company.” He also added that, “the company felt the need was always there but it had only intensified in the recent years, with the rapid advancements in the fields of technology and internet.” The company also felt that as an organization, it must make use of the immense opportunities that are there to be able to sustain its success. It also realized a fact that those who do not adapt themselves to the changing business environment are sure to be left behind. Considering that SRS has grown from strength to strength over the last decade, there is no reason why it would let go off any opportunity to evolve further and for better! And, hence, reverse mentoring came their way. Their process of selection is also one of its kinds. One has to have a special skill set that the company needs. The young employee is then assigned to the project and the older employees are involved with it to see what new perspective the younger employee or the mentor brings to the table. It really works wonders for the productivity of our employees. A change doesn't come easy. However, in the initial phase, the company faced a lot of prejudice amongst the older employees as they abhorred the idea of learning from younger ones. But, all this faded away after a couple of projects witnessed unprecedented success of implementing reverse mentoring and today, all senior managers are keen to have youngsters on their team as they see the value and are sure of the results. Almost every manager, middle level and above, is a part of such program and has to have at least 20-25% youngsters in his team. Mr. Singh further said that, “it is a two way street. Almost every mentee has more than one mentor and every mentor is associated with more than one mentee. The company doesn’t follow any strict format. It is a team set up that we play around with. The older members are typically responsible for the overall planning and results and the younger members for the execution of the plans. The young mentors make sure that their older mentees are exposed to all the possibilities of putting the new technologies and methodologies into use. The mentors also take the insights of the older mentees into account while drawing up the specifics of the execution plans.”
SRS Ltd is replicated by other organizations too, like SAP Labs. The latter’s HR Manager, VibhaShukla explains the boons of this HR module, “We at SAP Labs are creating a pool of mentors based on four areas. The freshers get to nominate themselves and update their profile in our internal portal if they are interested in mentoring. The profiles are then made available to the managers (mentees) who can then select their mentors based on the topics. The Mentor is then required to invest 23 Hours (Fixed 3 hours of orientation + 20 hours of mentoring) and the Mentee needs to put in 21 Hours (Fixed 1 hour orientation + 20 hours of mentoring). Minimum of 3 hours is allotted for the first meeting, mid-course review and the final meeting. This is flexible if the mentor and mentee decide to have just one meeting. The orientation session is done by the learning and development expert for setting expectations for the program. The company follows a concept (THAT) on which the mentoring is conducted which is: T-Technology (Digital and Social media), H-How (of New Generations, New customer segment and diversity), A-Attract (Role models for Gen Y, Effective communication and presentations), T-Trust (Higher level of engagement and responsibility sharing with Gen Y).”
Airtel too showcased respect for the young mentors, whose brainchild is the brand positioning of “Airtel Rising Stars” with Manchester United. At the height of Reverse Mentoring creativity, the mentors are struck with the idea that Gen Y is more in proximity with football unlike Gen X who largely sides with cricket. Following that their flagship program, in no uncertain terms, decided to cut the ribbon with Gen Y. The DTH business of Airtel as well got a boost from ideas orchestrated through Reverse Mentoring. The windfall of these mentors today stretches across length and breadth of Airtel with over 20 active pairs nationally leveraging the wisdom churned out through it across all their businesses. It’s no longer limited to soft decision, but hard business strategies too are placed under its purview. The passionate and beholden young mentors are stirring new ideas for the senior staffs, like, new campus recruitment programmes or how to engage young employees in the time of induction or even technological knowhow and data feeders to the mobile devices.
The companies today understand the benefits of reverse mentoring and are growing with the help of it. Nokia, Airtel and General Electric are few of the companies which are doing the same. In the same line, CHD Developers was able to foresee the possibilities of growth using this tool to boost up employee confidence, create congenial environment, improve communication/presentation skills and thus
augments employee loyalty. It also was able to realize that through reverse mentoring, it can eventually leads to a seamless and flat organizational structure. They realized that younger employees have a far better knowledge of technological advancements and social media. It is a win-win situation for every organization.
The succession planning, worldwide, is an integral strategy of a corporate to plan succession of the planned or unplanned loss of its existing leader. But as the older CEO packs up, it raises question about how the new CEO skills really are. The succession planning should carry with it a talent development process that will mute the threat of a capability gap that goes with it. The India Inc. is passing through a transition phase where in a number of top-notch Indian conglomerates and the first generation entrepreneurs are retiring and the generation next is stepping into their shoes. The recent economic downturn is triggering a finger pointing exercises even in the most respected organizations where the stakeholders are increasingly questioning the decisions and the acumen of the chief executives. That’s making the matter more challenging for the new CEOs to earn the respect and confidence of the board as serious thinkers and able administrators.
However, we will dispute the notion in case of family run businesses where retaining a scarce and valuable commodity of managerial talent are not a problem. The most important exemplar of this is the search that was going on for Mr. Ratan Tata’s replacement in December 2012. Even though it’s an unwritten norm in Indian family businesses that the baton is passed on to the blood relation – the Tata’s tried to set the tone in a different way, "The panel will look at suitable candidates from within the group and professionals from India and overseas to find a replacement for Ratan Tata, who retires at the end of 2012," is what they said in a terse statement. However, in the end the inevitable happened, his blood relation Cyrus Mistry was the chosen successor of Ratan Tata even though he denied it’s because of the link, “Mistry was selected by a committee and not due to family relations or him being a Parsi. We interviewed outside and internal people so it was not a family or ethnic affair,” was Ratan Tata’s defense.
According to many studies, including one from Harvard Business School, the risk audit is a must for business leaders that are drivers for succession planning. Without it, years of toiling to build an organization faces serious risks with the exit of its chief executive because success is an achievement that can always slip out of hands. It is a prerogative of the Board to initiate the process in all forms of companies in a well-funded and a high growth environment. Without a well-defined and detailed succession planning the corporations often plunge into crisis that sometimes even split it vertically. The important case in point in India is the Reliance Group: Mr. Dhirubhai Amabani expired in 2002 without a will that led to the division of the company between Anil and Mukesh splitting the company vertically. In 2009, P.J. Nayak was stripped from his position of Chairman & MD of Axis Bank, to clear the way for Shikha Sharma (ex-MD, ICICI Prudential Life Insurance) to be the next MD. This impact was triggered by repeated Board’s recommendation to Mr. Nayak to groom a successor, which he artfully avoided, leaving with no other option for the Board but to bring in an outsider.
Therefore, in a nutshell, a ready line of successors properly groomed, developed and respected should be ready of all time – as proper leadership is quintessential to back a large number of stakeholders and huge amount of funding – that will infiltrate into the judicious functioning of the corporation. Furthermore, a more diverse ownership will attract greater investors’ confidence, a paradigm shift from a more concentrated ownership, as has been the case with family run enterprises. With the impact of globalization, India too is crawling along the western model, which emphasizes more on competent professional to run the show rather than family members.
Reverse mentoring serves dual purpose. It not only exposes the seniors to modern thoughts and knowledge but also facilitates the growth of the junior employee as he gathers better understanding of the working of the sector. This definitely provides an impetus to the growth of the younger employee who can be later considered for a senior role in the management. On the same lines, the ILI has identified 400 potential leaders which form the core base for the succession planning at Infosys. More than 800 candidates were in the institute’s roster initially at the Infosys’s endeavor that allows the candidates to feel comfortable with an open mind in the ILI’s capacious shade displaying their public spirit as it’s a perk of eminence. A three tier pyramid is created where all employees at Infosys are considered for leadership role in the organization, and then a process of talent identification in each of the tiers is carried out. The ILI’s expansive vision augured it to create a “Nine pillar model” to instill leadership traits based on the organization’s requirement as well as the candidates’ interest areas. These steps were prima facie to solve the leadership gap problem the company faced in 2007 from the eclectic mix of resources generated by the leadership programs at ILI. The move has paved the way for the new management team incorporated in early 2012. The large size of leaders at Infosys are supposed to retire in a period of ten years starting from 2011, sowing seeds of doubt regarding replacement quality in the minds of the investors and customers. But the built-in pool of leaders that ILI has created, nurtured and developed should be enough for a smooth and prudent passage of change over. The Strategic Human Resource Management and Training Development courses at ILI have enough resources to tide over the difficulties at ease.