Shantanu Prakash founded Educomp Solutions Limited in 1994, a few years after graduating from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, with the vision to "transform the teaching-learning process through the use of technology and best practices." Prakash borrowed Rs. 1 lakh from his father, and began an enterprise by setting up computer labs in schools. Educomp, which featured in Forbes' 'Best under a billion' list last year, currently employs over 16,000 people across 27 offices worldwide including India, Canada, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Singapore working with over 26,000 schools and 15 million students. He spoke to HT on a range of issues on leadership. Excerpts:
How do you define a leader?
Anyone who sticks his neck out; who says he can do it when everyone else evades; anyone who takes responsibility, is a leader. Applied to business, a leader would have these same traits but with an entrepreneurial passion that he or she brings to any work that he/she chooses, or is given. Anybody who stands by his work, irrespective of success or failure, and who is willing to admit and learn from his mistakes, and one who refuses to give up easily, is a leader in my view.
What is your leadership mantra?
Lead like you would be led. A leader must always remember that his greatest asset are human resources and that he is dealing with people who have the same instincts as he does - so whether it is reward and incentive, pressure and stress, application and diligence, or focus and concentration, he has to acknowledge that everybody broadly ticks the same way. Accordingly you have to nurture these qualities or strengthen or adjust them in accordance with the personalities you are dealing with and in relation to the objectives that must be achieved. At senior levels, I believe our function is more about moderating and modulating the energies of our team leaders so that they can achieve more that they themselves think they can. Guiding is the primary work of leaders.
How do you cultivate leaders?
My style is to put people to the challenge and let the results speak for themselves. The best way to test someone's mettle is to give them the tools they need, agree on the outcomes, give them the space and freedom, and then let them show you if they can do it or not. That is the only way to pick winners. No amount of theoretical estimation can provide what proof of work can and so what we can do is to encourage and support until they find their own genius for solving problems and leading from the front.
You have also undergone a management course at IIM, Ahmedabad. So, according to you, can leadership be taught or is ingrained in a person?
Leadership is not a title, it is an attitude. So some of it must be ingrained in your character and a lot of it can be processed to iron out the wrinkles. That is where education and training come into play. Streamlining a basic aptitude or honing God-given skills are part of any developmental process. So, if a manager wants to extend his training into entrepreneurial zeal he is better placed with a background preparation - which only a specialist institution can provide.
As a leader are you a consensus builder or top-down guy?
A bit of both, actually. I believe it is necessary to have a clear vision about objectives, methods and direction. Outside of that, a good leaders must ensure that everyone buys into the mechanics of the process. To agree on an outcome but have disagreements on the way to achieve it would be counterproductive, so the two must move in tandem. Clarity of direction, the sanctity of operational values, and overall consensus are necessary to actualise any initiative.
What has been your best leadership decision?
To branch out on my own has been my best decision. Although I did it with very little experience in the field I chose and learnt on the job, the fact remains that we were in a nascent industry and there was very little established knowledge on the business at the point. So while I do emphasise the importance of domain expertise, in my case it worked to my advantage. This was because our learning became our USP and provided us a huge IP leverage over competitors, thanks to the original and pioneering work we were forced to do in the field.
...And your worst decision?
Though I can't say I was the only one, but not reading the economic slowdown or its severity has to be a close miss. It came at a point when we were invested to grow our businesses in newer directions and it distracted us from our estimations. However, I guess we have to rough it out like everyone else until the outlook improves. The good part though is that this period has allowed us to look at our businesses more critically, in terms of administration and management, costs and making us much more efficient in terms of productivity and returns. It has also enabled us to recast expansion, consolidate and reposition ourselves for a future thrust.
Name two leaders you admire most
Mahatma Gandhi and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.