It is important for a leader to anticipate changes. The dotcom bust of the late 1990s holds out important lessons on the vagaries of being unidirectional. Arvind Thakur, chief executive officer and joint managing director, NIIT Technologies Ltd spoke to HT on a range of issues of leadership.
How do you define a leader?
A person who stands tall not just in good times but more so during adversity.
What are the three most important traits of a leader?
A leader must see more than what others see. So, an essential trait of a leader is the ability to articulate a compelling vision. A leader must be inspirational to align the team to the vision and should also be a good communicator to effectively communicate the means to realise the vision to all stakeholders.
As a leader of your group, how do you cultivate leaders?
It is not adequate to just cultivate leaders at the top but develop leadership capabilities at all levels within the organisation. Training plays an important role in leadership development but that in itself is inadequate. Cultivating leadership requires continuous coaching and support in dealing with real life situation.
Can leadership be learnt? In other words, how can a manager become a leader?
Indeed, leadership can be learnt but the transition from manager to a leader requires a shift in mindset. I often tell my supervisors that their role as a leader is not to supervise, but to create a superior vision. A team aligned to a superior vision produces dramatic results left to its own and needs no supervision. A leader assumes the role of a coach in guiding the team to realise their vision.
What is the role of a professional leader in a promoter-driven company?
A big challenge in many promoter-driven companies is the inability of the promoter to let go as the business scales. A leader in such an environment needs to put in place an effective performance ethic programme with clear lines of accountability and have systems in place that transparently track business drivers to provide comfort to the promoter that things are in control.
Since September 2008, the world has fallen into a maelstrom of serial crises. What is the role of a leader in these times?
Every crisis presents an opportunity. The opportunity arises from the discontinuity created by the crisis. Since 2008, the world has experienced one crisis after another. In such turbulent times, the past cannot be used to predict the future. The role of the leader during such periods is to spot the discontinuities and create an agile organisation to navigate through the turbulence. A leader also needs to see opportunities before others see them. The traditional “sense-and-respond” approach to leadership shifts to “anticipate and create”.
What has been the biggest leadership challenge you have faced?
The dotcom meltdown in early 2000 was one of the biggest leadership challenges. Till then, as a technology company we were riding high on the Internet boom. When the bubble burst on e-commerce, client investments in emerging technologies became discretionary and business suffered. We went through a period of pain and had to completely reinvent the organisation. Lessons learned from this experience enabled us to deal with the aftermath of the economic slowdown in 2008 far more effectively.
Leaders have to often carry the cross of others’ wrong doings and inefficiencies, the global banking sector today, for instance. What role can good leadership play to counter balance this image?
Leaders need to demonstrate greater transparency and integrity, and ensure proper governance structures are in place to address perceptions created by any external wrongdoings.
What is your one-line leadership mantra?
Align the team to an inspiring vision and get the right people in place to realise the vision.
Who are the leaders who have inspired you?
Founders and leaders at Google particularly Eric Schmidt who left the corporate world to join this startup. Google’s success is derived from a simple and coherent vision – “to organise the world’s information and make it available to all”. To do so it has focused its attention on search and created the world’s best search engine. At the soul of the organisation is the desire to continuously innovate. It has a healthy disregard for the impossible.
Who is a leader in your industry whom you respect?
I have great respect for our founder and chairman, RS Pawar. As a visionary he revolutionised the IT training industry and is a global thought leader.
What is the biggest leadership lesson that you have learnt?
A CEO is a chief enabling officer; a leader who must create an environment that is challenging and fulfilling, which nurtures a culture of innovation, where it’s ok to make mistakes when they contribute to organisational learning. Of course, you can’t make the same mistake again. Mistakes are an opportunity to learn.
What is the best leadership decision you have taken?
Setting the direction to remain sharply focused even at the cost of exiting from some segments, to build specialisation and thereby creating differentiation to compete effectively. Our business doubled during 2004-08 and as a result, operating margins improved more than one percentage point each year during 2004-07. Even during the slowdown of 2008-10, while revenue growth slowed, profits continue to increase as a result of this decision.
What is the worst leadership decision you have taken?
The worst decision was to single-mindedly pursue the e-commerce opportunity in the late 90s during the heady days of the Internet boom and not create an alternate platform for growth. We have learnt from that experience and have since ensured a balanced portfolio to mitigate risks.