Rahul Khosla, managing director of the Rs 10,000-crore Max India Group, a diversified business conglomerate, is leading a transformational phase in the company across several important dimensions of performance, quality and growth. He spoke to HT on a range of aspects on leadership. Excerpts:
How do you define a leader? What are the three most important traits of a leader?
I would pick the following three out of many traits that good leaders need: vision, influence and execution. A leader's vision defines the overall purpose of the enterprise. Clarity of mission and goals, courage of conviction and an ability to think and invest in the long term are key attributes that define leaders with vision. In today's times, just having a vision is not good enough. Good leaders also need the ability to positively influence stakeholders - be they customers, employees, shareholders, regulators and others towards their vision through clear communication. Walking the talk is critical, and therefore having the ability to execute the vision and operationalise goals through hands on management are key drivers to success for good leaders.
How do you cultivate leaders within your own organisation?
Firstly, by identifying the best performers and those with the highest potential. This is especially important beyond just the top team - by encouraging an informed inspection of the diamonds that are buried deeper and lower down in the organisation. As our mentor Ram Charan said - you must catch the 20-somethings early because they will be your leaders of tomorrow. Secondly, by adopting a combination of empowerment and coaching, personalized to each individual. It's about taking calculated risks on the right people at the right time. The risk has to be calibrated based on a person's development level. Put a person too soon in the deep end, you will limit his or her career and demoralise them. Along this balancing act, it's critical to have an open, constant dialogue.
Can leadership be learnt? In other words, how can a manager become a leader?
Leadership qualities are usually innate and they often emerge automatically in different ways. However, these traits need to be structured and embellished with experience and exposure to create good leaders. In addition, the "education" process is continuous and not a one-time event or "training course". Mindful leaders learn constantly and the richness and diversity of their experience enhances their effectiveness progressively.
What is the role of a professional leader in a promoter-driven company?
It is a common yet incorrect perception that a promoter-driven company is not professionally managed. A professional approach is required whether it is a promoter-owned or a widely-held company. A professional leader or manager in a promoter-driven company cannot take up the mandate as "just another job". It is a purpose-built job which has to be calibrated carefully with respect to characters, personalities, values and vision. So, you can't just be a manager, you can't just be an owner, you have to be an "owner and manager" and be a mature professional.
Since September 2008, the world has fallen into a maelstrom of serial crises. What is the role of a leader in these times?
A leader should be able to manage the things he/she can control and try to deal effectively with those he/she can't. Managers have to be flexible, nimble and efficient, especially to manage the things that are under their control (directly and indirectly). At the same time, they need to anticipate and prepare for the impact of what they can't control. Clear internal and external communication is critical, helps stakeholders prepare for impact ahead of time and avoids "surprises". Bad news known in advance is better than bad news that comes as a surprise. And it helps to plan and mitigate against such risks that may be out of direct control. In addition, there is a degree of resilience and positivity that is required in leaders rather than being a part of the crowd that is ever-complaining about how tough doing business has become.
What has been the biggest leadership challenge you've faced?
The biggest leadership challenge would have been developing depth beneath the senior leadership. This needs insight, courage, patience and the right human capital development approach that is predicated on meritocracy and succession planning. This is not a short term exercise, though I wish it was. Hiring the "right" people is the other leadership challenge.
Do you think the role of business leaders has come under cloud - globally and domestically - of late?
I don't think so. The people who do the right things and in the correct manner are going to be respected regardless of what the general environment is. If anything, now is the opportunity for good leaders to outshine others by doing the right things and doing them right.
What is your one-line leadership mantra?
Play to win and not just to avoid losing. An overly defensive posture can erode value.
Who are the leaders that have inspired you?
I genuinely think that everybody with whom I have worked with or for, have had a lasting impression on me for something or the other. I am not really the one for idolising, but if there is a person who stands out in the politico-management-economic world, it has to be Lee Kuan Yew (a Singaporean politician, often referred to as the Father of Singapore). He had a vision, strong conviction, clear communication, significant influence and near perfect execution.
What is the biggest leadership lesson that you have learnt?
Think big and act in small steps. Stay flexible because life will inevitably surprise you despite your own plans… and play to win.
What is the best leadership decision you have taken?
My best decision would be joining the Max group.
What is the worst leadership decision you have taken?
I can't recall, probably a wrong hiring decision.