Sanjiv Rai is the co-founder, managing director and chief executive officer at IL&FS - Rail Ltd (IRL), which is executing Rapid MetroRail Gurgaon Project, India’s first fully private rail project in India. He spoke to HT on a range of issues on leadership. Excerpts:
How do you define a leader?
A leader is one who leads from the front, irrespective of the size of business.
What are the three most important traits of a leader?
First and foremost to be honest with the organisation. Second, not to micro manage, but still be aware and involved with all aspect of business. Third, to continue to delegate, and cultivate a culture of decision making in the middle and junior management employees, provide them a platform for training.
As a leader of your group, how do you cultivate leaders?
We give middle to junior managers a say in management decisions. This is accomplished by delegating work to them and by involving them in all the key decisions. There are hardly any decisions that are being taken either by me, or other senior managers, in isolation. Metros being a very complex business, all the key decisions are discussed at several levels at Rapid Metro, before they are implemented.
Can leadership be learnt? In other words, how can a manager become a leader?
I do not agree that “leaders are born”. Given the right opportunity at the right time, an individual will demonstrate leadership qualities. It is important for organisations to recognise talent and ensure that the managers do not feel frustrated or de-motivated in their respective job functions. Therefore, it is the responsibility of senior management to provide encouragement and direction to develop and hone their skills, to become future leaders.
What is the role of a professional leader in a promoter-driven company?
In promoter-driven companies, there are multiple pressures, the least of which is from the promoter. The leader has to cope with many parties such as central and state government, local authorities and various business partners, and at the same time meet the promoter’s financial and commercial objectives. There are also compelling needs of the promoters and individual objectives that in many instances tend to become a hindrance in the growth of the organisation.
Since September 2008, the world has fallen into a maelstrom of serial crises. What is the role of a leader in these times?
Basically, every organisation needs to focus on the needs of shareholders, employees and their clients. After all, they have invested their time and money, which allows a company to exist and function. So, irrespective of the market condition and economic environment, the leadership team has to continue to find ways to grow business and remain competitive, and still be able to generate acceptable returns for the shareholders. The true measure of the leadership team would be to perform and deliver in tough market conditions. This is easier said than done.
What has been the biggest leadership challenge you’ve faced?
Personally, this is my first opportunity of working in India. So in several cases, I had to learn and realign my thought process in not only working with people, but also dealing with local organisations. It has been an exceptional learning experience for me.
Do you think the role of business leaders has come under cloud — globally and domestically — of late?
Businesses have existed for as long as we can remember. Generally, we hear of success stories, but we also need to accept that there will always be instances where some leaders of the organisation may bend the rules or take shortcuts to achieve short-term goals. Certainly questions are being raised about the role of the business leader. Most leaders generally do the right thing.
Leaders have to often carry the cross of other’s wrongdoings and inefficiencies, the global banking sector today, for instance. What role can good leadership play to counter balance this image?
The fact remains that, once you have accepted a leadership role you carry the burden of the actions of the organisation. With the role of leadership comes the power, as well as additional responsibilities. A good leader will use these opportunities. A leader needs to, not only understand all aspects of the business, but also be involved with staff at several levels. This will provide them with feedback on the various levels, and prevent surprises.
What is your one-line leadership mantra?
A leader leads from the front.
Who are the leaders who have inspired you?
Honestly, not many people in this environment demonstrate inspiration. What I personally look for in a leader would be his qualities to build trust with his employees and his relationships with all organisations that they deal with. Having said that, there are several instances where you hear about ordinary people that provide you with inspiration. One doesn’t have to be a business leader to provide others with inspiration.
What is the biggest leadership lesson that you have learnt?
Early on, we made decision that although we were a new organisation, we would hire and train our junior staff by recruiting them directly from universities. This afforded them the opportunity to receive on-the-job training. Since 2010, we have hired more than 140 boys and girls at Rapid Metro. We are continuing with this practice even today. After three years we find that these young boys and girls, have gained invaluable skills and are making exceptional contribution to Rapid Metro.
What is the worst leadership decision you have taken?
Too many to describe here. Where would you like me to start.