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The journey from good to great leadership - Ravin Jesuthasan [Interview]
December 23, 2020

About Ravin Jesuthasan

Ravin is the Managing Director of Willis Towers Watson. He is a global thought leader, futurist, and author on the Future of Work, automation, and human capital. He was named to the Thinkers 50 Radar Class of 2020. He has also been recognized as one of the top 25 most influential consultants in the world by Consulting Magazine, one of the top 8 future of work influencers by Tech News and one of the top 100 HR influencers by HR Executive. We are extremely happy and honored to have him on our interview series today.

Vanessa rose

The journey from good to great leadership - Ravin Jesuthasan [Interview]

Welcome to another episode of the peopleHum Interview series. I'm your host, Vanessa Rose. Let's begin with a quick introduction of peopleHum. peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work.

We run the peopleHum blog and video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month.


Welcome Ravin, we’re thrilled to have you.


Thank you for having me. 


It’s our pleasure. So the first question I have for you Ravin is can tell us a little bit about your experiences, you and your journey, and what has brought you here today. 


So I think like most people, It's a combination of factors, right? Obviously my parents and the role models that they were, the wonderful colleagues that I work with who have been incredibly supportive of me. The fantastic organization Willis Towers Watson that I work for that over the last almost 26 years has given me an opportunity to perpetually reinvent myself, an opportunity to take on different roles and responsibilities in the space and to grow and develop and to help shape many of the things that we now do without clients and I guess, lastly, the clients themselves.

I had the great privilege of being able to pick the clients I work with and so many of them have been so incredibly progressive and have wanted to engage in a journey of challenging the status quo, of actually wanting to reinvent and re-envision. And that has, you know, obviously driven my own growth and development.


That’s really nice. So, Ravin. Do you believe that there's a trend for organizations to change perspective from being business-centric to people-centric? How do organizations go about planning this journey?


That's a really good question, you know, in Davos this year, the World Economic Forum advanced Its primary theme of stakeholder value as opposed to just shareholder value. And we've certainly seen evidence of people-centricity in this particular pandemic, you know, for having been around a while. If I go back to the last three recessions, you often saw headcount and employees being the first thing that companies turn to when they were looking for savings.

And this time around, it's been really heartening to see many organizations actually put their people first. Viewing the protection of their employees and the preservation of their well being as being the most important thing. And suddenly my organization has done that as well. Now that's not to say organizations are not gonna have reductions in force or headcount reductions. But actually leading with their people is a massive change from what we've seen in the past.

I won't say, though it's not a universal phenomenon, right? So for every one or two examples that you see of perhaps a Unilever or Willis Towers Watson, you see countless where you just end up perplexed as to what their value systems are that would lead them to make some of the decisions that they make. You see that playing out around the world. In terms of how you think about planning this journey, it really starts with a strong focus on mission in purpose.

In terms of how you think about planning this journey, it really starts with a strong focus on mission in purpose.

We've seen many organizations and many CEOs talk about the higher purpose and manifesting that purpose in how they lead, in how they develop their teams, in how they redesigned their organizational systems and in how they make priorities about how they run their businesses. And ultimately, it comes down to the choices they make. 


So those who only focus on profits won’t last long. 


I think profit and more broadly, shareholder value has its place, but it's alongside the needs of all the other stakeholders, and I think that's what makes business incredibly challenging, particularly the fast-moving world we’re in is achieving that balance of the needs of old stakeholders, not just the shareholders, not just customers, not just employees. But recognizing the needs of all and ensuring that you are sort of achieving the right balance, I think, is what makes it incredibly challenging. 


A leadership journey begins with showing accountability, but personal accountability does not necessarily lead to good people management and strategic value? What would your advice be for individuals starting this journey to be better leaders?


I think it's it goes back to that point of mission and purpose, right? I think to have a clear sense of your own values and what you stand for, what your beliefs are and we're seeing organizations start to mirror the beliefs of leaders in the ethical values. Just take Microsoft for example, it's very obvious that that organization’s value system is very aligned with their leader’s value system and you see that manifesting itself in the way people make decisions.

So I think that once you have established your values, ensuring that you are living them out in a consistent way and with all of the small decisions that you make every day, which is so obvious to the many people around you. I think that's really what drives it towards an organization that is sustainable and is mission-focused. You hear that from the greatest companies that their leaders are present even when they're not there.

And what I mean by that is that their values, the way they think, the way they act, the way they behave guides and shapes the decisions of all of their colleagues and direct even when they're not there. And I think that's probably the greatest trick in leadership. 


The world is suddenly enamored with digital transformations due to the pandemic and WFH scenarios. Why is going digital important now and how should organizations set their digital objectives?


Yeah, that’s a great question, you know, go back to Satya, he said recently that we've seen 20 years of digital transformation happen in 20 days and I think he's absolutely right. And you know, digital is obviously nothing new, right? We've been on this journey as a global community for, you know, probably 10 or 15 years now in terms of most companies that were suddenly early adopters going before that to the times of the dot com era.

But digital has become so essential because of the fact that it's so transformative because of the fact that it allows organizations to leapfrog many of their competitors and get to places that they may never have gotten to otherwise, I'll give you one very specific and simple example as to why this pandemic is accelerating it. Down the street from where I live in Chicago, there was a farmer's market. A farmer’s market used to be open every Wednesday from, you know, six in the morning to nine in the morning, and unsurprisingly, it was quite small.

They had lots of farmers, 100 farmers, but the volume of sales was relatively limited. Well, the minute this pandemic hit, the woman who runs and organizes this went digital, and she created a very simple website where each vendor has their own little storefront and overnight those went up 10x. What they've also found is they can now do delivery to all of the high rises around this area. There are probably about 30 or 40 high rises and condominiums, and the access she now has is seeing her business growing week by week not just by 5% or 10% but by 2-3x. And my question to her was, you know, what took you so long?

She said I just needed a pandemic to make me realize that I have to get innovative and creative because otherwise none of these farmers who rely on me for their income was gonna be making any money. And so, to me, it was a great example of two things. One is how necessity is the mother of innovation and we're seeing lots of examples of that in this pandemic. And then, secondly, the power of digital to sort of transcend space and time and traditional limits of capacity. 


Yes, it all depends on how fast we adapt to it. 


Yes, indeed. And how creative we can be in terms of adopting digital, right, and we're gonna be agile and experiment and test and try and fail and keep improving.

We're gonna be agile and experiment and test and try and fail and keep improving.

And I think that's really at the heart of what allows organizations to leap from. 


Do you believe AI and Automation have a huge role to play in reducing decision biases as well as making the people engagement aspects more effective?


Yeah, I really do. You know, my last book was called ‘Reinventing Jobs’ and my co-author, John Boudreau who by the way, you asked what’s brought me here. John has been one of my greatest sources of inspiration. And we have written three books together, countless articles for the Harvard Business Review.

And, you know, he continually challenges me to think differently. So a shout out to him, I guess. But when John and I wrote reinventing jobs, the thing that we were convinced of is that many organizations were really missing the big opportunity as it to the power of automation. Many were starting with the technology and then trying to figure out how they substituted human labor. And what we really believed was that AI and automation can do so much more.

But what it requires is a much more nuanced and understanding of work, and it requires you to start at the task level and the framework we developed, you'll see that it actually illustrates how where automation is ideal for substitution of human labor, where automation can augment the creativity in the innovation of humans and increased productive productivity exponentially. And then where automation actually creates demand for new types of human skills and work. And as it relates to decision biases, there's a great case study out there of work that Unilever has done.

I'm a big fan of Leena Nair, the CHRO. I've had the great privilege of working with her and we were co-authors of a report for the World Economic Forum earlier this year that was presented in Davos but Unilever has done some outstanding work. In many organizations, AI perpetuates biases because it basically perpetuates and automates and teaches a machine to perpetuate the decisions of leaders.

In the case of Unilever, they actually said we could use automation and AI just to reduce bias, to increase our addressable market when we're recruiting talent specifically, and actually ensure that we are being much more inclusive in how we do that. And so things like ensuring the algorithm is not looking at where people live, which is something that human recruiters almost naturally do. We all are curious and have that tendency.

And then that affects the decisions and brings about our biases. So it doesn't look at where people live. It may not look at what specific university they graduated from. It's going to look at the other things that they do, how they've developed themselves, how they've contributed to their society and community, etcetera. And so I really do think AI can be an incredibly powerful tool, but it requires us to be really thoughtful about how we use any tool, for that matter. 


Yeah, a human touch is always necessary at the end. So for great employee feedback. What do you think are the unexpected places to look into? 


It's an interesting question, So Willis Towers Watson has one of the largest employees listening or employing sensing businesses in the world, and it's been really fascinating for me to watch the evolution of that space because certainly there's a lot more technology that's come in, and so if you think that continually change, companies used to start with the annual survey. It was very time-intensive. It was paper-driven.

It took people a lot, a lot of time to complete it. We then move too much quicker, more bite-sized pulse surveys that could be administered more quickly to target populations around specific issues. Many organizations are doing things like virtual focus groups, which is something that we do where you're able to with AI and adaptive listening guide and structure a conversation in a way that lets you get insight in an anonymous fashion.

And so it's incredibly powerful. And then I think if you overlay that again, some of the advances, for example of what Microsoft is doing with tools like workplace dynamics, where you're able to sort of look at the interactions that people have in your work, in your technology, in your digital workspaces, to look at how people are engaging, where are their networks? I think what you get is an incredibly detailed mosaic of the true state of your culture, and I think that's where it becomes really powerful.

Now, the big issue, I think, for many organizations is ensuring you’re still preserving privacy. And I think you can still do that. But it gives you a much better, more accurate, real-time view of your workforce and where there are opportunities for you as an organization to engage in specific interventions, to ensure that your workforce is engaged and productive and you're achieving the right retention levels. 


Well, Ravin moving on to the last question in our interview. Do you have any soundbites that you would like to share with our audience? 


I think for all of us, we’re in some incredibly exciting and very complex and difficult times. Whether it's as a business leader or as an individual. I think there are a real challenge and an imperative for us to stay relevant in a world that's changing incredibly quickly. The way we can stay relevant is by being curious.

The way we can stay relevant is by being curious.

By continuously challenging ourselves, continuously looking at developing ourselves, trying to look around corners, and trying to see connections between different domains. So between what we know about finance and what we're seeing in work just to pick up something that I think about every day, I'm a chartered financial analyst, and much of my background is in finance. But what I'm really intrigued by how some of those disciplines of that domain apply to the future of work, the world over. My question is are there any other connections that I think those of us who are curious and keen to stay relevant need to continue to explore. 


Yeah, so thank you so much, Ravin. I really appreciate your time and sharing your views with us! It’s been an enriching learning experience for me personally and will surely be for our viewers too.


Thank you. It's been a real pleasure to join you.

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