The shift from micromanaging to empowering – Sundar Visvanathan [Interview]
About Sundar Vishanathan
Sundar Visvanathan is an executive, business and leadership coach, mentor, facilitator, and professional speaker at Solopreneur. His corporate expertise includes delivering results, performance transformation, change management, and creating a “happy” organization. He is a seasoned leader with 35 years of professional corporate experience. We are extremely happy and honored to have him on our interview series today.
Welcome to another episode of the peopleHum interview series. I am your host Vanessa and 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 Sundar, we’re thrilled to have you.
Thank you so much, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for this opportunity Vanessa. And thank you to peopleHum.
It’s our pleasure.
So, Sundar, could you tell us a little bit about your journey, that has brought you to being a leadership coach?
Yeah, thank you for asking that, Vanessa. So, way back in 1981, I did my honors in mechanical engineering from the College of Engineering, Guindy which is now 226 years old college, one of the oldest colleges I suppose in this further world. So, then like a typical mechanical engineer, I joined a manufacturing organization and I was on the shop floor as well, for a clear four and a half years.
So I could pick up the initial traits of how to work in an organization and things like that. But I still remember, after, I think one year of my pains in the company, I could see that there was a lot of issues on the shops so that the people who are involved in the day to day operations, because they could not understand the products and the components and things like that, there were lots of mix-ups and things and there was a delay in production.
So, after the factory hours in the day shift at times, I used to take classes for people to know the components and the importance of the components, identification of the components and then how they can perform better on the shopfloor. So that was way back in, I think 1982. So, then with that experience, I had an excellent leader, I should say, at that point of time.
Even though those days, most of the leadership was actually directional, I had the opportunity and blessings of the right leader in my, for the very first job. And he was there to guide me and I could learn and pick up the traits of how to be performing in a manufacturing organizational setup.
So, during that four and a half years, I qualified myself with additional qualifications, a post-graduate diploma in business and industrial management, a post-graduate diploma in export management, and advanced computer management and I shifted my role from being in production planning and control and industrial engineering to systems engineering.
So, I am actually proud to say that I was instrumental in bringing the first-ever PC to my company at that time. And I also learned, at that time it was called Excel Word Processor and so many other things, so we did the training on the basics of how to operate a computer, and then we moved forward.
And because of these additional qualifications, I could get into one of the most reputed management consulting firms at those times, A. F. Ferguson & Co, I would like to mention the name of the company. And I was the first so-called engineer, with these qualifications to be recruited in a management consulting firm.
And if I am here in this position today, I would attribute that to my experience in A. F. Ferguson because in a span of about six years, I would have done about 90+ assignments, covering almost all functional areas of management and different business verticals and I had one of the best leaders to support me and guide me during those times. And the most important skill I picked up there is that I can get into any business or any function and quickly pick up the traits to move forward. These are I think one of the most important traits for management consulting.
“And the most important skill I picked up there is that I can get into any business or any function and quickly pick up the traits to move forward. These are I think one of the most important traits for management consulting.”
So, then, I moved on, so, I had the opportunity of working with so many leaders at that time, I had made one presentation to Du. C. Modi of Qatar state at that time.
I fondly, remember those days, because you people used to even shiver to stand in front of him because he is such a noble person, highly qualified person, in terms of his performance. But at the same time he is so down to earth but going and standing in front of him, making a presentation, we need guts, not that he is going to say anything but that was one of my proud moments at that time.
So, yeah, I moved on. So, at that time I think that was 1991-1992, so the IT industry was actually booming and I shifted my focus from management consulting to IT industry. So, I served a few companies in the IT industry. So, I became a country head in one of the companies, then I was in charge of global, all-India operations in one company, then I got into management services, HR subsequently.
Then I was also an advisor kind of a role to a managing director of another company, that’s where my shift started to the CNA level. So, that was after, what do I say, about 25 years of experience, I got into this opportunity to this CNA level.
So, I got the opportunity to work for TVS and Sons as a CIO and that was my first opportunity in the C-level. That was a good seven years of my experience. And I am happy to say that I brought in the first ever GRP into TVS and Sons. And I had a team of, at that time, about fifty people and I could bring in a change to those people on how to show up on a daily basis in a corporate culture and I had a marketing person in my team to market the IT services and the GRP to about 3000-3500 people in TVS and Sons across India and used to run weekly, what do I say, events to promote IT within the organization.
But it was not that it was a completely rosy path, I had my own share of failures, I could not go live on time for a couple of times in the year, TRP implementation, so those things did happen but at the same time, I am also happy to say that I got CIO 100 award three times during my tenure and I got the best retainee CIO award from Dun & Bradstreet and I also won an award for yearly adopted, an adaptation of technology from Microsoft.
So, then I moved forward, so, from IT, I got into business. That in the sense, IT was in automotive business areas. So, now I got into one of the largest Toyota dealerships in Chennai, so I was heading them as a COO, reporting to the promoters of the dealership and was managing close to 1000 crores of revenue and a 1500 people to be managed and I’m also again proud to say that during that tenure we won the most coveted triple crown award from Toyota and we got about 1 crore + award for the company and all the three years’ dealerships won that award that year and it was phenomenal and one of the biggest dealership in our group itself also won the best customer relationship award. So, these are my stones and moments to cherish when I look back from today.
So, then I had to take a break because of my personal reasons and I attended to my personal requirements and I got back to the corporate world as, in a startup, it’s a totally different kind of an experience, as a director for a company who moved from Hongkong to set a shop in India. That was a combination of IT and Automotive.
So, that’s where my strengths were drawn into do the complete business strategy, business plan, go to market strategy, high level departments, total design and things like that. So, then as luck would have it, so then I also did a market study, the point was where we should launch the portal not in the place where I live in, so I coil not move because of my personal reasons, so I had to say bye to them and then I joined a group who were into manufacturing.
So, if you can see that I moved from IT to business, to a startup and to group CEO in a manufacturing company. And the reason why I am saying this is all this was possible because of my experience way back in management consulting, otherwise this wouldn’t have been possible. And so, I served for a short period in the group as a group CEO and again I had to take a break for my personal reasons and then I had to attend on my mother as well and she passed away after few months and that was one of the reasons why I wanted to be at home with my mother.
Then, after that phase was over, I was thinking on what I should do. Whether to get back to the corporate world or do something different. So, that’s where I did my research and I decided to reinvent myself after 35 years of corporate experience. I decided to pursue a journey coaching, so then, I did my certification from Erickson Coaching International.
And that was early 2018, so actually I reinvented myself in end 2017, so then I started my coaching journey. Then actually see, unconsciously in the corporate world, without a tag of a mentor, we get to mentor so many people and now looking back, they are in a very good position, they are also winning the CIO 100 awards, so I am so happy to see that I could add some value to them, somewhere in their life’s journey.
And so I decided to add the hat of a mentor as well, in addition to a coach. And as complementary to this coaching, where we facilitate the clients to uncover their own hidden potential, I thought facilitation will also be a good idea, so I enrolled myself with the International Association of Facilitators. So, I decided, I started working on facilitation as well. And so professional speaking also attracted me, so I got into that area also. So, now, coaching, mentoring, facilitation and professional speaking is the four things I do.
And in coaching, I chose executive leadership coaching as my initial year, because of my prior experience in the corporate world, I thought I can make a positive impact and a positive difference in people’s life story, so I will be, actually I am thrilled to partner with so many of my clients in their life journey and playing the role of a catalyst and I’m so happy at the end of the day to day when I look back, these two years of coaching, mentoring, facilitating, professional speaking has given me quite a lot of fulfillment to my life and I’m happy to see the happy faces of my clients and that’s where I am today and that’s how my journey led into coaching and these other three areas and that’s how I chose my leadership coaching as my initial theory as well.
Yeah, I’m saying, that’s such an exciting journey, you’ve worked across so many industries and you have so many achievements in your stride according to me.
Thank you Vanessa.
And it’s interesting how you spoke about leaders you had at every phase in your life.
So now you’re taking it forward.
Absolutely, that’s right. See, at the end of the day, one has to always give back to the community in whatever way it is possible for us and whatever way that brings in some satisfaction and happiness to us as well. So, it’s actually the balancing of both sides. It is not only the revenue that matters, it is also that satisfaction you derive by being of help and support to somebody in their life’s journey.
“At the end of the day, one has to always give back to the community in whatever way it is possible for us and whatever way that brings in some satisfaction and happiness to us as well. So, it’s actually the balancing of both sides. It is not only the revenue that matters, it is also that satisfaction you derive by being of help and support to somebody in their life’s journey.”
So, that’s also I think a major point to consider.
That’s so true.
So, Sundar this is a very hard time for leaders worldwide with the pandemic and remote working.
So, how would you advise leaders of today to lead with empathy while not leading only with sight of their business goals?
It is a very difficult time for everybody around the world and even though the two downsides that we’ve seen in 2008 and one in now in Y2K aside, this is probably different, it has been, it has taken people by total surprise and totally humanity was derailed and there are few champions who have been leading the way in terms of making us to come out of this pandemic.
So, having acknowledged the crisis which we are going through now, I think it has become very clear in this pandemic that people are the key. So, whether the organization is big, small or whatever be the size of the organization, people matter the most.
So, having said that, though managers and leaders also understood that communicating with the people in the best possible manner and being transparent to them and giving them space to listen to their frustrations, anxiety and giving them the feeling of security, safety. All these things matter the most. And those leaders who would have done or who are still doing these things by giving space to the people, asking for feedback, being vulnerable and even after asking for feedback, putting them into action as soon as possible because at this time I think the faster the action, the more it is better.
“At this time I think the faster the action, the more it is better.”
So, those will be the leaders who are going to be looked upon in the days to come. And as any difficult situation has it, there would have been many leaders who would have emerged by this time and those leaders who could not empathise and put themselves in the peoples’ shoes are not going to be the leaders in the days to come because everybody is watching everybody else. So, those who are empathetic, bigger people and who take them along are going to be the leaders of tomorrow.
“Everybody is watching everybody else. So, those who are empathetic, bigger people, and who take them along are going to be the leaders of tomorrow.”
So, having said that, when the pandemic started and we got to the peak of it, the focus of most of the leaders of the world was only on people. And that’s why they leveraged so many virtual platforms who also chipped in with so much of features, to connect people together in their respective companies, keep them engaged with many activities, I know many companies gave space for people to vent out that feelings because working from home is not all that easy, it itself is such a difficult task of working from home, so people got adjusted to that, so people acknowledged at the same time that you’re asking this question of, without losing sight of the business goals, I think that started coming in at a little later part. So, that’s what I could see. So, initially people were focusing on the, leaders were focusing on people and then they shifted slowly to how to look at business goals, business strategies, business plans peak by taking the people along into decision making.
“How to look at business goals, business strategies, business plans peak by taking the people along into decision making.”
I think that would have been the crux of most of the organizations if they are going to be successful in the days to come. So, because of their continuous transparent communication, the leaders make sure that the people in the team, in the organistion understood what the company is going through and what they’re trying to do for the people, what is the safety and security measures taken for their people and what is that they should do in return.
I have come across companies where the team members went to the leaders and managers asking for what is that they can do for you. So, that is the best side of humanity. So, once people understand what you are doing for them, they are there and ready to help you in taking the business forward. So, the business community plans, I think many companies have put it together but it is still not all that clear on how the future is going to be. So these leaders who have taken the people along with them by being empathetic and addressing people’s issues and involving them in the decision making and reviewing the plans, I think are the leaders and the organizations who are gonna succeed in the days to come.
That’s so true. Being transparent and empathising matters most now and it’s not just employees that are watching but customers are watching brands too.
Absolutely. So, actually in one of the webinars which I did, I was actually saying that instead of not doing anything during these pandemic times, the organizations and the managers and the leaders should be continuously in touch with customers and suppliers to find out what customers’ customer are doing and it is better to have such question because then the customer feels you are really interested in the journey as well.
So that means you’ll also know what customers’ customers are doing and being prepared for a better solution in the days to come. At the same time, the suppliers of whose payments might be pending, should be empathetic with them as well. I think the big companies have done that because we have already, we already 60 + days into this pandemic. So, people found their ways in working and establishing equations with all stakeholders in the organization and I think that’s what the people have been doing. So, that’s a good point, Vanessa.
So, Sundar, how have you seen leadership evolve over the years?
Yeah, thank you for asking that good question Vanessa. So leadership has evolved over a period of time in all spheres of life. So having said that, but there have been exceptions throughout. Like there have been excellent leaders throughout, in all spheres of life. And predominantly in the organizational context, initially the leadership was more directional. So then the things have started moving from being directional, being authoritative leadership to more of a facilitative leadership or more of a participative leadership.
“So then the things have started moving from being directional, being authoritative leadership to more of a facilitative leadership or more of participative leadership.”
So, that’s what the change has happened in the past so many years.
Having said that we are now moving more from controlling to more of empowering or influencing. So, we are influencing people now to do the work instead of controlling and saying that with the results, get back into the groove to assess whether you have done correctly or not and things like that. Instead of that, by the leadership style of influencing people, I think we help the people to do the job in the most suitable way for the organization.
At the same time, I think initially it was only the leader who will be talking or the manager who will be talking in the meeting. Most of the members will generally be silent and because this was the only one way, right? It was only one direction.
But now I think that the leaders and managers are more aware that they have to actually solicit the views of the participants in the meeting as well. So it means, we are moving towards a culture of harvesting the wisdom of the participants and not only go by what we know.
Because I think that it’s very clear that it is not that everybody knows everything. So that’s why we need a team, right? So even if I am, Let’s say I’m a CEO I may not know everything about sales and marketing. I may know on more technology, so I will have experts in the respective fields to do that.
So it is about how to get people along, influencing them to deliver the best results. I think that’s where the leadership side has shifted and micromanaging is going away. So I think that is also happening or has happened in this pandemic time where working from home, if the manager is micromanaging it would be ‘all could have done more’ form, than facilitating people to deliver their best. I think by giving people that space and telling them to do what they’re supposed to do, I think it’s one of the best ways in which leadership is evolving these days, Vanessa.
Yes, that’s a very interesting thing you said. Managing is moving from controlling to empowerment. It’s very powerful. People are more opinionated now and it’s time for employers to acknowledge them.
Also, highly engaged culture attracts the best talent and have the lowest voluntary turnover rates, and are more profitable in the long run. Where should the business leaders start from to create a differentiated culture?
Yeah, actually culture is one of the most important things that set organizations apart. That’s every excellent question Vanessa. So having said that, when did we start with a differentiated culture? So I think in my view it is right from the word board. Now, I think all the leaders are more aware about the importance of culture.
So I think it could also better people. Maybe culture is something that we practise day in and day out. So it also stands up here. It also defines our value system. What are the ethics we follow? We set as leaders an example for others to regulate and follow. I think that’s what culture is all about.
So, having said that, I think it’s from the very beginning we have to do that. Many companies have used this pandemic to reset and redefine their culture. As, you were also introducing me earlier in the conversation. I am always up for creating a ‘Happy organisation’.
That’s what I always used to work for and it used to be one of my missions in many of the organizations of creating a happy organization. So what happiness means to me is that people of the organization, they’re happy to do what they’re supposed to do. They should not feel everyday morning that, Oh my God, I have to go to work today. Instead, they feel motivated to come forward and do that work. So less of power and more of delivery and execution.
“So what happiness means to me is that people of the organization, they’re happy to do what they’re supposed to do. They should not feel everyday morning that, Oh my God, I have to go to work today. Instead, they feel motivated to come forward and do that work. So less of power and more of delivery and execution.”
So then the leaders have to define themselves, What type of culture they want? Whether it is a performance culture or any other type of culture they want. There are only basic ingredients that go along with that, more focus on people, the people who are in the culture. At the end of the day, when we say the business of another section. People or business of organization. Or in a state because they want to make a difference to the society and for themselves.
So having said that, I think there is no specific answer of when they should start definding the culture. For me, it is right from the word board. This is one of the areas that the leaders have to state when they step into an organization or when they are starting an organinzation. What type of culture I would have? Sometimes what happens is the culture also, evolves with period of time.
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So that culture evolves in this family because of what values and standards each of the leaders follow and that gets converted into their culture.
Yeah, so culture is inbuilt not something you decide you want to start one day.
In one of my experiences where I have seen some of the cultural obvious issues were very directional. When I stepped in I had to reorient it and then say, from now on we would have a performance and reward culture. So that was my first step in taking that reorientation. So I had to communicate with people saying that whatever has happened has happened, but now moving forward. This is what we will do. And this is what the policies the procedure will be and then I start showing up in that way on a daily basis.
So if I become a people oriented culture, people centred organization, then small things like I start wishing people on their birthdays, start putting up on the notice board about the wedding day celebrations and the milestone which they have achieved. So select somebody as the employee for the month.
When you get together with the employees, make the employee of the month to say a few words. So you demonstrate it by an example. And then the concept gets reoriented.
It is important to find a balance between being people oriented and business oriented.
What about startup leaders racing towards the finish line? What advice would you give them for operational and strategic focus?
That’s an interesting question. Because I do work with many entrepreneurs. I remember a classic proverb. It goes like this, When you want to walk fast go alone, but when you want to walk far, walk together.
“When you want to walk fast go alone, but when you want to walk far, walk together.”
So my advice I think startups come into existence because they have an idea to address a particular need or a want of the community and the entrepreneurs need to look into whether they are addressing the real existing problem of the community. And whether the solution makes sense to people. They can test it out and see that it’s a real issue to be addressed.
Then take on from there and then I always suggest that entrepreneurs should have a clear plan of action in place. When I say, a clear plan of action it’s not only about financial portions but also caring about sales, marketing as well as operations as well as strategic focus. So, before you plunge into the market you need to have a strategy and a plan of action in place.
And what I was saying earlier you need to have a team in place. I think a team is what makes the difference. You may not be able to do everything in an entrepreneur ecosystem. So you need to have support. You can’t be an expert in everything so you need people with expertise in certain areas.
So take forth those few people along with you with a clear understanding and transparent communication of what are the expectations of the team and then take it forward. So by doing that one step at a time and move forward while not losing focus on anything. You’re not supposed to lose focus on not only operations and strategic focus but also on the financial aspects. And when I mean financial aspects certainly cash flows also sales and marketing aspects.
What are the competitors doing? What is the difference they are bringing to the table and what you can do differently to retain your market share or increase your market share? And then with a clear plan of action take it forward.
And speaking about change now. Is there anything that is lying ahead that you find scary as well as exciting in terms of the workplace, work, and people?
Yeah, scary in the sense, I’m really keen that we should not repeat which humanity made a mistake in 1918 when the spanish flu came again as the second wave and a lot of people lost their lives. So that is the scary part for me, so this coronavirus pandemic, I hope everyone in the world will take appropriate care so that the second wave will not hit us and we learn to live with the virus in the way forward.
So that is the scary portion for me and I’m sure many things out there in the market are going to get redefined. I call this ‘The Next Normal’. The reason is there will be so many changes which will happen. And changes are the only constant and all of us know that. So when I say that I could see that there’s going to be a balance between work from home and going to a physical workspace.
Because we need to take care of the social distancing as well as the hygiene factor. Also travelling is not going to be that much as compared to before covid times. That set of things are going to get redefined. And many business conversions may take place virtually and there are many platforms which will support this kind of demand in the future. And I think Workplace is going to get redefined and the financial structure, the cost structure is going to get redefined.
The partnerships out there in the market geographically as well as locally are going to be redefined. People will find a new set of customers, they may come up with a new set of ideas, a new set of determinants which are coming up in the market. A lot of creation and innovation is going to take place. I think that is already taking place.
New businesses are coming up and I’m looking at it positively because if something goes down something comes up. If one door closes another door will certainly open. Maybe the travel industry and hospitality industry may take a hit back. I think there also people are repurposing their organization and reinventing on how they can do better. I think somewhere that virtual travelling and virtual tourism is going to take place.
So you may visit few places virtually but you may want to pay and experience virtual travelling, places which you would like to visit and things like that. It’s going to be a totally different kind of experience for all of us. So technology is going to play a major role and I think even in hospitals there is technology now, even more AI and robotics will pace. So technology will find a major share now moving forward but I think still we are not able to predict what exactly will happen.
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We have to wait and see how technology will shape up in each of the industry segment and how the new pace of moving forward in business gets defined.
That’s a nice and positive thought. It really is the new normal and how fast we adapt to it.
So sundar do you have any last soundbites you would like to leave our audience with?
“Yeah, I want to suggest as a leader, I want you to be more of self, so that means self-leadership is very important. Another advice is we lead ourselves first, we cannot lead others. So having said that there are two points I would like to mention.”
During the webinars that I’ve taken during this lockdown period, I have always been suggesting to people, It is a time to introspect themselves, look at the blind spots, do a SWOT analysis for them. SWOT analysis may seem like a jargon but it is very simple.
Identify your strengths areas for improvement, what opportunities you have, what weaknesses you have and how you will overcome it. So identify the blindspots and which areas have been derailing you and try to work them. And try to become more resilient by understanding your emotions, recognising your emotion and feelings that you have and then taking a pause before responding, instead of reacting.
So that is one thing I want to tell people about. And I learnt it from the last two years of my coaching. It is always nice to allocate some time for yourself, lets say 5mins,10mins on a daily basis. This is what I call Me Time.
So where you self reflect on what you’ve done in the previous day. You can do it at the end of the day or beginning of each day. What did you do well in the previous day? What are the challenges you faced in the previous day? And what people have done differently in the last day? And also start journaling it. Over a period of time this journal will become such a big reference point for you to improve.
It is only in the darkness that we see stars. So having said that, even though we have been through this lockdown, we are still going through this lockdown, we are getting unlocked one phase. I think many people would have found more about themselves and please keep working on that, keep working on bettering yourselves on a daily basis.
So that you show up well on an everyday basis both to your family as well as the people outside. So showing the place how you make people around you feel about yourselves. Are you giving the party vibes to people. So it’s very easy to say but it becomes very hard to practice.
I emphasize on this practice and be open to growth mind set and learn, unlearn, re-learn that’s my way forward. Be open to change and let’s not have any rigid mindset because we are going to see a lot more changes in the coming days. That’s what I would like to leave people with.
That’s wonderful. It’s a good time for self analysis both personally and professionally.
Thank you so much Sundar for that. I had a great time. I really appreciate you sharing your time and your views with us. And I’m sure that our audience is going to love this video.
Thank you so much for the opportunity Vanessa, thank you so much for your time to discuss and have this conversation with me. I wish you and people at peopleHum and all the people watching this video, all the very best in the days to come and take care.
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