What we think | Practitioners Perspectives

Is true leadership found at the points of value, or at the points of control?

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Practitioner:

Srimathi Shivashankar

CVP and Head – New Vistas, HCL Technologies
SRIMATHI SHIVASHANKAR is the Corporate Vice President (Executive Leadership) & Head – New Vistas Business at HCL Technologies. She recently won the WeQual Asia-Pacific 2021 award in the ‘Business Turnaround’ category where she was recognized for her significant contributions in areas of business strategy, operations, diversity, and sustainability. With extensive experience of more than two decades in Business and Human Capital strategy, Srimathi has headed and primed global transformation initiatives at HCL. She has been a key speaker at various international forums such as the UN, WBCSD, World Investment Forum, WEF, NASSCOM, and CII.
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The last 18 months has been quite challenging. How has your leadership transformed in the last 18 months? How has your team gained strength from you?

I picked up resilience many years ago because of the way I was raised in a small town where I was not exposed to many comforts. Everything I learnt was through my own self-motivation or through other family-based journeys. Exposure in college and corporate also taught me a lot more resilience. From my perspective, resilience is the most important behaviour that a leader had to exhibit during the pandemic. And even while embracing the new norms of the future, being resilient is going to be the most important behaviour. Whether at home or work, everything suddenly became virtual. I am someone who engages with my team face to face. I have always been on the ground, running the work with my team, either coaching or mentoring or just solving day to day problems. But the connection between customer, employee and the team became virtual. However, I adapted and adopted to the new challenges, and I did not get stressed at all. So, I am very thankful that some early experiences helped me to cope with the situation.

I have always been based out of Chennai, but my team members are everywhere. I have never asked anyone, including my direct reports, to come in person for any meetings. I was okay with a conference call. So, remote management has never been a concern. I think any relationship which is built on trust will allow for work to continue, regardless of whether the world is changing around you or if there is a pandemic. Trust is important and that is what I have tried to do with the team.

Associating leadership with hierarchy is wrong. It is not the points of control that matter, but the points of value. No new forms of leadership will emerge unless the ideological perspective around hierarchy changes and we start to believe that leadership is not just at the top of the pyramid.

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You are part of an organization which has more than 150,000 employees. How do you build trust at scale?

Much of the trust gets built when you focus on the problem, and not on the person. So, you become more outcome based. In my house in the village where I was raised, it was big family with my grand-uncles, aunts, cousins, and my grandparents. When we sat down to have a meal together, nobody asked, who made this curry today? Who cooked rice today? Or, who made the coffee today? We never asked, who made it? There was a trust that when you are in a household, no matter who prepares the dish, you cherish it. If something was not good, we would say the dish requires more salt or less oil. We focused more on the dish and not on the person who prepared it. These are simple things which gets deeply rooted in you when you are young, but we do not bring these lessons into the workplace. There are many learnings in your own home.

We hear so much about Skill, Scale and Speed. Scale is like the core of leadership. How do you build leadership at scale?

First, associating leadership with hierarchy is wrong. Only when leadership is based on empowerment, will organizations be agile. Agile organizations are those who will need to move away from hierarchy-based working to network based working and these networks are nothing but points of value. It is not the points of control that matter, but the points of value. When we talk about delegation, and the need for tier two or tier three layers in the organization, these must be based on value, and not based on the bands of work in the hierarchy. What we have learnt during the pandemic, is that – firstly we can work remotely. And secondly, there is distributed leadership. Agility is required when facing a customer and when we have to bring about transformation in the deals. More and more empowerment is happening based on the points of value rather than on the points of control.

The person who is accountable for executing the work also becomes responsible. When you separate responsibility from accountability, leadership gets diluted. No new forms of leadership will emerge unless the ideological perspective around hierarchy changes and we start to believe that leadership is not just at the top of the pyramid. I think it is all about point of value. If an individual is delivering value to a particular problem, then let that individual be the champion of change, let them be the leader. Then the definition of leadership also gets changed.

Change management is tough. What has been your learning as a leader in this space?

Firstly, we must accept that you cannot bring change quickly into any organization. That is the first step of change management. Everyone believes that if you want to bring change, all you need to do is to draw up an organization structure and a communication structure and we are ready. We forget that there are a lot of mindsets and egos and whether this is good or bad, it exists. As a leader, you must first accept that it is a big change, and it is not going to be easy. This will also take away a lot of arrogance in you when you want to drive change. Secondly, the one who is leading the change should be the change. You must demonstrate the change. If you believe that you want the organization to embrace a new practice, you must adopt the practice first. You must adopt it within your team and demonstrate success. In my team, anytime we want to bring change, we adopt that first into our own business. We built the prototype and show where the impact is. This also means there is a bit of risk appetite. But when you have a CEO, founder or chairperson who supports you in taking the risk and understands that the change requires it, then you are good to go.

Whether large or small organizations, there is the aspect of politics that we have to deal with. What has been your learnings as a leader in managing politics?

Politics is everywhere. Not just at work, but even in our own homes it is there in some form or the other, because otherwise we are not human. Politics is not bad, but we must understand when something gets politicized. When you avoid conflict, it turns out to be politics. When you confront conflict, you get good collaboration. Many people fear conflict, so they do not confront it. They use corridors instead to talk and therefore it becomes politics.

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What has been your experience of getting more women leaders into large organizations like yours?

Women shouldn’t believe that because they are women, they need to progress at a faster rate, or that they should become eligible for every opportunity within the organization. The gender card in my view, cannot be played. A leader is gender neutral. A manager is gender neutral. All of us have to earn it. Many companies are very open, including HCL. Every manager wants to be successful. Every leader wants to be successful. So, they don’t care whether it is a woman or a man contributing towards their success. But unfortunately, we don’t have the larger ecosystem beyond the workplace supporting women. All women go through life inflection points and work inflection points. In work inflection points, you have the corporate gender policy supporting you, like maternity leave and providing some coaching when the individual returns to work, keeping the opportunities open for all of us to apply, giving mentoring programs, etc. But on the family side, how many of us would get support to go through the life inflection points? If my house help does not come in the morning, I am wondering if I should take leave from work to cook, take care of the house and attend to my children. But then there might be a customer meeting on that day at work. I may miss the opportunity.

We don’t have the larger ecosystem supporting us and this is particularly true from an Asian perspective. A lot more support is needed from the family for a woman in India to make things happen. We also do not have certified day-care centres or creches. We do not have any schools serving lunch or snacks for children. We do not have nannies or house cleaners who come through professional services, and we have to think about the safety and security of the children. India does not have anything that is certified to give a mother a feeling of comfort to leave the child at home or in day-care. And this is where the sacrifices come in, and perhaps the career is compromised as well. And by the time a woman decides to return, they could have missed many years. But I’m very confident with the current generation as I find a lot of girls getting back to work and I’m sure they are getting enough support from their partners.

The last 18 months has been a big advantage for women. We have been able to perform from remote office locations and from homes. So, whether the maid comes or not, or someone returns post maternity, or someone’s child is in primary school and needs to be picked up from school at 2pm, the remaining hours we can work from home. Corporates or customers accept these situations much better now because there is no productivity loss just because we are working from home. In most industries, you can work partly from home and partly from office too.

People normally say you have to take care of your heart, body, mind, and soul. How do you take care of yourself?

I exercise every day. I do my yoga and go for my walks. I do not compromise on that. Also, I love my home food. I love cooking. It is a great stress buster. I also pray for about 10 minutes and that is my ‘me’ time. I think prayers can be in any form, but it makes you smile towards the end of it. I think from the health and wellness perspective, these three things are how I take care of myself. Other than that, I take every day as it comes. And more than quantity, I enjoy spending quality time with my family doing whatever they want to do. I have watched more cartoons in my life than anyone else.

Everybody has a purpose in life. How did you discover yours?

I discovered it when my children were born. Children have their own way of making you see what is beyond yourself. Usually a guru tells you this, but children have a beautiful way of doing it. For example, around 15 years back, I wanted to give up my job. So, one morning, I got up and I said, I’m not going to work. My husband thought it was for one day and left for work. My daughter was going to school. She was only six years old. She stepped out and then stepped back in and asked “What do you mean? Are you saying you’re not working today?” I said, “No, I’m not going to work forever.” I told her I was tired. Between home and running to work, I was just tired. And she asked me, “What else would you do, if you’re not working?” I could not say that I will figure it out. I had taken a decision, but I did not think beyond that. I think the open mindedness to discover myself every day is my purpose. When you have to give your 100% to work, you have to discover yourself every day. And if you want to give 100% at home, you should discover your own shortfalls and accept them. And I think that has kept me going.

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