What we think | Practitioners Perspectives

Leadership in the Trenches, Transitions & Transformations

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Practitioner:

Ravi Venkatraman

CEO, Karvy Innotech Limited
A CEO with an impeccable track record of managing large Enterprises which includes being an active board member and a full-time Director, Ravi functions with an entrepreneur attitude and is set out to build profitable businesses.
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How have you seen leadership transform with the changing landscape for IT services in India?

As a leader in the IT Industry landscape, you must manage the duality of keeping one eye on the emergence of technologies and the other astutely focused on business and strategy.

One important “evergreen lesson” that will never go out of fashion is, what you learnt today is history when you go to bed. The survival here revolves around learning and unlearning, every day.

For instance, in 2006, I joined Xerox right when they were ready to transform into a pure play Business services provider. This was initiated mainly to provide leverage to the industry which was ready to adopt IT as a prime mover. However, they were unable to make this shift happen as their roots lay in the photocopier business. I took over Xerox’s Global Document Outsourcing business (Then it was called Xerox Global Services) in India, and grew the organization from a small base revenue in less than 2 years to an exponential growth. The key learnings from this transition were-

Agility – which has got nothing to do with speed, but everything to do with learning and unlearning.

Risk Appetite – The ability to take, perceive, articulate, and experiment with risks was the norm for IT leaders. I married this with a sound logic and began experimenting.

Big Picture – Ability to view the big picture and not get mired in the micro. Consciously, I acquired a macro view with a clear strategy.

Execution Oriented Strategies – You can have any number of strategies, but if you do not build your execution acumen then you are back to the white board.

Try Small Adopt Big – Keep testing small but replicate it big.
Big Elephant – Transformations are always big elephants, so breaking it down to

manageable small portions will hold the key.

People and Task orientation – This needs to be seamless. Never attempt to manage people, which will be an insult to a competent adult. Manage agreements of what they will deliver and only enable that for them. Micromanaging is the biggest detriment.

Astute Commercial Sense – Inculcate a habit of running a business profitably, without which your enterprise, your team and you will fall apart.

While creating value for yourself, ensure you create value for the businesses you lead, and that surely creates value for the community and the country

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How can a leader stay ahead of the curve when it comes to learning and innovation?  

My experience has taught me to stop thinking of the obvious and train the mind to think beyond the obvious. This will be a game changer in the way one thinks, leads, and innovates.  

This may not come naturally to everyone, including myself, but widening the horizons of the mind with continuous reading and improving knowledge unlocks its true potential. With reading comes self-awareness. Most times I read books on different genres and keep abreast of technology and trends and never fail to step outside of myself to explore and experiment.  

Let me give you an example to illustrate how leaders can innovate: At Karvy Innotech, we set a target of transforming into a billion-dollar organization in India and soon we realized that scaling up cannot happen with limited means. Keeping innovation as the central aspect for multiplier growth we proactively launched the 35,000 square feet Innovation & Technology Centre of Excellence (COE) with Remote Assisted Infra Managed Services (RAIS) as its core. Additionally, we made significant investments in Research & Development, Training, Remote Infrastructure and have incubated them in the Centre of Excellence. This has turned out to be the seat bed for many new growth initiatives that has catapulted our growth.  

Further, this has also allowed our clients both Enterprise and Government to shift their IT operations with the help of remotely assisted infra under four hours when the Covid-19 lockdown was announced, without losing any bandwidth.  

What can leaders from other industries learn from leaders in the IT services industry?  

Every leader should work as a Centre of Excellence. IT is all about teaming, no one team member can create the entire value system, it is a chain of value systems which gives the command to produce a result. Therefore, business leaders of other industries must necessarily learn the art of collaborating for co-creating value. If you cannot co create then the value is perceived only in your mind. This I believe is unique to our industry.  

Non-IT Businesses are driven by metrics, where process compliance becomes the key parameter to value and measure rather than intellectual competency and intelligence contribution of an individual. So, the non-IT businesses should look for a design driven culture instead of a metrics driven culture which may limit their vision.  

How have you personally transformed as a leader?  

Individual Contributor:  

When I began my career in a consumer durables industry, the attempts at executing anything was selfish. It was tough competition and I was busy making sure that my numbers were far better than others. I was totally on “self”. Consumer durables industry is highly number driven, competitive, and work practices were towards achieving your numbers and waiting for others NOT to meet their targets, for your own performance to look good. This set the need and aspiration for my next role.  

Team Leader:  

When I began my role as a team leader when I was barely 23, I knew ‘what not to do more than what to do’ primarily because of the battles that I had had during my individual contributor stint. This transformation agenda helped me foresee what would potentially be a bottleneck for a team member and how I could remove those barriers for them and make them contribute easily. As leaders we should be able to break barriers and build bridges for our teams. This is one of the most profound leadership lessons for me and that has kept me in good stead.  

Chief Executive Officer (CEO):  

During this Covid crisis, I connected with every family member of our employees over a Zoom call and expressed my profound gratitude and stressed the importance of both physical and mental wellbeing. Making small differences likes this as a leader is making my journey now poignant and memorable. We will continue this as a practice and we declared April 18th as Gratitude Day in our organisation. Meeting the extended family members over a Zoom call was quite touching. None of us would succeed without the support of our value system which is none other than our family.  

In a time of crisis such as now, how do leaders make trade-offs?  

Remove Baggage:  

Let us vow to shed our egos, be open, flexible, and grounded. Specially now if leaders’ function with ’I know it all attitude’ they will make serious and irreparable damages. They need to keep their ears to the ground and, listen actively to newer voices in the team, and be egoless to learn from others much younger, smarter who have the ability to view problems differently and present more effective solutions.  

Contemporary Leadership:  

Remember that as a leader you must resonate with different types of team members. To command their respect and awe, you need to speak their language, use their terminologies, and discuss topics that are relevant to them and hold their attention. Take the effort to know what motivates them and let go of your archaic attitude.  

Human Leadership:  

Leadership can be a dangerous position. It can blind you and provide you a false stardom. It is important to remove those blinkers and remind yourself that you are a human being at the end of the day and that is how you should treat others as well. It is very important that you need to leave behind a workplace that misses you as you sign off.  

The above formula has worked very well for me during tough situations and otherwise. And to achieve this, I have what I call the “Sounding Board Strategy”. My wife and daughters who know me and my business have never failed to provide critical advice, which has helped me hone my skills on the above three concepts.  

“I am ever grateful for this Shakthi (Female) Energy which has led me in the righteous leadership direction”.  

What advice would you provide mid-sized IT firms thinking about going global?  

As a Mentor for start-ups, I offer the following suggestions:  

1.     Build a product or service that solves the problem of a customer or society. And not to showcase your technical brilliance or intelligence. This the first fundamental rule for any mid-sized product company.  

2.     Build a niche and never ever become a generalist. Most often for the sake of revenue and growth start-up entrepreneurs tend to compromise and dilute the business essence. Choose your focus area and become the subject matter expert in it, this will differentiate you from the several generalist start-ups.  

3.     Build a service line for your product, as products have limited shelf life and profitability. The service line will fetch you credibility and provide customer stickiness. If your product is dependent on external ecosystem, your operating margin reduces, instead if the ecosystem is homegrown and you can bring in third parties appropriately and be the single source of interaction with your customers. This will be far more compelling to customers.  

4.     Build the value of your enterprise by deliberating, discussing, deciding on a product that will fetch you an IP. IP is much more sought after than a non-IP product. This is crucial because your commercial strength maybe weak and you will find it difficult to command attention of potential investors.  

5.     Build Goodwill and make goodwill part of your enterprise portfolio. When the goodwill of your product, IP and your target audience blend then it transforms into a sweet spot which will attract investors who will make investments which will help you grow bigger, faster and easier.  

6.     For instance, we have an Enterprise Management Suite, we do not sell this as an off-the shelf product. We have applied for Pink Elephant IP, but we extend this as a tool along with our services to our customers. This makes a compelling story and a long-term client who will find it difficult to shift to other providers as the tool is unique to us.  

What does the term ecosystem Leadership mean to you and how can leaders lead the ecosystem, rather than just their companies?  

One of the fundamental truths about leaders or professionals coming together is the quality of questions that are discussed and deliberated – their growth happens in the direction of the questions they ask and hear.  

To me ecosystem leadership is about freely giving and sharing and contributing. In our organization we have an initiative called TAB, Technology Advisory Board which is a platform to bring together cross functional experts over events where the only goal is sharing ideas, and every participant leader knows that there is no sales pitch and no other agenda items. Each leader pioneers a thought process on how they could potentially be the change element. Ideas and failures are freely discussed and there is a rich repertoire of ideas which are leveraged to transform the ever-evolving IT ecosystem. And this helps organizations drive business better and increase productivity”.  

Also, whenever I travel, I proactively invite leaders from other industries for an informal meet over dinners and we all learn from each other, invariably the session ends with a comedy show or a talk on photography, theatre and several other interesting topics. The air of informality loosens our corporate collars, as people are more relaxed to share, talk and listen.  

Ecosystem Leadership is all about building trust with other experts and healthy relationships. The fundamental here is contributing and listening.  

What is the best piece of advice you have received that has had a profound impact on your leadership?  

“You will have 999 reasons not to complete a task successfully, but find that one reason, and do it”.  

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How will your purpose transform India?  

My individual contribution has been in developing about 800 professionals out of which many of them are at C-level contributing to various business industries. And these are individuals with whom I have shared a key theme: “While creating value for yourself, ensure you create value for the businesses you lead, and that will surely create value for the community and the country”.  

Is there any short story that has had a huge impact on you?  

During one of my early days when I used to travel a lot and that too by trains, I was waiting in the Bhubaneshwar railway station all through the night to catch a train at 4:00 am in the morning. I was frustrated with the long wait and was irritable. Next to me was a family with two children. The two children were noisily playing, running, giggling and full of energy. Surprisingly, all through the night they were enjoying the railway station and never once did they sit. Finally, when the train came, we realized we boarded the same compartment. And there I see them sleeping peacefully.  

It is for you to decipher what this story says.  

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