What we think | Practitioners Perspectives

Why Continuous Learning Is Important For Leaders To Build Better Teams?

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Practitioner:

Irina Ghose

Executive Director, Cloud Solutions - Microsoft India
Irina Ghose is the leader for Microsoft’s Cloud Solutions in India. She is responsible for empowering Cloud Adoption and Digital Transformation. Additionally, she heads the India Microsoft Technology Centre, an experience centre that provides customers access to innovative technologies and world-class expertise. A Microsoft veteran for over two decades, Irina has held a variety of Strategy and Sales leadership roles across the Enterprise and Education segments, focusing on Business management, Operations, Partnerships, Innovations and New business initiatives. A proponent of Women in Business and Technology, she is a recipient of the ‘Inspirational Women’s Award’ at Microsoft and ‘Distinguished Alumnus Award’ from IIT BHU. She is the founder of MyLittleBit, a philanthropic foundation focusing on education and employment for underprivileged girls.
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You’ve been with Microsoft for 2 decades and it has been a tremendous ride. Tell us a bit about that ride to success.

I’ve completed 20 years in Microsoft and the organisation has evolved and pivoted a few times during that time. The last five years has been an accelerated curve. Satya (Nadella) always talks about the growth mindset, and for about five to eight years of my overall years spent at Microsoft, I literally lived it. Because the company pivoted from being a product software company to going into the service space. Then we became a solution oriented company going to cloud, digital acceleration, and then all the solution areas. It was an immense era in which I had to learn, unlearn, accelerate my process and make it real in front of the customers. When I look at all my years out here, I think taking an unconventional route sometimes paid off. Because you don’t go for a role but the capability that you learn in that journey is invaluable. I remember two stints – one is when I took an international role and went to Redmond for nine months. I felt like I was thrown into the water, and I didn’t know what hit me.  There were incredibly smart people around me and I had to learn to navigate, get my point of view heard, put across my narrative and drive a business at a global scale. Second is when I led education in India. I didn’t know about education as a domain. Neither did I know public sector. When I met my first customer, who was the undersecretary in secondary education, I told him that I did not know much about the domain. He asked me, ‘Have you been a student?’. I said ‘yes’. He said, ‘then you know the domain’. And that is how I learned. Those two parts is what got me here.

There is so much change happening, how do you keep yourself updated?

There are two parts to it. One is on the technology side, because that is required as a part of my core job. So a good thing which happened for us at Microsoft is the path we followed for tech intensity. And when it came across, I plunged into it. About seven or eight years ago, I was doing a role which was strategy, operations, execution and planning. And then I wanted to get into leading the technical sales solution area, which needed a lot of technical depth. I knew I had a flair for it, but I wanted to learn more. I started doing a lot of these certifications and plunging myself into deep learning. It felt like I was back in college going through training, courses writing and preparing for exams. But getting the credentials was very fulfilling.

The second part is reading digital newspapers in the morning and keeping myself abreast with a lot of podcasts like the Hidden Brain, Art of Manliness, Geek Wire and HBR Ascend. These are a boon for me as I’m always on the move and they help me log into my thinking zone. I also read a lot of fiction and non-fiction books. Reading fiction gets me into the storytelling zone and with non-fiction, I read a lot of biographies and books relevant to entrepreneurial culture. These kind of books  and podcasts give you techniques and tactics, which you can use here and now in what you’re doing. You can execute one thing, then listen or read something else and execute that. So, that keeps you on the edge of doing things and you are changing and renewing yourself as well.

When women meet customers for the first time and try to ideate as to what the solution has to be, they will spend a lot more time to know the customer’s business problem and what they are trying to solve.

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Talk to us about some of your best managers. What did you learn from them?

I’ve had the privilege of having many good managers. Three things which I learned from them, which I have taken forward is –

One is having the people connect. A lot of times, I have gone by the philosophy of leading from the front. But I realized that what worked for me, was a good balance of leading from the front, while pushing from the back. So, I don’t want to leave anybody behind. That is something that I have taken as a philosophy.

The second part is wearing the customer’s shoes. A lot of times when the customer calls, you either want to have the answer, or else you want somebody in front who will have the answer. But I’ve realized that it’s about being there with the customer when they need you. It’s not about creating the vision or the big picture but about being there when mission critical applications are not working. How do you navigate around those that are equally and critically important?

And the last one, I would say is I’ve learned to be humble and to be aspirational.

You manage the cloud business, which is as wide as the cloud. You have to balance depth and breadth. How do you do that?

A lot of times people ask me the question about being a generalist versus going deep into one area. The way customers are looking at solving their business problems has changed, and the pandemic has accelerated that even more. Everybody wants to get an end to end picture about what it will bring to them if they do something. So, inevitably, you will be thinking of adjacencies for your story. If you’re taking across a security solution, you will talk about what it does for productivity? And where will the data be feeding by, which infrastructure it will be going across, and so on. Due to the privilege of leading all the solution areas, I got into this story telling narrative. Because at the end of the day, the technology will do its job, but it is all about how this entire story will help solve things and what it will mean for my customer’s customer. That’s the part which becomes very important. What I try to do is I learn through use cases, in terms of what is it in the customer’s use case scenario (customer business outcomes) that I’m trying to solve? And to solve that, you need an array of various things which you take to the customer to solve it. And that definitely brings back the point of stitching the entire story, connecting the dots, and then taking it back.

You mentioned storytelling and visualisation, and these are important elements. How did you develop that skill?

I would say I found it somewhere in my overall journey. I remember five years back; I was writing my first LinkedIn blog. I had finished 15 years with Microsoft, and I was very nervous thinking about my blog. But once I wrote it, I realised I had a flair for narrative, which kept getting better as I was reading a lot too. Writing got me to realise that storytelling was there in me, which I never knew before. I always tell people that all of us have the element of storytelling. But when we are verbalising a conversation, you never get to know that you are a storyteller. But the minute you start writing and publishing, whether it is a small blog of two paragraphs or even a note to your team, you notice that there is a story. When I have planning and brainstorming conversations with my team, I always kick off with a story. The messages are all through stories of events, people, etc. That way, people will remember my story, and therefore the message but never the other way around.

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In addition to all of this, you are also a coach. How did that come about it?

For that, I am grateful to Microsoft, because there was a program called Super Coach, which was about creating a 100 coaches across the globe. And I joined from India. The intent was to create super coaches, who in turn would get the coaching culture embedded deep within. It was a rigorous and arduous journey because I had to invest in 60 hours first getting coached and then spend 100 hours coaching different people. The 60 hours was easier, but the 100 hours of coaching was not as easy because you have to go behind people and coach them. I volunteered to coach anybody and through the entire process, I felt I became a much better human being because the levels of empathy became more pronounced. The ICF ACC certification exam was very different and not like any of my regular technical certifications. These were very experiential and tough. So, that’s how I learned, and I took it back within Microsoft. I was able to do real life coaching for real problems. I told my entire team and my managers how to do it as well – how can they be a catalyst? How can they look at things from the lens of the other person? How they should listen and not get tempted to provide the solution.

It’s a fact that there are not too many women in sales and even less are sales leaders. How can we develop that?

The first part is that there’s a dire need to have more role models. And those who are role models, need to amplify their narratives and their stories, so that people can get to know them, and learn that it’s a very immersive  experience and the journey is quite satisfying. When I joined Microsoft, I only had Neelam Dhawan, who I used to look up to as a business leader. There was no one else. But now there’s so many more. So having many more leaders is imperative. The second part is all about work life integration. So somewhere, there is a little bit of inhibition for a lot of women, that a sales role would mean that they have to travel a lot.  So, they feel that their time is not within their control and therefore there will be no work life balance. The best story that I can talk about is the fact that I leaned upon my managers, my peer group and my team members at various stages of my life. I had both my kids after I joined Microsoft and my parents are out here. I’ve had various points of time when I had to drop work because I had to be a caregiver. So, the credibility that you build, the 100% commitment along with the authenticity that you bring, gives you the license to manage your working life. And I think women at certain points of time make as good, if not better sales leaders.

With sales, when you go out and meet customers and engage with them, how is being a woman more helpful?

The empathy quotient of women tend to be higher. When women meet customers for the first time and try to ideate as to what the solution has to be, they will spend a lot more time to know the customer’s business problem and what they are trying to solve. That is one virtue, because of which you come out with a solution which will stick to the customer. The second point is that women happen to be persistent, and they will keep trying till a problem is solved. So, either they will not hand over the problem to somebody else, and even if they do, they will follow up with that individual till the problem is solved. Wanting to see the closure of something comes naturally to women. The third point is that in a sales role, you either gain market share, or you gain share from competition. Either way, the persistence that women have will not allow them to give up on either scenario. Even if there is a long sales cycle, you will have the patience and the perseverance till the customer feels that they need to forge a partnership. Or, when you’re in the face of a competitive scenario, you are going down to the last rungs to figure out what the competitive differentiator is in my solution game to make me a winner. So, the eye for detail and going down to the granular level of persistence is something we tend to do a little more of.

With so much happening, how do you take care of yourself? How do you bring the heart, body, mind and soul together?

I’ve been a stickler for fitness for a long time. I’m a marathon runner. During the pandemic, because there was no travel, I got my fitness schedule back to the track. During the first year of the pandemic, I ran about 60% of the days and last year it went up to 75%. I definitely follow a fitness plan when I get up in the morning and this is my ‘me’ time. I get my most creative ideas, or mull over a problem during this time. I’m also in this direction of getting much better in my mindfulness journey. Starting this year, I started getting up quite early and doing meditation for 30 minutes. I took that up because the way we multitask, the way distractions happen and the way pressure builds up, I realised that if I don’t do some meditation, I will not get my calm. So those are the two things that I do.

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Curator:
Swetha Sitaraman is a Business Content and Communications Manager who spent 15 years working with British Diplomats. She creates and edits content assets that include articles, case studies, company profiles and thought leadership interviews along with handling internal communication. When she is not immersed in a sea of words, Swetha enjoys diving into the world of watercolours.

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