'Build Trust, Take Ownership, Stick to Values'

Values are important because they allow us to empower our people...If a leader practises certain values, there is no way that the team won't.
Vanitha Narayanan   New Delhi     Print Edition: January 14, 2018
'Build Trust, Take Ownership, Stick to Values'
Vanitha Narayanan, Chairman, IBM India

In our everyday activities of always having more to do than the time to do it in, most of us don't spend enough time to consciously assess not just what we are doing but also how we are going about it. As we go through our careers, the jobs we are responsible for change, and with experience and situational context management, styles can change. However, there are certain principles and values that remain perennially relevant and should become an integral part of how you operate in your professional and personal relationships. When I was asked to write about a management lesson I learnt, I considered many things but I realised that one thing transcended almost everything else.

Everyone says listen to the client, or client-centricity is essential to building a sustainable business. Absolutely, no one is going to debate that. You can't build the trusted partnership by being transactional or just saying yes to everything a client wants. It's about understanding the situation and ensuring our decisions and actions drive the right outcome. Let me illustrate through a couple of experiences.

Back in the early 1990s, I was involved in a very complex project of delivering to a part of a client's business in which we had never operated before. The client had failed with other suppliers a couple of times. So, obviously, there was a level of programme complexity, and immense pressure on both sides to succeed. The client had gone through multiple changes in approach, choice of supplier and choice of solutions. Those were some of the most stressful months, as we faced more than a dozen failed go-lives, but at no point did the client disengage. A couple of years later, we won an award for the same project from that client. The reason, I believe the client stayed the course with us, is because he saw my personal commitment and that of the organisation. Once you build that strong connective tissue of trust, it weathers tough situations.

Even intense focus does not ensure that something that is critically important to your client's business and your business will happen easily. You make it work through a level of extraordinary commitment and personal dedication. The things that are important, transformational, or first of their kind are not necessarily going to be glamorous or easy. It is important that both sides have the conviction that you are steering in the right direction.

Next, if I fast forward, almost two decades later, I was in an entirely different market with different clients. We had signed on with this client to deliver a very large greenfield project with global best practices, and the kind of investments the client was making were first of their kind in the country. But we had signed another project with the same client where it was felt we were not bringing in the right level of expertise. So the CEO gave me a week to decide to either execute the project or hand it back to the client. Clearly, it was not the kind of meeting anyone wants to have. I asked the client for a conference room and huddled with my team on the ground and experts back at the office.

We realised that addressing the project needed a level of domain expertise that we would have to build to conclude it successfully. We could not have done it at the speed needed, and that would have put the overall programme at risk. I realised that we as a team would take some time, and at no point was I ready to compromise with the client's business. My utmost priority was to maintain our credibility. The client needed to continue to trust us, for us to achieve success on the much larger programme. I went back to the CEO in an hour and told him to take back the contract. I think I surprised him a bit with my decision.

In the first instance, I was the client relationship manager; in the second, I was the person running the business, but in both instances the values never changed. For me it has always been about sweating the details, owning the outcome and steering the course with unwavering personal attention to achieve mutual goals. The real test of the values and lessons are how each of us puts them into practice. In the first instance, it was a marathon in persistence; and in the second instance, it was cancelling a hard-won project expeditiously. But the underlying value in both situations was the same. It was about trust and personal responsibility.

One of the real reasons why values are so important is because they allow us to empower our people. I firmly believe that if a leader practises certain values, there is no way that the team won't. At the same time, you as a leader need to give your team the air cover when you are not personally involved. Long-term trust is earned through relationships built on solid foundations of personal responsibility. I have personally experienced that while countries may vary, markets may vary, and projects may vary, if the approach remains constant, it always works. The value of trust and personal responsibility is not exclusive to client relationships but all relationships. You lead by example and don't apply it selectively. It is also bi-directional because your client wants you to succeed with him when intent on both sides is aligned to common goals.

By Vanitha Narayanan, Chairman, IBM India

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