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Shaping an ultimate winner

Every potential leader needs a mentor who has been there, done that and knows the pressures that come with the job. This is particularly important for young leaders who should consciously have two or three mentors for gaining wisdom, experience and a wider perspective. BT’s Pallavi Srivastava tells us about some young guns and their gurus and strategists. 

Pallavi Srivastava        Print Edition: April 20, 2008

Early last year, Doug Baillie, till recently MD & CEO of Hindustan Unilever, gave Leena Nair the key to a sound footing—Michael Watkin’s book The First 90 Days. The 37-year-old Nair lapped it up, and with good reason. She had just been elevated to the position of Executive Director (HR), Hindustan Unilever. Today, Nair says Baillie was a wonderful mentor to her. “The book is about the things you should do in the first 90 days of taking over a job— what you should do and who you should talk to.” For her, that translated into crucial grooming.

Leena Nair, Executive Director (HR), Hindustan Unilever
Leena Nair
Every potential leader faces a unique set of issues. He needs someone who has been there, done that and knows the pressures that come with the job. This is particularly important for young leaders. The talent pipeline in India is coming under pressure, and there are many companies competing for this talent. Several of them are now willing to trust younger talent instead of waiting for candidates with experience. So, what happens when you get your dream job—one you have aspired for—much before you expect it? Well, you take recourse to mentor( s), as Nair did.

Career gurus

For different challenges, Nair reaches out to different mentors and soaks in all the wisdom offered. “My mentors have included my old professors and senior colleagues who have already retired from our company,” she adds. She reasons: “For a young leader, it is absolutely critical to reach out to their mentors and get a wider perspective. It is equally important for a young leader to consciously have two or three mentors who have the wisdom and the experience.” Her thoughts are echoed by Roopa Kudva, 44, MD & CEO, Crisil. Kudva learnt the ropes from R. Ravi Mohan (from whom she took over after his appointment as MD and Regional Head of Standard & Poor’s in South Asia) as well as the other members of the board, not just by seeking their help but even by observing how these veterans worked. “The most important thing I learnt from Ravi was the importance of listening to different points of views. It is important to look at things differently and I have tried to imbibe this,” she says.

Francisco DíSouza, CEO & President, Cognizant
Francisco DíSouza
Agrees N.S. Kannan, 42, Executive Director, ICICI Prudential Life Insurance, who says he has learnt many important leadership secrets from the unique working style of his seniors. “From Mr Kamath (K.V. Kamath, Managing Director and CEO, ICICI Bank), I learnt that you need to work at different levels. You don’t always have to look at the big picture or the minute details; change as the situation demands. And Kalpana (Morparia) taught me that anything is possible if you have strong passion, competence and commitment.”

Shikha (Sharma, MD, ICICI Prudential Life Insurance), he says, has a very interesting style of working. “She can really challenge you and get the best out of you. She has taught me how to make people at different levels work at their best,” Kannan says. Morparia was Joint Managing Director of ICICI Bank till May 2007 and was recently appointed as Independent Director at CMC.

Again, it is the collective wisdom of Cognizant’s past CEOs that has stood Francisco D’Souza, 39, President and CEO of the company, in good stead. D’Souza owes his professional growth to past CEOs Srini Raju, Kumar Mahadeva and Lakshmi Narayanan as also to the members of the Board of Directors, who mentored him during various phases of his professional growth. “Young leaders go through high-velocity learning as they navigate through rapid changes. A mentor with significant experience and wisdom can, therefore, be a great help,” he says. His promotion from COO to CEO was part of a regular succession planning and D’Souza says he was fortunate to have had several mentors who brought in different sets of experiences across multiple functional areas.

Doing things differently

Kudva treasures the grooming she received before she became CEO. Also, apart from protecting their protégés from falling into common, familiar (to mentors) traps, they give the courage to these leaders to do things differently.

N.S. Kannan, Executive Director, ICICI Prudential Life Insurance
N.S. Kannan
For Kudva, it was easier to fit into the role of a CEO& MD than a Chief Rating Officer (CRO). For the role of CEO, she was groomed and mentored for more than two years. But things were different when she was appoined the Chief Rating Officer in 2000. “It was much more difficult to establish myself and gain acceptability as the CRO. There were some (who) felt left behind and there were others who were watching each of my moves very closely.” But Kudva took it all in her stride. After taking over as the CRO, she decided to bring about some changes and not play by the old rules. While the company was internally focussed then, she implemented her own agenda— customer focus, improving transparency in the market and internal processing. The success of her three-pronged agenda brought about the respect from both her senior and junior colleagues.

Nair, too, decided to do things differently. The first thing she did following her appointment was to take people’s feedback on HR in HUL. She sent out questionnaires and spoke to people both in the organisation and outside. She interacted with line managers, other HR heads in the country, as well as people within Unilever to find out if what HUL was doing was right, what it should continue to build on and what needed to be changed.

Ahead of the curve


More and more young managers are reaching the top; they need to be prepared to face a lot of scepticism. “People will not necessarily accept your leadership just because you have been appointed to a leadership role,” says Nair. She says respect will come when people see that you are willing to do what it takes, through hard work and passion, to make a difference. Her advice: one needs to offset the inherent disadvantage that (some) people see in youth with performance, passion, hard work, energy and idealism. “Unlike earlier, you don’t have the luxury of long-term training. The learning curves are shorter these days and you are expected to learn faster,” Kudva says. For her, there are three elements to success—competence, capability and experience. If you are lacking in experience, then you have to put a lot of capability on the table.

Roopa Kudva, Managing Director & CEO, Crisil
Roopa Kudva
D’Souza, though, has a different opinion. For him, age is certainly among the key factors, but it is not as definitive as having the right kind of experience to do what needs to be done in a given context or circumstance. “What counts most is experience, more so the right kind of experience, which is not necessarily a function of an individual’s age,” he says.

Kannan agrees. “Take my own case as an example. I became a CFO at 36. This is going to be the norm for some time now,” he says, adding that accelerating job experience (shifting job functions/profiles) and management tools (learning programmes) are other things that have almost mitigated the age factor.

The most defining attribute of a successful leader is how well he or she can evolve a commonality of thought and inspire the same passion in every individual of the team in guiding the team towards a common goal, reasons D’Souza. Now, these young guns are slowly moving into the role of mentors and gurus themselves— having now been there and done that.

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