Wisdom lessons from the best leaders

Ashutosh SinhaAshutosh Sinha has been a business journalist across India's print and television media. As a news anchor for NDTV and TV18, Sinha's job required him to speak to a variety of business leaders and policy makers. This access to India's business leaders in his two decades as a business journalist lead to his book, The Executors, which features 30 inspiring personal stories of India's top CEOs.

In this interview with Swetha Amit, Sinha talks about the inspiration behind his book, how hi frequent interactions with top leaders became an MBA lesson for him and his future plans.

How and when did the idea of writing The Executors come about?
Once I began researching for the book, I spoke to several people to get a sense of what to write. It was during one informal communication with Naresh Gupta, former managing director,  Adobe India, that I got the focus of the book clear in the head. When I explained to him what I was looking to write about, his answer was 'You want to talk about the people who build the highways, not the ones who dream about it'. After that, I focused on the business leaders who 'execute' for their companies and the lessons they have learnt from their personal lives.

Your book is a compilation of stories of some of the best managers. How would you describe your experience of meeting each of them while writing this book?
For me, it was like doing an MBA lesson over the one year that I spent for the book. Business leaders are often driven by numbers, whether they speak about it or not. I have tracked the stock markets closely and the numbers that their companies report every quarter. I know some of them for many years and have heard the number-driven statements from them. So, getting them to speak beyond the numbers was sometimes a little bit of a challenge. After a little bit of egging on, they did open up.

There is a story in your book which describes how a graduate of a premiere B school took up the task of going through a salesman's job in order to learn vital lessons by building a connect with people. As a journalist, what lessons did you imbibe by connecting with people during the course of your career?
It is the foot soldier who always helps win the battle. That is true of businesses, armies as well as a reporter. If you have done enough and more as a reporter or a salesman, running around, getting the right deals or stories, it will always help in the later part of your career. Some of your contacts will become successful industry leaders and that relationship will matter a lot.

A chapter in your book describes an instance of a manager who turned around Johnson & Johnson's business in Japan even when he was initially considered a gaijin (outsider). Considering these initial cold vibes, what do you think made him pursue relentlessly rather than turning his back on the task?
Global businesses are driven by the numbers game. Often it does look like some things that are taking place are being executed from a template that has been defined by a senior employee. But it is critical that the leader be seen as the person who can take the business out of the tricky situation it was in. The manager in question – Krishnakumar had never lived in Japan, did not speak the language but he knew one thing – if he could show the team that he could get a deal or two, the team would be inspired for sure. That is exactly what he did. He is someone who believes more in doing it rather than talking about why it cannot be done.

You have talked about the concept of a 'war room' where everyone is a part of it and is created to make customers happy. Could you elaborate more about this concept?
All businesses thrive because it helps solve customers' problems. So, it was decided that the entire team right down to the foot soldier had to meet and discuss the problems the customer was facing. When the entire team is aligned to that one goal of solving the customers' problem, it is sure to end up as the winning team, sooner or later. The customer needs to be told that the entire team is committed to solving their problem and after that it is just about making sure that the deal that follows is beneficial for the customer, too.

The chapter on Aparna Purohit emphasizes the fact that the first battle is always in our minds which ultimately helps in building one's self confidence at a later stage. So do you see this attribute as one of the key factors to success?
If you believe you can do it, you can. Winners typically believe that they can do something which is out of the ordinary. They may not think about it but, given their talent and abilities, they are able to pull out something outstanding when it may not be expected. This applies not just to sports but also to business. That is why, in my understanding, for all winners and those who are looking to be winners in the future, this is a very inspiring story.

Publisher: Penguin Random House India  

Chapter 23 emphasises that Mohit Anand had an army background and moved across states, learning to deal with different kinds of people.  Do you see such an upbringing as a vital factor in leadership or managerial skills?
Being disciplined is just one of the attributes of success. In today's world, having experience of working or living in different cultures is a great asset. It certainly is a great experience to have but it is just one of the ingredients of success. Ultimately, it is the doers who are respected and revered. When a top manager has that kind of an experience, it is a great asset since he can appreciate different cultures and help build a team.

Do you have any more book ideas in the pipeline?
I hope I can take out the time to write more. There are so many stories to be told that writing or communicating will continue to be very important. The medium may change but the need for communicating will always exist.

Book excerpt from 'The Executors'

Krishnakumar was visiting a diabetes clinic chain for his employer Johnson & Johnson in California on a routine September work day in 2003, when he got a call from his boss.

'Krishna, I need to speak to you about your next role in the company,' he said. Krishnakumar walked over to a quiet place to continue the conversation. A division of Johnson & Johnson in Japan, called Lifescan, had been showing signs of trouble and needed attention. The company focused on the diabetes care segment and had hoped to do business to the tune of $10 million in the first year of operations, he was told. Instead, the year was about to end and it could manage only $0.6 million.

KK, as he is fondly called, had listened to the voice at the other end attentively. He had never lived in Japan, never even visited the country and did not speak a word of Japanese. Besides, he had no experience of this sort of firefighting. Yet he was asked to join the team at a time when business was low. The division had managed to achieve only a fraction of its projected revenue.

Worse still, a consulting company had been brought in two months later and they recommended that the business and the team be restructured. Johnson & Johnson decided to act on the recommendations. Winter had just about began to set in as KK landed in Tokyo on a breezy day in October 2003. He had been mulling over the first few things that he would have to do to set the ball rolling. For the first three months, KK noticed that the atmosphere in the office was a little cold  - the morale of the team was at an all-time low.

Driving business without the positive energy of the team was next to impossible. KK was anxious to go out and meet the customers to help start a new relationship and grow the business. But given the morale of the team, there was a lot of scepticism on what value he could add as an outsider or a gaijin. A gaijin in Japanese literally translates into an 'alien' in English it is a term often used to refer, sometimes sarcastically, to an expat manager who tries to impose his ideas on the local team. He was not allowed to visit the customers to get a feel of what they were thinking. During this period, he read extensively about diabetes and related trends in Japan.

One day, KK managed to join an American visitor from Johnson & Johnson and met a few customers. One conversation led to another meeting and soon customers were seeing the value of partnering with Lifescan. More importantly, the sales team figured out that this gaijin was different and was sincerely making an effort to help the team realise its goals.

As the first cherry blossoms of the New Year flowered in March, things were looking better and the team had begun to have faith in his leadership. The gaijin had managed to turn things around. At the end of his three-year stint in Japan, the business had grown to $45 million.

'All I did was go and meet customers every day and spend a lot of time with them, solving their problems, addressing their core priorities,' KK says of those heady days. 'Winning the trust of the customers as well as the team was critical.'