Rudy Karsan, founder of Kenexa, having extraordinary contributions in HR, is a busy man. After IBM acquired Kenexa in 2012 for $1.3 billion, Rudy has donned many hats of entrepreneur, investor, advisor and innovator. Rudy says he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and only likes to take his work seriously. He adds that the sense in the business world is really serious, and that we’ve forgotten to laugh along the way. Maybe that’s why he has chosen a job title of ‘Grand Poobah’, a character from The Flintstones, at Karlani Capital.
Tell us about your journey as a leader. Who are you as a leader, and if the leadership journey was intertwined with self-discovery?
At my very core, I am western person of Indian-origin, who has lived in a lot of places. I have been a refugee and immigrant, maybe not in the strictest of definition, when I was a child. But, being an immigrant gives you a gift of fear; that everything you have today might be taken away from you. So I have grown up in a broke, but not a poor life. We were happy, loving and warm, but just didn’t have enough financial resources. That experience developed two major aspects of my identity, a fear of not having enough, and greed to want too much. My biggest battles within always have fear and greed pitted against each other, and then my ego takes a final call. I must admit though, this is tough, being in a state of conflict all the time.
Those experiences and fears still dictate my decisions and self, because even today I think I can lose everything. But when you are greedy and scared yourself, it is very hard for other people to put their weight behind you. I realised as in individual, I do not want fear, greed or ego to help me drive others. Therefore, every organisation I have founded, or looked to found, has an overarching purpose that goes well beyond money. So, answering the ‘why’ helps move me forward, drive others, and create the leadership behind it.
Very few would look at fear as a gift, and for most it is an obstacle. How did you convert something so innately prohibitive into something positive?
I have spent a large part of my life running away from a lot of things, moving away from them, or simply avoiding them. And I believe, in life, just like nature, there are cycles of light and darkness, and as an individual, we have no control over them. Consider this, if you see night approaching, and you start running towards west, in hope that you can escape the darkness, all you are really doing is prolonging the night. If you, on the other hand, want to shorten the night, you walk right into it, so that you can come out on the other side faster.
When you are in a happy zone, go with the flow, enjoy the experience. But when you are in sad and unhappy place, instead of denying it, embrace it and run right into it. Living a life of smallness, a life of fear, or denial, is something I do not want to do. So when you run into fear, the fear becomes a gift, which helps you run faster, address the problem, wrestle it to the ground, or simply help you pass it over.
How did you discover the leader in you, at different stages of challenges and complexities in your profession? How did you this lead to self-development and discovering of new horizons?
Every organisation that I have founded, or been a part of, equate to being my family. It is really hard for me to differentiate between where I end and where they begin. I realised that if the same feeling of belongingness can be cultivated in the employees, then it would automatically result in a strong culture of people who really care, and drive growth. A much nuanced, and seemingly trivial, example might be how the people I have worked with will never refer to the organisation as their employer – but their company. This ownership, be it financial or emotional, can make so much difference that it would amaze you. My mentor, Verne Harnish, has written and said some very valuable lessons about the same, and you should definitely hear what he has to say in this context.
For me, the most important tool that helped me was the realisation that I cannot change myself, or anybody else. All you can do is compensate for your weaknesses. For example I had immense difficulty in staying focussed, so I developed processes and tools that can compensate for my unfocussed behaviour. First off, I surrounded myself with people who were better than me in different areas. This allowed me the ability to be free ranging and creative, while developing discipline and focus in the business. Secondly, when I realised I lacked focus myself, I developed small tools, say like a Monday-morning huddle meeting with the management, and made sure I was a part of it – no matter what. So when I initiated the process of inculcating discipline, by demanding attendance to the meetings, I myself had to do the same.
When you are scaling, always begin by compensating for your weakness, because you will naturally play to your strengths. For instance, when doing a sales pitch in a new country with no customers or reference points, it would be a folly to hide your record, in hope that it is ignored. Lead with it, but give it a spin, saying as our first customer in the entire country, you add value to yourself by becoming a reference for your peers. You need to be able to turn an obvious weakness into strength of the selling strategy, and in the process, clarify that we are going to be successful; you might as well join the ride. But make sure you also execute and deliver post that.
What according to you are some other fundamental truths that one needs to be aware of?
You cannot expect to learn everybody else’s truths, in hope that they will help you find yours. So, there are no fundamental truths for all of us. Sure, there are a few for me, but they might not be yours necessarily. But here’s something to help you get started on your journey: If you are in your business, don’t pretend your business isn’t into you. In other words, do not build artificial walls that do not exist naturally with your work, life and family. Instead of spending time to separate them, learn how to blend them together, to make everything better. The Indian dish ‘khichdi’ comes to mind, which takes all the vegetables to come together, to make it so delicious, and that in essence is how it should be. Secondly, no matter how beautifully your business is meeting its core purpose, never, ever, ever forget about cash, and where it is coming from. I have approached bankruptcy thrice in my life, so I know when I say it, that it isn’t a good place to be.
When we talk about mechanical insights of building a team, culture, architectural freedom and creativity are always talked about. But what are some fundamental mistakes that can be avoided in your experience. What should one definitely not do, when building a team?
Do not have multiple to-do lists. Instead have a single not-to-do list, because anything that is actually important to you, you won’t forget; and anything that is important to somebody else, they won’t let you forget. Hence, it is very important to not assume more importance than one actually is, especially while building a team. Do not create a hierarchy that doesn’t exist naturally – we are all equals, aren’t we? I used to cater to my team, rather than working with them, and with time I realised it boiled down the fundamental mistake of my ego – thinking how important I was. When I let go of that, and had a conversation with others like two humans should have, all my problems were solved. That also includes focusing on the unimportant things like people venting to you. I don’t allow anyone complain to me, without complaining to the person concerned first.
What is the best advice you have received in your life?
Harold Geneen, CEO of ITT Corporation, told me that the job of a business leader is to get to the truest and unshakable facts about the business. That has stayed with me for a long time, because it is true that information and data from customers, employees and products can become fuzzy due to human activity and emotion. So getting to the core concern is indispensable, and you need to build on that. With Verne Harnish, my mentor, it would have to be the discussion of the concept of Ladder of Inference, wherein your world-view is coloured by your frame of reference, and distorted by opinions and judgements, and how one looks over these lenses to see the fact. And finally, Alan Kay once said to me, “A different point of view is worth 40 IQ points.” All of these together, in simplicity, mean unshakable data drives growth.
What would be your advice to H.R. entrepreneurs, leaders and experts?
My life has been full of joy and happiness, and I made sure I enjoyed it as I went along. I made it a point to relish the journey and the experience. I laughed a lot. So when you are driving and scaling up, make sure you have the happiness and inspiration from your journey, and you actually relish it. It really lies in the ability to be grateful for small things when you go to bed, to be able to laugh at yourself, and to be able to enjoy nature – you must never lose sight of that.