Article: The world will be a chaotic place if we only have leaders like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk: Shiv Shivakumar


The world will be a chaotic place if we only have leaders like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk: Shiv Shivakumar

A company full of angular leaders is unlikely to succeed, and, therefore, we need both the dreamers and the grounded.
The world will be a chaotic place if we only have leaders like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk: Shiv Shivakumar

Among India's most celebrated - and cerebral - business leaders, Shiv Shivakumar has just come out with his third book. Foreworded by Sachin Tendulkar, The Art of Management rests on three pillars - managing yourself, managing your team, and managing your business. Shiv, currently the group executive president at the Mumbai-headquartered conglomerate Aditya Birla Group, has decades of corporate-leadership experience, having led Nokia India and PepsiCo in South Asia with remarkable grace. 

Given his stellar academic background - Shiv is an IIT and IIM alumnus - and his ascent through the ranks, he is by himself authentically positioned to share the finer nuances of business management, from his early days with Unilever in 1984. Yet, in a testament to his humility and creative originality, he gathered 21 remarkable individuals for this book, all role models in their own right, and conducted extensive interviews with them. 

As he picks the brains of his subjects, a thoughtfully-eclectic mix of leaders that includes chef Vikas Khanna, General (retired) V.P. Malik, journalist Shereen Bhan, and banker Renuka Ramnath, Shiv comes across as a deeply curious soul genuinely interested in his guests and looking to deliver value to his readers. What emerges in the end is a nearly 300-page labour of love, full of fascinating insights, gleaned from delightfully easy-going conversations. People Matters caught up with Shiv for an interview. 

Edited Excerpts:

To a question of yours, Harsha Bhogle says that between talking and listening, the latter is ‘by far’ the superior skill. In the post-pandemic era of the Great Resignation, how critical is it for managers to listen to their employees?  

I think it’s crucial for leaders to listen to people, especially since we are communicating a lot via the web. Leaders need to reach out and solicit opinions when the default option could be to stay silent on a web call. In physical meetings, leaders always looked for body-language cues and some leaders would try and read between the lines of what was being said. In the Great Resignation world, employees want to be heard, whether you do something about their suggestions is a different matter.

You make an interesting observation about time, of it being culture-dependent. You have ‘on-time’ countries such as the US, Japan, and Germany, and then ‘flexi-time’ nations like in Asia. This categorisation explains itself when we look at the prosperity gap between the two sets of countries. How can India’s cultural attitude to time change?

I think India’s attitude to time is changing, we have airlines now competing with each other to announce their own time record, we have quick-service food brands offering you money-back guarantees if they are late, we have delivery apps promising delivery between 10 and 20 minutes. We have live TV also to thank for some punctuality. Live TV does not wait for any celebrity, it starts irrespective. While the country is still not that time-conscious, I see elements of accountability as the larger public holds people in position to a time schedule. We have many policies which have come to ensure that we pay SMEs on time, so there is change.

In the book, Shereen Bhan says that as a woman, it’s been harder for her to break into the decision-making roles. We have far fewer women leaders compared to men, and this is a global phenomenon. Why are the odds stacked so heavily against women, and how can we ensure a greater gender balance in leadership roles?

Women play multiple roles in society - of a colleague, of a parent, of a partner, of a responsible family member etc. This wide range helps them connect the emotional dots, plus also helps them multitask much better.

This is a challenge globally. I think the intake is not such a problem anymore, as more and more girls are in schools and professional-degree colleges. So, companies need to recruit evenly between men and women. In PepsiCo, we always recruited more women, in one year, we had 72 % of all new roles filled in by women. Women in PepsiCo were paid the same as men in five bands, more in three bands and slightly lesser in three bands.

The challenge for women starts when they take a maternity break. This is sad, but true. I think organisations and industries need to get together to get young mothers back to work on the terms of the young mother, and not the corporation. I would make it a point to speak to every woman employee who went on maternity leave through the leave period, assuring them of a good job when they got back.

For women to take on leadership roles, they will need to gain more operational experience, either by taking the roles, or doing short-term projects. Women need more mentors and sponsors in the organisation. They also need to see some role models to fuel their aspiration.

The average lifespan of enterprises has shrunk, thanks to creative destruction enabled by forces such as technology. Parallelly, employee tenure has also dropped. That means we are in for massive uncertainty. How can companies prolong their existence, and how can employees stay relevant?

Whether it’s an employee or a company, there is no substitute to staying ahead and thinking ahead. At the heart is being relevant. Many leaders quote examples and logic from when they studied or did something ten years ago. That’s the most unapplicable thing in a fast-moving world. So, you need forward-thinking leaders and forward-thinking corporations. A company or a brand continues in perpetuity by stating a promise and overdelivering on that promise.

In the book, you dwell at length on the value of consistency in leaders. You also argue that organisations need cool-headed men and women. Steve Jobs or Elon Musk can hardly be accused of being cool-headed or even consistent, but they have created admirable products and companies. How do you look at them as leaders?

An exception is never the rule. For every Alfred Sloan you will have a Henry Ford, for every Reginald Jones, you will have a Jack Welch. We can’t have angular leaders only; the world will be a chaotic place if we have only more Jobs and Musks. People also value decency, consistency, professionalism, fairness etc. The world needs both the dreamers and the grounded.

Jobs and Musk are hugely successful and revered in their own right. No one can take that away. You need visionaries like them to challenge the world of its dogmas. But, can a company full of them succeed? The answer is NO! That leadership style needs balance from people below them.

A distributed workforce has allowed the role of technology to expand vastly. Often, this has meant more isolation and less team- bonding. How can leaders keep their teams engaged and motivated?

Leaders need to reach out a lot more in a WFH environment. They need to engage as many people in small talk and seek opinions. They should not create an inner circle of people who come to the office and an outer circle who work from home. That will be detrimental to all. In a WFH world, a leader has to be present without being intrusive. A lot of leaders are undisciplined on web calls; time overruns, and agenda overload are becoming normal. That irritates people. So, a good leader will manage time on the web better than others, and that will earn him respect and gratitude.

Finally, will degrees, and by extension universities, become irrelevant, as work fragments into tasks, requiring the pooling together of niche human skills and even machines?    

No, I think we will see degrees overlapping with skills. We will see many employees opting for short-term skill courses. The syllabus of the degrees will need to change to reflect the practice of today and the experience of tomorrow. Degrees will no longer be about memorising something; the practical application and experience will be more important. Hands-on, real learning will be valued. Companies will want finished products, be it engineers or HR professionals or MBAs, and companies will not have time for a management-trainee scheme. Bosses do not have the time for on-the-job training. 

Robots and automation will come in for repetitive tasks, for hazardous tasks. In the future, we will find machines and human beings working side by side, we will see some new policies for this soon.

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Topics: Leadership, Technology, #HybridWorkplace

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