Work

An A-team to ace the dream

S Giridhar | Updated on March 22, 2021

Minds at work: A secure and harmonious group of peers in leadership roles can create a positive impact   -  ISTOCK.COM

In an organisation, it is the first-line leadership — the group of people in key roles who work together behind the scenes — that turns a vision into reality

* An important aspect of this team of departmental heads was that while each of them was ambitious there was no whiff of one-upmanship

* When necessary, they also argued their position fearlessly but in an agreeable manner

* Sourav Ganguly turned out to be a remarkable leader but will always be thankful to his core leadership group of Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Javagal Srinath and VVS Laxman

***

If one were to evaluate any high performing organisation, whether in business, social sector or sports, one would tend to direct a lot of credit to the leader. Obviously it is the leader who creates the vision and energises the organisation towards realising its goals. However, what often gets missed in the analysis is the critical role of the first-line leadership. It is this group of people in key roles who work cohesively to translate the organisation’s vision into action, bringing their skills, competence and positivity together in a collective effort. While this may describe the basic principles, I feel more comfortable when I bring examples from my own experiences to demonstrate the ‘Gestalt’ impact on an organisation when a group of peers work in synergy.

So let me begin with my time in the 1980s at one of India’s leading manufacturers of abrasives. All our functions operated from the manufacturing plant in North Chennai. To go to office every day was a pleasure; so much energy, shared purpose and the desire to be the best. Largely because our business director S Viswanathan was brilliant in articulating his vision, setting clear goals and settling for nothing less than the best. Importantly, he ensured as much recognition for processes and effort as for results, so he was never tyrannical. In those years, our organisation came to be known for innovations, new products and applications. One saw the company wresting market segments and market share from the competition, based on a bedrock of product development and production, performance, customer support and dealer confidence.

All this was possible because the departmental heads — R&D, manufacturing, quality, marketing, sales, finance, personnel — came together in a symphony. These leaders were never defensive and were always receptive to ideas and suggestions. When necessary, they also argued their position fearlessly but in an agreeable manner. And they all had fun. As a young manager supporting the marketing chief in various meetings, I was the fly on the wall, watching the camaraderie amongst them. Viswanathan, he of the wagging finger and ringing tone, could tell any one of them, ‘You are totally wrong’ or ‘That’s complete nonsense’ but they would take such things in their stride. The culture of collaborative working in this peer group of leaders had been well established. Passion, confidence and energy radiated off the walls.

An important aspect of this team of departmental heads was that while each of them was ambitious there was no whiff of one-upmanship. They all placed organisational interest above individual interest. Their grace, good cheer and ability to balance ambition with collaboration and collegiality is my abiding memory. This might seem idealistic but I observed all this at an early stage of my career and it left a deep imprint upon me. I saw how a secure and harmonious group of peers in leadership roles can create not incremental impact but one of geometric proportions. Since then I always wanted to lead or be a part of this kind of a leadership team.

Years later, this was reinforced through an entirely different experience. I was a part of a peer group with a lot of ownership. One of the function head roles had to be filled through an external hire and we were in the process of evaluating a few candidates. One day, my CEO called me to say, ‘We need to bring in X to head this function. I know he could be a real pain but I am taking the risk.’ The person who joined us was in a different league in terms of his competence and intellect, but at every opportunity, he would convey in some manner that his function was outperforming other functions by miles, that he thought of things that the other function heads could not. It was perhaps his ego and the desire to prove that he was intellectually superior. It resulted in a palpable drop in the collective spirit of the group. The perceptive CEO assessed the situation and limited the damage by not assigning team impacting responsibilities to this person who had unwittingly violated the ‘dharma’ of collective leadership.

Let me round this off with a tailpiece for the cricket lovers among my readers. When Sourav Ganguly took over India’s cricket captaincy, he was picking up the wrecked pieces after the match fixing scandal. He turned out to be a remarkable leader but will always be thankful to his core leadership group of Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Javagal Srinath and VVS Laxman for the manner in which they supported him. Some of you might also think of how in the recent series against Australia, senior members R Ashwin, Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara provided the supportive phalanx to Ajinkya Rahane as he marshalled a badly depleted Indian team to victory. This again is almost a textbook example of the criticality of a core leadership group. Increasingly, in recent times, organisation leaders, be they in the social sector or the corporate sector, are encouraging conducive environments for teamwork and collective leadership. In developing the culture of collaborative working among the key leadership teams in the organisation and empowering them lies the wisdom of the leader.

S Giridhar is the Chief Operating Officer of Azim Premji University

Published on March 22, 2021

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