Staying competitive is essential to winning: Dinesh Paliwal, CEO of Harman International Corp

New York | Updated on January 08, 2018 Published on October 16, 2017

DINESH PALIWAL, CEO, Harman International

The acquisition of Harman by Samsung was one of the biggest deals at the intersection of the automobile and the audio/infotainment industry. As the CEO of Harman International Corp, Dinesh Paliwal was at the forefront of this deal, which can be termed as a game-changer in the industry. As the world gravitates towards spending more and more time in the car, Dinesh is grappling with this cultural shift and thriving in a world fraught with rapid change and uncertainty as technology evolves at lighting speed.

Hailing from Agra, Paliwal, who studied at IIT-Roorkee, has shown that the “successful leader” still has to go back to the roots of human values. Listening, empathy and caring about the needs of the society are as important to Dinesh as the next big piece of technology. He believes the ability to pay attention and listen closely is the hallmark of a great leader. He uses the stereo analogy to emphasise the importance of listening closely, keeping your ears to the ground and absorbing the fine details.

Dinesh Paliwal spoke with Venky Raghavendra to discuss the dramatic shifts at the convergence of the audio and automotive industry, his tips for aspiring leaders and his eagerness to give back to society. Edited excerpts:

The acquisition of Harman by Samsung earlier this year has been a process that you shepherded and saw through. What has this process meant to you?

We are incredibly excited to join with Samsung, one of the most innovative and admired companies in the world. Our companies share a culture of speed, innovation and technology – values I am pleased to see heightened in the early days of our collaboration. Harman has transformed from an audio and infotainment company to a software-focused company at the forefront of developing solutions that drive the connected life for the car, home, work and everywhere in between. Over the last 10 years, we have evolved from a hardware-driven company to a software-centric organisation with 12,000 engineers and software developers around the world. With 50-million cars on the road with our technologies inside and an incredible reputation in the industry, Samsung found Harman. While there are great synergies, there is very little overlap between the two companies and many complementary strengths which we hope to build on.

How do you see this impacting the industry?

Since we announced the acquisition, the rate of collaboration among technology companies has exploded – we’ve seen so many consortiums form, accelerating the pace of change. Harman has always been a leader, and we worked hard to once again lead the pack and forge what we believe is the ultimate combination with Samsung.

You are one of the unique global leaders in this space as the notion of connected car is rapidly evolving. The space is getting even more exciting and complex as technology redefines the driver and rider experience within the automobile. Where do you see this going from your vantage point?

Automotive technologies, cloud services and apps represent a massive $6.7-trillion market opportunity by 2030. The automotive industry is just getting started as we enter the era of the connected car, autonomous driving and the sharing economy – a true automotive revolution. We view this industry disruption providing consumers with advancements that make the car experience more personalised, productive and protected. Automobiles are becoming a connectivity hub and more emphasis is being placed on the interior experiential features. There is extraordinary business opportunity, but importantly also a massive culture shift.

What advice do you have for rising executives who manage large teams within organisations that have a significant global footprint?

When I talk with my teams about leadership, I like to draw on Harman’s roots in audio, advising them to listen, learn, lead and live in stereo. Just as sound comes to life in stereo, with 360-degree immersion, dimension, perspective and balance, the same is true in business and in life. All of your life’s experiences become more fulfilled when you experience the world with the richer qualities of high-fidelity stereo. I tell them that one of the most effective ways to gain perspective and depth is to step outside your comfort zone and take an assignment that pushes you and challenges you. I recommend that all aspiring leaders take an international assignment that embeds them in a new and different culture. Listening and learning from all sides will allow you to lead with greater dimension, perspective and balance – in stereo.

Can you discuss a couple of the most important leadership lessons you have learnt in your career?

Communications is key – effective leaders must invest time, interest and attention to nurture relationships with customers, partners and employees through transparent and regular communications. Get out of the office and see your customers, meet with employees in person, and when a tough conversation must be had, avoid email, do it in person or by phone. Another early lesson – I recognised that I don’t have all the answers and I’m not expected to. Leaders have a team and they must rely on them and empower them to make well-informed decisions. Effective leadership also requires big, bold thinking, smart decision-making and speed.

What is the approach you take to inspire people on your team and within your organisation?

The nature of our business is to design and develop products and solutions that enhance the way people around the world live and work, so inspiration is easy to find within Harman. But staying competitive is essential to winning, especially in such a rapidly changing marketplace. We create a very fast pace of play internally and I maintain and promote what I call ‘healthy paranoia’ to make sure that complacency and arrogance don’t seep into the organisation. We play our own game, but we have to be constantly aware of forces – other companies, emerging technologies, macroeconomic changes that can disrupt our leadership. We’ve worked hard to create a strong culture with solid values and a clear vision. We hire optimists and entrepreneurs – people with big ideas and a roll-up-your-sleeves mentality, who want to build something significant and meaningful to realise our vision. So I think all of these things together – clear vision, strong values and a culture built on communications, collaboration and creativity – inspire people to engage and achieve.

Lastly, can you share a bit about your and your family’s philanthropic engagements and your goals in that area?

Throughout our lives, my wife Ila and I have been fortunate to collaborate with and learn from many wonderful organisations and the individuals they empower. The Ila and Dinesh Paliwal Foundation is dedicated to improving the social and economic wellbeing of individuals throughout the world, with an emphasis on programmes and grants that support education, skills development, healthcare, culture and the arts. Education is the cornerstone of our communities, and we are compassionately drawn to supporting the next generation of leaders. We recently made a significant contribution to Miami University’s Farmer School of Business, my alma mater in Ohio, to create the Dinesh and Ila Paliwal Innovation Chair and the Dinesh and Ila Paliwal Scholarship. Giving back to the communities and institutions that have enriched our lives is a value we share and a privilege we embrace.

Venky Raghavendra is a social entrepreneur and Vice-President at Safe Water Network, based out of New York

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Published on October 16, 2017
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