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Thought Leadership

Rajesh Padmanabhan

“Leadership doesn’t sit at the top anymore. It sits at the center of the organization.”

March 22, 2022

Managing Director of our India operations, Rajesh Padmanabhan, sat down with Adam Bryant for an insightful conversation on the new demands of leadership.

Bryant: What are the biggest demands that leaders across India and the region are facing right now? 

Padmanabhan: I’ll provide a quick overview and then we can explore the themes more deeply. There are of course the business pressures to grow faster and more profitably. From a leadership point of view, there is a much greater focus on companies’ contribution to society and their environmental impact.

Technology is now core to companies’ strategies, rather than being seen as a function to support the strategy. C-suite leaders are also reflecting more on big questions about their roles. They are facing so many pressures, and the churn in the C-suite is happening faster. You are often only in these chairs for two or three years, and so you have to make an impact quickly.

Possibly the biggest change is in the way we work. The notion of the workplace has undergone a fundamental change. How do you really influence teams in this new environment? Top-down command and control leadership doesn’t work anymore. Now it’s about bottom-up listening. The last one is that every single leader needs to develop skills, particularly digital skills, beyond their core role, as work has become much more interdisciplinary.

Bryant: What are some insights around the importance of leading through influence?

Padmanabhan: Leadership doesn’t sit at the top of organizations anymore. It sits at the center of the organization. For decades, we’ve all believed in this theory of boxes and roles on an org chart. In the fluid and volatile ecosystem we are in, leaders sit in the center of the organization. They need to be absolutely open and visible to anything and everything. It’s both inside-out and outside-in.

There’s also a renewed focus on culture, particularly in this era of stakeholder capitalism. Everybody realizes there are a lot of elements in the culture that have built up over a period of time that need to undergo some change and transformation. Leaders need to be very aware of what customers and other stakeholders are thinking and feeling about them.

Bryant: If a CEO said to you, “Rajesh, the list of things that I have to be and do and worry about has doubled or tripled in the last two years. These jobs were hard to begin with, but can seem impossible at times now,” what would your advice be to them?

Padmanabhan: I would focus on four Cs for the leader. First, let’s focus on the culture. You’ve got to get it right, and this is not the conventional culture that we’re talking about. What’s really working today, particularly from your customer lens and from your people lens? The second one is all about focusing on capabilities. You need to understand and invest in leadership and other capabilities. You may not get it 100 percent right but go ahead and get started today. See them as investments rather than as costs.

The third one is around contribution. Performance is a measurement of effort. Contribution is a measurement of impact. Leaders need to focus on clarifying the outcomes they are driving toward and creating scorecards to build greater alignment. The fourth C is credibility. Leaders have to make sure that their actions match their words, and if credibility is lost, building it back is virtually impossible.

Bryant: One of the toughest balancing acts for leaders right now is to do more listening to their employees, and yet they also have to be decisive and directive. 

Padmanabhan: You have to invest time upfront to listen and socialize ideas. That may mean you have many meetings where no final decisions are made. It can feel unproductive in the moment.  Socialization is a much bigger process than decision-making, and you need to listen to hear everyone’s point of view. It’s like sharpening the ax.

But at some point, the leader has to say that the discussions have been great, but this is where we need to go. The balance is in building a culture of participation. How do you really build a culture of listening? How do you ensure that people are feeling part of the entire process? It’s easier said than done, but this approach is necessary to build great cultures.

People need to feel that they’re part of the process, they’re part of the organization, and they’re not just doing this because they’re told what they need to do.

Bryant: I’d like to shift the conversation to you more personally. When you think about your career as a manager, as a leader, what is one of the most important leadership lessons you learned, and how did you learn it? 

Padmanabhan: Two decades ago, I became a senior leader and I was the global head of HR for a packaging company. I had regular meetings with the CEO when I would plan to get decisions from him. I was always prepared with all the data and information that I assumed he would need, but he would never give me a decision. Instead, he would guide my thinking with questions and insights, and he put the responsibility of a decision back on me. It was my first experience of someone coaching me to make decisions by asking the right questions. I owe a lot to him for how he developed me as a leader.