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Stories of Transformational Leadership

Anu Parthasarathy
4th Nov 2016
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We all have turning points in our life. When faced with conflict, one voice lulls us back to the safety of our comfort zone, yet another pulls us forward so powerfully, we allow ourselves to be drawn by it till it becomes a loud cry for action. There are only a few who have the courage to be authentic and confidently say that they have responded to that loud cry each time with enthusiasm and the perseverance to follow it through. Ravi Venkatesan is one such maverick who has transformed himself to be successful many times over.

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In 2003, Ravi Venkatesan, the Chairman of Cummins in India was faced with a dilemma: should he keep his 8-year old position where he had successfully grown their engine and power generator set business, or accept the top job at Microsoft, India, when he knew next to nothing about the Information Technology sector? Despite colleagues and mentors telling him it would be the biggest risk of his life, he accepted the position at Microsoft. He ended up leaving seven years later, having achieved his goal of growing the business from a $150 million company to $1 billion behemoth.

This wasn’t the first such bold decision that Ravi would take, and it certainly hasn’t been the last. In a career spanning nearly three decades, he has moved between industries, geographies, organizations, roles and cultures. A mechanical engineer by training, Ravi earned an MBA from Harvard while at his first job at Cummins in the US. In 1996, at a time when there was a mass exodus of brains and talent from India to the west, he chose to move back to lead the expansion of the Cummins business. The Chairmanship at Microsoft followed, and in 2012, Ravi abandoned the comfort of security yet again to explore his other talents. In the four years since, he has been a writer, a thinker, a mentor, an impact investor and a social entrepreneur. Today, he servs as the Chairman of the Board at Bank of Baroda and also serves on the boards of Rockefeller Foundation, Infosys Ltd., and several others.

Ravi Venkatesan’s career path is a perfect example of repeated self-disruption, especially at a time when it wasn’t essential to do so. Today, technology is almost solely responsible for making disruption in business ‘the new normal’. Staying relevant means seizing new opportunities to transform ourselves. So we at AnuPartha wanted Ravi to draw from his rich career to share with us just what has propelled him to constantly reinvent himself and how he has persevered through the inevitable challenges to succeed in his transformational journey.

Aim High, Then Do What It Takes

Ravi started his career in 1986 in the automotive industry as a young engineer at Cummins in the US. He was entrusted with responsibility beyond his years, and flourished, so he quickly rose through the ranks. He was accustomed to the conservative culture of an organization which prized loyalty and effort, where employees felt like they were part of a family. “One would expect to retire from there,” he says, reflecting on the initial years. However, when the occasion of moving to India to head the company’s growth story presented itself in 1996, he jumped at the opportunity. It was an unconventional decision, no doubt, and not without its share of risks.

The Cummins chapter in India proved to be extremely successful as he went on to spearheaded its transformation into India’s leading provider of engines and power solutions. Not one to only settle on leaving a mark on the bottom line, he also helped establish the Cummins College of Engineering, India’s first engineering college for women, in Pune.

No Risk, No Reward

Leaving success for unchartered waters is never easy, but monotony was slowing setting in. He was looking to sink his teeth into another challenge. That is when Microsoft came calling with the offer to grow their business in India. The role could not have been more different from what he was accustomed to. Back then, technology was an emerging industry in India. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity but I really didn’t know anything about IT, and it was a very tough culture to succeed in,” he said, of weighing the highly risky decision that was before him. “Almost everybody I asked said, ‘Don’t do it. It’s a crazy idea!’” Ravi was at a career crossroad once again.

I asked myself, ‘When I turn 50, what will I regret more – that I have tried and failed or that I had the opportunity and I was too scared and gave it a pass? I decided that I’ll go and do my best.

And so, with that leap of faith, it was curtains on his 16-year career in the auto sector and the dawn of a new chapter at Microsoft.

No Matter Where You Go, Credibility Must Be Earned

Succeeding in Microsoft meant that Ravi not only had to transform the company, but he also had to make significant changes in the way he worked. He had to first establish himself within the culture of the company, and this was no small adjustment. “When I started, I was quite nervous because very few people joined Microsoft at a senior level and survived, particularly, at that point of time – 2003.He explains that Cummins was more agile and more centralized, probably because it was smaller. But Microsoft was a typical American tech company which was transactional, mercenary and surprisingly more bureaucratic. “I joined Cummins and I was reporting to the CEO but at Microsoft, I had to start from scratch to re-establish my credibility.But no matter how huge the differences are, a new place demands adaptability.

You have to fit into the new culture; the company won’t change for you. Overtime, maybe we can soften the culture in some ways, but in the short-term, we have to fit in. That is the way it is.

You Are What You Measure

Ravi knew that irrespective of the position, the first year was always going to be a testing period at any new company. He was determined to do whatever it took to succeed at his new role, so he sought out mentor Bob Herbold, who had retired from the company as the Chief Operating Officer. Ravi remembers Bob telling him: “One of the first things you must do is get clarity on your performance parameters. You have to figure out the real values and specs.He credits Bob for teaching him the importance of what would go on to become a lesson that would stay with him for years – emphasizing the need to set performance measurement goals clearly.

Clarify what you will be measured on upfront so that there are no surprises. Put it in writing. In a competitive environment, when it comes to accountability, it is both a company’s strength and weakness"

As Ravi’s was an entirely new role and position, it took a lot of effort on his part to define and get a mutual agreement on expectations but it was worth the time he invested in it. You figure out what really matters in the new place and make sure you shine on those dimensions. After that, once you earn your credibility and network, source of power, and influence, you can get on and do what you really want to do”, he reveals.

Great Teams Make Great Companies

And what he really wanted to do was make a great company. When Ravi joined Microsoft, it was a young organization in India – less than 1000 people across its main R&D campus in Hyderabad and other offices across the country. He quickly understood the importance of hiring smart people to build a strong team. While the then team was bright and talented, they were also young and inexperienced. He had to systematically hire more senior and mature executives to take the company to a completely different level.

I realized quickly that it was not enough to have smart performers. We needed seniority and maturity to take the company to a different level.

Ravi recognizes the value of talent in building great organizations and admits nurturing it must start at the school level, to add to the country’s overall talent pool. He was instrumental in creating Microsoft India’s Project Shiksha, a computer literacy program which has so far trained over 40 million school children. Both at Cummins, and at Microsoft, he demonstrated a desire to be a part of a concrete solution to India’s systemic problems, one that would go on to develop into a major driving force for his subsequent career change.

Start at the Top if You Want to Make a Mindset Change

Another of Ravi’s big challenge was to change the mindset of the Microsoft Headquarters towards India. It required a lot of investments, effort and foresight. The India offices were tucked away within the APAC regional headquarters, like a lot of multinational companies at that time. For Ravi, this was a big change. “It was not just an ego issue, it was more about access to power, being part of a decision making team,” he admits.

He realized that the only way to do so was to catch the eye of Bill Gates and get him excited about the potential in India. He organized a week-long India trip for the Microsoft head honcho and 35 top executives to give them a glimpse of the possibility that India held for Microsoft. Pretty soon, the India team was putting together a strategic plan that co-opted the entire executive team to make India grow. The investments started to pour in and within a couple of years India, like China, began reporting directly to Seattle.

To Change the mindset towards India, we had to start with changing how the top executives viewed India. The rest would follow.

Never Underestimate the Contribution of Luck

Thanks in no small part to Ravi’s leadership, Microsoft India was consistently rated among the best employers and most respected companies in India and he was voted the most influential MNC CEO for 2011 by the Economic Times. He credits his good fortune for being a part of his success. I don’t underestimate the contribution of luck, he says with gratitude.

I know so many people who took major risks like I did at the same time and it didn’t work out. I don’t know if there is a formula but I do believe that there is such a thing as luck.

He admits that while globally, 2000 – 2010 was the ‘lost decade’ for Microsoft as it systematically missed every major trend in the industry, it was quite the contrary in India. 2004 – 2009 was a good time for the Indian economy and, consequently, for the company too. We did really well in India even though it was facing headwind externally in the economy. We were very fortunate to have a strong lift from the domestic front,he says.

Become Risk Averse and You Stagnate

Ravi believes that a guiding vision or plan is a key element of success. He set a target for himself right at the outset – he was going to take Microsoft India from a $150 Million to $1 Billion. True to his goal, he stopped only when he achieved it! Ravi reminisces, We were close to a billion dollars when I quit. India had achieved its spot. What was left to do was maintain it. My job was done.

It was time to do something different again! But he wasn’t sure what it was going to be. Yet, he moved out without a thought about what was next. It took a certain amount of self-awareness and a large dose of courage to make another such decision at a somewhat later stage in his career.

Usually, you hang on. You are afraid to network. It is not easy to leave such a salary and the perks. Even if you don’t enjoy it, it is comfortable. But I said this is not how I want to live, so I quit.

Introspect Often to Know Your Real Strengths

For Ravi, it is critical to know your strengths or, at the least, experiment until you find them, so that you can chart a course that is as much about success as it is about fun. His penchant is taking something that is already there so he can grow it. I like to scale. I don’t like the journey from 0 to 10 million. It is too small and boring. I enjoy taking large complex organizations and growing them,he says, acknowledging that it has taken sustained introspection on his part to come to that realization.

I am what is called today, intraprenuerial – being entrepreneurial within the context of an established organization. It is not because I am risk averse. I am willing to go there with nothing in it because I walked away from everything.

Ravi’s latest challenge, as Chairman of Bank of Baroda, seems to be just the thing he was looking for. The Bank is large and complex – 55,000 people, 5500 branches, 105 locations around the world, 66 million customers, and 108 years old!

India Will Change If Bright People Create Opportunities for Themselves

Since walking away from a corporate career, Ravi has become an author, a social investor and a passionate supporter for doing business in India, so we asked him for his views on all these fields.

His book ‘Conquering the Chaos: Win in India, Win Everywhere’ brings together his learnings of scaling companies in India for over two decades. Ravi believes that a truly global company will not just have presence and revenues in other geographies, rather, it will have a global mindset, that begins right at the top with a global-oriented CEO who promotes a culture of absolute meritocracy.

Your results are the only thing that matter. Which means you should have a fairly diverse group at the top.

On the Indian social sector, he believes that while there is no dearth of social sector initiatives in the country, the volume of their impact doesn’t match their numbers. The problem, Ravi says, is that they lack professional leadership hiring and scale. The best people are not going there.” In response, he founded Social Venture Partners India, a community of the best business leaders, philanthropists and active citizens, which aims at identifying the right organizations and help them rapidly scale their impact.

Finding the right talent, whether it is in the corporate sector or the social sector, is really a critical part of winning in India, according to Ravi. India will not change if bright people look for jobs. There are enormous opportunities. You have to go after them yourself,he says advocating entrepreneurship at every level. He believes that companies don’t need more well-rounded and politically correct leaders than there are already. Rather, they need people who are capable of transformation.

We need mavericks. They create magic. Great entrepreneurs are all angular. Yet, in terms of hiring senior people, we (in India) end up hiring ‘rounded’ people

When talking about right hiring, Ravi let us in on a little anecdote: He had once taken the GED test himself, and to his surprise, his result was, “Do Not Hire!” While we would all agree that this could not be further from the truth, it was also, inadvertently, the best compliment. For it is only the mavericks, the revolutionaries, that truly accomplish great things and change the world!

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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