[YS Learn] Leadership amidst crisis means embracing change, constantly innovating: Manoj Kohli of Softbank

In a conversation with YourStory, Manoj Kohli, Country Head, Softbank India, speaks about his many learnings on building and scaling companies, what founders needed to keep in mind, and how the new book he launched could help entrepreneurs convert crises into opportunities.
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Manoj Kohli took charge as Country Head of Softbank India in January 2020. He is responsible for SoftBank Group, SoftBank Vision Fund, and their over 20 digital/AI-focused portfolio companies. 

He works closely with the portfolio company founders and CEOs to address regulatory and government issues and secure timely approvals to enable their businesses to run smoothly and achieve their full potential.

Earlier, he was Executive Chairman - Softbank Energy (SB Energy), which started its business in India in 2015. SB Energy has achieved over 7GW of renewable energy - solar, wind and hybrid - capacity pipeline in India. It is also pursuing corporate PPAs with MNCs for large-scale RE plants with storage battery.

Manoj was MD and CEO, Bharti Airtel, for operations in 20 countries across Asia and Africa till 2015. He joined Bharti Airtel in 2002 as a President, Mobile Services business, and led creation of the unique business model. The high performance culture helped grow operations from two million customers to the third largest telco in the world with 400 million customers.

He recently launched Leadership in Unprecedented Times - A Step by Step Guide to Convert Crisis into Opportunities by Ritesh Vig. In a conversation with YourStory, Manoj spoke about the learnings from his journey and how the book can help young leaders today. 

Edited excerpts from the interview: 

YourStory (YS): The book you launched talks about leadership in crisis. What is your personal take? 

Manoj Kohli (MK): The book provides a future context of constant disruption for entrepreneurs and senior management. What I understand and the book also points out is that the economic, financial, and business environment will never be stable or static. It acts as a simple and good roadmap for all leaders in times of crisis. 

There will always be constant disruption that is primarily led by technology and digitisation. This demands that business models change and spur innovation, frugality, and cost efficiency

Finally, it will demand high performance from an organisation. It won’t be able to sustain if there is no high performance. This is what we need to focus on beyond the pandemic. 

Leaders of all businesses have to imbibe these ideas, accept digitisation, and focus on brand building. Models must change to bring in high ethics and performance. The new world doesn’t appreciate any ethical gaps. The execution focus has to be constant.

You have to be in the market every day, you need to fight every day, and you need to win every day. The vision and courage of leaders shows up in times of crisis. 

About 40 years back, SMEs believed they just had to continue what their fathers and grandfathers started. But today, they need to make a change, they need to bring in technology and a modern way of management.

YS: You have several decades of experience. What would you advise founders and entrepreneurs to do during crisis? 

MK: I have rich experience across multiple sectors such as telecom, energy, and manufacturing across different countries. 

In my close to four decades of work, I have learnt that you need to have a clear value structure. Core values form the foundation of an organisation. Once this is strong, it becomes easy to confront any crisis. 

You must also be clear on the strategic direction in the emerging environment context. If you don’t understand the emerging context in the next five to 10 years, you will be left behind. The pace of change today is fast, so you will be left behind faster if you don’t change quickly. 

Also, if your team’s execution ability is weak, it will be difficult for you to confront any crisis. The aggregate ability has to be superior, so that you can outpace the competition. These are a few pillars that can help any organisation confront any kind of crisis, and emerge a winner with more opportunities. 

YS: What do leaders need to keep in mind while pivoting or realigning their business models? 

MK: It is about acceptance of the change. We can say there are courageous and bold decisions to be made, but it isn’t like that. It is sometimes difficult to accept major change and this causes problems

According to me (and the book), look at the change; accept, embrace, and love it. Once you do that, it will be easier for you to change the model, the culture, and the product range accordingly. All changes become easy then. 

In the early stages of Airtel, in around November 2002, we had changed the business model, and adopted an outsourcing strategy - one of the first in the telecom world. We had accepted reality: that being a small and loss-making company, we had to do things differently if we had to make an impact. 

We don’t have deep pockets, like the AT&Ts of the world. We had to be brave and distinct; we had to do it with new strategies and business models. It meant taking support from local partners like Ericsson, Nokia, and IBM etc, and using their strengths to make ourselves bigger to face the competition. 

There was clarity in the team that this would be the environment in the next five to 10 years. We accepted the reality and built a new model. This applies to big, small, and medium companies. The problem is that many are still thinking in the past, and therefore find it difficult to find modern management solutions. 

YS: What has each crisis taught you and what can smaller businesses and startups learn? How can they adapt quickly? 

MK: It is all about leadership. We think fast change is not possible, but small companies can make changes faster because they are small and agile. They have a better probability of success, because they can change and adjust quickly, and have speed.

Today, digitisation has become affordable and easy to embrace. If there are young people leading, they can bring it faster.

YS: What steps can companies take during crisis at different stages?

MK: Every company will go through multiple crisis situations. There is competition crisis, there are regulation and government crisis, there are cost issues, and then performance and culture crisis. 

Strong, forward-looking leadership is the only way to success. If the leadership can do things in a systematic and orderly way, it can overcome every single crisis. 

In terms of financial crisis, companies that have more debt have more risk than those with reasonable debt. It is therefore important to keep debt as reasonable as possible. You just have to work harder for higher revenues and profits. It again boils down to product innovation and whether your sales and marketing efforts are strong.

YS: What advice would you give young founders today? 

MK: The main pieces of advice I would like to give are: 

  1. You have to make the basic product very attractive and affordable to the customer. If the product is fine, you can make anything happen and grow faster. 
  2. You need to plan a scale up. Deep planning is needed to scale 2x, 5x, or 10x. This needs new resources; it’s not just money; it’s also everything else. Many young leaders don’t plan properly and scale-ups don’t happen. 
Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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