Re-learning leadership , again


For the most part, I have had a pretty good career so far – not spectacular by any stretch of imagination , but can't complain either . And I attribute most of it to having great leaders who helped me grow.

My interest in leadership started for a simple (and awkward) reason – in the early part of my career, I had some really awful managers. My solution was to stand up for what was right in my mind and often leave the company as a result. So by the time I was given a leadership role – I was determined that I should not let any one in my team go through the trouble I had in the past. Roughly at the same time – I also had the good fortune to see what great leadership looks like (finally!) and it helped set my expectations more appropriately.

One thing became abundantly clear to me over time – learning how to be a good leader is a journey and never a destination . There are no "here are 12 things to do" that serves as a magic bullet . You need to constantly calibrate where you are and seek the needed help to improve. This unfortunately doesn't mean that I followed through on it – I have some ways to go 🙂

Thanks in a large part to the less than stellar leadership I got when I started out – I have become a big fan of mentoring young men and women who are starting out in their careers. I also spend a lot of my time mentoring first line managers . This serves two purposes – the highest energy comes from the entry level colleagues and I get to channel it for the good of the business , and I don't become a bottleneck to the process since the first line managers get a better perspective on why their success is totally dependent on the success of their team.

To enable this behavior – I have long had a rule that anyone can get 15 mins on my calendar , no questions asked. Not everyone takes me up on it – but several do. And it does get overwhelming at times.

This is when my friend Stephanie Anderson, an HR leader in IBM, gave me some invaluable advice . She told me "You cannot mentor everyone – you need to let others help you". Pretty straightforward and I should have known it – but the truth is that I did not . I am pretty good with delegation – as any of my direct reports can vouch for . But when it comes to mentoring , clearly I sucked at delegation . So thanks to Steph giving me timely feedback – I have woken up to the reality and have started enlisting the help of others to help mentor more of our younger colleagues . Thanks Steph ! And since no good deed should go unpunished , I am now pushing a bunch of mentoring requests to Steph as well 🙂

The first few years of my professional life was actually quite calm – I learned programming and project management and got to apply it at projects and had the time to develop my skills. I did not have to do much more than take classes couple of times a year to stay on top of it . Then it started changing – technology started moving at faster pace and I realized I need to get into a "learning is for all of your life" paradigm . And that has only helped me in my life – actually on personal front too . Folks starting out today don't have the luxury I had of starting slow !

For a long time, I wondered why I was signed up for classes like "executive presentations" and "executive negotiations" when I was not even close to being an executive . But in hindsight – pushing me to take those classes was one of the best things my mentor Ken Englund did for me more than a decade ago. It taught me that the sooner you learn things – even if they are hard and they don't apply immediately to your work – the faster you make an impact . And trying new skills in early part of your career is a lot less risky than trying them later.

So when last fall when our North America managing partner Ismail Amla asked me to sponsor the core consulting school for senior managers , I jumped in with both feet. I still wonder why he chose me given he was fairly new to IBM at the time and we didn't know each other very well at the time . In any case I said yes before he changed his mind 🙂

I was also taking over a new day job running a large ( well large for me, not really that large for IBM) portfolio in parallel . I sure had my moments of stress – but it was the best experience in my time at IBM bar none .

To begin with, I had no idea how much care and effort it takes to put on a comprehensive learning event – and the Pre and post school activities . Fortunately I was paired with experienced learning experts like Debi Steinbacher , Lorraine Rapuano and other colleagues . We also managed to find a team of volunteers from amongst the partners and associate partners in the firm to be the teachers . It's pure magic when a team of passionate people come together with a common purpose – and now Bee School has taken a life of its own and is growing from strength to strength . And here is a shout out to Pooja and Andrea for coming up with the name "Bee School" !

My favorite part of these schools are the "ask me anything" sessions . When you can ask and answer hard and often uncomfortable questions, you start growing !

Last week at dinner, Lorraine told me "you are the Zen master of Bee school" given how I apparently had a calming influence during the chaotic times we went through in preparation . Well, if I was Zen – it's only because I had, and continue to have, full confidence in the amazing team around to me . And also along the way , I learned that it's foolish to stress about things you can't control 🙂

Success breeds success – and the confidence I got from being part of this team that put together Bee School led me to start a second learning initiative that I lovingly call the T-school which is where we focus on technology training , like AI and IOT . We ran the pilot couple of weeks ago and it was a lot of fun hacking AI solutions with 30 of our new engineers . And again – it only happened because we brought together a team that was super passionate about the cause and leaders from the business took time out of their day job and came in as teachers. I lucked out having a great partner in Andreana Miller from our learning team and a bunch of new friends from our global team .

And in the process, the Bee school got a fantastic upgrade too . Susan Wedge , a dear friend and a great leader of our public sector business , took over Bee school sponsor role from me . I can't wait to see her take it to even greater heights !

Not only was the investment in learning good for my soul and fun for all of us – it had some side benefits too in my day job . I now have a MUCH better appreciation of what great looks like and how iteration is far superior to aiming for upfront perfection . And best of all – there are now several new ideas for making our clients more successful . It's just fascinating watching what happens when high potential people are given the tools and freedom they need . Pure magic !

One last point before this plane lands in SFO – we all know that asking for help is a good thing . What I realized in the past few months is that asking for help should not be just to your senior management – a lot of help can and does come from your team as well . I can't tell you how cool it is to see my young engineers and consultants jump in and solve problems with high quality when I requested their support . And their energy is infectious – and has convinced me beyond a shred of doubt that I have more help to ask 🙂

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7 thoughts on “Re-learning leadership , again

  1. Vijay, I really like that you chose to include that last paragraph in your blog. The mentoring spirit you discuss at the beginning of your blog shows up in many ways beyond the formal arrangements you make. Certainly encouraging the junior members of your team to jump in to the middle of hard problems is part of that. And having them perform as they have, to me, demonstrates the respect they have for you as a leader and their willingness to engage sustainably above and beyond their day jobs to help you be successful in helping pull up the organization. Certainly this type of engagement is what all leaders should strive to encourage and support. Cheers!

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  2. Thanks Vijay for sharing your thoughts on leadership. It is always a pleasure reading your blogs and motivate us to excel and take the challenging journey. I totally agree on mentorship and always good to have a good mentor irrespective of field you are in. I have been your ardent follower since your SAP days. Great, love to read more. Cheers..!!!

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  3. Vijay, I really work hard not to comment on your blogs. A Diamond is a diamond and no need to repeat. But you are writing something that has profound impact and the truth you never mind to write such as what made you to leave the company, calling out bad managers and experiences you had, great people who have helped you and most importantly the reality of “title less” communication with junior people. Either you need to stop writing or I need to stop reading your blogs. I know both will not happen. I became an addict to read your blogs as soon as it is out!

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