Forged in Chaos – Lessons To Be A Good Crisis Leader

In this episode of the Zinnov Podcast, V Laxmikanth (VLK), Managing Director of Broadridge India shares his perspectives on the leadership qualities of a good crisis leader, and what it takes for a leader to be effective to manage personal, organizational and people transformations in a turbulent business environment and at scale.

The waves and troughs of the pandemic have made navigating the current business environment turbulent to say the least. It has presented leaders with problems not documented in any playbooks and demands a completely unique approach – both from a business and a people angle. With remote work, regulatory requirements, large-scale technology transformations, and change management issues being thrown into the mix, leaders, and organizations have had to rely on core leadership fundamentals to not just survive but thrive.

In this episode of the Zinnov Podcast, Nitika Goel, CMO of Zinnov talks to V Laxmikanth (VLK), Managing Director of Broadridge India to understand his perspectives on the leadership qualities of a good crisis leader, especially in the face of so many unknowns. VLK shares his insights on the defining traits of a crisis leader and how they must create a fine balance of personal and professional priorities. VLK shares examples and practical recommendations on what it takes to achieve this balance and how despite being forged in chaos, a good crisis leader displays character to deal with his/her problems and people with compassion.


Transcript

Nitika: Hi Everyone, welcome to another episode of the Zinnov podcast. I'm Nitika Goel, CMO of Zinnov, and your host for today. The current crisis has perhaps presented the world with one of the most colossal tests of leadership. It demands the ability to act and not just react. It demands courage and fearlessness in every decision and a high degree of accountability. It demands empathy and compassion. Leaders have had to manage huge transformation and business changes while having to cope with their personal crises and fears. They have had to find their own balance while walking the tightrope on the other side of this pandemic. This pandemic has most certainly redefined leadership as we know it.

To learn and understand a little bit more about what leadership means in a time of pandemic and what it means to be a crisis leader I have with me today V Laxmikanth, also known as VLK. VLK is the Managing Director of Broadridge India and has more than three decades of rich industry experience. VLK, with who I've had the privilege of interacting for a long while now is known for his unique brand of leadership and his unmatched ability to bring out the human side of business. Thank you so much for being with us today VLK.

VLK: Thanks Nitika for having me. It's a pleasure talking to you and your team. As always, I personally find it energizing to talk to you all. So, thank you for having me.

Nitika: I'm so glad to have you here. So VLK, since I learned from you almost on a daily basis, when I hear you talk or in any interaction that we have, I'm going to start with a little bit more personal question - How did this pandemic change your leadership style? And what did you need to course correct in your personal capacity from this point forward?

VLK: It's a great question. As you know, none of us were, expecting this pandemic and that too of this magnitude, right? If you really think about it, this was essentially a healthcare crisis, which then became an economic crisis. So there's no playbook to it. And a lot of organizations, the more mature ones have typically playbooks for most situations. So this one, there is no playbook. And personally, for me, I think the biggest learning slash challenge was the fact that I'm more leader who does his management, kind of walking around and talking to people. So in a pandemic, when you're locked at home, that is kind of cut off. So in many ways, the oxygen has been cut off for me in terms of people interaction. So how do you continue to engage your colleagues, your associates, when you really don't have direct contact, this is the biggest change in leadership style. So in order to do that, I think you need to spend a lot more time on communication, which is, you need to make it your way of life and put a method to it. You have a list of people to talk to, in defined ways of talking, not just business, but also the personal side. And as we get into a phone like conversation, the interactivity and the kind of conversation that you have around a coffee table, or the cafeteria - that is something that I was trying to create. So I'm not saying I have mastered it but I'm trying to change and incorporate that part of leadership style.

Nitika: Got it. It is a very interesting point that you raised that it is almost like cutting off your oxygen supply, which is obviously an instinct, given the way you interact with people. What, in your opinion, are the key traits of a pandemic leader? And how did you trickle down those traits to the next level of your leaders almost institutionalizing it as a part of your broader organization culture?

VLK: I mean, I don't know whether you want to call it a pandemic leader. I would say that it's a crisis, right. It could be any crisis, it could be, you know, potentially a takeover or you're asking people to go, so there are various times organizations go through a crisis and the defining thing for most crises is uncertainty. At the bottom of it all, we don't know what's going to happen. And whether the crisis is going to get over in a day, or two days, how are we going to handle it? How are we going to respond? Crisis typically, as I said, means there's no playbook. And the second thing is there's uncertainty, and as human beings, we don't like uncertainty, right? We have a fight or flee response. And for most leaders at that point in time, it is about giving people comfort. So it is, I think it's very simple, it's like an event when things are going wrong, I think that a leader standing up and saying, “Guys, don't worry, we have this covered,” and that these are the four or five things that we are doing. And at the same time, the leader should also exhibit vulnerability.

He can't be saying that this is a crisis, we are Superman, we should handle everything now. The leader also needs to show that he's also vulnerable, he also is a little uncertain, at the same time, you know, have confidence, right, and on project confidence, that things will get better. And as an organization, we have the resilience to handle it. And as human beings, we have the resilience to handle the crisis. So, I think those should be the key messages that a leader should give, whether it's a pandemic or any crisis. The key is how do you handle uncertainty. Even at home, right, let's say there's a crisis, all you typically do is kind of reassuring each other that we are strong, and we get to work. And there's always a father figure in the family, similarly, the leader is the father figure in an organization. So he needs to be able to comfort people. So that's where I think there's a difference between a manager and a leader, right. And this is where managers fall short, because manager, in my opinion, most often is about managing numbers and, people respect you for the designation you are in and not because of yourself, right? And when people respect you for yourself, then this gets a lot more comforted.

Nitika: So, the second part of my question was about how do you institutionalize this as a part of organizational culture? How do you teach this kind of leadership to the men and women in your company and the leaders in your company?

I don't know. I don't think we can ever really teach this. I mean, I'm not saying there's an inborn trait, etc, etc. So I would say, typically, what happens is different leaders have different styles. For example, it’s a T-20 match, last couple of overs, Dhoni in his prime, looking so cool and you believe that can get you through, but there could be a Virat Kohli also doing the same thing. But Kohli may be a lot more emotional, but he will still get it through. So, I think you need to figure out what your leadership style is, and you need to use your strengths. But at the same time in a crisis, people need to translate this strength into some reassurance that you will get them through it. So, there is no formula for it. They just think that we can give an FAQ, and everybody goes and edits the FAQ, and we are done. So that probably works in a regular situation, but in a crisis, the emotional quotient that the leader can bring to the table is extremely important. You cannot teach that. So, this is something that people could easily evolve over a period. I believe it is good for people to go through a crisis or leaders to go through a crisis for them to understand their styles.

Nitika: So, I think you talked about a crisis and a crisis now in a remote scenario adds another very fine layer to it, right? The whole work from home. And I think you already talked about this in the beginning, that finding the pulse of your organization, when you are not co-located also brings its own set of challenges. You talked about the fact that you are putting together some processes, it would be great to understand how you're enabling that and how you're building this cohesive culture remotely?

VLK: So if you really think of it, I think the fundamental change that leaders need to know is, especially when you're working from home, is that there's a fine line between synchronous and asynchronous communication. So, what is synchronous and asynchronous, as you know, we're all there together, we can bring everyone to your meeting room, we begin very quickly to understand the status, right? And all of us are used to that. Asynchronous is more about the fact that you give a task to somebody, and he/she is going to do that at their own pace and obviously, with the whole team, but then you don't micromanage them on a day-to-day basis. If you do that, then the entire flexibility of working from home goes away. So, what I mean, for example, let us say I'm at home. All of us have lunch at one o'clock. But if my boss insists that every day, I meet him at one o'clock, I lose the flexibility of being at home, and I do not then enjoy being at home and I don’t enjoy the meeting as well. So, if my boss says, ‘No, I do not care, just get your job done and let me know when you're done. If you have an issue, just let me know.’ Then I can work at my pace and I need to make sure I am still collaborating with my team. So, I think the biggest change that we can bring is instil the fact that asynchronous model of working is a way for success in remote working, micromanagement is not. So, what typically organizations do especially now, is that they will say you need to talk to your people. And then there is a spreadsheet maintained that defeats the purpose, because then you are getting too intrusive, and to micromanage it. So, what we have been working very consciously, is to tell our people that you don't have to micromanage people in their time, you need to allow them to work at their pace, and make sure the delivery is happening in a synchronous manner. So that is the biggest change that we are trying to institutionalize across the organization.

Nitika: So, VLK that is a very interesting point. You said there is a lot more leadership training a lot more leadership direction. So often, I am pretty sure the leaders themselves are very exhausted because in addition to their regular work, managing people's expectations, other people's fears, and also finding a balance between their own personal and professional lives. So how does a leader continue to find balance and also, more importantly, a continued sense of purpose, and a leadership narrative, even when there's no end date in sight for this crisis?

VLK: This is a fantastic question. I think there are three parts to it, right? If you look at it, from an individual perspective, when we all started this work from home, it was all fun, because it was new. We felt that this is going to get done in another couple of months. So, everybody was home, and obviously, people had nothing else to do anyway, so we kind of worked more and were a lot more productive. But once people realized that this is a long haul, I think people need to relook at the way they work from home. So, one is obviously like I said, basic infrastructure - make sure you're comfortable, etc. Secondly, and I think I will use the word wisdom, and I will not use the word discipline – we need to be wise about how we work. There should be fixed timings. There should be some more flexibility, but you need to have some discipline about when I'm working and fully engaged on that and that I'm not doing anything else. You also need to take appropriate breaks. So it requires a lot more discipline because it's easy for you. After all, you are not commuting right. So you're going from one room to the other or you know, one table to the other to work, so it's very easy to get into a 24X7 work schedule, and then that will cause fatigue that will cause depression, etc. So, consciously you need to take breaks and put in a routine. Secondly, I think we tend to underestimate the importance of physical health and eating right, and more importantly exercising right. So, discipline in terms of work habits, discipline, in terms of exercising and getting the right nutrition is extremely key, okay. Let us talk of leadership more at the senior and middle and executive levels. So, at mid-level and even at the project level, things are a lot more fast-paced, so you are more comfortable in this environment. But as you grow more senior, your job is two things right. One is to make sure the organization is delivering. Secondly, communicate the vision of the organization to the associates. To do that you have to establish connectedness - there is no way that you can communicate a vision without connectedness. So one of the things, for example, what we are doing is, we are kind of working out a program/plan, where we tell leaders and even associates that one of the measures for how they should rate themselves as doing well in a pandemic, and work from home is how many relationships they have built outside their teams? How many conversations they have had? For example, I'm working on a certain project. I know the people in my team, great. I probably talk to them 10 times a day. But there could be another team, which I am not connected with. How am I building relationships in a virtual setting? So, we are trying to say that the situation is important, not the physical location, and you need to create situations to make your connection. So that is second. The third part of what we're trying to do - for the partners, what we're telling our leaders is, when you're talking to people, I think there should be three tracks that you talk about - one is you should be talking about the purpose and meaning of the organization so that people still understand and connect to it. The second thing is you should talk about non-work-related things. And the third thing is about the conversation. So, every meeting should probably have, these three aspects to the senior level. So that is the overall high-level structure that we are working towards.

Nitika: That is a great set of points that you made me VLK. Just sort of synthesizing what you talked about - you said having high EQ is very important, managing synchronous and asynchronous communication, having a discipline, and establishing a routine so you are not overwhelmed. Spending a little time being physically active and taking care of both your mind and body. And last, but not least connecting with your colleagues across multiple dimensions, be it the purpose and the meaning of the organization, be it non-work-related things, having both a professional and a personal connection in a very seamless manner. So, I think those are great points and encompasses leadership holistically. And like you very rightly, said, it's not just about this pandemic, it's really about dealing with any crisis. And this could be things that hold them in good stead. But before we let you go, I think it would be really interesting to have our listeners get a sense from you in terms of the things that make a difference and impact you as a leader. So, I'm going to put you in front of rapid-fire, and if that works for you.

VLK: Sure. Great.

Nitika: So, which is a book that you have read recently, but that has left a huge impact on you?

VLK: Interestingly, I re-read some of the books. There is a very, very good book called The Agile Gene by Matt Ridley - I read that. In this book, he talks about the basics. He talks about whether nature or nurture defines a human being. And I have always been fascinated by it. Because, if you think of it from an organizational perspective, it talks about how much nurture is important, which means creating an environment is important, and how much of nature – the innate skills and talent are important. So, I always found it very interesting. This is a great book on that one, and I loved it.

Nitika: Fantastic. Whose crisis leadership style has impressed you most in the recent past?

VLK: I would say the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. If you think of what she is accomplished, whether it is the terrorist crisis or the COVID crisis, she seems to be so calm and composed, and you know, on top of things and yet very approachable. So, she seems to know what she wants to do. She seems to be composed. As I said, she seems to be able to inspire people and at the same time remain down to earth. So, I think I like that.

Nitika: What are some of the interesting skills that you picked up in a lockdown?

VLK: I would not say interesting skill. I would say that kind of appreciation for the family. So in the last six months, I have spent more time with my kids and my wife than I spent in the last 30 years. So that to me has brought a slightly different perspective. Now we all talk about work-life balance, etc, right? I kind of understood it, I probably understood it academically. But once you spend time at home, then you will understand why it's important. Why a work-life balance is important and why you need to have interests and other activities outside of your work. So, I would say that for me is learning and that is what I kind of invested in. I tried to understand a little more about what my kids are doing and tried to connect with them. For example, my elder one is doing a doctorate in medical anthropology. So, I'm just trying to understand what that means. My younger one has done a master's in education policy - so a lot of very interesting learnings from them. And, and it's a very different way of thinking, whether it's in an anthropologist or somebody from the education field. So, I would say learning that kind of skills and inculcating the right brain kind of thinking and more connectedness with everybody.

Nitika: Fantastic. And right, before we sign off, what would be the one word of advice to any crisis leader out there?

VLK: Well, I think we should have self-belief. Okay. Self-belief is very important. Because at the end of the day, self-belief matters. If you do not believe in yourself, then who else is going to believe in you anyway. So if you believe in yourself that you will be able to overcome, I think you'll be able to overcome and if you believe that you will not be able to overcome, then you will not be able to overcome. So, I think self-belief is the key and you should believe in yourself.

Nitika: Absolutely. I think those are some very, very profound words of wisdom before we end this podcast. Once again, thank you VLK for your time. As always, it is a pleasure and a learning experience talking to you. To our listeners, thank you so much for listening to this episode of the Zinnov podcast.

VLK: Thank you. Truly appreciate it. And, as always, the pleasure is mutual. I always love talking to you guys. And as you know, Zinnov is a great organization. You guys got great leadership, great values. Truly a privilege to be associated with you guys.

Nitika: Thank you so much VLK.


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