In this episode of the Zinnov Podcast, Roopa Unnikrishnan, Head of Strategy at HARMAN and Award-winning author shares her leadership experiences with Pari Natarajan, CEO, Zinnov. Roopa and Pari discuss how internal and external jolts (like COVID) force leaders to rethink their fundamentals. Roopa, who first came up with the idea of ‘Jolts’ in her book ‘The Career Catapult’ shares anecdotes on how these inflection points make leaders find and practice courage that allow them to be effective when there are many variables and unknowns. Through the conversation, Roopa and Pari discuss the types of leaderships that exist and how the path of resilience lies effectively on the shoulders of those leaders that can strike a balance between business and humanity, and can stay authentic while they continually reinvent themselves.
Pari: Hi everyone. I am Pari Natarajan, CEO of Zinnov, and welcome to another episode of the Zinnov Business Resilience Podcast series. Today, we have with us Roopa Unnikrishnan, Head of Strategy at HARMAN International. Roopa wears many hats. She is an Arjuna award-winner sports shooter, a Rhodes Scholar, and an award-winning author of the Career Catapult, a book about shaking up the status quo and boosting one's professional trajectory. Welcome, Roopa. Thanks for taking out the time to be a part of this podcast.
Roopa: Thank you, Pari. It is so wonderful to be here and let me also congratulate you and your company on taking on the task of engaging with your people around business resiliency. It is the most important thing you can have in this day and age. Well done, and I am happy to be here.
Pari: Thanks, Roopa. Let me dive into the questions. In your book, the Career Catapult, you talk about jolting the status quo, shaking up things that are not working for someone. Today's COVID crisis is an external jolt for many organizations and individuals. Can you share with us what a jolt is and how can people make the most of it?
Roopa: Absolutely. Jolt is something that can happen externally inwards. It can be an economic crisis or the ultimate crisis that we are seeing today with COVID. But you also sometimes can generate your own jolt when you get introspective and think through - How did I land here? How did I make these choices? Are these the choices that I made? Or were they made for me? Those kinds of internal reflections can drive jolts as well. I can walk you through a couple of examples that I have in my book, which I have anonymized as a lot of them are now very successful executives. So, I will give you an example of an executive who worked in manufacturing, and her first big jolt was when she was told by the CEO that she has to close down some of the U.S. plants that she managed. So that is a big effort. Of course, she goes about doing it in a very humane, thoughtful way. But then came the bigger jolt because of the successful way in which she did it. She was made the business unit leader. Now the jolt there was almost the opposite type of jolt - and this is what happens when you are successful. So, there are a couple of things about manufacturing, right? Often, it is mechanical engineering-oriented, you get a lot of data through your ERP systems. So, your decisions are made with lots of inputs and it also tends to be a top-down process where decisions are made, and it percolates down - everyone goes like a machine like a military organism. Going into general management is a very different beast. You go from mechanical engineering to data, you go to software, you got to expand your mind suddenly, right? You also are going from a data but also set of spaces where you are going to make trade-offs that are based on assumptions, you are forecasting based on assumptions. So, there was a lot that this person suddenly found herself a little bit at sea. So, these are jolts that can come purely from a positive sort of outcome of like doing your job as well. So, to question what's the job, it can be negative, it can be positive, but it's about being in a very uncomfortable position.
Pari: Okay, it puts a person in an uncomfortable position. It could be external, like what is happening today or could be internal where that person can create a jolt for themselves. So, what are some of the changes you have made to your role to be effective during this COVID period? Do you consider this as a jolt for yourself?
Roopa: I do. For myself, for my team, in many ways, it has been a jolt. I do not want to undercut what we were doing in the past, but we could be a little bit ivory tower, right? Hey, here is the information. I am going to do a market analysis, do sort of benchmarking, come up with a proposal, or a recommendation, and I can step back and it's okay if that whole process took three months. I think in the current situation, we sort of saw the need to be much more agile. Now it is about selling the idea. So in many ways, there are parts of the business where I felt like hey, this is the time for us to pounce, because other people are struggling, there are technologies in the marketplace that we can jump into quickly and maybe capture fast. Meanwhile, there are parts of our business that have been going okay for a while, but if you thought about it is a future-oriented business? Probably not. So, I feel like this is the time that we need to be less of an academic and more of a salesperson of ideas. You got to be out there. So, this morning, I was up at 4 am because it was important for me to be in that conversation, right? Like the Hamilton musical. You got to be in the room when it happens. And that is a big difference.
Pari: So, the strategy role is changing and the influence and ability to sell your ideas become a lot more important. So, what are some of the inherent behavior changes happening in leaders as a result of the COVID crisis? How does it relate to the concept of jolt that you talk about in your book?
Roopa: I am finding that leaders that are aspirational leaders and I don't want to separate good and bad but I think some people are sort of a little bit deer in the headlights and others who are like, okay, the headlights are on, I've got to figure out where to go. There's that aspirational leader who's saying, "Okay, let us try and figure this out. Let us not sort of dwell on the issues. That is one part, which is about being action-oriented, being aspirational. And then the second part is the piece around being more humane, right? Because I think one of the issues that we are seeing today is you're making choices that have to be business sensitive, but also human sensitive. So, in our case, we've had a couple of people that we've lost in the COVID crisis but I'm proud to say that our HR system, our leadership system, has set up and stepped up in a way that allowed our people to take the time to be with family, take the time to make themselves safe, figured out all the virtual support that's required. And so that very proactive human element is I think, what is differentiating the aspirational leader from the leader in the headlights. So, as soon as the COVID crisis hit, and we all started working from home, I set up three meetings a week with my team, and everyone has to be on video and for that hour, there's no agenda. It's about checking in and understanding how can we be better coming out of the COVID crisis, as a company, as a team, and as humans, and that conversation is what I think helps a team to gel but also to open up new spaces.
Pari: It is really interesting. And there is a concept of a wartime CEO and a peacetime CEO. A wartime CEO is considered to be dictatorial, ruthless, while a peacetime CEO is considered to be democratic, empathetic. And what you are saying now is that this crisis almost needs both of this combined. You cannot do one or the other, you need both.
Roopa: That's right. In a way, if we look back to history, in India, think about Ashoka and how he has this horrible war, and then he does his introspection later. But I think of Gandhi as one of our wartime CEOs because in his case, we fought a true battle, and we won, and he did not lose his humanity through the whole process. So, I think war can have many different varieties and I think your legacy is based on whether you are the Gandhi model or an Ashoka model.
Pari: Very interesting. Roopa you work with a lot of start-ups as well. So, how do you see this advice translating to start-ups?
Roopa: Yeah, we have been working with a couple of start-ups, some of whom have not been able to afford to keep all their people. But interestingly, the successful ones recognize that there is a tomorrow there. It is not just about today and they are keeping their people and their product platforms alive. The second thing is a lot of them are doing more proactive reputation building. So, we are seeing with restauranteurs in New York City, for example, they are saying, 'Okay, I'm not going to be making a profit. But how about if the community funds me, I will cook for the hospitals out there, right?' Changing their models and knowing that this is not the time to make a profit. This is the time to survive because there is a tomorrow. And that perspective is an important one and through some of these models what I am learning is they're willing to learn. They are willing to stop and say that I'm going to take on a whole new space and that I will learn now because eventually, that will still be helpful. So let's say that we're only out of this in 2021, the Christmas season in that restaurant is going to be fabulous because we're all going to remember that this is the guy or gal who did the right thing at the tough time. So, it's interesting to see how people are building new skills, building new communities during this time.
Pari: It's very interesting and again going back to the concept of jolt and despite the external jolt, the aspirational leaders are building new skills and they're finding opportunities and with a belief that there is a tomorrow, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, however long the tunnel is, which is a great model to have. So how do you summarise in one sentence your advice to the corporate leaders across the world? We work with leaders in the US and India and other locations. What is your advice in one sentence?
Roopa: I would say inspire your people by standing and fighting, but also show that you care and are human.
Pari: Thanks, Roopa for your time and sharing the insights with us and thanks audience for patiently listening. Hopefully, you took what does a jolt mean and how do you now control your destiny and learn new behavior and also follow the Gandhian model of wartime CEO as compared to the Ashoka model of wartime CEO. Thanks, Roopa for the great insights.
Roopa: My pleasure. It's always a pleasure to collaborate with you. Thanks
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