Democratizing Leadership: Leadership qualities that build organizational resilience

In this episode of the Zinnov Podcast, Jaya Kumar, Vice President and Managing Director of Sabre India shares how democratized leadership builds organizational resilience. Sabre a travel technology behemoth withstood the impact of COVID by democratizing leadership and honing crisis leadership qualities across the organization enabling it to respond effectively and with agility to the many unknows that emerged during this pandemic.

COVID-19 threw sand into the gears of many industries, and one industry that came to an almost grinding halt was Travel & Hospitality. Despite the massive setback, the industry has demonstrated unparallel crisis leadership, redefining, re-structuring, re-designing, and reimagining their organizations from within. Organizations have upended the way they operate, democratizing leadership to build distributed, yet federated organizational resilience.

In this episode of the Zinnov Podcast, we have Jaya Kumar, Vice President and Managing Director of Sabre India, sharing his perspectives on how the Travel industry is fortifying itself in this time of crisis. Jaya shares Sabre’s decision to tap into the leadership qualities across levels, across the world, to go beyond resilience and become truly anti-fragile. Jaya shares interesting anecdotes, frameworks, and processes used to institutionalize a truly democratized leadership style. His examples are a rich mix of his diverse experience and practioners lens, on driving effective leadership outcomes.


Transcript

Nitika: Hi everyone, and welcome to another episode of the Zinnov podcast. I am Nitika Goel, CMO of Zinnov, and your host for today. A common theme during this pandemic has been the theme of scarcity - scarcity of hospital beds, scarcity of medicine, and for many businesses, the scarcity of customers. Some verticals have been more severely impacted than others, and the travel and hospitality segment is definitely one of them. The fight for survival or the means to weather the storm, in our experience of working with customers across the world, has been the resourcefulness of its people and its leadership. What they have demonstrated in these volatile times is what has been key to their survival and growth. Sabre Corporation is a travel and technology company based in South Lake Texas, and its India Center has been playing a key role in helping them weather the storm. Sabre India has done something very unique by democratizing leadership at multiple levels, which enable their people to innovate and become more efficient. I have with me today, Jaya Kumar, Vice President and Managing Director of Sabre India, who's going to share with us his journey of the whole democratization of leadership and what it took to deliver on this hybrid approach. Jaya has more than 30 years of industry experience, and has played a key role in driving their innovation capabilities, technology solutions, and obviously, at this particular point in time, the leadership journey that has helped them come out more resilient. Welcome to this episode of the Zinnov podcast Jaya.

Jaya: Hi Nitika. First of all, let me say thank you for having me on the podcast. And I'm privileged to be able to share some thoughts on how we are navigating this journey. And I remember people when they want to wish somebody luck, would say, may you live in interesting times, I don't think anybody would have thought that this thing would transform as it is today into may you live in unprecedented times. And so these are both times of exciting skills, as well as learning new capabilities, as well as figuring out how to navigate an organization through what could be called choppy waters.

Nitika: Great. I love the analogy of choppy waters. And it's just a perfect segue into what we're going to be talking about today - Democratizing leadership. COVID and the lockdown have undeniably had a deep impact on the travel and hospitality segment. And the digital transformation has been a key lever in combating its aftereffects. What has the leadership strategy been for Sabre to drive this rapid digital transformation?

Jaya: Really interesting question Nitika. Essentially, much before COVID hit us, Sabre was actually already on a transformational journey. Our CEO, Sean E. Menke had what could be called BHAG - a big hairy audacious goal, which was to create a new marketplace for personalized travel, many times larger than that existed today, and I'm talking about the pre-COVID times by, say 2025. And to accomplish that, we had put together a transformation plan, which involves technology transformation, focusing on low-cost carriers, working on personalized shopping, and also focusing on the area of hospitality.

So, these plans actually got set in the last quarter of 2019 and were rolled out in January of 2020, and at that time, everybody was unaware of what was waiting for us down the road. Then when slowly the awareness began to dawn on people that there was a crisis of a really big magnitude developing, it became very apparent that the first group of industries or the first group of areas that would get hit would be travel and hospitality. And this implies two things. First, a crisis is always an opportunity. And second, that we have to hold our innovation strategy in place while also responding to the customers' requirements to meet what was the new crisis that was developing. So our leadership had a global strategy for the organization kept in place and products are developed across the globe, which leadership distributed across the globe. And as the organization started facing the crisis, which is airlines, hotels, cruise lines, car rental agencies, all of them would begin to require, what kind of travel would be allowed in the new context, what kind of hotels, they would be allowed in the new context. And so the platform that supported them also needed to provide these capabilities. So if you take a look at how you travel today, you need a new kind of documentation, you probably require touchless travel, your seating in Airlines has to support social distancing and the platform and the software that allow airlines and also hotels to operate like this. Those kinds of innovations being rapidly brought into the product were done by the teams in the different centers, where our products are being developed, and the teams are located. And this was done in as rapid a fashion as possible, so that the airlines could then figure out as the travel dwindles, and eventually stabilizes at a very low level, and then picks back again, after so many months, but still requiring these strong constraints while traveling, there's often a need to support that.

If you notice, there was a need for leadership to respond to the immediate, now normal, as they call it, and then we had our own organization's clients to deal with a new normal, which is playing the long game - increasing the market for personalized travel, and completely reimagining the travel experience. And so, the organization focused on making sure that the momentum was maintained on both fronts. And here lies the story of how the organization made sure that all the leaders in different parts of the organization of a very far widespread and far-flung company, which operates in more than 62 countries globally, was able to bring both these strategies together and in place as we progress through this process.

Nitika: Very interesting narratives. And I like your whole analogy of you know, playing both the short game as well as the long game. So one of the key things, obviously, you talked about a very involved global leadership. So typically, we've seen that companies are either heavily centralized or decentralized, to ensure efficiencies and responsiveness during the crisis. What approach did Sabre take, and what were some of the leadership tenets behind this thing?

Jaya: As you mentioned, the Sabre corporation is a very, very spread out Corporation, we are present in so many countries around the globe, and we have been so for many decades. Each country or each area or region may have its own requirements, regulatory requirements, social requirements, business demands, and so on. So if we have a central leadership, and what the central leadership focused on, the moment, we figured out, what was coming in, was to make sure that the organization direction was made very clear, which is, the strategic transformation goals, perhaps at a slower momentum if the situation demanded it but we needed to continue it, as well as respond to what was coming on as a new normal, rather than now normal. And so balancing both became the key.

So the central leadership made sure that they could see as far as possible, how long the crisis would last, and therefore make sure that the organization was rightly geared and structured to navigate that time period - very importantly. And second, the focus on both immediate innovation and long-term innovation was held in place with appropriate emphasis as required, which meant in the initial stages, we focus on making sure that our products were able to support what our customers and our partners needed. And in the long run, we have to continue to make sure that we will be able to do that once this crisis is over. And more importantly, this is a time of what you would call a VUCA environment - Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. So, what became very evident to our central leadership was communication about what the organization was doing, how strong it was, and where the emphasis was needed to be very clearly rolled out to the organization. Once that was done, that is the direction was set it asked the local leadership to step up and make sure that each of their areas was adequately staffed and adequately able to carry through whatever was required to meet the exigencies of the immediate operating requirements, as well as keep the focus on the long term strategic imperatives as we call them internally, are maintained.

Nitika: That's a very interesting point that you made. You talked about the guardrails being provided at a central leadership level. However, a lot of autonomy being given at the different centers and hubs. So when, in a sense, you're talking about a democratized style of leadership, what are the key enablers of such leadership? And how can this be codified in the culture of an organization across all levels?

Jaya: Thank you for making a very astute observation. The fact is that an organization cannot overnight develop these skills. There needed to be, perhaps some elements to be in place, and the culture needed to already be evolving to allow people to work in both modes, where they are aligned with an overall direction, as well as having a lot of local autonomy to bring their skills and expertise to bear. In most organizations, by and large, in the past, leadership development has been a top-down approach driven perhaps by the people leader - by the Chief people officer and the people team - and if you look at leadership, there are two aspects to it. One - each individual aims to develop skills to be able to navigate this environment. Never mind which area or which industry he/she is operating in, you could term this as a horizontal capability development to learn how to solve complex problems and master complex challenges. And the other is actually the 'being' part of the leader, building the strength of character, being able to weather ups and downs of different times, and also being unfazed by a setback if you were to choose to call this a vertical development.

Many times, when you do a top-down driven approach, people think of 'Hey, we will provide them with this leadership skill once a year. And you're done.' It's like a one and done approach. Or the person who is the best programmer, speaking of our software industry, and then tends to be appointed as the leader of the team. However, the skills required for leadership are very different. And the skills required in a democratized setup is even more difficult. So one of the things that we have in Sabre Bangalore is we have a whole set of programs that we run through the year. And we allow people to encourage self-select themselves. So people come up and volunteer for running these programs. And these could be things like running code items, things like running an innovation effort, in a specific vertical, it could be running what could be an employee day. And so individuals volunteer, and they come up and form a self-regulated, self-managed teams. Then they also know that their role is to perhaps fashion the nature of that particular program that they've taken up, come up with options and alternatives, and then seek help when required, and then come and present it to the chief stakeholders to make sure that they are on the right track, and then be responsible for the results.

So this opportunity to self-select themselves into leadership roles for a limited period, where they gain the skills to interact with multiple stakeholders while driving an activity through to completion, working with another set of leaders coming in from different areas of expertise is pretty much par for the course at Sabre Bangalore. And in some sense, it makes the individuals responsible for their growth. And very often we have seen that individuals may be great subject matter experts, but they may not necessarily be great leaders, which may require additional experiences for them to become great leaders. And so we allow the individuals to self-select themselves to volunteer in some sense, and then to step into a team of individuals, volunteer, figure out how they will work together, get empowered, and also learn to seek help when they know that there are areas that they really don't know how to navigate. Once that is done, then they really come up with ideas, come up with recommendations, and sometimes they get shot down. And so you need a lot of emotional maturity to accept the fact that hey, people thought that this was not meeting the objective, and then go back perhaps almost to the drawing board or figure out ways of modifying their proposals. So since this kind of environment prevails in the organization it helped us meet the crisis also. I would like to say that that has actually been a part of our organizational fabric for a while.

Nitika: Got it. Really great points. I'm going to ask you more because a lot of companies may not already have the structure that you do. How do you think one could seed that culture? Are there any recommendations that you have on how to put together the self-regulating team and cross-functional teams?

Jaya: Great question. I have to say that enough of the credit has to go to the Sabre CEO and the team. Perhaps around 2018 or so, they brought into the organization, few frameworks. And let's pick one - it's called the RAPID framework. I'm not sure whether you're familiar with it. It's a decision-making framework where the word RAPID stands for, let's say, R stands for somebody who Recommends; A stand for somebody who has to Agree, P stands for somebody who Performs; I stands for people to give Inputs, and the D is where the decision lies. So when you have this framework of you can get a set of leaders together, who are recommenders, who agree, who can lead the operationalization of decisions, and perhaps a really senior leader with gray hair, in the overall organizational context, who will take responsibility of saying, Okay, this is the way we will go. This framework was already brought into the company at different levels so that people were clear - 'hey, in this team, I am in this role. And as a leader, I have to develop options, if I'm going to recommend one out of three.' And somebody else would say I'm an impacted party and I need to agree, and I need to agree responsibly if I feel that the solution is meeting my needs, and I need to call it out if I feel that it's not. And so people had a framework in which to exhibit appropriate leadership behaviors while allowing the decision or the D to rest with somebody who will eventually decide. And it's a form of shared leadership, where each leader's role gets in some way, put into a framework, and allows people to work together without getting into each other's ways. Otherwise, many times, we have seen, at least in my long career, I have seen that sometimes the teams that are chartered with accomplishing an activity tend to get into either analysis paralysis, or into squabbles, and then the progress tends to get stalled. So given that this context was in place, this allowed us to do this.

Nitika: Right, I think those are extremely interesting points. I know for a fact, based on our last discussion, that this model actually held you in good stead during this entire pandemic. And one of your teams really came together to mobilize the India center to be one of the most responsive centers and to respond to this crisis. So it would be great if you could share a little bit more perspective and insights and anecdotes on what you did uniquely, to set up this cross-functional team, and how were you able to respond better as a function of the same?

Jaya: Absolutely. And as I was mentioning earlier, as the crisis was developing, it was not very clear, what was the overall shape and contours of the crisis, it looked like something was happening, and some locations were impacted. So, people from those locations had to be careful, travel was restricted to those locations, and the worldwide impact was not even visible. But there were some leaders in our organization, who began to see that this was beginning to sweep across the globe. So what they did, they took a step back, started monitoring the global pace of this pandemic, as it developed. And there were two parts to the crisis. One is the biological crisis, which is the Pandemic and the other is the economic crisis because as business activity tanked, it will start impacting revenues, especially for companies like us, which are in travel & hospitality. And so correlating the two it began to show up that the crisis was beginning to snowball.

The interesting thing was that there were a couple of folks in our office who spotted this and began to alert the leaders that, what we are beginning to see is looking far, far more serious than anything anybody has ever seen, so we may need to react to it. Can you folks, please also make sure that the perspective in our head office in Dallas is similar. Or perhaps they have a broader view. We also had a global team being set up around the same time and our leadership here then pulled together what we call a site operations team. This team has membership from finance, from facilities from IT, from security, from the people team, it has all the senior VPs, it has people from ops for budget and cost impacts - and they came together, thinking very clearly that we needed to go into lockdown as quickly as possible. And interestingly, the view had not come to that point, even in Dallas. So there were a couple of long drawn out discussions with data being presented, saying that we needed Bangalore to go into lockdown, and we went into lockdown on March 15, ahead of the rest of the company, which stood us in extremely good stead. So that in some sense cushioned us from the impact of having perhaps a spread happen in our office at that time.

The other thing that the site operations team did was as we went into lockdown, we realized that business operations needed to keep running in the best way possible. So for example, new employees who were made offers will join us, and how would we onboard them, reach a laptop to them for them to be able to start working or learning and coming up to speed. So this entire team, the security team, the tech team, the people team, all got together to rework the entire process and figured out how to make this happen. Then, we also ran, interestingly, an intern hiring program, which had completed just a few weeks ago, and our team figured out completely how to run this entire hiring process remotely. And then as they come on board, if we are still in the situation, we have a mechanism to onboard them and get them assimilated into the organization and integrate them with their teams, which has all been made possible because of the Site Ops team coming together.

Nitika: It's quite a bit that was done. And I think they say right, in crisis, we come together and be stronger, almost become antifragile. And I think that is truly been reflective of the way Sabre Global and Sabre India has reacted to this crisis. Thank you so much, Jaya, for your invaluable time, I think we talked about a very structured framework on what it will take to build a truly democratized culture and a leadership style where you promote that across the organization at all levels. And I think your organization is different in the sense where you will not just put it on paper, but it has translated into action in a very meaningful way for your organizing both in the short and I'm sure in the long run as well. Thank you again for your time, and we look forward to having you as part of our other podcasts.

Jaya: Thank you. Thank you, Nitika. I really appreciate the opportunity to share some of the activities that we have at Sabre Bangalore to help us navigate through this time. Thank you very much.


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