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Great Leaders Think Differently — the Tao Of Sumithra Gomatam.

“She’s one of the Great Leaders!” 

What image does your mind bring up? 

A Leader in a board room presenting a visionary future? 

A large crowd cheering their Leader on a famous victory?

We always equate Leaders with success. And Great leaders are masters of win-win; they ensure success for everyone. 

I had the opportunity to see one such Great Leader, Sumithra Gomatam, at close quarters. She led a Global Business unit staffed with over 30000 professionals.  

Sumithra was known for her Midas touch. Everything she touched turned into gold. Here’s what her scorecard looked like:

  1. Financials – Industry-leading growth and margins
  2. A pipeline of extraordinary leaders 
  3. Delighted Employees   
  4. Innovation and patent filings at an all-time high
  5. Clients were Fans – they loved the energy of her group.

Such success has a flywheel effect. Each part feeds into the other and amplifies the success. Here are some news items and panel discussions I’d recommend reading to understand Sumithra’s genius1.

How did she achieve such spectacular success? 

People attribute her success to various factors, including her business acumen, people leadership skills, and client affinity. As a student of Leadership, her style intrigued me. Exceptional business leadership, team, and client skills explained part of her arsenal. But there was something more profound at work. I just couldn’t put my finger on it. 

A few years later, I came across a verse in the Tao Te Ching: 

We join spokes together in a wheel, 

but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. 

We shape clay into a pot, 

but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. 

We hammer wood for a house, 

but it is the inner space that makes it livable. 

We work with being, 

but non-being is what we use.

Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (Perennial Classics) (p. 13). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Eureka! 

I now understood that her leadership style epitomizes Ageless wisdom. This was the same wisdom that our ancient Sages and Kings demonstrated. She was a living example of the Tao Te Ching “space that creates magic.” 

Great leaders transcend from individuals to enablers of spaces. They create spaces where the magic happens. They provide a fertile ground for the whole organization to flower. 

The more I started viewing her Leadership through this lens; the more things fell into place. And this post was born.

What is space in the context of Leadership?

Imagine people working in a room. We see computers, people, waste paper baskets, and air conditioners. We notice people and the work they do. But we often miss the space – the environment which enables them to work. 

We call this environment by many names when we use the analogy for business – culture being the more popular. The best people are attracted to great spaces where they do great work. And great work results in exceptional spaces.  

Let’s revisit the “room” example. Space ensures people don’t feel suffocated; they feel at ease. If the room is temperature-controlled and bright, it allows them to work better. If they like their coworkers, they collaborate better. 

In other words, space allows for a Happier, productive, collaborative workforce. It provides the foundation for success. 

This post will look at four components of space that the best leaders leverage with examples. You’ll also get a summary of learnings at the end of each section.

Great Leaders “Accept You As You Are”

Today, most Organizations measure aspects like diversity and the percentage of specially-abled employees. Rightly so – organizations that embrace diversity function best.

But, there’s a point to note. The uncaring Boss, a Good Leader, and a Great Leader view these metrics in very different ways.

The “boss” focuses on the next quarter and looks at optimization for the present. These metrics are hindrances to him. Corporates, therefore, have to form policies to ensure compliance. The Boss adheres – but grudgingly. These are necessary evils in his view.

Good Leaders think medium-term. They use these metrics as guidelines to keep track of how they are progressing. They are medium-term visionary and pragmatic. 

Great Leaders use metrics as a garland, not a stick!

Great leaders intuit the pulse of their clients, their teams, and the environment. They understand that their markets and end customers are diverse. It is only by having the right mix of people on their teams that they can ensure success. They pick the right people irrespective of the guidelines, and their teams end up as inclusive teams. These metrics are at most a garland for them – they don’t need them to run their business.

I attempted a quick check of Sumithra’s direct reports from back in those days, and here’s what I came with:

  1. Ages – all age groups represented ( < 35, 35 – 50, 50 +)
  2. Women and men leaders – equally present
  3. Introverts and Extroverts – equally represented.
  4. Locations of the Leaders – Global
  5. Leaders’ backgrounds – Business, Delivery, Technology, Sales, Operations – most of them having played multiple roles
  6. Homegrown leaders (75%) and leaders from outside the organization (25%)

This kind of diversity evolves naturally. Allowing people to “Be as they are” draws in the best people from everywhere. 

Word of mouth is your best recruitment strategy. 

When leaders cannot provide the space for people to be as they are, a few ugly things crop up:

Ageism: 

The unfortunate discrimination against people based on age results from two underlying assumptions: 

  • Young people are more productive than seniors
  • Skills and experience are equivalent

Age does not reflect a person’s capacity or appetite to work, just as hustle cannot replace smart work. The best teams hire the best person for the job – irrespective of age.

The second assumption equates apples with oranges. Skills are essential – as are Emotional maturity, adaptability, and learning agility. You need both of these to succeed.

An age-based-filter is a highway to disaster!

Homogeneity: 

People with similar backgrounds tend to have the same strengths – but also the mind-blocks. Homogenous teams succeed in the short term but struggle to adapt to new realities. Bringing in new skillsets requires expanding one’s mind and requires patience. But if we do not invest in diversity, teams tend to become one-dimensional. 

Loss of the “Speed of Trust”:

Stephen Covey’s “Speed of Trust” has a simple premise. If there is trust between two people, things get done much, much faster. And if the trust is prevalent across the organization, your whole team is super agile. 

Contrast this with centralized decision-making. Decisions need to flow only from the Leader, slowing down the process. Policies take the place of trust, and compliance trumps business realities. It can also be stressful for the teams as they have to spend time working through numerous approvals. 

If you want just one takeaway from this post, it is this. Leaders who provide space for us to exist naturally make all the difference. Find a great leader – and I promise you, you’ll find this trait. 

Great Leaders provide “Space to Feel

Belonging is a special feeling. When you belong, you feel accepted and appreciated. 

Work is no longer a chore but a calling. 

Here again, we see different approaches from the Boss, the Leader, and the Great Leader. 

The Boss and the “Name and Shame” approach

The Boss uses the “name and shame” approach. He showcases performance data without context to call out the winners and losers and believes this will motivate people. There are two significant challenges with this approach. 

  • We are not accounting for People’s potential – people have innate capabilities that Great Leaders help unearth. 
  • And we are not accounting for any systemic factors in our highly volatile world. It’s easy to mistake correlation for causation.

The Leader and the “Best Practice” approach

The Leader uses “best practice” culture as a tool. She uses best practices and enables people to meet informally and collaborate toward larger goals. The only risk here is in the use of prescriptive methods.

I remember a meeting with one of our high performing managers that illustrates this point. Her performance was excellent, her clients were her fans, and her teams loved her. And yet, I realized something was troubling her. On probing, here’s what she told me,

“X (the Leader) hangs out with all the managers informally in the local bar every Friday evening. Critical business discussions happen there. I am a teetotaller, and I don’t enjoy the “bro” talk and jokes, and hence I don’t join them. I feel increasingly left out. “

X hadn’t realized this was happening. He had read books advocating this “work hard, play hard (on Frat-boys terms!)” culture. On recognizing this gap, he walked up to the Manager, apologized, and course-corrected.

Great Leaders And The Sense of Belonging 

Great leaders always let people know they belong. And to do this, they encourage a lot of conversations that help understand the “feel” on the ground. 

I remember one sunny day when a couple of clients were visiting us. They were to meet with the teams for an hour, followed by an executive meet with Sumithra. 

The clients loved the creativity and the energy the team displayed on the floor. We could see they wanted to spend more time with the teams, but they also didn’t want to miss a chance to meet with the Executive Leadership. Sumithra intuited this, came down to the floor and got everyone into a carnival mood! Her interactions with the team and client truly made the visit memorable. The clients went back thrilled. They no longer had any reservations working with teams halfway across the globe. The Team members were delighted that their Global Head took the time to hear their achievements.

They had come for a meeting and had gained a role model. 

This ability to make people feel wanted is a very rare trait. And the greatest leaders have this in abundance. 

I have seen Great Leaders inspire many forums to help people connect:

  1. Informal Team lunches and outings that helped the team bond together. 
  2. Casual conversations across levels 
  3. Grandiose award ceremonies with the Executive personally present and awarding people (people treasure these “moments with the leader” forever).
  4. Team awards and not just individual awards.
  5. Encouragement to bring one’s personality to the workspace.
  6. Plan for clients and teams to meet in an informal atmosphere. 
  7. Social outreach activities 

These formats work best when the teams choose what works for them. A team that brings their personality to the office makes all the difference.

Great Leaders provide “Space To Think”

Allow me to introduce you to Conway’s law, a law that affects most large organizations.

Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.3

Melvin E. Conway

The law says that products reflect the Company’s organizational structure. The organizational silos make their way to the product too.

And when this happens, we end up seeing an excellent product delivered in a shoddy package. Or experience a premium car interior with bits of hard plastics.

We can tell from seeing the product how they are organized. Each team operates as a separate unit leaving customers with uninspiring products. 

Silo-ed teams are the biggest hurdle to innovation.

Bosses hide behind policies to keep overlaps across groups to the minimum. They care about the piece they own and set their boundaries. After all, it’s best to cover ourselves first! 

Great leaders encourage collaboration. They even allow overlaps if a superior client product results. While anathema from the perspective of policy design, it’s the ability to think through things entirely from the client standpoint that makes products awesome. 

After all, innovation doesn’t know any boundaries

How do you know if a team is innovating?

The nature and magnitude of patents is a good indicator of innovation, as is the number of ideas. The number of ideas, patents that end up as products is an excellent lag metric.

“Space to think” encourages process innovations too. For instance, I remember a UI explicitly designed to help capture ideas as soon as they arose in an associate’s mind. The UI doubled the number of innovations in a few months. 

Other factors that influence Thinking

Diversity is a prerequisite for Thinking. Put a professor and a business-woman together, and magic will happen. Heterogenous teams from different geographies with varying experience, technology backgrounds always come up with big ideas. But there will also be much debate.  

Great Leaders understand that these seemingly unproductive conversations are transformations in the making. 

How about learning? And its meta cousin – learning to learn? 

We need customized learning based on how we learn, what we know and where we aspire to go. Leaders provide the space for us to learn how we learn best. We also need opportunities to share our learning and expertise with the world.  

Pick a team with the freedom to learn the way they want, and I promise you that you’ll find a Great leader behind it. 

Great Leaders give us the space to think:

  • We think from the client’s standpoint and not from our organizational structure. Collaborate extensively, extend expertise as required
  • There is a strong bias toward innovation – both lead (ideas) and lag (products)
  • Diverse teams encourage new ideas.
  • Create forums to listen and share. Most importantly, encourage people to learn how they learn best. 

Great Leaders provide “Space to Do”

“Space for Doing” succeeds “Space to Think.” People want to see their thoughts translated into something tangible – a new offering, a new product, a new way of working. 

But Doing requires experimentation. And experimentation comes with failure embedded in it. 

Secrets of Great Leaders: Allow Experimentation

The space to experiment and fail is what Great leaders provide. We call this playing for the long term. 

I was part of a team that built a revolutionary on-demand platform. The team was new; the idea promising but unproven. We needed someone to back us up as we went through multiple iterations of trial and error. Sumithra provided the team the space to experiment. We got the required tools, mentoring, and operational support to create a unique platform. The leads subsequently created their own SAAS product and became extremely successful founders. Doing creates Do-ers

Secrets of Great Leaders: Focus on the Client, not the fine print

Doing also requires extending beyond contractual obligations. When we see ourselves as launching a product as opposed to fulfilling a contract, our perspective broadens. We collaborate – or upskill – and ensure that the product is successful. And this focus transforms clients into fans. You don’t need more sales engines; client-focused execution will win you all the business you need.

Great leaders trust their teams to do what it takes – and the teams prove them right every time. 

Secrets of Great Leaders: Encourage home-grown innovation

The final aspect of Doing is in bringing new ideas into your products. We fear failure and oppose trying new tools. And yet, unless we try, we cannot progress. Great Leaders incentivize the adoption of local innovations. You’ll recall Bezos’s views on reversible innovations4 – once this culture stands out, it is just unstoppable. 

Summary: Great leaders provide space for Doing:

Great Leaders encourage – even incentivize teams to try innovations for their clients.

Their teams think “client first” – not operations or contracts first. 

They support new ideas and, in the process, create game-changing products and develop founders too. They are ecosystem builders. 

To wrap it all up

When Ancient wisdom meets modern implementation, we get extraordinary results. Values, not policies, drive Great leaders’ strategies. They understand that unless all the strings are tight, an instrument cannot make good music. 

Great Leaders teach by example. And these examples reveal themselves to us when we are ready – even years down the road. It is a privilege to learn from a Great Leader, and the benefits can be humungous. So thank you, Sumithra, for all the wonderful lessons.

As managers, we have options. We can choose to safeguard our positions and play Boss. Or we can be a leader looking to make things better. If we choose the latter, we have the opportunity to evolve into a Great Leader. And should we become a Great Leader, the whole ecosystem will smile.  

Liked this post? You may also enjoy the Leadership Operating System. You can download it for FREE here or enjoy the other posts here.

Footnotes:

1 NASSCOM panel discussion
2 Press release

3 Conway’s law

3 Bezos’s ideas on reversible innovation


8 thoughts on “Great Leaders Think Differently — the Tao Of Sumithra Gomatam.

  1. Excellent post subra. It’s true that Sumithra’s leadership has diversity, positive vibe across and a lot of freedom. Being part of that group, we had worked closely in your leadership where we got space to explore ourselves as a team and with guidance as we seek.the great olden days.

  2. Wow, excellent article Subra. Great to read an insider account and observations of one of the tallest leaders in the Industry. She was one of the motivations for me to join Cognizant’s testing team.Nice analysis. I can see the “space for everyone approach” reflected on you too 🙂 !

    Have also heard a lot of first hand stories on her empathetic approach and people connect. Great leader indeed!

  3. Beautifully written Subra and very inspiring. Your leadership style is quite similar… You gave space to learn and yet been a support. Thank you

  4. Excellent write-up Subra. I hadn’t had the chance to directly interact with Sumithra, but have been fortunate to be a part of the great organization she had built and work under the leaders that she had nurtured. Loved the way you have both detailed and summarized the secret ingredients and measures/outcomes of great leadership ! Great lesson !!

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