“Professional Leaders are masters of their domain. They are also the benchmark for leader behaviours.”
How many leaders in your experience fit this description? I have worked with many remarkable leaders over the last two decades. And this post focuses on a leader who epitomizes professional leadership.
Who exactly are professional leaders?
Marriam Webster gives us a clue:
characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession
exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace
Note the emphasis on ethical, technical, conscientiousness, courteous, businesslike workplace manners. During stressful times like these, you want such leaders at the helm!
Introducing an Executive Professional Leader
Let me introduce you to Suresh Muthuswami, one of the very best professional leaders I know. I will cover other leaders in subsequent sessions who have taught me this super critical skill as well.
Suresh is a President and Global Head of Banking, Financial Services, and Insurance Platforms at TCS.
Let’s look at the power such leadership inspires across the organization.
Inclusiveness is their middle name:
A decade ago, I worked with Suresh directly. As part of his team, he also had several indirect and matrix reports. And here’s the thing – everybody felt” fully” part of the team. Professional Leaders don’t differentiate between direct, indirect, and matrix reporting. For them, it’s “one” leadership team that works together to achieve outcomes.
They take the time to share their vision with the entire team. And the teaam then respinds as one to deliver awesomeness.
But, not everyone appreciates this “empowered to act in the larger scheme” approach. So how do they select their teams?
Professional leaders expect to lead “professionals.”
This seems obvious, doesn’t it? Professional leaders demand and expect to lead teams staffed by professionals. They don’t care about designations. They care about expertise and the ability of team members to come together and contribute to larger goals.
This makes it necessary for them to set expectations for their team. Expertise and teamwork are premium qualities they expect from each member – because they don’t micro-manage. They are comfortable setting these expectations in an adult-adult manner with the team. There’s no talking down.
When I first met Suresh, we had an open talk. He was keen to get our practice to become one of the best in the world. However, given that I was rather junior, he considered bringing in a more senior person to lead the practice. We agreed on a roadmap and decided to take stock a few months later. Over the next few months, I worked on scaling myself to the practice leader role, and he helped provide all the support required. At the end of a quarter, he was comfortable running things as they were, and I formally took over the role. This sort of transparent communication leads to trust – one of the most scarce currencies in today’s corporate world.
Professional Leaders Live the “Speed of Trust”
Professional leaders embody the speed of trust. There’s no “brownie point” or quid-pro-quo thinking!
Stephen Covey, in his brilliant “The Speed of Trust,” shares this equation:
(Strategy * Execution) * Trust = Results.
Professional leaders live this principle.
When you ask an average leader for help, he makes it look like he’s doing you a favor. He talks about how much effort and strings he had to pull. You feel uncomfortable, and over time, you slowly stop asking for help. People learn to stay within boundaries and mediocrity ensues.
Professional leaders, however, lead using trust. They help with no pre-conditions attached.
Trust enables exponential acceleration
When I started with Suresh, we realized our competitor had a huge headstart in one area. The only way to catch up was to pool the best minds and create a “functioning” framework within a very short period. . This was a tough ask. People were all over the country, and video communication was nowhere as advanced as today. There were costs involved too in flying people in for the workshop.
Suresh seamlessly helped facilitate the entire logistics with his executive team. Experts from across the country flew in, and we had an intense “one week” in-person workshop. Over the next two weeks, the team built out a framework with over 100 utilities that worked across two tools. We documented incredible customer stories from their individual projects. We now had a community of experts that helped scale the practice into a leader in its segment. What should have taken the better part of the year had taken less than a month with absolutely no “screaming” emails. And we had a world-class practice to show for it.
I have seen Suresh emulate this for multiple groups – products, business analysis, and many more. Progressive competence building was a way of life under his leadership.
The art of letting go gracefully
Perhaps, the most distinctive part of professional leaders is how they treat exits.
(Almost!) everyone does a good job of induction; they showcase their new hire to their team and praise them to the world. For a few days, life is all cherry and roses.
But how about exits? It’s surprising how many leaders turn transactional once a person decides to move on. They forget they are also mentors who have a stake in their teams’ careers. Alas, the leader feels betrayed, and the exits turn acrimonious.
The professional leader handles exits with data and empathy. She puts the team member at the center of the conversations. She has open conversations with the team member, not looking to influence but providing more data to enable the person to take the right decision.
Suresh is a master of handling exits. He has very professional conversations with the candidate – courteous but data-based and forward-looking. And what’s more, he makes sure that the person leaves happily. This leaves the exiting person’s team settled too.
And a standout feature is his ability to stay in touch post one’s exit. Lasting – not transactional relationships – get built as a result.
Here’s what Suresh says about handling exits:
When people exit, not only should we treat them well, but dignity is very important. It is their choice, and the leaders should make sure he/she leaves with dignity.
Adopt this formula and you cannot go wrong with exits.
Numbers tell stories of impact.
Professional leaders are masters of storytelling with numbers.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, there was a big focus on tightening costs. While many leaders took to sending many urgent (RED, 40-size, bold, underlined!) emails and stressing their teams, Suresh had this one-line principle:
Use the same decision criteria you use for your personal finances for your official finances.
He had a weekly flip chart showcasing where we individually were and where we had to go. Since we could see who was doing well, you could hop over and ask for some best practices. Most importantly, this simple messaging was easy to transmit to our teams all the way down.
They honor your expertise but don’t claim to your time
In his “Shortness of time,” Seneca observes that the one thing we have a very limited quantity of is time. And yet we don’t realize it. We use our time like we have an unlimited quantity.
The situation gets worse when leaders think they have unlimited access to your time. I recall the shocked expression on a friend’s face when his lead scheduled daily multi-hour calls starting 9 pm without even checking on his availability!
Professional leaders realize they have your trust – the most important currency in the world. They don’t need to force you to work odd and crazy hours. They know you will chip in where required.
When you work with professional leaders, there are no unnecessary calls at odd times and no claims to “owning” you. There are no emotional outbursts – or minimal. There’s no time wasting either. Adult-adult level conversations are the rule – both for “yes” and “no” situations. There’s no holding back of information and priorities and no padding of timelines – they don’t give you artificial deadlines. Think about it – just the idea of working with someone who says what he means is truly liberating.
Suresh is a master of this aspect. Anyone who has worked with him will attest to how they value their own time and their teams. Scheduling meetings during working hours, meticulous note-taking, taut, focussed meetings, and messages cascading – make these meetings a pleasure rather than a chore.
Professional Leaders care
Casual meetings and informal conversations with everyone are the hallmarks of Professional leaders. They understand that the pulse of their teams and do what is right – not what is transactionally optimal. It may be as simple as needing additional hardware approvals or requiring some big investments in research. They intuitively understand greatness and support it to the max. Their professional approach endears them to experts – designations truly don’t matter. And that makes it a pleasure to work with professional leaders, even more so during very stressful times like these.
Many thanks Suresh for all the wonderful lessons through the years.