Crisis Leadership Velu

Velu Teaches Us The Powerful Art Of Leadership During Crisis

What does excellent Leadership during Crisis look like?

Let’s first define Crisis. We aren’t talking about average problems here. Imagine a general marshaling his troops in a war. Things are changing by the minute. He has to make decisions based on the information at hand. He also has to strategize his win. And most importantly, he has to ensure the troops are motivated and not exposed to unnecessary dangers. 

It requires a very mature, grounded, focussed leader to guide us through such times. 

COVID presented (and in many ways still does) such a crisis in Q2 last year. Many leaders did a great job of steering their Organization and team during a turbulent period. One executive leader who set the gold standard for crisis leadership during COVID was Singaravelu Ekambaram. There are so many lessons to learn – I thought this was perhaps the most appropriate topic to pen for the week. 

Introducing the leader

Singaravelu Ekambaram (Velu) is an SVP and is now the Head of Global Delivery for Enterprise Application Services at Cognizant. The post narrates incidents from the last year when leading one of the Organization’s fastest-growing units. This unit was also one that was impacted by COVID significantly. The lessons relate to how he steered this unit successfully through choppy waters. 

Velu summarises his approach – he first evolves a game plan and takes this cogent approach to the team for execution:

What drives me is the “Solution mindset” with “Collaboration” with the RIGHT stakeholders. My strategies are always focused on these two and the execution plan can be created with resources that we need etc., as a next step. But the first part is something that  I own completely and then go to the teams.

A model to understand Crisis – VUCA 

Let’s start with a framework to understand Crisis better. Here’s the definition of the much-celebrated VUCA from Wikipedia:

  • V = Volatility: the nature and dynamics of change, and the nature and speed of change forces and change catalysts.
  • U = Uncertainty: the lack of predictability, the prospects for surprise, and the sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events.
  • C = Complexity: the multiplex of forces, the confounding of issues, no cause-and-effect chain, and confusion that surrounds the Organization.
  • A = Ambiguity: the haziness of reality, the potential for misreads, and the mixed meanings of conditions; cause-and-effect confusion.

Each of the components applies to the COVID situation. Let’s look at how great Leadership during Crisis handle each of these.  

Leadership during Crisis – addressing Volatility:

As COVID started spreading throughout the world, countries started locking down. 

In response, Companies were evolving strategies by the day. Some tried to build an online presence rapidly. Some shut down parts of their operations. Demand and Supply were unpredictable. 

Leaders everywhere were scrambling to make sense of what was happening on the ground:

  • Are people equipped to work from home?
  • Did we have deliverables at risk?
  • Were people safe?
  • Are financials impacted?

Leaders deluged their teams with requests for data as they tried to make sense of the emerging reality. The teams shared the data asked – but were clueless as to what was happening around. There was a palpable sense of nervousness all around.

Velu flipped this situation around. Rather than asking for data and then sharing back information on a need basis, he made sharing information a priority and way of life. Every leader on his team got access to all the data. He encouraged teams to connect and help each other where required informally. Each leader emulated this practice with their teams – leading to one of the most motivated teams on the ground. Volunteer teams across groups swarmed in and made things happen as a result.

When people know what’s happening (and what we don’t know yet), they work on solutions. 

The best antidote for Volatility is information – and Velu institutionalized information sharing making people more comfortable with the Crisis as it emerged. 

Leadership during Crisis – addressing Uncertainty: 

For associates, the most significant worry was Uncertainty. What would the future bring? Everyone had a plethora of concerns about their continuity. Not only was their health at risk, but going by reports, the economy was in a tailspin too. 

The biggest fear is fear itself. And the best antidote to fear is sharing perspectives honestly – both good and bad. People can digest and adapt to adverse situations; it is fear that is paralyzing. 

Velu shared summary notes throughout the entire period. He acknowledged the challenges we were working through and also clearly articulated the thinking behind the proposed solutions. We all looked forward to Velu’s updates. His simple data and callouts helped us understand the narrative. This format helped everyone track the emerging scenario and how we could contribute. 

Velu explains his communication approach during crisis:

I over-communicate during a crisis. I talk and write to everyone… just to tell them that I have their back.

What more could a team look for from their leader?

But how did he manage to access such vast information?

Leadership during Crisis is about creating something that benefits everybody. Anybody who has worked with Velu will remember his immense curiosity. Tracking trends, learning from competitor best practices, and collaborating with people inside and outside the Organization define his working style. Add executive meeting insights to these, and you have a robust information base. And Velu would share these nuggets with the leadership team. We passed these onto our teams. We thereby minimized the “fear of the unknown.”

And there’s another trait that makes Velu a magnet for information. When he sees someone with expertise – irrespective of designation – he reaches out proactively. A young guy on my team was delighted when Velu sent a note to him commending him on his storytelling and subsequently discussing some ideas. 

When you exhibit these characteristics, your reputation tends to precede you. People want to work with you. 

I recall a colleague talking to me when Velu (based in India) assumed additional ownership of the North American operations. My colleague was thrilled. He had heard great things about Velu from his friends in the US. His admiration grew further when Velu met the teams in person. 

This ability to build “high-trust-personal-brands” is what allows these professional leaders to scale. 

The antidote for Uncertainty is to look fear in the face. Leadership during Crisis requires we provide people actionable insights and a trusted leader they can look up to. 

Leadership during Crisis – addressing Complexity: 

During COVID, as discussed, there were just too many variables. Whole industries were impacted due to the lockdowns. WFH was being implemented on a global scale for the first time. Clients were shutting down. People needed support for their wellness. Add to these the organizational complexities – a large number of groups to work with – each with their own priorities. 

There were just too many things to do. We had to track at least 150 parameters. It was tough for people to make sense of their daily jobs with so many excel sheets flying all over the place. 

The genius of Leadership during a Crisis is to break the Complexity into tiny pieces that matter. Velu had a simple model rolled out. For ensuring “lights on” business tracking, he had a set of 7-8 standard metrics across his entire organization. A couple of task forces looked at opportunities. They help create solutions to assist clients to succeed in the near term (ake their business online, digital screening, etc.). Finally, a couple of support task forces helped people with challenges (logistics, etc.). 

This helped each team put their heads down and focus on things that mattered.

Focus on doing the right thing

Importantly, Velu would often communicate about doing the right thing – no shortcuts irrespective of short-term gains. 

Focus on doing the right thing has enormous upside. For example, Velu had grown an expert group over a decade to realize 100M a year. He was now transitioning this group to other organizations in line with the new structure. He took personal care to ensure the people and the capabilities were adequately integrated into the new organizations. 

For many of the folks in the Organization, he is no longer their direct leader. But he is the leader they look up to as the gold standard of Leadership.

A lot of other organizations scampered through too. But I would rank Velu’s ability to refine things into their bare essentials and the care he showed for his team as remarkable traits. These helped his group emerge not just successfully but a lot stronger emotionally. Considering the impact of COVID, this was a huge thing.  

Leadership during Crisis – addressing Ambiguity: 

Leadership during Crisis does not mean projecting false confidence. It means acknowledging the problem and working to solve it. While people were trying to come to terms with the pandemic in the early stages, Velu’s team conducted a survey to understand people’s apprehensions. They then had associates from within the group share how they were coping with the challenges:

  • One associate shared some basic Yoga practices to destress
  • Practical tips for managing work: life balance during WFH 
  • Hobbies that kept people engaged
  • Health and nutrition tips

We loved these sessions. The best antidote for Ambiguity is to see someone else voice the same challenge. And it’s even better if that has an actionable solution. And if that person is from your peer group, it’s so much more effective. 

I realized there was something larger happening too. Our teams were morphing into resilient communities.

Ambiguity typically leads to tantrums and ad-hoc requests. A particular callout during the period was Velu’s ability to stick to a very professional way of working. He did not place undue claims to people’s time and actively encouraged them to pursue a holistic life.

Leadership during Crisis – In summary:

It’s during tough times that we really appreciate what astute Leadership during Crisis can do for us. Velu showed us by example how we should lead during crisis:

  • Have a “solution mindset”. Collaborate with the Right Stakeholders. And then evolve your execution approaches.
  • Address Volatility with generous information sharing. Encourage peer-peer sharing too.
  • Overcome Uncertainty by sharing honest, clear perspectives. And remember, you have to be trustworthy for people to believe you.
  • Tackle Complexity by breaking tasks into tiny pieces. This helps the team stay focused and do well in their area. 
  • Acknowledge Ambiguity, don’t brush it off. Get peers to share best practices – they connect better. 

Thanks for all the wonderful lessons Velu – most helpful during these stressful times. 

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  1. Amidst all that was happening as detailed in your post, I want to add that Velu was part of the COVID CSR subcommittee set up at Cognizant, that was reporting to the Cognizant India board. He found the time to attend all the sub commitee meetings (about 10-11 meetings) between April 2020 and Jan 2021. His calm demeanour, pertinent and sharp questions were very vital to the Cognizant Outreach team’s ability to support various relief projects with about USD 3 million.

  2. Very nicely written Subra. The way you explained VUCA and interspersed it with what happened last year along with Velu’s perspectives, was very good to read.

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