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Thursday December 1st, 2022

Empowered: How to Build Future Leaders

Ramesh Shanmuganathan Executive Vice President and CIO at John Keells Holdings

“I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” – Ralph Nader

A successful business must have the right people in the right roles who also have the right capabilities. Leaders focusing on fulfilling their mandate of developing other leaders must understand this is one of the key factors that will help them realise their vision and strategies for their business.

It becomes imperative for an organisation to have a well-aligned leadership development strategy that is integrated into their business strategy. This would mean that the organisation must have a pipeline of talent that delivers leaders across all levels who are ready and capable of driving and implementing the objectives that generated their business strategy created from their vision and objectives.

The systematic development of good leaders is fundamental to long-term organisational success, yet this is often overlooked and done haphazardly. In this interview, John Keells Holdings, Executive Vice President and Group CIO Ramesh Shanmuganathan discuss how to identify and approach leadership development initiatives in this light.

Great leaders are visionaries and strategists. Where does building other people fit into the picture of leadership?

Leaders are responsible not just for driving the vision and strategies but also for attracting, retaining, and nurturing talent to realise the vision and strategies, managing and leading talent, and also helping individuals develop and grow so that they can perform to their potential.

Though most leaders would agree that developing talent is important, training alone is not enough. Leadership requires not only setting expectations and providing feedback but also positioning employees for success and providing an environment that encourages continuous learning and performance improvement.

There are four key areas that leaders can focus on to develop organizational talent and the leadership pipeline that is needed by the organisation:

   1. Be a coach and mentor:

Coaching is not about establishing a one-on-one relationship only. It is also about finding the opportunities to coach people daily and providing useful in-the-moment advice that can help accelerate their development. It first requires connection and commitment towards the development and aspirations of people and then providing opportunities for them to learn and grow. It’s useful to have regular conversations about their career aspirations, training needs, role expansions as well as other opportunities to learn and grow. Continuous feedback once a connection is established is very effective in conditioning their behaviour, bridging the skill gap and overall development.

   2. Lead by Example:

The behaviour of leaders is a major influence on employee behaviour. Most develop their management style by observing their managers. Leaders can find success in developing talent by focusing on continuous improvement and showing others through their own examples of development. Leaders who demonstrate a desire to become better through leadership development and building their skills in other areas show through their example the value of expanding and growing as a professional, both vertically and laterally. When employees see leaders sharpening their skills, they are more likely to follow that behaviour and seek out development opportunities for themselves.

   3. Delegate and empower

Leaders can make considerable progress in developing talent by delegating tasks that challenge these individuals to try something new. Delegation doesn’t mean just handing off a task, but going through a process of discussion, explanation, and coaching to help the person learn and perform at a higher level with the right empowerment. Leaders can identify which responsibilities to delegate by communicating expectations, providing regular feedback, and then trusting individuals so that they can be held accountable for the outcome of the delegated task. As individuals take on more newly delegated responsibilities, they will grow more confident in their ability to perform at a consistently higher level.

   4. Train and develop

Training that targets a specific area, such as communication, teamwork, or leadership development, can give employees the building blocks to consistently perform at a higher level. However, training delivered in a vacuum won’t produce much in the way of results. Training activities should mimic the real world to offer maximum value to employees and teams.

Experiential learning is an ideal choice for developing talent because it allows employees to learn by doing and includes exercises that parallel real challenges employees face at work. When employees see a strong connection between what they learn and practice in training and what they experience at work, they’re more likely to use newly learned skills on the job.

Is the strategy for creating new leaders more challenging or different in the transformed business climate we are in, versus several decades ago? If so, in what ways?

The way we approach leadership and cultivate new leadership has changed over the years with the context we operate in becoming more volatile, complex, uncertain and ambiguous. Volatility is the dynamic rate of change; uncertainty is a lack of predictability and information; complexity describes interdependent systems that do not exhibit clear cause and effect, and ambiguity acknowledges the difficulty of accurately assessing reality in a complex and volatile landscape.

Today things around us are very dynamic and situational—sometimes they can be fairly clear but then suddenly shift due to outliers, adjacencies, and disruptions. Arguably leaders today are faced with the challenge of developing leaders who can lead in such an environment and be able to navigate the maze by writing their own playbooks since someone else’s playbook may not be relevant when they get the leadership mantle.

Developing leaders today is both more challenging and different and more so since you are mandated with developing leaders who must have the mindset to be able to lead to collaborate, co-innovate, and co-create their future by leveraging each other’s assets – be it tangible or intangible.

It’s important to acknowledge and align the shifts in mindset as discussed below to be able to develop and harness the full potential of future leaders to be innovative, adaptive, and collaborative.

  1. Be a global citizen:

The world is becoming increasingly flatter and more connected. This means every company has the potential to be a global player with employees and customers worldwide. It’s crucial to develop the mentality of the Global Citizen that would force people to think globally and embrace diversity. Leaders need to understand and appreciate new cultures and actively seek diverse teams and be able to lead employees with different backgrounds, and know-how to enter and succeed in the new global order which keeps unravelling.

     2. Be a servant:

The servant mindset is vital today, but it goes against the old way of thinking and the leadership traits that have been passed down the years where leaders at the top of the company insulate themselves from the ground reality.

That mindset is being fast destroyed to create a new mindset of being a servant, built on the practice of humility, and drives you to build a collaborative culture that will help you grow your business together with your team, your employees, your customers, your partners, etc.

Developing leaders today is both more challenging and different and more so since you are mandated with developing leaders who must have the mindset to be able to lead to collaborate, co-innovate, and co-create their future by leveraging each other’s assets – be it tangible or intangible”

     3. Be a chef

Today Leaders have to act like chefs who balance numerous ingredients to create masterful meals akin to balancing the most essential ingredients of any business and leveraging humanity and technology optimally to drive the points of inflexion to recreate the future.

    4. Be an explorer

Future leaders also need to be like explorers who are willing to take the untrodden path and embrace the unknown. They need to challenge the status quo, be open to new ideas, and be able to change course as necessary based on context and continue the progressive journey amidst challenges. Just like explorers, they must be curious, learn continually and become super perpetual leaders.

Providing a space for people to collaborate on something they’re genuinely passionate about through innovative means can also be an excellent opportunity for building a culture of continuous innovation, not to mention the generation of new ideas”

How do you create future leaders with a focus on building a culture of continuous innovation in a modern organisation?

Continuous innovation is a shared assumption, value, and belief that people live that value and take action. Building a culture of innovation centres around the idea that, as an organisation, you have to do new things, in new ways, for new impact to keep surviving and thriving.

Because innovation involves a lot of risk and uncertainty, it takes understanding that it is okay to fail and that not every endeavour will generate tangible results. Even failure should be considered progress.

To help your employees embrace a culture of innovation, provide them with areas within the company or organisation that are being targeted specifically for innovation. Providing a space for people to collaborate on something they’re genuinely passionate about through innovative means can also be an excellent opportunity for building a culture of continuous innovation, not to mention the generation of new ideas. To foster a culture of continuous innovation one must take on multiple roles to incubate, nurture and grow that culture in modern organizations and the most critical ones in that light would be:

To help your employees embrace a culture of innovation, provide them with areas within the company or organisation that are being targeted specifically for innovation. Providing a space for people to collaborate on something they’re genuinely passionate about through innovative means can also be an excellent opportunity for building a culture of continuous innovation, not to mention the generation of new ideas.

To foster a culture of continuous innovation one must take on multiple roles to incubate, nurture and grow that culture in modern organizations and the most critical ones in that light would be:

  1. BE A FUTURIST

A futurist makes sure organisations aren’t surprised by what the future might bring. The world in which we live and work is continually changing and full of unknowns. Futurists consider multiple scenarios and think through new possibilities. They stay on top of trends and are connected to their networks. This way you can guide the organisation to possible points of inflexion that could create new vistas and growth opportunities.

      2. BE A YODA

A Yoda brings the right balance in facilitating a collaborative culture which is crucial for innovation. For decades, leaders have shied away from being emotional. But in the future, leaders need to be emotionally intelligent like Yoda and develop empathy and self-awareness. Great communicators build connections and aren’t afraid to be vulnerable. Empathy understands the feelings and perspectives of others. Self-awareness is about understanding your strengths and weaknesses and helping others understand them as well.

     3. BE A TRANSLATOR

A translator is key to enabling open and trusted communication across the organisation. They listen to and understand and do more than hear what people are saying. They use verbal and non-verbal communication to connect with people and know the best channels to use to cut through the noise and deliver their messages. Listening and communication are two timeless aspects of great leadership, yet they are also the two which are changing the most!

     4. BE A TECH MAVERICK

A tech maverick is always current on the latest technology and what’s next and is well-read. Future leaders must be the same way. They don’t need to be experts in everything but must have the know-how to guide the organisation through practical application of it to benefit the organisation and its stakeholders. They need to be tech-savvy and digitally fluent.

     5. BE A TRUSTED PARTNER

Trusted partners are the go-to people for anyone. They motivate, inspire, and engage their teams while caring about each member as an individual. Likewise, future leaders need to appreciate employees as individuals as opposed to viewing everyone as just workers. The best coaches and leaders develop their people to be more successful than them.

How is JKIT approaching the challenge of building talent across the organization?

John Keells IT is focused on driving value to businesses by building partnerships to collaborate with them in helping them co-innovate and co-create their future. We engage these businesses on a strategic footing and actively use concepts like design thinking, blue ocean strategy, and journey mapping to unearth opportunities that can be mapped on the transformation journey depending on their maturity and leverage our experience, expertise and solutions stack to create value.

We have a multi-pronged approach whereby we look at the talent in multiple dimensions and ensure there is alignment in terms of our vision, strategy, and talent management. We take a three-step approach to manage the same across the organisation.

a) Strengthen foundational talent management strategy and practices aligned to short to medium-term business strategy

b) Develop, communicate and implement business goals-driven talent management strategy and practices aligned to medium to long-term business strategy

c) Identify and invest in critical as well as emerging areas aligned to a medium-to-long term business strategy.

In alignment, we actively engage with the following focused programs to ensure we have the requisite pipeline of talent to realize our vision and strategies across the regions that we operate in.

a) Reinforcing foundational aspects of talent management and having a competency-based model for them to move up the ladder with training, coaching and mentoring

b) Ensuring a consistent and fair performance appraisal and management program with continuous performance feedback that is personalised to each employee and connected to learning and development goals

c) Creating talent strategies that explicitly highlight critical talent needs and how the organisation intends to attract, retain, and engage employees in those relevant segments.

d) Developing a deeper relationship with talent via feedback systems, pulse surveys, welfare programs, recognition systems, open forums, etc.

e) Allowing employees to invest their time in personal development and innovation-related projects that provide empowerment and autonomy.

f) Building a culture of leadership and learning by providing development and learning opportunities to key talent segments and efficiently integrating leadership development with other areas of talent management.

g) Expanding their perspective on diversity beyond gender and implementing D&I policies that are larger in scale and designed to enable employees to bring their whole selves to work.

h) Leveraging employee resource groups to create and support networks of employees that can share innovative insights and ideas and embedding D&I awareness into talent management practices such as talent acquisition, performance management, and leadership development should also be considered.