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Manoj Kohli, Leadership in Disruptive Times

Leadership in Disruptive Times and Leading Multicultural Organizations

In a live webinar on 8th May, Mr. Manoj Kohli, Country Head, Softbank India, Softbank Group International, shared insights he has garnered through his 41 year long corporate career. He spoke about leadership in disruptive times like the unprecedented global event we are confronting right now, and his experiences of leading multicultural organizations. Below are some salient points and Q&A from this insightful session.

He began by establishing some context. While the world has known hugely disrupting events like the spanish flu, World War I and World War II, or even independence in India, each time coming to terms with how unprecedented the event was, the coronavirus pandemic has proved to be a truly unprecedented event having adversely affected 200 countries.

We are clearly in the midst of a global crisis. Every aspect of our lives, whether professional, personal, health, or social, every industry, every form of life as we know it will continuously change and remain affected from now on. The future is going to be vastly different than what we were expecting it to be. This is also the moment to convert the crisis into an opportunity.

While that might mean different things for different people, for leaders, whether political or business, it’s an opportunity to showcase their leadership skills during a crisis. Mr. Kohli explained that traditional leadership, which is centralized and controlled, has no place in a crisis like the present one.

For one, leaders most definitely need to be humble and honest in their proceedings. The younger workforce is more appreciative of and more responsive towards leaders who are authentic and those they can trust. Right now leaders need to be adaptable and agile since the global climate is constantly changing. They need to be more open to ideas and be more flexible to keep up with the extremely unstable environment, or better still, be pre-emptive and take action accordingly. They also need to be bold and courageous to drop obsolete systems and styles of leadership and choose new ways and methods of doing things, because the new circumstances we are in call for it. Whether there is a need to revise the processes of the company or the business model, leaders need to be able to bring fresh perspectives to the table. The traditional ways of doing things will not work and definitely not allows us to achieve more, which is a requirement in the present climate.

In his experience, Mr. Kohli said there are 5 ways for leaders to achieve what is required from them to lead in a time of grave crisis.

1. Revised strategy and business model

Within the past few months, consumer digital behaviour has changed just as rapidly as the virus has been spreading across the globe. So businesses, together with their entire teams, need to discuss the upcoming steps and path forward. They need to take into consideration that consumer behaviour is changing for the long term. He went on to explain that even small towns are engaging digitally more often, it needs to be taken into account when businesses are being revised. For all those businesses who were delaying their shift to the digital platform, the time is now.

That said, the revised business models need to be constantly reviewed considering the constant change in the situation of the economy and owing to an ever-dynamic consumer.

2. Tenacious innovation

That dynamic consumer will no longer respond as well to the previous innovations. The approach to innovation needs to be changed and everything from the product and service itself to branding and distribution needs an overhaul in innovation. This is a necessary move so that the consumer believes that the company or the brand has the tenacity to come out on top in the case of adversity. This helps build more trust and respect towards a brand and ultimately improves the company’s market share.

3. Adopting frugality

The immediate future is the time for companies to cut back on unnecessary expenditures and be more frugal about productivity. Cost efficiency needs to be relooked at and redefined to be more conservative. Productivity also needs a new understanding. The standards of productivity need to rise significantly for companies to see any level of success in the times to come. Which means the returns of every action needs to be faster and higher than it previously was.

4. Contracting cash flows

While companies had the luxury to focus on customers and revenue before the pandemic, the post-pandemic time requires companies to focus rather on cash flows. Exercises to shorten the cash flow route back to the company needs to be made. Ways to bring the money that is spent back to the company faster is of utmost importance in these times as leveraging would be very tough.

5. Preserve talent

Now is the time that employees need their leaders to take charge and guide them. Companies need to over-communicate and empathise with their employees. Times of crisis is when teams require and are looking for leadership that raises their aspirations and motivation. Instilling trust and motivation in employer-employee relationships will build dedication and commitment. An investment in the talent that backs your company is the only way any company will come out on top in a post-coronavirus world.

Expectations from senior leadership and management teams

Implementing all the above points requires a strong management team. One that is not afraid to device and put new processes into practice. New processes that will ultimately lead to some amount of certainty for the future. So the actions and strength of every company’s management team is what will translate into a win for the company after the pandemic has cleared.

While leading in a multinational company, cross-cultural sensitivity is an extremely important point to consider. Without that kind of sensitivity, the above 5 points will not work as well as you would hope. What is important to keep in mind is that humans from different cultures share some basic values. There is regard assigned to respectfulness, attentiveness, supportiveness, and empowerment. Recognizing that the values are similar will help the company succeed.

Additionally, it’s important for managers to celebrate even small victories. This helps boost morale among the employees, whether it is a team effort or an individual win. Recognizing the smaller wins is what will help lead to the bigger wins in the future. Inculcating a culture that supports the employees needs to come from senior management. While human resources can support the endeavour, the essence of the culture needs to come from top management. And a crisis is a great time to instill positive culture since it builds a sense of responsibility and loyalty among the employees.

This attitude also needs to extend to the stakeholders and shareholders of the company who are outside the business. Gaining their confidence can mean a better relationship with those whose support you need in times of crisis.

What better opportunity than now for companies that have been lacking in some of these areas to turnaround and make this sequestration work in their favour.

Following Mr. Kohli’s talk was a Q&A session that included questions from the viewers. Below is the summary of the questions and answers posed during the webinar.

Q: How should executives engage with the c-suite in a situation where their positions are under the threat of being rendered obsolete?

A: Survival is not the right strategy. Rather, being proactive in their own growth is a better plan to ensure their professional well-being. So the more appropriate strategy is to learn and build a skill-bank proactively.

Q: As a CEO what would you look for in a senior executive or a team member during a time like this? What kind of behaviour do you appreciate while looking for executives to lead initiatives during this situation?

A: There are a couple of things. 1) Initiative – an employee that takes the initiative to resolve issues, or an initiative that’s not necessarily in their comfort zone, is the kind of person you want on your team. 2) Teamwork – the kind of employee that supports their peers and offers a helping hand during hard times regardless of their abilities and incompetencies.

Q: What actions can senior managers take when a company is moving to a more decentralized decision-making structure to ensure they can empower their teams, especially now when remote-working is going to be more prevalent?

A: Empowerment is the key to a healthy and successful organization. Empowering employees to work by themselves breeds trust and accountability. And while regular check-ins and reviews are required, in the event of mistakes, a teaching opportunity presents itself.

Q: What is the new normal for economic growth, company growth, and personal growth?

A: It’s expected that only China and India will show positive economic growth and are expected to grow much faster than other countries. But regardless, individuals need to focus on their own growth and their company’s growth. He said this growth needs to be led by a new language of innovation, product, technology market, etc.

Q: How should early-stage startups and entrepreneurs deal with issues of talent and funding in uncertain times?

A: Early stage startups do have a tough situation on their hands. They should focus on their business model and the validation of the business model. Funding, team-building, and everything that comes after that is linked to the validation of the business model. They can take this time to modify and revise their business model to the changing behaviour of the customer.

Mr. Kohli concluded with the best ways to keep up with the current times and be at your best is to keep learning and learn fast, exercise and develop, both mental and physical stamina, and have confidence in yourself to work through any adversity.

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