Saturday, July 14, 2007

IIT 2007: On Leadership

Last weekend I attended the IIT 2007 Global Alumni Conference in Santa Clara, CA. Naturally, the highlight was catching up with old friends and making new ones. But many of the talks and panels were also very interesting. Arun Sarin, CEO of Vodafone Group and 1975 IIT Kharagpur graduate, gave a compelling keynote on Saturday morning. The subject of his keynote was leadership.

Sarin started by encouraging, or even exhorting, members of the audience to work towards getting to leadership positions within their organizations. He outlined the three important parts of leadership:
  • Strategic leadership: This is what we commonly think of as leadership: the "vision thing". A leader has to have a clear, well articulated idea of where the organization should head.
  • Operational leadership: This is the execution skill: a leader should be able to make the vision come true. There are invariably a host of hurdles---competitive pressures, market conditions, internal politics, and so forth. The leader must have a single minded focus on the goal, and do what it takes to overcome all these hurdles.
  • People leadership: A leader must have the ability to inspire and motivate his or her team to pull together to overcome all the hurdles and get to the goal.
Sarin gave a number of examples from his own experience, including Vodafone's recent acquisition of Hutch Essar (India's 4th largest cell phone provider) and an internal initiative to increase female representation in the senior executive ranks of Vodafone from 1% to 20%.

Sarin then made an important point: one does not need to be born with these skills---they can be acquired. And the way to acquire them is to constantly seek out new challenges that take you outside your comfort zone. This is a crucial point. We all have some skills, but we are often comfortable staying within the comfort zone defined by those skills and are loath to take on new challenges where we lack the relevant skills. But it is only by going outside ones comfort zone that one can develop all the skills needed to become a leader.

Continuing on the theme, on Sunday there was a panel consisting of some very accomplished individuals, including IIT Delhi graduate Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures, talking about leadership. In Khosla's view, leadership had two critical elements:
  • Forming a defensible opinion about where things are headed: This is analogous to Sarin's strategic leadership. But Khosla particularly emphasized the importance of the vision being "defensible". He gave an example of his recent efforts on ethanol (I've previously summarized his well thought out position here). He said he always likes to hear the opinions of naysayers so that he can further sharpen and strengthen the arguments for his position.
  • Empathy: This is possibly analogous to Sarin's people leadership. Khosla's point is that one needs to put oneself in the shoes of everyone affected by the stand you're taking: whether they by employees, customers, competitors, ... By putting yourself in their shoes, by empathizing with their viewpoint, one can more clearly see the hurdles and shortcomings in your position. And you can use this understanding to further strengthen your position to increase your chances of success.
All in all, I found both Sarin's talk and Sunday's panel quite thought provoking and insightful.

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