Rajeev DubeyIn conversation with Rajeev Dubey, who retired recently as Group President (HR & Corporate Services) & CEO (After-Market Sector), Member of the Group Executive Board, Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. and is currently Principal Advisor to the Group. Before joining Mahindra in January 2004 as a Member of the Group Management Board, Rajeev had spent 29 years with the Tata Group of which two decades was with Tata Steel and the balance as CEO first of Tata Metaliks and then of Rallis India. He has also been the National President of the Employers’ Federation of India (EFI) and the National Human Resource Development Network (NHRDN), and is currently a Member of the Governing Body of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Geneva. A Yale School of Management alumnus, he is passionate about leadership that incorporates philosophy and other humanities, ensuring that leaders connect with the hearts and minds of employees and not just with their skills.

Driven by purpose and guided by vision, Rajeev is a business leader who exemplifies people-centric leadership that aims to drive positive change in the lives of those he impacts. In conversation here with Ravi Bhamidipati and Sanjay Ghoshal on the changing face of leadership, the needs of employees, and the secret to unlocking passion and purpose in your teams.

On Empowerment

Ravi: You have been known and respected for being someone who believes in the management style that empowers people and believes that empowerment unlocks potential. To a lot of people, this is something that is almost an axiom. Why don’t all leaders practice this, what are their inhibitions? And how did you come across this philosophy and the translation of this philosophy?

Rajeev: To be very truthful, it comes naturally to me. We have to be clear about what our primary task is in any situation. A necessary (but not sufficient) condition to achieving that primary task is that the concerned people are involved, driven by passion and working towards the same purpose. And the only way in which people can be passionate is if they are empowered.

When I say empowered, I mean being engaged, allowed to exercise discretion and involved in the process of creation, including determining how to do things. All this in the context of an overall purpose and strategy.

For me, the central purpose has been driving positive change in the lives of those who I interact with in the context of the primary task. And to do that with Satya, Prem, and Seva – Truth, Compassion, and a sense of Service. To speak the truth regardless of the consequences (but to do it with sensitivity and not by making a virtue out of being nasty and abrasive!). By compassion, I mean the ability to put myself in the shoes of the other person. And Seva Bhavna – not coming from a space of control and power, but dedicated to serving the cause and the people being impacted.

In various functions, geographies and situations, my experience has been that when you involve and empower people, when you listen to and co-create with them, you get better results.

Why is it that some leaders are unable to do that? Maybe because they have a need to be in control, which probably stems from some deep-rooted insecurity. Also, till about 25 years ago, the role model for a leader was the strong, authoritative, know-it-all person, the typical command-and-control type: Jack Welch, General Patton, Winston Churchill et-al.

But in the New Normal – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous accompanied by a pushback from all stakeholders – it becomes very dysfunctional to have an extreme command-and-control leader, in fact it is almost a certain recipe for disaster.

Ravi: My key takeaway is that the shape of the environment that we live in has shifted substantially and therefore, so should leadership styles. Today, to say that one man knows it all and can set out the vision and the way that the whole organization should respond will greatly inhibit the organization’s agility and its flexibility to respond – key skills in the VUCA world.

Rajeev: The central driver for the leadership style has to be the behavior that will result in achievement of the primary task of the organization. This behavior must be such that it creates a culture and process of quick and iterative decision making right through the value chain, resulting in agility and resilience, which are necessary conditions for sustained outperformance. The connection between behavior and performance needs to be emphasized. People accuse me of being the soft and fluffy type, talking philosophy and poetry. “Dhandhe ka baat karo” (Talk business). I am talking pure dhandha (business) right now.

I’m making out a case that empowerment is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for sustained outperformance in the New Normal. To move from necessary to sufficient, behavior must be accompanied by strategy, structure, processes and metrics.

For me, empowerment has several dimensions. One of them, an important one, is to empower people to take decisions, discretionary actions, without having to refer all the time to a chain of command. The other one is making the necessary resources available to them. Finally, when the chips are down, or when something goes wrong, the leadership should support them.

The truth about Performance

Sanjay: The proverbial bell curve is often seen in frontline teams – few people doing very well, most people in the middle, and a few not doing well. Despite so many changes in management theory, the bell curve remains – only the shape may change. The Army is one place where the gap between the best performers and average performers is pretty narrow. They have a very strong command culture. Is the corporate world missing some motivation technique they are using to narrow this gap?

Rajeev: I have talked about leadership to large groups of people in the Armed Forces. Many of them have said, “If you think we are all about command and control, forget it.” The amount of empowerment that is required in the armed forces is enormous, because people have to make decisions on the spur of the moment. If they are not led by purpose and trained to be empowered, and have to keep on referring up a chain of command, there is no way in which they can function.

So I think we have to understand that in the Armed Forces, like everywhere else, there is a combination of command and control and empowerment / motivation. The question always is of the relative degree to which these two elements are present.

The second thing is, teams in the forces work towards a higher purpose with a junoon (passion). Knowing that they are serving the nation inspires them to perform at extraordinary levels. I do believe that this can be replicated in the corporate world as well. We need to connect with “why” we do what we do, instead of focusing on just the profit motive. Finding a higher purpose is key to motivation.

people centric leaders vs command and control

Another thing at play in teams in the military forces is a sense of responsibility and accountability. Right from the Academy, they are accustomed to the buddy system – doing all their exercises and drills together. This bond goes deep. So that even when faced with absolute terror on the battlefield, a soldier never turns back. Not because he’s not scared, but because he does not want to let his team down in a moment of crisis.

Now let’s talk about the bell curve. The question is do we really require everybody to be a top performer? You can’t statistically have that, by definition everyone cannot be a “top performer”. So then the question is – what is the desired mix of performance levels and why is somebody not performing?

I’ve often been told to get rid of the “third-rate people.” My reply has always been “No one is third-rate.”

“We have to ask ourselves why people are not delivering. Is there something that we are not able to provide, are we not creating the right conditions to enable high levels of performance?”

I have yet to come across someone who can’t deliver if we are able to create the right enabling conditions, barring people with a pathological issue or being totally technically unqualified for the job. I have a huge problem in publicly declaring some as high-potential and some others as third-rate. It’s the good old Pygmalion Effect. You treat somebody in a certain way and they will start behaving that way.

Yes, of course, some people are better and they must go up, but others are equally required. It’s like a chain – the strength of the chain is determined by the weakest link in that chain.

I have always believed that we must choose properly, we must not overstaff and we must give proper training. But as far as people are concerned, I have never found much of a difference between a so–called high performer and a so–called low performer – between the 90th percentile and the 5th percentile. Actually, it is a dense curve with a few outliers on both ends.

We must ask ourselves : Are we setting goals properly, are we communicating them well,  are we listening and having dialogue, are we treating people with respect, and are we giving them the resources required to perform?

I would much rather use this approach rather than continuously chopping off the tail and focusing only on the high performers.

Fundamentally, all business decisions are guided by purpose, values, and philosophy, especially in times of fear and uncertainty, when you need ‘distributed leadership’. The role of purpose and values and providing psychological safety, are all being driven by the business imperatives of agility, resilience and the need to take quick iterative decisions along the entire value chain. 

On Inspiring Leaders

Ravi: You’ve dealt with a wide range of leaders and their leadership behaviors, could you share a few examples of moments that have been highly inspirational, leadership behaviors that resonated with you?

Rajeev: One of the most empowering leaders that I have had the joy and privilege of working with in my entire 45 years of corporate life is Anand Mahindra [Chairman of the Mahindra Group]. My relationship with Anand was more of a collegial relationship – we’re about the same age. Of course, he was the boss but I could sit across the table and talk to him openly and more as a friend.

Earlier on, Dr. J. J. Irani inspired me a lot. [Dr. Irani was the Managing Director of Tata Steel from 1992-2001]. He combined empowerment with command and control. Dr. Irani was the super boss and I was a younger person. But I can give you so many examples of empowerment and support (and critique!) he gave when it was needed – these two have to go together.

Another great leader who made a huge impression on me was Russi Mody, the Managing Director of Tata Steel at the time that I had joined the TAS (the central managerial cadre of the Tata Group) in 1975. My first assignment after the probationary period was as Russi Mody’s Executive Assistant for 2 years.

What inspired me was the clarity and focus of his thinking and decision making, his ability to take risk, and his amazing connect with people from all walks of life.

These three leaders stand out for me, but there have been many other outstanding leaders at all levels who I have interacted with during the course of my long corporate career. While the big boss certainly makes a huge difference, it’s the kind of people you interact with in daily life that determines the impact you make.

Empowerment, Trust & Support

The most dramatic moment that comes to mind was when I was the General Manager (Town Services) of Tata Steel, Jamshedpur from August 1994 to November 1996. That assignment was akin to functioning like the Mayor and the Municipal Commissioner (without, of course, any judicial powers). The Town Division had approximately 6000 employees. We ran the city of Jamshedpur, which is a mix of company and non-company populations and areas spread over 64 square kilometers. Roads, electricity, water supply, sewage and sanitation, markets, 40 schools, parks and gardens and company housing: all these were our responsibility, including working with the government to clear encroachments on company land.

There was this incident where some people kept trying to build a religious structure on a prime piece of land, in an up-market residential area of Jamshedpur. It was our job to make sure that the encroachment was removed. We had planned out a meticulous operation involving our special anti-encroachment squad. This operation was carried out at 2:30 in the morning. At 5:30 I got a call from the Security Officer who had gone as the head of the party saying they were surrounded by a big mob, led by a strong local leader. They were threatening to kill the team.

This whole scene was being watched by a large number of people. In my mind, if we withdrew, it would be a huge loss of face for the Company and would make it very difficult for us to deal with any encroachments in future. That was the assumption that I was making. On the other hand, there were 10-15 of my people whose lives were at stake. It was a very big decision.

I rang up my superior, the Vice President. He said, “Rajeev, you’re the boss of the Town Division, you must take the call. But if you like, why don’t you talk to Dr. Irani?” So I rang up Dr. Irani and asked him what to do. He said, “Rajeev, whatever decision you take, I will back you”. I took the decision that I didn’t want my people to be killed, because I was getting credible reports that it would be difficult to stop the mob. We withdrew.

I was really crushed and went in with my letter of resignation to Dr. Irani. He said, “Come on, Rajeev” and tore up that letter.

That, for me, was a moment of epiphany where I could see the level of empowerment and trust being reposed in me.

In a sense, the respect and reputation of Tata Steel in Jamshedpur was at stake, and here was a young guy (I was in my early forties) who was being backed to the hilt. It made me feel that I had to give my best and never let down this man and this company.

With Anand [Mahindra], there are so many examples of this kind of empowerment. But the Town Division story was the most dramatic I remember.

Integrated View of Leadership

Ravi: What a great story! I started my career with P&G, (Richardson Hindustan Ltd.) The CEO was Gurcharan Das at that time. As management trainees, we would be required to meet him frequently. One of the things that he said has always stood with me. “One of the acumens that we lack in the Indian leadership to me is the absence of people with a fine arts, arts, philosophy background and an excessive emphasis on engineering and analytical capabilities, which kind of dehumanizes.” He was giving us counsel to be alert to this. The school of arts and philosophy brings in perspectives, tolerance. They don’t take a problem and solution approach but understand the complexities. Do you have any views on this?

Rajeev: I have very strong views on this. Let me put my stake in the ground by saying that all important business decisions are essentially philosophical decisions. You have to be very clear about the framing of an issue. I am not for a moment denigrating the importance of logic, analysis and facts. But they are to be used in the context of the overall purpose and vision.

It’s not a question of either/or, it is a question of ‘and’, but I believe that the philosophy comes first. Because that is what determines the purpose and the vision. The engineering part is the necessary means to achieve the end. Neither philosophy nor engineering is sufficient by itself: both are necessary.

Therefore, among the leadership qualities that are critical in the New Normal, is the ability to use the whole mind in any situation – both left and right brain.

I am using the term ‘left brain’ to denote logic, rationality, calculations and programming, and ‘right’ to mean empathy, connection, intuition, connecting the dots to make sense out of a mass of data. You have to use both.

I always remember the words of Father McGrath in a talk he gave at the 1977 XLRI Annual Convocation. He said, “When you embark on a journey, you must have one eye on the horizon and one eye on the next step. Both are necessary. If you look only at the horizon, you may fall into a ditch. If you only look at the next step, then you’ll be aimless. You have to use both of them”.

The Future of AI

Ravi: That is really powerful. Two last questions. There is a lot of discussion and dialogue on AI – both its power and its limitations, the ethical use of AI, particularly in the context of its power. What are your views and concerns on AI as an extremely powerful and promising technology breakthrough?

Rajeev: To me, it’s like when man discovered fire, the wheel or electricity. The real question is what we are going to use it for. Man can’t live without fire, but fire can kill. Same with electricity or nuclear fusion.

AI is a very powerful force, and is going to be the all-pervasive electricity of the future. Therefore purpose, values, governance and ethics in the use of AI are all so critical.

Because AI can be used for good, it can also be used for evil – like anything strong and powerful.

That is where the role of the leadership will come in. That is where the values, morality, philosophy, purpose, governance and ethics of the leaders and organizations come in. The Why, What, for Whom, and How are all critical. But the starting point has to be clarity about the Why.

remote work keep people connected

The Power of the And – Human & Digital

Ravi: Finally, a little bit of crystal ball gazing. For empathy and a whole host of human emotions, one of the key elements is the physical connectedness of individuals, either at a workspace or outside. With the advent of remote work, what would be your thoughts around recreating that chemistry?

Rajeev: I think the way forward, which is probably the best way, would be a hybrid one combining technology and physical interaction.

We cannot do away with physical interaction, but will definitely need a lot of virtual connections, like the conversation we are having now! Paradoxically, I find that my connection with people has gone up manifold during the lockdown because of the virtual platforms.

I believe given the evolutionary stage that human beings are in, we have a great need for three fundamental things. First, we require connection. Of course, this is better done person-to-person, but if we can’t do that, it can be virtual – but we need connection. Second, we need to feel that that we are contributing something. And third, we have a need for being recognized for our contribution.

Those of us who pray at the altar of technology or are forced by circumstances or reasons of efficiency / cost to move into the virtual world, must never forget that on the other side is a human being. A human being with aspirations, with emotions, with needs for connection, a sense of contributing and recognition – that must never be forgotten.

We must harness the power of technology but we must never forget humanity. The two can be combined very well.

That is the great revolution that has taken place during my lifetime in management thinking. You need to have both, the engineering based on the Newtonian world, as well as the philosophical and spiritual side. They need to both blend to produce outperformance. That is the way forward for humanity if we’re looking for continuous improvement, growth, and profit – an integrative and holistic approach. To use a cliché, we need to move away from the “tyranny of either / or to the power of and”.

It’s important to remember that the New Normal is equal to VUCA plus the pushback from stakeholders. The minute you have the pushback, you can’t get into the ‘we-they’ / ‘either-or’ mode, we have to get into the ‘and’ approach. The pure imperatives of delivery and outperformance are leading us to the ‘and’, leading us to empowerment, purely on the altar of efficiency, efficacy and sustainability. That is where the revolution is.

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