2: CEO Balasubramanian Venkatesh on Navigating The Complexities in Future Workplaces

Navigating The Complexities in Future Workplaces

In today’s workplace, we are constantly faced with complex tasks and problems. This can be overwhelming and cause self-doubt. But a simple solution exists – by changing our mindset because when we think differently, we will find solutions to our challenges with ease.

In episode 2 of Agile Leaders Conversations, hear from the CEO of Compunet Connections, Balasubramanian Venkatesh as he shares his views on agility, paradoxes and navigating the complexities in today’s workplaces, and his takeaways from reading ‘8 Paradoxes of Leadership Agility.’

Connect with Balasubramanian Venkatesh at https://www.linkedin.com/in/balasubramanianvenkatesh/

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Balasubramanian Venkatesh: One of my mentor who happens to be the founder of Mind Tree, the company where I spend nearly a decade. In his book, he used to say, the professionalism one who can certify completion of his or her own work. And then who can do things unsupervised.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: I think these two are extremely important. That’s why I call it as an intent. Paradoxes are going to happen in each and every decision that you’re going to take. So keep the vision on your intention, and you’ll be able to navigate your paradox.

Welcome to Agile Leaders Conversations where executives, business leaders and experts from all sectors come together and share leadership insights around leading in today’s workplaces. They will be sharing some tips on how they use the agile mindset to make sense of the complexities and lead with authenticity and ease.

My name is Chuen Chuen, and I’m an author executive coach for the fortune 500, a speaker and a facilitator. I specialize in agile leadership helping organizations achieve success by first growing the agile mindset so that they can be more responsive to consumer and employee needs. I’m so happy to have you listening in to this episode of agile leaders conversations. And today my guest is Mr. Balasubramanian Venkatesh. I’ll invite Venkatesh to share a little more about himself.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: Thank you Chuen. It’s a pleasure to be part of this leadership talk series that you’re doing. I ran a software solutions comp in India. I’ve been in the software industry for 25 years, being in multiple roles right from technology to human resources. I’ve seen both sides of the business, from selling, been with the customers and managing people.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Venkatesh and I made acquaintance when he got a copy of my book, the eight paradoxes of leadership agility. So I’m wondering Venkatesh, what are your general thoughts of the book after reading it.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: During this COVID situation, I spent a lot of time reading various books, and I really wanted to find out if there is something that could be usable immediately. There are a lot of concepts and all those things about the books, but I wanted smaller chunks, which I can consume and apply it into my life. That’s what ended up in me buying eight paradoxes of leadership agility because I believe agility is one of the very important qualities any leader should have to successfully come out of this situation.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: I believe that this book will address exactly what I wanted. To help myself and also to tell some of the companies what I mentor. So that’s where I reached to this book and it didn’t disappoint me.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: In fact I finished the book in two days. It didn’t take long time for me to finish because the way it was being written, using metaphors and various things that have happened in a leader’s life. I would say, I was able to relate to almost all the eight paradoxes.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: Whenever you spoke about Christopher, I saw myself as Christopher. Whenever you spoke about say Adeline, I saw myself in Adeline.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: The beautiful thing is, the way you have the coaching model. I was able to relate a situation that happened in my professional life. And then look at the reflections. It was as though I am reflecting myself in most of the cases. And I was absolutely able to relate. I would rate this among one of the few books that have an impact on me immediately after reading.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Thank you so much for your kind words. It’s really encouraging for me to hear this, because that is exactly the purpose of writing this book, to help leaders who are leading in very complex situations bridge the gap between theory and practice. And it seems that you found what you were looking for, and I’m so happy for your support, and that it helped you absolutely address all these business problems and that you could see yourself in each of these personas in some point in your career.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: Absolutely. I could remember the character names very clearly along with the paradoxes. That’s the kind of impact it has had on me.

Bottom-Up vs Top-Down – A Paradox That Resonates the Most

Chuen Chuen Yeo: I know you have some personas that stuck with you. If you were to choose only one, was there one paradox that resonated with you the most strongly?

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: It’s a very tough question. You’re putting me in a fix by asking me to name the paradox. I think there is one very important thing, it is about bottom-up vs top-down. That was pretty strong because I have seen everybody has grown from the ranks in their professional life. And I was able to correlate your bottom up vs top down from the time I saw in my leaders. And when I became a leader, what worked for me and what all did I learn from my earlier leaders.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: The most important is that you found that it was a good reflection exercise, which sounded like that. That they helped you review and go deeper into all the learning opportunities that you have had throughout your professional career. So that’s really great. So I’m also curious, there is this definition of leadership agility, and of paradoxes in the book. I have written it in such a way that is simple enough for, and that you have that breadth for you to explore how it can be applied in your life and for you to also redefine it for yourself.

Leadership Agility – From the Lens of a CEO

Chuen Chuen Yeo: So how do you see leadership agility and paradox through the lens of a CEO?

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: Sure. In fact, I’ll take your style from the book. How you said you went with the metaphor and all those probably, it might be a very poor copy, but let me try and do that.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: There’s a very interesting story in all the houses here in India. Probably in your country also, there are small bamboo plants that is kept in all the houses. And one fine day asked one gentleman saying, why do you have this bamboo tree here?

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: And he said, it’s for Feng Shui, and it brings you a lot of prosperity . So I became a little inquisitive and then tried to do some research about it. And then I realized, you are influenced by the things around you. Whatever you keep, all these influences your behavior.

Be Agile Like a Bamboo Tree

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: And the bamboo is the only tree which is flexible and, it can withstand even a storm. Whereas a Banyan tree, which is so huge, may not withstand a strong but a bamboo tree will. So if you keep the tree , all that it has to tell you is, are you flexible enough? So, taking from that story, for me agility is, a leader should always look at any situation and see, is there anything that needs to be changed?

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: They should have a mindset, which should make them absolutely flexible in terms of changing their rules. It is not about a decision that is taken sometime back. They should not hesitate doing course corrections because in this VUCA world, nothing is constant. It keeps changing.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: With that, your mindset also should be flexible. You’d always look at, what should I change? So that things can become better for myself, and my business and the people who are with me living my vision.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: So the bamboo is your anchor in reminding you that you gotta be flexible and adaptable.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: Absolutely! Because, we see ultimately as a CEO, I have to withstand any storm. Life is not going to be the same. Today, the COVID situation has come. This can create some opportunity. This may hurt some opportunity. How am I seeing it? How am I doing course correction? And that is what is important.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: So, this bamboo should keep telling me saying that, this business model may not work. In the new normal, things could change. Are you flexible enough? Work from home is pretty new for my company. So, if I do micromanagement and all those, I’m going to hurt those people. And in the work from home situation, while I was taking care of my people, now I have to take care of the extended family because the family members are closely working.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: They have to provide my people, the right kind of environment for them to contribute the best. So I need to change the way I look at things. So that is what I believe is agility that a leader should have.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yes. I think there’s no one right definition of agility. Much more important is that we find one which resonates with us because that will be our north star, especially now things are so unpredictable. And a lot of people are depending on leaders. So they have to provide that sense of direction, or at least a sense of security that we are moving in a particular direction together.

How Paradoxes Plays out to a CEO

Chuen Chuen Yeo: What about paradoxes as you lead your organization as a CEO. How do you see paradoxes playing out in your role?

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: Every decision we take, you always have a contradiction saying what is important?

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: If I take this decision, am I hurting something else? So this paradoxes is a journey, not only in professional life, even in personal life. There are certain times that we have to take some tough decision and this is part of our life.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: That’s what, I always tell my people. Make sure that your intention is right. If your intent is right, you will be able to navigate any paradox. Sometimes, you may have to compromise certain things to look at the larger picture. But then, we should never give up our intent and an unyielding integrity. These two are extremely important. In fact, one of my mentor, who happens to be the founder of mind tree, the company where I spend nearly a decade. In his book, he used to say, the professional is the one who can certify completion of his or her own work.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: And who can do things unsupervised. I think these two are extremely important. That’s why I call it as an intent. Paradoxes are going to happen in every decision that you’re going to take. So keep the vision on your intention, and you’ll be able to navigate your paradoxes. 

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Paradoxes are everywhere. What’s most important is have a very clear goal. What are your bottom lines? What are non-negotiables you want to achieve? Or in your words, the intent. Once we have that sorted out, we know what’s most important to us, which then makes navigating paradoxes so much easier.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: I wanted to specifically talk about bottom-up vs top-down paradox that you mentioned in the book. I would want to compare leadership with parenting. So, your first leader, first manager has got a very significant influence in shaping up your career. Like how your child learns from you. Your first manager has got a lot of things to teach you, and most of the behavior comes from there. In parenting, you always say your children will never listen to you, but they imitate you. They always imitate you. They do what you do, but they never, listen to your words.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: Action is always important. The same way in leadership. I always believe that top-down approach is what works, because if you want a culture to set in, you ‘behave” that culture. Once you start “behaving” that culture, you naturally influence your people. And that is what becomes the whole culture. So don’t expect that the line managers do it, and then it comes up. It is never like that. So it’s very important as a leader, you have to make sure that the kind of attention that you give to your children, probably give the same kind of attention in grooming your people and your business. Do what you want others do. That’s why, that’s always a paradox there.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yeah. I think you are absolutely right. When we are trying to establish a culture, be a family culture or corporate culture. It very much comes from top-down. So there’s always a balance. It’s never one side or the other. There are times and situations where one side would make more sense than the other one.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: Absolutely. In fact, in our company whenever somebody joins the organization, the first thing that we do is run a visioning exercise to understand who have we recruited. What is important to this person? What hurts them? What do they want to achieve in their life? We have a very large vision board in our company which tells exactly about all the individuals in the office.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: A couple of years back, engineers from rural areas of my state, Tamil Nadu. Air travel and all those are not something that they have seen in their life because, they’ll be first generation engineers so on and so forth, so most of it is like that. There was an opportunity to meet a customer. Two of the boys have to go to Singapore based on the project that they’re in. We chose two people and you wouldn’t believe one of the boys came to me and said, sir, in the vision board, there’s another person who says, I want to go by air. I have not traveled, but it is not important for me, but that guy has put in his vision saying, I would want to do an air. (travel by plane) See, it was a paradox for me. Should I take care of my person? Or should I do the right thing for the business?

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: But at the same time, I see a junior boy, who has never traveled in his life telling me I’m willing to sacrifice it to somebody else. Because it is more important for him. What kind of paradox he would’ve gone through, he’s sacrificing his own need and he’s given me a paradox saying that is important?

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: So what I did, we actually made three people travel, so that we took care of the need of the customer and the person as well. It’s just a small incident, but, just because I’m a leader does not mean that only I have to go through the paradoxes, even your junior most employees are going through these paradoxes. And the culture you set will help in managing all these paradoxes with the right intent.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yeah, absolutely. We have many decisions to make on a daily basis. So what I’m hearing is also that all leaders whether they are junior or they’re senior. They will see paradoxes playing out in their careers.

How COVID-19 Changed Business Models and Forced Leaders to be Agile

Chuen Chuen Yeo: I’m curious, in this time COVID-19 such a disruptive period that everyone is experiencing. The whole world is in the crisis together. What’s your advice to veteran and aspiring leaders out there given this background?

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: Had you asked me this question two months back? I would’ve drawn a blank because even I was confused as to what would happen. But interestingly, this learning festival happened.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: So, I must tell you this story. There were 10 of us. We are friends and what we did is at 7:30 PM every day, we used to meet on a conference- google meet. And we used to just chit chat saying, oh! What is happening? What is the number there? What is the number here? And after two, three days it was boring and people started giving excuse saying, I have work and all those things. And then we realized, that needs to be a purpose to be part of this call. So then we said, why don’t we share our knowledge with each other.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: Then one of us put a rule, you can share the knowledge, but we should have one key takeaway, two actionable items that they can implement the very next day in their life after this session. And then after a month, we saw that we have done some 30 sessions with 60 actionable items, which has made all the 10 people better. And see, that was a turning point because all, although I was only worrying about, my business. My people’s productivity kind of dipped because they got bored working from home. But then this one gave me a completely different picture because everybody’s going through this problem. And the best way to do is help each other. Change your business model. You just have to reflect. What will work now? What will work in the future?

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: I come back to agility. Look at things around you and see how you can change your business in terms of how you can make things happen. Very simple change that I made is, I used to speak a lot in forums, but in the virtual environment, your charisma does not carry across electronic medium.

Keep Learning and be Curious

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: It is more about facial expressions, and you can’t keep audience idle, you need to keep them engaged. These are certain things that I learned as I kept talking on the virtual environment. So, staying curious and the learning ability. These two are extremely important.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: And when you are curious, you question everything which will make you agile. The moment you’re agile, you seek solutions. And second one is learning ability because what has brought you so far may or may not take you in your journey again. So, keep learning and be curious. These two are important parts of being an agile leader.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yes. I like the part where you said, every conversation you have with your mentees, let’s have some action items fully agree with that because without action, you cannot have any success. The learning part is also extremely important. There is that continuous loop where you are assessing whether the past learning is gonna serve you or not in the road ahead. And you are always checking in and making that judgment, so that’s really wonderful to hear.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: One important thing that I wanted to say is don’t hesitate to learn from anybody because today, two of my biggest learnings have come from 18 year olds during this COVID situation. Look for learnings everywhere. The agility which a street vendor in my neighborhood changed his business to take care of the COVID situation is phenomenal. It gave me a lot of learning to change the way that I do business.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: So look for unusual sources. It’s not the regular classroom and all those things. It could be from completely different areas. Look for unusual sources.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much, Venkatesh for spending time with us.

Balasubramanian Venkatesh: It was great being on this talk show and sharing all my knowledge. Your book has really made an impact. I want to close with that.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Thank you so much for giving all the viewers the real gift of leadership, which is to share your experience. Thanks so much Venkatesh.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yes. Thank you.

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