“It is our sense of purpose that motivates us!”

S. V. Padmanabhan (Venkat), President and Global Head-Corporate Finance, Olam Group shares fascinating insights into leadership and its various facets with Business & Economy

What are your most powerful leadership techniques?

S Venkita Padmanabhan (SVP): I think one of the most powerful tools is to assist the team to discover and identify their passion and purpose. Both are important. Having identified the purpose, if there is no passion, they can’t be self-driven and surge forward.

Second, as a leader, keeping alive the “child” in us helps to have a sense of wonder and curiosity to learn new things, constantly ask the “why” till we get an answer. This keeps the team fresh and movinga ahead. The third technique is the art of reflection. Many times being aware and reflecting on our thoughts words and actions can produce powerful lessons for oneself as well as the team, leading to improvement.

Do you have any tricks or techniques that help you stay ahead and keep you abreast with the latest changes in today’s exceptionally fast changing world? (SVP): First thing is to realise what one’s strengths (both easily evident ones and those hidden) are and nurture them. I have seen people trying hard to eliminate their weaknesses. Being human, we will have strengths and weaknesses. We can minimise the impact of our weaknesses, but we will not be able to completely eliminate them. It’s a journey to become self -aware and to manage weaknesses and optimize strengths. Much later in my life, I realised that there are tools like personality profiling, NLP techniques, EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), practicing communication leadership through Toastmasters etc, and these helped to nurture my soft skills as well as overcome some of the “Limiting Beliefs”.

Lastly, volunteering in professional, business, social bodies, networking and also speaking in various forums is for me a powerful way of sharing, learning and growing myself. Most often, we are slaves to our routines. If we are able to go that extra mile, it can really nurture us as well as others.

What according to you is the one most important quality of a leader?

(SVP): In my thinking, authenticity and sincerity are the most important qualities of a leader.

You can never win over the team or yourself – if you are trying to follow verbatim the style of some other successful role model. Each situation and person is different and that requires originality. You need to have your unique and sincere style. When it comes from within us the genuine quality will give rise to the right responses. Any leadership journey contains two distinct roles – one is “master over self” and the other is to “inspire the team to take action”. For both to happen one needs to be truly sincere and also needs to be authentic in approach.

Can we teach people to become better leaders, or is it a skill you are born with?

(SVP): Yes, one can learn to be a better leader, provided the person has got the fire, the motivation to succeed and willingness to go the extra mile of transitory learning and journey of self-betterment.

I truly believe, we all have it in us, irrespective of the background of the person – it is only a question of a deep want to get better and urgency to get there, that makes anyone a better, successful leader.

What is the secret to building a strong and efficient team?

(SVP): In this modern world, there is no “Boss/Leader” and “Subordinate/Follower” roles. We are all leaders in our own right. What matters is how we can enable the team to realise their individual and collective goals. Once we are able to ignite this spark in each of the team member, then they become self-motivated leaders. Of course, after a certain level, significant success cannot be through a one man show – it is always team work.

And again in the team, it is not the reporting relationship/hierarchy that matters. It is the ability to collectively understand and take ownership of the common purpose.

What is your secret of effective time management?

(SVP): This is a continuous journey as is the case for most things. Long back in my career, I used to have a screen saver on my desktop of an empty plastic bottle. I visualised this bottle being thrown up and down by the waves of the sea. The bottle might think that it is very busy and working 24/7 but the truth is it is not going anywhere – neither into deep water nor to the shore. It’s just at the mercy of the waves. That was a very powerful visualisation to create the urgency in me to prioritise and get things done so I could actually add value and move ahead.

Another technique that I am practicing even now is to continually reflect on my actions and experiences (as an observer without emotions and this has got better with time) and see how productive I was and if I have done relatively better, is there any scope for improvement etc. This helps me to adjust my course on the go on a proactive basis.

How do you inspire and sustain motivation?

(SVP): This beautiful life is to live and can’t be wasted. Beyond a point, money and wealth is not what motivates a person – it is a sense of achievement, or purpose. Hence each one of us needs to understand the purpose that inspires us at a given point. It might change and evolve as time goes by.

For me, for some time now, what drives me is to touch people’s lives in a meaningful way and leave a lasting legacy. I connect to this; it resonates with me. Anything I do – professionally/personally – I relate back to this purpose.

In my social media, I keep sharing my experiences, my learnings – and even if it touches a small percentage of people and inspires them to take action/ or learn something, it is in line with my purpose.

Another thing that sustains my motivation is the wonderful people we meet in this whole life journey. There’s something to learn from every one – including the tea lady from my office. I notice her attitude of serving with a whole hearted focus and also taking pride in her work even at the age of 60 – and that inspires me – fuels my own energy.

What is the secret to handling failure effectively?

(SVP): During my earlier years, I would take failures to heart. I wanted to learn efficiently from every experience and had the habit of taking feedback from stake holders and reflecting on them very seriously. This was great; except that I would get emotional about them.

With the help of various learnings (both formal and informal as mentioned earlier) over time, I now reflect on the “failures”, analyse the root causes, take the gist of the learning and move on. I am not too harsh on myself and less self-critical nowadays. There is lesser emotional attachment so I am able to move on more quickly and easily.

This brings objectivity to help me to grow rather than get depressed by any failure. And it has also helped me to truly appreciate the value of failures as a stepping stone for success and wholesome improvement.

How do you prioritize between work and life?

(SVP): When one truly loves one’s profession, which gives happiness – it is no more a mere job or work, but part of life. I can’t draw a curtain and say this part is to earn a living (work) and the other part (life) is separate.

I believe true personal success happens when we identify a role, career, profession or business that is in line with our passion and our larger purpose. It may not happen straight away for all, but one must not lose hope and continue to pursue whatever they have at hand with the same zeal. You will get your dream role sooner or later.

If we look at the proportion of time spent on “work”, it is much more than the time spent with home and family. Hence it is important to learn to enjoy and create an extended network in the workplace, create friends, learn something new every day and make work become truly enjoyable.

In life we get “creative labs” to work by way of situations/experiences whether at work or in personal life. If we are able to learn from these exposures/experiences, life is very fulfilling.

Which leaders do you admire? (SVP): At a personal level, my parents and my wife. I come from a middle class family and it was my parents’ attitude, and values of hard work, self-respect and to live in the present , stories from mythology etc., which helped me build my character a lot. After marriage, my wife is my best friend. Being a true dependable friend, I can bounce off issues, take advice; mentorship etc., from her and it helps me a lot in my pursuit of my goals. She also takes a large amount of work off me on the home front; I truly admire her for her leadership abilities and for what she is able to contribute to my family and to me. Outside my family, I admire the founding father of Singapore’s late Minister Mentor Mr Lee Kuan Yew and my CEO Sunny Verghese. Both leaders had the vision; sincerity and tenacity to pursue and manifest their dreams, with of course Sunny continuing to do so. It is an inspiring learning experience.

Your views on the leadership skills of the next generation of leaders?

(SVP): First of all I salute and respect the youngsters. A lot to learn from them and they are able to identify and nurture their purpose at a much younger age and pursue their dreams. I admire the following traits of the young leaders:

  1. They are truly informal and practical in their leadership style.
  2. They act on inspiration, when the course of action resonates with them rather than unquestioningly following directives from higher sources.
  3. They are more open to risk taking, which is important for creating entrepreneurs.
  4. Non-hierarchical in their leadership style.
  5. Unrelenting Energy in pursuing their passion.

Best advice you can give to the future leaders.

(SVP): Being a student for life, and considering I still discover new aspects and pursue excellence in leadership, I can only share some of my experiential leadership learning with the future leaders. If it appeals to them they can imbibe these qualities.

  1. Identify one’s passion and purpose through self observation and self awareness.
  2. Whatever the chosen field of expertise – excellence in delivery is key to moving ahead. Mediocre performance won’t take them to greater heights.
  3. Ability to get an insight from the mass of data/information and with that, to be able to have a foresight on the issues at hand.
  4. Focus on building soft skills in a structured way as early as possible. Practice this relentlessly and nurture it.
  5. Take risks and action – rather than inaction. Failure is better than inaction.
  6. Have an open mind to take feedback and then reflect and act on those points you believe need to be acted upon.
  7. Lifelong learning– it could be an experience, technical skill, knowledge or observing someone and learning something. Let’s not rest on the laurels of our past achievements.
  8. Have a vision, strategy and an execution plan– even on your personal journey/ pursuit of excellence.
  9. Lastly be true to your self.