Coverage by Bhat Dittakavi of Variance.AI on “pow-wow with inspiring leaders” by Kulmeet Bawa and Sri Shivananda at PGPMAX Leadership Summit 2020

Speakers: Kulmeet Bawa, MD at SAP India & Sri Shivananda, CTO at Paypal
Moderator: Prof. Chandrasekhar Sripada

When you have two inspiring global leaders, separated by oceans and cultures, discuss their thoughts on people, leadership and innovation in the backdrop of the pandemic, their insights would the most valuable takeaways of all the sessions of the entire event. Add to them the aura of an experienced moderator who evangelises the importance of people and nicely selects the discussion topics and their transitions, such structured session would further turn out to be very dear one for the viewers.

Prof. Chandrasekhar Sripada

I am having pow-wow with the inspirations leaders in you. I am having the perspiration and you are an inspiration. We are proud at ISB for PGPMAX community. Kulmeet, you are part of the cohorts of ISB of the past. PayPal is our pal anyway and we go through your corridors all the time. Without making reference to the pandemic, it’s impossible for us to do any session.

Chandrasekhar) What is leadership under pandemic?

Sri) This has been one of the toughest crises during our life time. Massive experiments and remote work experience are the new normal. This is like getting a PhD in few months and the journey continues. If we take what we apply in agile, that applies to leadership too. This has just not been COVID-19 crisis alone. In USA, this is an election year, an year of huge fires, racial divide and geopolitical weather. 2020 is the toughest for us on this side of the world.

This weekend happens to be the day light savings time. Many don’t want that extra hour in 2020 as a joke. There is lot of anxiety and uncertainty. We are creating the urgency of action. We need to be productive and create stability for the people. I have learnt to not to delegate the crisis. You have to be in there all the time. COVID started crisis for us and we try to be coach, parent, teacher and a professional, all at the same time. We saw a community emerge within the walls. We thought it would be for a little while then it has been going on longer and longer. People started to share about their work space. That started sharing what they cook, their pets and on. We learnt from it. We did virtual world called pavilion and using AR VR we made it a digital world where we operate our of. 

We did all hands and communicated over and over. We did surveys every two weeks. We made sure we create cheer, calmness and stability. The new normal continues to evolve. People are important. Our customers are very important. We have to figure out how we switch from defensive to offensive. Answer comes from the collective, and not from one person. 

Kulmeet: A lot of what Sri said touched me too. The world we knew has changed. We see the impact on businesses and business models. There are no set scripts. The way we have grown in the past continues to change. The bedrock of leadership is about dealing with people inside and outside. In the midst of the pandemic, I took this role at SAP. The most important thing for me, when I come into this company without any knowledge of the people, is that I need to be authentic, transparent, and we continue to row in the same direction. Listening to the unsaid words is the real communication.

How to provide the meaning of the why which builds the shared purpose and helps the teams motivated. Before the pandemic or after, leadership tenets remain the same. How do we see through the others’ lens is critical. No luxury of in-person interactions that give body language and signals. We need to make sure that extra effort is there to understand the extra needs of others. Empathy it is. No lines and no it traffic. Counter to this is the burnout. How do you balance physically, mentally and in spirit is the question we ask.

Chandrasekhar) I teach, coach and praise and even threaten folks about the importance of people. Pandemic reiterated the faith in people. Empathy and compassion are most used in these times. Leaders like you continue to remain empathetic and compassionate. Some times strategy, execution and the reason why businesses exist for growth could be more than the soft side that is people. What have you done at strategy level under pandemic?

Sri) Digitization of payments is not new. Currency has become the potential threat as virus carrier. Digitally native companies like us shifted to a new office which is home and we continue to work from there. There are so many outside didn’t have the means to have work. There is digital kindness and digital giving now. We have people helping others through various modes. Where do people get that pay check come from? People have new habits to adapt. Those who have been into digitization are fine with the new change. Those who had never been there in digitization have bigger challenges. This reminds me of the days ATMs came. Everyone rejected them and they wanted to go to a teller at the bank until a snow blizzard hit them hard. 

Now customers who are stuck at home are counting on PayPal to take care of them. Cyber attacks have gone up. We have to innovate on the fly, compete on the fly and grow on the fly. We need to create an environment for them to cope and thrive. We need to come up with product roles that are on the offensive. We came up with crypto products and AR and VR codes. We said let us take care of our people and let us compete in ways that are different than what our competitors do. 

Kulmeet) Our strategy is to help every organization run as an intelligent enterprise that listens and understands across its people. We pivoted after pandemic by opening our solutions (open platform) to the prospects or customers who suffered the worst.

One of our recent acquisitions, Paltrix, helped us do free remote work survey (pulse) with people. It helped employees feel they are more productive and supported. We enabled remote support. Digital transformation has been there from before. This has scaled up during the pandemic. We have lot more coming in terms of specific solutions. We have a huge demand coming now even in farming side. Everyone realized that that no physical touch points means there must be a technical solution. The stuff we do with NASSCOM and social impact side is new normal too. 

Chandrasekhar) What is that signature experience that is personal? Share some experience. 

Kulmeet) It has been challenging. Our human relationships. I have to build alliances and trust. I am more of personal and I like getting into rooms with people. Town halls do help. We can see each other and talk there but the virtual is different. I question ourselves about how we can come up with innovative methods. We have “time off Fridays” for employees. The case studies I learnt in ISB are coming to action at work. When you come from outside into an organization versus moving up within a company, both are different. Working via social media, not twitter or LinkedIn, is a key. I have been attempting to grow my Instagram account. How do I express the real Kulmeet on a lazy weekend while daughters are teaching me how to cook! This Instagram experience is helping me to connect with my people way much better! 

Sri) All of us are continuous work in progress. I look at management as a journey in doing, leadership is a journey in becoming. The modulation of certain aspects in leadership over pandemic changes over pandemic. We don’t know the answer to the new normal yet and we learn it together. We gifted form healthy and safe people to productive too. Mental health is key. We need to keep the sanity with balance. We need thriving workforce when it comes to competing.

I always studied about the power of vulnerability. I discovered the practical use of vulnerability in pandemic. Best leaders practice individualization which is far different from a design pattern in engineering. Doing it on their terms with the news they have is way different. This is personalization. It starts from listening. Slack has become a new way of connecting with people in two minutes that is so much. “Hey, I heard about this thing you did. I would love to know how you did” is such a powerful way to connect. Value to meaning and alignment with purpose! Lessons in humility and sharing that “I am struggling too”. 

Chandrasekhar) What would be your advice for outgoing PGPMAX students?

Kulmeet) Crisis could be an opportunity. Go create an opportunity for yourself. Don’t wait to be told, be tenacious and be the first to do. Think about the legacy you leave behind. Think differently. Accelerated digitization is the key. Understand this experience economy with personalization and individualization. Get into the people’s world. 

Sri) Train hard and fight easy. No substitute for preparation. Tenacity is a force multiplier in these times. Take risks smart ones if you want are function growth. Resume values and virtues versus enology values and virtues! Competence versus character. Make sure you focus on both to create a more whole individual of yourself to lead the world the way you do that no one has done before.

Chandrasekhar) You guys talk as if you guys know each other. You put the human beings or people at the center. You brought the leadership discourse back to where it was. 

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