Perspectives from ISB

“Two qualities of leaders which are now most important are ‘leaders who listen’ and ‘leaders who have empathy’”- Sunil Munjal, Chairman of Hero Enterprise on Leadership

(Sunil Munjal, Joint Managing Director of Hero Motocorp and Chairman of Hero Enterprise, is also a board member at ISB. He recently spoke to the students of PGPpro and here are some of the excerpts from his interaction

Leadership is a fluid, ever-changing concept. How have leadership styles changed over the years?

“This is part of the societal change that has taken place over the last 100 year or so… what was acceptable even 20 or 30 years ago, you could actually go to jail for some of those things. The way people behave, for example, in a school, you could smack a kid in class. Last year in Delhi, one of the principals was put behind bars because he smacked a kid on his ear. Now, it’s the same for companies, it is the same for leadership.

It is not about the organization alone, it is also about the individual and how he or she impacts the company. So leadership has to inspire… that has been consistent always, but the leadership of being a unitary leader in the world, in each of your universe, that bit has changed. The leadership today is much more diffused, much more open to conversations. There was a time when leaders were not approachable; leaders could only be seen in a pedestal far away, I think that time is now history. If leaders do not open themselves to criticism, or access to their people, I think that is a failing, it is no longer seen as a plus, it is seen as a failing. So I think that is one big change that has taken place.

The other is about what is acceptable in terms of management and governance practices: things like arms-length transactions, having much more open length conversations on boards, being open to shareholders. These are gradual changes which have taken place over the last 0 years, much more in the last 30 years and much much more over the last 20 years, and these have been seen worldwide because of the globalization that took place, so you are seeing the expectation of performance getting somewhat equated across the globe now.

Please remember, what is correct today may not be correct in the future, so be open to change; the change is going to be around you all the time! You can either lead it or get led by it. So if you are more conscious and more aware, you are more nimble and flexible. So you foresee the change before it comes and takes full advantage of that. Don’t avoid the change, embrace it. Otherwise, it is like technology is coming at us like a road roller right now. Either you are sitting on the top of the road roller or you are the road.

What are some of the most important qualities of a leader?

“Two qualities of leaders which are now most important are: 1) Leaders who listen and 2) Leaders who have empathy. Amongst the most successful leaders, people always look for these and you will find some leaders who are extremely successful but lack one of these and those leaders are actually being berated around the world right now and by the way, they are very successful in their companies.”

There are many students listening to you on the webinar today who are going to graduate to leadership positions in future. What would you advice these future business leaders?

“One thing that is important actually, and I mention this when I address many many business schools by the way. I should tell you there was a time, and I am going back 20 years or so, we stopped hiring the gold medallist from any business school because one of the things that business schools started mistakenly doing and I say mistakenly because many of them have now corrected it was telling the students that I am giving you all the answers; that when you get out of this wonderful campus of mine, you will have all the answers and this young bright mind will go to companies, tell people who 10, 20, 30, 40 years older than them: ‘By the way, you don’t know what you are doing, I am going to tell you how to do this!’ And that’s a big big mistake because nobody is going to show you anything good after that no one is going to teach you, you build a wall around yourself which is not a nice wall, by the way.

So what we do in many of the places, as you know, we run many academic institutions, even at the induction, and I have done this myself, I have told parents when they leave their kids behind in the universities and colleges that ‘we are not going to teach your kids any answers’. So people get a bit taken aback. I say that ‘what we will teach them is the ability to ask the right questions and then make up for themselves what their truth is’ and that is equally true of all of you in this call. You have to figure out your truth by probing, by looking, by searching for the answers.”

What are some of the things you look for while hiring leaders at your organization?

“How do you find a good leader? With difficulty by the way!” (laughs) “That is in one way the most critical and also the most complex thing you can do for an organization is to find the right leadership. We have rich, well-honed processes that we use- and on top of all of these, we use human instinct.

For us we use some unusual criteria of selecting leaders, even selecting businesses, because we are an active investor as you know. So even when we are looking for investments, besides looking at financial criteria which any organization in the world does, because we also want a return, frankly, we have won a better return than most of others and touchwood, we have so far been getting.

We have unusual criteria in the sense that the leadership team in that company must be passionate about what they do if they are not, we are not going to invest with them. And one of our senior team leads in our team must be passionate about that business otherwise we will still not invest. That organization must show leadership ability to get to a leadership position, in the industry otherwise we will not invest in them. That business must have a massive positive social fallout, otherwise, we will not invest in it, no matter how profitable it looks or appears. So we look at things like lateral thinking in leadership, etc. So it is the same filters we use when we are looking for leaders for our own organization.”