Perspectives from ISB

Sanjiv Bhagat is an experienced Chief Executive Officer and currently serves as Vice-President at AT&T ASEAN. In a career spanning over three decades in the telecommunications & IT industry, Sanjiv has worked with organisations such as HCL, IBM, and AT&T.

Skilled in strategy & business planning, CRM, go-to-market strategy, and sales management, Sanjiv is also a professional mentor, helping fellow colleagues and young executives achieve their goals. A fellow member of the Institute of Directors, Sanjiv graduated from the Indian School of Business in 2012.

In a recent conversation with him, we had the opportunity to talk about his PGPMAX experience, ISB days, and other contemporary topics. Here is a summary of the interaction.

Tell us about yourself, your current organisation & role, and your professional journey so far.

I have been in the industry for 36 years now. I started my career with HCL back in 1986 as an application developer, then moved to technical support. I believe my career took a great leap at IBM. I joined the organisation as a technical specialist and when I left IBM, I was country manager for their networking division. After leaving IBM, I joined AT&T in 2000 as General Manager (India). In the last two decades with the organisation, I have served at various positions, climbing up to the position of Chairman & CEO for AT&T India. Currently, I am based in Singapore and responsible for AT&T’s ASEAN business.

You were already serving as managing director in AT&T India back when you joined the PGPMAX program. What inspired you to do an executive MBA program & why did you choose the PGPMAX programme? Why ISB?

There were a couple of reasons to pursue an executive MBA programme. My career growth had been purely based on the learnings from experience & job performance. I realised it was time for me to structure my learning & then take a leap from there. When you are on the job training, you do learn a lot, but you may not be able to structure it properly. You have a lot of thoughts and ideas but lack the process to structure and present them effectively. I knew a structured learning programme would help me improve myself. That is why I thought an executive MBA would be an ideal programme for me.

I started looking for B-Schools with a good curriculum and a great brand value. ISB was a right fit with its 18-month modular learning programme & had a good name in the industry as an institute. Though PGPMAX was fairly new, the school held a reputation as great as IIMs or maybe even more. One thing I liked about PGPMAX was its format. While other programmes were a mix of online and campus, PGPMAX had 1 week learning on campus every 5 weeks which I thought was great because you get a chance for classroom learning. To meet your batchmates in person and spend a week learning together is a great experience. Also, one could spend 5-weeks working & 1-week learning. So for me, the format worked very well. Secondly, ISB has an impressive faculty. It was everything that I was promised. Most of the visiting faculty was from world-class B-Schools. The third and most important thing that I considered was the average cohort experience in the programme. I already had over twenty years of experience and wanted like-minded batchmates for a better learning experience. All these reasons led me to finally join ISB.

What do you think is the right time to pursue to PGPMAX programme?

I don’t look at PGPMAX as just an executive programme but rather as a senior executive programme. If you look at executive programmes in other institutes, the average experience is around 5, 6, or maybe 7 years. At PGPMAX, at least in our batch, the average experience was around 10-12 years. I found it very exciting because there were a lot of common areas and scope to learn from peers. After working for 20 years, it is not easy to go back to education, and becomes more difficult if you don’t share common management issues and interests with your cohort. So, I think 10-15 years of experience is required to reap full benefits from PGPMAX.

Where did you think you were headed in your career before you took the course? How has the overall ISB experience affected the direction?

For me, it is difficult to directly relate career progression with PGPMAX. Had I not been to ISB, I might have reached the current level in my career, or probably it would have taken a bit more time. But PGPMAX helped me to fast forward my growth for sure. It definitely helped me structure my thoughts & navigate management problems better. By the time I finished the programme, I became Chairman & CEO for AT&T India. Now I am in SINGAPORE handling organisation’s ASEAN business. Though I can’t pinpoint, the programme signalled senior management my commitment to work & career. That provided more opportunities and garnered more confidence from my colleagues.

Any specific lessons have you learnt during the programme and what relevance does those lessons bring in your work function and role?

There are a couple of classes that I always recall. The marketing & strategy class at Wharton was excellent. I think that was one of the best marketing-strategy sessions we had. There were a lot of simulating discussions not just on marketing but also on product development.

But what I apply on my day-to-day basis even now are the lessons from ‘Management of Organisations Needing Change’ class. That is a true course for anyone who needs to manage an organisation. It aided me in a lot of ways on how to handle people & organisation; manage the change specifically because change is constant and has to be tackled systematically.  In my view these were the best classes we had and gained a lot from them.

Apart from that, I think a lot of learning came from my classmates. The diversity in the experience we had from various industries was phenomenal. While at work, one is only exposed to their own industry but the programme provides the chance to meet people from various industries who are experts in their domain. So, there is a lot of learning to attain from these interactions.

Another thing that I learned on my own during the programme was effective delegation. I knew if I had to complete PGPMAX successfully, I had to make sure there is somebody who takes care of the office in order to devote my full attention during my time at ISB . I surely made some mistakes but I learned from them. Because of that, I have held on to effective delegation. I kept delegating work responsibly and became more productive. The performance of the whole team also went up because of that.

What is your philosophy of a good leader? What nuances of leadership did you pick up during the programme that were worth applying in your professional life?

One thing that I have learnt from my own experience and collective experience of people I have worked is that one should always work on their strengths. People generally try to improve their weaknesses and I think rather than improving the weaknesses, one should focus on the strengths. You can take your weakness, let’s say from level 4 to level 6 but if your strength is level 8 you can take it to level 9 or 10. I firmly believe one should work on one’s strengths and not on their weaknesses (unless the weakness is fatal to business). Pick up any great leader for instance, you only see their strengths. It’s not that they don’t have any weaknesses but it’s just that they don’t let their weaknesses show up.

Another aspect of leadership is while building a team, hire people who are better than you in their domain. It is because at the end of the day, it is the team which is going to perform. So, hiring the best people who are better than you in their own domain is utmost important part. One needs to be honest as well. Finally, I think a leader needs to have integrity & ethics at his/her core.

What are the new challenges business leaders face in the wake of the current global pandemic? How has business leadership evolved in these unprecedented times?

Business leadership has two aspects – one is business itself & the other second is the people. The pandemic has hit both – business and people greatly. The business itself as moved a lot more on to the digital side than before. The only positive thing that I see in such uncertain times is the acceleration of digital transformation. The growth in digital transmission has increased manifolds because people have realised that if they don’t adapt, they will be out of business. So that’s the only positive thing I see out of the pandemic.

Now that the businesses are bouncing back, leaders need to make sure that businesses have the right tools and the right resources in place so that pandemic doesn’t impact everyday functioning. I think digital transformation is something that probably every company needs to undergo.

From the employee’s point of view, it has been very tough to stay motivated. Ever since the pandemic has hit, everybody started working from home and it is very difficult to keep oneself motivated virtually.  So, leaders had to make sure to keep the team driven & energetic. We arranged a lot of activities such as meeting out of the office, taking them out on lunches, doing virtual fun sessions, etc. I think that was a bigger challenge, at least for me and we succeeded in that. Nobody left their job. People are sticking with us even now and performing very well so that means they are happy with the way we are handling it.

What does it mean to be a part of ISB alumni community? What value have you derived and how has it benefitted you?

As PGPMAX alumni, I think we are very closely linked. We have created digital groups on all social networks & have all our classmates there. We stay connected to each other almost on a daily basis and try to arrange get-togethers once a month with whosoever we can meet. We are also connected with people from other batches as well and have a WhatsApp group named “Kal, Aaj Aur Kal” (Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow), signifying older and upcoming batches. Every time a PGPMAX student comes to ISB, he/she joins that group. Both of these groups (classmates group and the overall PGPMAX group) are pretty helpful. Anytime one needs any help, they reach out in the groups and definitely get some solution or another. It is one of the many assets that PGPMAX provides.

What is it that keeps you buoyed and relevant? What do you cherish doing in your spare time?

In my industry, I have to learn something new every day. Technology changes so fast that by the time you read about something, something new comes up. So it’s a continuous process of learning for me. We have AT&T university & have mandated hours of study at all levels. Also, I have industry friends in my network to discuss related topics & keep myself relevant to the industry.

In my spare time, I am a photographer. I do all kind of photography but I love wildlife photography the most. I have my own blog. Maybe you can sometimes go and view it.

If you must encapsulate ISB experience in just one word, what would that be?

Not one but two – GAME-CHANGING.

Author: Sanjiv Bhagat, PGPMAX Co’12, Vice President – AT&T ASEAN