You must keep learning to grow as a leader to expect and respond to emerging challenges. You’re always busy, and there are no academies or crash courses available. It needs to happen through experimentation as part of your personal and work day. How do you enter and stay in learning mode, set challenging learning goals, experiment, and reflect on the results to learn?
Top 6 Learning Points
- How do leaders, in the absence of institutions that teach them to be great leaders, focus on working towards it?
- How do organizations create a conducive environment for leaders to learn even while they work?
- How do leaders avoid complacency and continue to add to their knowledge while giving their best to the role?
- How do leaders tap into that knowledge that’s first hand and core to the goal of the business?
- What inspires CIOs to learn from- mentors or stories of success and the ability to think fresh, new and fast?
- What tough calls would CIOs need to take, just to keep up with the rapidly changing business scenario?
- The market is changing so fast, it is very tough these days to always have a plan in place, and it is testing the mettle of executives regarding agility.
- Leaders need to deliver 24X7 and also keep alive their learning process.
- If you are a leader, you must be prepared to take all of these in your stride. Moreover, if you do not, today, others are waiting in line for your job if you do not deliver.
- Learning from a leader needs to be continuous, on the job and constant.
- We need to tap into that knowledge in a way that’s first hand and core to what you are trying to achieve as a business.
- Succeeding in the new millennium would mean dropping the baggage of experience and welcome the new, fresh eye for business.
Leaders, CIOs or non-technology ones, today, have a tough job. They need to be able to deliver almost round the clock because the business demands so, but also make time to enrich their skills. Most organizations give some time to their leaders and especially new ones, to learn and deliver, but there is no respite for their performance. Then how do they make time to continue their learning process? They learn at the job- from team members of the younger generation. Sometimes experience is excess baggage, and leaders need to know how to pick and choose- making a balance between experience and new knowledge, for the benefit of the teams and the business. Leaders need to be inspired, mentored as well, and it may require a very open mind to learn from younger groups, or from competing and other businesses on how they track forward. They need to continually re-invent, to keep abreast and take some hard decisions on what adds value to the company, and what weighs down the speed of growth. The talk shares thoughts on how leaders can carve out the time and be intentional about learning and how organizations can support them for the benefit for all involved.
Sanjog: our topic today is “Learning as a Leader,” and for this discussion, we bring you Bob Baskerville, the Chief Information Officer with Scripps Networks Interactive, and Veneeth Purushothaman, the Chief Information Officer for Fortis Healthcare.
The way I look at this is, the most prominent challenge is that there are no academies that can teach how to be a leader. There is nothing that will allow us to go out and learn on a regular basis on how to be a leader so we can add more value to all the people we lead, as well as organizations.
So, what are the ways by which a leader can focus on learning? How do they figure out a way to create learning goals, experiment, reflect on the results, and then work towards the best results that produce the best outcome for everyone involved? Bob, while we live in very demanding times leadership could be a combination of intuition and preparation. However, do you think you have the time for that?
Bob: I certainly try to make the time. You hit the nail on the head when you said earlier that it is such a fluid world these days. Notably, the space that I work in, which is in media and technology. So, success for us is making sure we connect with consumers. However, today, consumer choices in our space are so fluid and broad sweeping that sometimes all I do is trying to help us enable our businesses, keep teams moving forward and thinking regarding innovation, while not being reactionary. It starts at the top and so it is very tough these days to always have a plan in place. We can try, but the current market conditions are testing the mettle of executives regarding agility. It has been a massive exercise for me.
I have been leading teams in organizations and businesses for a long time. The way we have to respond and do it today, versus how we used to do it less than five years ago, has changed dramatically. However, yes, we always try to be prepared and be in front of what’s coming. We try to lead to change and opportunity but sometimes, there is no choice. It might be coming at you–to use a baseball term- like a fastball, and you need to decide whether to take the swing or not.
…today, consumer choices in our space are so fluid and broad sweeping that sometimes all I do is trying to help us enable our businesses, keep teams moving forward and thinking regarding innovation, while not being reactionary.
Sometimes, how we react leads to specific changes. As the adage goes, sometimes it is the things you choose not to do versus what you do, are decidedly more critical in your decision process.
Sanjog: Do you have that immunity? Do you think the organizational and other executive management or the people who report to you or follow you, cut you that slack? Does that happen or is that expected?
Bob: We are working on that. I would call that work in progress. We always have to pay attention to the risks in some of the decisions we make. However, again, in the particular space, we are in, there is a little bit of latitude to acceptance of failure rather than sit and over-analyze what could be coming. So, you anyway try to take the swing from time to time. We do not do it every single time, but sometimes we like to be more in front of changing trends. We probably take a little more risk these days than we have in the past because sometimes speed to market is critical to balance that and market strategies.
I believe my team, the workforce, they are an excellent support for my speed. We have a mindset of getting that balance between waiting for too long, or not waiting long enough!
We probably take a little more risk these days than we have in the past because sometimes speed to market is critical to balance that and market strategies.
Sanjog: Veneeth, the question for any leader is, can they be intentional about learning as they go by doing what they do every day, realistically because they are supposed to get the job done, they are supposed to lead people at that time?
Veneeth: I would say yes, I do not think anybody can stop learning. However, then the expectation is also that you will deliver. Obviously, you can not say that I am learning, and therefore I need more time. Time is what nobody gives you nowadays. Learning is the continuous thing, and I do not think anybody today can say that I know everything. Definitely not with technology, because that is something that’s continually changing. Yes, we have the luxury of learning but not at the cost of the deliverable.
Sanjog: Bob, based on what Veneeth just mentioned, we do not have the time. Even the pressure of the work or the different variety of and the volume of work do you get to handle, could you not still say, okay, I am going to say yes to only so many things so that it does not impede my learning cause? Because, if you do not learn you are bringing less of yourself to the job that you are given. What stops you from saying, “No more?”
Bob: We are trying to be more measured in those responses, and again sometimes, it is just as important to identify what you cannot do versus what you are committed to doing. However, when you are in a publicly traded company where you are managing some constituents for success and growth — that is the challenge in our world these days. Growth has always been a given, but now it is even more demanding when you consider everything that’s happening around us too.
Coming back to the theme to the whole learning of the leader is about how to balance between the best opportunities and ones that might use too much use resources for too little RoI. Though that has been an old subject, today those decisions are critical, for deciding what projects we pursue and try to capitalize on.
You asked how I get the opportunity to make sure that I am continuing to enrich my growth and my learnings with working past business hours. For me, once I get home, get the kids to bed and have had dinner with the family, I spend time reading and try to learn more. While I do not want to say it is a 24/7 world regarding learning, but it is every business day to focus your time and efforts on work or to be able to learn and grow your mindshare of things. I do not think it exists like that anymore.
Sanjog: When you hire a staff member, you identify and accept them with some gaps and know the areas for improvement. However, for a leader, we want them to be fully cooked. If it is such an approach, are we not having the organizations inviting the leader assuming that they do not need to do anything more to develop as a person and thus the team takes a passive role in developing a leader. Is that how we are hiring leaders? With that mindset, are we not holding ourselves back? Veneeth, this is a question for you. This is regarding the very hiring, when a leader gets introduced in an organization, unlike a staff member, we expect that person to have everything that they could have. As a leader, to do everything possible that an organization wants. However, that is, of course, an assumption, and a weak resumption because, of course, there are areas that you could grow. Yet, if the organization is not looking at you as someone with a focus on growth, then they may not proactively allow you to have that environment where you can learn. Is this not adversary, what I would call is not a just conducive environment for you in any organization as you come in?
Veneeth: Yes, you are right. That is how it happens most of the time. As a leader, I am not going by a copybook kind of a reply, but if you call yourself a leader, you are expected to deal with all of these pressures. You are supposed to deliver from day one, to hit the road running. That is why you come in at a senior leadership role. That expectation comes from what they have heard about you, what they believe they have seen in your profiles, and in your resume. That hope is built over previous roles. Over and above that it depends on a lot on the position that you come in, whom you report to, what kind of organization you get into, all of that plays a role. You could have much freedom to work or have a boss who’s expecting that from day one. It is a mix of everything, Sanjog. I do not think that we can straight away put it in straight line saying yes. However, in my view, they must be prepared. If you are a leader, you must be prepared to take all of these in your stride. Moreover, today there are many contenders in line for your job if you do not deliver.
Sanjog: Veneeth, interesting the way you said that there are others waiting in line. Bob, I do not feel that if a leader is going to carry out their daily duties, with an ounce of fear of being axed if we do not deliver, they are not bringing their best game to the job. Secondly, they would never become intentional about learning because they are so consumed with trying to prove themselves. So would you say at some point, do we start growing a little more insulated from these fear of the unknown so that your learning can begin?
Bob: I think of my circumstance and the current job, not the role of CIO but the company I worked for, I have been with for well over 20 years. Over time, you build a bit of a comfort zone because they have kept you and they rewarded you and so they believe in what your decision-making processes are. I would not necessarily call it fear as much as I would call it avoiding complacency, and making sure that you understand that the way you did things ten years ago is not going to work the same way today.
I would not necessarily call it fear as much as I would call it avoiding complacency, and making sure that you understand that the way you did things ten years ago is not going to work the same way today.
I think sometimes your biggest potential enemy is not necessarily the fear of the unknown, more so if you have been on the job for a certain amount of time. It is more about you are getting too comfortable in what you do and expecting that you have answered all the questions, you have done it all before. That is what I try to make sure doesn’t happen with other leaders on my team and me. We have a lot of long tenure leaders that report to me as well. It comes back full circle to what we have been talking about. It is critical to focus on learning and making sure that you continue to stay sharp in your game.
In every company, there’s an onboarding process where you have some time make a mistake; you are not going to get killed by any stretch. Figuratively speaking of course. However, I think what happens is, we want to make sure the way we operate as leaders is imparted the right way to newer managers and staffers on our team. Again, there’s nothing to be afraid of here. It is more about making sure that we are exhibiting the ability to adapt and change because that is the new normal in any business right now. The way technology is ruling the day; we need to be able to be the ones to adapt. Technology is continually changing, and so the learnings have to tie into some of the leadership learnings as well.
Sanjog: Veneeth, a new staffer, when joining a company may have anxiety about proving themselves, but with time and acceptability, they will get into a comfort level. However, for a leader, who comes in and takes charge and trying to do something different, the risk is embedded in the very role itself. Should a person hold back on their intentional learning and experimentation, till the time they settle in in a job, or they should keep doing that experimentation? It is also true that experimentation will give them that edge, and the ability to maneuver through those exciting times, goes beyond merely spending time at the company. So, is the expectation that the leader is not going to wait for their minimum tenure or a minimum critical period to be over before they do start learning? The very reason you can experiment and fix those unique, challenging situations is what earns you the badge of a leader. However, if you do not, then you are another manager who is a wannabe, what do you think, Bob?
Bob: I agree with that. I want to make sure that we are out in front of all those things. Also, we want to make sure that we set the examples for the people who come in. One of the things that we have pushed for a very long time, and we still speak of it with great reverence is the culture of our company. It is about doing tremendous work but also allowing people to have the wherewithal to continue to improve themselves and through learning and enrichment and other opportunities. I think that it is indeed incumbent upon the leaders in my group and me. When we bring people in, we do have expectations of them, but we cannot just turn them loose and expect them to go and just set the world on fire right after they come in. They need continual guidance.
We always take the stand that when we bring people in, we have expectations of them but we cannot just turn them loose and expect them to go and just set the world on fire right after they come in. They need continual guidance.
Also, giving them the opportunity to have moments to make sure they do learn and grow, not just within the construct of how our company operates but what’s going on in our industry. That is because while trying to do everything, you run your risk of taking your eye off the ball on what’s next. We owe it to our company and our shareholders. As a leader, I owe it to the team. I work so hard every day, so that not only am I practicing that methodology, and making sure that I learn, but also making sure that we are giving people on the team the opportunity to have time and the resources to continue to learn and evolve their craft. That is irrespective of whether it is as a leader or as a professional. That is critical on some levels.
Sanjog: Veneeth, should a leader depend or wait for the initial time, a critical amount of time to be spent where they feel safer than they start learning, is that how they should play?
Veneeth: Sanjog, it depends on a lot of what you are doing, on the company that you work for. I do not think there can be a standard answer as to how you form a firm. You should not change your work; you should not change yourself or your aggressiveness or your core style. You should not play safe because if you play safe, you would be complacent you will be positively left behind. I would say, as a leader you should do what you are expected to do, even though you are afraid that others may not like it. You cannot at any moment say that because of the timeline pressure, I delivered something that was below the quality that was executed. You are expected to deliver; you do the right thing. You feel that it is too aggressive and too unrealistic, you should speak up and do what is right.
There’s one more piece in the whole CIO role, which I believe should be brought out, depending on the organization that we work for. I work in the healthcare industry. In my most of the roles that I played, I was a CIO always for in a business role. A CIO typically has the most vantage point. CIO has the benefit of knowing the process that happens from to end to end. He, therefore, usually has an edge, is what I believe. If you join an organization, as a CIO I hardly have seen people who focus on the business and not just focusing on technology. If you focus on the market as well, you can stick to your goals; you can go up for the numbers or go up for the targets you want to do and deliver and be there and will perform well.
Sanjog: A simple question for you, Bob. I am sure when you were growing up, people saw gifts in you and then, of course, you felt confident, you went through your learning and got to where you are today. However, then, for the learning purposes who or what would teach a leader learn from?
Bob: In the particular role I am in now as CIO, I have been president of cable TV network, and I have been a COO for an international media business. Now my current role as a CIO, it comes full circle for me because my roots began in the media business more on the operational or technological side. What I have learned is how quickly things change, I think you cannot do it alone. I try to create learnings for myself through, again, reading and spending time just researching on the internet and all sorts of things, but some of the best opportunities for learning for me are the ones right in front of me. Those are frankly as it speaks to technology, maybe not so much leadership, but indeed technology.
I spend much time trying to learn and absorb for my team because I have a just skilled bunch of people. My role as a CIO is probably a little different than it is with some other companies. That experience and being a business leader is part of why the company appointed me to this role. They wanted me to continue to maximize our alignment with technology and business growth. Let’s not to say that it does not happen with other CIOs, but that was explicitly the purpose here. When they asked me to be in this role, the first thing I said was, I am not a systems person. They said it was okay because they had got the infrastructure and the support necessary within the team. They were right when they said that but, in the years that I have been in this role, I have taken every opportunity to make sure that I just learn and try to absorb – I would not say on a daily basis. That would be overstating it, but indeed, I do this with regularity.
Sometimes, when I am just sitting and watching people learning from their workflow, I am also spending time learning. I just did this yesterday with a random group of employees on my team, where I have breakfast with them. We schedule it, we pick the group randomly, and we just sit and talk for an hour. It gives them an opportunity to ask me questions about the bigger picture, it gives me a chance to ask them questions about what they are working on, and those are the ways I find learning to be convenient. That may not be formal, but my point is, you can tap into that knowledge in a way that’s first hand and core to what you are trying to achieve as a business.
As it relates to leadership learning, I feel a lot of that comes from just previous experience, having done it for as long as I have had. That has helped me when I need to stop and be introspective on what we are trying to achieve at a given moment in time. That part, I worry less about though it is essential. However, I have confidence in my abilities. The other part is making sure I stay abreast with everything we are doing in technological terms, and regarding innovation too, that is the best resource for my team to learn or for me.
Sanjog: Veneeth, learning is a means to an end, what you want to develop is fresh thinking. I agree with Bob that your years of experience help you with that foundation. With new technologies, new paradigms and new types of the workforce coming in, creating a new kind of situations, new forms of process improvement is required. Some cases, we cannot indeed go back to what we learned in the past and apply to the new one. We have had situations, in fact, I have spoken to a few leaders who feel starting with a clean slate is better than carrying the baggage of experience. Would you think that to learn how to do fresh thinking is the way forward because everything is shifting and many of the old things are learnings may not be relevant today?
Veneeth: You are right. I agree 200% with Bob. You learn a lot from your team. The millennial that you deal with is a very different kind. There are several of my colleagues who were shocked by what these young guys tell me. Recently, a colleague of mine was appointed a mentor to one of these young guys. This guy came and asked, “Why do I need a mentor? Why do you think you are good enough to be my mentor?” There is a big gap as we go, which means that you may not need to wipe out the blackboard and start fresh, but yes, you have to be on your toes.
Though we CIOs are expected to be techies, I do not expect myself to fix all the technology problem. I do not even believe that a technology solution can address all the issues. The solution can be a solution without technology as well. What I try to do is to be focused, to be continuously learning and innovating. I am a part of a CIO engine network which has started dealing with startups. This is something that a lot of CIOs in India got together to start an Indian startup network that we are very actively involved with. That gives us an opportunity to listen to fresh ideas.
Exactly, as Bob mentioned, we get to experience, and the young guys are brought together to throw ideas. There are various areas in which you learn from your team members. At the same time, the next level is to work with these small startups and develop the partners. Working with partners and trying to learn what’s new, what they are bringing to the table is also a way forward. Significant brands partners like the Google, IBMs, Microsoft of the world, have benefited from being in touch with them. That is what I believe are ways to keep learning. To conclude, yes, there is nothing like completely wiping off learning. I think, all that you have done also has given a lot with the experience that can help you to understand the technology and help you to execute it better than what the young kids can.
The next level is to work with small startups and develop the partners. Working with partners and trying to learn what’s new, what they are bringing to the table is also a way forward.
Sanjog: Bob, who and not what, should we emulate? Whose advice we should heed or learn from their experiences. Again, given the time is changing fundamentally, the landscapes are changing on business and technology’s side, experiences, yours included, may not be relevant because you have to think new. Then, when it comes to the learning, should we just reshuffle or revamp our mentor or coach or learning network or a peer network? Alternatively, from people coming from the new age, new fresh thinking background, so that we embrace that style So, the person who knows mainframe, may not necessarily know how AI will work. Only, GenX and GenY’s and baby boomers would not know how to handle the millennials. They honestly may not be able to help you if you keep looking up to them for your next sounding board. What do you do about building a fresh set of peer network or the people whom you would like to follow, what should be our benchmark today?
Bob: Sanjog, you are right. As I am sitting here, participating in this show, I am looking at my bookshelf right now which is stocked with books. I have read most all of them but what’s funny is, I am sitting there, looking at it thinking, “What would be just eminently referable and practicable today?” Pinning that down to your point is hard. That is where I am spending more of my time these days-looking at what could guide me, inspire me. I look at it more from a business perspective, and it is not necessarily written in a book. It is what we are watching happen in real time. You look at companies today in my space like, Amazon – Amazon has so many different offshoots that impact my life and impact my business these days. One of the preeminent cloud purveyors that exist, through AWS. They also are now in the grocery business, again, the retailing industry, they are in video content delivery. Just watching them, their ability is impressive. Moreover, now they have talked about potentially getting into the shipping business. Their ability to pivot and just say why not, why not us? That inspires me to a certain degree. Sometimes it scares me because I think that kind of a company could rule the world someday.
Netflix is another one that’s a company that I am just so impressed with. Their ability to innovate and continue to evolve also put great value out there for their customers is just great. Their customers are paying a fair price for things but what they are getting in return is I think a very, very solid value. That is very representative of what a media company would want to deliver. I look at those things for me as North Stars, for me to follow. I have this whole notion of why can’t it be this? Why can’t it be this space we enter? Again, we cannot do it to the tune of an Amazon at our company, but I do think we try to enterprise and move into new frontiers, more than we have before.
For me, correctly, it is that thinking that I can point to that that helps keep me on my toes more than anything else. I said earlier, inspiring, it is also like, we got to play defense too, man, because these guys, they are coming after market share in other ways. As I said, they approach it as-why not us? Why does it have to be someone else? I would say that is what I have been looking towards more, as I build my teams and our work streams. This is how we are going to organize for the future and success and growth.
Sanjog: Veneeth, What got us here, won’t get you there, that is a book by Marshall Goldsmith. What examples that were given by Bob just on Netflix or even Amazon and others who are pivoting, I am sure they are just not doing it because they got some alien help. It is coming because there are some leaders out there who are willing to learn and put learning at the forefront of how they carry out themselves every day. If you were to make your company another Amazon, another Netflix, in the areas that you play, that means you got to do that too, and you have to surround yourself with the right people with the right mindset, etc. To that end, if you had to take a step back today and announce in front of the world and say, this is how I am going to do something different tomorrow! I am going to learn to make it the best it can be, the organization and the best leader I can be- as someone who’s going to take it forward. What would that be like?
Veneeth: You have to be brave enough to take calls that takes you to the next level. You cannot just keep working the way you have been working so far. You have to think differently. I believe the most important thing is, you have to believe and rework on what constitutes a team. An organization like most of us have is a decade old or several decades old. You have people on your group who are working since before most of this technology was even made. This puts you at a disadvantage because they will not be able to understand an IoT or an AI when it comes to delivering it. However, the first thing that you will do is look at your team and take some tough calls, which means getting in a lot of new plans and people within your constraints. That would mean looking at people’s attitude rather than just looking at certificates and the various universities they have been into. Go back and take some tough calls and get the young blood in. That would be one of the things that I would do.
You have to be brave enough to take calls that takes you to the next level, and you cannot just keep working the way you have been working so far.
Then, look at – Let people fail, fail-fast. There’s a lot of pressure on people to deliver, and that weight puts many people go back and don’t take the risk. You need to give them the freedom to provide so that even if they fail, they are covered. A couple of things, I would look at the team, entirely relocate the team and once they would want to get fresh blood in, that will be a tough call in an organization that is several decades old. That is when you look at, giving them the freedom to work. Fail-fast would be what I would teach them to do.
Sanjog: Bob, three words from you, which people should keep in mind if they want to learn as a leader.
Bob: Be open-minded.
Sanjog: I like that. Thank you so much. On behalf of the show everyone, thanks, Bob and Veneeth, for sharing your views and thoughts on how leaders can carve out the time and be intentional about learning and how organizations can support them for the benefit for all involved. Thank you so much.