01 June 2022 12:59:35 IST

Feedback is the breakfast of champions: Shiv Shivakumar   

Shiv Shivakumar, Group Executive President, Aditya Birla group

From the Horse’s Mouth

There is no management without either context or culture and that’s why I call management an art than a science,” said Shiv Shivakumar, Group Executive President, Aditya Birla group. Shivakumar was the Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo India for four years. He was speaking in a panel discussion held recently in Madras Management Association, in connection with the release of his third book, ‘ The Art of Management.

Shivakumar was in conversation with R Ramaraj, Founder, Sify Technologies Pvt Ltd , and  Gowri Mukherjee, CEO & Co-Founder, CreditMantri. Breaking down the elements of management into three parts: managing yourself, managing your team, and managing your business, Shivakumar explained that managing oneself is possibly the core of having a successful life or a successful career and gave Sachin Tendulkar as an example.  

Sachin’s toughest ground 

Shiv recalls having dinner with Sachin in Delhi when he asked the batting maestro about the most difficult ground that he batted on. Sachin said, ‘Auckland in New Zealand.’ The reason Sachin gave: “There are gaps in the Auckland stadium and the wind comes at you at almost ten degree temperature. The biggest challenge is to keep my eyelids open all the time I bat, so I can see the ball.”   

Then Sachin added Melbourne where he would always stare widely at the sight screen as he entered to bat. He reasoned that in Melbourne, the light is too bright. “If I don’t stare at the sight screen and absorb that whiteness, I will never pick the red ball.” Only somebody who has really thought about the game so deeply can do that, Shivakumar narrated.   

Managing a team, according to Shiv, includes not just managing it vertically but horizontally too- managing your peer group or managing somebody else working in a matrix with you. “In managing the business, a lot of people in the past world used to look back and extrapolate. I’ve done that as a brand manager. Today, extrapolating the past is possibly the silliest way of managing the future,” said Shivakumar.    

Lessons from sports 

How did sports influence Shivakumar professionally and personally? As he grew up in a boarding school, sports was almost compulsory. Sports, he said, taught him many things.  

“One, it teaches you preparation. Two, it teaches you to assess and judge competition.  You tend to look for weaknesses in the opponent and think what you can do differently. Three, sports teaches teamwork. Cricket is an exception where individual brilliance can see you through. By and large, one guy cannot win a match. Finally, sports teaches you to respect rules and regulations and institutional authority,” summed up Shiv.    

He also added that sports teaches people how to lose gracefully and shared his admiration for the combination of Nadal Djokovic and Roger Federer. “When one of them loses, the other always says, ‘The other guy played well.’ He also spoke of the old Australian cricket team who, whenever they lost, would say that they lost to a better team on that day.  They never offered excuses or blamed anything or anybody.  Losing gracefully and accepting defeat is as important as winning, Shivakumar emphasised.  

Legacy vs new age  

According to Shivakumar, there are many lessons one can learn from the new age startups. He predicted there will be two types of companies in a future world. One is the legacy companies, who will be there for 60 years or more like the Tatas, Birlas, Mahindras and Reliances of the world. Then there’ll be another bunch of companies that will have a very short life span, may be 0 to 20 years. Either, they will die, or they’ll get bought out or they’ll merge.  

“The first set of companies will go slow and steady and give you stability. You can learn the basics there. The second type of companies are high-risk, high-return type. You have to make up your mind as to where you belong to. You cannot be in a new age company and ask for the security of the first stage company,” he cautioned.  

Is ambition a bad word? “Ambition is good because it raises the bar consistently. We are all ambitious for our kids, our teams and our companies. But once ambition becomes a very naked exercise, where you wear it on your sleeve and it’s all about yourself without the collective element of anybody else, then that’s a serious problem,” he reckoned.  

Riding the wave 

Today, if somebody stays for more than three years in a company, they think it’s something wrong with their ability to move or they are not wanted. Is this a worrying trend? Shivakumar replied that the consumer is changing far faster; technology is impacting change dramatically. So the employees consistently want to ride that next wave and don’t want to get stuck in an old age industry, with old age bosses who don’t teach them anything.   

Shivakumar also felt that on the job training which used to be a big value proposition of every company, is now gone, as leaders and companies outsource development plans to institutes like ISBs and IIMs.  

Shiv shared a simple checklist to find out if the trends will impact your business. “Whenever I look at trends, I always ask myself: Does this trend impact the individual? Does it impact the family? Does it impact the society? If it impacts all three, you can be sure that it will impact your business.”   

Be miles ahead 

If you give adverse feedback, people are now leaving. Is that something that we will see more? Shivakumar said that feedback is the breakfast of champions. They take it on the chin and try to be a better version of themselves the next morning. There are, of course, people who try to defend or project when you give them feedback.  

Shiv also added a note of caution, “If you truly want to give feedback as a team leader, you have to be miles ahead of your team members in thinking, in framing the problem and structurally thinking about the issues. If people in your team and your industry respect you, your team members will take your feedback. Second, be consistent. You call out good and bad as it is. Then people will see that over a period of time. If you are just attacking the person and not the issue, that’s not feedback.”   

Failures matter 

In recruiting, how do we know who is the right candidate? Shivakumar replied that we have transitioned from Drucker’s supply chain era to Kotler’s marketing era to Porter’s eco-system era. The skills required in different periods of time are different. We must recognise that. “When I look for people, I look for communication skills, drive and energy. I also ask them for their biggest failure in life. If people are not pushing their boundaries, it means they are not failing. In a fast changing world, you need self-reflection, self-awareness and resilience to come out of failures,” reasoned Shivakumar.  

Heart of management 

Is there anything called the Heart of Management? “There is,” said Shivakumar and continued. “A practising manager in every company has a choice either to follow the company rule book or what the employee wants, which is an individual value proposition, or to find the right mix. That is the heart of management. You can’t blindly follow the rule book, nor can you pander to every individual need. The heart comes in judging what is right for the company, in the context of the employee.”

He also felt that in the post-pandemic world, the heart is going to matter a lot, by offering flexibility to employees. Shivakumar said that discipline, energy and focus are absolutely critical for any good career. “You need to manage all the three. Having one alone is not good enough.”  

Not just the stars 

How can organisations balance employees’ ambitions and their ability to achieve those ambitions? Shivakumar regretted that many companies make the fundamental mistake of growing only their stars.

“Not that we don’t need stars. We need a Tendulkar, but only in the context of the team. We tend to put disproportionate time and energy into growing the stars. Then the gap between the stars and the average performers widens, leading to cynicism, strife and back-biting. The trick,” he said, “is to grow both the stars and the average simultaneously.”   

The author is a freelance writer based in Chennai, a corporate trainer, and a visiting faculty for B-Schools)