09 Nov 2020 20:44 IST

Growth mindset is a game changer: Airtel CEO Gopal Vittal

‘Systems need to adapt to changing customer mindsets in a rapidly evolving ecosystem to thrive’

Carol S Dweck, author of Mindset: The new psychology of success, talks about how leaders can develop a growth mindset and nurture it in their organisations. According to the book, people who have a growth mindset don’t just seek challenge but thrive on it; the bigger the challenges, the more they stretch.

In leading a large organisation that faced a grave threat from many market disruptors, a growth mindset has helped in no small measure, according to Gopal Vittal, Chief Executive Officer, Bharti Airtel - India and South Asia.

Embracing challenges

“About four years ago, the new player entered and pumped in close to $50 billion of Capex in a short period and made deep inroads. We had invested $40 to $45 billion over 25 years. They gave away services for free. A lot of regulations went against us and favoured the new player,” remarks Vittal.

What happened as a result of this storm that struck the telecom market, he says, “Eight market players faced bankruptcy. The number two and number three players merged to become the number one for a brief while but went down rapidly. We started at 30 per cent market share before the battle began. Today, we are at a lifetime high of 34.5 per cent,” declares Vittal and adds, “Our business is going through digital channels. We have over 150 million digital users and a 1,500-strong digital team. It has obviously been a crazy period for me personally.”

Speaking as a panellist in a webinar organised by Madras Management Association in partnership with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung under the Leaders Speak series by Pond’s Veterans, Vittal was happy to share his three vital pieces of leadership wisdom.

* The need to balance between entrepreneurial and professional hats

* The need to pause at pit stops and take a fresh look at things

* The importance of alignment and culture

Right attitude

“A leader must have the ability to be an entrepreneur and a professional. If you're completely an entrepreneur, you may lose sight of governance and processes. If you're completely a professional, then you can become very bureaucratic. When you have the right mix of both, then it creates magic,” explains Vittal. The mix can vary according to the industry that one is in.

“In the context of the telecom industry where everything is changing, the leader must think more like an owner or an entrepreneur. A pure professional looks for stability. It is important for us to focus on input over output,” clarifies Vittal.

So, what did they do? “We changed our metrics. The entire operating teams used to be measured by revenue growth and margins but we knew they were going to fall. After a lot of debate, we decided to target our teams on inputs like how they hold costs and drive a better experience and as a consequence, how they gain market share even in the compressed market.”

Vittal adds, “We need to be flexible. We are in an ecosystem that is changing rapidly. Our customers are changing even more. So I believe we need an emergent strategy. We have to be curious and have systems and rituals in place that can unleash our full potential.”

He underlined the importance of beneficial habits such as visiting other companies, vendors, equipment providers, and customers. This is where the ‘professional’ in the leader plays a part. “Even now, despite Covid-19, I do at least two days of virtual market visits across the country,” he reveals.

Skin in the game

As Gopal Vittal has been the CEO for eight years, he feels that he may fade into the woodwork and get into a state of complacency. To come out of this, he has been following a unique strategy in the last five years. Every year, in the fourth week of December, he takes a week off and convinces himself falsely that he has been fired.

“If I've been fired, how do I look afresh and what should I really need to do in this business?” Initially, he wrote down his plan to himself and later on, decided to send it to the chairman of the company. Now he shares it with his teams as well.

Vittal’s act reminds us of a 17th CE story. According to legends, when the mighty Chatrapati Shivaji ruled the Maratha empire, he once became too stressed out and handed over his kingdom to his guru Sri Samartha Ramdas. The Guru accepted his new role but at once nominated Shivaji to rule the kingdom on his behalf. Shivaji’s heart became light and he was ready to rule again, and this time, as a representative of someone in the second innings . When we analyse a problem after dissociating from it, we tend to easily acquire fresh perspectives and new insights.

Workplace culture

“Alignment to the organisational values and workplace culture is really important as things are rapidly changing.” says Vittal. As a service-oriented company, they follow a daily ritual where all the stores get together for thirty minutes and discuss what worked well the previous day and what didn't, and whether or not they served their customers well.

“Top-down alignment is essential but the horizontal alignment is more important, and it starts with authenticity, open feedback, and having honest conversations. That brings people together,” concludes Vittal.

(The author is a freelance writer based in Chennai, a corporate trainer and a visiting faculty for various B-schools.)