13 May 2021 22:12 IST

If your boss is tough but fair, work for him: Shiv Shivakumar

Source: Shiv Shivakumar official website

Young managers can learn a lot from difficult bosses, says Group Executive President of Aditya Birla group

Shiv Shivakumar, Group Executive President, Aditya Birla group, said “Do not benchmark your performance with that of your colleagues. Instead, try to be the best version of yourself,” while speaking in a panel discussion held by Madras Management Association during the release of his book, The Right Choice: Resolving 10 Career Dilemmas for Extraordinary Success.




Shiv Shivakumar was the Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo India for four years. Earlier, he was the CEO for Nokia in India and emerging markets for a decade.

To drive home his point, he narrates an anecdote from Indian Cricket. Gary Kirsten was India’s Cricket Coach between 2008 and 2011. During the same period, Paddy Upton was India's mental conditioning and strategic leadership coach. On taking over their roles, they realised that Indian players were stars by themselves and did not really need coaching. So they told the players, “Practice is optional. Still, if you want to practise, tell us what you want to practise, be it a square cut, cover drive or a delivery. We will prepare you for that.” 

Shivakumar continues, “Paddy Upton told me that the player who asked for maximum practice was Sachin Tendulkar. He was the best batsman in the team, having played for 18+ years at the highest level and yet, he wanted to benchmark himself against an absolute best. When you are the best, the only thing that can stop you is bad luck.”

Focus on fitness

On the need for young managers to take care of their physical fitness, Shivakumar says, it is very difficult to find time for sports activities once you are working at a job. “Many young managers put on 20 to 30 per cent extra weight in their first two years of service as they work extra time and do not exercise. The rhythm that they had in the college completely goes off.” He cautions, “You must take very good care of your health. If you are not physically fit, you won't be mentally alert. If you don't go to the workplace with a spring in your step and hope in your heart, you can’t make it big in your career.”

‘The star who goes the extra mile’

On his association with Shah Rukh Khan during his Nokia days, he recalls roping in the celebrity actor to endorse the Nokia brand in the aftermath of the BL5C battery recall crisis that Nokia faced in August 2007. Shah Rukh became Nokia’s brand ambassador. Then in 2008, Shah Rukh won the bid for the KKR team in the IPL auction. Nokia became the lead sponsor of KKR. The first two years of KKR in IPL were a disaster and Nokia had to take a hit. Shah Rukh called Nokia and offered to give two days of his time, free of cost, for any promo or ad campaign.

Shivakumar told the actor, “Shah Rukh. That's very generous of you but our deal is with the KKR team and not with you. The team has failed and that is the risk Nokia has taken. Let’s stay friends.” Nokia continued with KKR and KKR won the title in 2012 and 2014. 

“One of the things I like about Shah Rukh is that he gives the sponsors his full value and always goes the extra mile. He is a very bright, smart, razor-sharp, and very humorous person. I am absolutely certain and I have said this many times that if Shah Rukh had not been a film star, he would have been a successful CEO somewhere.”  

Facing a bad boss

How should one handle a bad boss? It is a huge dilemma but Shivakumar has a recipe. “Draw a 2 by 2 matrix. On the one side of this matrix, place your strength and weakness and on the other side, the boss’s strength and weakness. The box where your strength is also your boss’s strength is a ‘Lose’ box because your boss will always say that he is better than you. With the box where you have strength and boss has a weakness, you have to be very careful and sensitive in coaching him, without meaning to coach him. 

The next box is where you have weakness and the boss has strength. This is a fantastic box. You can learn from your boss and tell him that that he is damn good at it. The last box is where you and your boss both have weakness. This spells trouble for the company.”

According to Shivakumar, young people today do not like tough bosses but they can learn a lot from such bosses and develop critical thinking. “If your boss is tough but fair, work for him.”

Look for ‘company people’

On handling incompetent subordinates, Shivakumar has a unique take. “A bad subordinate is one who places himself above his team. Then there are those who cannot give credit to people and have poor value systems. The third type of people discourages their team members from sending any information up to their superiors. If you come across them, engage with them and clarify your expectations. If they perform well, you can tolerate them. If not, you have to give up on them.” 

Shivakumar continues, “There are also people who have good value systems but their performance may be poor. You can coach them. One trait I always look for is: is this person a company person? I mean to ask, does he place the company's interests above anything else? If so, back him.” 

Which one will you choose: A good company with a bad boss or a bad company with a good boss? Shiv’s option is ‘a good company with a bad boss.’ He reasons that since fundamentally the company is good, there are good chances that they will replace the bad boss.

Believing in yourself

“If my boss moves to another place and he calls me, is it advisable to quit my job and go with him?” Shiv Shivakumar answers that it is not a good choice. “It means you don’t believe in yourself but in your boss. You need to build your own brand. The boss also sends a signal that he does not trust the people in his new company. I have never taken people from my previous company. This system of taking people from the previous company may work well in the US but not in India.”

If you are in a good job, should you respond to a head hunter? “Always return a phone call of a head hunter. You need not quit your job but it keeps you in play. Don’t be arrogant when you do well,” says Shiv Shivakumar as words of wisdom.

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