14 February 2022 15:11:24 IST

Ram Charan’s crisis playbook for an uncertain world

Ram Charan, Business Adviser, Author

If you are not learning every day, you will be left behind. Learning has a cumulative effect, like compound interest, and it is the history of people who get to the top. This is the advice business adviser and author Ram Charan has to offer to young managers and students. 

As part of BITSoM Mumbai’s inaugural ideas festival Beacon, Prof Ram Charan, Global Advisor to CEOs and Corporate Boards, and Shiv Shivakumar, Group Executive President, Corporate Strategy & Business Development at the Aditya Birla Group, discuss skillsets, workplaces, and business models that will define the future, in a series title ‘Playbook for tomorrow.’

Shiv Shivakumar, Group Executive President, Corporate Strategy & Business Development , Aditya Birla Group

Shivakumar asked Prof Charan ten questions, that most of us are seeking the answers to. Here are excerpts from their conversation:

What is your advice for those entering the job market now, or looking to switch jobs? 
There must be a match between the individual and the organisation. To find a match, you must first try to understand what your natural gift or raw talent is, and practice it like an Olympic champion would. 
You must then look for an opportunity to deploy it: search for jobs that give you the chance to learn and shape your gift further; look for bosses who will help you grow, who will structure your assignments in a way that complements your natural talents. Remember that you are the captain of your own life. 
What are some skills that one should have five years from now? 
Skills that enable you to excel are ‘foundational’; there are also some skills that you need across the globe, in every job — these are non-negotiable They are listening, communication, working with people, and collaboration; if you can excel in these, it will take you to the end of the earth no matter what your job is. 
The fifth key skill: delivering on what you promise. In the future, digital is going to be pervasive and ubiquitous; we must teach digitisation and algorithms in schools just like we teach multiplication tables. It is important to pick a domain, master it, then think about how digitisation, algorithms and machine learning will change it, and prepare for that. 
What are some tips for learning when working from home? 
When working from home, you cannot observe leaders and how they work. However, there are several different ways to learn today. Before there were phones and school systems, people in villages learnt by reading and talking to one another; today, information is widely available online for free 
Buddy systems can also be created via Zoom, to enable the exchange of ideas across boundaries and countries. Ultimately, your drive to learn is up to you; outstanding leaders are those who don’t let anything stop them from learning.
How can organisations seamlessly integrate WFH and work from office? What are some mistakes to avoid? 
Organisations should come to terms with the fact that it will never be 100 per cent work from home, nor 100 per cent work from office. It is critical for companies to identify the groups that will have to collaborate, assign a leader, and empower the leader to manage the groups’ aspirations and availability 
The group leaders should have a choice to decide what is done from home and what is done at the office — data and offices should be available 24/7. Decentralisation is critical, the manager should be the one assigning roles and providing coaching in real time; ‘command and control’ will be left to algorithms. 
What inputs do you have for companies to pivot faster to digital to cater to the 24/7 consumer? 
Digital is essential because incumbents are losing market share to digital companies. There are certain myths about digitisation that must be eliminated: namely, that it is too expensive, and that it takes too long. 
There are firms that can help companies digitise processes and deliver results in ten weeks, using the company’s existing IT resources. These are not big companies like TCS and Wipro, but are well-equipped to deliver digital projects with a quick turnaround time (example: UST Global). 
What are the opportunities and challenges in digital business models, a model that could virtually become the default model or dominant model? 
It is important to understand how digital can be used to change the business model. The ability to connect with customers produces large amounts of data, which can be used to understand consumer preferences through machine learning. This can drive revenue growth. 
For instance, Starbucks gives out 12 million individualised coupons every day, which enables it to build its brand. Digitisation can both change and accelerate the business model. Amazon and Apple are good case studies – in particular, one should focus on their business models, rather than their technology models.
What are some skills a business leader should develop for the future? 
As conditions change, some skills become more important than others. The most critical skill today is dealing with uncertainty and volatility. Leaders should build their ingenuity and resilience in the face of unpredictable events. 
Ten years from now, the trend towards net zero will continue, we will have large amounts of data that we won’t know how to manage, and people will seek freedom from bureaucracy by working individually or in small groups in professions like consulting. 
We should work backwards from this picture of the world ten years from now. We should consider the application of ML and algorithms in every single science. 
How does a leader inspire when he/she doesn’t see people face-to-face? How will trust in leadership evolve in digital leaderships? 
Before the 1950s, people were inspired through speeches made over the radio. Inspiration is about the voice, the tone, the relevance of what is being said; it’s about connecting with individuals. 
When the boss takes a few moments to appreciate an employee’s work, it can go a long way — the recipient will know that they care. There is no substitute for physical interaction, but the lack of it should not be a limitation. 
A digital world can force leaders into unlikely partnerships — tips for picking partners? 
Leaders have typically not been good at developing partnerships — each partner has always sought independent growth. It is important for both sides to learn one another’s values and aspirations; if a partner’s integrity is in question, there will be a problem. 
Any tips for young managers? 
If you are not learning every day, you will be left behind. Learning has a cumulative effect, like compound interest. Keep expanding your knowledge and intellectual capability. This is the key habit of people who were formerly ‘nobodies’ and then became ‘somebodies.’ This is the history of those who get to the top.