19 September 2019 14:25:18 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .

The smell of the sheep

Today’s business world needs people who are willing to step out of their comfortable head offices

In 2013, Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church, speaking to priests told them that they needed to be ‘shepherds with the smell of the sheep’. What he meant was for priests to go out and spend time with the people, not closed off in their churches, to go and listen, and serve and help others. Another time, he told bishops to stop being ‘airport bishops’ buzzing around with the aim of padding their resume.

Ignoring any spiritual element that Pope Francis surely had in his advice let’s reflect on it as leadership advice. Often, we see business students get into their first assignment or young managers a few years in craving the perks of a cubicle or an actual cabin at the swanky air-conditioned headquarters building. “I’m based at the head office” is a nice label to proclaim. But that can lead to us being leaders without the ‘smell of the sheep’. What does it take for us to be leaders with the ‘smell of the sheep’?

Showing up in the trenches

Trenches means there’s a war or battle going on. Tough times. Is the leader in the safety of the conference room or is he out in the trenches with his team — when and where they need him? Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery ‘Monty’ inspired his troops by being with them, visiting them at the frontlines, distributing cigarettes, walking with them. In return, his troops rewarded him with fierce loyalty and a renewed will to fight.

When Nestle had their infamous Maggi crisis, CMD Suresh Narayanan was in the thick of things. Visiting government offices, meeting with retailers, with shareholders. As he put it, “Challenges and conflicts can be resolved through constant engagement with all stakeholders.”

If Uber and Ola leaders spent more time riding with their drivers, putting in the long hours with them and feeling the frustration of 16-hour days that end with a pittance of an income, perhaps they would be able to see the reality and lead better. Clearly, the leaders at both these organisations and others like them have spent zero time in the trenches. They have never put themselves in the line of fire. Real leaders step into the trenches. In good times, they may retreat into the background but come tough times and they are out there with the troops.

Asking, listening

The Editor of BusinessLine on Campus , Vinay Kamath is the author of TITAN, Inside India’s Most Successful Consumer Brand . Great book that I recommend all of you to read for multiple lessons, both professional and personal. In the book, Kamath refers to an incident at Tanishq, that had launched their jewellery stores to much fanfare. But footfalls weren’t translating into sales. An innovation, called a Karatmeter, was installed that allowed customers to see how impure their old gold was (compared to Tanishq’s purer gold). But customers would come in, check the purity of their gold, realise with horror how impure their gold was and leave — no sales were happening.

Jacob Kurian, who was in charge of the Tanishq operation was at a store, when a lady who had just tested her jewellery looked quite upset and was leaving. When Jacob asked if he could help, she snapped, “You don’t do anything to solve our problem, all you do is make us feel bad!” The Karatmeter was telling people their jewellery was poor but Tanishq was not doing anything to take people forward. That insight led to the roll out of the 19=22 scheme. Tanishq offered to exchange old jewellery of between 19 carat and 22 carat purity with new Tanishq jewellery of assured 22 carat purity. Sales soared.

MBWA, or management by wandering around, was popularised in the book In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert H Waterman. This is a trait and a habit that ‘smell of the sheep’ leaders instinctively possess. They wander around — among employees, among customers, among dealers — they walk, they listen, they talk, they engage, and all this helps them lead better. They harvest an insight, they learn about a potential problem, they sniff out an exciting opportunity simply because they are out there with the people who matter. The people who use their products or services, the people who make it, the people who sell it. This is where the pulse of a business is. Not in the death by PowerPoint meetings in the conference room.


Being with folk at the frontlines of production, of service, spending time with customers becomes an invaluable opportunity to co-learn. The leaders learn and they are also able to model the behaviours and values they believe are right for the organisation. The team learns by seeing them in action. Leaders are able to spot chinks in the armour and address them with the team, before they become gaping holes. They coach team members into a new culture that is required, a new style of dealing with one another or with customers.

I remember wandering out with teams that used to handle HR outsourcing processes and meeting with clients as they experienced the outcomes of those processes. It was startling to see the uniformity with which we tried to handle the transactions at our end — logically the right thing, because standardisation was a criterion for scale. But the client’s expectations varied vastly, when they were looking at a simple administrative transaction being closed versus a recruitment opening being filled. One was necessary but not always critical, the other was necessary and immensely critical. Seeing this disconnect was a learning for me and something I was able to coach back into the teams. I also worked on re-calibrating the teams for the higher touch, higher value servicing that recruitment required. It became a learning opportunity for me and the teams.

Today’s business world needs more ‘smelling of sheep’ leaders — who are willing to step out of their comfortable head offices and get out there — breathing the real air of the business, feeling its pulse, walking and talking with its people. That will make the difference in whether they just manage or lead.