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Avnish Sabharwal, Managing Director, Accenture Ventures & Open Innovation, talks to TheMindLine on Building High Performing Teams, Strategic Career Management and much more. *Views expressed by Mr Avnish Sabharwal in this article are Personal and not related to his current or past employers.

Colossally eminent, with pilotage of over 25 years in Innovation, Digital Transformation, Corporate Strategy, and Leadership Development for Top 500 Fortune clients in both mature and emerging markets, Avnish Sabharwal fashions and front ranks the Innovation agenda for Accenture India. An innovator, disruptor, strategist and a technology evangelist, Mr. Sabharwal is the beau ideal for B2B Indian startups looking to scale and globalise. Vaulting the digital and innovation fortes of Accenture, he works extensively with the Indian and Global start-up ecosystem including Investors, Accelerators, Academia and Government to identify, partner, invest and acquire leading edge technologies and digital platforms in areas around AI, Industry 4.0, AR/VR, Blockchain, Big Data, Automation, 3D Printing, CX/UX and Cyber Security.

Prior to Accenture, Mr. Sabharwal adorned multiple leadership roles with IBM India and the United Kingdom for almost a decade. Envisioned to make India a Global Innovation and DeepTech powerhouse, he has been instrumental in opening up the startup collaboration between India and Israel and is regarded as an expert on the global DeepTech startup eco-systems.

Mr. Sabharwal is a Mentor of Change, Atal Innovation Mission, part of Board of Governor for IMT-Nagpur and sits on the Advisory Board of the Israel CoE at IIM-Bangalore and Manipal Innovation and Design Institute and on Start-up committees for FICCI, CII and Nasscom. A proud ‘Cavalier’, with a septennium of service with the Indian Armed forces, Mr. Sabharwal has performed the role of Aide-de-Camp (ADC) to the Governor of Madhya Pradesh. In 2018, the World Innovation Congress honored him with the Most Innovative Leader Award.

Leadership Mantra

Aristotle once said -the hardest victory is the victory over self.

Mastery of the art of leadership comes from the mastery of the self. Follow­ing traits have helped me in my on-going journey as a leader:

 Self-awareness 

Self-awareness helps you get better and make the right decisions, because you know your blind spots. It helps you do great work, because you remember past mistakes and address them. Being self-aware is being self-knowledgeable. I believe I have a high degree of self-awareness including my strengths, weaknesses and biases. This helps me to be more introspective in my work as a leader.

 Hunger for learning 

I am energized by the steady and deliber­ate journey from ignorance to compe­tence. The thrill of the first few facts, the early efforts to recite or practice what I have learnt, the growing confidence of a skill mastered—this is the process that en­tices me. My hunger for learning enables me to thrive in dynamic and ever chang­ing work environments.

 Eye for Talent 

I am intrigued by the unique qualities and strengths of each of my team members. I instinctively observe each person’s style, their motivation, how each thinks, and how each reacts to situations and builds relationships. This helps me align them to jobs which play on their strengths and thereby build high performing teams and deliver exceptional business outcomes.

 Strategic mind-set 

Being a corporate strategist and innovator, I am a big pic­ture person who loves to challenge the status-quo and think 5 steps ahead. This skill enables me to sort through the clutter and complexity and find the best solution. I see patterns where others might simply see seemingly unrelated events.

Onset of the Leadership Crusade

My leadership journey started in the Army. In my view the underlying leadership principles of the armed forces are very similar to the corporate world. However, the personal stakes are very dif­ferent. In combat, where leadership is at its most raw and basic, absolute trust and loyalty between you and your men are the critical leadership traits which are critical to ensure survival.

Old Pic
With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility
5 Key Lessons from the Indian Army Days

1. Mission First, People always

We are taught in the army that in order of priority, your mission always comes first. However, the road to victory in war begins with victory at home station, while training and caring for service members and fami­lies. The greatest military and corporate leaders find a way to offset their focus on results with a personality that people con­nect with. They immerse themselves in the goal of creating an environment where the best, the brightest, the most creative are attracted, retained and, most importantly, unleashed.

2. Your job as a leader is to take tough decisions

Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity: you’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confront­ing the people who need to be confronted, and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset. Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by trying not to get anyone mad, and by treat­ing everyone equally “nicely” regardless of their contributions, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you’ll wind up alienating are the most creative and productive people in your organization.

3. Leadership is not exercised sitting in ivory towers

Policies that emanate from ivory towers often have an adverse impact on the people out in the field who are fighting the wars or bringing in the revenues. No soldier will ever be inspired into a hail of bullets by orders phoned in on the radio from the safety of a remote command post; he is inspired by his officer leading the charge. Business leaders must follow the same principle: it is much more effective to have your employees follow you than push them forward from behind a desk. The day your people stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped lead­ing them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership. Real leaders make themselves accessible and available. They show con­cern for the efforts and challenges faced by underlings, even as they demand high stan­dards. Accordingly, they are more likely to create an environment of trust and mutual respect where problem solving replaces blame game.

4. Strategy equals Execution

All the great ideas and visions in the world are worthless if they can’t be implemented rap­idly and efficiently. Good leaders delegate and empower others liberally, but they pay attention to details, every day. Bad ones, even those who fancy themselves as pro­gressive “visionaries,” think they’re some­how “above” operational details. Also, good leaders don’t wait for official blessing to try things out and are action oriented. While less effective middle managers endorse the sentiment, “If I haven’t explicitly been told ‘yes,’ I can’t do it,” the good leaders believe, “If I haven’t explicitly been told ‘no,’ I can.” There’s a world of difference between these two points of view.

5. People are your biggest as­sets, pick them wisely

Organizations on their own don’t really accomplish anything. Strategies and Plans don’t accomplish any­thing, either. Theories of management don’t much matter. Technology in itself cannot create value. Missions and programs suc­ceed or fail because of the people involved. Only by attracting and retaining the best talent will you ac­complish great deeds. You can train a bright, willing novice in the fundamentals of your business fairly readily, but it’s a lot harder to train someone to have passion, integrity, judgment, energy and the drive to get things done. Good leaders stack the deck in their favor right in the recruitment phase.

Teamwork and Success: Recipe for a Strong, Efficient and Successful Team

“Teams are at the heart of strategy execution. And I am genuinely passion­ate about building high performing teams. However, high performing teams are not a result of chance or luck, they require a con­tinuous Innovation in Strategy, Structure and Talent management.”

Avnish Sabharwal’s 10 Commandments on Building High Performing Teams

Leadership Challenges: Key Learnings and Implications

“The biggest challenge of my life has been my transition from Military career to the corporate career. I was young, around 30 years of age. Had a new born son and a family to look after. So, I had to address a lot of change in my life. I had the challenge of re-establishing and re-educating myself in a new world. I took up this challenge and commenced an MBA program from Warwick, UK. Post the MBA, I got a job in IBM, London. I possessed the basic professional skills, which I had learned during my tenure in the Indian Army. I required now to utilize these skills to establish myself in the corporate world. I had to re-invent and re-establish myself in this new world with an aim to thrive and not to merely survive. I wanted to be on top of the world, which fortunately, now I am. But to reach this state in my professional life, it took a lot of personal sacrifice i.e. in terms of spending time with the family and other personal comforts. For the first five years, I worked very hard i.e. every day of the week without taking a break (no holidays/no weekends). This success came at a personal cost i.e. sacrificing my family life, social life and health. I had to cover up the 10 years of professional life which I was behind my peers (having joined the corporate world 10 years later than my peers) at that moment. But with my perseverance and hard work, I did cover up that lost ground. I did a lot of studies in addition to my MBA studies too. Further, I continued to study & learn new skills to keep myself updated.

Participating in a War Game somewhere around the Indo-Pakistan border

Lessons Learnt – What I learnt from this challenge of career transition was that, if you aspire to transition well and aim to achieve success through excellence in the future career, you will have to attain the necessary skills by continuous learning and re-inventing. I also learnt that any successful transition and success thereafter will be achieved only with hard work perseverance and sacrifice. Further, to remain at the top, you will need to continuously learn and update your skills.”

Practices and Applications beneficial in the Post-Covid Era

  • Keep learning and upskilling yourself to remain relevant and attain success.
  • Always aim for excellence but keep experimenting as well.
  • Live to thrive and not to merely survive
  • Be always a risk taker, thinker and develop ability to work in ambiguous environment like we are facing today.
  • Traits like agility, resilience, collaboration and trust will be key to be successful in the post Covid world.
  • Always challenge your comfort zone boundaries, if you wish to taste success. Proactively jump from one S curve to the other S curve.
  • Develop a Growth Mindset and not a Fixed Mindset

Effective Failure Management

“We all know that failure is an inevi­table part of our professional and personal life. How we react and learn from failures is what makes the difference. Some fail­ures provide immediate value in the form of personal insights and learnings that can be capitalised on. Others provide broader lessons that lead to significant personal or organisational development. Also, our soci­ety needs to change its attitude towards failure as that is the only way to encourage innovation and creativity, as is seen in the culture in the Silicon Valley where every fail­ure is celebrated and appreciated.”

Advice on Strategic Career Management

“When a young member joins my organisation, I would like him to be a risk taker. I am not looking for people who play safe. I would require my team member to work with less information and in an ambiguous or volatile environment. I prefer members who can ask the right questions than pretend to have all the answers. I prefer agility over perfection. I like risk takers. I have a famous saying in my room which says “I eat failure for breakfast”. I like people in my team who can stretch their limits and thinking boundaries. There are other traits which an individual must possess i.e. Integrity and Passion.

From the strategic point of view, I would like my team members to have an ability to look into the future and be able to connect the dots. These might be Macroeconomics trends, Business trends or technology trends. While connecting the dots, they should be able to cut the noise from inside and focus on what is important.

I like teams which play on each other’s strengths rather than pointing out other’s weaknesses. I like to provide my team a platform where they can express themselves and perform to their full potential. I let my members make mistakes. However, I expect them to learn from their mistakes and avoid repeating same mistakes. In the end, the buck always stops with me.

Lastly, an individual must constantly learn and evolve. In today’s world only thing you can learn is, how to learn. One should always be updating his/her knowledge and try to be always two/three steps ahead of our clients. Know the requirements of our partners and preparing for their expectations in advance. Also, one should learn to collaborate horizontally. People collaborate vertically rather than horizontally, due to the command structure of the organisation. When we collaborate horizontally across functions, geographies and industries, we are able to generate greater value for our businesses. These are the few things which will make a young manager successful in my team.”

Prescription for Good to Great Leadership

“While the content of leadership has not changed over last several years, the context has, and in some cases it has changed dra­matically. The new demands require future leaders to do things differently:

• We are living in an increasingly border­less world which requires global lead­ership skills. Capital and talent flows easily and instantly from one country to another, creating a type of volatility that is very new to most of us. Future leaders must be comfortable in managing global, virtual teams with diverse cultural and social beliefs and try and align them to common organisational objec­tives.

• In a VUCA world, unexpected and frequent technological advancements, competitive moves, customer feedback, po­litical and regulatory shifts, and other unforeseen events are a norm rather than an exception and leaders who recognize that surprises are an inevitable part of the process (and a natural part of business, and life) are best able to actually use sur­prise as a strategic tool – which makes them the most agile and fastest to capitalize on unfore­seen events.

• Future leaders need to be eco-system architects as no organisation will be able to do everything in-house in this fast changing world and will depend on a very new set of partners, some of them who might be traditional competitors or from outside your industry, including start-ups.

• Embrace digital. Each and every industry or business is getting impacted by the digital tsunami and future leaders will need to master this skill, including having a working knowledge of the digital tech­nologies like AI, IoT, AR/VR, Big Data and Cloud etc and their impact on business if they want to become disruptors and not end up getting disrupted.

• A Leapfrogging Mindset. Lead­ing in disruptive times requires a mindset focused on leapfrog­ging – creating or doing some­thing radically new or different that produces a significant leap forward.

• Lastly, my advice to the future leaders is never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it. You are much more than what your business card says.

In a reception hosted by Shri Chandrababu Naidu to discuss building AP as an innovation hub

The leaders of tomorrow will not be more intellectual or powerful than their predeces­sors. They will be possessed of the same frailties and hedged in by the same limita­tions. How then can we accomplish these new tasks with the same leaders? This is a major challenge as well as an opportunity for the new generation of leaders in both large and small institutions.”

Books/Recommendations

Some of the books which I found very helpful and would like to recommend to TheMindLine readers are:

  1. Mindset by Dr Carol S Dweck
  2. 21 Lessons for the 21st century: Yuval Noha Harari
  3. Disruptive innovation: Clayton Christenson
  4. Lean Startup: Eric Reiss
  5. Abundance and Bold: Peter H Diamandis