Interview mr. alok goyal - chief operating officer - sap india pvt. ltdDocument Transcript
Interview with Mr. Alok GoyalChief Operating Officer, SAP India Pvt. Ltd. ! Samatvam: Mr. Goyal, congratulations for achieving your present eminent position as the Chief Operating Officer at SAP India. Samatvam: Looking back to the early stages of your career, what was the impetus that helped you choose or transition into business management? Mr. Alok Goyal: I grew up in an educationist family. My father was a ! Professor of Physics at IIT Delhi. Therefore, I was subconsciously prepared to !choose teaching and research as a career. Accordingly, after completing a B.Tech at IIT in 1992, I wentover to the University of Texas to pursue a PhD in Computer Sciences.Even as I was doing quite well in my doctoral work, it struck me that modern academics as a career isas much about management as anything else – what matters is the number of grants you get, thenumber of papers you publish, how seamlessly you interact and collaborate with other labs and so on.Somehow, I felt these concerns to be very business-like. In addition to that, in the mid-nineties, Indiahad started to entertain software businesses. Narayan Murthy was the inspiration at that time for manybudding technology entrepreneurs - myself and a friend included. With a puritan mindset and fire in thebelly, we dreamt of being the next Infosys. Putting thought into practice, I pulled back from the PhD at afairly advanced stage, and came back to India to pursue entrepreneurship.However, we failed miserably in realizing that dream. May be that we were over-confident, or that ourview was myopic, or that becoming one’s own boss was just a childish charm. Whatever the reason, thisexperience of failure as a young entrepreneur was very humbling. It made me acutely aware that therewas much that I needed to learn in life yet. Besides, I was not the kind of person who would be contentto study by oneself, or sit in front of the computer all day without much of an opportunity to interact withother people. My short stint at a software development role in Cadence had also convinced me that Ihad potential to spare even after putting in my best at a technical job.Anyway, this was how I entered into the world of business and management.Samatvam: Throughout your distinguished career, you must have had highs and lows. What hadbeen your peak moment? What had been that one most fulfilling experience in your longprofessional journey?AG: I would like to relate a couple of instances – including a high and a low. This provides perspective.During the nineties, I was looking to soar career peaks with youthful enthusiasm. And I moved oftenduring that time in the pursuit of growth opportunities. When the dot-com downturn arrived in 2001, I wasworking with a old, reputed technology-focused strategy consulting firm in Silicon Valley in the US. Mywife was completing her MBA then. The year 2002 was personally an extremely difficult one for us. Iwas hardly being paid any compensation. We were totally broke. I was desperately seeking a job duringthat entire year, and must have applied to over one hundred technology companies. Securingemployment in that milieu appeared to be more difficult than looking for a needle in the proverbialhaystack. It has now been ten years since that time, and I feel lucky today in having a good job andenjoying the security to pay our bills. Often, we forget that we are sitting on a peak every single day!Looking back, there are two instances that I feel most proud of. The first one was the teachingassignment at the very start of my career. During the Ph.D days, I was one of the six doctoral studentsselected to be instructors for teaching undergraduate courses in the department. I vividly rememberteaching the Pascal programming language course. The satisfaction of imparting a concept thoroughlyto a student is no different from that gained when you teach your child to walk. Teaching that course wasperhaps the most satisfying experience of my career, and one that yielded much learning for me too. Infact, I still feel that I have a teacher within me.
!The other, continuing peak experience has been my eight-year stint with SAP. The SAP brand hasplayed no small part in shaping my professional success and pride. Further, I was lucky to start here bybuilding up a team from scratch. In my first year in the company, I hired ten people. Of these, eightpeople are still working in different parts of the SAP world today, in senior leadership roles. I feel verysatisfied from within when I reflect - somewhat selfishly - upon the little role that I have played in shapingtheir careers.Samatvam: What do you value most about yourself as an organizational leader. What are the topthree strengths or talents that have helped you reach your present position?AG: I am part of a sales organization here at SAP within a dynamic business environment that requiresus to constantly manage change. The sales function lives and dies by the quarterly numbers, with somethought perhaps for the year ! My role is responsible for aligning the different parts of the organizationtowards the larger goal, and also to create a balance between the present and the future. I feel thatthere are a few useful traits that act as enablers in my role.The first trait is the positive energy. By and large, I am able to keep myself positively energized andexcited. Of course, this does not mean that I never slip into negativity. Positivity is perhaps fundamentalfor every leader, because the rest of the organization gets charged accordingly.The second trait is my willingness to take risks. My present role is probably my eighth role at SAP in aspan of less than eight years. I have worked across every region of SAP, and managed severalfunctions within the organization - including strategy, pre-sales, sales, program management andgeneral management. I have often taken up an unfamiliar role, and immersed myself into it as acalculated gamble. All such experiences have helped me develop the ability to assemble the myriadpieces of the organization puzzle, and catalyze effort towards the achievement of the common goal.My third trait is a certain degree of empathy that I bring to relationships within my network, both insideand outside of the organization. Our sales cycles can sometimes be even two years long. In ourenvironment, revenue does not happen simply on the performance of one rock star. Closing each sale isakin to producing a movie wherein, apart from the Director, a large star and support cast also comestogether for the purpose.Understanding all the pieces of the puzzle, energizing the people positively and creating andenvironment for the entire team to success is how I prefer to conduct myself.Samatvam: What do you value most about the business leadership, and what about it makes youso enthusiastic?AG: Domain skills are helpful in your climb up the organization ladder up to a certain point. Somespecific expertise that you bring to the table remains your calling card in the organization for some time.For instance, my calling card within SAP was “Value Engineering”. However, there comes a time whenone is suddenly exposed to situations where no specific domain skills can work. That is exactly thejuncture where the fun of the leadership journey starts.In my view, the exercise of leadership rests upon three pillars. The number one expectation from aleader is to provide the vision. A leader, by definition, must have the ability to co-create, articulate andreinforce a shared vision. For, the organization often needs to stretch itself to achieve something trulymeaningful. In order to be able to do so, people need to have a direction and a path along which totread. The vision provides that North Star for the organization.Secondly, the capacity to hire, coach and retain talent is becoming very important for modernorganizations. This may sound somewhat clichéd. However, I strongly believe that the ability to hirepeople who are better than you, tap their potential, align their strengths and deploy them in roles wherethey outperform and excel is very important for leadership.The third ability that I consider as critical is integrity. Calling spade a spade is important - no matter howdistasteful it sounds. As a leader, your ability to not only say what you mean but also do what you say isextremely important. People watch out for integrity, and will forgive you for many lapses if only they find
!overall congruence in your persona. Integrity is truly the passport to a high following.Samatvam: When an organization is operating at its best, what does it look like - in terms ofpeople, in terms of systems, practices, and structures?AG: Every organization needs to have an overarching goal around which all of its people are aligned, ora common purpose that everybody in the organization believes in. All its people, structures, systems,and practices are aligned around the achievement of this purpose. This would fulfill eighty percent of therequirement for organizational success.However, organizations also need to foster adaptability, creativity and innovation. This constitutes thebalance twenty percent of the requirement for success. In fact, this is the core. Unless you provideflexibility and leeway for people to perform, and allow for some kind of Brownian motion, theorganization may become stagnant.Of course, one needs to be very careful about who, when and how you are providing that leeway. Forexample, behavior of a sales force can be highly influenced through sales incentives, above and beyonda compensation plan. Different salespersons get motivated through many different ways. So, salesincentive is one of the areas where we innovate a great deal, even on a quarter-to-quarter basis.Samatvam: In your opinion, what measurable results could an organization achieve? And whichof those results are the most meaningful?AG: From a business perspective, the ability to balance the revenue and the profit achievement for thecurrent year versus the investments that you need to make for longer term growth is very critical. AtSAP, we consider the ability to strike that balance as very critical.From the organizational perspective, the mark of a good organization is that its leadership is sourcedlargely from within its talent pool. I worked for McKinsey a while back; they don’t hire their leadershipfrom outside. All their Partners are groomed from within. If an organization is constantly seeking torecruit people from outside, particularly for senior positions, then it may not be a good sign.The second measure relates to attrition. Even though the conventional wisdom holds that attrition shouldbe low, I feel somewhat differently. Jack Welch’s philosophy that the bottom ten percent of theorganization need to be shown the door every year holds as much appeal for me as measures to retainthe remaining 90%. Proactively outplacing a certain percentage of your people is as important asretaining good talent, I feel. In India, perhaps we prefer to be too nice. We are shy of giving constructivefeedback, and avoid taking hard decisions relating to people.Samatvam: If you could change three things about the organizational practice, as you see ittoday, what would they be?AG: The measure of organizational performance is presently rooted essentially in the short term. In thismilieu, I believe that the exercise of leadership is going to take the form of a delicate balancing actbetween the present and the future. As it is, leadership talent in India is quite scarce. Very often, weprogress people into senior positions well before they are prepared for it. Thus, succession planning andcareer development in organizations needs to be raised up by several notches. Planning a successionneeds a good amount of organizational energy and bandwidth, an investment of long years, and carefulgrooming of talent. If we continue to do it the way we have done it so far, then the leadership vacuumwill only become more intense. So, thats first thing that I would like to change.Secondly, I would like to give a little bit more leeway to people before judging them one way or another.Habitual to living from quarter-to-quarter, we tend to assign tags very quickly - good if the numbers wereachieved, and bad if this didn’t happen. It is erroneous to assume one hundred percent correlationbetween performance and skills every quarter. We need to separate the noise from the signal, and alsogive time for the flower to bloom. Thus, organizational patience is very important.Once we have made the decision to put someone in the role, the person must be given the time andfreedom to commit mistakes and learn from them. Some of us are fortunate at having done those
!mistakes and still having our jobs intact because other people gave us that vent. I sometimes questionwhether we are doing it adequately for the next set of leaders who are emerging in organizations.Finally, we need to create meaningful cross-functional and cross-cultural experiences for our emergingleaders. At the top, the necessity of taking a 360-degree view is mandatory. People who have grownfrom just a single function sometimes carry a tunnel view. We need to create such functional rotation forour future leaders.Samatvam: What are your dreams and aspirations for your organization? What three wisheswould you make to heighten the health and vitality of your organization?AG: See, I attended INSEAD in France for my MBA. It is a global business school, with students comingfrom 53 different nations. Indians were probably the largest single bunch there, and we werecomparatively very shy in expressing our opinions as compared to our mates from certain other cultures.Many other cultures are much more comfortable in being straightforward.I have concluded that communicating bad news is particularly difficult for us Indians. One doesn’t needto wait for the annual or half yearly performance review cycle to deliver feedback; it should happen rightafter a meeting or a deliverable. In fact, the most opportune feedback moment is lost if it doesn’t happensoon after the event. Creating a culture of spontaneous, constructive feedback is important for thedevelopment of our colleagues. Thus, my first wish is to have an open feedback culture in theorganization.Secondly, carrying on from the previous question, I would like to create a program for our top talentwhereby we rotate them cross functionally and cross culturally. Officially, we do have it in place.However, I must confess we don’t do it so very well in practice. We typically select about ten percent ofour people as top talent, but their meaningful development still leaves a lot to be desired.Lastly, and this is going to become increasingly important, I would like to orient the organization towardsincreased sustainability. Very often, we are only focused on achieving targets every quarter or year.However, every organization – even a commercial one like ours – needs to have a wider social purposebeyond revenues and profits. Seeking or creating that higher purpose will help create a healthierorganizational environment and also lead to a higher sense of fulfillment among the people. After all,every individual possesses some energy towards the collective cause. As organizational leaders, weneed to align such energies by providing a formal structure to facilitate the cause of social sustainability.SAP has already started to think in that direction.Samatvam: What is the best training that you have personally ever experienced? How did thisinfluence your development as a leader?AG: There are quite a few training programs that I have attended. A couple of the recent ones have hadquite an impact on me.The first one was a personal leadership development program whereby twenty people gave mefeedback in the course of a long process that was facilitated by a coach. There is a perceptual gapbetween our own self-image and the way others see us. The day I received my feedback, I rememberfeeling like drowning myself in a beer tub. Perhaps we all tend to forget our blind spots, and need to bereminded of those from time to time.The other program that was very helpful for me was on Sustainable Leadership. We all read books onwhat resplendent leaders like Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, or Lou Gerstner did. But, the facilitators fromthis global organization took us to actually meet with a bunch of leaders in a different sphere of life. Theirachievements were truly very outstanding. Meeting people who have accomplished some meaningfulthings for the society without any budgets or infrastructure was a real eye opener for me. These peoplehave delivered highly uncommon acts from very common people and created large pools of leaderswhere one never imagined they existed.!
Samatvam: What emerging trends do you foresee with respect to executive educationworldwide?AG: Honestly, my view on this is probably not as broad as yours would be.In my view, leadership training of the future would include coaching and mentoring coming from a leaderother than one’s direct manager. I would recommend that each one of us select a mentor for ourselves.In turn, we should also pick out a colleague and act as a mentor to him / her. Such experience-sharingwith a protégé can be a mutually beneficial leadership development practice.The second element in leadership development shall be “experiential learning”. Organizations need torotate people across functions and geographies so as to diversify the skill-sets of people. This willexpose them to the thought process of leaders other than their own, especially if the leaders have beeninstrumental in creating the organization’s success. For example, I was provided with an opportunity towork as an understudy to one of our current Co-CEOs for one year. And that year was probably the bestof my eight years in SAP. Understanding and appreciating his leadership style from that proximity wasone of the best leadership lessons that I have received in my life.Samatvam: In the light of this, what advice would you have for an Academy like ours?AG: From what I have seen so far, I am very happy to see how the Academy has grown. You arecreating a niche in an area where Indian corporations have not invested very much so far. As the size ofbusinesses grows in this country, we are becoming more aware of the acute shortage of leadershiptalent. It is important for you to create a few leaders as champions for the organizations that you workwith.Your work is unlike buying a product, where what you see is what you get. You actually deliver anexperience. And no matter what the brochure says, you really don’t know what the quality of thatexperience is until you go through it. Its a word of mouth game, targeted towards the people who arealso the decision makers in availing such services. If you are able to impact them in a meaningful way,they will certainly make sure that you impact a large part of their organization too.Samatvam: Mr. Alok, it has been a pleasure talking to you! Thank you for your time.!