Sunny Verghese; Group MD & CEO of Olam International

Reflections on Leadership with Sunny Verghese

Published 4th February 2014
Sunny Verghese

Group MD & CEO of Olam International

Published 4th February 2014

Sunny Verghese, Co-Founder and Group CEO of Olam, shares his reflections on leadership with HQ Asia.

1. Manage the Present from the Future

An essential role of leadership is to shape the future. Leaders have to have the capacity to induct, imagine, and unravel the future of the industry they are part of. They have to develop a point of view on that future, and be able to stake a claim in that future. Once you stake a claim, then you start managing the present from that future point of view. You don’t manage the future from where you currently are; you manage the present from that future.

2. Strategy and Execution are both key

I see two requirements for a successful performance business: The first is to develop a winning strategy. The second and much more difficult part is to be able to execute this strategy. I would say 15 per cent of the ball game is developing the strategy, 85 per cent is really executing it. But the first 15 per cent is vitally important even though it’s only 15 per cent. If you wrongly shape that future, or wrongly set that direction, but you execute really well, you could be jumping to your doom in great synchrony.

The two indispensable factors for a successful enterprise - developing a winning strategy and making things happen - both depend on people.

3. The Only Sustainable Differentiator is Human Capital

The two indispensable factors for a successful enterprise - developing a winning strategy and making things happen – both depend on people. Developing human capital and leadership therefore becomes critical; and it is the only way where we can sustainably differentiate ourselves.

4. We Need to be Both Leaders and Managers

If you’re a good leader and a poor manager, you will not succeed. If you are a great manager and poor leader, you will also not succeed. We have to recognise that leadership and management are required concurrently. Leadership is about setting the future direction and aligning people towards that direction. It’s about inspiring and motivating people to achieve those goals. Management is about planning, organising, staffing, budgeting etc. I have seen too many examples of both well-led and under-managed companies, as well as under-led but well-managed companies with both sets of companies not realising their full potential. Good leaders in my company who are poor managers are therefore unsuccessful. The folks who really rise to the top have to be able to combine good leadership and good management concurrently. So recognising that there are two different processes, and insisting we have to develop both leadership and management capacity is very important.

5. Attitude, not Aptitude

For me, one of the key traits in being a leader is your ability to invest in and grow your proficiency as a leader. The leader has to demonstrate the capacity to grow and he can only do so well if he is humble. What I mean by humility is really your willingness to learn, and willingness to learn from multiple experiences and sources. So you should be willing to learn from your subordinates, your peers, your superiors, from external consultants etc. It all boils down to attitude, not aptitude. You have to have that “willingness to learn” and have an open mind.

6. From Data to Insight

The other thing about being a learning leader is about being introspective. The leader can only become impactful when he develops insights; and he can only develop insights if he understands the hierarchy of learning. First, there is data. He has to absorb and convert that into information. Next, he has to convert that information into knowledge. Most people stop at knowledge. However, it is only impactful when the knowledge is converted into insight.

7. Live the Values

The biggest influence in my life has to be my parents. And yet I have never once been seated down by them to teach me values. They never taught me values but they just lived those values and therefore it has had a deep impression on me. These values - humility, willingness to learn, empathy, postponing gratification - these are at the core of what I am. My mum was not educated; we come from a low, middle-class background. I do not recall one occasion where my mum could have articulated all these values. But she lived all of them. And that is what I learnt too. To lead by example.

8. Be Authentic

Authenticity to me is at the centre of good leadership. People can very quickly see through a phony leader. They have to believe in you; and they have to see you are authentic. They have to feel comfortable that you have their best interest at heart. It is not that you are a soft leader. It is that you want them to develop to their full potential. And you will therefore provide them opportunities that will test and try them. And you have to be willing to take feedback from them. So I seek feedback from my direct reports and therefore they seek feedback from their direct reports. You can give feedback in a way people will reject or you can give them feedback that will make them move into action. And in order to move them to take action, they have to really believe in your authenticity. That is key.

9. Discover Your Life Passions

For everyone who joins Olam, we try and uncover their “Embedded Life Passions”. If their embedded life passion is, for example, to influence people through their words and ideas, we would like them to be part of the training and development team. Take my CFO, for example. He has all the qualifications needed for a finance person. But his true passion in life is technology. His eyes will light up when you talk about any technology problem in the company. So you must give him an opportunity to play roles in the company that can leverage his embedded life passion. People often ask me: How can you work so hard? I tell them I don’t see it as something that is being shoved down my throat. I look forward to it as it reflects my passion and therefore I enjoy it.

10. My Central Role as CEO is to Help Others Lead

My role as a CEO is to help others lead and to give them the confidence to do well. If I can improve that capacity to lead, that is the biggest impact and contribution I can make to the company. Even if I am very good at developing winning strategies, after my time, who will continue to develop them? But if I help others lead, then I’ve institutionalised leadership in the company. That is when leadership migrates from being a personal ability to an organisational capacity. There are lots of roles that I play but this is my central role; building this organisational capacity to lead – to really help others lead. In the next four years I would want at least a dozen leaders who are at the same capacity that I have developed. Then I know this company is in safe hands, long into the future.

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