Practitioners Perspectives // February 20,2021

Leadership Development and the Role of Mentoring in Leadership

Featuring: Sukumar Rajagopal , Founder & CEO: Tiny Magiq, former Global Chief Information Officer & Global Head of Innovation, Cognizant Technology Solutions


Sukumar Rajagopal Founder & CEO: Tiny Magiq, former Global Chief Information Officer & Global Head of Innovation, Cognizant Technology Solutions

You are now an entrepreneur, what aspect of entrepreneurship gives you the maximum learning?
Again, Entrepreneurship is a craft, vastly different than being a part of an organization where you have respective departments to perform each set of tasks. You have to do it all by yourself, and many a times I don’t enjoy doing some of the tasks, but I don’t have a choice as it is something I have to look at from a cost angle as well. But let me tell you being an entrepreneur is an intense role with a high risk quotient with various types of risks to face. And it can be very stressful at times.

But in this short life I would recommend anyone who has the financial freedom to pursue entrepreneurship. Because it teaches us so many things and the entire experience can be very transformative. It teaches you to tackle failure and success with equanimity. For me in every success there are failures, and, in every failure, there are successes also. In both, there are immense opportunities to learn and evolve. It is not that I have mastered this attitude, but I am learning. Because there is nothing that is perfect, everything is a craft, being honed.

You are a voracious reader, how would you simplify, synthesize and sequence leadership transformation within organizations?
See, for me, reading is yes coming from books. And I do try and apply lot of it in my life both personal and professional. What also intrigues me is the world I see around me; in fact I learn a lot from everywhere. Recently I watched a video on what we can learn from micro business owners like flower sellers, tender coconut sellers etc.

⦁ My cofounder Kumaran developed this concept of a Fractal behaviour, where the term Fractal is borrowed from Mathematics. The idea is to convert coarse grained skills like Active Listening, Negotiation, Storytelling, Breakthrough Innovation into fine-grained fractal behaviors which can be learnt quickly and more importantly can be practiced easily in a wide variety of contexts.

⦁ As an example of a fractal behavior, PLUSSING is a unique technique of providing feedback. Assuming you have a deck to review sent from a team member, of course go ahead and compliment if its good, also find an area of improvement and add a constructive suggestion to fix that area for improvement. This technique of Plussing was developed by Pixar (maker of Toy Story, Finding Nemo). They have a brains trust as they call it that reviews every character, scene, dialogues the plussing way. Now Plussing can be used to refine stories, find opportunities to innovate, to influence people, to change people’s behaviors etc. This is what makes fractal behaviors very powerful.

We distil such concepts and apply them at work and personal life. Like I said it’s a craft and we continue working on them.

You are an innovation leader, what aspect of innovation is underleveraged within businesses today?
One aspect that has not been tapped effectively so far is the fact that everyone in an organization can innovate. Sadly It is relegated to a Center of Excellence or an R&D department. The moment we realize that all employees can come up with their own ways of innovating, we can make that into a natural practice. It should be part of the organization culture to make innovation integral to every employee.

When it comes to innovation, what are 20% actions that lead to 80% results for leaders?
This question reminds me of the World War II story of the Trim Tab. Trim Tab is a small titanium device that Buckminster Fuller invented to turn the huge aircraft carriers without expending much energy. The Trim Tab proves the hypothesis Peter Senge made in the Fifth Discipline that small changes can make big impact but the highest leverage points are non-obvious. Trim Tab is only a tiny addition to the huge ship but provides maximum benefit and large results. Likewise, I would say Plussing for instance has provided phenomenal benefits for Pixar and maybe thought of as their Trim Tab. So, identifying these tiny changes and tapping them for the 80% benefit would work well for organizations.

How do the best leaders become even better?
There is nothing called best, as I have mentioned already several times. Leadership is a craft, we must keep improving the same with qualities like: Influence, Innovation, Empathy, Inspiration, Feedback, Collaboration, helping the team create a shared vision etc.

How do leaders create followership?
I have a simple formula for this.
We as leaders must create more leaders rather than followers.
We as a leader must follow other leaders.

How can we stop overestimating incompetent leaders?
I would argue that we should become more competent in identifying the talented leaders. But in my humble opinion, we miss the people who are quiet leaders who get things done effectively. Focus on them and nurture them and bring them under the arc lights and the incompetent ones will automatically fall out.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received and shared the most?
Just out of BITS, Pilani eager and hungry to prove I joined Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and on my first day I was asked to file papers and on the second day I was given an entire cupboard full of papers to file.

I was disillusioned and said as much to my manager and defended myself by saying that I was an Engineer from BITS, Pilani. He looked me in the eye and said – young man, never ever bring that attitude to work, any job is only as good as how much of yourself you put into it. If tomorrow I ask you to sweep the floor to help the customer, you will do it without complaining. Give it your all to anything that you do and see the results. This is an advice that I am fortunate to have received on the very first day of work, as I still see many people that haven’t figured this out even after many years in their career. So, what is now popularly called Passion was presented to me simply as – Give it your all! Hats off to my manager. His advice is permanently etched in my mind.


“We as leaders must create more leaders rather than followers.
We as a leader must follow other leaders.”

Tell us a story, which learning stays with you even today.
The story of Casabianca narrated to me by Ms.Vasantha Patrachary with fervour, my favourite English teacher in grade school, is still fresh in my mind. I won’t go into the details of the story as you all know it, but what I learnt is that I should follow what my mentor or my teacher or a respected leader says with the fullest faith that I can muster. I have so many instances of this approach giving me incalculable benefits.

For example, I started following Prof. BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits method and started with 2 push ups every day. That helped set in motion a major transformation of my health and fitness. It has also become a key method in our repertoire for behaviour transformation.

What has been your biggest leadership challenge and what was one critical element that helped you overcome it?

There was a time in my early career when I was a first-time account manager of a key account. Everything was a failure (#clusterfail), nothing was going right, people were quitting, sales was tanking, team was unhappy, I was totally messed up and I used to return home dejected.

Many days I would come home and cry uncontrollably. I had lost 5 kilos of weight due to the stress. My wife who was very supportive, recently recalled this phase as the darkest days of her life. We didn’t know what to do. In fact, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and quitting my job because I was unable to deal with my incompetence.

But one right move made a huge difference. I sought help and spoke to a mentor and we listed out my problems. He told me that I should try to fix just one of the problems and if I couldn’t then I could quit.

With my mentor’s advice and my luck things slowly started turning around, and I became a transformed man after that. I would say this was a defining moment in my career that made me realize the importance of opening up when faced with problems that we think are insurmountable. And that we have to be vulnerable to allow others to help because not always can we manage by ourselves. I also made a resolution to become a mentor to help others so that they don’t have to learn things the hard way like I did. To this day I continue to mentor people and it is more than 21 years since my resolution.


What could leaders do proactively to avoid challenges?
Taking the example of my leadership challenge if I had reached out to get mentoring support earlier or equipped myself with leadership and management skills it would have saved me from such a crisis. My recommendation to Managers is to get support from a mentor and take advantage of an objective view.

How do managers and leaders manage dysfunctional bosses?
First introspect to see if you are also contributing to the unpleasant environment, if yes correct yourself. If you are sure the problem is external you should understand some of the coping strategies. Again mentoring will help here to get specific advice to handle the issues rather than generic advice. If it is still not resolved move on. Here the network will be handy as it opens new opportunities for you. Don’t procrastinate on networking as it is an essential tool for being professionally successful. And of course, having a strong family support system is extremely rewarding to face the rigours of professional life.

Sukumar Rajagopal SUKUMAR RAJAGOPAL,

Founder & CEO: Tiny Magiq, Former Global Chief Information Officer & Global Head of Innovation,
Cognizant Technology Solutions

Sukumar has 32+ years of experience in the IT services industry and now runs a digital transformation & behavior transformation accelerator startup Tiny Magiq. Sukumar is an avid blogger/twitterer, a fitness enthusiast and a travel bug. He researches the Indus Valley Civilization in his spare time.
Sukumar received lifetime recognition for his work in IT through the 2014 Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leaders program. He is rated as one of the Top 100 Social CIOs in 2014 & 2013 by Huffington Post.

People who have interacted with Sukumar Rajagopal will know that he is pointed, pragmatic and polite. He is a storehouse of knowledge and it is but natural to listen with awe at how simply he narrates some of the most complex leadership and transformational ideas.


  • Gnanasakthi says:

    Very well articulated… thanks for sharing your insights…

  • Giridhari Prasad S says:

    Amazing. Very informative. And only one con – at times makes you feel the writer was at some point in time of his career was a displeased employee.

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