Practitioners Perspectives // February 19,2021

Making People the Crux of Business and Treating Failure as a Tool for Active Learning

Featuring: Murali Srinivas , Managing Director, S.M.I.L.E Microfinance Limited


Murali Srinivas Managing Director, S.M.I.L.E Microfinance Limited

What is your view of leadership? And what is your philosophy of leadership?
There is a difference between a true leader and a business leader. I qualify only as a business leader, who is essentially an effective business manager. Frankly speaking Leadership to me is leading or guiding people towards a vision and shared purpose which is generally good for the society, having a strong moral compass, being gritty and taking full responsibility of the consequences and in the process genuinely looking out for your people – be they customers, staff, investors and other stakeholders. As a business leader it is all context driven and how we as business leaders respond to situations and solve problems for our customers, is the most important aspect.

Tell me about a time when you had to make a tough business decision that supported your company’s purpose, but may have had a negative, short-term financial impact.
Funnily in my case as you can see, my career is dotted with several transitions, many have worked out well for me, and in some cases it has not, but those have all been only learning experiences and I really cannot say that they have had any negative implications.


People are what makes businesses, if your customers problems are solved, if your partners are valued, if your employees are happy to belong then the natural outcome is for the business to thrive and flourish.

As you think about your career, who is a team member you had a huge impact on and what are they doing today as a result of your leadership?
Well, I don’t wake up each day to tell myself that I will influence somebody today. I am a business leader, and I have a vision, mandate, customers to take care of, and employees to guide and develop to help them perform efficiently. This is a journey in itself, and I enjoy this journey, during which I meet several people with whom I interact and give my 100% to everything I do with them. During this journey if they are positively impacted, then I am definitely happy, but I don’t set out to do this or check consciously. This must happen seamlessly and naturally.

Who is a successful leader and how does he or she stand out from others?
Know what, a leader can be successful if he/she has a strong moral compass, never loses his/her sense of values whatever be the situation, takes total responsibility for the organization’s performance and team’s results. In this entire process the leader also must be swift in his/her decisions – adaptive agility is key.

What was the defining moment(s) in your life where you could see the transformation from a manager to a leader?
For me it has never been a aha moment when I suddenly realized or felt the transformation. It has been a long process filled with failures, learnings, breaks, new projects, success, people, countries through which there was a pattern emerging and I think that maybe has shaped me. This pattern taught me the value system I go by, and how important it is to acknowledge people, for behind every business there are just people like you and me.

When do you think you recognized the importance of personal development in order to become a more effective leader?
Very early, thankfully. I have invested significant time in self-development. However, I stopped reading self-help books, instead I base my self-development on experiences, reflection and introspection. I think one understands what leadership means when you keep a high sense of self-awareness without ego and a mission to accomplish.

What are you learning right now?
I am reading quite a bit on Complex Financial Products and stuff like Artificial Intelligence which is shaping our industry. Everything I read I see how I can apply to my work which will impact the people I am engaged with.

If you could travel back in time and speak with a 20-year-old Murali what would you have done differently?
Well, that’s a tough one. Maybe that I should not succumb to peer group pressures to follow popular trends in a rush to ‘`fit in and settle down’ and maybe then I would have followed my heart. Also that I should perhaps spend longer periods of time with fewer organizations. But really no regrets, I am happy the way things are.
So what I am doing now though is mentoring several millennials and telling them that to follow their heart and passion – but giving them a process to it. Because following your heart can be a bit vague and directionless – so I am suggesting a trial and error method by encouraging them to take several internship projects before they understand where their heart lies.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a more influential leader in their organization?
An influential leader must keep the people at the center of everything they do. Social impact is key, be it customers or staff. While large organizations are trying to give back to society, not much headway has been made. In fact start-ups are doing well in being society friendly, so to answer the question on influential leaders, they must develop more empathy as a core value within their teams and together strive to address customers problems swiftly and in multiple ways.


How should a leader handle failure?
There is nothing called failure or success, it is all contextual. What today seems like failure (I call it ‘did not happen the way I expected’), few years down the line may seem like a successful decision. And I want emerging leaders to consider it normal and tell themselves that it is not a big deal at all to fail. Changes are happening all around us, it is but natural and normal plans to falter in this dynamic scenario, but one should keep moving and learning. So, for me failure is non-existent, but ‘did not happen the way I expected’ exists and we should learn from it.

Who is your favourite leader? Why?
There are many. One recent favourite is Greta Thunberg, teenage Swedish school student who single-handedly championed the cause of global warming won my heart. Truly inspired by her never say die spirit and grit in ensuring that her cause gets the attention.

Murali closes the interview with reiterating the fact that people are what makes businesses, if your customers problems are solved, if your partners are valued, if your employees are happy to belong then the natural outcome is for the business to thrive and flourish.


Managing Director,
S.M.I.L.E Microfinance Limited

Murali has had a chequered career spanning different roles, geographies and organizations. He has started his career as being part of a large Government organization, quit and co-founded a bottled water business, a microfinance company, headed the BPO division of a New Jersey based IT organization, been associated with several NGOs and also co-founded a fully free CBSE syllabus based residential school for under privileged children in Guntur, India. He has also consulted with several microfinance organizations including Habitat for Humanity. His passion for challenges has led him from one thing to another and he feels that others should lead once the organization reaches a steady state and is happy to let go.

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