Scaling new heights shouldn’t be at the cost of losing your purpose

‘Scaling new heights shouldn’t be at the cost of losing your purpose’: Insights from an iconic talent leader

As an organization gets larger there tends to be an “institution” in the making which dampens the “inspiration.” How do you keep this from happening?

Do you realize that leadership and climbing Mount Everest are not very different?  Leaders are like Sherpas who help the organizations and people get to the summit safely and be around to celebrate the success.

Therefore, leaders should play the role of Sherpas who learn how to teach their organizations and teams ascend with grace and poise and learn how to stay at the top and when to let go.


On this note, let me explain the institution vs inspiration aspect. What happens in large organizations is that they surely would have had a purpose to begin the organization. That’s what makes them exciting in their growth years. But after a point of time, when scale and growth happen, purpose and culture take a back seat. Targets, Clients, Operations, Compliance, Hiring and a whole host of large organization activities take the centre stage with values, ethics, employee value proposition and most importantly: the IKIGAI or the sense of purpose gets relegated to the backdrop if not forgotten.

As they grow rapidly through inorganic means of mergers and acquisitions, the problem becomes multi-fold with more employees with different backgrounds and culture coming into the fold who have no idea about the cultural context of the parent organization. Invariably, further dilution happens killing the cultural core. Employees are farther and farther removed from the original purpose and scattered silos of functions mushroom to deal with the tactical need for quarterly efficiency.

I would say Microsoft is a great example of how a large organization managed an enormous transformation in under 5 years by re-discovering their purpose and leadership articulation. Satya Nadella, when he took over, simplified everything and boiled leadership down to Creating Clarity, Generating Energy and Delivering Success. His team understood what that meant. What he ushered was a cultural transformation and purpose regeneration (by restating Microsoft vision to something each of the 1,40,000 employees and not just a technology-enabled business strategy revolution.

“Most often leaders swing between the two extremes of internal and external stakeholders and, but what is an ideal situation is someone who can balance both with a fine poise.”

Do you realize that leadership and climbing Mount Everest is not very different? What is the one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?

See there are two main components that leaders should juggle.

  • Internal and External

Internal world of a leader includes employees, peers and leaders and external focuses on clients. Most often, leaders are so externally focused, worried all the time about the external, their stock price and their analysts and lose touch with what it takes to make their people and teams successful and energized. On the other hand, if Managers are only taking care of the team and hardly interacting with clients or tracking their business environment, that could be disastrous as well.

Most often leaders swing between the two extremes, but what is an ideal situation is someone who can balance both with a fine poise. To go a step further, leaders and organizations that have veered off the path must be bold enough to slow down and look within to ensure cultural values, sense of purpose, ethics and other basic and fundamental needs are repaired before they consider themselves ready and worthy of the external world of customers and prospects. Growth without a strong core is a trap most leaders fall into. In the process, neither their clients nor their people win. Organizations start sliding into arrogance of mediocrity or both.

There are several organizations which have done this, meaning stopped to consolidate before marching ahead. Metaphorically speaking, if you keep borrowing bricks from your foundation to build the next floor, there will soon be no foundation nor a stable building. An organization cannot deliver its promise to its stake holders when its people are not energized by a sense of purpose, a disciplined approach to business and a huge commitment to making an impact to their people and clients.

What are a few resources and tenets you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?


Excitement of Change: Emerging leaders should get into the habit of moving roles, organizations and geographies. Continuing with the same organization or a role for a long tenure makes them too comfortable, they stop getting challenged and turn into ineffective glass ceilings.

Diversity of People: Be part of great organizations and mix with people from different cultures and backgrounds. Don’t be stuck with bad bosses, move on and get rolling. If you are the best in the room, you stop learning. Constantly look to be in the company of amazing people.

Tolerance for Failure: It’s okay to fail, treat these as learning opportunities and ensure they do not get repeated so long as the failure represents an urge to innovate and not an attitude of indifference.

Empower your Team: Always get into the habit of enabling your team to solve problems rather than always solving for them. Hire people better than you are and give them the space and safety to think, decide, act and grow. A leader’s cardinal responsibility is to make everyone in their team to surpass them in personal and professional accomplishment.

Learning Always: Keep learning and once you know you have maxed out in one organization or role move on. Don’t allow obsolescence to get to you. Lifelong continuous learning is the only way to stay relevant in career.

Trust your Potential: Past results give you the confidence that you can apply yourself to deliver great results, but they are no assurance of future success. It is important to make a huge impact and difference in any role. But continuous unlearning, hunger and relearning are the only way future success can be insured.

Inner Compass: Join organizations that are culturally strong and are ethically unimpeachable. Be visible in your intolerance to the breach of respect to people or values. You should be a walking ethical compass people use to navigate their values journey.

One of your biggest mistakes? What did you learn from it?

The organization and role choices you make and the leaders you work with build your persona, character, confidence and leadership posture. Bad choices stemming from poor due diligence and going solely on an organization’s past greatness was a mistake I could have avoided at a very senior stage of my career, but a decision I learnt enormously from. I was wiser the next time. Growing leaders need to focus on what not to do as much as they focus on what they ought to do. We strive to avoid bad decisions, but it is also unwise if we don’t use a bad decision to learn from and come out stronger than you would otherwise have been.

Strive hard never to make a bad choice but never let a bad situation go waste when you do land in one. Use the wisdom from your failed judgement to help your people make great decisions.

What are you most proud of and why?

None of my roles were BAU in nature. Each role consisted of setting up, creating, scaling, transforming and building great teams and solid succession plans. I take enormous pride in my relentless focus on building teams and investing disproportionately in their learning and growth. My philosophy was that each leader must take direct, personal accountability to each individual in their first and second line and percolate that accountability down the organization till the person right in the frontline can experience that their success and dreams are not just their priority.

I take enormous pride in the fact that I always stood for unquestioned ethics and integrity, transparency and judgement, respect and trust.

Being tough enough to act and strong enough to listen was incredibly important to me.

I feel good that I invested in learning and work habits to avoid falling into the work life trade-off (aka balance) dilemma. Work and life are to be integrated into ones being.

I am proud of my succession planning that I had firmly put in place, so much so that every leader that took over from me took the business unit to the next level. You have to choose successors better than you are because they are inheriting a bigger entity in a more complex environment.

Good succession planning is where the leader is missed for the emotional connects. Bad succession planning is when the new leader fails to be better than the old leader.

I also built an operational rigour/maturity, forged strong bonds with my people and customers and built learning as a way of work life within my business unit. I feel good that I was able to contribute to organize wide high impact initiatives like career architectures and delivery excellence.

35 years of working were amazing only because I contributed enormously and the organizations and leaders, I worked with made contributed to make me something I feel very good about. I want to see my teams through the windshield because they have gone way ahead of me in life and not through the rear-view mirror. You can never succeed if your teams failed.

Having been in the talent business, how are you observing the changing needs of talent across different parts of the world (Asia etc)

There are three primary ways in which talent is changing

1. Symbolic Intelligence that goes beyond Logical Thinking

Symbolic learning is all about the ability to connect the dots, tell a story, create a human centric design, critical thinking and problem solving. As simple tasks (logical thinking) get automated, future talent needs to rise into this this mode which is beyond the current or near future reach of algorithms.

2. Boundary Blurring

Industry and domain borders are blurring. It is no longer adequate to be a specialist in just one area. Learning must be a source of creating a multi-disciplinary individual who can deal with change, is not fazed by ambiguity and is excited by new opportunities technology brings in each day. Non-learners will be irrelevant to themselves, and their organizations faster than they realize.

3. Cross-Cultural Diversity

Diversity is not about just woman inclusion, which is critically important. But it’s as much to do about being able to leverage talent from across geographies, cultures, capabilities, points of views and thoughts.

How are organization’s redefining the quality of talent they require?

Talent in the future organization is not bound by the borders of the organizations.

Employees, Contractors, Freelancers, Gig workers and BOTs are what the future talent pool would consist of. Organizations need to acknowledge this change, make it an explicit part of their talent strategy and create the policy framework that supports the change. The best can no more be within the confines of your organization structure. Our clients need corporations to tap the best talent to help them transform. Organizations which acknowledge and implement this approach of borderless organization relying on open innovation are the ones with most chance of survival. In an economy fuelled by expertise, motivated and learning talent should be the focus of any growth strategy irrespective of the badge they wear.

How has your personal experience of working across cultures?

Oh yes, I was incredibly lucky and had a wide working opportunity spanning several countries and cultures. I worked under Indian, American, French, Chinese bosses. My teams, over time, were from at least 20 different countries.  I learnt from every single one of them.

I was part of global leadership teams which looked like mini–United Nations. I learnt from them all. Culture is a field where you don’t know what you don’t know and that is not good. You can make terrible mistakes unwittingly merely because you are not aware of cultural sensitivities. It took a lot of effort, travel, learning and listening to avoid cultural pitfalls. Various countries and cultures respond differently to leadership, decision making process, concept of right and wrong etc. Once you figure out, it is beautiful because you earn their respect and trust. It is such a joy working in and with cross cultural teams

When I worked with Chinese teams, it was all about detailing, Q&A, and direction. With Japanese teams, it was all about the listening, deliberation, process of dialogue and consensus and when it came to teams in India it was about lots of discussions, argument and debate before decisions were reached. They were all different and they were all right. The differences are fascinating when you learn to respect the cultural diversity and frustrating if you don’t get it.



Solopreneur & Founder,, Former Senior Vice President, Global Head, Cognizant Academy on Leadership & Talent Development

AN Rao, and ‘AN’ for many Cognizant employees who respect and love him dearly. As a Global Delivery Head in Cognizant overseeing one of the most prominent verticals, he was a force to reckon with. He was looked up to for his thoughts, ideas, initiatives, the learning culture that he initiated and promoted across his business unit and the strong second line he created. The impact he left behind every function he took charge of, was astounding. AN shared his valuable thoughts on leaders, leadership and talent development in this exclusive interview he gave us for Global Coaching Lab.

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