Transforming Businesses The Agile Way Insights From A CEO Coach

Transforming Businesses The Agile Way – Insights From A CEO Coach

Tell us a bit about yourself. What do you do right now? And how is that connecting to your passion?

I am a CEO Coach. I coach CEOs and senior teams of mid-market companies. These are companies that make anywhere from 10 to $100 million in revenue. I have a global customer base and  work with clients in USA, Canada, India, Australia and the UK. All my clients are looking to grow their businesses and accelerate growth. I help them by going into the Agile growth system. And I absolutely love what I do.

According to your profile, your education was in civil engineering, and you’ve had roles in sales and finance. Now you are into CEO coaching and transforming businesses. How do you connect the dots across all of them?

Let me give you a little bit of background. Like most Indian kids, I went into engineering. I did my Bachelors of Engineering in India and my Masters in Civil Engineering in the US. After I finished my Masters, I switched fields and got into IT. I worked as a corporate trainer, then as a programmer, and then I went into working for a software product company in professional services, and then sales. After that, I went back to school to get my MBA, and I joined a leadership program at GE, where I rotated through different businesses in sales, marketing and business development. I spent some time in GE Energy, GE Aviation in both the US and India and GE Capital.

In 2009, I moved from GE to Corporate Executive Board (CEB), which was into advising CFOs and other CXOs of very large companies in India. I did research for them as an Executive Advisor as well as business development. I then went back to CEB in the US where I worked in corporate strategy and from there, I went to work at Capital One in a finance role.

So, I’ve had the benefit of working in a lot of different industries in large different roles. But it has been a journey of me going from somebody who was looking for social cues from family, friends, society and organizations and what I should be doing, to actually learning to listen to myself in terms of what I want to do.

A key inflection point was around 2014. We were living in the US and getting ready to move to Bangkok for my wife’s career (she is an American diplomat). And as I thought about what do I want to do? I kept coming back to this idea of helping people achieve their potential. I’d heard about this coaching program at Georgetown University focused on leadership coaching. So I signed up for that program. We moved to Bangkok in August of 2014 and starting in September, I started flying from Asia to the US every month to do the program. The seven month program was transformational for me. I learned about leadership coaching, and I also learned a lot about myself.

Along that journey, I realized that I want to be in a role where I’m serving others and helping them grow and develop. My offerings also evolved around that time. I started with leadership coaching and executive coaching. I added training and then facilitation. I started by working with larger companies but in the last few years I’ve made a pivot to focus more on the mid-market space where I get to work with the CEO and the senior team. In larger companies where there are 40,000 to 80,000 people, even if I was coaching a Senior Vice President, it didn’t feel like I was having systemic impact. Whereas in the setting that I have right now, it’s quite meaningful, and I’m very well aligned with my talents, strengths and interests. So I’m able to bring my strengths as a coach and my business acumen (having worked in a lot of different functions) and combine them to provide business coaching.

I teach the concept of Ikigai where we talk about the 4 circles – what do you love doing? What are you really good at? What does the world need? And what can you get paid for? The intersection of the 4 circles is the sweet spot or your Ikigai. And that’s how this journey of discovery has been for me.

They say that all types of coaching is primarily life coaching. What are your views here?

There are multiple layers to coaching. Sometimes, coaching can help people build certain skills and abilities. Sometimes it is deeper, more transformational, and gets down to people’s identities. It means looking into what are some of the boundaries that they’ve drawn for themselves, what society has drawn for them in terms of what they can do and cannot do, and what they believe the world will accept and not accept. And sometimes growth and development comes from pushing those boundaries, redefining them, perhaps drawing different boundaries or trying to transcend them. And that requires the individual to tap into their own internal experiences, understand what some of the key assumptions are that they hold about themselves, and being willing to challenge all those beliefs and assumptions. That is the pathway to growth.

One of the frameworks that I love is the idea of the hero’s journey. This is something that Joseph Campbell the famous anthropologist and researcher talks about.  He studied mythology from across the world and found that regardless of where he went, whether it is in India, Native America or other parts of the world, there were common themes that played out in all these different cultures.

The hero’s journey starts with some kind of a challenge. Wherever they are, they end up leaving their village or their home, and they go out into the wide world, which seems scary and dangerous. And out there, they face their demons, and they slay the dragons. At the end of the hero’s journey, they come back to the place where they started, but they’re able to see the same place with new eyes.

If you think about it, the journey we take with leaders is similar. They might be operating with a certain set of beliefs about what works, what they shouldn’t do, what will give them results and what they should stay away from. And as they go back and test those assumptions, try out new behaviours and experiment, they come back with greater abilities, and they have more choices available to them. So we become their guides and champions in their hero’s journey.

You now coach CEOs in midsize organization and before this you helped larger organizations achieve their growth aspirations. What has changed in the last two years and how are these transformations and growth journeys getting addressed?

I heard this term VUCA for the first time about 6-7 years ago. While doing work across Asia, Australia, Africa, North America, and so forth, one of the common themes that I used to hear is how unprecedented the pace of change is. But in the last couple of years nobody questions a VUCA world any longer. We have accepted that that is the world we are living in. The pandemic caused a huge disruption globally and it affected people and businesses.

At the same time, if you look at the financial markets, some companies are appreciating dramatically. A trillion dollar valuation was unheard of a few years ago, and now there are several companies in that space, however the volatility has gone up. Facebook had a market cap of one trillion dollars but then their stock took a massive dip, and now their market cap is less than $600 billion.

On the other hand, you have so much innovation happening and so many unicorns (any company with a billion dollar valuation or more) being born. I recently read an article which said that currently, there are over a 1000 unicorns. In January 2022 alone, there were 42 new unicorns. So, there is a tremendous amount of growth, innovation and disruption that is happening. Companies are facing threats, not only from traditional competitors, who might be similar sized companies, but a lot of upstarts who are coming in from nowhere and redefining entire industries.

So, companies have realized that old leadership models such as the top down Command and Control leadership model, which gave them tremendous results for decades, will no longer work. They are realizing that they can no longer scale in this agile world, and they have to operate differently. They have to learn how to empower the entire organization and have a bottoms up approach and also drive a lot of innovation and growth.

Growth and development comes from pushing boundaries, redefining them, perhaps drawing different boundaries or trying to transcend them. This requires individuals to tap into their own internal experiences, understand what some of the key assumptions are that they hold about themselves, and be willing to challenge those beliefs and assumptions. That is the pathway to growth.

Tell us about the ‘Agile Growth System’. How is it different from the other models?

When I talk about Agile, I’m not referring to how it’s used in the IT world. I’m talking about Agile as being more adaptable, flexible, nimble and being more responsive to the challenges that we face in the world. You can have communication agility, where we have more flexibility on how you communicate. There is strategic agility in terms of how you think. Emotional agility which is about regulating our emotions. Leadership agility  or situational leadership where we don’t use a one size fits all approach and we adapt our leadership style to the situation. So, Agile Growth Partners was born from that area, and we help organisations accelerate their growth using agility. I want to be able to partner with companies to help them be more agile and grow faster.

I have two core offerings. One is the Next Level CEO, which is one-on-one coaching for CEOs to expand their leadership capacity and capability so they can have better impact. The second offering is Agile Growth System, which is coaching for the CEO and the senior leadership team, so they can achieve improved business results. I use this framework called the ‘five drivers of agile growth’. I focus on strategy, execution, culture, talent and cash flow. Any organisation that wants to grow and scale and build an enduring business, need to get all five of these right. So I’ve created an offering that is holistic and comprehensive and involves the CEO and the senior leadership team in being able to make progress in all of these areas.

My offering is a year-long engagement and consists of one-on-one coaching throughout the engagement and also multiple meetings with the senior leadership team. We begin with a 2 day engagement process. We then have monthly business review sessions and quarterly planning sessions. And in these sessions, we are able to tap into the collective wisdom of the team, give them some new exercises, frameworks and models, and also help them create improved behaviours that get better results. So, when this combination of a great leadership team with a good framework, a holistic model, a good coach, and a system comes together, it can work like magic, and lead to transformational results.

I work crazy hours and I’m staying up late for my clients. But when I’m finished with those sessions, I’m not tired. I’m so energised. When you are doing something that you love and delivering great results, it feels fantastic.

Now that you say that you work across different time zones, how do you take care of yourself? What is your self-care regime?

There’s a fantastic HBR article called ‘The Making of a Corporate Athlete’ by Tony Schwartz. He and Jim Loehr did some research and wrote the book, ‘The Power of Full Engagement’. And in that book, they talk about how they studied a lot of elite athletes. What they found was for them to be able to perform at a high level, these athletes had to be quite good at expending and replenishing their energy. And that balance of expanding and replenishing is the key to long term success. And they talk about the four sources of energy that we have to manage – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy.

Physical is all about nutrition, hydration, sleep and exercise. Mental energy is something that we as knowledge workers get quickly. Emotional is about finding and developing good practices which allows you to regulate your moods effectively          . Spiritual energy is about understanding what your purpose is and living a life that is aligned with that purpose and your values. So, the last few years have been a journey around all of these things.

Personally, I exercise five times a week. I have a personal trainer. I find that when I have an external forcing mechanism, I’ll always show up on time, otherwise, I’m going to make excuses. I try to watch what I eat. I try to drink a lot of water and get enough sleep. I have a meditation practice and a journaling practice, and these have helped me get to a place where I have good balance and I can show up, ready to work. Because in coaching, you have to be fit to do good work. The priority is to combine these different realms.

There are a lot of things around developing people and teams. What is the best way for managers to practice empathy and accountability?

Accountability is about ownership. It’s about somebody who can explain what is going on. Have the ability to look around corners and be an early warning system. Some people say accountability is about having the right type of compensation structure and incentives and then people will deliver. But if that were true, then every sports team that hires the most expensive players will win every championship. I talk about five things that you have to get right when it comes to creating a culture of accountability.

  1. The first one is intention clarity. You need to communicate, articulate and sometimes co-create the intention of exactly where you’re trying to get to.
  2. The second one is role clarity. You have to make sure you have the right people in the right seats, doing the right things. You have to assess if there is a good fit between the person and the role.
  3. The third thing is you need process clarity. Sometimes you might have people with the best intentions, but if the process is unclear, they’re going to end up spinning their wheels.
  4. The fourth is about creating a feedback rich culture. The only way we can grow is if we can get regular feedback on what are we doing well, and where we could get better. It is crucial that companies master this.
  5. And the fifth piece is communication norms. Everything we do is through oral and written communication. Learning how to make clear requests, and clear agreements is a key to having accountability.

When these five things come together, you will have a culture of accountability. I don’t necessarily see empathy and accountability as being mutually exclusive. They go hand in hand to create accountability. Some people define empathy as being able to walk in somebody else’s shoes. The other word that I’ve heard of is compassion, which is empathy combined with action.

There is a story of how someone is being crushed by a rock and another individual passes by and says, ‘I can imagine how painful that must be’. But what we need is compassion, where we say, ‘Let me move that rock and free the individual’. Compassion helps you relate to people at a deeper level, it helps you recognise that people want to be successful and give their best. Nobody wakes up in the morning and decides that they are going to do a mediocre job today. So, being able to remove the obstacles or rocks that are holding them and freeing them to do better work is the key. So when you bring in your intention to have empathy and compassion and you work on the five things that I mentioned (above), you can definitely create a great culture of accountability, which will catapult your company’s results.

However, a lot of people struggle to balance empathy and accountability. On the one end is task and at the other end is relationship. The task vs. relationship dimension requires relational agility to find the sweet spot between the two. There are a lot of leaders who have produced tremendous results in their careers but there is huge collateral damage, and they struggle to scale. They realise that if they don’t fix their relational skills, they are not going to be successful. Many CEOs I work with have accomplished great things and built great companies, but they have focused on the task. I always tell them to take care and develop their people.

I usually use the book ‘The Motive’ by Patrick Lencioni where he talks about two leadership styles. One is a reward based leadership style where the individual believes that they deserve the leadership position, and it is a reward for all the hard work that they have done. The other is a servant based leadership style where you recognise that you are there to be of service to the teams that you are leading. It is your job to make them successful. When the team succeeds, you succeed. When you think about Steve Jobs’ first innings as a leader, it was all about him thinking that he is a leader, and his people are there to serve him. But he later changed, and he built a fantastic team, which continued to deliver even after his passing. It is that maturing that needs to happen in leaders.

Organisations now have a multi-generational workforce. What are you seeing as the missing links in getting all of them to work together?

I think at the core there is a lack of appreciation for the value that the other generation brings. If we resort to name calling like ‘you millennials’ or ‘you baby boomers’, then we are writing them off and being judgemental. Organisations have to leverage the differences. When you think about diversity, it has traditionally been about gender, race and so on. But the most important piece of diversity, is being able to manage diversity of thought. Recognising and leveraging different points of view instead of focusing only on one thought. Every generation should be curious about the other generations and to be a little bit vulnerable so they can experiment and take some risks together.

How have you seen unconscious bias get in the way of teams performing better?

One of the first steps is to make the invisible visible. We then judge it in a compassionate way. We ask questions so people can take perspective on that. We can then say we have been operating on implicit norms, so let’s try something different and work on explicit norms, which might give us better outcomes. So the first step is to create that psychological safety to surface the bias. This requires a lot of vulnerability based trust. Teams have to work on these things over a period of time to get the results that they want.

Is there a difference between the way sales teams collaborate and regular teams collaborate to achieve results?

There is a difference, and this has to do with the compensation that sales teams receive. They have to be consistent in meeting their quarterly targets. They get commissions and bonuses for achieving short term results. But with other functions, they might be operating on a longer duration, and their compensation would be different. That creates some tension when these teams collaborate. Historically, tension has always existed between certain functions like engineering and sales, finance and sales and between marketing and sales. What is important for each function is to understand how dependent they are on all the other functions working effectively. Once they have the recognition and acknowledgement, they can learn to leverage them better, while giving them credit and helping them be successful. This then leads to win-win situations and improves collaboration.

They say women make better sales professionals but there aren’t that many women in sales. What are your thoughts on that?

I have trained many salespeople around the world. The proportion for men and women is unequal. But I have also been part of an organisation where there were more women in senior roles, and they produced fantastic results. They say that these women were brought in early on and they created an environment which was conducive to more women coming in and working. Whereas with other organisations, there are already more men, so biases kick in and they may not be as open to women sales professionals or sales leaders. So yes, there is imbalance. It is starting to get better, but more work needs to be done.

Srikanth Seshadri Srikanth Seshadri

Founder – Agile Growth Partners | CEO Coach

Srikanth Seshadri is the founder of Agile Growth Partners, a coaching firm that serves small and mid-size businesses. He coaches the CEOs to achieve their aspirations, accelerate growth and build long lasting companies without burning out. He is a certified coach in the Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching process and has a PCC from ICF. He is also an authorised Challenger Advisor and has a Six Sigma Blackbelt from GE. Prior to starting his coaching business, Srikanth or Sri as he is called, worked in senior finance and strategy roles in Fortune 100 companies including GE. He has worked with a variety of clients in Asia, Australia and North America.

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