Dec 26, 2008

Business Personality - Subroto Bagchi;Constant Gardener

Leslie D'Monte

Subroto Bagchi has been watching leaders bloom at MindTree. Actually, he is not merely watching.

Raja Shanmugam will don a new leadership role at MindTree Consulting in April 2009. He will give up being an operations manager, designated senior vice-president and head of Asia Pacific with the Bangalore-based information technology services company, and take on a pure corporate social responsibility, or CSR, activity of MindTree Foundation.

After 21 years in the IT industry, the last nine with MindTree, Shanmugam owes this sharp change in course to 16 hours, spread over four sessions of four hours each, with MindTree co-founder Subroto Bagchi, designated Gardener and director.

“Self awareness leads to mental capacity enhancement. It sharpens the emotional quotient, or EQ, that most managers with high IQ (intelligence quotient) may lack,” says Bagchi, who also gave us a written FAQ on the subject. He conducts these leadership sessions, dubbed gardening, over a three-month period.

Said to be the only one of its kind in the world, this leadership programme is unusual, and may appear unstructured, but has its own rigour and method. “It’s voluntary. There are no expectations and no deliverables. It’s about behavioural changes. In a way, it’s like interacting with a counselor,” says Shanmugam.

At the sessions, Shanmugam did not discuss how to improve his job profile. Instead, he asked himself deeper questions like who he was and what he would be five years down the line. “I was humbled to realise that the organisation was not as dependent on me as I thought. It was also a liberating experience, and I discussed this with Bagchi and hence the new role,” he says.

Shanmugam’s is among several careers, and lives, that are being manicured by Gardening. Radha R, vice-president and head-datawarehousing and business intelligence practice, has been in the IT industry for over 18 years, the last eight with MindTree.

“I was labelled a super-achiever at MindTree. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. Yet, of late, I had doubts that I was doing something worthwhile in the company. And it was then that I got a call from this company which offered me a very good role at nearly four times my current salary. Just to test my market value, I went for the interviews (12-13 rounds of them), and finally got selected. I would be lying if I said the offer was not tempting. I could have retired in peace,” says Radha.

She chose not to. She remains with MindTree and hopes to be there for many more years. “Bagchi gave me a whole new perspective. Not once did he tell me to stay back. But the interactive sessions helped me realise that my ties with MindTree were too strong to sever. I have now also learnt to connect with my 400-odd subordinates in a better way,” says Radha.

Shanmugam and Radha are two of the 35 “Top 100” leaders that Bagchi has identified for Gardening since he moved from being the chief operating officer to Gardener in April this year. The top 20 Leaders of Aztecsoft, recently acquired by MindTree, are also part of this.

But why ‘Gardener’?
Why not chief mentor, chief strategy officer, chief fun officer, or something else?

“No, I am not a chief anything,” asserts Bagchi. The company did think of head Gardener as his title, but a board member said the prefix smacked of hierarchy. The symbolism is that titles do not nourish you. “I am sending that message to our leaders. I am who I am, call me by whatever name. Titles are as meaningful or meaningless as the person holding them,” says Bagchi.

There are strong echoes of gardening in what he does. No plant reports to the Gardener; the Gardener attends to the plants in their time and space. This would mean interacting with the plants (or leaders) even during weekends, since it is voluntary and one-on-one.

“The time has come for all of us to take the idea of organisation, titles, roles and everything else in between, to the next level. The so-called modern organisation we created for ourselves and then became a product of is an extension of the factory-economy of the last century,” says Bagchi.

A leader can approach Bagchi and work with him on all kinds of issues that bother him, concern him or intrigue him, and seek the Gardener out as a sounding board, ask him questions, talk to him or demand that he share what happened in his life.

Bagchi sees people’s lives as a spectrum. At one end, it consists of “personal-personal” issues, like the relationship with a spouse. At the other are “professional-professional” issues, such as, why should one not get a higher raise or how does one get one’s boss to see to it that one gets promoted. “I would not engage at the two extreme ends of the spectrum,” he says.

For instance, Shanmugam and Radha R could have refused when Bagchi invited them for the sessions without the fear of reprisal since the sessions are voluntary.

In the first session, Bagchi listens while the participant talks. Sometimes, even they are surprised by their own answers. In the second session, Bagchi gives his perspective on the participant’s reflections and “works towards building a shared understanding of who the participant is”.

The third session deals with, “Where do we go from here?” Together, the Gardener and the Plant may decide that the latter needs more EQ, or more analytical skills, or a special project (sometimes, it is just a field visit) to enhance his self-awareness.

The fourth and final session becomes a platform for other engagements. “These four sessions, and the subsequent engagements, help me build a leadership of one,” says Bagchi.

Why only the top 100?
“Growth in any company is generally about the top 100 managers,” reasons Bagchi. The sessions have no readymade script, and the top 100 are not necessarily the best 100, says Bagchi with a wry smile. “I do hope that the top 100 do have some of our best people, though. Otherwise, we have a problem right there.”

Bagchi would engage with the top 100 and touch at least half of them in the first year. The hope is that this would make them engage differently with their own people. “When people look at themselves in new light, it is the organisation seeing itself in new light,” he says.

In future, Bagchi hopes to create many roles that would have nothing to do with seniority, title, power, or entitlement, but focus on long-standing issues and make an impact without depending on structural sanctions.

MindTree has committed to support this endeavor for five years. However, there will be a “stock-taking” in February next year.

Apart from leadership, the other key thing for an organisation is size. This requires what Bagchi terms “active deconstruction”. How do you make an organisation all the while effectively smaller, even as it becomes larger?

One way is to look at the organisation as a “community of communities”. So, people are not required to belong to or identify with a monolith. They can engage with and participate in a community of their own choice. They can define its agenda, its leadership and all that is voluntary. Volunteerism begets innovation.

MindTree has 45 such communities, which work as vehicles of innovation and a powerful support system for employees. “But they are also shy of structure and management. As Gardener, I would give time to these communities of practice in a ‘pull-push’ manner. I would work with them on the ground to question their purpose, their vision, sit with them, listen-in to their deliberations and sometimes take them outside MindTree and sometimes bring the outside world to them,” explains Bagchi.

The idea of working with the communities of practice, which, again, are voluntary, is to “deconstruct the largeness of the enterprise”.

But it's not HR…
Bagchi’s role is independent of the human resources, or HR, division’s activities. “In fact, I do not even report to Ashok Soota (MindTree’s chairman & managing director),” he clarifies.

So how does Gardening gel with the overall objectives of the organisation? Puneet Jetli, senior vice-president and head-global people function, says: “It’s the philosophy of the company, and it’s how we perceive leadership. Had it been under the HR umbrella, there could have been many constraints. Besides, the sessions are personal in nature. Bagchi is under no obligation to share any of the findings with us. This, however, is another potent platform for the holistic development of our managers into leaders.”

In the organisation of tomorrow, structure and non-structure will co-exist. Hierarchy will not go away; it will learn to work with the hetroarchy. That is why Procter & Gamble is engaging with FaceBook and creating Capessa.

“We have to extend the same rule of engagement to the internal customer. We have to redo the linkage, reinvent ways to collaborate with, expand and impact that individual very differently than during the end of factory-economy that stayed content with the term ‘white collar.’ The knowledge economy may indeed have as many people without collars as with — forget the colour though. That is how we can engage with people who visit you at Second Life (the website where you can live a virtual life) even before they send you their résumé in real life,” Bagchi explains.

Bagchi firmly believes that communities are the number one source of knowledge, and therefore meets the 45 Community Champions every quarter for half a day. “I represent a non-structural role, hence I’m welcome,” he explains. The MindTree management provides the physical infrastructure, digital content management system to feed data, collaboration tools, “and then gets out of the way”.

Bagchi gives two days to individual communities “for what they want me to do for them”. He visits campuses so that they begin to think differently. “As you can see, these are input measures. In roles like these, input measurements are more critical in the first 12 months. In addition, I want to see substantial content creation with an internal blog”.

It is important for an organisation to have distributed leadership so that some can focus on the structure and some on the non-structure. Some can focus on the hierarchy by belonging to it, and some on the hetroarchy by working with the invisible folks in the organisation. The distributed leadership must be emotionally secure — its members must have a higher sense of purpose that they are not creating fiefdom; they are creating a living organisation that is larger than the sum of its parts.

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