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Disruption and investment: lessons in leadership

January 14, 2015

Vinod Kumar   

Blog contributor

I consider it an important part of my job to talk to key people in the industry to learn new trends, understand new opportunities and threats in the market as well as to bounce my thinking off of the experts out there. To that end I recently met with business leader Mark Thompson, CEO and cofounder of Richard Branson’s Virgin Unite Mentors, to talk about innovation in business.

Part 1, published last week, covered our views on what leaders can do to ensure their companies stay relevant in today’s competitive environment, how to encourage continuous learning and the secrets of successful leaders. In part 2, video and transcript below, we talk more about how, in order to stay ahead, companies need to constantly look to disrupt themselves, act like an investor in their customer’s business and become experts in identifying the needs of their customer’s own customers.

We’ve spoken about risk-taking and constant learning, but I think the inherent nature of people is “you can take so many risks, but you don’t want to fail”. So Mark, you work with Richard Branson’s program with entrepreneurs – what do you find, and how do you deal with it and nurture  it, and push people to take the risks and not to be afraid to fail but also to move the needle forward on things that are going to get there in the end?

MT: It takes a whole ecosystem to come together as a team. I think when Vinod’s talking about getting people together who really love each other – they also really love the cause, they love the purpose they’re coming together to execute. So it’s not just about me, it ends up being about us winning and people that you want to win with together and learn with together. And so [it’s about] having an ecosystem of people who can bring all those different sensibilities and have a nice fair fight, a great argument and [who are] ultimately all trying to root for the customer and find unique and valued-added ways to root for those customers and find ways to solve problems.

When we looked at really motivated workplaces where there were low turnover rates and high productivity and high rates of customer satisfaction, it was always correlated with groups of individual teams who would come together and give their employees solutions-based tools that they could feel empowered to use [with] permission.

Because people who love to serve people want to have the tools to do that, it’s kind of ironic that most organisations don’t think that way, because the employee really is on the same page as you are when they are high-potential. They actually want to get stuff done and deliver that for employers and they’re so frustrated when they can’t and then they [want] to be with other people that they can learn from and they can be mentored [by].

As an executive coach I like to think all the value comes from the expert from the outside (!) but what the research really shows is, if you could be with a team that you can learn from and you can grow with and you can have a really good argument over the customer services around, that’s an empowered kind of entrepreneurial team. And that’s where you see success after success, not driven by personality but by the culture of that team, bringing their full force to it.

And so we’re seeing a lot more of this now in the industry, that you need to innovate faster and the models are changing. Vinod, from a business leader perspective, what do you think is driving all of this? How has the industry shifted because obviously these external forces are pushing us a lot harder now than they used to be?

VK: There’s always been a need for innovation but [previously] technology was influencing individual silos of industries or certain specific domains, but what we’ve seen in the last five to 10 years is that the influence that one industry is having on another is unprecedented – we’ve never seen anything like it. So Silicon Valley for example has been the hot bed of innovation but largely around information and technology – you know, IT-oriented.  But now that IT process and software is influencing everything and you’re taking it and saying “how I can disrupt the hospitality industry?” or I’m looking at the urban landscape and saying “how can I completely change that for the better?”, or “how can I take the power of IT and apply it to healthcare and automotive” and so on and so forth.

This cross-industry pollination and the breaking down of siloes is incredible, it’s also frightening. And then you have the urgency around innovation. Boundary-less innovation is what’s driving everybody to think about this really hard. Not just let it happen on its own. Also, those [people] you are watching – your competitors – are not just within your industry. If you’re in the hospitality industry, you’ve got to sit and think about somebody in a completely different domain and say “how will I be disaggregated or how will my business model change because of that?”

MT: I’m thinking about all of the strategy sessions that Honeywell must have held, in terms of looking at who their competitors would be and they’re trying to be productively paranoid, but they never guessed Google would be the one that would want to have this infrastructure in the home. It’s an exaggerated example of what you’re talking about where you need to be productively paranoid.

VK: And it goes back to not focusing on our customers enough. We think customers are waiting there to buy the services we create or the products or widgets that we push out of assembly lines but we need to think about why they’re buying that service, what is the underlying need and how does that need sit alongside another need that the same consumer has, and be observing that and looking at the opportunities and the threats that that brings.

MT: And it sounds like that at Tata Communications you’re partnering with interesting companies in many different industries. That same metaphor is extended in a deep way. I mean here we are in Singapore celebrating the Grand Prix and Formula 1® and I’m thinking about how you’ve taken on the role at Tata Communications of helping differentiate the customer with their customer cohort, that you’re reinventing the customer experience so that it’s a richer, deeper more exciting race and this sense you’ve become experts in knowing your customer’s customer and that’s really an emerging thing that’s happening.

VK: And a simple way of looking at that Mark – I’m a bit slow so these things come to me a bit late(!) – but we can’t look at any business as a B2B business or a B2C business. You need to look at a business as a B2B2C business or a B2B2B business or a B2B-to something else business but you have consumers who are doing different things with the things they buy. The longer you look into that and have an understanding of why your service is being consumed or why and how your product is being bought, then I feel you can defend against threats. If you just think of the first hop, you’re limited to your competitors, you’re looking at the obvious replacements for your products. You do need to look at the third step as a minimum.

MT: It’s almost a three-step process that you have at Tata Communications, where you have to know your customer‘s customer and then as you said right down through the value chain. The interesting thing emerges when you realise that you actually understand your customer’s business model – what drives their margins, what drives their profitability, they’re not going to be as price sensitive about your services. You’re acting like an investor in their business.

VK: Exactly. Very well put. We do need to think like an investor. We do need to think about their bottom line or what are the impacts they’re trying to make with their business.

MT: And it’s something that is also helping them understand what they’re great at too. In terms of what they think they could be world class at, where their passions are. When I think about this race, you’ve really nailed the idea that it’s got to be exciting to watch this race, it’s exciting to see people really break new ground and you’re enabling that.

VK: Yeah, with Formula 1®, we’ve accrued multi-dimensional benefits from the relationship. First and foremost, it is the largest live sporting event that goes on pretty much the whole year. It [takes places] over forty weeks, [around] twenty races, 300 million people watching each race and nothing can stop for one nanosecond. The way you engineer the solution, the way you work with the Formula 1® organisation and that whole ecosystem to shift this technology infrastructure along with all the sports paraphernalia that goes with it – they’d like to think they’re the important piece but it’s the technology that really does it(!) – anyway the whole thing’s important. But the way it moves around – literally like a circus tent – it’s packed up and then taken to the next location and within two weeks you’re up and running again has been quite a feat of partnership, quite a feat of technology and just the experience we deliver together to users around the world from Africa to the US even, and of course in Europe and other parts of the world is really thrilling.

So finally, you’ve had a relationship with Formula 1® for a few years now. What would you say is Tata Communications’ biggest learning has been during the time with this world-class sporting brand for you as a business? What has been the biggest learning curve?

VK: Besides the obvious one around brand recognition and so on, I think our biggest takeaway has been operational improvement and operating the network at that speed and with the change that is naturally built into it required us to revamp a lot of our processes – the way we approach design, the way approach implementation, the way we approach redesign and redeployment. That’s taught us a lot operationally which we then take and apply to all our customers across industries. That’s been the biggest takeaway. And the brand is now much better known with the audiences that we’re trying to reach, and we’re being associated with “if it’s mission critical, if your business depends on it, if your customers depend on it, Tata Communications can do it”.

Do you agree with Vinod’s vision on the future of empowered entrepreneurialism? Leave your thoughts below. 


Tata Communications was the Official Connectivity Provider of Formula 1® between 2012 and 2019. Tata Communications was also the Official Managed Connectivity Supplier to Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, and Official Digital Transformation Partner to ROKiT Williams Racing until the end of the 2019 season.