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Learning and purpose: lessons in leadership

January 7, 2015

Vinod Kumar   

Blog contributor

I spend a lot of my time talking to key and interesting 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 some of the experts out there. Most recently, I had the privilege to meet with Mark Thompson, the CEO and cofounder of Richard Branson’s Virgin Unite Mentors, a network for entrepreneurial innovation. Mark is also a Founding Patron of Virgin Unite’s Entrepreneurship Centre, New York Times bestselling author, Program Chairman for the Board of Governors of the John F. Kennedy Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership and venture capitalist. I hope my recent discussion with Mark gives you some insights not only into my thinking for us as a business, but also some valuable points of view from one of the world’s most influential innovation drivers and coaches. Watch the video or read part one below, with part two to follow next Wednesday.

We’re talking about what drives businesses of the future and what is the secret to success of businesses going into the next few years. What do you think the two most important things are for a company to stay competitive in the market today?

VK: There’s a long list but the two most important things for me will be having a programme of learning and driving a passion for learning, and secondly having a team that’s highly energised by a purpose for the business. At Tata Communications, there’s a statement “the business of business is more than business” and I really believe in that. I think that unless you have a real purpose around which an organisation rallies, it’s not sustainable. You need people who are enthused by that, who are bought into that and it needs to be a long-term purpose that’s defined. So I’d say learning and people.

MT: It makes so much sense. I think about how, even in the last 24 months, there’s also been a transformation added on to learning and people, where I’d say themes emerging now are disruption and engagement where we’re seeing organisations that are able to disrupt the status quo in favour of their customers – I’m thinking an AirBnB or an Uber – that are able to tilt the competitive landscape in an engaging way. That’s really the second theme – trying to find employees who are as engaged in serving those customers at a higher level of energy and risk-taking than in the past. So those two emerging themes of disruption and engagement are key to the evolution of businesses in a competitive market right now.

So I suppose there’s a big element of learning and continuous learning – so how do you learn how to learn today?

MT: We’re never finished!

VK:  We’re never finished and that’s a tough admission! It’s actually a very good point that you make but personally for me, learning is a three step process. It’s an ongoing process but there are three stages of learning. First is to accept that you are ignorant, the second is to go and try and fix that ignorance by acquiring knowledge and seeking knowledge from others to plug some gaps and third coming back to accepting that you will stay ignorant! And if you do, I believe that the receptacle is ready to receive. The minute you think you’ve mastered something you’re doomed to failure. Also in the world around us today, we know that the conventional way of going to school and university and maybe doing another program is not where the learning stops. We supplement it with experiences we gain on the job and things we do in life every day but that’s not enough also. I think you need to complement the early learning that you get in a structured environment with the wisdom that you gain through experience with additional formal learning. It might not be back in a classroom but you do need to go and make an effort to learn about specific things. You don’t always need to learn with a purpose. That’s my other big thing about learning – learn about something just to get excited and your mind will then connect the dots and make new possibilities.

MT: Never-ending exercise of the muscles!

VK: Absolutely, and just be comfortable being ignorant and I’m very comfortable!

MT: That’s why we’re so comfortable today! And it’s kind of a sense of paradox because attracting the kind of people that love to learn continuously and have an appetite for that, because the people who do that are those who have the humility to realise that nothing gets done alone, that they only do things with and through other people, but at the same time have this incredible hubris because you’ve got to believe that you deserve to be world class and that you deserve to be able to have the customer’s business.  So that [mindset] takes this almost driving ambition to make the numbers and deliver for customers and at the same time realise ‘I’m not done, I don’t know it all and I have to do it with and through other people’. And so I think that’s why it’s so extraordinary and personal now to find leaders who have the appetite to learn because they have the ability to have hubris and humility at the same time.

VK: Yes that’s a very well put statement – hubris and humility.

So Mark, you’ve worked with two of the world’s top leaders – Steve Jobs and Richard Branson – what do you think the secret of their success was as leaders, if you had to pick out what made them successful?

MT: When I think about what Vinod was saying, he has all the same characteristics when you have constant learning, this ability to really realise that what you’ve learned so far is just scratching the surface and is going to be able to inspire other people to have that same appetite.

Richard Branson is a cheerleader – he realises he is going to have to find people with vision and he won’t try and engage in any entrepreneurial exercise until he has found someone who’s proven that they have purpose, passion and a track record of performance behind that. And in this case this means that this [purpose] also has to matter enough to a cause or a company or a community or to customers – in other words be bigger than just you – and then that somehow resonates with you personally and gets you up in the morning and makes you feel resilient when you have a setback. Because anything that’s worth doing is going to have its huge set of complications and setbacks and then is willing to deliver on those goods because it’s great to have a cause but you still have to make the numbers, show the track record of success. Warren Buffet, who has two hundred companies, won’t even look at your resume unless you’re a person who’s had that purpose, passion and performance pretty clearly defined as who you are. This has got to be bigger than who you are and it’s got to be about ‘us’ rather ‘you’.

And Vinod, what do you look for in people that you hire. What are the types of people that you’re looking to attract as you take the business forward in the next four years?

VK: I think it really boils down to attitude, attitude and attitude. Mark earlier mentioned some important traits in successful leaders and you need to see that in people. People are too hung on where they went to school or which company they worked in or what was the last big project they delivered. It’s all nice and necessary but beyond that do you really believe…do you have a purpose and what is that purpose other than just making money? There’s nothing wrong with making money and capitalism – I endorse it fully – but it has to be more than that. How do you want to change the world? What fingerprint do you want to leave when you leave an organisation? How do you see people? Do you see people as resources that you use and throw away? Or do you see people as valuable resources that you take, nurture, help them grow and leave them as stronger and bigger individuals. That’s what I’m looking for in people and finally who can work as a team. Prima donnas don’t work, especially in our business -we really need those people who can roll up their sleeves and who really believe in a multiplier effect.

And finally it’s the energy of people – you’ve got to be with people in the work place that you like and my thinking on that is a little different from others who say ‘I don’t need to like you I just need to respect you’. I spend 18 hours a day at work – that may be an average or maybe an understatement! – but I’d rather be with people I like. And sometimes I find it tough to sell that idea, that as colleagues I expect you to like each other also, and my job as a leader is to facilitate an environment where we like each other as professionals but where we can hopefully also establish a deeper connect beyond that. That’s not everybody’s thinking and I know the different views on that, but when I interview someone I like to also have a glass of wine with them if I’m going to work with them and have a conversation, understand who they are, where they come from, where they want to go, and help them in that journey and expect them to help me in my journey as well.

Stay tuned for part two next Wednesday.