Built to Last: How Servant Leadership Can Power Your Business’ Legacy

with Bala Sathyanarayanan, EVP & CHRO at Greif, Inc.

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Bala Sathyanarayanan

Episode 22

We do not believe in a hierarchical organization. Every colleague in the company can be a leader, should be a leader, must be a leader, has the opportunity to be a leader. We believe as leaders, our job is to empower our colleagues to do the right thing for our customers. We call it servant leadership.”

Bala Sathyanarayanan is EVP and CHRO at Greif, Inc., a world-class global industrial packaging products and services provider. Grief is a legacy company, having been founded in 1877. It is also the 7th oldest publicly traded company in the United States with the same stock symbol. Prior to Greif, Bala served as EVP of Business Transformation and Human Resources at Xerox, and VP of Human Resources at Hewlett Packard. On this episode, Bala discusses how to develop an employee experience framework based on your business’ core values, how HR leaders are strategic partners to the business, and how to build a lasting legacy through servant leadership.

”If a colleague feels safe, welcomed, celebrated, and cherished in the organization, they feel that they belong here. When they belong here, they could bring their whole selves to work. If you are supported by your manager in the organization, if you’re provided a platform to learn, grow, and succeed, and if you could bring your whole self to work where you could feel safe, welcome, celebrated, and cherished, it can help drive organizations engagement up, and that could lead to better customer outcomes.”

Listen in to hear

  • The philosophy behind referring to employees as “colleagues”
  • How Greif facilitates professional development for each employee
  • Why finding success as a CHRO is more than developing a close relationship with the CEO

”It feeds both ways. Just as they are helping the organization grow, the organization has an obligation to help our colleagues grow. So we meet them where they are and help them grow for colleagues who have demonstrated the desire and the ambition and have the attitude to grow.”


Bala Sathyanarayanan aspect ratio

Bala Sathyanarayanan

EVP & CHRO | Greif, Inc.

Bala V. Sathyanarayanan is a Chief Human Resource Officer, Executive Vice President of the Company. From January 2017 to October 2018, Mr. Sathyanarayanan served as Executive Vice President, Human Resources, North American Operations, for the Xerox Corporation. From July 2012 to January 2017, Mr. Sathyanarayanan was Vice President, Business Transformation and Human Resources, Xerox Technology. In December 2014, he assumed additional responsibilities as Executive Vice President, Corporate Functions and Human Resources, Xerox Technology. Prior to joining Xerox Corporation, and for more than five years, Mr. Sathyanarayanan served as Senior Director and Head of Americas Human Resources, in addition to other human resource roles at Hewlett-Packard Inc.

Episode Transcript

Narrator: Take a moment and think about someone who you consider a leader. Even if they don’t have the title. Maybe it’s someone you work with. Someone who has been a mentor for you. Who had a positive impact on you, who taught you something or encouraged you. They put you first. They’re humble, thoughtful, and driven only by the opportunity to help you. That person is a servant leader. And today, we’re talking with Bala Sathyanarayanan about how servant leadership can power your business’ legacy.

Bala Sathyanarayanan: I’m here to serve my colleagues in a way in which my colleagues could do the right thing to serve our customers. And we fundamentally believe that if we serve our colleagues right, our colleagues will do the right thing of serving our customers right. And if we serve our customers right, the customers will do the right thing of providing Greif an opportunity to serve them again, and again, and again and again. That’s a nice virtuous cycle. 

Narrator: Bala is Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Greif, a world-class global industrial packaging products and services provider. Bala has also held executive and leadership roles at Xerox and Hewlett Packaged. As for Greif – Greif is a true legacy business, having been founded in 1877. So that virtuous cycle that Bala is talking about has carried the company for over 144 years. Today, Bala is going to share with us how to develop an employee experience framework based on your business’ core values, how HR leaders are strategic partners to the business, and how to build a lasting legacy through servant leadership.

On Cruising Altitude, we talk about employee experience lessons from leaders at companies with over 30k employees. A lot like reaching Cruising Altitude at 30k feet, things look a little different when you’re managing 30,000 people. On this podcast, we bring you insights from the leaders who inhabit that rarefied air. Today’s episode features an interview with Bala Sathyanarayanan. But first, let’s take a quick break to hear a word from our sponsor.

Bala Sathyanarayanan: As Chief Human Resources Officer at Greif, I am accountable for ensuring that we can deliver a workforce that can execute on the organization’s business strategy. Let me tell you a little bit about Greif so that you can have an appreciation for the size and scale of, uh, my role. Greif is a 144 year old global multinational company. We operate in the industrial manufacturing space, specifically in the industrial manufacturing space. Greif is an industry leader in the industrial packaging space. We operate in over 40 countries worldwide with the total workforce of roughly 20,000 includes both direct and indirect and the ecosystem that we serve across these 40 countries we operate. A little nugget about this organization that many folks might not be familiar with is Greif is one of the oldest listed publicly traded companies with the same stock symbol in the New York stock exchange. In fact, it is the seventh oldest listed company in the New York stock exchange with the same stock symbol. So that’s what this organization is all about. And my role as a chief HR officer is to deliver a world class diverse and engaged workforce that can execute on the business strategy. Let me also give you a feel for financials so you get an idea of what this company does. Worldwide we generate revenue of roughly 6.5 billion dollars topline. And an EBITDA of roughly 900 million dollars. So that’s gives you a feel for the size and scale of my role and how this workforce delivers those business outcomes.

Narrator: Let’s zoom out now and take a look at Greif and their overall industry in The Flight Plan.

Bala Sathyanarayanan: From a workforce perspective and the employee’s persona perspective across these 40 countries, we have over 220 manufacturing facilities worldwide. So to deliver these products, these industrial packaging products for our ultimate customers, we’ve got multiple employee personas. Predominantly, these employee personas fall under two broad categories. Category number one is a production persona where there is an engineer or manufacturer or an industrial engineer in a plant producing these products or facilitating the production of these products by working with our workforce in the production facility. So that is one big cohort of personas in the organization. The second cohort of personas who are outside these 220 plus manufacturing facilities who make the process of value creation and value capture on the back end happen, which is through organizations like HR, finance, IT, legal, marketing. All the global functional roles across these 40 countries in these four continents that we operate in.

Narrator: Being in 40 countries across four continents, Greif faces similar challenges to other global companies when it comes to communicating with employees.

Bala Sathyanarayanan: For a global company of this size and scale, uh, it is always interesting to see how what you intend to do translates and gets to the ultimate customer of the receiver of that information. When we operate in so many countries, there are multiple language barriers, which you need to go through. So how do you ensure that what you communicate lands appropriately so that everyone can act on the communication that is being said? Right? So one of the big challenges we have as an organization is thinking as one global organization where the headquarters is all about coming up with a framework on how you approach things in a way in which every country in which we operate can take the framework, apply the framework that suits the needs of the respective country operations. So it’s not a policy which gets dictated by headquarters, which has to be applied in every country. It is a framework driven by what our core values are and those core values inform our framework of how do we manage the employee experience in the organization. How do we manage the customer experience in the organization? To ensure that employees and customers and multiple stakeholders get what they need from the organization, we need to ensure that that framework is consistently applied across the organization in all these countries we operate in while we provide them the flexibility to deliver on the intended outcomes of the framework. So that’s always a very interesting challenge to have, and, uh, that’s something which we are maniacally focused as one executive leadership team to deliver day in and day out for our key stakeholders. Our key stakeholders fall under three broad categories. Number one is our customers. Number two, our colleagues, we call our employees colleagues. Number three, the capital markets and the communities in which we operate. So that’s, it’s one global framework applied locally with flexibility to suit and translate to local needs in those geographies we operate.

Narrator: Bala referring to Greif employees as colleagues is an intentional and thoughtful choice. 

Bala Sathyanarayanan: That comes from a core foundational belief at the executive leadership team that as leaders, leadership is not a title or a position. Every colleague in the company can be a leader, should be a leader, must be a leader, has the opportunity to be a leader. We believe as leaders, our job is to empower our colleagues to do the right thing for our customers. And we do not believe in a hierarchical organization. In fact, the style of leadership we practice at Greif, we call it a servant leadership, which is I’m here to serve my colleagues in a way in which my colleagues could do the right thing to serve our customers. And we fundamentally believe that if we serve our colleagues right, our colleagues will do the right thing of serving our customers right. And if we serve our customers right, the customers will do the right thing of providing Greif an opportunity to serve them again, and again, and again and again. That’s a nice virtuous cycle, where you do right by your colleagues, take care of your colleagues, engage your colleagues, so that they can engage the customers appropriately, who will engage you. And it keeps going and going, and that’s how the organization was built. And 144 years and counting, we are laying the seeds for the next 144 years through a strategy, our business strategy, and it is appropriately called the ‘Built to Last Strategy’.

Narrator: And clearly their Built to Last Strategy has been successful with a lengthy history like Greif. But it’s also because they’re measuring their employee – or colleague – experience to make sure things are going well.

Bala Sathyanarayanan: While we think we are servant leaders. How do we know our colleagues are, are perceiving it that way? And how are our colleagues are feeling empowered? You gotta measure what you believe you’re doing. And the way we measure that is through measuring our colleague engagement. And we partnered with Gallup to do the colleague engagement and over the last six years, our colleague engagement has gone up year over year over year, including the times of COVID. Today we are in the top quota of colleague engagement as measured across all manufacturing companies in the world. Now, how does that help my customer and how does that help us deliver outcomes? Right? And every time we measure colleague engagement year over year, we also track our customer engagement. We track our customer engagement through a mechanism called NPS and net promoter score. And as plants and countries where our employee engagement is high, our colleague engagement is high, we see our NPS being higher, truly world class standards. Where our colleague engagement is high, our NPS is high, and where our NPS is high, our customer SAT has led to better performance in those countries and those regions and the markets. And every year we do this, every time we see an improvement in colleague engagement in a country or a business division. Those countries and business divisions, we see an improvement in net promoter score. Where we see an improvement net promoter score, we see an improvement in the top line and the bottom line in those business units or those country operations, very clearly feeding off of the earlier philosophy. We call it the service profit chain. You do right by customers, NPS score goes up. And because NPS score goes up, the revenues and profits go up. And those colleagues who serve them, serve those customers, are so much more engaged.

Narrator: We’re already getting to the good stuff – the inner workings of an employee experience for the ages. So why don’t we get into how Greif serves up a First Class experience. 

Bala Sathyanarayanan: Fundamentally, the best practices to help drive engagement comes around three things. Number one, colleagues have the trust of the manager. The manager plays an important and a significant role. When you look at what drives colleague engagement, colleagues join an organization because they believe this organization’s right for them. And colleagues learn and grow and thrive in an organization when they feel supported. So the support starts with respective manager to start with initially. The manager or the leader the colleague works with. Number one best practice. Number two is all about providing a colleague a variety of choices and opportunities to learn, grow, and stretch themselves in the organization. So if you provide a platform and if you create this organization in a way in which an employee, employee, or a colleague who joins the company today can do many more than what they joined the company to do, providing them with a variety of tasks. The probability of them being successful is much higher. So that’s best practice number two. Best practice number three is all about creating a culture where every colleague can bring their whole selves to work. What does that mean? We measure that under four broad categories. We measure inclusion by saying for a colleague to feel included and where they can comfortably bring their whole selves to work, it is done by ensuring that they can feel safe at work. So physical safety is absolutely important. As I said, we run over 220 manufacturing facilities worldwide. So safety is of utmost important, physical safety, where they come into the organization and leave at the end of the day, leave the plant or leave the facility in the same shape they came in. Number one, that’s important. So safety number two, the colleague needs to feel welcome inside the organization, be it any plant in the organization, whether it’s Singapore or Sao Paulo, or Madrid or in Washington, they need to feel welcome inside the manufacturing facility. Number three, they need to feel celebrated. And last but not the least, cherished. So if a colleague feels safe, welcomed, celebrated, and cherished in the organization, they feel that they belong here. When they belong here, they could bring their whole selves to work. So to answer your question, three best practices. If you are supported by your manager in the organization, if you’re provided a platform to learn, grow, and succeed, and if you could bring your whole self to work where you could feel safe, welcome, celebrated, and cherished, it can help drive organizations engagement up, and that could lead to better customer outcomes. The net, every colleague wants to feel that they’re cared for and they’re respected in the organization. That’s what they’re craving for. And that’s the cornerstone of how Greif does things. And we call it the Greif way where we communicate with respect, candor, and trust across these 40 plus countries we operate in.

Narrator: And that communication is facilitated by technology.

Bala Sathyanarayanan: In the industrial manufacturing space, where workforce is so distributed, having a good tech stack, where the colleague irrespective of where the reside, can feel the connection to the organization’s absolutely important. And that everything is then through an intranet internal portal where they have access to. And there are places where colleagues don’t have access to a PC, they have access to smartphone. So we reach them directly through a smartphone. So our foundational stack on the HRM space is driven by Workday where any of our colleagues in all these countries, where we operate in have access to. And today, if a colleague in Portland, Oregon wants to go look at how much he’s gonna be paid this Friday, he or she can look at their smartphone and open up their smartphone, can exactly know what it is. And if they have a question on the smartphone, that is a chat bot where she can type in any questions she needs. But that’s just a start. Any colleague who wants to join the organization can apply to the organization via text. Any colleague who wants to do a project inside the organization and wants to learn inside the organization, have complete access to the Greif University, which is a virtual university, which is accessible to all colleagues across the world for the Greif colleagues. So they want to go learn on safety. They want to learn quality. They want to learn innovation. They want to learn base and means of growing themselves under various soft skills, all of that is available for them through Greif University. So we enable a platform. We enable colleague success and a good colleague experience by making it easy for them to access information which will help them learn and grow. We want life at Greif to be smooth in a way in which they come in, not just to do the job they wanted to do, but more importantly, grow into things and express their full potential.

Narrator: Sometimes it takes a little more support to help Greif’s colleagues reach their potential. 

Bala Sathyanarayanan: Different colleagues look at things differently. Some colleagues have a huge ability. They may not have the motivation to learn. So those colleagues, we give them a prompt in the form of a little nudge, so where they could be motivated to do the next program or the next curriculum or the next class to move up in the career. Some colleagues might have a huge motivation to grow. They might not have the ability today. So we give them a prompt in the form of a nudge to go do this program, so that they could go ahead and join the University and enroll for the particular program. And prompts happen both ways. if you have the ability, but you’re not, you are not motivated to grow. We’ll nudge you to use the University. if you’re significantly motivated to grow your career, but you don’t have the ability today or the capacity today or the capability today, that’s why we’ll nudge you to do the course, which will give you that capability. So that’s how it works. Some have the ability in a limited quantity, but want to increase the ability and motivated to increase the ability. They don’t need a nudge or a prompt. They’re the ones who are sitting inside the University, going into the University, searching for the program, searching for those courses. Even without me knowing it, they’ll be emailing a certificate saying, you know what? I saw the fantastic program at Greif University. Thank you so much for offering it to us.

Narrator: And the professional development of each employee is guided with a personalized plan.

Bala Sathyanarayanan: Inside the organization, we have a global center called the global talent center where every talent in the organization, all our colleagues in the organization, we have a profile for each one of them. Each of these colleagues at multiple layers in the company have what we call as an IDP. An IDP stands for an individual development plan. So each of these colleagues will create an IDP for them, an individual development plan for them as they complete these programs, as they complete these learning opportunities, training programs, get a certification, stuff like that. Their IDPs individual development plans get updated. And on a quarterly and half yearly basis, the leadership of the organization reviews talented, multiple layers in the company through a rigorous succession planning process. And when we look at multiple colleagues in the organization at various layers, each of these individuals who have shown the drive and the , motivation, and have displayed the potential to grow, gets picked through the global talent center. And they’re the ones who get a shot at the first promotion, or if there’s an open requisition, they get a chance to apply. And even if there’s no requisition, there is a potential need, we might stretch them into those roles based on what they have demonstrated in terms of learning and growing and their commitment to the organization to grow. Because it feeds both ways. Just as they are helping the organization grow, the organization has an obligation to help our colleagues grow. So we meet them where they are and help them grow for colleagues who are demonstrated the desire and the ambition and have the attitude to grow.

Narrator: From hiring to shepherding employees on their individual development plans, HR leaders play a major strategic role in the business.

Bala Sathyanarayanan: The CHROs have a significant role to play in the success of the business. While the CHROs are accountable for selection, development, promotion, rewards, recognition, driving a culture, enabling a culture, making things happen. All those things are important. All those things are table stakes today. While delivering that flawlessly, those operational aspects of HR, the CHRO has a significant role to shape the strategy of the company, shape the strategy of the company for the future. Where does this organization play in the future and how does this organization win in the future? For us to play and win in the future, you define it, help shape it, and then based on that, come up with what are the capabilities an organization needs? The CHRO plays a significant role in defining the future of the company. I, I spoke to you about our build to last strategy. That was co-created with inputs, significant inputs, from every executive leadership team member, including the Chief HR Officer who shapes it. Now it’s all about ensuring that you are very clearly understanding the future business model of the organization. The CHRO needs to know the score. What is the business model all about? The business model is all about how does the company create value for our customers today and in the future? How does the company capture value for our customers today? And how might that be different in the future? Now, this has got nothing to do with HR, but this has got everything to do with HR. Only if you define and understand the business model of the organization for the future, you could come up with an operating model for the future. Today and for the future. When you know the business model code, you could come up with the appropriate operating model, which is all about coming up with the right organization design, coming up with the right organization structure to deliver on the design, coming up with the right people to sit on those right boxes in the structure to deliver on the design, and coming up with the right succession plans and the right individuals who could be promoted or hired from outside to deliver on the organization design. Only if that design gets done right can you deliver on your business model. So it comes back one full 360 degree cycle for a CHRO. To be successful, he or she needs to shape the business model first. The value creation process, the value capture process, and then come up with the operating model. And then everything flows. If you do these things right, I will show you a successful CHRO. And if the HR organization in an organization right, I’ll show you a successful company. Because today, everything depends on people. And the businesses do not execute strategy. People do. And the onus is on the CHRO are to ensure that that happens. Not by talking about talent attraction, and, various other aspects of HR only. That’s important. Absolutely essential, necessary, but not sufficient.

Narrator: Bala says that along with finding the right people for each role, it’s important to gather employees around a common purpose.

Bala Sathyanarayanan: It is all about alignment fundamentally because every colleague in the organization, irrespective of which part of the world they operate in, needs to feel connected to the global corporation. Which means they need to be very clear on why does this company exist? The purpose of the organization needs to be absolutely clear so that every colleague who makes a choice to come and work in the organization can see their personal purpose connected to the larger purpose. Let me give you an example. At Greif, we are very clear about it. Our purpose is to safely package and protect our customers goods and materials to serve the essential needs of the communities around the world. Which means every colleague who goes into the plan is doing something which is taking an essential product, like putting food on the table for our ultimate consumers, through our customers. That’s what they do. And that’s powerful. Those 220 plus plants I spoke to you about, even through COVID we kept it operational because our colleagues were so committed to ensure that in spite of all the supply chain challenges and the various demand and supply challenges during the COVID times, they wanted to ensure that the essential stuff, which our packages carry to our ultimate customers and consumers happen. That’s alignment. Aligning on the purpose is important. Once you know the purpose very clearly, you need to be very clear about what is the vision of the organization. Our vision at Greif is to be the best performing customer service company in the world. Our colleagues are passionate about the purpose we serve and we serve the purpose through our customers and we serve the purpose through our customers by providing the best customer service which we are capable of providing. So if your vision and purpose are clear, everyone stays aligned on the organization. And at HR, we have a mission, a mission to deliver on the vision of the company. The mission is to deliver a world class diverse and engaged workforce that could execute on the organization’s vision. So every colleague in the HR organization, across these 40 countries we operate in are very clear on the mission. Why we do the mission, how we execute on the mission to deliver on the vision so that we could be the purpose driven company, which we are, which we have been for the last 140 years, building it for the next future.Now, would would everyone get it absolutely right in every corner of the world we operate in? May not be, but that’s the work of leadership to ensure that it happens. We need to keep repeating these stories. We need to be communicating these stories in a way in which our colleagues in all the countries we operate in can articulate the same with the same ease with which any member of the executive leadership team will articulate. And to do that, we are on multiple missions. We’ve got four broad missions, which we work on in the organization and we bring it to life in every town hall, in every round table, in every one on one, every plant visit we do. So we keep this front and center, where we talk about these success stories. And we talk about these stories in a way in which people can use this, understand this, and it becomes as second nature for them as they plan and grow their careers at Greif.

Narrator: Much of the employee or colleague experience at Greif is the product of collaboration between the employees themselves and HR leadership. That includes implementing new tools or technologies.

Bala Sathyanarayanan: In the spirit of enabling and focusing on a truly world class employee experience, there is a tendency for us to do things absolutely perfectly, right? So we call it like how perfectly, exactly correctly, so that we aim for perfection of the product but completely losing sight of what the ultimate consumer, which is in this case, our employees want. We might believe that that business or HR is putting out a beautiful product, which will benefit our customers and benefit our employees, but in our focus on getting it perfectly right, we might lose sight of the big picture of why we are doing it. So the biggest learning for me, uh, from an employee experience perspective is if it’s probably approximately right, serves the needs of our ultimate employees, launch it, get their feedback, co-create it, and move on. So we went from launching a perfect product, which took so much more time to coming up with something probably approximately correct. We call it a MVP, a minimal viable product, put it to our colleagues, because our colleagues respect us for trying something new. And they will give us feedback. And that feedback, when we act on and refine it further, they appreciate it far, far better than we rolling out a product with taking no input from them, assuming that we know what they want. We dunno what they want. So that’s been the biggest learning. So we churn out products at a much faster rate today because we know that it’s not absolutely perfect, but we know that it serves the needs of our customers. So I don’t wait for perfection sometimes. And the biggest learning is perfection can be a big stumbling block in terms of getting stuff done for our colleagues. Our colleagues are absolutely fine with getting something 85, 90%, right. And then they’ll help us get the bridge to the last 5% or 10%. And they also feel proud that they were part of the design process rather than shoving something down the throat saying, I know what you need. Take this. That never works and that’s been a big learning. Surprisingly, even if we take 1% of their input or 2% of the input, that two percent becomes 200% for them, because it’s their idea and they embrace it. And those colleagues become evangelists for the products. They have more ownership in what we are delivering and they feel that it’s their product. And they also feel that the company’s listening to them, which means they feel they’re much more connected. And they feel ownership in the process. Ultimately, that’s what we need.

Narrator: And what Bala takes ownership for is serving his colleagues. Making sure they’re getting what they want and need. A big part of doing that is facilitating communication between managers and the employees they lead. To create an environment where employees feel heard. And more importantly, that leadership will act on what employees say.

Bala Sathyanarayanan: Listen to all your colleagues. Understand what they need. Understand what they want. Understand what their aspirations are. Understand what their motivations are. Understand what drives them. Understand their value system, which is driving them. And what are the motivations? Is it an intrinsic motivation or is it an extrinsic motivation? If it’s an extrinsic motivation, it’s easier. You could give them a title. You can give them some money. But understanding the intrinsic motivations become absolutely important. Then you truly know what is driving them from within. For some, it could be both, a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic. That’s why the manager plays an important role. The leader plays an important role. Our job as leaders is to enable an ecosystem where our managers can have these conversations and build these IDPs, which I spoke to you about earlier, the individual development plans on an individual basis. Personalize it to suit the needs of every colleague so that every colleague feels connected to their organization through the manager, because the manager is helping enable their career growth inside the organization.

Narrator: So managers are expected to meet with employees regularly.

Bala Sathyanarayanan: On a monthly basis, they should have a one on one, where the only obligation for the manager is to ensure that he or she schedules that one on one. And it is for the colleague to come to that meeting with whatever they want to talk about. Could be about work, could be about their personal growth, could be about their challenges, could be about mentoring, could be about coaching. In addition to enabling that through the manager, we also have a mentor network inside the organization where the colleagues can make use of the mentors who are there inside the organization. Either could be inside the division or could be someone completely outside the division or the department or the country or the region or the continent. In addition to that, we also enable these conversations through what we call as colleague resource groups. Some companies call it ERGs employee resource groups. So we have got colleague resource groups where colleagues have these affinity groups inside the organization where they could have these conversations inside their affinity groups. And also inside their affinity groups and also across the affinity groups. So there are multiple channels and forums inside the organization, across these countries we operate in where everyone could leverage these opportunities which are presented to them, to experience the organization in a way in which they could make the most of it so that as they grow and learn, the organization learns and grows because of them.

Narrator: Like Bala says, serving employees comes back to serve the company in this virtuous cycle. But sometimes things can still get a little bumpy. Bala is sharing with us some wisdom he’s gained from when things don’t go as planned in Turbulence.

[00:32:42] *Turbulence Segment Drop*

Bala Sathyanarayanan: COVID opened up, uh, so many things, right? So COVID was like a once in a lifetime thing. I hope it’s a once in a lifetime thing. Where each one of us were tested to our core. The board was tested at its core. The leadership team was tested, and we did not have a playbook. And when we don’t have a playbook, how do you make things happen? Leadership is all about communicating to colleagues, providing colleagues hope, defining reality in terms of what we are facing. While defining reality, giving them hope about the fact that yes, we could get through this. And that’s exactly what we did. So we communicated with them on a weekly basis across these 40 odd countries we work in. We created task force forces in each of the continents we work. We had a task force which started in Asia Pacific. Similar task force was created EMEA, Europe, Middle East, Africa. Similar task force was created in Latin America. Similar task force was created in North America. And before you know it, we had a global task force, which was managing these four taskforces worldwide. So we came up with that, with the structured approach where we were informed by science and we communicated consistently with our colleagues and customers throughout the period while keeping the board informed and engaged. I mean, as servant leaders, one thing we it became very clear was while we were stretched, we also knew that our people were looking up to us, looking up to the leaders for clarity in terms of what are the next steps what we could do. And there are times where we were very, very candid and very open with them saying, look, we dunno what the answer is, but this is what we’re gonna try. Let’s do it together. Our leadership was tested. We call it resilient leadership. It was not just about dealing with adversity, but more importantly, how do you deal with adversity and you learn, grow and thrive through that adversity. So after the initial period of the first three to six months, we got into a state where we knew how to manage demand patterns in the market, supply patents in the market, and the challenges of people leadership across these 40 countries we operate in. And in a way in which we took care of our financials of the organization too. We managed all this by not terminating any colleague when there was a drop in demand, not furloughing any colleagues because by showing respect and being totally transparent to the colleagues, that earned the trust of our colleagues. That went a long way.  It was a conscious choice. We had to take a hit from a financial perspective, but that ROI on that in terms of the emotional commitment and the support we got from our colleagues, I mean, that’s priceless.

Narrator: Bala’s mindset during the pandemic is something that he fostered from when he was younger, during his days as an Eagle Scout.   

Bala Sathyanarayanan: I was an Eagle Scout and I became an Eagle Scout when I was sixteen. And the beauty of the scout moment is once you are an Eagle, they tell you’re always an Eagle. And I’ve never forgotten that, because the motto of the organization is ‘Be Prepared.’ And that’s what you learn as a scout. And throughout these various challenges I’ve gone through leading this team even during the most recent crisis, it is that mindset of being prepared helps you worry less about what happened and react to that, and helps you focus more in terms of responding to what can happen in the future, which means you’re looking at multiple states of preparedness. You’ve gotta Plan A while ensuring that if Plan A does not go through, you gotta have a Plan B and a Plan C as a fallback option so that nothing can phase you. Because if a leader freezes when things happen, the whole organization comes to a standstill. And the organization is looking up to the leader to lead. So it’s important that you have an approach of being prepared so that you can handle anything which comes along your way. For that, you need to do four things. You need to take care of yourself physically. You need to take care of yourself emotionally, so you need to have a very, very, very strong support system. So the executive leadership team feeds off of each other’s energy. We are a very close knit team so that we can stay connected and absolutely support each other. The HR leadership team is pretty much joined to the hips in terms of stepping up when something is not going right for someone. That’s a huge emotional support system, which we have built. And also ensuring that you build a support system inside your family. So my family has been my biggest source of strength. And once you feel absolutely assured of that, you don’t have to worry about anything. Because you’ve got the solid foundation of the family. You’ve got the solid foundation of the executive leadership team and the HR leadership team. Then you move on. Move on to go design a strategy and execute on the strategy so that anything comes along your way, you know that you’re prepared handily. And you got the support system to support you. Lead, grow, learn, and succeed. And we are still learning. But the servant leadership mindset of serving our colleagues and the Eagle Scout mindset of being prepared goes hand in hand.

Narrator: Bala’s mindset as a CHRO is founded on the idea that his role is ever evolving. And as a modern CHRO, he is a multi-faceted leader who has his eye on every part of the organization. To approach HR with a holistic view of the business. 

Bala Sathyanarayanan: As the CHRO, people talk a lot about forming a very close relationship with the CEO, and that’s absolutely essential, but that’s not sufficient. It’s absolutely important that you build a world class team, absolutely important that you understand your business code. So that you are not seen as a HR leader inside the executive leadership team, but you’re seen as a business leader who understands my business goal, who by the way, has expertise in human resources. It’s that mindset that’s important. Go meet your customers. Spend some time with your ultimate customers. Spend some time understanding the business goal. Spend some time looking through your balance sheet, your profit and laws and your cash flow statements in a way in which you understand the levers you could pull as a CHRO to execute on those business outcomes. That’ll be the advice I’ll leave them with.

Narrator: He also is tuned in to what’s happening around the world so he can anticipate challenges in any market.

Bala Sathyanarayanan: As a CHRO of a global company, I’m amazed by every day you wake up, there is always some challenge. There is always something which is happening in the world from a technology perspective, social perspective, political perspective. It’s important that we are aware of what’s happening inside the world. We do not control all those things that are happening, but what we have control over is our ability to respond to what’s happening in the world. You know, we should always be in the ring in terms of understanding what’s happening in the world and always be above the fray, cuz it’s so easy for us to jump into and have an opinion about certain things. More than having an opinion, it’s important that you understand and get a feel for the opinion of the ecosystem, because ultimately you are stewards of the organization and it’s important that you don’t get sucked into or drawn into any of those micro challenges. Never lose perspective of what your role is. And that becomes important. And last but not least, truly remember you true north. Never lose sight of that. Why did I choose to be in this profession? Why did I choose to be in this organization? Why did I choose to lead this team? Having clarity on the true north is always helpful so that you could have absolute comfort on who you are, so that on a day to day basis, you could live your purpose.

Narrator: So focus on your purpose, tune into your people, and you will create a legacy of service that’s built to last.

Thank you for listening to this episode of Cruising Altitude. This episode is brought to you by Firstup, the company that is redefining the digital employee experience to put people first and lift companies up by connecting every worker, everywhere with the information that helps them do their best work. Firstup has helped over 40% of the Fortune 100 companies like Amazon, AB InBev, Ford and Pfizer stay agile and keep transforming. Learn more at firstup.io

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Cruising Altitude

Lessons from companies over 30,000 employees

Conversations with leaders who are designing the best digital employee experiences in the world – from the front lines to the back office. Life is different over 30,000. Welcome to Cruising Altitude.

Hosted by Firstup Founder and CEO, Nicole Alvino.

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