As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Ruchira Chaudhary who has a diverse and eclectic functional background in mergers and acquisitions, organization design, culture and leadership, coupled with two decades of experience in emerging markets in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
Ruchira has held leadership roles in organizations like Medtronic and AIG in Singapore, Commercialbank of Qatar, Qatar Telecom (now Oredoo) in Qatar and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in India. Her consulting repertoire spans multinationals, government agencies and leading local business organizations across industry sectors. She teaches and frequently coaches MBA students and senior business executives as affiliate faculty at several business schools — SMU, NUS and IMD in Singapore, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and most recently, the London Business School.
Ruchira is the author of Coaching: The Secret Code to Uncommon Leadership commissioned by Penguin Random House and released in the US in March after multiple successful launches elsewhere across the globe.
Thank you so much for your time! Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I did not set out to be a leadership coach — in fact, until very recently, I don’t think I truly comprehended what Coaching was all about. It was late 2013, and I was exiting a global financial services organization. I had graduated just the previous year from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business with a mid-career MBA. I was excited to be embarking on this fresh chapter — newly minted corporate skills, specialization in strategy. However, quickly I realized my grandiose dreams of changing the world (or the corporate world) were going nowhere. The firm proved to be toxic, with little room to grow, let alone get coached. I worked with leaders who seemed to ostensibly move forward sometimes by stepping on others. It was a turbulent time in my career. Call it serendipity; I guess that at this unhappy juncture — my alma mater, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, approached me to join their newly minted executive education program in APAC as the executive coach.
The rest, as they say, is history. Once I embarked on this journey — I realized, in essence, coaching was really about helping untie the knots in a leader’s head — and working with him/her by providing perspective and being that non-judgmental sounding board. My corporate experience and education proved to be an asset in understanding a leader’s reality and context. What started as a brief coaching experiment led to engagements with other top-tier business schools in Singapore and the region.
I also started teaching about leadership and coaching at many business schools. My book Coaching — The Secret Code to Uncommon Leadership is an amalgamation of all that I have gleaned and learned along the way.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
It was early days in my consulting career, and we had just got the mandate to work in the Middle East. Now, after many years of living there and speaking the language (or smatterings of it) — I often laugh at how I would get confused with greeting protocols. The client assignment was in Doha, and whenever I met the local Qatari women (mostly my colleagues)– I never managed to get this right! The norm is two or three kisses, but when someone is extra happy to see you (or likes you), you might get 3 or 4 (sometimes even a stream of seemingly endless kisses), especially while meeting outside of work! I would often move my cheek away after the second kiss causing some awkward moments. Of course, now I know better and soak up the love!
Takeaway: Research the cultural nuances and customs before starting work in new markets.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are several!
Early in my consulting career, there was Alan Parker, the head of Hewitt’s (now Aon) Malaysia office, who saw potential in me, and shone the light on me (even when my country leaders did not). Peter Rush — CEO of a local diversified conglomerate in Qatar was a client who became a close friend and mentor. Nick Dent at Qatar Telecom (now Ooredoo) offered me the chance of a lifetime — a coveted M&A assignment, and later counseled me to take on my mid-career MBA.
However, the one person who has been an integral part of my leadership journey — who has, in fact, helped change this narrative is Professor Michael Gibbs at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. An educator par excellence, he not just taught me economics and organizations design — he taught me many life lessons. It was he who urged me to try my hand at teaching (and I am grateful that I did), nudged me, and nagged me to write a book — saying that ‘a page a day is a book in a year’. When I received my book contract from Penguin Random House, he was thrilled and proud at the same time. He found time between classes, and his manic schedule to read every chapter — provide feedback in excruciating detail, be part of webinars promoting my upcoming book, and when Coaching — The Secret Code to Uncommon Leadership finally released globally — he was the first to tell the world about its virtues. A great friend, coach, mentor and sponsor — and he’s a giver all the way — someone who always shines the light on my achievements.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
As someone who specializes in post-merger integration, and organization design — I often come across situations when I know that an organization restructure is inevitable which could mean job losses. In many instances I was also not at liberty to share confidential details. Needless to say, the work environment at such times is fraught with stress, and team morale is very low. My mantra has always been:
- Give people Clarity to the extent you can
- Communicate often, and as openly as you can
- Adopt a positive attitude — embrace cautious optimism
- Be Compassionate, and supportive — acknowledge that these are uncertain times, but you are there for your team
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Many times — early days of my consulting career when I often felt lost in a sea of jargon with little help from colleagues, many of them were not very charitable as I was the ‘outsider’ who had switched career tracks. Later, when we moved to Singapore, despite my successes in the middle east, my high-profile consulting roles/ assignments, I struggled to get a job. My motivation to continue is grounded in my self-belief, optimism, and, importantly, perseverance.
Aesthetics and organization are what keeps me going. As an organization design specialist — I carry this over to my personal life. When I feel overwhelmed or too stressed to go on, I take refuge in reorganizing and redecorating my living and working spaces. This burst of creativity that results in a pleasing environment instantly calms me and centers me. Friends in jest often tell me that if my coaching/consulting career fails — I could always be an interior decorator given my attention to detail, organization, and aesthetics.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The two most critical responsibilities of a leader are communication and empowerment.
Communication: Communicate frequently, clearly, and simply. Separate fact from fiction. Keep people updated about events as they unfold and what the organization is doing to get everyone safely through these extraordinarily trying times. Reinforce the message that their well being is at the heart of all you do and say.
Empowerment: The best leaders empower, enable and elevate teams. Empowered employees have lower stress, better control over their professional lives, take faster decisions and risks which they otherwise would not. There is an abundance of research that suggests empowered teams are not just more productive, engaged but also more creative.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
In turbulent times, I tell leaders you are not just leading but also Coaching your people through a Crisis. My three key tenets: Provide Clarity, Optimism (bounded optimism), and Compassion
Provide Clarity: Communicate simply, frequently and from the heart. Employees are looking up to their managers for cues — and when a leader conveys stress and helplessness, it adversely impacts the team. Create Clarity around short-term goals, and focus on the controllables. Give people a sense of direction while preparing them for the unexpected.
Bounded Optimism: Give people the confidence that we’ll get through this together because everybody’s looking at leaders for cues. You also have to take people along on the journey and ensure that you continue to motivate them and bridge fading interpersonal connections. Embrace positivity in terms of a can-do attitude, but be cautiously optimistic without giving false hope.
Show Compassion and Empathy: Not everyone will be feeling upbeat, in fact on the contrary, these are times of stress and anxiety. Let your teams know that you are not just looking out for what’s best for the company but that you care about your employees’ wellbeing. That you recognize this work from home routines can be overwhelming and challenging at so many levels -between barking dogs and screaming kids, it’s hard work, and we’re all in the same storm. Cut people some slack without them slacking off.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
By being transparent and authentic!
Rather than sugar-coating the truth — it’s essential to acknowledge the uncertainty that surrounds your business. Times of crisis require honest and upfront conversations, with more than a sprinkling of empathy and compassion. You may not always have the authority to convey confidential company news, but strive to be as forthright as possible.
It’s also worthwhile to discuss macro challenges that the industry might be facing, and what other players are doing to mitigate it, and to reassure customers that you are sparing no effort in doing the same.
With your teams — share the challenges as well — give them the facts in a balanced manner but acknowledge the tough times that may lie ahead. Reassure them that “we are all in this together”. Maybe go a step forward and brainstorm on how you can navigate these choppy waters together.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Plan for the short term, and the long-term while being Flexible! Good leadership calls are about planning for the present while maintaining a focus on your strategic goals. Think of this as a good time to take stock while making practical efforts to ride the current storm.
Once the storm has abated, reflect and pause on how to navigate for a changed new world. Be flexible in your approach so you can pivot when you come out at the other end.
Surround yourself with Experts! Great leaders are as much amazing teachers, coaches, and mentors as they are effective managers. It’s equally important to surround yourself with people you can turn to for help, insight, and advice when you find yourself stuck or facing an unfamiliar challenge.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
How we view adversity strongly influences our ability to succeed, both as leaders and managing others’ resilience. Defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, resilience is perhaps the most essential ingredient in this leadership mix today. Leaders need to build higher levels of resilience in themselves and their teams by taking charge of how they think about misfortune, crisis, and adversity. Resilient managers are nimble. Move fast (even when they do not know the answers) rather than dwelling on the past — their focus is on the plan of action.
As Sheryl Sandberg (I am fortunate to have an Uncommon leader like her endorse my book) says eloquently — Resilience is a muscle you can build. It’s just a matter of knowing how.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
During periods of heightened uncertainty, leaders often panic and reduce investment in human capital — freeze hiring, cut employee training budgets, curtail all travel, and look for ways to save costs swiftly. The most popular being reduce headcount. However, these knee-jerk reactions can be counterproductive in the short term and even more so in the long term. Slashing jobs hurriedly often results in firms not being able to distinguish between the fat and muscle in an organization.
A more thoughtful approach is needed. When budgets don’t allow for adding new headcount, the focus should be on making efforts to upskill/reskill the existing workforce, redeploying them in other areas, making them more agile and resilient in this time of change.
Uncertain times also impact employee morale adversely, and leaders should step up positive communications and continue to coach, enable, and build tomorrow’s leaders.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. How can leaders keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
By Staying Resilient, by cultivating a growth mindset, empowering and enabling their people to withstand these periods of heightened uncertainty.
Throughout the pandemic, organizations around the globe have demonstrated remarkable agility, changing business models overnight. These organizations managed to do this because of their leaders’ resilience and growth mindset — the inherent belief that everyone has potential to learn and grow. That potential can be nurtured and is not predetermined.
These leaders also have a strong accent on empowering their people, giving them the space to think, and taking greater control of their lives. As I mentioned earlier, empowered employees make better decisions, often resulting in these businesses pivoting and innovating — they end up not just surviving but thriving during turbulent times.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Ask, don’t Tell: Move away from instruction to motivation. Coach your employees by asking powerful questions, and collectively finding the “right” answers.
- Role Model — As a leader when you say no meetings after 6pm or Fridays will be zoom free (like Jane Fraser, CEO of Citibank did) — you send out the right signals. We all know employees take cues from their leaders.
- Give everyone a voice: In times of uncertainty, no one individual can have all the answers. The best ideas can come from anyone. Give people a platform to voice their ideas, and suggestions.
- Build reservoirs of trust: Trust that your people will do the job, don’t constantly breathe down their neck. Give them space, time and set clear boundaries between work and play.
- Be Present: In the online world, coaching is harder than ever. Be available, be accessible and when you are in virtual meetings, make an effort to check on your people, and include everyone.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
I started my career in advertising but very quickly realized I wanted to do different things. A career in client servicing wasn’t for me. I often regretted my choices — and wondered if there was a way of going back to the beginning. Clearly not, but I did switch career tracks to enter the world of consulting when the opportunity came knocking. It wasn’t easy to make a name for myself, and I struggled for a few years. Then came the successes, but moving geographies often meant starting afresh. My spouse encouraged me to chart out my own career path, take on that mid-career MBA that helped me take my skills and capabilities a notch higher. Best decision ever even though going back to Business School at 34 was hard work!
Later I experimented with teaching and entered the world of academia, and executive coaching. The writing brought me acclaim and the book contract from Penguin Random House, followed a couple of years later. I think I am changing the ending….
How can our readers further follow your work?
Linkedin: Ruchira Chaudhary | LinkedIn