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 Nita Sanger, the CEO of Idea Innovate Consulting, with over 20 years of experience in in guiding businesses to transform themselves for growth in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, driven by changing customer needs, the regulatory environment, entry of non-traditional competitors and disruptive technologies. Nita has successfully transformed large complex regulated global businesses in financial, professional, and legal services. Nita has also worked with well-funded start-ups, as a member of their C-suite, to guide them to grow their business revenues and improve operations, and with PE firms to optimize the performance of companies in their portfolio. She brings domain expertise in the application of various technologies to transform the business, i.e., Artificial Intelligence/Cognitive, Internet of Things, Crowdsourcing, Crowdfunding, Analytics, Blockchain, etc. Formerly Nita was the Head of Global Innovation at Wolters Kluwer, a Managing Director at Deloitte, and a partner at a financial services consulting firm.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in India, and was lucky to have lived, studied, and worked in multiple countries before coming to the US to go to business school. I believe my global experiences during my formative years played a key role in shaping my perspective as they provided me with insights into how various parts of the world operate, an understanding of cultural differences, and knowledge of business best practices from around the world. These experiences helped me as I worked with various leading global financial institutions and services businesses, and global teams, to innovate and grow for continued market success. Having gained the experience and confidence, after successfully innovating and transforming several large global businesses I started Idea Innovate Consulting, to guide smaller companies to innovate and grow, and advise PE firms on how to improve the performance of companies in their portfolio.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
One of the funniest mistakes (which was mortifying at that time) happened at the beginning of my consulting career. My firm had been brought in to transform the investment banking division of a large well reputed investment bank. I was still learning how the business world operated in the U.S. The investment banking partner was talking about a recently held football game, discussing his favorite team and its performance. I did not realize that American football, is different from football in the rest of the world (football is called soccer in the U.S). I made some remarks about a recent soccer game that I had watched and was totally out of line with the discussion and made me come across as ignorant. After I made the comment, my partner quickly stepped in and covered up my lack of knowledge of American football. We then moved on to the presentation, but I realized that my credibility had been somewhat diminished in the eyes of the banker because I was unable to discuss American football with him. What this experience taught me was that it is critical to understand the cultural nuances of the people who you are working with, and it can be an effective way to build a personal rapport, which translates into a stronger working relationship. After that I always made it a point to do my homework on the background of the person/people I was going work with.
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?
Yes, I have been lucky to have many great leaders guide and help me. The one I would like to talk about is the CEO of the Global Audit business at Deloitte, who gave me the authority and the responsibility to transform the business. He was a true visionary and recognized that the business needed to change drastically if it was going to continue to be profitable. As we were driving change across the organization, he pushed me and the team, to be bolder and think about how we could disrupt the business before an outside firm came and disrupted us. He showed me what a true leader should be, by being bold in his vision, giving the necessary funding, air cover, and the authority and responsibility to drive the change. In many ways, he set the benchmark for what a great leader needs to look like.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When I started my company, my goal was to help smaller companies transform themselves for growth, by leveraging my years of experience gained at transforming large complex global businesses and sharing the benefit of my knowledge and expertise with those that may not be able to afford the costs of larger expensive consulting firms or hire someone with my years of experience as a full time C-suite member.
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?
I was working at a Big Four consulting firm and had the task to transform a multi-billion-dollar business that was underperforming. I realized that I did not understand how the business worked and at the same time I had to win credibility with senior leaders and convince them to change how they worked. We were dealing with new technologies, approaches, no clarity from senior leadership, and had to tactically demonstrate progress. First I found, an experienced member of the existing team to educate me on the business and how it currently worked. Then, I got the entire global team that was driving the change, together for a week-long design thinking session. We have interesting sessions, and generated numerous ideas, in addition to having team building exercises. At the end of the week, I realized that everyone was energized but no one knew what to do next. I got together with my deputy and we tactically laid out how to approach transforming the business and then assigned each of the team leads, one workstream of the entire transformation, and gave them the authority and responsibility to execute on it. In addition, we had individual working sessions with the team leads to guide them and work through the execution plan, while make sure that the leaders connected with each other and understood how their work fit into the big picture. The key learnings were to educate the team on what we needed to get done, make them part of the solution, so they felt ownership, and then guide, support and empower them to tactically execute on the plan.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Yes, there were many times I considered giving up, when people in senior positions were afraid of change, would push back and try to discredit the work that my team and I were doing. I discussed some of these challenges with the CEO, who would give me advice on how to deal with them. I also learned that avoiding the naysayers was not the answer, instead the key was to talk to them, understand their concerns, and bring them along on the journey. Once I was able to do that, they became our biggest champions. To sustain my drive, I often had to step back from the work, create some space and rebalance myself physically and emotionally. I found that doing crossword puzzles or reading a book helped me get perspective and bring back my motivation and drive.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think the most critical role of the leader during challenging times is to lead from the front and set the “tone at the top” not only through words, but actions. He/she should ensure that all members of the leadership team follow the same approach and talk about what is happening outside and inside, in a consistent fashion and emulate the behavior of the leader. A good leader knows that the entire firm will be looking at the C-suite to determine how to approach the challenging times. The leader also needs to make sure that they surround themselves with the “right” people, who bring complementary skills and not afraid to voice their opinion even if it is contrary to the leader’s opinion.
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?
I have found the best way to boost morale during uncertain times is to increase communication between the leader and the team. Have an open dialogue with the team, be honest, share with them the positives and the negatives, the known and the unknowns, the best- and worst-case scenarios and discuss how to deal with the worst case situation, if needed. I have often found that talking about these can make one realize that the future is not that scary. To inspire and motivate the team, a good leader will make that the team a part of the solution. The team usually brings deep insights into the business, provides various perspectives and skills that would end up creating a better end solution. Also the team takes ownership of the end result, helps to achieve that result.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way to communicate difficult news is to be honest about the situation, share the implications of the situation to the team or the customer, and then discuss with them ways to deal with the situation, and lay out the options available to them. This way they know that you are there to help them be successful and not leave them stranded.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
A good leader know that the future is unpredictable and is likely to change constantly. He/she needs to surround himself/herself with leaders, and team members, who bring complementary skills needed to run a successful business and provide them with a safe forum to share their opinions and give honest feedback without any repercussions, with the view that everyone in the firm has the same goal — to make the firm successful and be focused on meeting the customer needs most effectively. In fact, having a plan is even more critical during uncertain times. The key is that the plan has to be flexible and can adapt to market changes.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The “number one principle” for any company going through turbulent times, is to be customer-centric and understand:
- What core need the business is solving for the customer, and If the customer needs have changed, and if the change is temporary or permanent;
- How are customers accessing those needs;
- Who are customers using to meet those needs, and
- What are they looking for from your firm and what do they find is currently missing or needed.
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?
The few common mistakes that I have seen other businesses make during difficult times are:
- Focusing on selling the product vs. understanding the need that the product is solving for the end-user;
- Being slow to recognize market shifts and its impact on the business, until it is too late;
- Building a business that is not change-resilient, and that has the ability to pivot to meet changing market needs
- Leading with technology, without recognizing that technology is the means to the end, and the key is to determine what you want to change, and then identify the right technology to do it, while understanding the costs associated with the change, the limitations of the technology and the time and effort it would take to develop and then adopt a technology-enabled solution to remain competitive
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. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Agreed, it is hard to generate new business, increase profits and maintain financial stability during turbulent times. The key to success during this time is to “walk in the customers shoes” i.e., understand what they are dealing with, what it means for their industry, business and clients, and what if anything, your business is doing to help them be successful. I have found that this focus may require putting customer interest, before self-interest, but in the longer term this pays huge dividends, as the customer will always remember how you helped them navigate through a tough time and they will pay you back by giving your firm business and potentially recommending it to others. The key is ensuring that you do not risk the financial stability of your own organization, while making strategic bets on your top customers.
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.
The five most important things a leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times are:
- Be “customer-centric” — Focus on meeting customer needs most effectively. Understand what needs the business is solving for the customer, If the customer needs have changed during turbulent times, if this change is temporary or permanent; how customers are accessing those needs; who they are using to meet those needs, and what are they looking for from your firm.
- Think “outside the box” — Leverage creative problem solving to determine unique approaches to meet customer needs, such as forming strategic alliances, acquiring adjacent businesses, creating platform plays, offering “as-a-service” solutions, etc.
- Make the business “change-resilient” — Make the business resilient to change with the ability to pivot to meet the changing needs of the end-user. This would require a process for gathering market and consumer feedback, bringing the information to leadership, establishing a process to take the feedback, and determining how best to address the situation and execute on it, including creating new products and services in an agile fashion, and go-to-market strategies. At the same time, each idea needs to have strict KPIs for success, such as costs to create/execute, estimated revenues, returns on Investment, etc. The leadership team should be willing to let go of ideas and solutions that do not meet the necessary thresholds.
- Be “talent-centric” — Recognize that the talent within the firm is going to be critical to the success (or failure) of the business. Treat the talent as partners and customers. They are partners in helping the business be successful, as they are closest to the customer, bring deep insights into processes, recognize pain-points, and can often provide solutions. They are also the customers, who will use the new processes, tools, and technologies.. They need to feel ownership of the business and be vested in its success.
- Lead “from the front” — The leader needs to “lead from the front,” be a visionary that recognizes the market shifts, is willing to make some bold choices and invest in them, recognizing that returns may come later. In addition, the leader needs to:
- Set the “tone at the top” through words and action. He/she should ensure that all members of his/her team follow the same approach and talk about what is happening outside and inside in a consistent fashion and emulate the behavior of the leader. A good leader knows that the entire firm will be looking at the C-suite to determine how to approach the challenging time.
- Create a strong leadership team, that brings diverse skills and can provide honest and critical feedback to the leader to guide the firm through the turbulent time
- Be honest with the challenge and issues facing the business and share with the team and lay out how the leadership plans to approach them. Create a feedback loop for the talent to raise questions and provide input and get the response from the leadership team
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote, is from a Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, “change is the only constant.” This has been relevant throughout my professional career but has become even more critical during the past 8 to 10 years, especially as I increased my focus on innovation, transformation and disruption. The advent of modern technologies, their convergence and innovative uses, has only accelerated the pace of change. People and businesses that tend to be successful are those have the ability to adapt to change.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Readers can go to my LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nita-sanger/ and read my various articles or go to my website at https://ideainnovate.com/reports-tools/ for my articles, media appearances, etc.