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 Srikant Chellappa, President and Co-founder at Engagedly. He is a passionate entrepreneur and leader, focused on leveraging technology to build high-performance workplaces.
Sri has spent over 20 years leading organizations in software development and consulting in the U.S. With a unique background in technology, people management, health IT as well as film writing, directing, and production, he brings a diverse set of experiences across industries and specialties to build high performing, highly engaged organizations.
Author of the book: The Black Book of Agile Project Delivery with Distributed Teams.
Writer/Director/Producer of 6 Feature Films distributed theatrically and via Netflix, NBCUniversal, Fox International, Showtime, Amazon Prime, Sky, and various international channels.
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 started my career as a management consultant with EY and then went on to Capgemini. During that time, I spent most of my weekdays at airports or client sites working on major initiatives. After my stint at EY and Capgemini, I realized that while I liked consulting, I really wanted the hussle and speed of a startup. This led me to partner at a small consulting firm called Emids. In the course of my nearly 20-year stretch in consulting with large and mid-sized companies, I noticed a widespread issue of employee engagement and a lack of effective talent planning and retention. I was motivated to do something about it. So, my partner Jay Shankar and I decided to work on building a platform that would connect people and build a strong community internally to the organization. We named it Engagedly, which is now a comprehensive people centric talent management platform.
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?
While not necessarily funny, there was one big mistake that in hindsight we can laugh about. When we first launched the platform, it was made as a freemium product where anyone could sign up online and use it. A few unscrupulous people decided to use hacked credit cards to sign up for the service and order “rewards for their employees” online from the platform. We caught that very quickly and shut that loophole down. The important lesson is that as an early-days tech startup, it’s important not to lose sight of security measures. In a world of technology and exciting new products and companies, big or small, security is equally important.
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?
One person in particular that was very influential and really helped me was Gordon Rapkin. He was also on my startup’s advisory council. He guided me through the management aspects of running a growing company, by showing me things that usually only come with experience, such as how to hire the right people, how to effectively raise funding, grow, and set up the infrastructure. He also instructed me how to look at markets and showed me what some of the key metrics to focus on are, and how they impact the effectiveness of an organization. I really would like to thank him for that. In addition, Dan Bloch is someone that was instrumental in my ability to put together an effective sales team. He taught me how to really think about what kind of organizations we were selling to, and develop our team to engage with clients at the enterprise level.
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?
Our vision has been to really focus on how to give people purpose at work. One of the reasons we started Engagedly was that we saw a big issue with engagement in organizations. Engagedly, as the name suggests, puts focus on driving better engagement for employees. People spend a lot of time at work — sometimes even moreso than they do with their families. We wanted to give employees a sense of fulfillment, so when they wake up Monday morning, they actually want to contribute. Work shouldn’t be something people dread. That was a big initiative that we focused on at Engagedly — building a platform that gives people a sense of purpose and a sense of fulfillment in the workplace.
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 a leader, your role in an organization is to inspire people to go above and beyond their own capabilities — to go beyond their own doubts and uncertainties. Our job as leaders is to keep people focused, by giving them a sense of purpose and highlighting their individual accomplishments and its impact on the business. True leaders really hone in on helping people overcome challenges and providing the right tools and resources to be successful. I believe it’s important for employers to continuously look for opportunities to align people to roles, and future roles, based on their strengths.
It’s really intriguing that many failures can be an opportunity to learn and grow, and then pivot from. As we’ve seen with COVID-19, business environments do change. We had to change quite rapidly in some cases and there were certain days that the biggest thing to do was exude some level of confidence while being cautiously optimistic. Projecting a level of confidence across the team is a big deal. If a leader appears to not know what they’re doing, or if they are uncertain about where the company is going, that can bleed into the rest of the organization. While leaders need to be confident, they also need to be open to suggestions and different viewpoints that might emerge. Along with external market indicators, leaders should maintain an open mind and keep a close ear to internal insights — such as employee thoughts and concerns — in order to take action using all available data points.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
In the initial days of our product — when we built Engagedly purely as a collaboration tool — it was evident that a lot of organizations liked the idea, but couldn’t prioritize a portion of their budget for a tool limited to helping companies drive a community-type environment. It took us about nine months to really figure out the market, and then build out the platform to meet broader — more critical — needs. During those uncertain times, I was questioning myself and asking my team members whether we are the right business to begin with and if we should be thinking about doing something completely different. What kept me going was the ability to have an open mind, and not be grounded or anchored to something that you thought was the right idea at the beginning of a business. That mentality enables you to listen to the market, put the best resources forward, and make some intelligent bets that will hopefully work out.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
While being a confident and optimistic leader in challenging times is helpful for employees, what is more critical is listening to your team, taking their opinions and ideas to heart, and taking action. Having an open channel of communication let’s your team know they are heard, valued, and that they are contributing to the business goals.
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?
The future is always uncertain. No one could predict the impact of COVID-19 and no one could predict the way we would come out of it stronger than before. For many companies, including us, the best way to really focus on driving a better team is to keep the team focused on the purpose and provide continuous recognition. Letting your team know their work matters and letting them know often. Personal well-being also matters when it comes to boosting morale. Determining when an employee needs to take time off to regroup or to take some relaxation time is key to keeping them engaged.
Two important things you can do as an organizational leader is to make sure that your objectives and your company’s purpose is very clear and transparent to everyone, not just your direct reports. Also, employees should have a clear understanding of what they are working towards and how their contribution is moving the needle forward.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way to communicate difficult news is to not run away from it. It is important to come out transparently and candidly. I think formatting a good plan, presenting it, and talking through how you plan on making it happen, will give people the confidence that their leadership is capable of taking the right action.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I believe making a plan is always better than not making one. If you don’t make a plan, people don’t know what direction you’re going in, which translates to confusion and a lack of confidence from your clients and employees. Despite uncertainty, you have to use what information you have to make some intelligent decisions, and always be open to making changes. Nothing is ever truly grounded, and the future is never certain. The best plans are flexible.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Yes, I certainly believe the biggest principle that a company should have is to not be complacent. For example, companies like Blackberry and Kodak are good illustrations of companies that started off strong and extremely successful, then became complacent of the competition. They didn’t change as the market evolved. The biggest principle is to stay abundantly cautious, listen to the market, and always be ready to change your assumptions based on what the market does.
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 number one thing that I always say to people when going through difficult times is to not panic. Look at the situation both internally and externally and then think about how the situation has changed. What are some of the questions that you can leverage? What are some of the opportunities and threats? Difficult times can sometimes provide better opportunities in the long run. You may even become a much stronger company than you were before.
The second mistake I see companies make when they’re going through a difficult time is to go completely opaque. Not being transparent only creates fear and uncertainty within the people in your organization, as well as your clients. It hurts morale and trust, and it ultimately leads to poor results.
Another big mistake comes when leaders are oblivious to reality. Sometimes when businesses are too opinionated and so sure of themselves, they actually think a difficult time is just a short-term effect. They might not even acknowledge that it’s a difficult time at all. In doing so, they avoid planning, pivoting, or even reacting, and risk taking action much too late. Burying your head in the sand, so to speak, can be a costly behavior when times are tough.
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?
One thing that organizations should be doing continuously is experimenting and trying new things. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. What seems to be working right now may not work in a week from now. Even during good times, if something is working, continue doing that — but always look at different avenues and different strategies that you want to experiment with. It’s okay to fail. Failing means you learned a lesson. When something doesn’t work, try something else and continue to tweak. It’s crucial to stay alert and be ahead of the market by continuing to innovate. I believe that complacency is the number one factor that leads to an organization’s premature demise.
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.
- Don’t be complacent and ignore reality
We live in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world, which means that there’s always uncertainty around us and we must adapt. As an example, at Engagedly, we were initially focused on social tools in the platform as a product, but feedback from the market and our clients revealed they needed a more holistic approach that connected employee engagement with performance objectives. We realized that to continue our growth as a company we needed to re-examine our entire product approach and pivot to meet that need, connecting engagement to organizational strategy execution within the platform.
2. Have a strong focus
Having a strong focus is critical because there are so many other shiny objects that somebody can get pulled into. One of the things that we realized when we looked at our platform last year was that we were doing so many different things that people were not even really using. We included features that we realized we were just getting distracted by, and we weren’t focusing on what engagement stood for. You can only do a few things really well and you can’t expect to do everything well. So, we made a list of nine things and we decided to retire those features and not focus on them. Even though a small portion of our customers used those features, it helped us focus on the more important tools and make them better.
3. Listen to the market and your people
This is a good quote from Steve Jobs that I always think about: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Listening to the market and your people is most important because you want to build a team where your people are given autonomy and the freedom to try new things and bring their own experience and expertise to the table.
4. Make a plan and work the plan with your team
Going back to last year when we were looking at the list of features we were retiring and the list of tools we really wanted to focus on, we decided to refocus our product on what we are really good at: performance management, engagement, and tying it all together with employee development. So we made a plan, and the last 18 months or so we’ve been sticking to that plan. We made a few tweaks here and there as some things in the plan didn’t go as expected. The market, competition, and the changing environment will always dictate those shifts. When we did change the plan, it was a deliberate decision and not an opinion or choice that wasn’t based on facts.
5. Stay upbeat and exude confidence
It’s been a tough year for many reasons: remote work, the stress of business transfer, managing family life, and balancing work life. The key is to stay confident. Instill in your team that “this too shall pass.” You must believe in your team, in your plan, and in your strategy. At Engagedly, that’s what we did and we actually had a pretty good year despite some initial scare. With a solid team in place, you can work through any challenging times, even in a dispersed environment. It’s important to stay upbeat and stay confident and let your team know you believe in them and communicate that often.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My biggest life lesson I can give is to compartmentalize your time so you are making intentional time for your well-being, your passions, and your family and friends. If you are a business leader or an entrepreneur, there will always be more work than you have time for. The key is to prioritize your work and your life outside of work.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Our startup in the HR Tech space is Engagedly and you can follow what we do over at engagedly.com I publish articles on Forbes.com as well as interviews with several podcasts. Apart from being a tech entrepreneur, I am also a filmmaker (credits at https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1449526/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1) and you can watch my films on various platforms.