The Phenomenon called Pradeep Guha

‘Etsy’ said the Facebook representative and a few heads turned towards me. It was mid-morning on a sunny October day in San Francisco, nearly a decade ago. The IAA* Indian delegation of twenty people were seated in a small room at Facebook headquarters with a bright orange wall on the backside. As a part of the delegation,I was attending a session by Facebook’s Paul Adams on building communities. It was 2012, when the words ‘digital communities’ appeared like precious jewels in our conversations, in small quantities. Building communities as a business model was new for the world and Facebook was showing the path, in action and in presentations. The speaker was then head of Facebook planning and had just released a book titled ‘Grouped’ on communities which we later received as a gift. 

Led by Pradeep Guha, IAA had organised a digital tour for the CEOs to the USA to visit and learn from the big tech companies. The 2012 digital tour was the second initiative from IAA  and I had onboarded the delegation to visit Microsoft, Youtube, Facebook, Google, Twitter.

That October morning, at the Facebook headquarters, in the middle of a talk by Facebook, I had earned a special spot in Pradeep Guha’s thoughts. Before the start of the tour, in Pradeep Guha’s Mumbai office, sitting across his large wooden table, I had requested him to include a visit to the Etsy office too. A listed company, Etsy is dedicated to building small, home grown businesses and has been building communities since its inception. Those days Etsy was not widely popular. PG was not familiar with Etsy but he took interest in my conversation on Etsy.  So as the Facebook speaker talked about ETSY as the leading example in building communities, Pradeep Guha, sitting at the centre of the table, leaned forward and gestured a thumbs up to me. And, the heads on the table turned in my direction on this rare appreciation coming from him. I was suddenly noticed. Etsy had marked a respectable spot for me in his mind. 

Pradeep Guha
Pradeep Guha at Microsoft, Seattle, 2012
IAA Team Pradeep Guha Vishakha Singh
IAA- India Chapter delegation at Big Tech Companies. 2012

In today’s Habits for Thinking, I want to bring your attention to the phenomenon called Pradeep Guha. To the unknown, you can read about Pradeep Guha in the tribute written here and a lot over the internet. 

The Curious: 

Techcrunch Disrupt is an annual event held in San Francisco for the tech startup world. It not only showcases new ideas but also the making of ideas, successes and failures. I had described the event to PG and had recommended him to attend it. One fine morning in 2019, I received a message from him on how excited he was to attend it. Curiosity fuels learning and he stayed at the top of knowledge by attending not just Techcrunch but also Singularity University and some other courses. A sharp thinker feeds his mind with new knowledge. He makes efforts to attend courses to learn and unlearn, no matter his age or designation. This is what Pradeep Guha maintained. It was not just an Etsy moment at Facebook, PG made efforts to learn the new from across fields and continents. He displayed curiosity with a proficiency that lacked any arrogance, the arrogance that becomes a second nature for being successful for a long time. 

The secret of making a phenomenon is to live a life with a growth mindset, to stay curious and to hone the knowledge. 

The Contrast:

What is the opposite of grand? Insignificant. To balance the two opposites effortlessly is a magical trait and that is what came easy to the phenomenon called PG. He always came up with a grand vision but stayed true to the most insignificant details in execution of that vision. There was never any room for error in execution of the grandest of the vision. This reflected in all aspects of his work whether it was related to media selling by designing Mastermind or in creation of landmark events or even in maintaining his relationships with the world. He effortlessly balanced the contrast of big and trivial detail. It was neither compromised nor showcased. The balancing of the contrast was a given, it came like yin and yang, always together.

The Compassionate: 

Pradeep Guha, the media stalwart passed away on 21st August 2021. On 9th August, I had a message exchange where he wrote to me saying, “All good, thank you.” The news of his passing filled me with all shades of emotions, primarily being upset. He had hidden the suffering, at the same time, he had responded. When tributes poured in, all of it had the same tone of how he made people feel very special. Losing him became a personal loss on a mass level. Another contrast. His ability to connect, support, bind with people is an ability less possessed by leaders. I was a nobody in his aura of things but from time to time I received a message, sometimes a gentle scolding for staying quiet for months. His ability to keep people in his thoughts, to make them feel important and needed is a lesson in generosity. It was a construct maintained over the years. Not just colleagues and friends, he maintained a magical vibe with celebrities too. Renowned personalities treated him like their closest pal, yet he asked for a picture to keep the podium well defined for both. 

Pradeep Guha and Nandan Nilekani. Kochi. 2019.

Pradeep Guha, the phenomenon, lit the path with his way of life, with childlike curiosity, manlike balancing of contrast and naturelike compassion for people. All we need to do is to keep the lights on.

*International Advertising Association

3 essential tools for leaders to embrace diversity

‘A hand gesture that involves rotating your wrist externally as your thumb, index and middle finger unfurl open.” Do you know what it is? 

That is the name sign for US Vice President Kamala Harris. Name signs, also known as sign names, are an important component of deaf culture. They provide deaf people with a way to identify themselves and others in conversation, while also representing “a Deaf person’s membership in the Deaf community.” 

The selection of the name sign for Kamala Harris was itself a process done by the community which was inclusive and diverse. Five women- Ebony Gooden, Kavita Pipalia, Smita Kothari, Candace Jones and Arlene Ngalle-Paryani — as Black and Indian members of the “capital D Deaf community”* — felt it was important that the selection of Ms. Harris’s name sign be the result of an inclusive and democratic process. Given that Vice President Harris was the first female vice president, as well as the first Black and Indian candidate to fill the role, they agreed that her heritage should inform that process, the women recalled in an interview using interpreters.

Name sign Kamala Harris Deaf club

How did we pick this particular sign name? I want to explain briefly about Kamala Harris. She did ask people to use her name, Kamala, because it means a lot to her. “Kamala” means a lotus flower. I will explain briefly what a lotus flower means. Purity. Enlightenment. Rebirth. A lotus flower has strong roots that can bore through dirt. The flower shows its beauty when it blooms. I am making it an analogy with Kamala, who appears in the midst of a dark and divided America. She brings enlightenment and purity. Rebirth. Why do we use three fingers? It’s because she is the first Black, Indian, and female, and it is represented in the three fingers that bloom. She’s not the “first” but has “three firsts.” Kamala! 

-Explanation on the name sign

A name is an identity. It doesn’t matter which language, spoken or sign, native or acquired. A name marks the place of shared culture, of shared values. Deaf people have become more engaged in the process of selecting name signs for hearing politicians and well-known individuals. It is a way for people to acknowledge those individuals “and show alliance with them,” said the article in the New York Times. 

You create a language to stand in and not out, to come together. You create a name sign to be understood, to include diversity and in this Independence day edition of Habits for Thinking, I want your attention on embracing diversity at workplaces. Embracing diversity in a culture depends on how we think and act. 

In today’s Habits for Thinking, the focus is on leaders who are increasingly working on diversity and inclusion at workplaces, especially gender diversity. Gender diversity is being seeded through several corporate policies. The workforce is growing with more diverse recruitments, the first step in bringing in diversity. Recruitment needs to be followed by adopting diversity across the organisation as a part of regular life. Providing support facilities to attract and recruit  like extended leaves, child care support etc is the easy part of encouraging gender diversity. The tougher part is to genuinely embrace diversity as a culture of the organisation. An embraced diverse culture means everyone has a voice to share, everyone feels heard, everyone belongs to the community equally and everyone becomes responsible for the diverse culture to grow. It is only when people are heard and own a share of voice is when there can be a real growth, growth of people, growth of the organisation and growth of diversity. 

Gender Equality UN Goal 5

Diversity is accepting the diverse opinion and thoughts in a culture. But how does a culture embrace diversity? The culture, unless it is a startup venture, has been around for years, even before the diversity policy came in. To make room for diversity, the culture needs to evolve and that can only happen through a mindset shift of its people. The mindset change has good news and bad news. The bad news is that it is far tougher to achieve behavioural change  than creating support facilities. The good news is more and more people are open and ready to be guided for the shift. All it takes is a leader to walk the path of embracing diversity.  A leader shapes the culture and the culture can be chiseled through three essential tools to embrace diversity: 

1. Show, don’t tell to address diversity: 

Telling people to embrace diversity is not enough. The leader has to show the action by designing processes that bring in change. The processes that are aligned to the mission of diversity drive should be measurable. One must remember, what gets measured, gets done. Showing is not only restricted to action and processes, showing through visuals is critical too. Women are called ‘the invisible workforce’ both at home and at workplaces. In large organisations, to enable women to step up for leadership roles, it is important to create opportunities to showcase the faces behind the work. It is infectious, it inspires others to step up and makes everyone feel heard.

2. Language to weave diversity in the culture: 

The language that the leader uses acts as a moral compass for the people, influencing how they think, act and feel in different situations. An article in Harvard Business Review talks about how languages shape the organisation. The article states, “Your influence over the behavior of your people is not limited to carefully-prescribed internal communications; it lies in the daily sentiments, conversations and values you share. The best leaders understand this — like Horst Schulze of Ritz-Carlton, who shaped his employee’s decorum and conduct with “We’re ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” These leaders used simple, highly motivating and prescriptive words that set the right cultural permission for their organizations. This language, carefully articulated and shared, offers rich opportunities to codify and crystallize what your company is about, and what your company seeks. 

3. Shift mindsets through nudges

Gender Diversity is a fundamental need. It is not only about following a mandated policy. It is a war against generations of societal biases that have made the gap so wide and so large that it is difficult to be ironed out. Deep rooted attitudes about the role of women in society leads to biases like availability bias where you think and react to a situation with what is available as an easy information in your mind. This bias gets ironed out by a disciplined mindset shift. You work on your habits to change your attitude. Behavioural nudges work as reminders at the appropriate time to help in changing habits and behaviours of people, organisations. Read more about nudge here in an earlier article written by me. 

A diverse team of women came together to bridge the gap between deaf and non deaf community by assigning a name sign for the first woman of color Vice President. Using the first three fingers they not only designed her name sign, they showed the path that the bridge of inclusion and diversity can be made through language. All we need to do is consciously change our habits to think and act in the right manner. 

*(a term used by some deaf people to indicate that they embrace deafness as a cultural identity and communicate primarily through ASL) 

The magic that makes good to great: Sindhu, Chanu, Deepinder, Falguni

“She had tears in her eyes. I told her to think it was a gift for me,” PV Sindhu’s father lifted her spirits when the semi final defeat to Tai Tzu-Ying on Saturday weighed her down. 

“Through all your experiences of ups and downs, did you ever come close to giving up in all these 12-odd years?” asked the interviewer. 

“About a couple of times every week,’’ answered Deepinder Goyal, in his interview after Zomato’s IPO.  

The timelines are palpitating with sheer excitement and nervousness floating when history is in the making, whether in the Olympics stadiums or at Dalal Street. Both sports and startups personalities are weaving some magic in the air. It is filled with hope, with ambition and dreams and most importantly it seems achievable. Yes, we can do it. 

PV Sindhu won her second medal at the Olympics last week. It makes her the first Indian woman to win two medals at the Olympics. Also, in the same week Deepinder Goyal’s startup, Zomato rang the opening bell at the stock market. The event makes him the first startup boy, made-in-India, to reach this high level of success. Zomato’s listing is not only impressive because it is the first new-age startup, but also because it is the first company without profits in its books that has pocketed the likes of people. It doesn’t stop here, there are more names. Chanu Saikom Mirabai, Rani Rampal, Ravi Kumar Dahiya, P R Sreejesh, Simranjeet Singh, Savita Punia and the list goes on for athletes who have been shining bright at the Olympics. In a parallel startup world, being successfully listed at the stock market is almost equivalent to securing an olympic medal. Zomato is a new age startup that had its IPO recently. The next in the pipeline is Nykaa. Cartrade, Mobikwik and several others are waiting in the wings. It is just the beginning.

From Olympics to startups, the made-in-India story is not a story of fiction or mere skill, hardwork and grit. It is the story of leadership, leadership of not just excellence but where the ambition for the mission and institution, exceeds the ambition for the self. In today’s column, I bring to you an understanding of a leadership personality trait that takes goodness to greatness, in both sports and startups. It is called Level 5 Leadership. 

Level 5 leadership is a concept developed in the book Good to Great. Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.

As the events unfolded in both startups and the sports world, it became clearer that how the two worlds are similar in performance and delivery. Like an athlete is developed by a village of experts, startups are run by leaders supported by teams across all functions. An athlete digs deeper inside her for courage, so does the founder. The stories of sports and startups match. The leadership style matches. 

Grit and hardwork:

Mirabai Chanu’s  self-discovery of weightlifting started with carrying firewood from the jungle at the age of 12. To train she travelled 40kms everyday. “At times, she would hitch a ride on a truck or if she got lucky share a tuk-tuk, some days she would cycle, and some days she would come half the way and then walk back home. She never threw in the towel,” her mother Tombi Devi said in an interview. 

Deepinder Goyal’s childhood training was to save himself from terrorists. Here is an excerpt from his mentor and investor Sanjeev Bhikchandani: He was born in Muktsar – a small town in Punjab in 1983. His father was a teacher in a government school. For the first ten years of his life the family lived in the fear of terrorists. As a child he was tutored by his parents that if the terrorists ever came he should tell them that his name was Deepinder and he was a Sikh. That way they would spare his life even if they killed his parents. Thankfully the terrorists never came.

When he was fifteen his parents sent him to Chandigarh to study for the last two years in school. He lived in a hostel – ragging was tough but he survived. Academically he was totally out of his depth initially since the standard of study was far higher than he had ever encountered. But he tried hard and managed to clear the IIT entrance examination. From IIT he went to Bain and then launched Foodiebay which became Zomato later on.

Skill and speed: 

Sjoerd Marijne, the Indian Hockey girls team coach, talks about Rani Rampal’s skills in a story by Sharda Ugra. The secret sauce, he says, about her physical properties lies in the fact “that she is faster with the ball than without the ball.” With the ball on her stick, she turns into an elusive quicksilver with the most minimal feints and dummies, wrong-footing defenders, leaving them behind, earning her extra slices of time. During a training run, Marijne said he asked the faster players to hustle against Rani, press hard and fast around her, but still she slipped through. Later, she told the bemused Marijne, “She might be faster with the ball, but I am quicker with the thinking.”

Pandemic lockdown in 2020 had presented a problem for businesses. Falguni Nayar knew it would take some quick pivots and strategic thinking to keep the business rolling. And Nayar didn’t waste any time. With operations and logistics coming to a halt, she decided to sell everyday essentials online. “Overnight we pivoted to an essentials-only online store and to handle that we utilised our 70 offline stores across the country to do hyperlocal delivery,” says the 57-year-old Nayar. The hyperlocal focus was, of course, because intra-state shipment of products was restricted during the initial phase of the lockdown. “We would match the products ordered online with what was available at the store to deliver to the nearest pin code,” she adds, as mentioned in an article

Like hardwork and determination, skills and speed to execute is an essential path to being successful in both sports and startups. What separates the good to great is the level of leadership that they exhibit. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great illustrated that long lasting companies are built by level 5 leaders. Level 1 being a highly capable individual, Level 2- contributing team member, Level 3- a competent manager, Level 4- Effective leader, Level 5 – builds enduring greatness.  

Level 5 leadership trait that makes them good to great: 

It is not that level 5 leaders have no ego or self interest. Indeed they are incredibly ambitious- but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.  For Sindhu, who aspired to get a Gold at Tokyo 2020 faced a setback with the loss in semifinals. 

She gathered courage and focus to fight again to earn a bronze, for herself and for the country. 

Deepinder Goyal, continues on giving up: “It is about how fast you can pick yourself up and get back.” In another conversation he gives a peek into his thoughts while talking about delivery partners. He says, “We are always focused on doing more for them, doing better for them” showing his larger mission. 

Nykaa’s Falguni Nayyar has carved her own successful path operating in a highly competitive space with giants like Amazon and Flipkart. She has skillfully built the company in a capital intensive space, has made it profitable and brought it to IPO stage. 

The unwavering resolve, to do what must be done for the success, no matter how deep they have to dig inside themselves for courage and clarity, is what takes them from good to great. 

Level 5 leaders are fanatically driven, infected with an incurable need to produce sustained results. They are resolved to do whatever it takes to make the company great, no matter how big or hard the decisions. 

That is how the leaders have performed and achieved, in sports and in startups. P.V Sindhu, Mirabai Chanu, Deepinder Goyal, Falguni Nayar. The unwavering resolve of a Level-5 leadership to dig to leap from goodness to greatness. 

Good to great