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Azim Premji – The Teacher

Source | Linkedin | Shabbir Merchant | Chief Value Creator, Valulead Consulting

Ever since Mr. Premji announced his retirement, a lot of has been written about him as a Leader and a Philanthropist, both roles that he played with class and elegance beyond compare. Yet, my memory of Mr Premji (AHP as we all referred to him in Wipro) is as a Teacher par excellence who shaped and built hundreds of professionals who had an opportunity to work with him at Wipro.

After around 5 years of work experience I joined Wipro in Feb 1995 as its Regional Human Resources Manager, for Wipro Infotech, Mumbai. A couple of months after joining, I had gone to meet someone at Wipro’s Corporate Office, at Bakhtavar building in Nariman Point. After finishing my meeting by 5.30 pm, I had to attend a Wipro product launch event at 7 pm at The President Hotel. I decided to go through the books in the small library of corporate office so that around 6.45 pm I would take a cab to Hotel President. As I was engrossed in going through the books, I suddenly realized that someone had just entered the conference room: it was none other than AHP who must have seen me through the glass partition. Until then, I had met AHP only once when I was introduced to him briefly at our annual HR Conference at Coonoor a few weeks ago. I was surprised that he recalled who I was (I was then a pretty junior bloke) and I must confess, my heart skipped a beat on realizing that I was about to interact with the Chairman of the company. After learning from me that I was about to leave for the Product launch, he told me that he too was going to the same event and invited me to join him in his car. It was a short car ride during which he asked me if I had been inducted effectively and whether I was feeling comfortable in my first few weeks at Wipro; I do not remember what my response was, for I was in complete awe of travelling with the Chairman of the company (even if it was just about a 7 minute ride). When I went back home that night, I excitedly told my parents what had happened, and the incident was deeply etched in my memory of my first one on one interaction with AHP.

Lesson 1 for me: When you are a head of the organization, every interaction with a relatively junior employee is an opportunity to express concern, care and respect through a genuine and authentic interaction.

If the 7-minute car ride interaction with AHP had energized me, I was in for a surprise at what was to come next. A few months into my new role, I got a call one morning from AHP’s secretary, informing me that he wanted to do a ‘Plan Communication’ exercise with the Pune Office employees. This was a practice AHP used to follow to personally communicate the organization plan, vision and values to all employees at major locations. Such communication was followed by an open house for employees. His secretary dropped a bombshell on me by informing that AHP wanted me to travel with him to Pune. I was asked to stand outside Sion Station at 6.15 am, where he would pick me up in his car. I am sure my heart had stopped when I heard this. As I kept the phone down, I was not sure whether I should be happy or worried. After speaking to my boss and a few other office colleagues about what was coming my way, I was forewarned that I could expect lots of questions from AHP, and they all wished me luck. I used the days available to completely prepare myself on all the data and information I would need to respond to any question that AHP might ask me.

On the appointed day at 6.15 am sharp, a car pulled up in front of me (It was a Tata SUV if I am not mistaken). AHP was seated in the front seat beside his driver; I quickly jumped in and got myself settled in the seat behind the driver. The journey commenced, along with AHP’s interaction with me. His questions ranged from employee attrition challenges, training initiatives planned, what was competition doing better to attract good talent, how I was finding the work culture at Wipro, and so on. I was happy that I had prepared myself well, and at least I thought I gave him some pretty sound responses. By now it was about 8 am and my stomach was growling with hunger. We were on the Bombay – Poona highway (the expressway was not ready then) and we would soon be approaching Khopoli which had a couple of decent restaurants, where I thought we would stop for breakfast. We passed Khopoli without stopping, and my hopes of a decent breakfast dimmed away. I now had to concentrate on responding to Mr. Premji’s questions while containing my hunger and telling my stomach to hold on till we reached Pune.

As we climbed through the “ghats”, around Khandala or Lonavala AHP turned around and asked me to give him a small plastic bag which was on the seat next to me. I picked up the bag and handed it over to him, not knowing what the bag contained. AHP told me that he had brought an egg sandwich for me for breakfast, asking whether I was fine with it. I was so hungry that I would have been fine eating anything, but I politely replied that an egg sandwich would do just fine. It was a simple sandwich, and he also had some fruits with him. My hunger satiated, I was able to concentrate much better on my conversations with Mr. Premji, until we reached our Pune office after a four- and half-hour journey.

Lesson 2 for me: Senior leaders can create better understanding among people when they ask meaningful questions than issuing directions. Preparing myself for the journey with details also developed in me, a better understanding of the work of the organization, making me look at my role in better depth and width. The conversation with him during that journey turned out to be one of the best coaching conversations I have ever had in my career. 

Lesson 3 for me: Senior Leaders also have to be human at heart and demonstrate caring in the simplest of ways. By asking someone at his home to prepare the extra sandwich for a junior colleague who was going to travel with him, AHP had subtly shown a basic human caring and concern for others, which deepened my respect and conviction for him and for Wipro.

In 1997, I was transferred to Bangalore in a Divisional HR Manager role at Wipro Acer reporting to Suresh Vaswani, Chief Executive Wipro Acer who treated  HR as strategic business partner. In one of his business review meetings with AHP, Suresh invited our Finance head and me to participate. Many senior colleagues such as Ashok Soota, Suresh Senapaty, Dileep Ranjekar were present in the room along with AHP. I was clearly the junior-most and the youngest person in the room. The topic turned to HR and to one of the questions of AHP, I quickly rattled out some numbers and gave my views on the topic. AHP patiently listened to me. After I finished, he turned around and picked up a box file which was kept on the cabinet behind where he was seated. He pulled out a sheet of paper and read out the numbers, which clearly indicated that I had quoted incorrect information and opinions. I realized my folly and acknowledged what Mr. Premji was saying.

Lesson 4 for me: Even when you know your junior colleague has incorrect data, you patiently listen to him and avoid interrupting him. You make the person realize the mistake by providing the correct data instead of resorting to admonition and humiliation. In this manner, you don’t destroy the self-confidence of the colleague but enable him to develop.

In 1999 as a part of my career management, it was agreed that from April 2000 I would move to a new role: heading the Employee Development Group (EDG) for Wipro Infotech. In end 1999, we were having an evening office get-together, AHP too was a part of that get-together. It was my usual style to distance myself from very senior colleagues at social gatherings. Partly due to fear of making mistakes while interacting and partly due to the rebel against authority that I was (and possibly continue to be). I suddenly found myself in front of AHP. He recognized me and immediately started mentioning that the new role of EDG which I would be getting into from April 2000 (which was still about 4 months away) was a critical role, and that I must pay extra attention to the development of our technical engineers in our Customer Support division. Honestly, that conversation with AHP blew my mind. How did AHP, the Chairman of the company know and remember what my next role would be? Even if he had heard about me at some internal talent review meeting, how did he remember all the details when he met me at a social event? As much as Mr. Premji knew his business numbers, he also knew the people in his business.

Lesson 5 for me: It is important for a Senior Leader to focus on the talent pool & the horizon talent in the organization, beyond his direct team. A Senior Leader must look for opportunities to provide in advance, critical inputs to make the leader effective in his future role.

As my career grew in Wipro, I was promoted to General Manager & Head of HR for Wipro Infotech, the IT arm for Wipro for India, Middle East and Asia Pacific. I was pretty upbeat about being the youngest HR Head of Wipro Infotech; in hindsight, I had developed a bit of a chip on the shoulder, which was about to be demolished soon. It was my first quarter review in my new role, and I was beaming with positive energy. Towards the end of the day, after all the businesses and functions were reviewed, AHP began the review of the HR function and his questions to me were on the quantitative aspects of the HR function – employee costs & employee productivity. In the exuberance of my promotion, I had not prepared adequately and was clearly out of depth while responding to the questions by AHP. However, AHP was calm & composed as he grilled me on some very relevant issues, for which I was under-prepared. Those 45 minutes were the most disappointing 45 minutes of my entire professional career, akin to what Virat Kohli refers to the 45 minutes of play by the Indian cricket team in the recent 2019 World Cup semi-final. Needless to add, after that meeting I spent considerable time with my C&B Head to get my act together, and in subsequent Quarter review meetings, I was better prepared. More importantly, the chip had been demolished.

Lesson 6 for me: There are times when you need to make your team members sweat under the collar, but you don’t have to do it by raising your voice or by using disgraceful language. As a Senior Leader, you need to have the ability to look into the eye of your team member and be graceful as you make him realise that he is short of the professional competence expected in that role. I also learned that occasionally there will be top talent who will show a chip on the shoulder, and as a Senior Leader, you need to recognize that chip, and help that team member shed that attitude through a tough but polite conversation.

During 2002-03, Wipro had 2 technology business divisions: Wipro Technologies, which was the bigger arm managing the business for the Americas, Europe, and Japan, and Wipro Infotech, the relatively smaller (but more interesting)arm managing the business of India, Asia Pacific, and Middle East. I was the Head HR for Wipro Infotech. and we faced the perennial challenge of losing our technical talent to many of our MNC competitors, who lured them with a higher compensation and possible postings in the US. In one of our quarter reviews, AHP suggested that we should consider opening up our internal job posting process between Wipro Technologies and Wipro Infotech, such that employees of both business divisions could apply for jobs in either division. I vehemently opposed this suggestion, and explained my rationale to AHP: if we were to allow this, most of my technical talent would want to work in Wipro Technologies because of the lure of subsequent postings in the Americas and Europe. AHP heard me out, but maintained that it was better for Wipro Infotech to lose its talent to a sister division rather than lose it to external competitors. However, I stuck to my guns and did not agree to any change to our internal job posting processes.

After the quarter review meeting, I discussed this with Suresh Vaswani, my CEO, who told me that I was the HR Head and he would back whatever decision I took. The call was mine, and I decided not to accept the suggestion of AHP. In our next Quarter review meeting with AHP, the issue of attrition was discussed again. AHP brought back the suggestion of opening up the internal job posting process, and once again I vehemently resisted his suggestion. The matter was still status quo, and AHP allowed me to have my way. By now, I was reflecting a little more deeply on the suggestion he had given, and I saw more objectively that as Wipro, we were easily giving up good talent to our competitors because we were not giving our talent in Wipro Infotech to apply for jobs in Wipro Technologies. In the next quarter review meeting, when the subject of attrition came up yet again, I politely told AHP that we will open up the internal job posting portal between the two IT divisions, albeit with some safeguards so that there was no exodus of talent from Wipro Infotech to Wipro Technologies. AHP just smiled and we moved the conversation to another topic.

Lesson 7 for me: AHP, as Chairman, could have easily bulldozed his views and need not have waited for almost six months. But he chose to wait for me to build conviction and own the decision. If you want to evoke ‘ownership’ in your senior leaders, you need to give them space to have their way –even if at times, they are acting with a narrow and short-sighted mindset. It is important to promote a work culture with a healthy balance of empowerment with accountability.

During my early interactions with AHP, I personally found his demeanor to be rather serious, stern, and somber. Many of my other Wipro colleagues who had worked with Mr. Premji in the 80’s and early 90’s also echoed that his style was rather serious, he did not smile too often, and interactions were professional and restricted to business matters.

It is therefore interesting to recall a very different kind of interaction with Mr. Premji during the later years of my career in Wipro. It was in 2003, and the Cricket World Cup was taking place in South Africa. India was to play Australia in the finals, which was scheduled for Sunday, March 23. A couple of days earlier, we had our budget review with AHP, which was scheduled to commence at 8.30 am at our Sarjapur Road office. I had a habit of reaching the conference room 10 – 15 minutes in advance, so that I could get a seat of my choice and prepare my thoughts for the meeting. I was alone in the conference room at about 8.15 am when AHP walked in with all his files and took his seat. There was a bit of an awkward silence with only two of us in the room. AHP took the lead to do some small talk, and we started talking about the impending Cricket World Cup final on following Sunday. Upon his asking, I said I was confident that India would win because they were in good form (India had won all their league matches, except one match which they had lost to Australia). AHP smiled and said that India tended to choke in a big game and he felt Australia would win. We were lightly chatting on this and agreed to bet a Bhel Puri on the match (Wipro’s Sarjapur campus had a small snacks counter which served some good ‘chaats’ every evening). Well, India lost the match to Australia rather badly. On Monday morning we were to continue our unfinished budget review, once again I was the first person in the conference room, and a few minutes later AHP walked in. After he kept his files on the table, he looked up at me, smiled and asked “When are you giving my Bhel Puri?”. Well, I still owe Mr. Premji a Bhel Puri on that bet.

Lesson 8 for me: Irrespective of a senior leader’s natural demeanor the leader must learn to adjust his leadership style as merited by the context. Also, it does help a senior leader to at times, drop the guard and engage in informal interactions when they are merited. During my work of executive coaching senior C Suite leaders, when I sense a resistance in their willingness to make the required leadership shifts, I share with them this incident and tell them that if AHP, at his seniority could adjust his style and demeanor surely change is possible, if there is a will to change.

Towards the latter part of my tenure at Wipro, we had rolled out a Job Banding initiative. Within a couple of days of rolling out this initiative, our annual HR Conference took place with the entire 80 odd HR Team Members across Wipro Corporation. The customary keynote address was given by AHP, during which he made a disapproving remark about how Wipro Infotech (my business division) had ineffectively rolled out the Job Banding exercise based on what he had heard from a senior leader. My team and I were quite stunned that he made such a remark, realizing that he had not been explained the entire situation. I reflected on what AHP had spoken and felt that I must at least clarify the facts of the situation to him. That evening, on a pre-scheduled T Con with AHP after we finished speaking on our agreed agenda, I raised the topic of his remark on the job banding exercise and explained to him the facts of what had happened. He heard me out on the phone and then mentioned that now that I had explained the entire situation to him, he had the correct picture. I was pleased that he had patiently listened to me and was now briefed on the real situation.

Nevertheless the incident did not end there: the next day, AHP sent an email to all those who had gathered for the HR Conference, mentioning that his comments made on the job banding exercise were incorrect as he did not have the full picture, and that he stood corrected on what he had mentioned in his speech. My team and I had not expected this, and we were touched by Mr. Premji’s authenticity, humility and sensitivity on this issue.

Lesson 9 for me : Senior Leaders may not always be correct, yet they need to demonstrate the humility & courage to acknowledge when they are wrong and by doing so, their stature never diminishes, rather it gets enhanced.

Having the opportunity to work & interact with Mr Premji over my 9 year career at Wipro, has been nothing short of an additional MBA on Leadership. What I have described above are just a few of the many lessons learnt from Azim Premji, the Teacher.

This article is a small note of gratitude from a shishya (student) to a Guru (Teacher).

Republished with permission and originally published at Shabbir Merchant’s Linkedin

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