Driving a High Performance Culture
It is great to have a culture but it is only half the battle, says Mr Tiger Tyagarajan, CEO, Genpact, as he explores the priorities, values and beliefs that underpin successful organizational cultures.
The MMA-KAS talk under ‘Leaders Speak Series by Pond’s Veterans’ on the theme, ‘What is high performance culture and how do you drive it as a leader in these times of rapid change?’ was delivered by Mr Tiger Tyagarajan, CEO, Genpact, USA on 13 June 2020 through webinar. Mr V Balaraman, Past President, MMA and former MD, Pond’s India Ltd delivered the opening remarks. The following includes excerpts from his talk and the subsequent Q&A session.
I joined Pond’s sales team at Mumbai office as a fresher from IIM. Within four hours of joining, I was handed the responsibility of taking care of sales in the entire state of Madhya Pradesh. In the next two hours, I had to interact with my field sales personnel over phone. I did not know anything about sales, market or the industry that I was in. All that the management saw in a young manager like me was the hunger to learn. That was the culture at Pond’s and I owe all my management skills to the seven years I worked there.
The company, Genpact, where I now work started with one idea in 1998. We thought we could a do a lot of things from India to serve the world because we have great people in India. It was why the company Genpact was started. Learning is the basis for this entire company, and we created a learning organisation.
The Bumble Bee paradox
According to aeronautics and aerotechnical tests, the bumble bee cannot fly due to the shape and weight of its body in relation to its total wing span. The bumble bee doesn’t know this, so it goes ahead and flies anyway. Inspired by this, we created a culture of courage and not having the fear of fear. If we were to jump off a hill with a parachute, what we should not do is to look down, but to look up and jump; for, if we look down, the human mind will start fearing the jump.
Strategy for breakfast?
According to Peter Drucker, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast!’ It means that no matter how strong your strategy is, it cannot be effectively implemented if all the people in the organisation do not share the firm’s values. We tweaked it as, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner!!’ An organisation’s strategy or broader purpose cannot take off, unless it aligns with its culture.
Purpose refers to why we exist as a business. For instance, our objective may be to make the life of people very enjoyable every day. That is purpose at a very high level and it can sustain the company for decades. Then we move on to why the employee comes to work each day. What is the strategy that allows you to win? What are the reasons that make you believe that the choices made are being lived every day? Culture is the atmosphere around us. Purpose and strategy are immersed in culture.
What is culture?
It is the way people in an organisation behave, interact and take decisions when no one is watching. What the employees of Mumbai Taj Hotel did during 26/11 terror strike is legendary: saving the lives of guests risking their own. When Ratan Tata talks about it, he says that the employees’ actions were not because of training, but because they thought that that is what they do every day. Customer always comes first.
- Be aspirational, authentic and aligned to company’s strategy and differentiators;
- Be relevant to both clients and employees;
- Work at both a micro- and macro-level;
- Be memorable;
- Have universal application.
A culture framework outlines a set of behaviours that directly connects with strategy. The FOUR words that define Culture in Genpact are:
Why is curiosity important?
We all know that the half-life of various skills has been dramatically shrinking over the last few decades in the VUCA environment. One of the biggest dangers that organisations face is the pretension that they have arrived, conquered the world, and that they are the best.
History teaches us that such companies face the beginning of their end. Leaders who declare that they have reached their pinnacle do not grow further and stop adding value. Ego is the single biggest danger for individuals and organisations. The most important question that people should grapple with is—WHY?
Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked WHY. In a culture that fosters curiosity, leaders are comfortable saying, ‘I don’t know.’ They ask questions. They appreciate cognitive diversity. They lead with humility and are inclusive. They reward collaboration. They encourage dissent and debate. Curiosity leads to three things:
- Learning agility
We learn when we surround ourselves with people of diverse backgrounds and cultures, and collaborate with them. Learning agility and hunger will become prized traits in this new world, rather than just ‘experience.’ Each year, we recruit people from the around the world. We test for values, curiosity, learning agility and hunger. We then give the recruits jobs of which they have no clue, and yet, we find a tremendous success rate. That is the power of hunger for learning and curiosity. Of course, we protect them when they fail and allow them to grow.
In the corporate life, we play a soccer match, not run a race. Therefore, we believe that teams are important, not individual winners. We reward people who share ideas and solutions widely. We reward people who wear the ‘company hat’ rather than those who focus on narrow goals. We invest in tools, processes and policies that enable the ‘team of teams’ behaviour. We tear down walls, stamp out silos and nip office politics.
Diversity fosters innovation. It helps avoid ‘group think.’ Currently, we focus on gender diversity, trying to move towards a 50:50 gender ratio in the organisation. We have various programmes like Listening Sessions on racial discrimination and the Returning Moms programme. We provide day-care for 321 children across India, Philippines and the EU. We have ‘Women in Genpact Network (WINGS)’ to cultivate leadership skills and share best practices. We get different ideas and build better solutions when we have diversity in the company.
Living the culture
It is great to have a culture but it is only half the battle. The other half is: Can you live it and execute it every day, so that people can see it? The next part is to spread it across the organisation. There is only one way for it—relentless communication on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual basis. It is our culture that helped us grow from two people in 1998 to 95,000 people in 2020, growing at 12% per year in terms of headcount. We lose about 20% a year on attrition. We drive a hard performance culture. One third of the company is new every year.
The other tool to propagate culture is storytelling. We convert everything into stories and make them human with emotions. People remember stories. In my first month at Pond’s, there was a veteran sales supervisor by name Kapil Sawhney. I went to him and told him, “Sir. You know so much. I am your boss, but I want to learn from you.” It surprised him but he put his arms around me and said, “You are like my son. I will teach you.” He was 55 and I was just 25, and he taught me. We communicated that story to so many people. I use this story even now to teach young leaders on how to learn from their senior subordinates.
We need to create ecosystems that help employees to constantly unlearn and relearn every day and leverage new technology for learning. In Genpact, 95,000 people work from home today. How do we know the mood of everyone who works from home? In the last 90 days, we have developed a chatbot application which has an AI machine learning algorithm. The chatbot asks questions and we get a set of 10,000 answers every day. By the end of the week, we cover the entire workforce and I know the mood of the people; I will know even when a group of 100 in Philippines feel depressed. This technology was not available earlier.
We embed our culture framework in all our Hire-to-Retire process. Our Hiring screens, Performance management, Promotions, Rewards, Long-term incentives and Leadership Development Programs—all of them imbibe our culture.
Both values and performance count
High performers who do not align with company values hurt the company in the long-term despite their short-term results. They do not fit the company. Those who share the values and perform are those who move upward. People who share the values but are low in performance deserve a second chance. It is easy to take a call on those who neither perform nor share the values.
Culture becomes the ‘north star’ that helps leaders to balance competing priorities as given in the info box (at the end of this article). In the end, keep the customer in focus. You may lose some money in the short-term; but in the long-term, you will make money. When you allow people to balance these priorities using culture, you end up in a good spot. Culture is too important to be left only to one team or function. We deliberate on various issues in our company; nothing is personal. If I find in a group of nineteen or twenty people lean to a position, I deliberately take the opposite position so to avoid ‘group think.’
We need to:
- Spend time on talent related discussions; Cultures and values lie at the heart of our conversations.
- Engage, debate with and learn from all levels of the organisation.
- Visibly call out good examples and flag the wrong behaviours.
- Break down silos; push for ‘boundary-less’ behaviours.
- Take decisive action when there is a values-mismatch; integrity is non-negotiable.