Secret Diary of an Entrepreneur / CEO-2018

"I love to watch team sports, I am clear that teams win, individuals don’t"

Secret Diary of NV ‘Tiger’ Tyagarajan — Part 3

Vishal koul

After resigning from Citibank, I wasn’t just looking for my next job. I was looking for a place where I could build my career. I had read all about GE and was fascinated with the kind of organisation that Jack Welch had built. I heard that GE Capital was coming to India. I could see myself at GE for the next 30 years doing different things. Mahesh, my ex-boss at Citi, was one of the first few senior hires there. So I called him and told him I wanted to move to GE. He asked me if I really wanted to move out of Citi, and I said yes. He said, “Great, you are hired as the sales and marketing head!” Before I got on board, I, however, had to meet Pramod and Deepak Satwalekar since it was a joint venture with HDFC at that time. I met with Pramod first and halfway through the interview, he asked me what if he offered me a job as the head of risk of the consumer businesses instead of a role in sales and marketing. I told him I would take it. He got a little pissed off and asked how I could agree to take up a role in risk when I had come to interview for a sales and marketing position. I told him that I was looking for a career, not a job. So the entry point didn’t really matter. I also told him that I actually understd why he was offering me a position in risk — because there weren’t too many people who understood risk with a sales and marketing empathy and mindset. Pramod later told me that was what clinched the job for me.

By 1998, I was CEO of the GE Capital Consumer businesses in India, I was evaluating a move to one of the global offices in GE — Hong Kong or Chicago — and all positions in risk. Pramod called me out for lunch. He said, “I have an idea, why don’t you run GECIS?” It was run by Raman Roy at that time. He told me to build a team and scale up the business. It would grow from the 200 people back then to 3,000 people over the next five years and I would be dealing with the CEO, CFO, CIO and COO of all of GE’s businesses and that could be my global experience. I took the offer, how can one not, but refused to move personally to Delhi. Pramod said that’s my problem and for me to figure out, and I could live wherever I wanted to. Within three years, we were 7,000 people and in five years time, we moved up to 12,000. I remember having 10-12 interviews a day! When I hire people, I look for incredible passion, restlessness, curiosity and a deep desire to learn. I don’t look for skills because in my view, skills becomes redundant very quickly and more often than not, you are required to do something you are not skilled at. So the important thing is: are you capable of learning fast and are you hungry enough to learn? 

I always looked up to Pramod. I still do. He was always open to debate; never got personal. If you are doing a 10-page business review with him, he has this ability to pick that one point that is the most critical, ask questions and dig into it. Sometimes you would have missed focusing on that point and you would feel like, wow, how did I miss that?! So he has the unique ability to have a fantastic high-level vision as well as the ability to get into extreme specific granularity and that’s what made him a great leader.

It was from him that I learnt how to create passion in the team and keep them energised. It is good to have a fan following within the organisation. Great communicators have a natural flair and Pramod was one of them, but it didn’t stop him from practising and presenting. He used the podium to tell a great story and got a lot of the team members to buy into his vision. While a lot of my presenting and communication skills were honed at IIM-A, it only got better being with Pramod. The better we got at it, the more we sold to the large global groups within GE and that was the new muscle we built in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

In 2000, Patrick Dupuis, the CFO of GE Healthcare was supposed to spend a couple of hours with us to understand what we do in GECIS and he ended up spending four. GECIS’ initial charter was to provide business process services to GE Capital’s business globally. GE Healthcare was our first industrial business outside of GE Capital businesses. Patrick told me that I was not ready for the speed at which he was going to send business our way. I told him I was ready. He said, “Be prepared; when I move, I move very fast. I will tire you out.” I told him I was up for the challenge. About 45 days into the transition, things were not going well and I got a call from him. He said, “I went out on a limb for you and my business leaders are now questioning my decision. I might get fired. If I do I will make sure you get fired too.” He was very serious. I got the call at 7 in the evening. That night, Anju Talwar, who was heading the healthcare business at that time, and I flew out to Milwaukee to understand the problem. It was complicated stuff and we were all learning. We came back, over-resourced the project and fixed the problems very quickly. It went on to become one of the fastest growing businesses for us. Patrick was one of the big voices in the system and an aggressive leader. Once he started championing for us, everyone had to follow suit. So, one of the things I learnt early on is that it is very important to know which of your clients will make a significant difference to your company’s performance, and within those companies who the critical decision-makers are, and how to get an early buy-in from them. If you do that, scaling that account becomes a lot easier. 

We spun off as a separate company in January 2005 and changed the name from GECIS to Genpact. Now that we could go get clients outside of GE, we set out targeting the top five giants across industries. In our business, it can take almost 10 years to win a client. We had been pursuing one of the global industrial giants similar to GE for almost 10 years and finally two-and-a-half years ago, we won the deal. Similarly, we started working with a global consumer products company that we pursued for 10 years only a year back. You have to be persistent and keep finding a different angle. You will get a breakthrough. Leaders will change, businesses will change and even your value proposition might change, but you have to be relentless in your pursuit and all the changes will make the client say okay, we will engage with you guys and see how it goes. These wins are not easy, so you focus on building a highly motivated team and make that team work together and climb a hill. Every time they do that, you motivate them to climb a bigger hill. You have to try new things without the fear of failure because you have to be confident that you will be able to recover from failure and learn from them, and you should have processes in place to avoid catastrophic failures. You have to remember that you are not the actual expert building the rocket. You just need to have the right people to build it. You just have to create an environment where people want to work so that you can attract people who are smarter than you. 

When we spun off as an independent company, we were clocking $400 million in revenue. If we didn’t win customers fast enough, it could become an existential crisis and that was scary. I spent those early days in 2005 meeting potential targets, trying to win contracts. In the first few months itself, we managed to snap up two great clients — a global automotive major and a top pharma company. Both of them were interesting wins since they were not in the same industry as GE. But these clients said that they loved our DNA, our focus on lean processes and Six Sigma. They were enamoured by our process thinking and respected GE a lot. Plus, given there were about 14,000 people servicing GE, it made the decision to work with us a lot easier. It told us how valuable it was to have been a part of GE and serve them, and that’s where we learnt a whole bunch of things we still leverage today. Soon enough, the deals started to flow. 

There was a period in 2007 that I distinctly remember when I walked into Pramod’s room and told him we won another deal. He said, “Oh no! We won another deal!” We were winning deals left, right and centre and we were scared of the rate at which we were growing. We were at the edge in catering to demand; we had to hire and train more than we could handle; leadership, real estate and telecom bandwidth were stretched. We grew to $800 million in revenue in three years since we turned independent and one year after the IPO. All this was possible because we hired the right people and gave them the independence to run their businesses. We convinced Shantanu Ghosh, who was the CFO of GE India, to join us and head the finance practice in 2005. So, it was basically a few of our very senior leaders including me on the street winning deals. Thanks to GE, our functional side was strong, our finance, HR and training functions — the central engines — had a lot of strength and that helped us scale quickly and we gave all of them a voice at the table. 

After the financial crisis, 2009 was our worst year, when we grew by 16%. We had been growing at 50%-75%, so, this felt terrible! In our line of business, you rise and fall with your clients. For instance, we signed up Delphi in 2007 and we started ramping up to serve 100 countries. By the time we finished ramping up at the end of 2008, the financial crisis was on us and the automotive industry — and thus Delphi — was deeply impacted. So, we started to shrink with Delphi because we didn’t need so many people to service their needs and that continued till 2015. Now, for the past couple of years, Delphi is back on the growth path and we started ramping up again to serve their multiple spinoffs. Our single-minded focus on our clients’ success — we call it “maniacal client focus” — always makes us do the right thing for our clients; it is core to our DNA. 

In 2007, we had started seeing some signs of a looming problem — there were higher credit card delinquencies, some of our clients were being irrational in their lending and there was lesser movement of raw materials within the US which meant they were producing less and would sell less. I told the leadership team in India that there was going to be an economic and credit problem and it was going to be a big one. We hadn’t really seen cycles in our business yet so it was difficult to understand the enormity. We decided to ramp up Europe and got into a cost-cut mode so the margins went up. Since then, every quarter until now, I have been telling investors to expect uncertainty and volatility. It has become the new normal. It also showed how being close to markets and clients is incredibly important to pick up signals. 

I love cricket and I am a hardcore India supporter. I try and watch all the matches that India plays. I remember we had just closed a very big acquisition. It was 3:30 a.m. and both the teams went to our office in New York, connected a laptop to a projector and watched the World Cup final that India won in Mumbai. What better way to spend day 1 of an acquisition? When it comes to cricketers, I always liked Kohli and Dhoni more than Tendulkar. Both Dhoni and Kohli thrive under pressure while it was always the opposite with Tendulkar. What I liked about Dhoni is that he managed to put together a cast of characters and gave them each a role to play to their strengths. So the team flourished. Kohli has that one extra thing that Dhoni doesn’t — killer instinct. Not that he would cross the boundaries of fairness but he is not afraid to give more than just one more punch to knock you down when you are weak. I love to watch team sports. There are so many dynamics at play which makes it an interesting watch. So, that’s why I don’t like or play golf. I would much rather watch cricket, hockey and football — I am clear that teams win, individuals don’t.

Growing up with GE in the late ’90s shaped my thinking significantly. GE had multiple businesses that were not connected at one level but that didn’t stop the leaders from sharing best practices and collaborating with each other. In today’s world, given the transformation that digital and analytics is driving, it is critical for teams and businesses to intensely collaborate with each other to build new solutions that drive value for customers and themselves. I learnt the importance of leadership and talent development — the role that HR plays — and that every leader has to be an HR leader. There was no better place than GE to have learnt that. Watching Jack Welch and the way he led the company at that time, you learn how to keep pushing people to their limit and potential. When I was at GE, Jack Welch launched Six Sigma in the company. We had the opportunity to start our original Genpact business with Six Sigma as the foundation, I am a big believer of lean processes and using Six Sigma to drive continuous value. I also learnt the value of extreme transparency, the importance of metrics and competition and the results it can produce. In the early days of Six Sigma, we wanted a number of leaders to become certified black belts so they can become an example for others to follow. Some of them didn’t have the time to study and prepare for the exams and were falling behind. I took a leaf out of GE’s books and started to visibly publish results on where each of them was on that journey. So, just outside my room I put a 3X3 ft white board with the names of the 25 leaders who were supposed to take the certification. Against their names, there were red, yellow and green dots. Green meant you were on track. Yellow meant you were falling behind and red meant you were in trouble. So our top 25 leaders were certified publicly for all the 5,000 employees who were walking around in our office to see. Within 60 days, everyone had a green dot against their name. So that’s how powerful visibility of metrics can be. 

We are now applying the same playbook to digital literacy, we all have to learn, starting with me. We all have to get certified on robotics and artificial intelligence and machine learning. Such exciting times! You have to embrace the new — integrate new thinking, new approach and new leaders. Those who do that with speed and effectiveness will win. So, as always, culture will continue to eat strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner! If there is one constant in my belief system, it’s that curiosity is the most important personality trait that drives humans to succeed and solve problems and make progress. Always ask questions and always search for answers and the truth. 

My wife is a chartered accountant who built her career in banking. We met through family friends in Bombay and both of us worked hard at our careers those days. In the initial years of our careers, we spent 60-70 hours a week at work. We would see each other often only on weekends since I would travel a lot. We have one son and very early in his life, he became independent since that’s the way he grew up. Our quality time is when we go on vacations as a family. My son, who is a product of the US liberal arts system, loves history, politics and government and I now learn a lot from him on these topics. We prefer taking more short 10-day vacations rather than one long break, and we tend to go to places where we can explore and learn history, culture, food, etc. 

The future is so incredibly exciting. I love how new technologies are completely changing the way value gets driven and new solutions solve old problems. I can’t wait to learn more as we undertake this journey with our clients. It feels like 1998 or 2005 for us, for me — so much new stuff, so much to learn; that’s what keeps us all going!

This is part 3 of a thee-part series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.