Organisations can't merely toss someone into a leadership role: SV Nathan

Organisations can't merely toss someone into a leadership role: SV Nathan

SV Nathan, Partner and Chief Talent Officer, Deloitte India, gets candid on how he has been influenced greatly by his first job, the significant things he learned from the pandemic, and the moments he felt overwhelmed as an HR leader. He also shares how organisations can achieve terrific results despite having limited resources, and how Deloitte is fostering inclusion and nurturing culture from afar.


While early job experiences may not be the most challenging or monetarily rewarding, they certainly are formative. Could you give us an account of an unforgettable experience at your first job?


My first job was with ICI India, and I’ve been influenced greatly by it. When I first started working, my job was to look after administration.


One wouldn’t expect a topper from a leading business school to get into administration. That was the ego in me thinking aloud. It was not a job that I particularly liked being thrown into. But the rule was to go through different departments to understand the workings of the organisation.


Of my many responsibilities, transport administration was a difficult one. There were a limited number of cars, a couple of fire engines, and just one ambulance. One day, a gentleman came up to me and said he needed a car to go to the district headquarters. I replied that there were no cars available. He insisted he needed one urgently. One thing led to another, and he told me that he would complain if I did not assign him a car.


Eventually, he spoke to the general manager, who called me to his imposing office and gave me a dressing-down. He kept raising his voice and would not listen to my pleas. Whenever I wanted to say something, he would say, Don’t speak! Just listen to me!


Suddenly, the door opened, and a gentleman rushed into the room and stood between the general manager and me. He looked at the general manager, and said, ‘While the boy may be responsible, I am accountable.’ He then looked at me and said, ‘Nathan, you can go back to your desk.’ I had no idea what happened. I quickly ran back to my desk. This gentleman was my manager, my first boss, Captain Arvind Nautiyal.


I learnt my first leadership lesson that day. You have to stand up for your people. That was a defining moment of my career, and I still remember it as if it happened yesterday.


Another impactful experience I had was with the same general manager I talked about earlier. He called me into his office one day and said he was having a problem with his sprained back, which the company-provided spring bed worsened. He needed me to arrange for a carpenter to go to his house and get a piece of plywood affixed to his bed to make it a flatbed instead of a spring bed.


When I reported to him saying that the job was done, he asked, ‘Is there anything you’ve forgotten, Nathan?’ I had no idea what he was talking about. I told him that I had completed the task, which he could check. He then asked for the invoice to pay for the work done. Surprised at being asked for such a trivial matter, I told him the bed belonged to the company, and the organisation bears the cost of all maintenance of the bed. His response staggered me: ‘The spring bed provided by the company is a standard-issue, and what I asked for was customisation. Now, tell me, who should pay for it?’ That day, I learned a lesson in integrity.


Such lessons are not apparent. They’re not written on walls. Leaders don’t speak about them, and they’re not a part of the induction when people join an organisation.


Company culture has been typically built around in-person experiences in an office, with most people co-located. How are you nurturing culture from afar and preserving the “special sauce” at Deloitte?


Fostering inclusion is a big part of our culture. Being inclusive demands a lot of one’s time and awareness, especially in a virtual setting. When having a meeting in a conference room of an office, it’s easy to see who has spoken, who has not, and how to bring everyone into the conversation. But in a remote world, we have to make a lot more of an effort to make out who has and hasn’t made their voice heard. We must be able to hear one smile. We have become hypersensitive of including everyone, which is not easy but can be done. I know of many who keep a list of people on the call and keep a tab of those who have not spoken and bring them into the conversation.


Standing up for one another is also a core part of our culture. During these difficult times, we have been spending a lot of time and effort in staying in touch with our people. All our executive assistants devote the majority of their time staying in touch with people. Additionally, managers and the HR team are proactive and thoughtful about connecting with colleagues and understanding their individual needs. With such forethought and effort, we ensure that distance doesn’t become a barrier to our culture.


How do leaders at Deloitte exemplify a wellbeing-oriented culture and support employees in integrating their personal and work lives?


There are several ways leaders lead the way and set the tone for everyone else at Deloitte. For instance, I would never send a meeting request to someone at 6:30 in the evening because I understand it infringes on somebody else’s time. I might start my day at 8 a.m. and end it at 8 p.m. However, I don’t ask anyone to come in on a call at, say, 7 in the evening, because people have their own lives and work schedules. We encourage people to keep normal hours between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day. Moreover, every day between 1:00 and 2:00 in the afternoon, we strictly do not schedule any meetings or calls because it’s lunchtime!


While empathy is always crucial, it is even more vital in difficult times. Here’s an example. During the early days of the pandemic, there was an employee who went missing. Nobody knew where she was. In the evening, her parents called the police and tried everything else to trace her but to no avail. A group of our employees quickly took their cars, scooters, or whatever they had, and went out in a radius of around 10 km trying to find out if she was in any restaurant or other hangout. At around 1 a.m., they found her sitting somewhere all alone at a coffee shop.


I remember this particular incident because one of our managers spent the rest of the night talking to the girl and gently persuaded her to get home and escorted her. The manager demonstrated what empathetic leadership is all about. This and many such instances exemplify how leaders (and everyone, really) go the extra mile to take care of people.


We’ve also introduced several programs to support employees’ holistic wellbeing — emotional, mental, physical, and financial.


Year after year, Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends report has shown that developing future-ready leaders is a pressing concern among organisations. Moreover, with companies becoming flatter and more agile, many young professionals become leaders in their 20s and 30s. A popular study has also revealed that while the average age of first-time managers is 30, the average age of those in leadership development programs is 42. How can organisations invest in developing first-time managers even if they don’t have much budget?


Organisations can’t merely toss someone into a leadership role and leave that person in the dark. A suitable programme must be in place to prepare employees for their new roles and cultivate the behaviours and mindsets they need to succeed. At Deloitte, leadership development is pervasive at every level. However, your question is about developing leaders on a low budget.


Several years ago, I was working with Sterling Holiday Resorts. A lot of people that we brought from the market were not those who had education from top universities. We got people with outstanding attitudes, with the will and hunger to succeed in the organisation. We wanted to start a programme on helping them develop core management skills, something like a six-month MBA with a difference. Now, my previous company was a multinational, which had enough money to invest in training programmes. Here, however, the budget was a constraint.


From training managers to business leaders, many people put their heads together to figure out the elements of the programme. Most of those who delivered the programme were average in terms of academic accomplishments but among the finest in their mindset and attitude. The programme was a huge success, and the before-after difference in participants was spectacular.


You can achieve terrific results even with limited resources if you have the right vision and business support. The place where we did these training programmes was unlike where multi-nationals would organise such events. There were no great venues, fancy arrangements, or big-name faculty. However, today, if you ask those people, they don’t remember the place or the food. But they still remember the transformational experience. Incidentally, each one who went through this program is doing outstanding in their lives.


Another big learning for me was that a can-do attitude trumps academic excellence hands down. Academically, I have always been among the top students. Therefore, my idea of a bright person was related to academic excellence. However, academic accomplishments are just one part; the way you apply what you’ve learned and having the right attitude are far more critical.


Up-Close and Personal


Has there been a moment when you felt overwhelmed as an HR leader since the pandemic?


Being overwhelmed is an understatement. We lost two of our people to the pandemic. A few of our employees’ family members passed away, too. I starkly remember a young employee who lost her husband, father, mother, and aunt in a span of just 14 days due to COVID-19. They were joint family who, because they stayed together, contracted the virus. We went out of our way to support her with medical coverage.


Much later, she called me and said, ‘I want to thank you because you supported me through this. More than what the firm did for me financially, everyone stood by me saying: We are here for you. That, for me, is the biggest support I can ever get. I’ve lost my family, but I have my Deloitte Family’. How does one respond to that? I had tears in my eyes.


Are you planning to do something new in 2021 that you’ve never done before?


I plan to write a book this year.


What would we be surprised to learn about you?


You might be surprised to know that I am a good cook. I can also do handwriting and signature analysis — also known as graphology.


What’s your most significant learning from the pandemic experience?


Life is transient. Care, connectedness, and empathy have assumed greater importance for me. For instance, when on calls, we tend to multitask, checking emails, being preoccupied with our to-do list, and getting sidetracked by our thoughts. The crazy, demanding world we live in has become crazier. Now is a great time to think about what it means to truly 'be here now'.


I try to be utterly mindful of what I am doing by working on one thing at a time and doing it wholeheartedly. When I am talking to someone on the phone, I strive to attend to that person as if he/she were the most important individual in the world.


Rapid Fire


♦  Favourite quote: Water cuts rock.


♦  A movie title that best describes you: The Gladiator


♦  Describe the year 2020 in 3 words: Tumultuous. Heartbreaking. Learning


♦  Describe yourself in 3 words: Authentic. Friendly. Teacher.


♦  Complete these sentences:


--> If not an HR, I would have been… a teacher.


--> I strongly believe in… giving more than what I get.


 What comes to your mind when you hear these words?


Resilience: Rock

Curiosity: Necessary

Setback: Temporary

With 6+ years of experience, Ankita has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR — from hire to retire. She is currently Deputy Editor at Human Capital.


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