Richard Rekhy, Board Member of KPMG Dubai and the former CEO of KPMG in India, is a leader driven by a higher purpose. He chooses to become a ‘servant leader’ and powerfully exemplifies its game-changing impact at all levels of the organisation and for leaders of all ages. Get ready to be inspired as the undeniably influential leader calls for a new direction of leading from the heart and shows us how consciously embracing higher purpose is transformative—at both the individual and organisational levels.
In ‘The Heart of Business’, Matt Hayes and Jeff Stevens profoundly write, “The inescapable truth is this: As the heart goes, so goes all of life. That foundational truth not only guides and impacts every personal human life, but it also profoundly impacts modern business and its leadership.” Today, it is no secret that millennials and even younger Gen-Z want to work for purpose-driven organisations and be part of a “bigger picture”. While the concept is really basic and fundamental, the hard reality is that only a handful of leaders and businesses are truly driven by purpose—the majority of them merely pretend to be.
How do you look back at your professional journey traversed thus far? Could you share some of the experiences you’ve had that really stick out for you? Also, what are your key learnings?
My professional journey has been one of excitement. I have been fortunate to have worked for great companies and with highquality people. I was lucky that I found my mentor very early in life who, in many ways, moulded me to become what I became. What I learned from him was to be positive, solution-oriented, and that one should always walk on the high ground irrespective of the financial loss or gain. While I imbibed my values from my parents, I picked up my professional traits from two to three people who had a lasting impact on me and for whom I am very grateful.
My greatest learning came from my failure when I was with Arthur Andersen and could not make it to a Partner. I felt very disappointed. However, it was learning in many ways, about how I looked at failures, and my ability to bounce back even stronger by working harder, such that all the disappointments of that one year were more than made up in next few years through extra promotions, etc.
Life gives us challenges, and we must accept them. Most exceptional learnings happen when you fall or falter and are able to bounce back by recognizing your true talent and ability to perform at a completely different level.
The other significant learning is that the relationship is the key, and one should try never to burn bridges irrespective of the provocation. As a leader, one needs to remain at the top of the situation, direct the conversations, and manage conflicts in an effective manner.
Based on your varied and rich experience in leadership roles, what, according to you, are the key ‘drivers’ and ‘derailers’ of leadership success?
• It is important that leaders are inspirational, lead through personal example, and possess a high degree of empathy (EQ). A good leader is someone who leads from the heart, connects with the people, and shows concern and care for them.
• Leaders need to be agile, have good decision-making abilities, take accountability for their actions, and should challenge the status quo because what is going well currently may not work under changed circumstances.
• ‘Humility’ and ‘Integrity’ are hallmarks of a great leader.
• One of the biggest leadership derailers is arrogance, because of which nobody will come forward with suggestions, thus making the organisation less effective. O Lack of self-awareness is another big issue.
• Leaders operating from an “I” position instead of a “We” position are self-destructive. An “I know it all” attitude can be fatal to any organisation’s growth. The words of Steve jobs resonate with me: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to
do; we hire smart people so that they can tell us what to do.”
Complacency and ignorance of the environment in which leaders operate can make the organisation vulnerable and resistant to change appropriately with the trends in the market.
Leaders who aim for power over others, unlimited wealth, or the fame that comes with success tend to grow at others’ cost, becoming self-centred and egotistical. They soon start to believe their own press. As leaders of institutions, they eventually think that the institution cannot succeed without them. This is a big fallacy and leads to the downfall of many organisations.
A few years back, KPMG launched a ‘Higher Purpose’ global campaign under the theme “Inspire Confidence. Empower Change”. You were then the CEO of KPMG India. Could you take us through some of the key highlights of the campaign and how it helped inject a sense of purpose into the organisation’s culture and employees’ work lives?
KPMG launched its global campaign “Higher Purpose” that was aimed at redefining the meaning of “work” and giving a sense of empowerment to its employees. The firm decided to involve its employees more closely by helping them connect their own purpose with the work that they do in the firm—something that was beyond paychecks.
I personally led this campaign in India. We wanted to create a culture that would bind the firm and its people together, make our clients want to work for us and serve as that forum on which people could find their anchor in an ever-changing world.
A full-fledged organisation-wide story contest titled “Do you live your purpose at KPMG?” was launched, which built momentum around the campaign. The stories could be about any person, event, or incident that inspired employees. This contest served as a trigger to get people to take a step back from regular work and think about what their individual purpose was. Informal sessions were also held, such as fireside chats to get people to casually share their personal stories.
To mark this campaign, we did town halls at three locations, and all the employees from India attended these town halls in person. It was truly wonderful to see the sea of blue and each person carrying their purpose in their hearts, some of which were narrated at the town halls. We had also invited industry leaders, inspirational speakers, and entertainers. In my view, this was the most successful campaign in the entire KPMG network.
This resonated very well with the employees and had a big effect on them. The attrition rate fell several folds, and people started feeling more connected through a common purpose. Employees were significantly more motivated to strive for continuous improvement and high performance, and they began to think that their work had special meaning and was “not just a job”. This also gave us the opportunity to bring our values to life once again, and the very purpose of KPMG’s motto “Inspire Confidence. Empower Change” was achieved to a great extent.
What are some of the common mistakes you see organisations repeatedly make in developing next-gen leaders?
We live in a time where change is the only constant. What most CEOs forget to do is develop a talent pipeline. For any company, the choice and cultivation of its future leaders are essential for its long-term health. It is also crucial that an entrepreneurial spirit within the organisation is encouraged to build a culture where leaders emerge from within. Moreover, leaders must be empowered at different levels, as this will help develop a talent pipeline and ensure a continuous supply of leaders from within the firm.
To develop people for the future, leaders need to identify current capabilities against leadership requirements of the future. Also, they need to ensure that these identified individuals have a growth promise and the will to take the best advantage of and respond positively to the development opportunities. Coaching and mentoring of these potential future leaders will play a key role—this element is sadly missing in many cases. The leadership skills need to be tested by throwing them in the deep end of the pool.
Could you give a few quick tips for people who are newly transitioning into a C-Suite role?
“The highest destiny of the individual is to serve rather than to rule.”— Albert Einstein. What will distinguish good leaders from others is not the quality of the decisions they make, but how they exercise their responsibility and whom they consult in reaching these decisions. My advice would be:
• Use your power wisely and justly, or it can become a liability rather than an asset.
• Work to build your sources of power and use them to influence others in the organisation so that goals can be met and visions are achieved.
• Be energetic, agile, and out of the box thinkers. Also, always be high on integrity and live your values.
• Strive to create a sense of community both within and outside of the organisation.
• It takes confidence, passion, and drive to reach a level of success and then do what’s necessary to sustain it. Be restless and always look to challenge the status quo. Also, always put the organisation before self.
• Connecting with people is very important. People are the heart and soul of an organisation. The quality of work from motivated and engaged employee is what will lead an organisation to success.
As we step into the 2020s decade, what are the biggest trends and themes you’re watching out for in the HR and leadership space?
The world is changing with the huge adoption of new technology, and HR is at the centre of this change. HR, as it is currently practising, will be dead in the next few years. HR leaders will need to get more involved in business and become an integral part of building the strategy of the organisation. They will need to understand the new technology and how it will impact the workplace and the workforce going forward. As far as leadership is concerned, leaders will need to:
• Be more agile and tech-savvy, challenging the status quo and reinventing themselves at much shorter intervals than they do now.
• Be relevant both in their thinking and attitude.
• Ensure that the organisation is adequately empowered and more people are involved in the decision-making process as the complexity and pace of the ongoing change are beyond the thinking of the people.
Up Close and Personal
You are an inspiration for many. Who inspires you?
Sachin Tendulkar, Nelson Mandela, and Steve Jobs.
What has been your most memorable leadership moment so far?
The most humbling experience was receiving a gift from a group of office boys as a token of gratitude for bringing some policy changes for their welfare.
What are the core principles that drive you innately every day?
Being at the service of others and touch as many lives as I possibly can.
What are your top productivity hacks?
Greeting people with a smile and attitude which says “I care”, being concerned for their welfare, and creating a happy place where people feel secure delivers great results.
How do you maintain your work-life balance?
I would look at it differently and call it work-life harmony. As you keep becoming more senior in an organisation, you become hard-pressed on time, and that is your biggest challenge. Sometimes people become so caught up with the regular work chores that they forget the other facets of life. One should create a good work-life harmony such that both professional and personal sides are balanced according to the need of the time. Also, a hobby should be developed around something that one feels passionate about.
I ensure that I spend time with my family over weekends and take short vacations at regular intervals. On the working days as well, I go for my regular walk. Listening to good music is another stress buster for me. I also make sure that I get some time to read.
What would we be surprised to learn about you?
Irrespective of any position that I held during my career, I have ensured that I am approachable to people at any level of the organisation. Despite being a taskmaster, I have ensured that there is a human element involved, and coaching and guiding the team through tasks has always been my focus. Moreover, I never look for short-term gains and always act in the larger interest of the organisation.
What would your family describe you as?
I would like to provide an extract from a social media post by my daughter… “I have come to realise my dad is so much more than the man I idealised my whole life. I have learnt what it means to be humble after gaining immense success. I know what it means to be charitable not for garnering recognition. I have learnt what it means to put your heart and soul into your work. I have learnt what it is like to be upright and honest, I have learnt that what a dutiful child is to their parents, and I have learnt that being a good human being above all else is what is important. And I have learnt all these things from you Papa. You didn’t need to sit down and tell me how to live, but you showed me.”
Favourite quote: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”— Maya Angelou
Favourite line of poetry: From ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’: “Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown. Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth, And Melancholy mark’d him for her own.”
The best book you’ve read recently: Factfulness by Hans Rosling
Leadership style: Servant leadership
Pet Peeve: People who pretend and are sycophants I strongly believe in…Higher Purpose
The most important thing I do on a Sunday is… spend time with the family, including my dogs, doing various things which they want and go to the church.
I deal with setbacks by…working harder, taking the setback in its stride, overcoming the challenges, and emerging stronger. I strongly believe in the quote, “When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in…”
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