5 Tales of Leadership from India

For several years, I was the managing director of SolutionsIQ operations in India. At times it was like I was always on a plane to or from Bangalore, where we have our office. I learned a lot more about the India market than I knew growing up there, and I met interesting people, not the least among them leaders looking for ways to drive change in their organizations.

Back in 2014, I had an interesting conversation over dinner with the CEO of a large office supply organization based out of United States. He had come on a ten-day trip to India to select an Indian offshore company to be his Agile provider for software development services. My conversation with him took place at the end his trip. And he looked visibly agitated! He had already met with many top software providers to learn about their ability to deliver high-quality software and demonstrate Agile software development capabilities. He was worried that the companies he met that week said “yes” to pretty much anything he asked. He was concerned that they were not being transparent with him. He ended up deciding to set up his development center in Chile.

Why did this CEO choose Chile over India? You could point at poor quality or that cost is generally the only motivator for setting up shop in India. I would argue that it comes down to a lack of foresight and leadership in the Indian organizations that this CEO was trying to build a working relationship with, which I can testify to myself. These companies typically have top-down and command-and-control approaches to running their business. The culture prohibits openness and transparency, even at the expense of decreased customer satisfaction.

Today my role is different, though I still serve as a leader. As I go about my day, I am reminded of a few experiences that happened to me and my team in India, because the same leadership obstacles affect organizations everywhere, not just in India. Since many leaders amongst us are going through transformation, I wanted to share five short tales of leadership from India, in hopes that other leaders can learn from them.

1. The Tale of the Vanishing Impediments

Every day at 11 AM the leaders of a large video technology company in Bangalore in what is called as a “management standup.” The group stands around an obstacle board like the one visualized here. The board is visibly displayed on the floor where delivery teams are working, so that everyone can see how, with collaboration and alignment, obstacles on the board vanish from the board.
It’s not magic: it’s Agile. Obstacles are automatically moved up from Manager, to Engineering Manager to Director depending on an SLA of how many days stale the impediment is. Each of the various leadership roles contribute toward resolving the impediments that are listed in their column. They also maintain an online organizational impediment backlog in Jira.

2. The Tale of the Super, Stable Team

In Magarpatta IT park in Pune, there is a super, stable team called ScrumMatrix. What is their super power, you ask? This team ships software weekly, builds embedded firmware products using a complex tech stack with multiple programming languages. Each of the team members is also highly capable of coding in any layer of the product, regardless of language or technology!

How is this possible, you may ask? Simple: their management decided, long ago, to leave the team as it is, rather than reassigning its members to another team when past products and projects were finished. The teams has been together for more than five years, which means they have tons of shared knowledge and excellent interpersonal rapport. And if there is a vacancy in the team, the other members decide who joins the team.

3. The Tale of the ScrumMaster who Annihilated Unnecessary Meetings

I have heard of a ScrumMaster at a healthcare company who worked hard and long and was able to do the impossible: remove unwanted meetings and interruptions for their team. As a result, the teams in this group do not attend any meetings except the Scrum ceremonies, and some design meetings. They all come to work at 9 and leave at 6. Their practice of core hours has removed the Lean waste caused by unplanned work. The team is overall very happy as they practice “If it’s not in the backlog, it does not exist.”

4. The Tale of the Curious Director

I know a leader of a world-renowned consulting firm. He works in Gurgaon. Although he is a Director for this company, he does not have an office for himself. He instead works with the teams in the team room. I have never seen him hold the center stage. He always has other members talk or lead in any meeting. If you ask him a question, he is likely to respond with another question. Instead of solving problems and telling people what to do, this leader strives to ask the right questions to trigger desired outcomes in teams. He understands the 300 people who report to him and thus uses positive questions to elicit positive responses, because experience has shown him that his people tend to react to questions according to how they are asked! He practices the policy I call “ask more, tell less.”

5. The Tale of the Team Who Worked Directly with the Customer

Finally, we have my director friend who, as a leader, encouraged his teams to work with global customers – directly. He was able to create a place where people are able to speak up openly and help each other. They feel safe that their boss will not get upset at them as he is always there to help them think through the problems. By working directly with their customers, these teams were better able to solve problems and deliver value. Although it was scary at times for some, including my friend, in the end it made more sense for their business for teams to collaborate directly with customers, rather than through layers of intermediators in a giant, and often frustrating, game of “telephone.”