Put the country first, but get a good sponsor

Founder's Mentality: Put the country firstOne of the major themes we have been exploring is how individual leaders bring a Founder’s MentalitySM to large, complex organizations. Specifically, we’re asking: How do great leaders ensure their own teams feel like insurgents, while also making sure they maintain positive connections with the more complex international organization?

As we’ve explored this question, we’ve discovered a large number of leaders who are able to create this balance. One of the most extraordinary examples is D. Shivakumar, or Shiv, who ran Nokia India from 2006 to 2011. He is credited with driving Nokia’s brand recognition in India—making it the most trusted brand across all consumer products categories in India, and increasing its retail presence from 35,000 outlets to more than 200,000.

Shiv, who was Nokia’s senior vice president for India, the Middle East and Africa, met with me in Delhi recently and talked specifically about how he managed this balance of running his own local India team like an independent company and making sure that this team benefitted from being part of Nokia.

This is how Shiv describes this dual task: “I learned early on that there was only one way I could manage. I had to put the Indian market first, then the business unit, then the function. I recognized that other leaders had different lenses, but this had to be mine. If I wasn’t the ambassador of this market, no one else would be. If I wasn’t putting the India consumer first, who else would?”

He elaborated: “In large organizations, there is always conflict between those representing the market and those representing other objectives. And I always had folks from corporate visiting the market to argue for their goals. That was fine, but my goal was to make sure they met the consumer, “ Shiv said. “The first thing I did with anyone who came from corporate was to take them on consumer visits so they could talk to our consumers and our channel partners. I let them draw their own conclusions from these encounters. My intent was to make sure that it wasn’t a debate between me and them, between my bureaucratic desires and theirs. Instead, I wanted our discussion to start with a shared understanding of the Indian market—and then debate what to do about it.”

I probed further on this, because I was sure that even with this shared understanding, Shiv must have faced huge battles with his Helsinki, Finland-based parent company. Shiv’s response was very interesting. Of course he faced battles, he acknowledged. But he had one other secret weapon: an extraordinary sponsor back in Helsinki.

As Shiv was joining Nokia, this sponsor, an executive, pulled him aside with an unusual request—and promise: “Every time you come to Helsinki, I want you to promise to visit me,“ the executive said. “Spend at least 30 minutes each time and just bring me up to speed on how we’re doing—and tell me what you need. I can’t always promise I can help you but I will promise I will listen,” Shiv recounts the executive saying to him. And, Shiv adds, “there were a lot of times I needed that sponsorship because India is a long way from the mother ship.”

And that’s how Shiv managed along the two dimensions. On the one hand, he focused his team on winning in India, acting like founders of an extraordinary business that was out to transform the India telecommunications market. The local team had to be the champion of the local consumer, their needs, their differences. On the other hand, Shiv needed to make sure that corporate’s role in India was a net positive for the team. He did this by making sure everyone who worked on India had a shared view of the market, even if they disagreed about implications. And then he invested in a sponsor at the organization’s center.

None of these actions on their own will be as successful as the combination, and that is the trick. Good managers may master one; superb leaders know how to juggle them.

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