The Art of Becoming Effective Executives: Learning from successful experiences

There are many things that we learn from others. Learning from successful experiences on how to become effective executives always happens over a period of decades. Based on observations of at least 25 successful and effective executives spread over four different businesses, this article is an attempt to discuss the main lessons in some detail.


Mr Vasanth was the CEO of an independent profit centre of a large heavy chemical company. This unit, in South Tamil Nadu, was always profitable, as it manufactured high-quality caustic soda, PVC resin, and other heavy chemicals with a big demand. Yet, since the environment was predominantly rural, building a good team was priority number one. Except for a few highly qualified engineers at the top levels, the organization depended on the diploma holders in mechanical, chemical, and electrical disciplines. They were mainly trained on the job and delivered performance. The workmen were well trained as well. Over fifteen years, the organization reaped a large number of benefits when it implemented the concept of Quality Circles, a simple concept where the workmen meet after working hours and get to implement suggestions gathered through their interaction. These are only voluntary groups and the climate inside the organization is key to the success of this exercise.

Mr Vasanth was a highly successful executive. Though he was a CEO, he had developed a team of good performers and at least two from his top team could effortlessly step into his shoes at any point in time. He retired after several years of service. However, he acted as a consultant for at least another five years.

There are five major lessons in the Indian context that we should learn from the successful experiences of successful and effective executives. These are a) Be one step above any subordinate but develop them every day b) Never be biased against anyone c) Take interest in developing personalized relationships d) Always focus on the big goals and e) Seek to become a generalist at every given opportunity.

Be one step above any subordinate but develop them every day

BHEL. ICICI Bank. Aditya Birla group of companies. ITC. HDFC Bank. Asian Paints. These are some fabulous Indian companies. What is common to all of them? I have attended numerous HR Conferences and in each of these conferences, I have learned one big lesson, based on the sharing of experiences of so many senior HR experts. These organizations have a big pool of successful and effective executives who are one step above any subordinate but always systematically develop them. Furthermore, they are always mandated to do so and can have a negative performance appraisal if it is observed that the subordinates are not equipped, at any point in time.

The key to your success will be to always become knowledgeable and you should know much more than anyone else in your team. However, you should also near fear any competition from any one of them and become a role model for developing their special talents and their role-related performance at any point in time. If you fail to do this, you cannot become an effective executive.

Never be biased against anyone

This is one aspect that needs to be noted. There are many instances where the subordinates resign their jobs in disgust. This can happen when the bosses are afraid that they will develop more than them. It can also happen when someone is biased against anyone based on religion or skin colour or even the language that one speaks as his or her mother tongue.

In a big conglomerate, when I had the opportunity to interact with a large number of senior executives across businesses such as sugar, paper, cement, car tyres, and so on, I noticed some executives who were so afraid of talented executives. These young engineers managed groups of some thirty-odd workmen on the shop floor. When a few workmen would praise the young engineer for the personal interest that he took in making him understand the nuances of a recently introduced technology, the boss would feel insecure. The very next day, the young engineer would be given a good amount of administrative work. In one case, the hapless young person was given total responsibility of getting all records in place to satisfy the requirements of the ISO TS 16949 certification that was applicable then.

Another subordinate was also despatched to the purchasing department for some coordination or the other. Though this gave the youngster an opportunity of becoming multi-skilled, it effectively gave him limited opportunities to become an expert in the core area of production that was his strength. He resigned in protest and narrated all his bitter experiences to the Corporate HR executive in the exit interview. This boomeranged on the boss and he was made to mend his ways. The damage was however done.

Take interest in developing personalized relationships

This is a particularly India-specific observation, but it works. If there is a survey of highly effective executives, one can always note that this variable is mentioned in one form or the other. The main reason as to why this happens is because the subordinates always expect to be asked personal questions. They would expect the boss to ask about his wife who would be delivering a child in five months. They would expect that the boss would speak to their family members when introduced during the annual Ayuda pooja time when many manufacturing organizations do not have production for a half-day and encourage all the employees to bring their entire families to see the place of their work. These are very small things, but it does work in Indian conditions.

Most Indian organizations are still family-managed and the organizational cultures sort of renew themselves without any change. It is vital that you learn the nuances of such cultures in a very detailed manner and then adapt to them. While you can stay a bit aloof on any negative aspect of such cultures, you need to play ball to the particularly paternalistic aspects of the culture, particularly in the manufacturing organizations. In IT organizations, it is not possible to find paternalistic cultures. However, the informal culture that normally exists in such organizations can also become stressful, when you need to produce results in record time. This needs you to be highly adaptable and adjustable. You just do not have any choice.

Always focus on the big goals

This is another important variable. Mr Pandian was an engineer on the shop floor of a foundry. He would volunteer to work in the second shift if someone went on leave. He had learned the nuances of more than one department and volunteered to take on higher responsibilities. This became a habit and he also developed core teams of workmen who became experts in their fields. He was quickly promoted and sent to an IIM to attend a special program on Management. He showed an interest in Marketing and Finance as well. He was made to undergo special on-the-job training in both these departments and he became a generalist.

He was made General Manager within eight years and this was a big record. He identified a core team of youngsters and ran the operations so independently like a big Visionary. He had made use of every available opportunity but his monitoring skills were simply innovative. He would suddenly show up in the night shift and order some reluctant supervisors to do a better job. He was a terror for the non-performers. They were always shunted to insignificant positions and they would resign on their own.

His ability to focus on the big goals was seen on any single day. He would work for 14 hours per day, even on Sundays. This is exactly the kind of dedication and commitment that is expected of any youngster today. You must read between the lines -- hard work, willingness to develop others, ability to show interest and promise in more than one area, and go far beyond the call of duty. You need to be like Mr Pandian at any point in time. The art of focussing on big goals is a very unique experience and you need to be unique in every single way.

Seek to become a generalist at every given opportunity

This is one important lesson that lows from the aforesaid experience. Those who work hard also work differently. Those in FMCG companies like to be on the shop floor, in marketing, supply chain management, as members of the cross-functional teams, and strategic management. Nothing comes without getting noticed. You just cannot be noticed if you do an ordinary job. You will be noticed and recognized only if you show extraordinary skills in making a big difference. It should be noted that you should invest in an executive MBA which can be acquired on a part-time basis in any big city, from any of the good deemed Universities. You just do not have any choice. You need to become a generalist and you should know the conceptual details more than anyone else to make a difference.


When you start making notes of whatever good experiences you have in your interactions with successful executives, you can learn a lot in your career. When you start having role models of such high performers, it becomes even easier to emulate such behaviours and go ahead at any point in time. Aforaesaid learning experiences can add value in this direction.


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