How to unleash the Virat Kohli phenomenon inside your firm

What business leaders can do to encourage prodigies to flourish

Indrajit Gupta

[Photograph of Virat Kohli by Himanisdas under Creative Commons]

Virat Kohli’s match winning knock on Sunday pulverised the Australian T-20 team yet again. Except this one was played under extreme pressure, the burden of expectations from his fans was sky-high and other than his captain MS Dhoni and the old war horse Yuvraj Singh, there was no one in his side who was willing to stand up and fight.

This column isn’t yet another well-deserved tribute to one of the best T-20 knocks we’ve ever seen. It merely seeks to ask: as business leaders, are you doing enough to create a platform for prodigious young talent like Kohli to rise inside your own firm? Because the future will be won or lost by how well we mould and groom our young leadership talent. And there’s every chance that leaders of enterprises, both old and new, need to create the right environment for their bright young men and women to flourish.

Are you spotting them early?

At Sachin Tendulkar’s last Test, the great Kapil Dev told a cricketer friend of mine in a casual chat that “Yeh bachcha sab ko pichhe chhod dega (This boy will leave everybody behind).” He, of course, was referring to none other than Kohli, possibly the greatest limited overs cricketer to date. It takes a naturally gifted cricketer like Kapil Dev to immediately recognise exceptional talent when he sees one. And we’re now indeed fortunate to have a great leader like Rahul Dravid coach our Under-19 (U-19) side. It increases our chances of finding the next Kohli manifold when you have folks like Dravid taking care of them.

When he was at the helm at ICICI Bank, KV Kamath was an equally gifted talent spotter. He handpicked a whole next generation of leaders, of the likes of Chanda Kochhar, Shikha Sharma, Renuka Ramnath, V Vaidyanathan, Nachiket Mor and Bhargav Dasgupta. He created leadership challenges for each of them—and provided the air cover when required.

But the moot point: what would happen after he was gone? Was there a way to bottle Kamath’s genius? That’s exactly what the then leadership team persuaded Kamath to do: to institutionalise this leadership development process.

More than three years ago, I had a conversation with acclaimed CEO coach Ram Charan about the Steve Jobs phenomenon. And Ram Charan said something revealing. Charan had been closely involved in the controversial decision to bring back Jobs. In his second stint at Apple, Jobs took on the mandate to groom the next 100 leaders at the iconic company by systematically working with them to create a legacy of winning products, leaving Tim Cook to run the operations. (Listen to his video interview from 6:09 minutes onwards).

Are you building the right mindset for success?

I remember watching Unmukt Chand lead our U-19 national side in 2012. He was billed as the next cricketing sensation after Virat Kohli, scoring a century against the Australians in the finals of the U-19 Cricket World Cup, which won praise from Ian Chappell. Chand even penned down his memories of the U-19 World Cup in a book Sky Is the Limit. The book describes his journey from a normal boy practicing on uneven grounds with his peers to becoming captain of the winning India U-19 cricket team. Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sanjay Manjrekar wrote forewords for his book.

Yet Chand hasn’t yet lived up to his full potential once he moved into the senior league. He even lost his place in the Indian Premier League (IPL) side. His story is a familiar one—where many talented youngsters lose their way, caught in a dangerous spiral of hype and early success.

Year before last, even Kohli hit a bad patch. But he went back to the nets to work hard on ironing out his flaws. Today, he scores freely on both sides of the wicket and has raised his game to a new level. What’s the answer? Keep things simple. That’s the advice that many leaders and coaches offer. But above all, build the discipline to deliver consistently. And as coaches, encourage young leaders to raise the bar.

Much of it is also about developing the right mindset. Success is seldom a one-way street.

Which is why I’ve always been against the idea of building elite leadership cadres inside companies. Apart from issues of obvious lack of equity, it is based on a flawed idea that potential must take precedence over performance.

So when you hire smart young people from business schools or the Indian Institutes of Technology, it is important that they know that there can be no permanent ticket to success. And that there can be no entitlement; you have to perform and earn your way to greatness.

Are you getting out of the way?

In India, we make the same mistake, repeatedly. Older folks refuse to let go, even when they are no longer relevant in their industry. They live in denial of their own redundancy. They believe they must take all the important decisions in the firm. And refuse to step aside to create space for young leaders to come through.

One of the greatest qualities that a leader like Dhoni has is that he gives his team members enough opportunities to succeed and constantly encourages them to express themselves. Or else, despite their poor form, how have Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Suresh Raina survived? Dhoni believes that they will rise to the occasion in the next two matches in the tournament and has steadfastly resisted the chop-and-change tactics. That belief is perhaps mandatory for a player in the midst of a poor run to climb out of the rut and prove that he is deserving of the captain’s faith.

At a recent workshop organised by a leading consumer products company, film maker Prahlad Kakkar shared the incredible example of how he let loose young talent at his production house Genesis Film Production to work in a completely unstructured, chaotic environment, where they were allowed to make their own rules. If young people survived that ordeal for two years, he encouraged them to set up a new company that competed with the mother ship. Today, a large majority of the new production houses in the film production industry are led by Genesis alumni. The lesson: don’t constantly mollycoddle your young talent. Letting them free—and not believing that you need to make all the decisions for them—is sometimes the best way to build future leaders.

In these disruptive times, it pays to let young people take the lead, even at the cost of breaking down or reversing the organisational hierarchy.

So if digital businesses are likely to be the future, who has a better chance to figure that out? You’ve guessed it right: digital natives.

[This article was first published in Business Standard.]

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About the author

Indrajit Gupta
Indrajit Gupta

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Indrajit Gupta is a business journalist and editor with over two decades of experience. He was the Founding Editor of the Indian edition of Forbes magazine. Within four years of its launch, Forbes India became the most influential magazine in its space.

He is the co-founder and director at Founding Fuel.

He has served in leadership positions at many of the leading media brands in the country. Before taking up the assignment to start up the India edition of Forbes magazine, Gupta was the Resident Editor of The Economic Times in Mumbai and before that, the National Business Editor of The Times of India.

Over the years, Gupta has built a reputation for grooming talent and creating highly energised and purposeful newsrooms. He has interviewed several leading global thought-leaders and business leaders including CK Prahalad, Ram Charan, Wayne Brockbank, Sumantra Ghoshal, Carlos Ghosn and Nitin Nohria, and also led cutting-edge joint research-based projects with McKinsey & Co, The Great Place to Work Institute, Boston Consulting Group, KMPG and Coopers & Lybrand.

He won the Polestar journalism award in 2010 and was awarded the Chevening fellowship by the British Foreign office in 1999. Gupta is an alumnus of the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai and a B.Com (Hons) graduate from St Xavier's College, Calcutta.

Gupta teaches a course on Business Problem Solving at his alma mater. He writes a column named Strategic Intent in Business Standard’s edit page. He lives in Mumbai with his wife and two young daughters.

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