The best advice I ever got

I am constantly looking for examples of, and stories around leadership. It is one of those timeless topics that captures people’s imagination, and people always seem to enjoy hearing more about.

This months edition of Harvard Business Review (March 2008), I came across has a short interview with Kris Gopalakrishnan, Cofounder and CEO of Infosys Technologies ($3.1 Billion revenue, 80,000 employees).

In the interview, Kris describes the best advice he ever got on leadership from a tough, grizzled, old chain smoking physics professor while pursuing his undergraduate degree.

Between problem sets one day, the professor stopped and said, “You don’t need to worry. You’re good at this, you enjoy it, and you’re going to land on your own two feet. For now, just concentrate on your studies.” Immediately after that, Kris’s grades shot up, and he ultimately earned a place in India’s top ranked physics masters program.

At one level, my professor’s meaning was simple: Do what you love, work hard at it, and all will go well. But the specifics of his message, and the way he delivered it, go to the heart of every leader’s toughest challenge – motivating people.

I use his actions and his words as a model for spurring people on to superior performance. And I focus, just as he did, on three important things.

1. First, I constantly seek ways to get my love for this business across. When I display enthusiasm, employees are more likely to listen to what I say and draw extra energy from mine.

2. Second, in talking with employees, I seldom focus on numbers but instead on big ideas and their role.I don’t think that talking about revenue targets or market share projections will get people inspired. Instead, I try, just as my professor did, to help people imagine a future in which their unique contribution has an impact.

3. Finally, I get people to focus on the future impact of how they manage the task at hand.

A large part of Infosys’s business comes from maintaining legacy applications. On the surface this is not the most exciting of software development work. But Kris constantly finds ways of motivating employees by showing them the impact their work on many of their global clients, and the world at large.

This is a great example of leadership not by numbers, but by heart. The simple act of making people see the bigger picture, and the impact their work has on the lives of others can get the creative juices flowing and motivate us to try new things.

Kris’s job remains the same today as it did in 1981: to motivate one individual at a time.

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5 Responses to “The best advice I ever got”

  1. JH Says:

    Best advice I have received professionally was during an interview @ ThoughtWorks with a guy who, strangely, resembles the one writing this blog. Told me, many years ago, to go pick up some Fowler books and grok them. I didn’t get the job but it was still the best advise I ever received.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    The best advice I ever got

    “[..] in talking with employees, I seldom focus on numbers but instead on big ideas and their role.I don’t think that talking about revenue targets or market share projections will get people inspired.”

  3. JR Says:

    Thanks for sharing JH. You could do a lot worse than groking Martin Fowler material. All the best.

  4. Will Kriski Says:

    For some people, having the love equal to that of the owners (who could reap large financial benefits down the road, lay me off at some point, etc) will never happen. For me work is a simple exchange – I provide expertise and produce results in return for money (and other things like some learning opportunities).

    Many workers focus too much on the love (interesting projects, nice coworkers, free pop, etc) without making sure they are adequately compensated. Employers could cancel some of the wasteful parties and instead give money to their employees.

  5. JR Says:

    Hi Will,

    Considering how much time we spend at work, I would encourage people to do and find things they like and have a natural talent for.

    When you work to your strengths
    o employ a comparable advantage few others have
    o you probably enjoy it (because you’re a natural), and
    o its a lot easier than working to your weaknesses

    If you are good at it what you do, and you enjoy it, the money will take care of itself.

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