June 2005 | Shobha Ramswamy

The heart of business excellence

Sunil Sinha, the chief operating officer of Tata Quality Management Systems, on the leadership imperatives for companies facing today's multiple challenges

Over the years, the term 'leadership' has acquired new nuances. A dynamic and complex business world ruled by uncertainties has resulted in companies modifying strategies, shifting directions and even taking dramatic 180-degree turnarounds the norm rather than the exception. Management gurus have had to revisit the meaning of leadership and the nature of leaders and followers.

As the chief executive officer of Tata Quality Management Services (TQMS), Mr Sinha understands too well that no corporate journey is possible without a leadership commitment. "I feel that leadership is bout winning. Successful organisations have leadership at all levels and producing leaders is what separates the winners from others. All great companies have been steered by visionary leaders, says Sinha.

That is the reason 'leadership' is allocated the highest scores in the Tata Business Excellence Model (TBEM), which measures excellence in Tata group companies. "Business excellence," says Sinha, "is nothing but creatively living a set of fundamental values identified as common to high-performing organisations across the world." Apart from leadership there are other critical beliefs, including customer focus and having a futuristic view, but for Sinha the cornerstone of excellence is leadership — it can make or break companies.

The responsibilities of a leader have changed considerably over time. A decade ago, to successfully run an organisation in India, leaders needed to have the ability to control and manage internal processes and systems. This is only partly true at present.

"In today's world," says Sinha, "one needs to manage the expectations of different stakeholders, the most demanding of whom is the customer. For the organisation to become customer-driven, it must undergo a complete transformation. As a result, leaders are now executing and driving change within their companies, rather than merely controlling it. Good leaders don't control; they implement change. This is truly a paradigm shift being experienced by the corporate world today."

"When you look at current leaders, it is evident that enlightened leadership involves two essential dimensions. In the first, leaders play their roles as visionaries and dreamers, and are able to fulfil their dreams through ideas and values. The second dimension is the energy and passion which gives them the capacity to perform and deliver results. Leaders ensure the creation of strategies, systems and methods for achieving the goals. Of course, they also understand that the end is as important as the means."

Both dimensions are equally important for leaders in an environment where change is the only certainty. In such a situation, companies need leaders at all levels who are capable of supporting and managing the dynamics. Says Sinha, "The importance of a leadership system in Tata group companies has never been stronger. Globalisation is our biggest agenda. We need people who dare to dream, chart new courses and inspire others to do the same."

In addition to energising the organisation, this also involves leaders reviewing and monitoring progress, and relentlessly chasing goals once decisions are made. Hence, in TBEM greater emphasis has been placed on succession planning, cooperation, communication, knowledge sharing and the role of leadership in ensuring this.

Most importantly it is no longer about individuals but about teamwork. Earlier, there were many charismatic leaders who single-handedly built empires. This is no longer possible as now companies need leaders across all levels. "Organisations are creating value at every stage starting from the shop floor," emphasises Sinha.

Companies that are able to create value in their chosen areas often display similar leadership perspectives — they work at creating leaders at different levels of hierarchy who are able to assume bigger and more responsible positions. They also pride themselves on being able to transform ordinary people into inspired leaders. "They do not just indulge in classroom coaching," says Sinha, "but also in the development of people's abilities. Such organisations have the power to motivate people."

Companies today are also less hesitant about developing leaders. In earlier days, companies did not do so fearing they would suffer when such employees left. What companies have now realised is that having a pool of talented leaders helps when there is a void of any kind. "Companies are finding innovative ways to churn out leaders," says Sinha.

Sinha sees a compelling correlation between the scores companies get in TBEM and the attributes that are demonstrated. For instance, the top three companies on the TBEM scorecard last year — Tata Steel, TCS and Tata Motors — have all shown global aspirations, an appetite for asynchronous growth and the inclination to pursue world-class performance standards. "I am sure these are being supported by processes of developing new leaders at all levels and a daring ability to trade between growth and risk."

The desire to become world-class is catching on. A decade ago, only a few group companies had embraced the business excellence process. Today, most Tata companies have adopted TBEM as a part of their work culture. The average score of companies, participating in the assessment process, has also increased from around 250 to over 450. Sinha is heartened to see that these companies are progressing, but adds that "we need to quicken our speed".

Globalisation is already hastening the process. "The global challenge is totally different from competing on our own turf," says Sinha. "This will change the rules of the game and throw up challenges in terms of leadership development. We will have to take a closer look at our training, coaching and grooming methods.

"The need to transform our organisations is apparent, given the challenges of globalisation, soaring market and service requirements, technology shifts, and the changing character of the workforce. Transformation is about bringing into existence a new organisational culture, and requires people to transform themselves. Successful leaders are making people feel that they're at the very heart of change, not at the periphery. Fostering a can-do attitude among them is becoming crucial.

"And finally, leadership is not born, but created. In spite of myriad articulations of the meaning of leadership, the task of ensuring that one's people remain committed to the goals set is not an easy one, but it's not impossible either. The well-known saying aptly summarises what a leader is: The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind in others the conviction and the will to carry on."