“Act with Integrity”, With Douglas Brown and Krishna Kutty

Act with Integrity. Practice integrity throughout your operations — from your client service through to your C-suite, repetition matters (don’t just parcel integrity into your code of ethics or employee handbook, it has to be actively practiced). Remember to relish the wins and take accountability for mistakes. As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational […]

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Act with Integrity. Practice integrity throughout your operations — from your client service through to your C-suite, repetition matters (don’t just parcel integrity into your code of ethics or employee handbook, it has to be actively practiced). Remember to relish the wins and take accountability for mistakes.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Krishna Kutty, Managing Partner & Co-Founder of Kuroshio Consulting Inc., a boutique management consulting practice based in Chicago. Krishna has 17 years of experience in shaping business strategies and delivering top-and bottom-line results in complex, global, and heavily regulated industries. Her firm specializes in supporting clients across North America on strategy, large-scale M&A/divestitures, turnarounds, process re-engineering, and digital transformations across the health care, life sciences, energy, and manufacturing sectors.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I had been working on large scale transformations (digital, functional, operational) for organizations in multiple industries over the course of my career and was appalled that these organizations were willing to pay enormous consulting fees with the yield being PowerPoints that would become shelf-ware on an executive’s desk. The creation of strategy (business model), operating model changes and their associated implementation plans must be rooted in the organization’s context, not a theoretical exercise. The external consultants who we had engaged, had great theoretical ideas but were not pragmatically rooted in the organization’s context and broader environmental constraints. My business partner and I were discussing this one day and thought there has to be a better way to meld pragmatism with strategy to support organizations with their strategy and transformations, hence we set up our own consulting practice.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

We secured a contract renewal with a large consulting client during the pandemic, when the organization was in a cost-saving mode and had implemented a ban on signing new deals. This was interesting because it was a big win and emphasized that our approach was working — that is, we developed a trusted advisor relationship with the client over the course of a year and levered that to continue supporting them when they needed to navigate the crisis.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

As I was relocating to Chicago to set up my practice, there were a lot of moving parts, but I took the fact that we could easily set up a corporate bank account and corporate credit cards, with our long-term personal banking financial institution, for granted. Our financial representative made an error with associating our corporate account with the credit cards, and we nearly ruined our corporate credit in the first month. The lesson learned here is that large banks have disparate operations for personal and corporate services, so ask clarifying questions, leave plenty of time to complete administrative tasks during start-up, and try not to set up business banking in the midst of a relocation.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

There have been frustrating times when we first set up our practice, but I never considered giving up. My drive comes from two sources — I am intrinsically motivated (hard to find an entrepreneur who is not) and set objective goals. I try to focus daily on remembering why I started Kuroshio in the first place and on executing on tangible steps that I can take to move the needle.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

This is cliché, but I have to say first, my parents. Although they are both entirely risk averse, they are incredibly supportive of my ventures into entrepreneurship and are my biggest cheerleaders. In addition, I have been fortunate to have mentors in my life, Fulkra Mason and Roy Taylor, who inspire and challenge me to do better and be better. I met them both while working in the energy sector and they not only paved the way for me, but also actively championed me in my career aspirations. They created opportunities for me to take on a breadth of exciting initiatives that I otherwise would not have had access to, and really allowed me to build the confidence to lead large-scale transformations, something which is a core service offering of my consulting practice today. In addition, they both also remind me to tend to myself — both in terms of self-care and in terms of being of service to the broader community; I continue to be in awe of and inspired by them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude” — Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Forgiveness is a critical element to long term success. Consulting entails long hours, high performing teams (usually with strong personalities and opinions), and interactions with a full spectrum of client personalities. This combination can become a flash point if not managed appropriately. Wake up every day assuming that people are coming with good intentions and forgive the day prior — not forget, mind you, and definitely learn, but start off each day with a clean slate.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

Kuroshio Consulting Inc. advises organizational leaders in the health care, life sciences, manufacturing, and energy sectors, to define business strategy and sustainably execute on the associated transformations (digital, functional, and operational models). Designing strategy that is firmly rooted in each client’s organizational context and then following that up with a plan on how to implement that strategy through a transformational initiative or set of efforts, is what we support. The pain point we are helping clients address is around how to continue transforming and growing their organizations through improvements — radical and continuous.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Kuroshio Consulting Inc. takes a pragmatic approach to our client engagements, which for us entails developing trusted advisor relationships and practicing radical candor. Our clients engage us because they need an unbiased external perspective and/or deep subject-matter expertise, and dissonance is to be expected between what we see and what they experience. Practicing radical candor is not easy, especially when the client is paying your bills, but we genuinely believe in sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly, so that the client can improve their position. We recently worked with a client, wherein we were brought in to support a multi-million dollar transformation program within operations. Our C-suite sponsor was at a loss for understanding how his direct report (who he was proud to have poached from a competitor) had not yet strategized and implemented a critical risk mitigation program after three years. After we completed our discovery and analysis, we found the root cause — his handpicked leader was a superstar at problem solving day to day issues but direly lacked programmatic or longer-term perspective to be able to direct the 1,000+ person team in putting together the risk mitigation program. A candid conversation with our executive sponsor was had and we came up with a plan to assist. This included conducting an organizational redesign, exiting the new leader, and acting as the interim leader to develop and implement the program over 3 months. While the client got the desired results, we were sweating bullets in anticipation of that conversation — it certainly was not easy to do but that conversation earned us a lot of goodwill with our sponsor and established us firmly as a trusted advisor.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are working on developing a new product strategy offering at Kuroshio, focused on helping our health care and life sciences clients develop products and experiences for their consumers to improve health and wellbeing and take these products to market faster. Many of our hospital clients are in the nascent stages of developing products (physical or digital) directly or through partnerships, and this offering will provide pragmatic solutions from other industries to solve these complex problems.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Well, I can’t say that I am satisfied with the current state, but there is progress being made. I think there are multiple career paths and options to explore, rather than the standard STEM career paths. I have a business degree and came into technology by working in operations. I have also actively cultivated mentors who challenge me to do and be better, on a daily basis. I would encourage women to be bold in charting their own careers — leverage in-house career programs if these are available to you, but set your own path and find your own career sponsors within an organization; don’t wait for someone to plot your career for you.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I believe that gender perception is still the biggest challenge faced by women in technology. Unconscious bias abounds in areas like taking on stretch opportunities, decision making, and work-life balance needs. For example, when there is an opportunity for a stretch role, women are often overlooked unless overqualified, while men are assessed on their potential. Leaders also attribute work-life balance needs to women even if they have supportive partners and multiple layers of childcare. How can women progress to become strong leaders without the right opportunities? The unconscious biases are harder to tackle as they are implied and assumed. The best way for companies to address this is by establishing objective criteria based on the role rather than relying on whether or not a woman is or is not the “right fit.” This approach works for recruiting, performance evaluations, and when evaluating candidates for assignments. We are human and objective criteria is never perfect but having a well-positioned career sponsor who looks out for your best interests and connects you to opportunities and influential leaders is priceless.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

Foremost, it is important that boosting growth or sales does not come at the cost of your brand’s value. Know what premise the company started on and see if there are other avenues to explore that are tangential — this could be exploring adjacent services (to tackle a new customer segment) and/or hiring personnel who have expertise in areas your current staff don’t.

I am not a big proponent of diversifying so broadly that you become everything to everyone, without a careful examination of intention. In fact, we recently worked with a company which was at its tipping point and had started to branch out into areas that were not going to help with differentiating capabilities — they started developing in-house software for the HR space, in a market that is oversaturated and with a product that was not solving a real customer concern.

Another method would be to partner with an external firm that perhaps already works a similar space but has a different value proposition; partnering on opportunities that play to both organizations’ strengths can be rewarding.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

You have to get the right people in the right roles to create very high performing sales teams. Our management consultants not only execute on client engagements, but also are involved in our sales process. As we support organizations with strategic matters, it is critical that we hire personnel with the appropriate subject-matter expertise in order to prospect and to continue to retain clients. Your sales personnel must be able to have a quality conversation from the first call and onwards — that is, they have to gain an understanding of the client’s business problem rapidly and then effectively present the value that we can bring to the table. We utilize practice leads (we have Digital Transformation, Health Technology, Product Strategy, and Marketing practice leads) who are seasoned 20+ year professionals with deep expertise in their respective areas and across the industries that we service (oil/gas, pharmaceutical, providers/hospitals, and manufacturing). In addition, we compensate our practice leads commensurately — they get a portion of the deal and they have to lead a team to execute on the engagement.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

Word of mouth through our network of contacts has been the best method to find and attract clients, followed by responses to RFP requests. We also love to meet and collaborate with other entrepreneurs and we have had several clients come through due to our partnerships with other consulting firms.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

There are several factors that we rely on to provide good client service: taking a proactive approach to communications, being competent, and ensuring convenience of contact. We are proactive in our communications before, throughout, and post-client engagement, including around risks and successes. We ensure that our clients have direct access to our practice leads and partners, who have the content expertise to assist or to remedy any issue that might crop up. And finally, we ensure that our clients can reach us through whatever channel is most convenient for them and on a 24×7 basis.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

In consulting, the client experience is critical in mitigating churn. While we don’t utilize standing programs to limit customer attrition, we are flexible enough to work with our clients to pivot to what they need assistance with (especially during these pandemic conditions) — a change in their business model, rapid innovation to take up adjacent market space, and/or reorganizing their operating model.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Focus on your Business Model

Ensure that you have a clear description of how your company creates and captures value, in particular, your customer value proposition and your pricing mechanism. These will impact how you structure your operating model and associated processes, as well as with whom you will partner. The technology product or solution is only as successful as the operations or business problem it solves!

2. Act with Integrity

Practice integrity throughout your operations — from your client service through to your C-suite, repetition matters (don’t just parcel integrity into your code of ethics or employee handbook, it has to be actively practiced). Remember to relish the wins and take accountability for mistakes.

3. Hire the Right Talent at the Right Time

When you are ready to hire, invest upfront in seasoned talent, even if they are a higher upfront cost to your organization than entry-level professionals. Those with experience can help you set up systems and practices that can then engender the culture you desire.

4. Be Flexible

Plan thoroughly but be prepared to be flexible when things don’t go according to plan (embrace change). When pitching a service to a client, prepare to spend a lot of time listening and you may find what the client is struggling with isn’t what you were planning to talk about. That’s the time to pivot and have a frank discussion about what you can do to help them (with or without a presentation).

5. Evaluate Evolution

Revisit your client list, service offerings, goals, revenue targets, and overall financials on a quarterly basis at minimum. Everything is in its infancy and it is good to measure and re-evaluate early and often, so that you can course correct (dialing back expectations or stretching goals) accordingly.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would be more open in sharing the challenges that women face in their careers. Companies make concerted efforts to get women in the door and are starting to put more career progression programs in place, however, I don’t believe that women share enough about the day-to-day microaggressions that we experience and how we can better (and collectively) start navigating them more effectively. In my career, I have been in several situations (both subtle and overt) where I was at a loss to what was happening and how to respond; I hope by encouraging women to share these experiences with each other, that we can expose and educate. I am writing a book about this and hope to start some positive momentum in the near future. Stay tuned!

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to meet Cindy Hoots, Chief Digital Officer & CIO for AstraZeneca. Cindy is focused on driving business outcomes through technology not only to impact profits and revenue streams, but also communities. I am particularly interested in hearing about her thoughts in rethinking business and digital strategy priorities in a post-pandemic landscape.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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