Sumit Gupta: “Leadership is a privilege”

I believe leadership is a privilege, and I am here to serve you. My job is to make sure you can do work you are proud of. If there is anything that stands in the way, we should work together to create an environment that allows you to do your best work. As a part […]

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I believe leadership is a privilege, and I am here to serve you. My job is to make sure you can do work you are proud of. If there is anything that stands in the way, we should work together to create an environment that allows you to do your best work.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sumit Gupta. Sumit runs a coaching program called “Deploy Yourself” to coach managers and individuals to express themselves and create high performing teams. He started out as a software geek 15 years ago, but was soon thrown, unprepared, into management. After leading teams for 12 years and making numerous mistakes, he now feels as comfortable talking about team building and career development as about machine learning and software programming.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I started as a techie 15 years ago and was the typical geek — good at computers and programming but introverted when it comes to communication. At that time, I had no idea what communication skills or emotional intelligence were, leave alone their importance.

As it happens with most people who are good at their job, I was soon leading a team of 14 people. I was 24 years at that time, and I had no idea what management was all about. To make it worse, I wasn’t even aware that people management and other so-called soft skills can be learned.

Needless to say, I made a lot of mistakes managing that team. Yet I did a few things which came naturally to me and which worked well, though I had no idea why. Fortunately, in 2010, someone pushed me to do a few leadership programs and it was then that I was exposed to the world of coaching.

I had a dedicated coach from 2010–2012 and those were my most productive years. After moving to Amsterdam in 2014, I started exploring the concept of coaching further. Since then, I have read more than 200 books on neuroscience, psychology, leadership, and philosophy to understand how human beings operate and what good leadership looks like.

This has led me to create Deploy Yourself — which is an evolving set of concepts on leadership and coaching.

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

Once, during a regular 1on1 with a member of my team, I noticed tears and wetness in the eyes of my team mate. Now, most people would ignore them and just expect people to “get their act together”. I would have done the same on other occasions, but fortunately on this occasion, I had the good sense to stop and give her space to open up.

It was then that she revealed what was bothering her, and once we looked deeper, that became a great moment of insight for her. Today, due to the coaching conversation we had that day, she is much more self aware and confident. In that one conversation, she figured out her values, what was bothering her, and how she can express her concerns in an authentic and constructive way.

I mention this incident because tears are like gold in a coaching conversation. My mother used to say that tears are emotions so strong we can’t find words to express them. Whenever tears present themselves in a conversation, it can reveal something important for the person if we can be brave and are willing to look deeper.

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

As a manager, most of my learnings have been from my own mistakes. I have worked in many companies over the last 15 years in India and Europe, and I have seen that most companies don’t have a training program to educate their leaders and managers.

To bridge this gap, and to share what I have learned, I am currently writing a couple of e-books which will contain findings and results from the latest research on leadership. These books will help both new and seasoned managers take their people management skills to the next level.

Everyone deserves to work in an environment where they feel welcome, safe and appreciated; and where they find the opportunity to do their best work. I hope writing these two books will help me do my part in the process.

I am currently collecting data, stories and insights from leaders across the industry to be included in the e-books, so if anyone reading this has an interesting story and would like to contribute, they can get in touch with me on LinkedIn or on my website.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I think that is because we are still managing our teams and people like we did over a hundred years ago. We still use the same systems and processes for employee motivation and performance management which were used for manual and rote work in factories.

We have totally ignored the fact that the work we do today is highly creative and knowledge based, and doesn’t resemble how we used to work just 3 or 4 decades ago. This leads to people being treated like tools and resources, and nobody likes to work in a place where they are treated like a machine.

People today crave freedom and autonomy, and they want to work in a place where they are cared for. They want to be part of a larger vision worth investing their time and effort. People want to make a difference with their work, and be acknowledged and appreciated for that.

As long as we continue to use management practices of the last century in the current one, it will be difficult to build trust. And trust is that basic ingredient which is the foundation of all things leadership. If you trust your people, and they trust you, everything becomes easier and more productive.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and well-being?

Without doubt modern research has proved that an unhappy workforce has a negative impact on all three points you mention. It is no secret that healthy employees are more productive, and their companies are more profitable.

Factors like lack of health insurance, erratic shifts, job security, lack of autonomy and freedom in work, etc will continue to make people not just unhappy and unproductive, but also physically and mentally sick. Research indicates that being exposed to these factors contributes to about 120,000 excess deaths per year in the United States alone.

Another factor which impacts happiness is vacation time. Most Americans, however, don’t take time off work for illness or vacation. More than half of those who are eligible for paid vacation don’t use all their time off. About 25% of Americans receive no paid vacation leave at all.

An unhappy workforce causes employee disengagement and low morale, which undermines stock prices, profitability, productivity and innovation. Human resources professionals should check in with employees regularly about job satisfaction. Successful companies such as Patagonia, Google and DaVita are proof that healthy, profitable workplaces do exist.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. Make Human Health A Priority — Good management starts with taking “care” of your people. As managers, we should all ask ourselves — how well do we know our people? Do we know what they “care” about? And then we should make it a priority to take care of what they care about. If we know that, we can match work to employees better leading to motivation, growth and success. Managers should actively discourage bad practices like working late and on weekends, and encourage people to focus on their health by providing health insurance, healthy food and sports facilities.
  2. Create Psychological Safety — No productive work is possible if people don’t feel safe at work. If you have to put a mask at work and are not free to say what you feel, it creates a lot of friction and stress. Thus creating an environment of psychological safety is very important for any manager. Your biggest job is to create an environment of respect and accountability, where people have fun and express themselves freely by continuously moving forward towards the team’s goals.
  3. Train Managers to Coach People — If you are a manager, you are a coach by default. You don’t have a choice in being their coach as people will approach you anyways. When they are demotivated, when they have a conflict, or when they need help for any other reason; it is your responsibility to listen, understand their concerns, and then coach them to align their personal motivations with the team’s shared purpose and goals. How well you coach people will be directly proportional to the results the team produces. Investing in learning these skills and making coaching a priority will be your best investment ever.
  4. Increase Job Autonomy — Nobody likes to be told what to do. Nobody likes to be micromanaged. We hire people after extensive interviews which test them on their skills. I think we disrespect the same skills when we don’t listen to them. As managers, it is important to give people a say in how they want to work. Once people have everything they need to do their job, managers should get out of their way and not stand over their shoulders.
  5. Honest and Transparent Communication — Finally, we should treat our employees as adults. We should be honest and share what is going on with them — even if it means sharing bad news. This builds trust and makes it more likely that people will stand by you in times of adversity. Leaders should stop using complicated language or hiding behind jargon. Share documents openly. Let people ask anything about everything. Transparent communication involves people in problem solving and you never know where a good idea might come from.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

As a society, we should start holding our companies and their leaders accountable. An unhealthy workforce leads to an unhealthy society, so it is in society’s best interest to do so. This can be done on multiple levels –

  1. By putting pressure on legislators and lawmakers to enact regulations enforcing minimum working conditions to ensure worker wellbeing. Doing that will also save unnecessary medical costs by preventing rather than curing diseases.
  2. Civil activists and prominent citizens should continue to hold business leaders in their local neighborhoods accountable to promote employee wellbeing, and to highlight the benefits to productivity and business output.
  3. Companies and business leaders should come together in industry events and conferences to hold their peers accountable to the latest research and regulations. When leaders see that employee health is directly linked to bottom line results, it will be a much easier sell.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I follow a hands off approach to leadership, based on listening, trust, fairness and accountability. When I start working together, I ask a lot of questions — to understand you and your motivations. People should do the same with me. But soon enough, as we build trust, I will step aside and give you the space to do what you do.

I believe leadership is a privilege, and I am here to serve you. My job is to make sure you can do work you are proud of. If there is anything that stands in the way, we should work together to create an environment that allows you to do your best work.

I like to work collaboratively, not against each other. I like an attitude of optimism, humility, empathy, and compassion when communicating with my peers. Over time I have learned to adapt my communication to suit different social styles.

If you report to me, don’t wait for something to happen to do what you know is the right thing to do. Act now. If something is within your area of responsibility, you do not need my permission. Use your sound judgement.

This is how I have led teams over the last 5 years in Amsterdam. And I share the above points openly with my team so that they can also hold me accountable.

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?

We must all ask for help when we need it. I believe we all have “unique” talents / skills, but there will still be times when we mess up. When that happens, we should be humble enough to acknowledge that, and courageous enough to ask for support.

If I have come this far, it is only because of the efforts of my parents. They went out of their way to support my education, and have always encouraged me to do what I am passionate about — be it computer programming, entrepreneurship or photography. So they deserve the most credit for my success.

Apart from them, I had a dedicated coach when I was in Bangalore from 2010–2012 and he made a massive impact in my life. He helped me see my own potential and clear away some blind spots which were holding me back. In those two years, apart from leading a team in Yahoo, I also ran a not-for-profit organisation. Those two years were clearly my most productive years.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Whatever little I have done, I have tried bringing good to this world by leading by example and by mentoring others to do the same. I also write regular articles on how to create a more inclusive and healthier workplace, and how to improve team morale and productivity.

Later this year, I will be releasing a couple of ebooks and online courses which will help people make better investments in their own careers, and avoid the mistakes which I have made. This question made me realise that there is still a lot needed to be done.

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

“Treat a man as he appears to be, and you make him worse. But treat a man as if he were what he potentially could be, and you make him what he should be.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This is my favorite when it comes to leading and managing people. So much of our standard performance measurement practices are focused on telling people what they did wrong, and on improving their weaknesses. This ends up making people frustrated and worse than they could be.

As leaders, we should be the ones to see diamonds and unfulfilled potential in our people, and to treat them like superstars. We should do that by focusing on strengths and positives in performance management, and we should stop ranking people or managing by fear of a stick.

I believe each person has a lot of untapped potential, and all leaders and managers need to do is to create the right environment for them to flourish. This (seeing potential) has become my maxim for managing people ever since.

You are a person of great 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. 🙂

If I could inspire a movement, it would be to “Love and Empower People” and that is the idea behind Deploy Yourself. It is so easy to belittle people, and there is so much of that going around our world today.

I would love for people to see their inner genius, and that comes out by loving and empowering people for who they are, both at work and in life in general. When you love people you don’t shout at them, you don’t shoot them, and you don’t treat them in a way you yourself wouldn’t want to be treated.

If we can do so, we can create a culture where it is safe to fail and everyone has the freedom to try out new ideas.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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