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Tips from the Top: One On One With Sudheesh Nair

I spoke to Sudheesh Nair, CEO of ThoughtSpot, about his best advice

Adam: What is something about you that would surprise people?

Sudheesh: That I’m an introvert and a nerd who experiences my share of socially awkward moments on a daily basis.

Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth and why?

Sudheesh: While I have many, more recent examples of failures that put me on a path to success, one instance that I recall in particular is a job interview I had in the early 2000’s. I usually ace job interviews, but I failed when I interviewed for the position of a security administrator at Fidelity Investments in Boston. I can still remember being very hard on myself during the Boston Coach ride back to airport. However, I realize now that if I had received that job, I wouldn’t have moved to the West Coast or been exposed to the startup ecosystem where I’ve achieved so many of my goals. All told, I certainly wouldn’t be the person I’m today.

The idea that everything happens for a reason, and that the reason will eventually reveal itself as a good one is easy to understand but very hard to live by. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that I’ve failed (and learned) my way to where I’m today.

Adam: What are the most important lessons you learned from earlier jobs and how have you applied them?

Sudheesh:

  1. It only take one person to mess up the culture of a team, and yet one person alone can’t fix the mess. I’ve applied this lesson time and again when I had to take into account someone’s effect on teams versus the benefits their expertise and knowledge brought to the group. For example, I’ve worked with high performers who were unfortunately also toxic to the group dynamic. Despite their individual achievements and skills, the negative impact they had on the team and their potential to drag it down meant they weren’t a good fit and that ultimately it was best for us to part ways.
  2. Happy people produce happy products and services. I’ve learned that you can prod and push people that you’re leading to produce more and work harder, but if you want to truly achieve maximal efficiency and output, your team members need to love what they do. For that reason, I realized early on that I need to put employee satisfaction at the top of the list of things I measure myself on. It’s my job to continually learn how to ensure teams are happy in their work and instill those learnings wherever possible. That’s why employee satisfaction (ThoughtSpot  uses office vibes as one way to measure happiness) is one of my key metrics for success.
  3. The higher up you go, the less complete your projects will be. As you manage more people and are responsible for broader outcomes company wide, you ultimately have to cede ownership for completing or controlling a project overall. That’s why it’s critical to cultivate and hire a team of people who can take your ideas, even those only partially baked, and turn them into reality. By extension, you also have to create the mindset among all leaders in your organization that they can not be  one person shows, and instead, must become enablers of other’s success.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader?

Sudheesh: Leaders can have many defining qualities and one leader may differ somewhat from the next. However, in my experience, most great leaders I’ve come in contact with embody some, if not all, of these qualities:

  1. They are self-aware enough to be mindful of their own egos and insecurities and are naturally empathetic, making them mindful of others’ feelings as well; they are often the first ones to forgive.
  2. They understand how to maintain responsibility for an outcome, particularly one that goes south, while deliberately delegating the authority and associated credits, particularly when things go well.
  3. They are innately curious, unafraid to fail in public, and are authentic storytellers–all traits needed to be great entrepreneurs as well.
  4. Great leaders learn from everything and everyone, and have the ability to outwork everyone.
  5. They are able to find equilibrium in the middle of chaos, and oh yes, great leaders speak more than one language.

Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Sudheesh: Taking leadership to the next level can be achieved in many ways. One very important way is through radical transparency in decision making. Leaders often have to make hard and unpopular decisions, and many assume that being disliked for that decision “comes with the territory”. However, radical transparency gives leaders the tools to not only make the difficult decision, but also do so in a way that produces an outcome where her team both respect and like her. To do so, leaders must make the decision they deem appropriate, but also consider their responsibility to explain the entire context, constraints, and decisions-points in all its gory details to everyone who wants to hear it. They should do it in exec meetings, then in an all-hands meeting, and then pull aside non-believers in 1-1s and do it all over again.

Leaders who take the harder path of carefully explaining and justifying their decisions know that being liked is the not the reward they seek. Rather, in the more difficult path of radical information transparency, being liked becomes just an after-effect, which is not bad because every human being wants to be liked by others; sometimes leaders more than others.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Sudheesh:

  1. To achieve success in business, individuals really need to have a great sense of self and confidence–they need to genuinely embrace and communicate who they are, which helps others feel confident in their abilities.
  2. Take time to pause and reflect, and then react. In the world of social media, storms are short-lived.
  3. Never stop learning and never stop prioritizing.  

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Sudheesh: I honestly can’t remember any single piece of advice that I’d consider the best I’d ever received. That’s because you don’t learn something truly transformational from one single conversation, but instead through examples that repeat themselves.  I don’t usually learn much from a single piece of advice. I am slow that way…

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Sudheesh: Every person in every walk of life has an opportunity to have a positive impact on another individual’s life. One great way that executives and other leaders can have that impact is by mentoring someone.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Sudheesh: One of my favorite hobbies is hiking. I love the physicality of it and the fact that it can force one to disconnect from technology, and more importantly, the outside world in general. Hiking and being among nature always has a way of putting everything in perspective for me.

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