Communication: I’m a firm believer that top-down communication is the key to achieving diversity, producing opportunity and inspiring collaboration and transparency.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dinesh Paliwal, the President and Chief Executive Officer of HARMAN, the US-based speaker manufacturer at the forefront of developing AI-driven, connected technologies for the car, home, work and everywhere in between. To transform the company from a founder-run, top-down culture to one that is customer-centric and innovation driven, Dinesh has instituted significant changes since his tenure began in 2007. These include building a strong leadership team, expanding the company’s business in high growth emerging markets and instituting best-in-class operating processes that have resulted in top- and bottom-line growth. In addition to serving as president and CEO, Dinesh served as chairman of the Board of Directors of HARMAN from 2008 to March 2017 when the company was acquired by Samsung for $8 billion. Dinesh has worked and lived in six countries on four continents through his roles at HARMAN and ABB Group, where he spent 22 years, rising to the level of President of ABB Group and Chairman/CEO — ABB North America.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve been a lifelong lover of music. I don’t play an instrument or sing, but my wife and children are all musically talented. So when I was offered the position of HARMAN CEO twelve years ago, I jumped at the chance to lead the parent company of renowned audio brands such as JBL, Harman Kardon and AKG. These brands are so iconic they have been recognized with GRAMMYs and Academy Awards! I also recognized that there was an opportunity to use HARMAN’s strong audio foundations to develop state-of-the-art technology that would enable the company to expand into smart products, systems, software and services that connect people wherever they are.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
A few years back, I had a fascinating dinner with Sir Paul McCartney, who has been one of our brand ambassadors and a fan of HARMAN products since the 1960s. He told me how, during the recording of the Sgt. Pepper album in the 1960’s at Abbey Road studios, the Beatles used HARMAN’s Studer J37 multi-track recorder and played back the audio on HARMAN’s JBL speakers. In fact, he wanted to listen to each day’s tracks at home, so he had the same equipment set up there. He said it’s the only way he can capture and listen to his music that replicates the original performance. He has been loyal to a variety of HARMAN brands ever since. To this day, I keep a model of the same Studer mixer from Paul’s story in my office as a reminder of the difference HARMAN has on both ordinary and extraordinary lives.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think they will help people?
I’m always excited about all of the innovative, ground-breaking work that’s happening at HARMAN. Our products and capabilities now extend far beyond our audio roots to include many products that bridge the entertainment and information worlds, particularly in the automotive market. One area that I’m particularly passionate about is the evolution of the cockpit of vehicles and how we at HARMAN are bringing together many technologies to enhance the experience within vehicles — both for current cars as well as for the future of autonomous vehicles.
The average person spends more than 20 hours a week travelling in a car, and many are reluctant to disconnect from their digital life for even a short period of time. Consequently, the auto, audio, handset and cloud industries are converging as consumers want a seamless blend of their connected lifestyle together with a safe and secure in-car experience. The true value of a car is no longer measured by miles per gallon (MPG) or engine size (RPM) — it’s now about the EPM, or experience per mile.
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?
Most companies lack the people-centric philosophy and commitment to ongoing education that’s necessary to drive employee engagement. At HARMAN, we put talent development at the top of our HR agenda and invest significant resources in the progress of our people. For example, our Hungry Tigers program combines the talents of some of our top employees to execute complex projects. In 2017, a group of Hungry Tigers won a grant from the company to pursue a new technology in a ‘Shark Tank’-inspired competition. This program has been so successful that we expanded it to include Hungry Cubs, aimed at reaching high-potential managers.
In 2018, HARMAN launched the Leadership Experience Acceleration Program (LEAP), an early career rotational designed to help our future innovators and leaders build strong networks and gain professional skill training at a variety of HARMAN offices around the world. We’re also incredibly dedicated to the expansion of the HARMAN Women’s Network, a group established to educate and engage all employees — both women and men — in diversity and inclusion efforts. Today, HARMAN’s Chief Financial Officer, Chief Compliance Officer and heads of strategy, procurement and talent are all women.
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 wellbeing?
A happy workforce has been found to positively impact many facets of a business. It’s the role of the CEO to create a place where people are proud to work.
At HARMAN, emboldening our people through professional development programs drives innovative thinking and allows employees to use their expertise to contribute to HARMAN’s overall success. Employees who exercise their strengths on a daily basis are more productive and engaged, and employee productivity has been linked to financial growth.
Listening to what employees believe they need to succeed is another critical component of fostering a happy workforce. I’ve found a hands-on approach is the best way to engage employees and source genuine feedback. I write a monthly letter to the entire staff to keep them apprised of crucial developments and achievements, meet face-to-face with colleagues around the world on a regular basis and hold an open conference call each quarter.
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?
Leaders looking to create a fantastic work culture should focus on communication, opportunity, diversity, collaboration and transparency.
● Communication: I’m a firm believer that top-down communication is the key to achieving diversity, producing opportunity and inspiring collaboration and transparency. When I was appointed CEO of HARMAN in 2007, the organization was very siloed, so I instituted regular town hall meetings to encourage transparency, generate new ideas and make sure that every single one of our 30,000+ employees is heard. These gatherings are a cornerstone of employee communications because there are no pre-vetted topics — just honest conversation on their turf. I have been faced with hard-hitting questions during these sessions, and while being in the hot seat isn’t easy, the dialogue provides an important opportunity to hear real observations from employees and illuminate important issues that must be addressed.
● Opportunity: Two-way communication is very important, but it unfortunately doesn’t always translate into action. That’s why a critical part of HARMAN’s culture is to offer employees the resources and opportunities they need to drive measurable change. Organizations like the HARMAN’s Women’s Network and LEAP have been successful, in part, because they encourage employees to push themselves out of their comfort zones by working across divisions and geographies to share ideas, explore new opportunities, set ambitious goals and generate progress.
● Diversity: Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is a priority at HARMAN because of our fervent commitment to equality. Research has also shown that diverse teams perform better. I’m proud of the progress HARMAN has made by investing in talent from a wide range of backgrounds and championing female role models, but it’s also important to recognize that D&I is an ongoing process. That’s why HARMAN invests in the success of future professionals in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) fields. We partner with a number of fantastic nonprofits like Little Kids Rock and the GRAMMY Music Education Coalition, which are committed to youth music education.
● Collaboration: An individual or company can achieve a great deal, but we are always stronger together. Innovation doesn’t happen without new ideas, which come from those with varied backgrounds and experiences. One organization I admire that HARMAN has the privilege to collaborate with is 1,000 Dreams Fund (1DF), a national nonprofit that provides micro-grants to young women in the US. Together, Harman and 1DF have pledged to continue to inspire and financially support women interested in pursuing careers in tech. In addition to investing in the success of future influencers, leaders must share ideas and information amongst themselves through networking. I’ve learned the value of taking advantage of all interpersonal opportunities that present themselves — from volunteering on boards, to attending lectures, to partnering with like-minded organizations to getting to know my neighbors.
● Transparency: Being transparent with colleagues and partners shows that you trust them and value their input and ideas. The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer even found that employees who have trust in their employer are far more likely to engage in beneﬁcial actions on their behalf. It is important that all of my colleagues see how the vision that supports HARMAN’s corporate mission is playing out, what’s working, what may need to be adjusted and what comes next. Asking for feedback and listening is also a critical part of this process, especially at the top.
It is 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?
We can invest more in the people that define the work culture itself. I think a big part of how to accomplish this is through prioritizing diversity and inclusion. HARMAN’s transformation over the past decade has been defined by our ability to engage employees in a way that creates business value. We do that by ensuring that equality and acceptance permeate all levels of the organization through the four C’s: communications, commitment, culture and community. HARMAN also sets ambitious goals, develops incentives, demands accountability and executes plans effectively.
HARMAN’s culture has no tolerance for exclusionary behavior. We offer voluntary unconscious bias training that teaches managers about the existence of biases, equips them with strategies for spotting troublesome situations and provides tools to handle them accordingly. To date, our unconscious bias workshops have reached more than 500 HARMAN employees.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
If you asked my colleagues to describe my leadership style, I think they’d say I’m transparent, inclusive, collaborative, hands-on, open, direct and that I encourage and reward risk-taking.
As CEO, it is my responsibility to develop the strategy for HARMAN and to empower my team to execute this vision. When I was first appointed CEO, I made an effort to set a new tone for the organization. At that point, HARMAN had grown through acquisitions, and there were 17 different businesses, operating under 17 names, using 17 email domains. I had a vision for a unified future under “One HARMAN.” So, I broke down silos to encourage inclusivity and collaboration. The One HARMAN culture successfully unified the businesses and established a structure to integrate future acquisitions seamlessly without sacrificing HARMAN’s corporate voice or purpose.
I also make a concerted effort to lead by example by constantly pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Over the years, I’ve become very comfortable with discomfort, and I encourage my colleagues to seek out and embrace discomfort as well. Some of the greatest moments of discomfort throughout my career have also led to profound and long-lasting personal and professional growth. I’ve worked and lived in six countries on four continents and have learned many invaluable leadership lessons along the way. At HARMAN, we’ve found varying cultural perspectives to be such a powerful driver of innovation that we exclusively hire executives who have lived in another country for multiple years. We’re also making these opportunities available for junior team members through the LEAP initiative.
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?
I’ve been lucky enough to have had many important people touch my life in profound ways. However, my greatest support system and partner is my wife, Ila. Ila has always been there for me as a trusted sounding board and devoted spouse. Together, we’ve moved around the world and raised two wonderful children. Ila never ceases to amaze me because she’s done so much for me and our family while pursuing a very successful career of her own as a classically trained Indian vocalist. Our passion for music is just one of the many things Ila and I have in common, but we also have our differences. As in the workplace, constant communication, collaboration and transparency has made our partnership an incredibly fruitful and giving one.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
By prioritizing purpose professionally and personally.
HARMAN’s strong track record of innovation and business growth is fueled by our commitment to global purpose and sustainability. The essence of sustainability for any corporation is, at its heart, a strong set of foundational values that encourage ambitious goal-setting and generate ongoing momentum. At HARMAN, I’ve done my best to ensure that the company’s values — to be ethical, sustainable and accountable in all we do — permeate every sphere of the business. I’m particularly proud of HARMAN’s unwavering commitment to gender parity, meeting the aggressive goals we set to reduce our carbon footprint by 10% in 2018 and our work with partners to fund scholarships, bring music education to children in underserved communities and reshape the future of transportation.
Ila and I also recently founded the Ila & Dinesh Paliwal Foundation, which provides financial and advisory support to help underrepresented populations pursue careers in STEAM. In 2017, Ila and I endowed scholarship and innovation chair programs at Miami University Farmer School of Business, my alma mater. We are also honored to support the Paliwal Club of 100, a scholarship program in partnership with 1DF that funds the dreams of budding leaders in tech.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Immerse yourself in travel. Don’t just vacation — spend years in a totally different culture. When I resided in China, for instance, I forged networks and experiences that helped me understand the market and people, resulting in a billion dollars in Chinese sales for HARMAN.
Another piece of advice that’s always resonated with me is to surround yourself with smart, passionate people with complimentary skillsets to your own. Give them the confidence to take risks and speak their mind. No single person has all the answers — we must constantly listen, learn and try new things.
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.
Access to education. The future of work in STEAM fields is being shaped by a range of new technologies that are blending the digital and physical world, impacting every industry, changing how tasks are done and shifting the skills equation. Technology like big data, AI and 5G gives more people access to knowledge, but it also requires an ongoing investment in infrastructure and education to equip tomorrow’s leaders with the skills they need to succeed.
Thank you for all of these great insights!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.