Vidya Krishnan: “Empathy and humanness”

Courageous and fact-based decision-making: This gives me power and permission to experiment, fail fast and learn. We are doing so many experiments at Ericsson focused on learning right now. These are projects we passionately pursue, but with results we are able to look at dispassionately, so we can constantly pivot and iterate based on what […]

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Courageous and fact-based decision-making: This gives me power and permission to experiment, fail fast and learn. We are doing so many experiments at Ericsson focused on learning right now. These are projects we passionately pursue, but with results we are able to look at dispassionately, so we can constantly pivot and iterate based on what the data is telling us. Being a more data-driven organization favors action over inaction, facts in and politics out.

As a part of our series about “How business leaders can create a fantastic work environment”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vidya Krishnan.

Vidya Krishnan is the Chief Learning Officer at Ericsson where she leads the company’s global learning and development team. With over 20 years of experience in technology, digital business transformation, people and professional learning, Vidya and her team are responsible for over 90,000 people in over 160 countries.

As part of the company’s Global People Leadership team, Vidya has created a culture that fuels lifelong learning, leadership and growth. She’s maximized synergy with Ericsson Learning Services that supports both customer and employee learning, and has become known for instilling a work environment that fosters meritocracy, revenue stimulation and entrepreneurial innovation.

Vidya began her career in engineering operations with AT&T. She then worked at Nortel, building and launching wireless networks before joining Ericsson in 2009. At Ericsson she’s held a variety of leadership positions in Networks, Digital Services and now People. She holds a B.S. degree from Princeton University and an M.S. degree from Stanford University in Electrical Engineering, with a specialization in how technology can uplift impoverished areas. Vidya is also particularly proud and privileged to sponsor the Ericsson-Girl Scouts Alliance, a unique and growing partnership dedicated to building tomorrow’s STEM Leadership Pipeline today.

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

It was a long time ago, but not so far away, when the first Star Wars movie debuted in 1977, and my childhood world was suddenly upgraded to a whole new galaxy. I literally grew up and grew deep with the original trilogy of the Star Wars movies, and so much of what I still firmly believe about learning was shaped by the cinematic interactions between a diminutive and wise Jedi Master named Yoda and his reluctant, skeptical, too-busy-to-learn protégé, Luke Skywalker.

This was my unforgettable introduction to the L&D concepts of guide-at-your-side teaching and learning-in-the-flow-of-work! In Yoda, I saw how big data’s wisdom is often best delivered in a small package (and all the Baby Yoda memes on the internet right now only demonstrate this point further!). I witnessed how a dynamic personalization by a teacher could effectively address the emotional needs of a learner (anxiety, impatience, self-doubt, curiosity) that must often be served before any intellectual outcomes like comprehension, proficiency and mastery can be achieved. In short, I learned that where there’s a will, and the teaching ‘Force’ is strong, there’s a way to upskill and reskill. This connective thread of learning, teaching, serving, and mobilizing people to solve problems has been the impetus and the guide for my journey through four different careers including camp counselor, engineer, digital business leader and chief learning officer (CLO).

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

In 2014 I was fortunate to take part in an unforgettable Ericsson global leadership development program that took us to the Serengeti. During a coaching session there, our team heard a rustle behind us and turned to find three majestic wild elephants making their way right into our clearing — just as our coach Richard Lieder was explaining the grand power of purpose! Our group nicknamed itself the “Tembo Tribe” thereafter; tembo being the Swahili word for elephant. Overall, that encounter was a life-changing experience that truly fueled my pivot to pursue my passion and purpose as my profession.

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

It is one of my prioritization challenges that I just happen to think that every project we get to work on is exciting! The advent of 5G is a watershed moment for the virtual learning movement — one that has the power to help everyone.

However, a critical prerequisite for that outcome is to ensure there is far greater equity in digital access for all parts of society, especially the underserved. I think the work we are doing at Ericsson in our learning, culture and business ecosystem is exciting for how it seeks to make learning easy; a habit that matters and a driver for business value creation.

Virtual learning in a 5G world can be a powerful means for connecting learners to “virtual villages” of great teachers, content, community and experiences. Virtual learning can attain a new level of authentic human connection through advances in real-time Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR) and 360 immersion, as well as holographic projection, human and artificial intelligence (AI) and empathetic education. It’s an incredible journey we’re on.

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 the rest of the statistics in that particular article actually tell us why so much of the workforce is unhappy.

Almost 2 out of 3 people said they trust a stranger more than their own manager

4 out of 5 people leaving a company said it was because they felt unvalued, while 9 out of 10 managers incorrectly think those people left because of money, and so don’t suspect that part of the problem may be them. Additionally, more than half of those managers never really got any proper education on how to be a manager that people love working with in the first place.

Now more than ever the team and leaders immediately around you, whether it be how good they are, how good you are and the demonstrated culture of how good all of you are to each other, remain the most powerful make-or-break factors for how happy a workforce feels. That is a skill-and-will gap. It’s problematic and fixable and people who don’t fix it won’t win in the future that’s taking shape.

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?

An unhappy workforce is an unsustainable workforce.

Productivity, by definition has transformative impact only when sustained.

Profitability demands an energy, execution focus, agility and ONE team collaboration that will not and simply cannot happen if unhappiness is its constant byproduct.

A company can only be its best when people care, stay safe and feel well. How a company cares about and for its workforce, and how that workforce cares for one another is what enables employees to be caregivers themselves — and we have never needed that more than we do right now.

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?

The below are five focus areas from Ericsson’s culture and leadership transformation journey called, Ericsson on the Move, with my personal reflections and examples. We believe that if leaders are not doing these five things consistently and wholeheartedly, then they’re not leading well enough yet.

Courageous and fact-based decision-making: This gives me power and permission to experiment, fail fast and learn. We are doing so many experiments at Ericsson focused on learning right now. These are projects we passionately pursue, but with results we are able to look at dispassionately, so we can constantly pivot and iterate based on what the data is telling us. Being a more data-driven organization favors action over inaction, facts in and politics out.

Empathy and humanness: This is at the heart of putting people first, and I am so proud to see our high-tech company prioritize sustainability and lead the way in doing that. We launched Ericsson Care to put a deeper and wider focus on the well-being of our people. We work passionately to bring digital education to underserved areas through Connect to Learn.

Cooperation and collaboration: This is our make-or-break for success; to not only have a “one team” mindset but also to spend time on ourselves cultivating the new skillset of digital leadership as partnership. These days, we work in workstreams more than in ‘org teams,’ i.e. groups that represent very different functions and expertise, coming together for a reason or a season, bound by a shared evolutionary purpose far more than any organizational chart. This allows people to really contribute and shine in areas they care about by building a community that almost always sparks unexpected innovation and further evolution. The learning ecosystem we are evolving to build future critical skills is a big example of this approach. It is common sense and now we want to make it common practice and demonstrate that working this way is so much more fun and fulfilling than people being stuck in silos.

Executing speedily: Change keeps changing, and we know the key to future success is our ability to embrace change, change ourselves and lead the change. This goes back to the unprecedented importance of disciplined experimentation in many areas of work. We don’t spend years designing long-term learning solutions. We design, develop, prototype, pilot and iterate over days, weeks and months to create things that evolve and reinvent themselves to become what’s needed next.

Speak up: Psychological safety is the most powerful prerequisite for a high-performing team. Our culture values people being constructive and unafraid to share what they feel and see in a way that upholds our core values and all the other four focus areas. This also includes demanding that we as leaders always make it safe for one another to speak up in this way. Our teams have shifted from talking about “Q&A” at the end of a session to “Speak Up.” That subtle shift elicits such a significant difference in engagement.

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?

Referencing the great work of Adam Grant, it’s about “giving.” The U.S.’s work culture needs to adopt a different standard for how it measures performance. It should be about smart givers who thrive because they know, show, grow and leverage their giving, and where ‘toxic takers’ don’t last. Changing what we choose to value is completely within our power and making this choice corresponds to an unprecedented prioritization of education continually being invested in our workforce. The unacceptable status quo of education being considered a phase of your past once you join the workforce needs to be over. Companies grow when people do. Companies that choose to grow their people in ways that create value, resilience and belonging are the ones who will outlearn the competition. We change the U.S. workforce’s work culture by choosing to change the standard for what gets valued in the workforce.

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

My leadership style is still evolving, but I want most to lead as a learning driver. How I lead is heavily influenced by all my heroes, factual and fictional. This includes everyone from Oprah Winfrey to my parents to Luke Skywalker!

I deeply believe in leadership as partnership, and in making people feel safe enough to be their whole selves by striving to be transparent and wholehearted myself. I believe that leading people from the front is inadequate unless those people know you have their back. I am also especially hungry to learn more about how people can and should talk to each other, and how we talk to ourselves to have great relationships and outcomes.

When it comes to management style, I value the Franklin Covey 4DX approach as a powerful methodology for strategic execution. I am a student of Frederic Laloux’s “Reinventing Organizations” where I seek to empower creative freedom through agile and diverse self-forming teams. Teams that are bound by shared evolutionary purpose who adopt a great operating rhythm with discipline and rigor in how we cross-communicate as we go — so that we can learn fast and go far together.

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 always say it takes a village to raise a learner and a leader, and I am blessed in the village that surrounds me. This includes love from my friends and family, including steadfast support from my kids, Tara and Keshav and husband, Karthik Vasanth, as well as shared experiences with so many nurturing colleagues, mentors and mentees. I agree with happiness researchers, Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan, that happiness drives success, rather than the other way around, and I credit my happiness to the love and connectedness that comes from my village. I am particularly grateful for the special journey of over 23 years that I have shared with my best friend and Destination Imagination coaching partner, Nithya Sridhar. We have seen each other through so many stages of life, parenting, creating, learning and much more. I gratefully realize how this special bond has shown me that growing older is really about growing deeper.

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

I am so very proud and privileged to be an executive sponsor and active member of the Ericsson — Girl Scouts Alliance. The Girl Scouts story is truly my story. I’m an electrical engineer passionate about how the world of STEM needs to look like the world in order to solve the biggest problems in the world. I work with the Girl Scouts in bringing STEM education not only to girls, but to our volunteers through Ericsson’s Jumpstart, which is a digital learning platform that is the ‘easy button’ to help volunteers experience STEM badges with their troops. I also love serving as a coach for Destination Imagination, a global non-profit dedicated to building creative problem-solving skills in kids (and their coaches!). The future belongs to the learners and I hope that working at the intersection of service and learning helps the world build a much brighter future.

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

It’s not just the 7-year old fan girl in me that says “May the Force Be With Us”. It has been a big quote in my life! It has always connoted the power of intention and mindset to manifest our aspiration and grow our skill-set. It has been the phrase I’ve used in my work and life to mean everything from “good luck” to “I love you” to “we can get through this”. When it’s me saying it, it usually accompanies the beginning of a special team journey or even the next career or life adventure for someone I love. When it’s been said to me, it boosts my faith about being loved because we’re vulnerable and imperfect, and that we’ll prevail even if things are tough right now.

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.

I hope that the work my team and I do in digital learning and especially with the Girl Scouts will inspire everyone to embrace Technology for Good. We have to harness the power of technology for good, especially with 5G to make an empowering and lifelong education a basic human right and a universal, equitable human asset. Connection fuels learning, but inclusion and empathy are the preconditions that ensure learning takes us in the right direction. So I am inspired by how technology for good catalyzes an ‘empathy engine’ so people can learn from and with each other in unprecedented ways that ultimately help us learn our way into a better future.

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