The Leadership Pipeline Developing True Leaders at Every Level

The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership Powered Company

“Leadership: getting people to do what you want them to do, because they start wanting to do it.”
Leadership is the art of getting ordinary people to deliver extraordinary results.”

How many of our middle managers can claim this level of leadership? But Leaders – who take full ownership of business results and do not fail to meet targets, aggressively improve processes, build strong relationships and networks, inspire others, coach and mentor juniors, and finally help their unit scale new heights – are needed at every level. Unfortunately, many companies keep lamenting on the ‘Leadership cliff’ beyond the CXO team. And many careers hit a glass ceiling – employees who performed well at junior levels are unable to deliver equally stellar results as their span of control increased. Employees work harder but are not appreciated by management, which, in turn, is frustrated that employees are not performing to increased expectations.

Why does this ‘Leadership Deficiency’ happen?

  • Leadership Development is generally not considered as critical as, say, business strategy or managing operations. Unfortunately, even our education system hardly provides any managerial/leadership skills.
  • While promoting managers, main focus is usually on personal traits (professionalism, loyalty to company) and technical competence, instead of ‘future potential’. However, performance and potential are two very different things – incentives may be given for good performance, but promotion should only be given if potential for the next level is clearly seen.
  • Most companies lack a defined yardstick to measure leadership (unlike, say GAAP, in accounting) even though it is eminently measurable. Often seniors (themselves weak in some leadership traits, even though brilliant in others) promote managers who also lack some critical skills, worsening the malaise.

The result is disaster. 75% of below-par performance can often be attributed to the leader’s flaws:

  • Job and the goals aren’t clearly defined. Frequent mismatches, duplications, missing links.
  • Fails to coach because he’s too busy, often doing work that the subordinate could do.
  • Hired/promoted the wrong person with ‘missing’ skills, or fails to create meaningful roles.
  • Unable to inspire/motivate team, resulting in high attrition and poor morale.

In contrast, researchers have found that successful managers learnt new skills as they moved up, changed their perspective on what was important and reprioritized where to spend time. Maher’s theory highlights distinct levels of Leadership, each requiring new set of skills and priorities.

EXHIBIT Leadership Development: Stages of Skill Development… New roles will require new skills and new priorities

In contrast, researchers have found that successful managers learnt new skills as they moved up, changed their perspective on what was important and reprioritized where to spend time. Maher’s theory highlights distinct levels of Leadership, each requiring new set of skills and priorities.


Finance As A True Business Partner
(Published in: Financial Chronicle and HT Business)

Click here to view Coverage

In most large companies, the corporate finance group is disparagingly called ‘Bean Counters‘ – because they are mainly involved in accounting and reporting. They look from the rear view, after reality has happened and, most of the time, are merely doing ‘number crunching’.

In best of companies, however, finance also plays a Venture Capitalist role – analyzing business opportunities and initiatives and helping Business Heads take the „right‟ decisions, differentiating between good growth and bad growth. They ‘analyze’ numbers and present insights – not just information but how that information can be used to improve profitability.

This 2 day workshop will help the finance team move from a mere reporting role to a true business partner role, thereby increasing their impact/influence on business, and also satisfaction with their roles.

Workshop Highlights:

  • Expectations from Finance: Beyond just Number Crunching
  • Link Between Business, Strategy and Finance: Finance as an Enabler of Choice
  • Holistic Business and Financial Analysis, beyond spreadsheets
  • Why Initiatives Fail and What can Finance do
  • Industry & Competitive Analysis: Trends & Benchmarking
  • Advanced Financial Analysis: Portfolio Analysis, NPV as a Range (Risk assessment)
  • Developing Soft Skills: Influencing, Time Management and Communication
  • Case Study and Exercise

Intended Audience:

  • Nishant Saxena, Guest Faculty, IIM Lucknow
  • CEO of National Award winning Elements Akademia (www.elementsakademia.com)
  • Formerly Deputy CFO, P&G India, responsible for Financial Analysis and M&A
  • Has worked in Japan, Philippines, Singapore and India, and has visited 35+ countries
  • Clients: Nestle, KPMG, Aircel, Cadbury, Kraft, Aon Hewitt, ConAgra, Macmillan, J&J, P&G, HT Media, Relaxo Footwear, Orient-Craft, Zee Learn in India, Asia and Europe
  • Recognition: “Leader-in-Making” (Business World), “Path-breaker CEO” (Economic Times), one of “India‟s Hottest Startups” (Business Today), one of “50 Social Entrepreneurs… Making India Better” (Outlook Business), “High impact entrepreneur” (World Bank). Profiled more than 100 times in top electronic and print channels in India.

The Great B-School Dilemma
(Published in: Careers 360)

The Great B-School Dilemma

Click here to view Coverage

In the coming 4-5 months over 500,000 students will aspire for that dream MBA career through CAT/MAT/XAT/NMAT and other State tests. And less than 5 percent will make the cut of the Top 50 B-Schools. What should the others do?

Most join one of the remaining 3000 B-Schools in the country. But is it really worth it? The findings of a recent survey by Elements Academia, with 4000+ students across 200 Tier III/IV MBA colleges in 20 cities – to understand the state of management education in such colleges only reconfirmed what we all know:

Beyond the handful of top B-Schools, quality dips significantly across all key parameters:

1) Teaching quality is extremely poor. Most faculty members are themselves without any serious corporate exposure and are paid poorly.

2) Corporate interaction in terms of industry visits, internships, guest lectures and corporate input in curriculum is extremely poor.

3) Final placements  –  both in percentage and quality – leave much to be desired. Most Tier II schools are in the 30-40% campus placement range and that too mostly in Rs. 12-18,000 per month salary range.

So while the candidates still get a formal MBA degree, they wonder whether it is worth even the paper it is written on!

So how should the aspirants select the “right B-School”, if they don’t get a call from the top 30? My suggestion will be to look at five parameters:

1) Profile of promoters: Is the college run by politicians, real estate sharks and liquor barons, or run by professionals – from top B-Schools or corporate houses?

2)Profile of full-time faculty: Many colleges advertise IIM alumni and foreign faculty in their brochure but are they actually teaching full-time credit courses?

3) Profile of placements: The average salary in the last batch, and the placement rate in campus. Ask for these in writing, so one can sue them later on for misrepresentation.

4) Student satisfaction: Personally meet and talk to a few students when no faculty member is present. Reach out to them in their hostel or pagalguy.com and other websites. Are they satisfied? If they are not, why will you be?

5)Infrastructure: Does it give the ‘feel’ of a good B-School? Is there a residential hostel facility – all top MBA programmes across the world are fully residential, since most learning happens outside the classroom.

And beware of hollow advertisements. Personally visit the college and the hostel, interact with old students and full-time faculty, and then decide.

But the grahak jago does not end with just the B-School selection. Once inside, we need to do multiple things beyond academics to become employable. AICTE found that less than 25% of our MBAs are employable! In any good B-School, students generally spend only 40% time on academics. Another 40% in spent on co-curricular and extra-curricular activities that improve grooming, confidence, communication skills, managerial skills, exposure and help build our CV (the last 20% time is spent on fun and networking.. your last hostel experience!)

So lead functional clubs, read management books/journals like HBR, enroll in remedial communication classes, develop expertise in few chosen sectors, take part in presentations in other B-Schools, network actively, do live projects to get real-life experience, even start new ventures and become an entrepreneur in the campus itself… But remember that the real learning is outside the class!

This article was published in CAREERS 360, December 2011


The author, Nishant Saxena is CEO of Elements Akademia, started by a group of 15 IIM Alumni. He is also a Guest Faculty at IIM Lucknow and can be reached at n.saxena@elementsakademia.com


Missing Elements in an MBA
(Published in: HT Horizon)

For HT Horizon

Missing ‘Elements’ in an MBA…

Click here to view Coverage

There are more than 2000 Bschools in India where students pay between Rs. 2-6 lacs fee, hoping to find their dream career. Unfortunately, most of these schools (beyond the Top 100) are actually running on a meager 20-40% placements. Remaining students leave the campus either without a job or end up working on some low skill base job. Think about this: 2 in 3 of all MBAs in India remain either un-employed or severly under-employed!

Why is this happening? Of course, there are larger issues of student input quality (today anyone who can spend Rs 5 lacs can get an MBA/PGDM degree without any entry level selection criteria). And larger issues of academic delivery quality (most run-of-the-mill colleges spend less than 10% of their revenues on actual academic delivery). But that doesn’t help students who have already enrolled. What can they do?

To find out why our MBAs are not employed, Elements Akademia conducted an intensive nation-wide research amongst the CXOs / HR Heads of more than 40 companies from various verticals, 60 MBA / PGDM colleges across 12 cities and more than 3000 students and MBA aspirants.

This research brought us face-to-face with some startling revelations. First was that there are enough jobs. In sectors like BFSI, KPO, Pharmaceutical, FMCG etc, there will be approximately a million new jobs in the next 3 years: sufficient to absorb most MBAs in India. However, these companies continue to work on a 3-5% hiring rate: 95% of all applicants are rejected, despite having job openings.

Why? The research found that the industry needs certain skills beyond the regular AICTE/University MBA curriculum before it can hire a candidate. However, the academia continues to teach what it has been teaching for many years (70% of MBA faculty in India have little or no quality industry experience) versus teaching the key skills industry needs.

This results in today’s classic paradox: Corporate world continues to have jobs but keeps complaining that there are not enough “employable” candidates. And students keep complaining of lack of jobs despite degrees. Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink…

The research also found that the gap between industry requirement and academic curriculum is mostly in the “finishing” or overall grooming of the student. Experts suggest that 70% of the hiring decision gets taken in the first 5 minutes of the interview! Since most entry level jobs in Tier 2 (and beyond) Bschools involve either Sales or Customer Service, deep technical knowledge is often not essential. But a presentable personality, with the ability to impress people and leave an impact, is crucial.

Unfortunately, HR interviewers lament that most students lack in the following:

     Business Communication – Spoken and Written English is usually very poor, with basic mistakes in subject-verb agreement, tenses, use of articles and prepositions. Pronunciation, esp. Mother Tongue Influence (s for sh, j for z etc.) is another major issue.

     ✔ Confidence – Students find it difficult to fully articulate their views and are often not confident when presenting to interviewers. A good interviewee channels the interview to his/her areas of strength, a bad interviewee is too nervous to think beyond simple answers.

     Grooming – Dressing sense is often too loud or too rustic. Hair is unkempt, men have not shaved properly, women haven’t put up a decent makeup. Colour combination is completely absent.

     Corporate Exposure – Basic knowledge of what’s happening in the industry and the world is missing. Students become blank when quizzed on general awareness. And practical exposure of their function is missing too (they may have memorized Kotler’s 7Ps but stumble when asked to sell a pen then and there).

     Attitude – For most entry level jobs, interviewers want a humble person willing to get his/her hands dirty and learn on the job. But often students come with grandiloquent ideas of their self worth and expect a high salary without any targets/pressure.

Many of the above probably flow from the background of the students: Tier II/III town graduates often from vernacular medium, with limited real world corporate exposure. But the good news is that this “finishing” can be developed. A rigorous comprehensive “bridge” training can correct each of the above gaps, but obviously requires will and sustained effort. There is no proof that quick fix solutions (those 2 day workshops just before placement season) work. Just like this article, they, at best, can sensitize you on what’s needed. But actually improving fundamental aspects like English, Presentability, Corporate Exposure or Attitude requires six to nine months of guided effort. Like they say… there are no short cuts in life!

The author, Nishant Saxena is CEO of Elements Akademia, started by a group of 15 IIM Alumni. He is also a Guest Faculty at IIM Lucknow and can be reached at n.saxena@elementsakademia.com


Are Employability Skills Coachable
(Published in: Deccan Herald)

are employabilityAre Employability Skills Coachable?

Click here to view Coverage

Enough has been written on “employability skills” or their lack thereof amongst most Indian students. Essential for any job aspirant, these are non-technical skills and competencies which play a significant part in contributing to an individual’s effective and successful participation in the workplace. As per a report by NASSCOM, a mere 10% of fresh graduates are actually employable! Similar surveys on Engineers and MBAs put employable professionals no more than 25% – net, a vast majority of even professionally qualified people are not industry ready.

What are Employability Skills: Our own past research – with 40 companies – had identified 9 Missing Elements which limits the candidate’s employability:

     Attitude (Sincerity, Can-Do, Ownership/Motivation)

     Business Ethics/Honesty


     Communication Skills

     General Awareness

     Basic Managerial Skills (Leadership, Teamwork, Time Management etc.)

     Basic Sales and Customer Service (most entry level jobs require one of these)

     Domain Knowledge

     Work Experience

While the obvious solution to unlock India’s much talked of demographic dividend is to empower our students with these requisite skills, the BIG question is: Can these employability skills be coached?

Our experience over a period of 1 year after administering a 240 hour “employability” intervention to 3000 students across 30 colleges in 20 Tier II cities (focusing on Tier II/III MBA colleges) has thrown mixed results.

Attitude and Ethics were the most difficult to correct. Clinical psychologists told us that attitude can be improved through a long 6-9 month process involving motivation, extended practice and constant feedback. Being pedantic almost never works in improving someone’s attitude. Still most college professors and principals continue to hope that by repeating their unsolicited advice multiple times, their students may listen – we all communicate what we want to say versus what our audience wants to hear!

But even the use of innovative techniques like story telling has had mixed results. In reality the effect of few hours of class was often drowned by their 22 years of grounding. While some borderline cases did change, for the most part the already good ones became better.

Grooming and Confidence, on the other hand, were the easiest to correct. Steady practice in small batches of 15-25 students, with people of similar ability carefully chosen and put together, and then giving every individual a chance to speak for 5-7 minutes every single day for 4-5 months, helped tremendously. Workshops involving specially trained grooming instructors, emphasizing on ‘Dress to Impress’ created impact.  The process requires strict discipline so that everyone gets time to speak; else the ones already good take all the ’air-time’. Similarly basic grooming checks like color combinations of attire, hair, and shoe polish, etc. every day for few months changed people’s habits. In most of the cases, we found that grooming itself generated self confidence.

Communication skills development takes time and a very scientific method of intervention. First part is to sharpen basic communication skill in any language. This involves honing our listening skills, try understanding the audience, and practice being crisp and logical in our responses. The second concern for most Tier II colleges is the inability of students to speak in English. Unfortunately just putting any good English spokesperson does not work. A scientific module which covers specific grammar and spoken English /pronunciation, especially tailored for adults is required. Students are also less inclined to focus on English at such a late stage of their careers. So, session needs to be lively and interactive. Our experiments with the module followed in BPOs for 80-140 hours has been very successful since these BPOs have mastered the art of training English communicational skills to adult learners. But it requires a rigorous curriculum of 1-1.5 hours session every single day as lack of continuity drastically reduces the effectiveness.

Managerial Skills – like Leadership, Team Work, Stress and Time Management – can be learnt but again require innovative methods. A good corporate style game followed by an intense and deep debrief – and repeated twice or thrice – can at least sensitize people and make them cautious towards exhibiting the “right” behavior. While it would be ambitious to think that a two hour team work session will make everyone a great team player, still we have seen a significant improvement in the level of maturity and intent after this sensitization.

Sales/Customer Service and Practical Domain Knowledge are coachable but require faculty from industry. The challenge that most tier II colleges face is that the major chunk of students are freshers without any previous experience in any domain. Adding to this, average faculty of these colleges also has very limited quality industry experience. So their ability to train students on practical industry-oriented knowledge is very limited. The best practice may be to get a significant portion of training, say 25%, to be delivered by actual industry experts. In our research, we used IIM Alumni who could deliver live corporate experiences, share inside secrets and tips of the business world, explain what is not covered in theory and how to apply theory in real life etc. The feedback from these sessions was always very positive. Add to it some live games (demo selling, demo trading etc.).

Current Awareness was also a relatively easy job. An everyday quiz on current awareness for six months developed reading habits in the students. To build their interest we charged those who couldn’t answer a fine of five rupees and rewarded those who answered correctly. Punishing wrong behavior and rewarding right behavior, if done over a period of time, changes habits.

Experience was the tricky one. Most companies wanted experience before a degree like MBA but 80-95% of Tier II/III MBA students were fresh BA/BCom/BSc. We tried to use a via media – offering live industry projects during the course, but industry acceptance of these was varied. Most HR managers were not convinced that a 2 month part time project can replace a relevant work experience of 1-2 years. The only long terms solution may be for the colleges to recruit only experienced students, especially for a post graduate course like MBA.

So, net, Are Employability Skills Coachable? The answer, as above, is not in one word. Some are very coachable, some less, and some very minimally coachable.  In Grooming, Confidence, Sales/Customer service and Basic Managerial skills, we may be able to reach significant levels of improvement. On attitude and ethics, however, impact of limited hours of classroom training is questionable. Communicational Skills, on the other hand, can improve drastically but demands extended practicing and efforts.


-Nishant Saxena

The author is CEO of Elements Akademia and a Guest Faculty at IIM Lucknow. He can be reached at n.saxena@elementsakademia.com