At 33, V.R. Ferose became one of the youngest and the first non-German Managing Director of German multinational’s SAP Labs, India. He is currently SVP and Head of Globalization Service for SAP based in the Bay Area. Ferose wrote ‘Gifted’ along with author Sudha Menon, to tell the stories of inspiring people he has met ‘so that many more people’s lives can be impacted for the better’. Proceeds go towards Enable India, an NGO that works for people with disabilities.
Ferose talked to TC’s Hyma Menath about ‘Gifted’, about women in leadership, and what organizations can do to foster diversity and inclusion.
I want to talk about your book first; you write stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things and that really gripped me – why was it important for you to do this?
Interestingly, when I started writing the book it was not meant to be a book about 15 inspiring people. It was meant to be a book on leadership. In my journey of trying to understand leadership, I found the need to define leadership in a fundamentally different way. If you look at the people whom we celebrate, they are the ones who have been extremely lucky in many ways – either born in a rich country like the US, or into a good family, or they go to the best B-schools – then I think they are meant to be successful. I don’t see that as something unique.
But if you turn that around and look at people who are born into difficult situations, face difficult upbringings, and still make it, I think that’s the success that I am personally fascinated by.
I am still searching for the true definition of success and what is leadership
That was how my journey started. In the work I’ve done in the field of disability (and because of my own personal reasons for it), I realized that many of the people I met were actually demonstrating true leadership; but they were not being spoken about, they were not being celebrated. And that’s the reason I started the India Inclusion Summit, which was nothing but a platform for unsung heroes. I felt there are stories that need to be told and stories that need to be celebrated.
The inspiring people whom I’ve met many are doing simple stuff, like teaching in slums, which I consider an equal success
I think fundamentally it’s the stories about simple people that we all can relate to. The leaders that readers like to talk about, most people can’t relate to. Not everybody goes to Harvard, not everyone becomes a CEO – those are far and few between.
As a result I realized that if I wrote a book, it should be about the inspiring people I’ve met. Many of them have achieved incredible success – from winning the highest civil honor in India to President’s medals - but many are doing simple stuff, like teaching in slums, which I consider an equal success.
So at some point in time, I changed my direction - instead of talking about leadership lessons from people I’ve met, I decided to just write their stories and let people find their own lessons.
It started as a leadership book and now I’ve just written15 inspiring stories
While the stories are all based in India, they are all human stories. So even if you’ve never been to India ever in your life, you can still read and be inspired by it.
When I asked people which of the stories they are most inspired by, everybody gave me a different story. I realized that’s it’s better to tell a story and let people find the lessons themselves.
We need to change the definition of success
I believe there is true leadership in everyone and we fundamentally need to change the definition of success, we have to re-look at how leadership should be done. My aim is to continue in that journey. My second book is a little more concrete about the new ways of leadership we should be talking about.
What’s interesting about the book is that it’s not just about individuals overcoming disabilities, but focuses on the capabilities that are revealed in an individual. These are skills that everybody admires in a leader– how to overcome setbacks. What is your view about women and leadership, especially as we are thought to have somewhat different skills from men?
The definition of success is masculine
My take on this is pretty radical. My research leads me to question two fundamental beliefs. First is the definition of success itself. My personal belief is that the definition of success is masculine. Whom would you consider a success? Is it somebody who has made a lot of money, is high up in the hierarchy, has won a lot of awards, has a fancy title, big car, big house. If you look at these as the parameters for success, I believe it’s extremely masculine.
Now if you turn that around and say that success could also mean fulfillment, could also mean joy or giving which are not the typical checklist that you use to measure success – then you have opened up the definition of success.
We expect women to be successful in parameters that are masculine
When we think about women in leadership, my concern is that a lot of times, we want women to be successful in parameters that are very masculine. That’s something that we should be very careful about - trying to measure everybody on the same parameter. It’s something that requires deeper thought.
A lot of times we force women to become like men
What is important especially when we speak about diversity and women in leadership roles, is to make sure that we don’t lose the key strength of being a woman. I think a lot of times we force women to become like men. They have to be successful in a man’s world because the parameters of success as I said before, are extremely masculine.
If you change the parameters you’ll find that more women are successful
Fulfillment, joy, caring and giving are some things you associate with women. Sometimes you need to change the parameters and systems of measuring success which have been built over the years about what is ‘meant to be’ - you can’t undo those systems overnight. This is a long process that will take time but I think we need to question the systems before we even begin to question what percentage of women should be in leadership roles. There needs to be a bit of introspection there.
Women and men take different paths to success
This is my personal take. There are some very interesting insights that have emerged through my research. One of them is that if you look at the path that men take for success, it is very different from the path that women take.
Men fundamentally disrupt the system to get to what we call success
You’ll find that men always want to do a start up or create a company; men fundamentally want to disrupt systems to create new things to achieve success.
Women on the other hand, my research shows, are trying to maintain a sense of equilibrium. They want to manage the system to achieve success. So the paths of success are fundamentally different.
For women to be successful, men have the biggest role to play
We need to think about how to make the workplace better for women and how differentiate the definition of success. I strongly believe that for women to be successful, men have the biggest role to play.
I think that every conscientious, forward-looking man should be a feminist.
We need to see some transformative change in the corporate world. So how do we do that? What do you think it takes for a company to make these changes work?
Create an infrastructure that is conducive to women
You have to handle this situation at multiple levels. Something very unique we did when I was MD for SAP Labs (India), was to build a crèche for women just outside the campus. Now this was not something new but we were one of the earliest to do so. Interestingly, after we did that, statistics showed that there was a decline of almost 90% in women leaving the organization. Data showed that almost 95% of the women never came back after maternity leave. But after we built the crèche, that number went down to just 5%; almost everybody came back to work.
So I think we have to first create an infrastructure that is conducive for women to pursue their career.
You have to have longterm vision
You have to understand that these are long-term benefits. You can’t start by saying I’ll save 'x' amount of money if I do it. You can’t put a number to it. I think sometimes we put too much focus on the numbers and I’m a strong believer that diversity and inclusion always pays off in the long run. So you have to have the foresight to see three to five years ahead. If you want to see results in six months it’s not going to happen.
Your leader sets the pace
I’m a strong believer that your leader sets the pace. A lot of diversity and inclusion is really top down. If you don’t have leaders who believe in it, it’s not going to work. We won the national diversity and inclusion award two years back-to-back because we were by far from a clear practice point, way ahead of other corporates in India. I’ve seen people who talk but don’t follow up with actions. And I think it will be very clear when you look at an organization, if it is in the DNA of the leader, then something will happen. That’s the key to it.
So the first step is to create a system that helps women in the workplace, and helps different kinds of people to come into an inclusive environment. You know, you can talk about it, but if your leader does not believe in it, it’s not going to happen.
Tie it to business benefits
The other interesting aspect is to have the ability to tie it to business benefits. I think that’s the core of it. You have to believe there are concrete business benefits in having diversity and inclusion in a work environment. And you have to understand the intangibles will actually add up in the long run and give you more benefit than the tangibles.
Don’t lose the spirit of why you are pursuing diversity and inclusion
We measure ourselves with tangibles – with things like 'x' percentage of women and other numbers. I think if you focus too much on the numbers you’ll lose the spirit. The key is not to lose the spirit of why you are doing this. I’ve found in many cases that if you focus too much on the numbers people forget the reason why we are doing this. That’s something you have to keep in mind.
While the stories are about individuals overcoming barriers there is also the question of what enables these things to happen. From a women’s perspective, there are similar parallels- self created barriers in addition to the institutional issues you talked about earlier. What is your take on the self-created barriers that we battle with?
Permission to succeed
I must confess that for every hero in the book there are more people who are not able to overcome challenges. The book was written to show that it was possible. For the people in the stories, one of the core realities is what I call permission to succeed - that somebody else believed they could succeed. It could be parents, friends, neighbors, teachers, or mentors. And that’s what I believe a good leader does. A good leader will back up his people, a leader will give permission for people in their entire team to succeed. And that faith is so incredibly important to take people out of extremely difficult situations.
Make your 'desirable difficulty' the differentiator
The second aspect which is universal and may be very applicable to women is what I call desirable difficulty. You’ll see many cases where people have converted a difficulty into something that is desirable. In fact many of them told me that if they had a chance, they would be born disabled again, because that’s been the biggest differentiator. Sandeep Rao, a blind standup comedian said, ‘Ferose, if I was not blind, people would not come to my shows. I am probably as good a standup comedian as anybody else, but being blind has been my biggest differentiation.’ Many of them see their disability as the differentiator. Kiran Bedi who has been a great mentor and friend said that when she got the opportunity to lead the Republic Day celebrations, “Being a woman was the reason I got it’ though were probably a hundred men who were as good as her. ‘So I converted my being a woman– into actually being my greatest advantage.’ I think if you have the mindset that your difficulties can be your biggest strength, it’s a unique way of looking at your problem.
My own son’s condition actually unearthed the best in me
I did that in my own life. My own son’s condition actually unearthed the best in me. The book happened because of him. The Inclusion Summit happened because of him. The various initiatives we have run at SAP, in some way, he was the reason for it. It actually transformed a difficult situation (and I must confess I don’t want people to go through difficult situations), but if it happens, then you have to make the most of it. In life things don’t go as planned and I think when some things happen you take stock of it and decide to make the best of it. It’s a mindset. The people in the book have gone through very difficult phases of acceptance, but once they’ve accepted it, they’ve actually had a transformative journey.
Any views or opinions presented in this interview are solely those of V.R. Ferose, and do not necessarily represent those of SAP.
Ferose founded the India Inclusion Summit, a unique platform that focuses on the need for inclusion in our lives. He also is a Director on the Board of Specialist People Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation with the goal to create one million jobs globally for people with autism, and on the panel of “The Vision Group on Information Technology”, Government of Karnataka. He is also co-founder of the Karnataka chapter of Global Shapers, which works to create leadership amongst youth.
Ferose was one of the ‘Young Global Leaders’ honored by the World Economic Forum in 2012 and was selected as one of the business leaders in ‘India’s Top 40 under 40’ (2014 the Economic Times and Spencer Stuart.)
A national best seller, “GIFTED” (www.giftedthebook.com), is available via amazon, flipkart, uread and infi.
Video & text edits: mkymal
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