Amitabh Ray, Managing Director, Ericsson Global Services India and Head of Global Services Center India wears many hats. When he isn’t busy leading a team of 20,000 employees in India alone, he is an erudite writer and thoughtful speaker, disarming readers and listeners with his frankspeak and practical mottos of personal and professional engagement.
In a memorable chat with Clean India Journal’s Editor Mohana M and Assistant Editor Mrigank Warrier, Amitabh Ray spoke about digitisation and the future of the workplace, embracing uncertainty and five mantras of leadership.
In your opinion, why do we Indians not take cleanliness as seriously as we should?
I feel sad when I see that our streets are not clean. This is an issue not only for me but also for people who travel to our country from other parts of the world. The reason has nothing to do with poverty, but everything to do with lack of proper education with focuses on teaching civic sense which is a consideration for the norms of society. It includes respect for the law and for the feelings of others and maintaining etiquettes, cleanliness etc while dealing and interacting with the society at large. It’s all about our attitude towards a better living.
In Indian cities, even in the most modern apartment complexes full with so-called educated people, you will see them throwing out papers, cigarette packs and other rubbish in an indiscriminate manner. I have travelled to 50-60 countries over the past 30 years, and about half of those countries are poorer than ours, but still much cleaner. We need to start by learning basic civic sense from school levels as children.
Your book ‘The Second Arrow’ helps readers understand how to embrace uncertainty and thrive in spite of it. In these uncertain times, what is your personal and professional philosophy?
When I did my MBA, the focus was on how to improve marketing, enhance profitability etc. Nobody taught us what leaders should do what they are supposed to do: handle crises.
If you see today’s scenario, no one could have been prepared for it. If you read books about crisis management, there are no chapters on how to deal with this kind of a once-in-a-century pandemic.
As an organisation with 20,000+ members in India, I feel fortunate that we could prioritise the health and safety of our people above all else. That is our company’s philosophy.
Compassion is the cornerstone of my personal philosophy…the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. This helped me shoulder the responsibility of my people during these challenging times. It’s not just about their health, wellness, or safety, but also about peace of mind.
Many of us are forgetting that we are still battling a pandemic. Continuous lockdowns and perennially living in fear are going to take a toll on people’s minds. Both internally and externally, I started discussing how we could take care of everyone’s mental health.
I have seen how people come together for a common purpose. I’m a firm believer that if you offer a strong purpose, people will do anything you expect from them. Our employees are volunteering and doing incredible work in providing medicines to people’s homes, organising hospital beds and oxygen cylinders. The crisis has turned each of them into real-life heroes.
“Compassion is the cornerstone of my personal philosophy…the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. This helped me shoulder the responsibility of my people during these challenging times. It’s not just about their health, wellness, or safety, but also about peace of mind.”
The Ericsson Global Services Center teams works for customers in over 130 countries. With team members spread across globe at times such a wide geography even in India, how do you ensure effective communication?
We have done podcasts, webcasts and virtual All Employee Meets (AEMs). Those are the official platforms over which we communicate. I am regularly writing blogs on these issues. We are using every communication tool to engage our people, listen to them and collaborate.
We created enhanced home isolation facilities in some hotels, managed by hospitals. Every day, we communicate how many of our people have been admitted, provide a status update and inform about the new initiatives we are coming out with, in response to people’s needs. But during this pandemic, we are also over-communicating at times.
I personally like to send out very brief communications by saying: “Should you need anything; I am there for you”. When I participate in meetings, I say “Feel free to give me a call. If I don’t respond, drop me a mail and I will definitely get back within 24 hours”.
Some people struggle with communication. We need to have the courage to say what is doable and what isn’t. We cannot beat around the bush and sugarcoat things all the time. There were some requests I had to deny, because ethically, those weren’t right.
For example, some employees suggested we block some hospital beds or stock up on some life-saving drugs in advance. As an organisation, we might have the resources to do that, but some of our citizens, without the advantage we have as an enterprise, might be in critical need of those things to survive; and we should not, and will not deprive them of it.
Doing the right things vs doing things right is a chapter in my book The Second Arrow. I always tell my teams and our people that it is important to know the difference and do the right things.
You have written about the five pillars of authentic leadership.
Leadership is not about how much you can drive people to maximise productivity. I quoted Aristotle, who outlined the three pillars of leadership: trust, intellect and emotion. These are timeless qualities that will never change and can help you navigate through troubled times.
To these three pillars, I have added two more. One is passion. Over 25 years of leading people, I have learnt that if you don’t have passion, it is very difficult to lead a team that is driving transformation and harnessing the power of change. Leadership demands that you go beyond, and that can only happen if you have passion for what you do.
Another pillar is empathy…the ability to see the other’s perspective, whether it is customers’, team members or our families.
“Very soon, we will no longer talk about digital transformation; companies would have either become digital or would be dead”, you have said. How do you see this trend manifesting, and how is Ericsson helping Indian businesses accelerate their adoption of digitisation?
The importance of digitisation has always been evident to many of us. It has been happening, but the pandemic has put digitisation on steroids. We have achieved in a few months what we would have a few years down the line.
Not every business can be done remotely, but a lot of it can be, especially for knowledge workers and robotic process automation in manufacturing. The trend to adopt remote and contactless technologies has already started, and the pace will only quicken in future.
Internally, we are driving a major digitisation program which started even before Covid19. We called it the Future of Workplace. Not everything will be only digital or physical; there will be a hybrid model where there will be a blend of in-person interaction and digitisation that will happen.
This is also linked to a sustainable future. Today, we are realising the amount of mindless travel done by corporates. Before the pandemic, I made many domestic trips and international trips every year. My personal carbon footprint alone was mind-boggling. I haven’t travelled in the past year, but work is continuing just fine.
Today, 99% of our employees in India are working remotely. Ericsson is working on how we can be more sustainable as a society.
As a company, we are at the forefront of 5G activation. Ericsson has the largest 5G network in the world; we are the market leader. 5G is not only about near zero latency, super-fast network but several things including using artificial intelligence to allocate bandwidth in software defined networks. We are fortunate to drive this digital transformation. It is the foundation technology for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
In the hybrid working model, how will you realign the use of your workspace?
We work very closely with our facility management team as well as with real estate managers. We lease our space, don’t own it.
When we talk about the future of the workplace, I do not see it as 100% digital. Going forward, people will come together for collaboration. Work can be done individually from a remote location, but offices will become spaces where you co-create and collaborate. Instead of small cubicles, we may find spaces where people can sit together and work.
We will have to repurpose infrastructure. The way it is being utilised today, perhaps you may not find it the same two years from now, once we have implemented our plans fully.
I believe social distancing norms are here to stay for some time. Even if you ask 30-40% of the workforce to come in to work, you will need space for them to remain distanced from one another. It may not be an official diktat, but progressive companies will start factoring this in. Employee health and wellness will shape the future of our offices. Smart technologies, analytics will enable us to optimize space and release capital. Meetings will change with the use of augmented and virtual reality, but the physical office will not disappear, but will never go back to the way things were.