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How Well Do You Know Your People?

As any leader will tell you, backing young talent can be a risky proposition. What if it doesn’t come good?

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I had the pleasure of hosting a conversation with India’s former captain Sourav Ganguly recently, to celebrate the launch of his autobiography. Sourav – arguably one of India’s finest captains - is widely regarded as the man who instilled the belief in the Indian team that they could win – anywhere in the world. 

My favourite segment from that conversation centered around the idea of backing young talent. Several cricketers – including Zaheer and Sehwag, and Yuvraj and Harbhajan – have spoken about how they owe their success to Sourav – a captain who backed them, believed in them, and gave them the opportunities to succeed. 

As any leader will tell you, backing young talent can be a risky proposition. What if it doesn’t come good? If the person fails to deliver, the leader can be accused of bias, even favouritism. So the question to Sourav was straight: How did he stick his neck out and back those guys? Wasn’t he scared of what might happen if they didn’t click?

Sourav’s answer was simple. ‘You need to know your players’, he said. ‘You’ve got to get close and see the talent first-hand. If you don’t do that, and you only go by what others say – or worse, by what the scoreboard says - you are always unsure. If you don’t know them, you can’t back them. Knowing the talent is a captain’s responsibility – not just the selectors’ job. 

And I thought that’s great advice for all leaders. Know your talent. Knowing your people is your job – not HR’s job. The quality of your decisions as a leader, indeed, your success as a leader depends squarely on how well you know your people. 

I was reminded of something a former boss of mine did as the CEO of a large organization. Every year, at performance appraisal time, he would sit in on discussions about a large cross section of employees – from Assistant Manager upwards. He would have his leadership team sit in, along with the HR folks, and appraisal discussions would often spill into the wee hours of the morning. Now you might think a CEO has more important things to do – than focus on discussing the performance of a junior manager in some corner of the country. But that’s not how my former boss looked at it. For him, it was important to get to know his people. He would ask questions, push and probe and try and understand the person. In many cases, he would try and combine it with memories of a visit to a factory – or a market – where he may have interacted with that person. The message was clear. For this leader, the person was not just about targets and achievements – but about the real person behind those numbers. Result? He would take bold bets on young talent, because over the years, he got to know his people well. Really well. 

People often talk about the paucity of talent in organizations these days, and how good young leaders are hard to come by. Maybe we are getting it wrong. The problem is not that there is suddenly a scarcity of talent. It’s just that leaders aren’t investing time in getting to know them. 

Remember, good leaders make an effort to get to know their people. You should too.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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leadership opinion magazine 27 October 2018

Prakash Iyer

Iyer is an author, speaker and leadership coach , and former MD of Kimberly Clark Lever

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