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The Time To Put Your Crisis Muscles To Work Is Now

Have a bias towards optimism & pay attention to the big & small picture. This is central to Debarati Sen, Vice President & General Manager, 3M Abrasive Systems Division’s five-point advice towards traits that make resilient leaders

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Growing up in Bhopal, Debarati Sen was among those who witnessed the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy first-hand. From then, when she was only a senior in high school, to now as the vice president and general manager of 3M Abrasive Systems Division, her journey has been marked with facing global events that were at times cataclysmic and at times soft but disruptive nonetheless. This included the oil & gas crisis of 2014, when she was leading 3M’s businesses in that area globally and the period of SARS in East Asia. 

In each instance, businesses and individuals have had to embrace the new normal --- and Sen is of the opinion that COVID19 is a challenge on similar lines albeit the scale.

The global jet setter featured in the second episode of the ‘BW Dialogue on Leadership’ series. She, who had joined the conversation while working from her kitchen table at her Minnesota residence, solemnly believes that the lockdown and restricted travel, during which team members join meetings from their homes, have developed an intimacy that is to be cherished. 

She points out that most business leaders have by now developed multiple muscles. In a conversation with the Chairman & Editor-in-Chief of BW Businessworld, Dr Annurag Batra, Sen reflected, “We have been living in a highly connected, fasting changing world. We have tested some of these muscles, what I call crisis muscles. My last three years in India trained me well to put these crisis muscles to work.”

Recalling the demonetisation and GST experiences, which she asserts are not of the magnitude of the present black swan event in the form of coronavirus, did serve as “practice rounds”. “We need to remember collectively that we have these muscles. We need to bring them to fore, practise and recognise this is an opportunity and to try these muscles again,” she said. 

Emerging from this, there are five principles that Sen places in front of her while dealing with crisis. 

Five Leadership Principles To Face Crises

The first from this is to ‘pause and reflect’. “Put breaks on your brains and do not get into a fight or flight response. COVID19 has reiterated the value of reflection, where we need to go at a higher level and observe ourselves, our teams and businesses as though we are not part of it. It allows the brain to regenerate,” the 3M Abrasive Systems Division’s VP & GM explains. 

Sen’s second principle is to democratise decision making. She observes that when times go south, there is a tendency to pull up decision making and control it among a limited coterie of people. “The absolute opposite has to be done. We need to involve more people and stakeholders. We should empower and enable them. We must have the humility of making sure that the problem definition is shared and then there are experts who are part of the solution developing process,” she urged.

She also highlighted the importance of small choices in every day decision making as the third principle. Dubbed as jugaad in India or hustle in the US, these every day decisions can exponentially impact the outcome, not just in the moment and in the crisis but in a company’s future. 

Sen also advises to “not delegate communication”. She explains that at times of crises, people look up to their leaders. “We know we need to look calm but do not just look calm, be calm. Don’t delegate communication but cascade it. Empower people to communicate your message to increase the impact,” she said.

Her final principle is surrounding one’s self with “leaders who have integrity and character”. She said, “Make sure your leadership team are people of ethics, integrity and character because a lot of that would be needed right now.”

Together these form a company’s crisis muscles that when put to work, can hold it in good stead towards building its future readiness.

Opportunity, Not Silver Lining

In the pursuit of the future, it is important to not look for a definition of success. “Instead, stay connected with what is changing to look out for opportunities coming out of it so you can participate and build it into success,” she said.

As things are changing, companies and leaders should look for the changes that lead to different consumption patterns and solutions for the here and now. “Don’t search for silver linings, but pivot to see what you can become from your current core competency in the new world. Experiment and take bets, you would be able to design the silver lining,” Sen stated.

In her conversation with Batra, Sen also pondered on the future of workplace stating that more flexibility will come in work and that this will have much broader appeal. Companies may want to incentivise and as newer ways to ‘meet’ come into force, some of these changes may become more permanent in the workplace as well. Office space and design too will undergo changes to be ‘safer’.

If there was one broad message from Sen, it was the need to keep an optimistic outlook while battling the current challenges. “Have a bias for optimism”, the business leader advised.

To Watch This Full Episode of ‘BW Businessworld Dialogue on Leadership’ With Debarati Sen, CLICK HERE


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