Why do some people succeed in corporate careers while others crash and burn? What if you had a guide book for navigating corporate life? Vishal Agarwal (@vishalsvoice), author of Give to Get, knows the ropes for business leaders who are faced with the high stakes complexities of corporate culture.
Over the course of his 24-year career, he navigated all facets of corporate life. Vishal worked his way up from an intern to a senior deals partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Then he was a Global Top 500 Senior Leader for General Electric before he became Chairman and CEO of his own private investment firm Full Circle Africa.
In this episode, we talk about the challenges that business leaders face from overcoming new guy’s syndrome to finding your why and even overcoming burnout.
Vishal Agarwal: So I began my career with PwC as I told the tale in my book, and then later on in my career I had this opportunity to move to Africa to take on an interesting role. And what I found in those early days, early months, shook me off a little.
While there was a new environment around me, forget what was maybe outside the office building in terms of geography and assimilation and culture and all of that. I think it was not so much that, but it was what was happening inside the office, what was happening with team dynamics.
“I was being treated as a leader who just came in to a new team.”
It was how I felt lonely or how I felt confused. How I felt isolated, I felt that I didn’t have support of peers or senior folks like partners in the firm that had actually brought me to the region in to the firm. I felt that some of you didn’t have the trust of the team.
Those early weeks and days and months were what I worked so hard to try and navigate beyond. And those memories served me well in late years and as I got a chance to mentor peers and other senior leaders and young managers that came in to our business. Those were the early years that I think are the formative years of this book, if you will.
The New Person Syndrome
Charlie Hoehn: Does a particular moment or instance stand out to you where you really felt that way?
Vishal Agarwal: Yeah, I remember going to work out sessions with teams and not feeling involved enough. I recall not feeling trusted enough. I might have felt isolated, then I might have felt not leveraged sufficiently, then I might have felt not being given enough of attention then. But when I reflected on it, it was declared to me that it was more trust than anything else.
“It was more relationship than anything else.”
It was more not having enough of time with each other that drove those moments of not feeling as one with the team.
Charlie Hoehn: And, you call this new guy’s syndrome, right?
Vishal Agarwal: Yes, new person syndrome. Leaders come in to businesses all the time, a CEO and a great role gets lateral opportunity and moves from Coca-Cola to Hewlett-Packard or from General Electric to Siemens and feels that with all these years of experience I can do bigger and brighter things.
In my book I give the example of my friend Denny who went from a US investment bank to a European investment bank. The culture part, our readers should not get focused on, but truly realize that it’s the new environment that completely discounts you.
The new environment that might kind of say, “Hey, yes we know that we hired you for the CV but what have you actually done for us? And what is our relationship with you? And do we really trust you? And let’s, kind of, go through those trenches together that’s kind of build the relationship through some firefighting together,” right?
You don’t have the war scars to be able to truly have that trust between you.
Learning to Listen
Charlie Hoehn: Were you able to figure this out through conversations with your team or were you seeking advice from your mentors, how did you do it?
Vishal Agarwal: A little of everything. There was some trial and error because there was no guide, there was no handbook. I was new in the role, so I didn’t actually have a mentor. So while I tried to build some mentor-like touch points that couldn’t be in week one couldn’t be in month six for that matter.
It comes with a little bit of time, so you build a little bit of face time. You have some time with people you build a little bit of trust with peers and perhaps you can have some mentor-like touch points.
So, it was really in my case some trial and error, right? And, what I did was I, kind of, really took my emotional IQ and the radar of my emotional IQ and turned it all the way up.
“I turned the volume of my self-awareness all the way up.”
And by using that radar, if you will, to catch what I was trying hard to listen from my teams, from my peers, from the office culture around me, I think that served me well. Because then I was listening.
I was focused on listening to body language, I was focused on listening to feedback, and I recalibrated for that. The biggest thing that I did that served me well is I focused on building relationships.
Charlie Hoehn: So, it sounded like you became deeply focused on serving others through listening.
Vishal Agarwal: In my humble view, from a leadership journey standpoint, I think leadership is about serving people.
I’ve been saying that I don’t do any real work, and people kind of look at me and roll their eyes or laugh at me. I say, “Well think about the everyday grinding. I don’t write spreadsheets anymore. I don’t do any, kind of, deep analysis anymore. I don’t write very large Word documents or write big pitch books anymore. I don’t lift stuff,” right? My role as a leader is one of inspiring.
“My role as a leader today is to watch the back of my teams to help them navigate to help mentor them, to create a safe environment for them to do all this great work they’re doing.”
So, I think the role of leaders today has changed from the time of fathers and grandfathers. While in some ways it has become easier in terms of the amount of weight you need to lift from an every day grinding standpoint, it is actually quadruply hard at in terms of really being there, building trust providing guidance, serving, serving, serving.
Settling in as a New Leader
Charlie Hoehn: When did you really feel you had a breakthrough that you had overcome the feelings of insecurity when you first started out and really fount your own your leadership role?
Vishal Agarwal: I couldn’t say there was a moment, but I could say there was lots of gratification. I saw it in the eyes of my teams. I saw it in the joyous celebration together around wins. I saw it around sharing and collaborating.
“At a superficial level, it could be feeling more inclusive getting more attention. But at a deeper level, it was people asking for advice.”
People asking to be mentored, people asking for how-to solutions. I think that’s very gratifying.
I think as a leader you can tell that your team knows that you have their back. Your team knows that there’s a trusted relationship, and that’s very gratifying. Because then you know you can do so much more with that team.
Charlie Hoehn: What’s the one thing you want listeners to really remember from this conversation?
Vishal Agarwal: My favorite story to leave my listeners is my lion and goat story. I want my listeners, my readers, to always be the lion.
The reason why that’s important is a lot of the stuff that I describe in the book, whether it is culture, whether it is navigating, whether it’s building teams, whether it is, you know, detractors in the business, whether it is being underwhelmed…you could be fearful of all of those things, but you shouldn’t be.
“The one thing you should be fearful of—and that I always am fearful of—is not having courage.”
Not having the courage to navigate, not having the courage to assimilate culture, not having the courage to build teams and having their backs or building trust with them all of that stuff, including not having the courage to deal with your own burnout.
That’s the hardest thing, I would say, to find yourself without the courage. Be the lion.
Finding Your Courage
Charlie Hoehn: Why are you afraid of losing your courage, did you go through that?
Vishal Agarwal: No, I would say that there have been many moments where I have been not just reflective but perhaps slow to make a decision, perhaps drag my feet at making a decision. Perhaps overly analyze something, perhaps pause.
Which are not bad things, but there is a fine balance between being reflective and pausing and thinking through it a lot more, and not doing something because you don’t have the courage.
That fine balance is an important one. Over my career, I have had to coach myself, give myself therapy, to not fall off that fine line. I have to make a lot of tough decisions as a senior leader, which I know exactly I have to do every day.
From course correction to letting team members go from downsizing, to shutting down a project, giving hard feedback. These are very hard decisions that leaders have to make, and they have to make them every day as they get more and more senior.
Finding the courage to get pass that thinking clearly and objectively is very important. It doesn’t come natural, and it doesn’t come just by saying, “I’m going to have courage.”
“You don’t take a protein or a vitamin in the morning and say, “This is my courage vitamin.”
It comes from a lot of hard work and reflection and self-awareness and catching yourself.
Charlie Hoehn: What would you tell a leader who wants to be a lion again?
Vishal Agarwal: That they were actually born a lion. They just forgot about it.
They were born a lion.
“They could kick, they could scream, they knew when they wanted to eat, they knew when they wanted to sleep. It’s in us. We’re lions.”
It’s just that as time goes by, we get siloed. As time goes by, we get fearful. As time goes by, we can get hazed. And if we fall into that trap of yapping too much, being restless, not being patient, being indecisive, that’s goat-like behavior.
Ultimately, you’ll put your head down for becoming a nice dish of biryani, as I facetiously say in the book.
Transforming the Workplace
Charlie Hoehn: What are you hoping is going to be the transformation that your book has on corporate leaders? What was your intent in writing the book?
Vishal Agarwal: So, my intent was to really help to share to, kind of, mentor. But there’s actually a second piece of this. I really like to submit to peers to board rooms to senior executives. The things that I talk about in my book, the obstacles, the nuances, the cultural bits that I talk about navigating past, are actually the type of things that we should not have an organization.
Multi-nationals, corporate, businesses, small and large are full of these obstacles, these silos, these cultural difficulties, that executives have to navigate through.
“They are full of situations that overwhelm executives and accelerate their burnout.”
They are full of situations that confuse them from a stakeholder relationship standpoint.
And while I offer mentorship and my years through this book to folks to be able to navigate, I implore senior leaders, key decision makers, to actually eradicate this type of behavior, these kind of bureaucracies from their corporates to make the companies nimble and agile and great fun places to work where teams foster and grow horizontally and learn and share with each other every day.
Charlie Hoehn: What does success look like when it comes to making a place fun to work?
Vishal Agarwal: That you fail and you succeed together. That you go as hard as you possibly can for objectives that are not mine and yours, but ours.
That we craft goals together. We craft the solutions to achieve those goals together and we celebrate our losses as well as our victories together. And I think that’s a fun place.
I’m an old fashioned cufflink, suit and tie guy. I’m not your ping pong, bean bag guy that says that if you have bean bags in your office it becomes fun. Yet if you have teams that are motivated to play together, it becomes fun.
If you care about personal relationships and make leadership personal, knowing your kids’ names or understanding what pressures you have going at home.
“We spend so much time together, make the relationships personal.”
I mean that from a leadership standpoint. We spent so much of time together, right? How could you not build a sense of community, how could you not build a sense of partnership?
Ultimately for me the test is, can you invite your office colleagues, your teams home to dinner?
If you can put them in front of your spouse and your kids, that’s the ultimate test. Then you’re proud of the people that you work with at the office. You want to share their leadership with your children, you want to share that laughter in the library of your home or around your fireplace, because that’s your safest haven.
How to Avoid Burnout
Charlie Hoehn: Let’s talk about finding our why.
Vishal Agarwal: I remember my 10 year old asking me, “Why dad?” And I think that was a pretty profound moment for me. You, kind of, say “Well, actually you know what I don’t know. I don’t even recall.”
If you talk to most leaders, they would say that. If you ask them all, “It’s New Year’s Eve and you’re on a phone call because it’s the end of the year and you’re going to close your book, or there’s some excuse…So take a step back and tell me why again.”
They’ll say, “I don’t know,” I think that’s telling.
Charlie Hoehn: Tell me about burnout. Tell me about your experience with it and how you got through it.
Vishal Agarwal: Burnout is a hard one because it’s become this word that just sucks away the energy in you. It burns that courage in you that I was talking about earlier. But what helped me was to find ways of balancing it out.
“What helped me was to find ways to mentor people outside of the office, or even inside your office.”
For years because of independence conflicts as a PWC partner, I could not for example invest in the stock market and things like that. So, what I would do with the investment portfolio is I would bet on entrepreneurs. I would invest in private enterprises and mentor them and coach them. And that angel investing pattern gave me a lot of fuel to help mitigate burnout syndrome.
Seeing that gratification that I got from being able to think about how I was changing people’s lives or how I was making difference. People do that through corporate social responsibility platforms that they might get attached to. People might do that through going to a local university or local college and lecturing or mentoring.
I’ve seen good leaders do that in many different ways, but I think going beyond that single dimension of this boiler room that you find yourself in, driving every day…If you can picture this big battleship, and you’re in the boiler room of the battleship.
“You’re not sitting on the great navigation bridge, but you actually in this heat of boiler room.”
If you picture that for moment, how stressful and difficult is that and if you do not have a release if you do not have a way to express your interest in art and culture or food or music or sport or helping people, then you just going to be in the boiler room.
I was able to overcome by doing some of those things to express my interest and East African art. I’m a foodie as I speak to it in the book, and I love working with people in mentoring them and fostering growth amongst entrepreneurs. That’s what kept me sane.
The word balance, I often joke…For many years, when people would ask me, “What about work life balance?”
“I would say, “You know, my wife Mira, she has the life, I have the work, and that’s the balance.”
I figure that has to be little deeper than that facetious, laughable way of putting it. The joke is on me.
Don’t Go Head-On
Charlie Hoehn: Thank you, yeah, are there any stories that you particularly love in Give to Get that you want to share here that we haven’t covered?
Vishal Agarwal: The one story that I often tell that I’m so happy to be able to share in the book is the story of the Range Rover and the Probox. I learned this myself over the years of my career. If you look at a Range Rover Sport and you think about it the Toyota Probox, they’re such different vehicles. One is made like an armored vehicle, one is a little dinky car.
What if they would to go frontal with each other? So, you have these two vehicles collide in a frontal collision, you can just imagine you’ll have massive damage to that the Probox. You could have its entire front chassis taken out.
If you look at the Range Rover, it probably has a little bit of a fender bender, but if you were to take this in to the respective dealers, I promise you the overall cost of fixing that fender bender on a Range Rover Sport is much more than replacing the radiator in the entire front chassis of that Toyota Probox.
By telling that story, I like to remind leaders that the price to pay in frontal head to head collisions with team members and others is like the price to pay in that story.
Never be frontal. Work with people, and do not collide head on.
A Challenge from Vishal Agarwal
Charlie Hoehn: What can you give listeners to challenge them with this week?
Vishal Agarwal: The biggest challenge that I can think of for listeners is to go back and think of their teams and think of the ambassadors in their team, as I explain it in my book. Think of those that are the bystanders or those that are sitting on the fence and might be detractors.
Then think about what you’re doing for this people. Do you actually stand with your ambassadors all day long?
“Do you spend more time with those that favor you as a leader?”
Do you do anything for those that are your detractors? Are you actually helping them get up that hill as the graphic shows in the book, to a point where you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with those that are truly your ambassadors?
Think of it in the context of those three buckets: those that are the ambassadors, those that sit on the fence, and those that are detractors. Then truly ask themselves what are they doing for the detractors particularly, I think that would give readers and listeners some great value.
Charlie Hoehn: Absolutely, now Vishal how can our listeners follow you on your journey as an author and potentially connect with you?
I always like to hear from people. I’m an absolute people’s person to the extent that my biggest ROI on this content would be to get feedback to hear your personal stories, to hear relatable messages.