“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” – Simon Sinek
This blog piece is a personal account of my interactions with the leaders at KNOLSKAPE, a place that means to me what Hogwarts meant to Harry Potter. Potterheads reading this post would probably know what I mean, but for those who are not sure where this is headed, let me break it down for you.
I’ve been at KNOLSKAPE for over a year now. In this time, I have said several times that KNOLSKAPE is a ‘great place to work’. The common responses from friends and acquaintances for that statement were that ‘I am being naïve’, ‘I don’t have enough experience to understand’, ‘I have rose-tinted glasses on’, or simply that ‘it’s the corporate world, nothing is as it seems’. I’m happy to share that I was right and it’s definitely a great place to work at – certified too! So, yes, KNOLSKAPE is a fabulous place to be, to work, to grow and to learn, especially from those who lead.
I have worked across and with various teams in the time I have been here, and had a fair share of interactions with the leaders who walk the talk and make KNOLSKAPE a great place to work. Along the way, I have learnt valuable lessons on leadership that will forever stay with me, because I have seen key leadership traits and practices being embodied by our leaders.
My first lesson in becoming a better leader came from our Founder & CEO, Rajiv Jayaraman, someone who always smiles or waves at you when you walk past him in the corridors or across the cafeteria. One occasion that stands out in my memory is from my early days at KNOLSKAPE. As a writer, it is sometimes difficult to be in noisy spaces, and I had trouble collecting my thoughts to create coherent sentences. Therefore, I would look around for quiet places in the office where I could pull my thoughts together in peace and write. Rajiv spotted me cooped up in a room one day, clacking away on the keys of my laptop, and stopped to talk to me. Never would I have expected the outcome that ensued from simply explaining my situation – I would get personal updates from Rajiv on Slack, alerting me of vacant meeting rooms to work in peace. Once, he even dropped a message saying, “I’m in Mumbai. Feel free to use my cabin. Be the CEO for the day!” I realised then that being a leader is not simply about being a face, but taking the time out to be personable and involved, making an effort to be there for your people and be mindful of their needs.
I learnt my second lesson during a game of Secret Santa, where my Christmas Angel was Dileep, KNOLSKAPE’s Head of Finance – a quiet, serious, and focused professional whom I had barely interacted with at the time of this activity. I was also apprehensive about setting my angel a task as I was unsure if asking a senior leader to participate in the Christmas fervour and games would be appropriate. A little queasy and at the same time wanting to be an active Santa, I shared a task. And lo, much to my pleasant surprise – he completed the task I had set for him! That’s when I realised that even leaders have inhibitions and vulnerabilities. The true mark of a great leader, however, is the willingness to push yourself out of your comfort zone and going with the flow. To get down from the mantle and be there with your people and being a part of the little things that make them happy is really a game changer.
Lesson three: One would think that as the Head of People Practice at KNOLSKAPE, and a lawyer by training, Raksha Shenoy would be someone stern and difficult to approach. My interactions with Raksha, however, have varied from talking about her impeccable sense of style to running trainings in organizations, and everything in between. What has always stood out for me is the candour with which she handles all employee concerns. No matter what issues that employees face, she will find a way to accommodate and resolve them. She is often heard humorously saying, “If nothing else works, we will launch a strike against the HR team!” She taught me that, as a leader, you can’t be defensive and jump the gun. Playing it cool and understanding the real issues of your people is necessary for things to run smoothly. Sometimes winning them over means to let go of your position and role to address and handle what is truly at stake.
The next leader on my list is Madan Panathula. The world knows him as a thorough professional and a Rockstar facilitator. At KNOLSKAPE, he is considered the funniest person around, constantly having everyone in splits. For me, he has been like a lighthouse. His calm presence and guidance have helped me sail through my ups and downs. I could always turn to him for any sound advice and rest assured that my problem would be solved if I ever broached it with him. As a leader, it is important for you to be approachable and that your people can connect with you. Leaders must be there in entirety and not merely words; people need to know that they can bank on someone and have this person to depend on, no matter what the situation may be.
It is often said that as leaders should practice what they preach and only one man comes to my mind when I think of it – Shobhit Mathur, the Chief Business Officer at KNOLSKAPE and my boss’ boss. Shobhit is a real task-master and pleasing him is a near impossible task. For his team, being appreciated by him is considered akin to winning an Oscar, and I’m humbled that I received one in my little time here. Shobhit’s real talent, however, is in bringing out the best in others, and he does so by example. If that means getting his hands dirty and working to fix or improve something, he will do it, no questions asked. If we were to use a leadership checklist, you can be assured that Shobhit would make it to all. As a leader, leading by example is important, to lend authenticity and being the person that you would want your people to look up to. Building that trust and credibility is crucial to being a leader and Shobhit commands all of that and more.
We would often think that leaders are the ones who you see as the face of a company or a brand. Being at KNOLSKAPE, I realised there are some leaders who will push you to the fore and work in the background ensuring that things run without hiccups. I’m talking about Vijay Kalangi, Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of KNOLSKAPE, who is happy working to ensure that the company develops and builds high quality learning products, and letting Rajiv take the reins in the spotlight. As leaders it is also important to be able to keep away from the spotlight. It requires you to allow your work to speak for itself and trust another to take the legacy forward.
Though my interactions has been brief with this man, Ritish Reddy is a star leader at KNOLSKAPE. He started the APAC operations and is now heading the U.S.A market. He’s known for his ability to turn things around and being cool in the face of trouble, a knack for risk taking, consultative selling and creating opportunities. My first interaction up close was to plan for a LinkedIn campaign to tap on the U.S.A market. He came forward and asked me what needs to be done for the same. Right then, I understood that as leader, you may not have all the answers but being able to let the other person know and allowing them to lead you for a change is also necessary.
Next in line is Sethu – known for his quick tongue, wit and wisdom. He introduced himself to me as ‘Hi, I’m Sethu, part of the BD team.’ Immediately another colleague commented saying, “so humble”. I wondered what was happening and then I came to know that this was the man responsible for heading all the operations PAN-India. It was then I received the key leadership lesson – leaders need to be humble and be grounded to the realities of life. It is what takes them forward and draws others towards them to follow like moth to fire.
Last but not the least, my leadership learnings would not conclude if I didn’t add one more name to this list, Swati Kamath. My manager, boss, coach, mentor…basically the all in one. Functioning by the logic, when in doubt at KNOLSKAPE, ask Swati. My go-to person for all things. And I realised the reason for her being my soundboard and someone I completely look up to and am inspired by her empathetic personality. Leaders need to be empathetic. Understanding your people and being there for them and giving them the chance to grow and understand is pivotal to being a true leader.
At KNOLSKAPE, I found my leaders and the traits that all leaders must emulate and exhibit. My journey here may have concluded but these memories and lessons will last me a lifetime. Do Let me know your thoughts if you feel the same about your leaders and what do you take home?