My interview with Rohit Tandon
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Today I’m speaking with Rohit Tandon. Rohit is the Senior Vice President and Business Leader of GENPACT Analytics and Research Business. In this capacity he drives the growth of the analytics business and the development of solutions to help clients harness the value of big data and analytical insights. Rohit has 25 years of leadership experience across industries with roles at Accenture, GE, IBM, and Hewlitt-Packard.
His unique skill is taking on a complex space that’s undergoing transformation and leading his organisation to build clarity of purpose and structure, and deliver performance and financial results. I initially met Rohit when he was the Vice President of Strategy and Worldwide Head of HP Global Analytics. In this conversation with Rohit, we explore his professional growth and capture insights from his experience in leadership roles at Accenture, G.E., IBM, and HP.
Rohit, It’s great to have you here. Welcome.
Thanks Aviv, it’s a pleasure to be here with you.
What have I missed in terms of your early background and experience in the introduction?
I think you hit this perfectly on the spot. Is it just fine.
I know you are just back from travel; where have you been and what are you working on these days?
It’s a tough job traveling around the globe these days. It gets even tougher when you end up once in a while traveling with the family. If you make the mistake of pointing out that the furniture in one of the business lounges at the airport has changed, the wife suddenly says, “How come you never notice these changes when I do that at home?” So it’s getting trickier to travel out there.
I’ve been in Florida, in Miami, for a conference about anti-money laundering; I was in India for another set of meetings; and New York. I’ve been trying to avoid going to New York but I’ve already made a few trips with all the snow and cold, trying to make sure I still have enough warm clothes when I get there from sunny California.
For location and for people that are not familiar with GENPACT, can you give us some understanding of what GENPACT is and what the company brings to market?
Sure. GENPACT originally started off as GE, and it got so terribly successful that GE’s customers started knocking on the door saying ‘let us in’. Because of that, in 2005 GE spun off as an independent unit, it’s listed on the New York Stock Exchange, with the letter G, which we were lucky to get at the time. Over the course of the last 10 or 12 years, GENPACT has become a company that helps its clients transform themselves. They transform from the traditional space that they work in to accommodate and accept changes, to bring in digital tech capabilities, to help drive much more efficient processing of their operations, running them with the right level of analytics, digital and process capability. We help our businesses go from where they are today to where they need to be to be competitive in the future.
So the value proposition is helping your clients operate with a higher level of insight and efficiency as a result?
Absolutely. On the operations side, there is a lot of efficiency, a lot of transforming yourself so that you are able to compete with the new companies. These companies might not have the legacy of all systems and all data. So we give our clients, the process, the new capabilities, and the insights, not only to run their operations, but also to make effective and better business decisions as they go on into the marketplace.
As my introduction indicated, you have held roles in a number of admired companies. Since the focus of my fascination with the leadership journey is always about what enables people to thrive and grow to the new responsibilities that they find themselves in later, I wonder if you can share some of the earlier experiences that helped you and guided you in the direction that you later took in your leadership roles?
Sure. Interesting question. This takes me back a few years. I grew up in New Delhi in India, which doesn’t look anything like it used to in those days. We used to live in a place where there were maybe five houses in a 25 acre space of land. Now I think you’ll find five families living in each house. That’s how crowded it’s got. In the early years, I grew up in a family where my father was a commercial pilot, so he used to fly around the globe. I was lucky to get the exposure with him and get exposed to various cultures and various capabilities that a normal child would not be able to get in India in those days.
As I picked up those capabilities and that diverse set of experiences, it made me an extremely curious person. I knew that I could not be just looking at what existed in front of me and assume that that was the best. I figured out that if you looked beyond you would be able to find something better. Or if you look beyond and you put two and two together, you’d be able to find a better solution to what you were looking at. That solution could be found in the tennis racket that you could buy in the local market, the kind of shoes that you wore, or the technology that you were exposed to.
It made me a curious person who was always looking beyond my immediate realm for ideas and solutions. It also made me a person who could appreciate different points of view. That helped me a lot as I was growing up because I was always open to ideas. I was always open to differences of opinions. I use this capacity on a day to day basis in my career today. I think it’s close to what you refer to in your book as ‘how do you have conversation?’. I’ve found that conversing with people and trying to understand where they were coming from rather than always trying to show what you knew that just added so much more value and learning. In this way, I’ve been able to amass a sum total of all the experiences that I’ve gained from interacting with people from across the globe as I was growing up.
That’s a fascinating context. The unique experience of your father being a commercial pilot exposed you earlier on to the world, and made you a citizen of the world. This is an experience that you are later able to bring to the kind of roles you take in global companies. That and the open mind and the curiosity that this experience engendered in you, enables you to see diverse points of view and assimilate opportunities and possibilities that perhaps others will not be open to see. Can you trace, after finishing high school, what next steps you have taken, and what ideas did you have at that time?
Funny that you would take me back to that age. There are a couple of things I can share. Firstly to answer your question directly — this is what I tell my kids — when I was growing up most of the things that I work on now did not exist as a career. I was absolutely clueless about what I was going to do when I grew up. We grew up in an environment where, unless you could clearly state that you were going to be a doctor or an architect or a musician, you were considered to be clueless about what you wanted to do.
I fell into the last category. I ended up taking up Computer Sciences because it fascinated me; it was a new space, it was a new area. We started off with those huge machines that would fill up a full floor. So I did my Bachelor’s and Master’s in Computer Sciences. But I don’t think even at the end of that Masters I was clear what I wanted to do. Just as I finished my Masters, I left Computer Sciences. I walked out of the startup that I had created along with a few buddies and I went to — of all things — advertising. I was in the creative side of advertising; I used to write copy for ads with JW Thompson, one of the largest advertising firms.
What was the startup that you initially embarked on?
It was core system software. We used to do a lot of development in terms of computer security and information security. At the other end of the spectrum, we also worked with the Indian government to help them crack open a lot of systems . It would be systems where they suspected data had been stored for illegitimate purposes and fraudulent business transactions. At that point in time, there was also monitoring of some of the potential adverse events which they wanted to track.
We also started a whole division doing application software for the hospital industry and the shoe industry which was big in India at that time. We also expanded it just as a hobby to assembling computer systems. That was more as a hobby but it would pay for some of the excitement we used to create by having more bikes and things we would spend our money on.
So you then simply sell your startup and head into the advertising space for a new adventure?
See now that I’m sitting in Palo Alto in the hub of the Silicon Valley in investment banking I wish I had sold it and not just said, “Guys I’m walking out. Thanks so much.”
So then you found yourself in the advertising space which is very different to Computer Sciences. What are some of the important learnings you are able to distill and internalize at that time?
I realized how important it was for anything you develop, any product that you make, to be able to advertise it and bring it out in the eyes of the people so that they would buy it. Otherwise the best idea would die inside a briefcase or inside your room. Also it accentuated my belief that to succeed in this world, you need to be a good storyteller. You’ve got to be able to take an idea or product and tell a story around that. Otherwise it’s just another dead product line on a shelf. It’s a story that makes the difference.
To connect with emotions and imagination, we have to tell a story.
So what happens then? How long did you stay in the advertising space and where did it lead you next?
I was there for just under a year. I applied to a few places, a few large companies. Some of them tracked me down and Accenture Consulting was the most exciting one out of them. They called me for a conversation and said, “What are you doing in advertising? You’ve done your Computer Sciences and your Bachelor’s and Master’s.” I said, “I’m in it because I can.” And he said, “What do you mean?” So I said, “What you are taught in schools and colleges doesn’t really work in the real business world. It’s a question of how you take it and how you apply it. And that has to be taught by the companies that are doing the hiring.” There was a huge question about a gap in terms of ready talent for the market. What I said is, “I learned all of this in Computer Sciences. I applied it. I am now seeing the marketing and the advertising aspect of it. Here’s how it all comes together as a wider set of end-to-end capabilities of being able to conceptualize something to take it to market.” Three minutes later I had my offer in my hand. They said, “We want you already in Accenture consulting in India. We need people like you, who can think about things beyond the ways in which they are being defined.”
So let me capture the learning side of the story you shared. Sometimes it is smart to follow a non-linear path and take the next step following an inspiration that guides you to do something that you wouldn’t otherwise do. This is the essence of the story that Steve Jobs tells about picking up calligraphy. In this case, you found yourself with an advertising experience and all of a sudden you’re able to bring to Accenture a background and a set of skills and experiences that create for you competitive advantage.
Absolutely. It’s about working on yourself and continuously evaluating. You think about some of the things that you can add to your arsenal of capabilities to differentiate you from the rest to make you be able to do things beyond what 20 other people would be able to do, who are walking in stride with you. Therefore, you’ve got to sometimes look at yourself, especially early career, on how you package yourself. And it becomes important therefore to add these capabilities to your arsenal of skills.
Can you trace at what point in your career you developed this conscious thought of how to package yourself? Is this something that you had back then or is it something that you are now able to develop and frame with the benefit of time?
If I were to trace it back, I would trace it all the way back to high school. Not as part of my career. I might have better words in better language to wrap the whole thing in. But I remember way back in high school, I got thrown out of school for a week. I was suspended because apparently I had not done well in one of the exams. When I was allowed back in school, I found out that my father had gone and met with the principal who had thrown me out and said “My son’s never performed so badly. What happened?”. What the principal told him was, “My problem is not that your son has not performed well or badly. Your son has not performed and not utilized all the potential that he has. And that’s what I want him to do. He might be doing great in exhibiting three of the qualities he’s got out of the ten. That’s not good enough for me.”
Wow. So not holding you accountable to a performance measure but rather holding you accountable to your potential. Absolutely fascinating insight. When I talk about the three pillars of trust and we examine the behaviors that create trust, one of them is the idea of holding people accountable to their true potential and expecting them to deliver their full capacity. That must have been an absolutely enlightened teacher to take that kind of a position and expectation from you as a student.
Absolutely. Any time when asked who’s been one of the key mentors for me, his name is one of the first names that pops up. That was a life changing moment for me.
So at the point you are in Accenture India, what are the skills and capabilities that you’re learning in developing through this experience?
As I mentioned, Accenture was just starting off its operations in India. The consulting operations the didn’t even do any of the business process management pieces in India at the time. What a small team of five or seven people had to do was to be able to represent this huge global giant in the local Indian economy. We would have to be prepared to have conversations on everything from strategy to supply chain optimization to process, technology, change. Those are used to be the three pillars on which Accenture used to stand.
But wait…there’s more?!
This post has been adapted from Aviv Consulting. Listen here for the full interview and story of Rohit Tandon.