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A Word with Prarthana Kumar

Posted 16 April 2024 in EMpower News   |   Share


Recently, EMpower’s President & CEO Cynthia Steele spoke with Prarthana Kumar, Director for Global Solutions for APAC & EMEA at Harvard Business Publishing's Corporate Learning Business, and member of our India Advisory Council. They spoke about cross collaboration, what makes a good leader in today’s world, and more. 

You, more than most people, sit at the intersection of different worlds: academia, nonprofit and civil society, and the private sector—your vantage point is really unique. Where do you think there is unrealised potential from synergy among these three worlds?

It’s a great question, and I've actually always thought of my work like that. Working in the field of leadership and development, HBP [Harvard Business Publishing] is a not-for-profit subsidiary of the school because we have a contribution margin that goes to the school. There have been so many opportunities, and it paints a great landscape, both for collaboration and also for cross-pollination of some really brilliant ideas. 

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about research and innovation is typically academia. Professors, thought leaders—they're at the forefront. New ideas, new technologies, at times even new skills. But it's actually the private sector that translates these concepts into practical application and products. It's great to have the knowledge and the amorphous concepts, but if they cannot be implemented through the private sector—or if they are not helping to meet the job to be done or needs of a customer—it stays at the level of knowledge, begging for applicability. 

At the same time, if you think about NGOs or civil society, they provide insight into real world challenges, as well as the needs of society. So whether it's research efforts or whether it's practical applications, they're really addressing the pressing needs of those who are marginalised in society. 

When one starts to think about initiatives that truly make a difference in the world—no matter whether it's an academic institution, the private sector, civil society organisations—the big word has been around “purpose.” And it’s not just organisations or countries, individuals perform best when they are driven by an individual purpose that connects to the purpose of the organisation. 

Even in the private sector now, people coming into the workforce see money as a hygiene factor. But what is more important is to work for an organisation that's making a difference and leaving the world in a better place. Those in the private sector start to think: how are we addressing social challenges, how are we addressing environmental challenges? And when NGOs or civil society partners with the private sector, the scale expands—you get access to additional resources, expertise, networks. That's where the magic and truly good things can start to happen. Academia comes into play because academics may first help to identify challenges and then close the cycle, with their research on the effectiveness or impact of these initiatives. 

Our news feeds are so filled with gloom, doom and uncertainty, and the elections in many of our countries have people on edge. What are your strategies for helping teams navigate their underlying anxieties and remaining optimistic? 

I'll share some personal practices and some team practices. Firstly, I think it's never been a tougher time to be a leader. You're always expected to be on. You're expected to give high performance at all times. And what also compounds the demands is that we're always connected. We're on multiple devices, responding to multiple asks of work, and doing that all of the time. Change is the only constant. We are in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world, and a lot is being asked of leaders.

Also, there was this perception of leaders being demigods, but it's great that COVID has changed that. The leaders that have thrived in COVID are the ones who are humancentric and authentic leaders, who say, “Hey, this is a tough time. I may not have all the answers. I'll give you some direction but come help me out.” You're allowed to showcase that vulnerability and authentic leadership, which is amazing. Have decisiveness, but at the same time, be vulnerable, raise your hand and say: “I kind of made a mistake.”

Leading a team has become tougher too. In this tumultuous environment, the first thing is creating an organisation that strives for performance excellence, but at the same time is built on a strong foundation of trust. When we start to unpack trust, it's really about answering some simple questions: “Do I trust my line manager?” “Do I trust my line manager with my career?” “Am I being valued?” “Am I being heard?” 

In surveys on work satisfaction, a typical question is: “Do you have a best friend at work?” which translates into: “Do I feel part of a community?” “Do I belong here?” To help the organisation thrive, it’s about building a culture of performance excellence where we're striving for ownership and accountability: personal purpose that links to the organisational purpose, but at the same time, it's steeped in a strong culture of care and trust. 

The first job of the leader is to provide very clear and transparent communication that everyone understands. “This is where we are currently. What is my role in it? How am I contributing to make it better? How do I make a difference?” Along with that, you've got to have measures of governance, your regular check-ins, all with opportunities of open dialogue where people feel psychologically safe to say, “Hey, this is not working out” or “I have a better idea.”

At the same time, the culture of care is also highly important, making sure that we are encouraging practices of self-care. Focusing on performance but also creating room for adaptability and for people to be flexible to meet their personal needs. 

For me personally, I'm a strong believer in energy management as opposed to time management. When I talk about energy, it really is about managing my own energy, and this is not my original work, but a concept I picked up from work done at The Energy Institute. They talk about the fact that for high performance it's more important to manage energy. When you think about managing energy, you think about your physical dimension, your emotional, spiritual, and your cognitive dimension. Through the day, human beings are not meant to operate like computers where we’re on all the time, with numerous windows open, doing multiple things. We work in rhythms: our heart beats in a rhythm, my muscles are contracting in a rhythm, our body operates on a circadian rhythm. As we think about these rhythms, it is imperative to have the same oscillations in how we work: periods of focus and concentration alternating with periods of recharge and relaxation. When done well, a short period of recharge can energise one for many hours of work in “flow.” So understand your periods of hyper productivity and also understand what practices energise you in all dimensions. 

The second is around adopting a learning or growth mindset as opposed to a mindset of failure. It's about reframing challenges as well as making it acceptable to learn from failure. Failing is okay, spend the time to reflect on what could have gone differently, what can we learn to ensure it doesn’t happen the next time. 

That's great to close on, very helpful advice! 

The last thing I'll say is personally, I seek a lot of comfort in practices of gratitude and mindfulness. That to me is a big recharge to really nurture that mindset of optimism. 


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