Creating Strong Teams

Krish Ramakrishnan, Vice Preseident, Client Engagement at FICO

In this episode, Krish Ramakrishnan, VP of Client Engagement at FICO, highlights his process for creating a work environment where people think for themselves, freely share ideas and opinions, and collaborate and innovate.  He shares a story about an interaction early in his career that had a profound influence on his leadership style.  He also offers suggestions for effectively addressing conflict when it arises.  He talks about the positive impact of mentoring and reveals his habits for success, advice to young professionals and his favorite quote.


Brown: Hi everyone. Welcome to the Menttium Matters podcast, where we talk about leadership, life, and the transformative power of mentoring. This is Solveig Brown, and I am so excited to have Krish Ramakrishnan as my guest. Today, Krish and I are going to talk about his leadership process for creating a work environment where people think for themselves, freely share ideas and opinions, collaborate, and innovate. He will also walk us through his suggestions for addressing conflict when it arises.


Before we begin our conversation, here is some background information on Krish. Krish Ramakrishnan’s career spans three continents, nearly four decades, multiple industry verticals, and a myriad of roles. His career philosophy is that people and teams make things happen. His experience includes long stints at a steel plant, a brewery, GE Aircraft Engines, Detroit Edison Nuclear Power Plant, the Hartford Insurance, NASD, and SunTrust Bank. He is currently the VP of Client Engagement at FICO. Krish lives in Atlanta with his wife Mona, and they have two grown children. He recently became a mentor for Menttium. Welcome, Krish.


Ramakrishnan: Thank you, Solveig. It’s great to be here and I am happy that I am part of the Menttium family as a mentor. It’s a great honor to be part of the family.


Brown: We are so happy that you are part of the Menttium family. Krish, you have led several organizations through significant change. You lead with energy and passion, and you build great teams. Can you tell me about your leadership style and how it has evolved over your career?


Ramakrishnan: This is a long story, but I must tell it. I think as you outlined, I am a firm believer that it’s people and teams that make the difference with anything and everything that you do. With that in mind this is something I learned early in life and it’s an experience I’ve shared with some of your Menttium colleagues. I think it is a great story because that framed my career path in many ways. I go back to the early 80s. I had just graduated from college, and I had come out of two premier schools, finished my master’s in economics, and I was hired by the steel plant. I thought I was God’s gift to mankind; I could do no wrong. This is such a great place to be in. I’m a management training brimming with confidence and everything else. As part of my job rotation, I was assigned to the managing director’s office and what could be even better than a 23 years old running around in the managing director’s office?


You’ve got all the limelight, you’ve got the presence, etc. I must tell you a little bit about the background of this managing director. He was a phenomenal man. He was a turnaround artist, so he would pick sick companies, turn them around, and get them going again. He had this philosophy that morale is to all other factors in a ratio of four is to one. Essentially saying that if the morale of your people is high, then obviously you can get a hell of a lot of things done and effectively well.


So, the days roll on, I’m in his secretariat. He had an open-door philosophy and every Thursday he would keep his afternoons free, where any of the blue collared workers could come in and ask him their questions, concerns, and anything else. Back in the day, now we’re talking early 80s, there wasn’t access to money for these people and there were loan sharks. Most of the people who came in would come in asking for, I want a loan for my daughter’s wedding, or I need to send money because the farm did not produce much, or my parents need the money, etc.


My job was to make sure that he executed these as petty cash orders. I would run off to the CFO, get the money, and get it all taken care of. Days go by, and I’m sitting in his office one fine day and this gentleman walks in. I’m with my notepad, writing notes and everything else, and he looks at me and he says, “Krish do you recognize this man?” I looked at him and I said, “No, sir”. He says, “Take a look at him again”. No recollection. At which point in time he looked at me and he said, “His name is so and so. He’s here today to repay a loan that you orchestrated on my behalf because his daughter was getting married. He was here five months ago. He invited you to his daughter’s wedding and you didn’t show up. I was there. I looked for you”. And he said, “You are somebody who is never ever going to succeed in life if you do not remember the names of the people who work for you”. Do you know how small I felt at that point in time, right in front of that person?


This is a life lesson, right? Where it’s a humbling experience because it’s such a valuable lesson. It wasn’t fake because I’ve seen this man in action. If there were corporate parties, he would know the bearers, the butlers, their families, their children. He would go and stand, shoulder to shoulder with them and talk to them and shoot the breeze, and everybody treated him like God. It wasn’t a made-up persona or any such thing. He believed and he lived that, and he taught me that valuable lesson. So, I have not forgotten the names of people. I still stay in touch with the people who I’ve worked with for the last 40 years. It’s something that I think starts to say, it’s not you. It’s not about you. It’s the people who are doing the work for you.


Brown: Wow, Krish, that is an amazing story. You all can’t see me, but I’m sitting here with my mouth open, leaning forward. Talk about feeling humbled, but then what a powerful example that managing director lived of the importance of knowing everyone. Obviously, you’ve never forgotten it and have lived by that yourself for the last 40 years. That is a great story.


Krish, one of the things I’ve heard you talk about is that you like to encourage people to think versus telling them what to do. How do you do this and why is this important to you?


Ramakrishnan: It comes down to two things, ownership, and accountability, and how do you build that into people? If you just bark orders at somebody, they’ll do it. They may do it because you outrank them. They may do it because they weren’t given a voice to talk about it or give their thought process. They just execute on that and sometimes there’s something lost in translation, so you never get the results that you want. How do you go around and try and build this ownership and accountability in people? It’s one of the most basic things, and most people miss it. What is it that you’re trying to do and why is it important? And this can be at any level, right? Whether it’s a project that you’re doing, whether it’s a department or organization you’re running, what are we doing? It’s the purpose, it’s the mission, it is everything that goes into that. The moment you start to talk to people about the importance of what they’re involved in, you start to get their thought process into the mix. People think, but you must give them the chance. You must give them the opportunity, and the only way you can do that is by being inclusive in this whole exercise. It’s worked very well for me. I have to say there are different levels, and different projects demand different things, different types of missions, demand different things. Each one is different. There’s no playbook which says here are these 10 things you do every time. You must assess what you’re doing.


Brown: Can you talk more about that, of how you create a safe zone for people to share their ideas and come up with the solutions that they’ve been thinking about and feel comfortable talking about them?


Ramakrishnan: Sure. We talked about purpose as the first thing, right? What is it that I’m doing? But make that something a little bigger in terms of what are the objectives that you’re trying to do and what are the measures? What does success look like? Now that doesn’t connect anybody emotionally to something. It’s just a big statement, which is here are my objectives, here’s the mission.


To bring that level of a safe zone, it takes time. There’s no magic bullet for this. People need to either know you by reputation or if you or they are brand new on a project, they need to see your behavior, number one. They need to see that even if you say, this is a safe zone, speak freely, they must feel comfortable over a period. This doesn’t happen overnight. They must see that you’re fair. They must see that you mean what you say in terms of if somebody says something, you don’t attack them or you don’t challenge them on everything, but you allow them to express their ideas freely. The moment they see that behavior in a consistent manner, it’s not just a one-day thing, and they will start to gradually open up. That’s one part of it.


The second part of it is there are always going to be groups where you have loud voices who dominate. You must turn around and be able to facilitate sessions where you bring the voices that are not heard into the conversation. You should pass the baton and say, what do you think? The other rule that I always established is, what he said or what she said is not an acceptable answer. It’s always an easy one or a cop out for people who don’t want to speak up or are shy or anything else. They had to start to speak, and this became a deliberate exercise with every team that I’ve had, which I’ve managed as a boss, or I’ve had them as a part of a department. We would do this every two weeks, every month, we would have an offsite and we’d keep doing this.


I must share two stories, and I always used to bring case studies to these sessions and case studies solidify practices. When you start to look at other companies that have done it, and you say, if these guys can do it, what do you take away from it? So, two case studies that I think I’ve used quite often in the past. The first one is Google, who you think about when you talk about a culture of innovation and collaboration and creating safe zones. Starting from Larry Page down the tree, they hire people who do this. They allow everybody to challenge each other. They created this culture of saying, let’s create and come up with ideas. They have this 10x philosophy, and 10x really means whatever you’re doing should be 10 times better, not 10%, 10 times better than what the current thing is. Out of the box thinking is encouraged, they reward, they incentivize. Google’s case study is a fantastic one. Anybody can google it and you’ll find how Google uses their strategy.


But there is a different one that is a case study, which is building an emotional connection. Unless you’re emotionally invested in some of these things, some things just don’t work. So, here’s the second case study. In 2008, there was a terrorist attack in Mumbai. This was across the board, CNN, and every other news agency here were flashing how that hotel was burning. It’s been made into a movie as well. It’s called Hotel Mumbai, I believe. Anyway, I look at that and there’s a Harvard Business case on this, which says out of the 30 odd people who died saving 1,500 people, 1/3 of them were the hotel employees. Now, why is this story important? Why is this meaningful? The backdrop to this whole thing is the hotel employees showed courage, integrity, and grit in the face of death where they put the customer first. Despite their lives being threatened where they could have escaped, they helped the tourists, and the guests escape because integrity was built in that.


It’s a great case study. I would encourage readers to go in and study as to what exactly it was, but at the end of the day, it was value-based hiring. Their values were simply put into the values that were inculcated in these people. They had tremendous respect and had a huge cultural background in serving others and making sure that the customers were always delighted. They didn’t hire people who were top of the class. They didn’t hire people who were MBA graduates from premier schools or any such thing. They went into the hinterlands. They went into the hinterland, and they found people, and they’d talk to their school principals, they’d talk to their teachers. They’d say, how respectful is he? How sincere is he? What attitude does he come and show up with? That mattered more in the hiring process, which then was reinforced with constant training, which then made them people who were connected at a very emotional level. They did not let the guests suffer. Not every organization is going to be geared along those lines, but trying to build an emotional connection is just as critical because now you’re personally invested, you’re personally connected at an emotional level.


Brown: Those are amazing case studies and especially that second one showing that the culture really drove the people to literally put their life on the line for their workplace. That is incredibly powerful. That speaks to the importance of a culture. It speaks to the importance of people being emotionally invested and that you as a leader are responsible for driving that and creating that space and getting people and their ideas to be heard, and having people take ownership and accountability for everything.


Krish, one of the things you’re also good at is conflict management. I’m sure that in these situations where you’re trying to get people to bring their ideas to the table, you talked about the Google example, there can be different opinions, there can be conflict that arises. How do you address conflict when it arises?


Ramakrishnan: It’s been a challenge. I must admit that this is not an easy thing, right? I think in my early days I avoided conflict. If there was a noisy person on the team or somebody who was draining the energy of the team, the natural tendency is to try to sidestep, ignore, whatever else you can to think that it’ll go away. I think that’s the worst strategy that one can apply. It is not productive in any form or fashion. Conflict needs to be nipped in the bud.


I’ll give a couple of examples of this. If I look at a team and there is one person who is not letting the team work well together and they are dominant, you must turn around and coach them, talk to them, be direct with them, give them feedback in a one-on-one setting and see if they will change. Sometimes it is important to weed them out. It’s a tough choice, but you must because there’s this notion of what a star, what a jerk. You don’t need a star who’s a jerk because they can bring the team down in its collective role. There are times when you say this person should be put into something else, maybe an individual contributor role, or if they’re not a fit for the organization, they don’t belong. Now that’s a drastic measure.


Let’s talk about something more about how to coach and get people in a conversation. The first thing is, is it that the person is disrespectful, doesn’t listen to the others, is just wanting to showcase his or her idea and it’s their way or the highway? You must start understanding the psyche of this individual that is there. Once you get to know where they’re coming from, you can handle that problem in a much better way. But never avoid the conflict because the other people on the team will turn around and say he’s not going to do anything about it. Why bother? Then you lose the rest of the team, and you don’t have a voice.


Now here’s another dimension to this; conflict is not always bad. Conflict at times is important to introduce into a meeting as well. So, you don’t just let conflict be something which is a bad thing. If you want ideas from people to the previous question of, how do you make them think, professional disagreement is something which I have always encouraged. It cannot be personal; it cannot be pointed at an individual. You cannot aim it at anybody, but you can certainly turn around and challenge ideas to raise the level of thinking. If everybody’s cooperative, you can be assured you didn’t get the best output unless you know right off the bat it was a great idea, but chances are it’s not. Introduce that conflict too and manage it and facilitate it, don’t let it fester.


Brown: Thank you for that reminder, that conflict isn’t always easy for people. I appreciated that you said you’ve become great at conflict management and conflict resolution, but it was nice to hear that in the beginning that was difficult for you too because I think many people feel that you want to avoid it. Then going on to understand the root of conflict, and then shifting your mindset to the idea that conflict isn’t necessarily bad, it’s not inherently bad, it also can be productive and a great way to get different ideas out. It’s just learning to manage that. It doesn’t become personal, that it’s about the different ideas. That is a great example.


From your experience of mentoring, what impact have you seen mentoring have on people?


Ramakrishnan: Mentoring is in my opinion, something that a lot of organizations don’t do. You don’t bring out the best in people if you don’t mentor and coach them. It shouldn’t just be executive coaching. It shouldn’t be only at senior levels to say is this person somebody who can be groomed into a CIO, CEO, CFO, or the board. They all have coaches, they all have career coaches, and it’s a great thing that organizations do to invest at that executive level. But at junior levels of the organization, you are subject to your manager who does an annual review, and you get the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s subjective and there is absolutely no science to it. You are at the whim of an individual who may like or dislike you and who gives you feedback based on that.


Mentoring is such an important concept in and of itself. All of us need mentors. All of us need mentors all the time because you need to have a reflection of different things. Where you are in your journey, what exactly is the journey? Everything is not just about career development. Mentoring can be in many facets. It’s almost like, what do you want? What are you trying to achieve? Each person is different. Each person’s objectives are different. Each person’s goals are different. Each person’s backgrounds are different. So, there’s no standard, here are your 10 commandments, go forth. It doesn’t work that way, which then makes that journey that much more powerful to say somebody needs to be able to help you along your journey and it’s always good to bounce ideas off somebody. It is not a one-way street. It is a communication with somebody to say, let’s throw this at you and see if you’ve got something that you would do differently or you would suggest as alternatives. Or, a mentor may also say, I don’t know how to deal with that situation because I haven’t experienced that, or I don’t have any words that can explain how to approach it, but let’s try and figure this out. It’s okay. I think vulnerability is a common thing.


Everybody has good and bad days, so when you get into doubt, a mentor is the right person. Back to your question of I love being a mentor, but I’m also being mentored along the way and to me, it’s a great way to partner and understand different perspectives and goals and objectives. If we can have a trusted relationship where you are truly working at a level, then mentorship can be a lifelong gift. So, the boss that I started out this conversation with remained my mentor until he passed away. So many lessons, so many lessons.


Brown: I’ve heard from many mentors, that idea that it is a two-way relationship and that every mentoring partnership is unique and that the mentors often say that they learn as much from the mentees as the mentees learn from them. That is a great perspective and that is neat that that managing partner was your mentor while he was living throughout your career.


We have time for three final questions. The first one is, do you have habits that you feel have contributed to your success?


Ramakrishnan: I’m a nerd. I read, and I read, and I read. I have half a leg in academia. Half of my classmates are professors all over the U.S. I stay in touch with what they’re doing, the papers they publish and everything else. The other half of it is I try to practice some of that stuff because reading is one thing. Trying to incorporate that into some level of thinking, sometimes it works, sometimes it’s just an academic exercise. But I think they work wonders, keep learning.


Brown: That is a great habit. I hear that echoed from many senior leaders, just that importance of reading. I like your addition of, it’s also important to practice some of the things that you’re learning in that reading. Sometimes that’s probably the more challenging part of it.


Krish, what would your advice be to up and coming leaders?


Ramakrishnan: Earn your stripes. Leadership is something which is not bestowed upon anybody. You must be in a position where you are respected, you are regarded as somebody who can deliver. There are many different industries, different types of leadership skills, etc. But in every one of them, you will always find that leaders earn their stripes. People want to follow them, not because they must, but because they are inspired by them, and that does not come by accident. To anybody who is an aspiring leader, your title doesn’t entitle you to become a leader. You become a leader when your team wants to follow you. So, earn your stripes and you must work at it every day.


Brown: That is great advice. Our final question is, do you have a favorite saying, quote, or motto?


Ramakrishnan: I wish I could be profound with something like that, but I don’t think I’m blessed enough to say something very profound. But here is the one thing I will say, curiosity; you cannot ever give up on that curiosity of yours because there is never an end to that. Keep digging, keep asking, keep learning. That’s what keeps me going. You know what, I’ve done it for 40 years. I’ll probably do it for the next 40 years.


Brown: That is great. Curiosity drives everything. Krish, thank you so much for being my guest today. I love the story you started out with, where you learned at a very young age the importance of knowing everyone who works for you and valuing and respecting everyone that you interacted with. I appreciate your great advice on leadership and the importance of encouraging people to take ownership and accountability. Then also creating a safe space where people can learn to think for themselves and talk about their ideas and share ideas freely with each other. Also, great advice that you must earn your stripes as a leader. It sounds like you’ve done that throughout your career of building trust, showing up every day, and showing people who you really are. Thank you so much.


Ramakrishnan: Thank you for having me and these have been interesting questions.


Brown: Thank you all for listening to this episode of the Menttium Matters podcast. We have many great episodes lined up. I look forward to having you all back next time.