Corporate organizations are a lot like cricket teams. Both are invested in people to perform, are dynamic, and focus on individual roles that come together to deliver a common objective. One such role is that of a leader, and I’ve had the privilege of being one for several years. Here are a few things I learnt that can be very applicable to the “other" type of leaders as well.

Leadership in diversity—the (Mumbai) Indian experience

I’ve had the honour of leading the Australian cricket team over the past decade in various formats of the game. However, as I walked into the Mumbai Indians team a few weeks ago, there were two things that occurred to me which were relatively new to my repertoire of experiences. The first was this amazing medley of cultures and backgrounds this team consisted of. There were people from at least five different countries. There were folks I had played with, played against, and a few that I had never even met. The second was this short time window—for the team to really come together and feel as one, for all members to know each other and for me as a leader to understand and connect with each one.

As I was discussing this with people from diverse fields, it was interesting to note that corporate organizations are evolving on similar lines. The global nature of business and cross-cultural corporate teams brings a leader face-to-face with the challenge of ensuring seamless integration of all these cultures to be successful as a team. There are many implications to this heterogeneity, the biggest being communication. Sometimes you speak the same language, often you don’t. The same words and phrases are subject to being interpreted differently, in line with cultural cues familiar to the recipient. A leader has to carry the team with him to move beyond perceptions and stereotypes and build an understanding of and among the team members.

When time’s on your side, it can be easier. A national cricket team also has its share of diversity and communication challenges, but when you work with people over a prolonged period of time, you know what works for whom. However, a format like the IPL works under short time frames and gives you far lesser time to settle in.

What works for me to look into personalities behind the cultural wrapper. As a first step, sitting down with individuals on a one-to-one basis and engaging in a conversation helps understand them as people. Cultural nuances stop being a challenge when you know the individual at a personal level.

Know thy teammate works at three levels. The first is to understand their life context. The second is an understanding of each individual’s immediate, short-term goals in the context of work—in our case, winning and staying on top. Beyond these, it helps to observe them in the context of their actions—for instance, during practice or through the course of a key game—to understand their strengths and development areas. Putting all of this together helps me define what I need to do to bring out the best in my teammate. It is all about investing enough quality time on people and going beyond transient results.

Leading stars

In my early years as captain, I had the luxury of having a team that was packed with iconic cricketers or stars. These were people who knew their strengths, understood their responsibilities, and could bring their A-game on consistently. This was a great phase for me as a captain because I got the time to develop my own game. I also used this time to draw from their wisdom to add to my ideas on game strategy, tactical strengths and personal excellence. This meant that I could improve myself and gain respect amongst my teammates founded on my performance. This phase helped me be clear in my mind on the leadership style I was most comfortable with.

Over time, as some of these stars retired, I had to evolve to being a mentor and a guide to youngsters to help them achieve their best. It was a time to implement what I learnt, to grow into those shoes, and to lead by example. I will always rate the last two-three years of my captaincy as the best time I’ve had in that role.

With the MI team, I could draw from both these phases. There are stars in this unit, people who have iconic status. Alongside are youngsters who are just cutting their teeth this IPL, looking for a chance to play and earn their stripes, looking to soak in and learn everything from anyone who could teach.

In a team such as this, one crucial aspect is to establish a sense of equality. Everyone in the team must believe that although icons will be accorded the respect that their experience demands, the same standards will apply to everyone. And it is the leader’s responsibility to walk the talk.

Staying on top

Sixteen consecutive test wins—it is truly humbling that I was part of the team that attained this distinction, not once, but twice. Getting to the top is one challenge, staying on top is quite another altogether. Here’s where the senior players came good. We avoided getting complacent or being satisfied about being No. 1. Every match we went out telling ourselves that we were actually No. 2, and that it was all about winning this one to become No. 1!

Often, we maintained a very neutral vibe; and this transcended to other times as well, including when we were down. When the team temperament doesn’t fluctuate widely irrespective of whether you’re winning or losing, it is easier to go out and treat each single game as the goal. During my time with the Mumbai Indians, my Australian experience was a valuable platform for me to draw on towards keeping sight of the goal every day while being consistent.

Leading by example

It is often a conundrum in leadership where there’s a huge element of individual functional responsibility on the leader. How does a leader going through a dip in individual contribution still motivate his team, and maintain respect and credibility?

This is often too true of cricket where a leader functions not just as a strategist, but as a key contributor. My approach to this has been twofold. The first is to stay consistent as a person. If I exhibit the same behaviour in all circumstances, my team is inclined to attribute simple causality to whatever I say or do, and will not relate it to a particular frame of mind I possess at that instance. If at all times my team sees me as a bit of the fun guy, yet not hesitating to be firm and demand performance, then they won’t see me any differently when I am in or out of form. The second is to apply the same standards to myself as I would to others. If I’ve expected an additional investment of time and effort to raise the level of individual performance in others, it is crucial that I demonstrate the same when my performance needs to be lifted. If I encourage others in a team to rally around someone going through a slump in form, I see my team conditioned to do the same and respond to my own downtime.

The decision-making construct

When you lead teams where there’s a whole lot of collective experience in the dressing room, and inputs and opinions can fly around, you have to keep focus that when you’re the captain, you’re still accountable for the outcome of a team’s performance—decisions still have to rest on you. However, balancing opinions from a range of experiences and strengths towards arriving at key decisions has held us in good stead with Mumbai Indians as well. Team members feel involved and vested in the outcome if they’ve been part of the process. Off-field, you take many inputs and integrate them into strategy. On-field, however, one has to often rely on one’s own judgement and that of a few key members for tactical changes and situational responses, and with the ability to call a spade a spade!

Grooming leaders

One aspect of having a long-term view to team building is leadership succession. I am of the firm belief that saying one grooms someone into a leadership role is misleading. Leaders are born; these traits are native and innate. How current leaders can impact the chain of succession comes with experience and by learning to read and identify those extra characteristics in a teammate. And then just nudge him a bit to uncover the leader within, be this a Michael Clarke, or a Rohit Sharma!

©2013/Tenvic

Ricky Ponting is a cricketer.

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