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In the Lead with Shail Jain

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In the Lead with Shail Jain

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

“In the Lead” is a conversation with an industry leader on key trends and leadership challenges. In this issue, we present a conversation with Shail Jain, a leader in technology and data leader in the life sciences, healthcare, financial services and communications industries.

Shail, you are a serial entrepreneur. Tell us about the businesses you have started.

I have been a part of building companies that use technology/data to help enterprise businesses perform better, improve people’s lives and reduce business risk. The first business we started was about transforming enterprises using new technologies, and Fujitsu acquired it. The second business was focused on using data backbones to integrate off-the-shelf packages and was acquired by EMC. The third company focused on transforming enterprises to become data-driven and using data and analytics to improve their businesses and reduce risks. Accenture acquired it. I am a data enthusiast, and as data became more valuable to the industry, we increasingly focused on it. The first company was 40 percent data, with 60 percent data with the second and 100 percent with the third.

Congratulations! If you can quantify it, what value have you created?

The three businesses created a cumulative enterprise value of about $500 million for our shareholders, but more importantly, it created thousands of jobs. Further, every time a company was acquired, it became a cornerstone for growth for the acquiring company. The acquiring businesses were able to turn them into multibillion-dollar businesses that my team ended up leading.

The most rewarding thing for me was to see employees join us in a company, buy homes, have kids, send their kids to college, and finally, in some cases, see their kids come and join us in our next company.

Reflecting on your journey, what does it take to be a successful entrepreneur?

It all starts with a solid vision and a passionate and resilient team. The vision is not just about the what but more importantly, the why. Many entrepreneurs miss that step. Are you starting a business purely to chase money, fame or success, or do you have a passion for a product or service that can address a problem, capture an opportunity, create a competitive advantage or fill a gap in the market?

For me, it has always been about chasing my passion for a problem or an opportunity, rather than chasing money or success. I believe if you chase your passion, success and money will follow.

The team is equally as important to starting a business. It’s very important to pick the right founding team, where everyone is aligned with the goals of the company and has mutual respect to trust each other’s views. However, I’ve always had a concept where I bet on the jockey more than the horse. And I’ve done that all my life in building teams.

What do you mean by betting on the jockey and not the horse?

It’s betting on the right people, instead on an idea. If you bet on the right people, they will come up with the right idea. And if the idea needs to be corrected, they will pivot and adapt. And that’s a big, big, big thing for me.

You talked about the importance of the vision. How do you create buy-in for your vision? How do you inspire people?

It’s vital to note that if it is just your vision and others are there to implement it, you will not be as successful. You must make sure that people are buying into the vision by being equal owners of the vision. You can do that by defining the vision at a higher level and letting the team provide the missing pieces, so it becomes as much their vision.

Next, I encourage the team to question my ideas and plans. The key is to create a no-ego environment so that people can help bulletproof your ideas. I look for people who can tell me why my vision will not be successful as it is, or what’s missing from it. The more you do that, the more the team also gets confidence in the vision itself.

The last thing is that you must lead by example. When you’re asking people to buy into your vision, you must demonstrate that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to pursue that vision. And if you can do that, your team will also do that.

High-performance teams primarily stem from leadership. You must make sure you have strong leaders who have a vision, can communicate the vision and demonstrate their passion and commitment.

Once people have bought into your vision, how do you build teams that can pull through that vision?

That’s a great question. I’ve subscribed to a principle that Ray Dalio has articulated very well. The principle is that there are three things you look at when hiring people. You look at skills, abilities and values. In this world where everybody is looking for immediate gratification, we get caught up in skills, because skills are what translate into quick results. Instead, if you take a step back and focus on learning abilities, you can obtain newer skills because the person can learn anything fast. And even more critical is values, because if you have the right values, it will lead to great culture and team alignment. So, focus on defining your values and assess people with the right values first, then abilities and skills.

I admire the way Google hires people. They don’t let the hiring manager make the decision. The hiring manager can interview and provide input, but a committee of four or five other people makes the hiring decision. Do you know why? Hiring managers have a sense of urgency because they are driven by a timeline, and they are likely to compromise. But if you’re not the hiring manager, then you would ask if this person has the right values and abilities required for the role. In a smaller, firm it’s not always possible to do this, but the more you follow this approach, the better.

I also believe that "A" people surround themselves with "A+" people because "A's" look to make themselves better by surrounding themselves with people who are smarter than them in certain areas. And "B's" surround themselves with "C's" as they are always trying to make themselves look better. So, hire the "A's" because you’ll end up with more "A+s."

One of the other things is that speed is a killer here. You will make mistakes if you are trying to build a company fast. So having the right expectations about the speed with which you’re going to build your business is essential. Otherwise, you’ll make suboptimal decisions.

That's a big one: balancing speed with the need to build high-performance teams. Can we build high-performance teams in the hyper-speed business environment we live in?

Absolutely. High-performance teams primarily stem from leadership. You must make sure you have strong leaders who have a vision, can communicate the vision and demonstrate their passion and commitment.

The other thing is that trust is crucial. You need authenticity to gain trust.

But once you have trust, you get traction, and traction is what gives you results. Therefore, it all starts with authenticity. The leader must be authentic. To be authentic, a leader must be transparent.

A lot of companies have this notion that they are a family. I believe that there is a time to treat the team as a family and another to treat them as a sports team. This is a tricky balance. It’s hard to fire a family member, but in sports, you will replace a player to win the game.

It would be best if you had a mindset that, as far as the business goes, we are a team and not a family. That we are playing the game and we need to perform well, and that is how to build high-performance teams. But sometimes you must help people who are not able to perform for reasons beyond their control, like medical issues, and this is where family thinking comes into place.

You touched upon a fascinating thing there: Sometimes, someone must either be removed from the team or step away for personal or other reasons. So how easy or difficult is it to sustain a high-performance team?

The big lesson I've learned in building and sustaining high-performance teams is that the stars of yesteryear will not always be the stars of the future. We often conflate in our minds that because an individual was a star player in their last role, they would be a star player in the next one. However, people's aspirations change, and they may not necessarily look to do what they were doing before. And so, you must make sure that you are evaluating people on their current aspirations.

It's also essential to get the right team on the bus first. Rather than telling the team what to do, ask if the right people are on the team. Because if you have the right people, you don’t need to motivate them; they will motivate each other.

Look at sports championships. Most winning teams last for three to four years, and no team in the world has won titles constantly for 30 years. You must give feedback and make hard calls — this goes back to the family versus the team concept. Because you must get the wrong people off the bus, you must call them out, and that's authentic communication. And if you continue to do that, you will maintain high performance in the team because you are constantly fine-tuning the team.

That does not preclude building personal relationships. I got to know my teams, families, their kids and their aspirations, and I also exposed myself to them because building that trust in a relationship is essential. If you looked at the Yankees when they had the winning season, their manager insisted that they all have two cookouts in his backyard every year with their families. So, I think that it’s also crucial to build that bond beyond work.

You talked quite a bit about sports teams, and you spoke about teams versus family. Are there two or three examples that you always look at and say, "Wow, those are high-performing teams," and I wish I could emulate that?

The Yankees were about a decade ago. They were an "A" team because they had the right leader — Derek Jeter. He was selfless. Egos are a big part of why teams are not successful. So, it would help if you had that in your leader. Then they had a personal bond and a clear vision that they had to keep winning the championship. That’s a team I look up to in many ways.

Then GE under Jack Welch. Jack made mistakes, and he's admitted to his mistakes. We all make mistakes. But the way he built his teams is something to learn from. He gave them a lot of autonomy and held them responsible for the results. It’s a big conglomerate, but its headquarters had only 85 people. That's what you do to build high-performance teams: You give people autonomy and then hold them accountable. Autonomy builds ownership. And that’s what results in high performance.

Last question: How would you summarize your three critical lessons on building high-performing teams?

One, effective leadership is critical. Having the right leader with the right values and culture in mind. Two, picking the right people on the team is more important than who does what — deciding who’s on the team and who’s not on the team. And the third is trust building. Trust and authenticity are critical.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of In the Lead magazine, from The Stillman School of Business and its Business Leadership Center. The bi-annual magazine focuses on leadership perspectives from the field of health care, with content that is curated from leaders across the industry who share lessons learned from real-world experiences.

Categories: Business

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