EY’s Raj Sharma: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent…

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EY’s Raj Sharma: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times

Be adaptable. If times are uncertain, leaders can expect, if nothing else, the unexpected. A good leader should be as informed as possible to make quick, thoughtful decisions about how to respond and adapt. My career has been about adaptability: staying ahead of the curve in technology and business, reading the tea leaves of change to support clients with their decision making, and develop employees along their career path.

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Raj Sharma.

As the EY Americas Vice Chair of Consulting, Raj Sharma oversees over 25,000 consulting professionals across the Americas. Together, the team brings forward a shared ambition of becoming the world’s leading transformation consultancy, trusted to help the largest and most complex clients generate defined and measurable long-term value. Raj also provides guidance and inspiration to help EY people foster innovation and technology, cultivate a cross-teaming workforce that can quickly adapt to evolving client needs, redefine sustainable inclusive workplaces and support effective risk management.

Previously, Raj had the pleasure of serving as the EY Americas Financial Services Consulting Managing Partner. Prior to this role, he led technology consulting across the Americas and globally for Financial Services clients.

Raj holds a master’s degree in Computer Information Systems from the University of Miami and a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the Birla Institute of Technology in India.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I’m a first-generation American. I originally moved to the U.S. from India to attend graduate school at the University of Miami where I earned my master’s degree in Computer Information Systems.

After graduation, I started my career on the software product side at a multinational technology company, and subsequently, I started working with the life sciences practice at EY where colleagues have become friends and like a second family.

Because I’m a technologist at heart, I was pleased to join EY’s technology practice, and helped establish the EY Financial Services Technology Practice. I am tremendously proud of my team’s achievements and the exponential growth we have had during that time.

Now, as the Vice Chair of EY Americas Consulting, a professional practice of more than 25,000 consultants, I look forward to blending my experience in technology with our broad range of consulting capabilities and inspiring our people to always think strategically about how they can embed technology to power our solutions we offer and deliver to clients.

Our clients need and want to improve processes and modernize operations using technology that lets them mine value from their data, adopt machine learning or artificial intelligence where it makes sense, improve supply chains and customer experience and more while also driving toward their carbon reduction goals.

My work has always been about powering businesses with technology and executing large-scale transformations that help our clients achieve their business objectives. I am excited about the opportunities that await EY Americas Consulting as we develop solutions that help our clients achieve their business objectives.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Long before we had video chats, I trusted the mute button during a conference call. We were talking with a potential client. They rightly asked tough questions to help them determine if we were the right team for them to engage. Wanting to discuss our answers to their questions privately and give them thoughtful responses, we muted the phone — at least we thought we had. The mute button failed us, and the prospect heard every word.

Upon realizing what happened, we thought — oh no! But what we had unwittingly done was show them our thoughtful approach to solving clients’ problems. Rather than cookie cutter responses, we gave them answers and prospective solutions tailored to their needs.

Obviously, I never trusted a mute button again, and I learned more about the importance of always exhibiting professionalism. But most importantly, the situation underscored what I always knew: Our clients need us to put time and energy into creating and delivering solutions that are uniquely tailored to their needs. We must show them we are well prepared; we respect them; and we have a burning desire to deliver results. That is what we do day in and day out at EY, and that was a sneak peek of what those clients witnessed.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I owe so much of the success I achieved in my career to my wife. Working in professional services requires a lot of time and travel — I’ve flown many million miles since joining EY to globally serve our clients — and my wife, a very busy physician herself, has been supportive of me pursuing this career since day one.

When our first child was born, I considered leaving consulting and working for a technology company near our home in the Silicon Valley. I would have been home more and traveled less. Fortunately, my wife always understood my passion for consulting and helping clients find solutions to their problems. She sat me down and told me to do what I enjoy. She believed I would be miserable in another role.

Despite the travel requirements, I’ve made it a point to be home every weekend to spend quality time with my wife and my kids. Irrespective of whether I was working in Japan, Canada, London or wherever, I have and continue to make it a point to prioritize home and my family.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started, what was your vision, what was your purpose?

My motto has always been, “be known for something,” and my purpose has been to build high-performing teams. I never wanted to copy what I saw. Instead, I work with my teams to develop a vision — one that differentiates us from our competitors and makes an impact not just on the marketplace, but also on people and society who touch or are affected by EY solutions.

I focus on specific areas, and I strive to be the best in them. I also surround myself with smart people who bring different strengths to problems and situations. It’s like an orchestra. You need woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion.

Just as the orchestra director trusts each member of the orchestra to play on cue, I forge relationships with my teams from a position of trust and empower talented people to perform well.

Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

Let me take you back to 9/11. My day started like many, with a red-eye flight to New York City, a quick cup of coffee at the Twin Towers and a car to Connecticut for a meeting about a large project. By the time I arrived in Connecticut, the worst had happened. It was a very emotional time for everyone, and people were fearful that our country was under siege.

I tried to ease nerves and bring some level of positivity to my team, reminding them that we are all good people, we support each other, and believe in humanity. We had some one-on-one conversations, as I helped them process the events of that morning emotionally and professionally to the extent we could.

In addition to being a difficult time as a leader, it was challenging on a personal level. Being a brown, bearded man, I was subject to additional airport scrutiny and societal distrust. But irrespective of all that, my team and I came together. We leaned on each other for support, and very successfully completed our project. That was probably the easiest thing we did that week. In those moments, I saw the best of humanity — the teaming, the trust amongst us — and I knew we would eventually be okay.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

The beauty of the consulting profession is you innovate yourself probably 20 times during your career to adapt and stay ahead of industry trends. The reason clients work with EY is our drive for excellence, ability to solve some of their most complex problems, and our desire to make an impact on their business. All of that requires constant learning and adapting. I thrive on it.

However, there were two times during my career when I considered a change. The first, which my wife talked me out of, was to consider taking a less travel-intensive role to have more time at home.

The second was due to health challenges, which presented two choices: leave the profession, or do what I always do and find a solution to the problem. The solution was a lifestyle change, and that allowed me to keep doing what I love.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

During challenging times, empathetic leadership is a necessity. As a leader, I need to focus on the people on my team and their well-being. An empathetic environment can empower employees to innovate without fear of failing. The greatest ideas emerge when risks are taken. Transformative business models would not exist in the absence of such a supportive environment.

Importantly, empathetic leadership isn’t only required in challenging times, but every day. If you limit empathy to tough times, it won’t be as authentic or effective. In fact, last year EY surveyed 1,000 workers in the US, and found that 90 percent of U.S. workers believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction, and 79 percent agreed that it decreases employee turnover.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

Focusing on the small wins is an important way to motivate and engage teams and boost their morale. Oftentimes, teams are so focused on big, long-term achievements that they don’t do enough to celebrate the small wins along the way.

That’s especially true when your employees are worried about the world around them. Engage them in their work by recognizing them for being an important part of a winning team. Everyone appreciates knowing they are valued.

To achieve and maintain such a culture takes work. Organizations must be willing to adapt, and adaptability travels in tandem with resiliency. Organizations must instill this focus in their management.

At EY, we have a long history that dates back many years. We can point to turbulent times and how the business successfully navigated through them.

Irrespective of the challenges, resilient leaders navigate through disruptions. Focus on what your employees need, celebrate the small wins, and remind the team about the importance of agility with steady leadership at the helm.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

It’s important to be very direct with difficult news and couple it with a solution to avoid confusion or leave any room for an incorrect interpretation. We are in the profession of solving our clients’ biggest problems. We build strong relationships together as a team and with our clients that allow us to have these tough, honest discussions. When the news is bad ― clients, our people― everyone appreciates hearing different ways of looking at and thinking about the problem in combination with multiple alternative options for a potential solution.

If I take my car into the automotive dealership for an oil change and they discover a problem with the transmission, I want them to tell me how long it may take to repair; whether it is covered under the warranty; what the cost may be; and if they have a loaner I can drive in the interim. At least I know the scope of the problem and the likely impact on me so I can decide whether to make the repair there, shop it around or buy a different vehicle. In the absence of that information, I might not only look for a different mechanic — I might buy a new vehicle elsewhere.

That’s also true for our clients. If we are not direct with them, that can create latency in decision making and lead to erosion of trust and confidence.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

A leader should constantly make plans. Opportunities emerge from unpredictable situations.

During crises, our clients want to know what transformative opportunities they should invest in now and which opportunities can be undertaken at a better, more predictable time. For example, during the financial crisis, the world was very uncertain, and our financial services team had to step up and adapt in an agile way to solve our clients’ biggest problems.

How did that happen? By looking at our offerings, capabilities and how we can approach these challenges in a very different way while bringing creative thinking into our strategies. We built a strong track record of helping clients successfully navigate the crisis, but not because we had all the answers. Instead, we brought an ecosystem of people together — both within EY and outside partners — who had a point of view around the problem. Based on that combination of experiences and perspectives, we made some calculated bets as to where to focus right now, what to stop and what to resume during less tumultuous times.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

Act with purpose. Organizations must be willing and able to adapt quickly. In the past, companies took years to adapt when going through a crisis, whether societal or internal. We no longer have that option. Businesses must learn from a crisis, and move decisively, putting plans in place while remaining open to quick thinking and new technologies that can solve problems.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

Fundamental reasons companies fail are commonly tied to:

a lack of focus on their people and failure to transform their workforce to keep pace with change, an unclear view of their purpose, and consequently, a lack of nimbleness or agility that contributes to indecisive decision-making.

In the professional services industry, people are the product, so they are high on our agenda, but every company needs good people to get the work done, especially in a tight labor market. In fact, 68% of employers said employee turnover has increased in the past 12 months, according to our recent Work Reimagined Survey, and 43% of employees say they are likely to leave their current employer in the next year, further revealing the need to focus on them.

At the same time, companies also must be able to change and adapt with the times. That requires nimbleness, agility, and talented people. Leaders must be able to make quick, empowered decisions whether on a project or during uncertain times. They can do so much more decisively and at speed when they understand the organization’s purpose — their mission, objectives and the strategy that provides their North Star.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

First, in turbulent times, businesses need to protect themselves and their brand. The focus should primarily be on what is needed to create a sustainable organization. Offerings should be adapted to create a strong value proposition. We find that technology and an ecosystem of partners who can augment capabilities are critical to taking costs out of operations while creating long-term sustainability.

Second, set growth goals and identify ways to meet them even if external factors will make it difficult. Strengthening relationships with clients and prospects, and creating predictable, recurring revenue streams are essential in unpredictable times.

Third, invest in net new areas that can generate additional revenues. Most companies fail to do this during turbulent times, but if leaders consider the big macro trends shaping the market — such as digital assets or decarbonization — and put a certain amount of capital to work to create the next generation of products or services, they can be prepared for the future and ride the next wave of the market.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

Lead with empathy by putting your people first. Employees who feel supported, are more likely to want to do their best work. The EY Empathy in Business Survey found that 85% of U.S. employees believe empathetic leadership in the workplace increases productivity. If external forces are making business uncertain, they probably affect your teams’ personal lives as well. From 9/11 to the onset of COVID-19, I’ve learned that being there for teams, being empathetic and putting personal and family needs first can ensure our people are still able to support our clients.

Be adaptable. If times are uncertain, leaders can expect, if nothing else, the unexpected. A good leader should be as informed as possible to make quick, thoughtful decisions about how to respond and adapt. My career has been about adaptability: staying ahead of the curve in technology and business, reading the tea leaves of change to support clients with their decision making, and develop employees along their career path.

Use direct communication, especially in difficult situations. Clearly state the problem or decision, and couple that with the strategic considerations for the path forward to build trust with your employees and stakeholders.

Focus on solutions. During turbulent times, it can be all too easy for people to focus on the problems that feed negative thinking and generate stress. Leaders must show. communicate, and implement solutions that lead employees to see that things will be okay, thereby motivating them to support the company through rough times.

Lean on what you know and do well. For example, with the Paycheck Protection Program, one reason EY was able to immediately support government agencies with distribution of these funds was because our tax and assurance, financial services and government and public sector practices worked together to launch the program. We could do that because we knew policy and the government lending agencies, and we had the right technology, people and ecosystem of partners in place to quickly launch the offering.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

For me it is all about the power of diversity. I always use this example my mother told me as a child, which has been my mantra all my life: You have five fingers, all are different shapes and each one of them has its own purpose. The power of diversity for leaders is bringing the fingers together to make a strong, impactful fist. Rather than trying to make every finger or every person look and function the same, we should harness the power of diversity to bring these differences together into an even stronger team.

What does this look like when put into practice? Diversity is race, ethnicity, religion, and gender, and it includes economic backgrounds, geography, education and so much more. As an example, we’re hiring artists on my team to partner with our programmers to come up with the most creative solutions we can to address our clients’ and societal challenges.

How can our readers further follow your work?

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/raj-sharma-tech/

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

EY’s Raj Sharma: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.