Sometime in April or May 1988/89, I met Mr G Shankar Ranganathan, then Chairman of Ion Exchange India Ltd. I was fresh (less than 5 years) out of IIM-A and had developed an interest in ‘social forestry’. I wanted to understand the subject better and spoke to a few people. Mr D R Pendse, then Economic Advisor to the Tata Group, suggested I speak with Mr Ranganathan and kindly connected me to him.
When I went to meet Mr Ranganathan, I was taken to his room with dispatch, right from the reception of the company’s office at Tiecicon House, if I remember right, close to Mahalaxmi station. Same building as P&G’s Mumbai Head Office in those days. I entered a large room, with a desk on the far left of the entrance, and was bidden to make myself comfortable at the sofa close to the entrance on the right. Mr Ranganathan walked over from behind the desk, and after asking me whether I would have tea with him, rang for it. The tea was brought in by a white-gloved young man. Mr Ranganathan stopped him from making the tea, and instead made the tea himself, for both of us. The uncommon courtesy and gentle pace at which everything was proceeding did not escape me, even at that age, and my incredulity at it all probably showed on my face. Mr Ranganathan looked at me and smiled. His next few words have made a lasting impact on my thinking about management, although I am yet to achieve the goal I set for myself after hearing them.
He said (since I’m quoting from a long-held memory, it won’t be verbatim) – “You must be wondering how I have the time to spend with you on a subject that is not the key focus of Ion Exchange’s business. But that is precisely my role. I must be available. The company can and should run without my intervention, but should anyone need me, I must be available.”
Successful leaders create processes and structures to take care of the present and the future, such that team members are empowered to make decisions at their own level, as much as possible, without having to constantly seek validation or permission. By staying out of the way, such leaders help the team develop psychological ownership of their work spaces. They send the message that they trust the team to do the right things for the business. The leader’s focus is thus building the team and the organization. Such leaders are approachable and available, but their teams seek them only when they need to address strategic issues or emergencies. That is true good-governance.