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SAGE’s strategy in India

I am often asked about SAGE’s strategy in India. I am usually at a loss for words on trying to answer this question. Would a CEO really reveal business strategy? Is it even relevant if he/she did?

I could give an evasive answer, a half answer or no answer. That would have its own repercussions and really not worth discussing or debating. Is there then a strategy that is worth discussing transparently? I think if the word ‘strategy’ is forgotten and other typecast words such as mission, vision are ignored, then there is room to discuss a path that has worked for SAGE, especially in India.

When I joined SAGE about 13 years ago, we were a company run in the traditional TOP-Down mode. The natural effect of this was an environment where empowerment had different meanings, transparency had connotations, voicing concerns was not always easy. Business grew in single digits. When I took over as the MD and CEO, my focus was less on transforming the business, I was single-mindedly focused on transitioning the workforce to a different way of operating. It was easier said than done. The culture of the company was 25 years old and it wasn’t going to be easy. Providence gave me a helping hand in 2006. The first of the sealing drives began in the middle of that year.

We had no choice but to leave our main office since it was housed in the basement of a house (and on the roof too). The hunt led us to Mohan Co-operative where our offices continue to be. At that time, we got nothing but a raw ‘shell’ to work with. There were just walls and a roof and nothing else. The senior management and I ideated on the concept of the office. We reviewed many options and then settled on an Open Plan office. We were clear that to be one seamless company we needed to knock down the walls between us. The executive suites per force needed closed spaces and so did meeting rooms. But the rest of the organization had work stations that ensured there were no silos. This was perhaps the first step towards the transformation. The move wasn’t easy given that connectivity to the offices was bad and very few offices functioned in the area. But we remained committed to it.

When we moved into the offices in 2006 I issued what I think was the first executive order. I abolished the concept of clocking in and out for everyone above the grade of a manager. To be trusted one has to begin with trust. I laid the foundation of trust by allowing the management structure to police themselves. They were free to come and go at will; but they were accountable for their actions and their output. There were practical reasons why the entire company couldn’t move to this mode (including some legal requirements). Over the years we moved this policy to affect even lower tiers of management.

The next significant step was abolishing the practice of serving tea/coffee to employees. This was a practice that I had inherited and didn’t understand. Tea/coffee was served at fixed times during the day. There was a small workforce dedicated to brewing and serving. One couldn’t really ask for any during most of the day. It made sense when the office was in a house; there was but one kitchen on a floor. But in an open plan office creating a separate ‘cooking area’ just didn’t make sense. We installed coffee machines in our new cafeterias

and everyone was free to come and help themselves at any time of the day. Even today we don’t police how many cups are consumed or when employees leave their desks and take a break in the cafeteria. We build trust by trusting individuals to become accountable for their work.

There were many other policy changes over the years but there is one important milestone that put my leadership to the test and it happened around 2008. Besides the office inside the house, we had another office in a commercial complex in Sheikh Sarai not far away. When we moved out of the house and into our new office block (in Mohan Co-operative), me moved everyone to this space. Consequently, the Sheikh Sarai office was left empty. We took a conscious decision not to surrender this space. We would use it to expand our activities. The moment for expansion came in 2008. By then however the dynamics of the complex changed. Once we had closed our offices, most others left the complex. It moved from being a professional work space to becoming a hub for rent-a-cars. When I visited the complex, I was upset with the change in culture. Since a large part of the workforce in the New Delhi office is constituted by/of women, the Sheikh Sarai environment just didn’t seem safe for them to report to work, especially if they had to work longer hours. In hind sight surrendering the office in 2006 would have saved the rent we paid for almost 18 months for a locked office!

We collectively tried our best to reason that reopening that office was a good thing. But the evidence just didn’t help. I had to take the not so pleasant decision of informing the board that we needed to surrender that office and take on new and more expensive office space in our Mohan Co-operative office. The moment the board heard about it I was questioned intensely as I rightly should have been. I had to make them understand that my primary concern was the safety of our workforce. The Sheikh Sarai office that we had invested more than 18 months’ worth of rent in, needed to be surrendered. The expense had to be written off. The approval process took around 3 months and in the interim we ran out of space. My proposal for additional space was to take more space in the same building. We purchased inexpensive workstations (tables and chairs) and placed them in open spaces within the offices we had. After a period of about 3 months, the board finally approved my proposal.

It was an important lesson in leading SAGE. I was clear that people came first and their safety even before that (if possible). If the people thought that the company didn’t care, they were never going to feel the connect. During the 3 months I engaged personnel at all levels to ensure that when presenting facts to the board, I had information that was first-hand, relevant and from the people who would be most affected by any decision we took. I feel we came together as one during this phase.

From less than 100 employees in 2006, we are closer to 500 in March 2018. Over the years all policy changes have been made keeping employees at the forefront. We never wavered from this path. This is why in 2017, 400+ employees participated voluntarily to vote.

The result, we became SAGE India – a Great Place to Work.

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