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Abhijit Bhaduri: An Unconventional Leader

If there’s one thing Abhijit Bhaduri is not, it’s conventional. Not only does he have a law degree as well as an MBA, but he also recommends that people follow Lady Gaga on Twitter for marketing advice.

Bhaduri, chief learning officer for Wipro Ltd., a global IT, consulting and outsourcing company headquartered in Bangalore, India, with 145,000 employees in 54 countries, is an adviser on social media usage for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in India and one of the top 10 HR influencers on social media according to SHRM India. He said leveraging social media can be one of the best ways anyone can learn because platforms such as Twitter socialize and enhance the learning experience. Social media provides the user with access to multiple perspectives on any given topic and enables continual learning. He’s such a vocal advocate for it that he said one of his colleagues jokingly asked if he was on Twitter’s payroll.

“If the world outside is not changing a lot, if it’s static, then it’s easy to use training and development to really make sure that all the needs are met,” he said. “But when the world outside is changing, you need to be able to constantly learn, and you need to be able to learn from a variety of people, which is why I think it’s important to be able to leverage social media and get learning from multiple sources, multiple perspectives. On Twitter you can follow anybody — from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama to the biggest thinkers on the planet, and they’re all accessible.”

Drawing Outside the Lines
Unlike some CLOs who stumbled into the profession by happenstance, Bhaduri got a taste of the profession early in his career. After earning his MBA and law degree — which he said was a pursuit of knowledge, something “one does in one’s youth” — he worked for Tata Steel in management development.

At the same time, Bhaduri taught a course on training and development for five years at XLRI (Xavier School of Management), a private graduate business school in Jamshedpur, India, the school where he earned his MBA. “That was probably one of the most defining stints in my career where I understood the theory, the concepts, I taught it and I practiced it simultaneously, so it gave me great exposure,” he said.

Bhaduri prides himself on not being afraid to think outside the box. From his first training gigs, he said he experimented with different types of learning, including the use of media in the classroom. “As I read more about how people learn, how people pick up different kinds of behaviors, I realized that in the context of India, films are a very strong influence,” he said.

He decided to get some popular films and teach people concepts they needed to learn through discussions, using the film as a backdrop. He said it was easier for people to understand something visual, something they were familiar with as far as content and story line; this helped them to focus on the message behind the story in the learning context.

For example, he played a clip from a film called “Mirch Masala” to explain how decision-making takes place in a group setting and what happens when someone challenges the status quo. Based on the clip, he posed questions such as: How is the decision-making process happening? What are the dynamics at work?

Bhaduri said as an experiment he simulated a problem students were grappling with and then designed structured experiences to lend them some insight — all in an effort to make learning more engaging by building an element of creativity into the process. “I was trying to look at concepts that were there, that I had read about, and take those concepts and create my own version of each of these ideas — take the principle and see if it held up in what we were trying to do,” he said.

Following career stints in HR at Colgate, where he got a lot of global exposure; PepsiCo, where he headed HR for India operations; and Microsoft Corp., where he led HR as the company was looking to expand operations in India sales, Bhaduri joined Wipro in October 2009.

Develop Leaders the Unconventional Way
At Wipro, executive commitment to learning and development is a given — if it wasn’t, Bhaduri said he would have been reluctant to join the company.

“A lot of people will make a grand plan today and abandon it two years down the line, so I didn’t want to get stuck with something like that,” he said. “When I was considering a shift into Wipro, one of the things I had in mind is: This is not a company that’s experimenting with development of people; they’ve done this over the years, and so it’s something they’re committed to.”

When Wipro was named one of the top global companies for leaders — by Aon Hewitt, a global HR consulting firm; in partnership with The RBL Group, a strategic HR and leadership advisory firm; and Fortune magazine — it wasn’t because of a stroke of luck, Bhaduri said. “To me, it’s a natural byproduct of not just what one has done in that particular year; it is the cumulative effect of the investment leaders have made over so many years.”

Bhaduri said his current role is perhaps the most challenging one he’s undertaken given the pace of work in the technology industry, and that pace adds to the complexity of leadership development. “The pace of work in technology is rapid; therefore how do you pull out people to get them to think about what they’re doing, their leadership styles, etc.?”

However, he said he’s up to the challenge, and he does his best to weave an element of creativity into the company’s leadership development plans. For instance, Wipro participates in a consortium made up of companies such as Eli Lilly, Rio Tinto, L’Oreal and Schneider. Each year six or seven leaders at the highest levels of these organizations are selected to participate. CLOs from each company craft a common agenda where each group has a strategic business challenge they need to address.

Sangita Singh, senior vice president and head of health care, life sciences and services at Wipro Technologies, said the experience was a real eye-opener because it gave leaders such as herself the opportunity to learn what peers in other large organizations were doing. For example, from Nissan she learned how cross-functional teams can drive initiatives in an organization as opposed to having a siloed view. Discussions with leaders at L’Oreal opened her eyes to the value of branding.

Bhaduri also leverages the arts as a vehicle to drive learning at Wipro. He said because the organization is made up of engineers and computer experts, to really understand questions related to the liberal arts where there aren’t always defined answers can be challenging. “We’ve brought in filmmakers who have taught them the basics of filmmaking, for example, and they’ve created little film clips with the idea that they [may] have to sell their idea in a particular format, and it challenges their thinking in terms of: How do you learn the basics of a new medium and try it out? So instead of giving them a lecture on learning agility, they actually practice some of this.”

The health care, life sciences and services business unit at Wipro traveled to Ramoji Film City, a well-known film location in Hyderabad, India, for a leadership meeting. Without being forewarned, they were asked to write a script and stage a play where they were in charge of their own props and costumes, had to sell tickets and handle other facets of theater production — all within a 24-hour period.

Singh said the group was divided into teams and asked to compete; each was given a theme on which to build a story, but the remainder was left to their imagination. It’s “interesting to see the team dynamics of learning, forming and performing, and the dynamics that a leader plays in a team to engage all the people,” she said, adding that it was also interesting to witness leaders unleash their creativity.

Adopting off-the-beaten-path-type leadership development programs isn’t entirely unusual. Stephen Burnett, professor of management and strategy and academic director for the advanced executive program at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, said one can gain new insights into leadership by studying it in settings outside traditional business environs, such as the arts.

For example, the university has an advanced executive program using a jazz ensemble to teach leadership. “A jazz ensemble is a self-directed work team with an assigned task — play a tune — where team members are required to innovate — improvise — and the role of team leader rotates,” he said. “All of these attributes are found in business teams, so there are lessons from understanding how a jazz ensemble works that can be applied to specific types of team assignments in a business setting.”

These types of exercises are effective in large part because they’re highly engaging for participants. “In our sessions, in addition to learning how a jazz ensemble works and watching a live ensemble perform, the executive participants are required to play a short tune using simple percussion instruments,” he said. “These exercises clearly take them outside of their comfort zones to learn new principles, which is great.”

But to make these lessons stick and really come to life, Burnett said it’s important to tie the lessons learned back to business leadership. Once participants demonstrate the principles, the instructor and the students should discuss how what was learned can be applied in a business context. “If you fail to link the lessons back to business leadership, you have had fun but learned little of a practical value to your job,” he said.

The CLO Role
Bhaduri said there are three essential components in the CLO role:

1. “Understand what business is going to look like in a two- to three-year time horizon. What’s going to change in the business? Where are we going to get business from? How is the customer changing? What are the offerings that are going to change and what are the technological shifts/demographic shifts that are happening?”

2. “If this is where business is going to be, what would make our people succeed in that? What competencies, what kind of personalities, what kind of exposures, what kind of opportunities do the people need to have to be able to succeed in that?”

3. “If this is what we want them to learn, what are the best methodologies for them to learn? Is it through an assignment? Is it through a reading? Is it through a question? Is it through exposure? Is it coaching and mentoring? Is it a combination?”

Bhaduri said his role as a CLO is to do whatever it takes to ensure that his people are always curious and continually learning and reinventing themselves. That is a recipe for an organization to succeed in the marketplace.

“Working with a company like Wipro gives me the opportunity to constantly get challenged in terms of the scale and the complexity of the problems,” he said. “Intellectually, probably it has been the one I’ve grappled with most intensely — it’s like solving one of those 140,000 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.”

A Man of Influence
In addition to his position as chief learning officer for Wipro, Abhijit Bhaduri is:
• An adviser on social media usage for SHRM in India.
• One of the top 10 HR influencers on social media according to SHRM India.
• A blogger for The Times of India, an English-language daily newspaper in India.
• Author of the book Don’t Hire the Best.
• On the advisory board for Wharton’s program for chief learning officers run by the University of Pennsylvania.