Sanjay is the Group Financial Controller of Telstra and a passionate mentor who believes strongly in active leadership.
It was no surprise the high amount of interest the Mentorlist team received from listeners recommending Sanjay to be on the show.
I come from an Indian heritage, I was born and grew up in India. Whilst I grew up in New Delhi, a large city, India was commercially very different back then from what it is today. At that time job opportunities and career progression were very limited, those who wanted to progress beyond a certain point had to look for the opportunity to do so overseas. For me the search for career progression led me to the Middle East, to a small country called Bahrain next to Saudi Arabia. It was a significant move but it created the opportunity for me to work for one of the ‘Big 4’ firms in the financial sector. I worked for Ernst Young in Bahrain for four years before it became clear to me that it would be necessary for me to move once again if I wanted to take my career further.
Given my experience with Ernst Young in the Middle East, I was able to migrate to Australia in 1996 and continued working for the firm in their Melbourne office. I then moved to another ‘Big 4’ firm, Deloittes. I had reached the elusive point where becoming a partner was on the table and likely in my near future. With the ‘Big 4’ the reality is that you either make partner or you move out, effectively out of the 20 graduates that begin each year only two will make partner. The other 18 will run the race for as long as possible but will need to work out along the way at what point they will move out and what career path they will then follow.
It was upon reaching the point of impending partnership that I realised that being partner may not have been what I truly wanted. In weighing up the impact that being made partner would have upon my family and my personal life I had to reflect upon what it was that I had been chasing for all these years. For me the motivation hadn’t been the goal of partnership itself but the journey to that point, I had not been competing against those with the same aspiration but had been competing against myself. I had gotten to a point where I had nothing to prove to anyone career wise, only to myself and now I could tick the box in terms of there being nothing else for me to prove to myself in respect of professional services. I had become fatigued from running the solo race towards partnership. I no longer wanted to work alone but to work as part of a team, to not just be part of a team but to build and lead high performance teams. My aspiration became to lead a high performing team rather than to be a high performing individual, it was no longer about personal glory.
So although I was ready to become a partner in a ‘Big 4’ firm, I decided to make a career move out of professional services into industry, and joined Telstra as their General Manager of Investment Accounting. When I started at Telstra I shifted my focus on to how famous and successful my team could become which meant for me a transition in styles in leading and operations. Rather than reading a piece that I had written or listening to my own speech through someone else’s perspective, I now needed to ensure that someone in my team could write something as well as I could write it or think about something as well as I could think about it. I was under an obligation to focus on my team and the need to develop them. I also had to keep in mind how I would remain relevant once I had taught my team everything, what then could I offer? I have kept learning and developing myself so that I can continue to lead them and to teach them newer and greater things
There is a difference in working for a ‘Big 4’ firm in professional services as opposed to a company such as Telstra within the industry. The ‘Big 4’ tend to be largely focused on discipline and on structured ways of operating. Working hard and being result orientated is embedded in the culture as for them the focus is about minimising time expenditure, given that they are effectively selling time.
Working outside of the ‘Big 4’ focuses much more on applying accounting theory in practice rather than just on the theory itself. It also means you become much more accountable as rather than giving your opinion once every 12 months to a business, you live in the business and provide advice to that business on a daily basis. The rigour of accounting rules and standards is very real on the side of the industry.
Central to my personal style and what I would describe as my relative success, is the advice that we should not be overwhelmed by big or complex things whether it be big goals, projects or companies. We need to remember that big things are made up of smaller elements or steps. By developing the skills to cut through complexity and break it down to a point where the problems are right there in front of you, you will end up with a more simple problem which has a simple solution. You will also find that you are eating away at the big problems.
I have always been very well prepared, I have seldom attempted to wing my way through things in my professional career. I have attended around 30 Telstra board meetings in the 9 years I have worked for them, meaning that I am very familiar with the process and the issues. Yet, I am always here on Sunday mornings preparing for the Monday meeting even though I know very well what is going to happen. I don’t get comfortable, I will still be preparing by going through all the material, get my thoughts together, trying to pre-empt the next question by putting myself in the shoes of my stakeholders. You need to develop a sense of what would I do if I were faced with information that we are presenting, what would I do or what would I ask? Usually if you think about it this way you can identify the logical follow up questions that your shareholders will ask. It is important to be prepared for whatever you are participating in and if not then it will show.
I would also recommend that you find and build relationships with good mentors. Very early in my career I found myself in a position where I was struggling professionally, I realised that I needed help. I selected a couple of people in my organisation who I thought would be good mentors, they weren’t the coolest people in the firm but I could tell they were amongst the most knowledgeable. So I approached them and asked them if they would be prepared to mentor me. It wasn’t a structured program, I just approached them and said I am struggling and I want to learn as much as I can from you. I think structures and frameworks are overrated, a lot can be achieved outside of these, generally people are always willing to help. I myself have never said no to someone who has asked for career advice. If you wait around for frameworks to emerge for a mentoring program, then if it doesn’t come about you might freeze up or you might have missed out on establishing those opportunities for yourself. You don’t need the framework; you just need to take personal initiative to find good mentors and to develop those relationships.
My final piece of advice would be not to let the fear of failure fold you back. It is the baggage of fear that brings about most consequences. Rather than focusing on the negatives and listening to the voices in my head there are three things that I need to be satisfied in my own work; my commitment, my time and my intellect. If I have given these three things to the task at hand then I should not fear the consequences as I have given it my best. However, in saying that, if I give all these things and still fail then something must not be sufficient. If it is my intellect then I go and work on it, I learn from someone else and try to build it up. If the end goal is to be successful then you cannot compromise on the commitment or time you put in, if it is intellect then this is inherent but it is something that you can work on. I always have these three things in my mind, beyond these three things there is nothing else that I can do
I believe that networking is very important, that networks and relationships can be very valuable. However I often advise new colleagues that there is a distinction between hollow networks and bridging networks. For example if I have 500 connections on Linkedin, I do not benefit from those connections themselves unless I do something with them. You should network with the objective of learning something from those network connections. Let your work speak for itself. When I meet new graduates and within minutes of a presentation they are already adding me on Linkedin, I always think to myself I will know you when you are famous because of you work, not because you added me on social media.
Do not network for the sake of networking as this becomes a waste of time. You need to learn about the person, their business, how they solve problems and what you can take from them to apply yourself.
For me there are three key habits that I have adopted; reflection, visualisation and self-awareness.
The habit of reflection is something that I have built into my everyday routine. When I drive to and from work I am reflecting, my brain is like a radar and I am scanning for risk, replaying the events of the day. Doing this frequently means that things always stay fresh in my mind; I keep updating what I refer to as my risk register without relying on others or on an email to remind me.
The habit of visualising the future is also something that I do regularly. I try to picture whatever I am going to be involved in next, I try to visualise the future and picture things such as where will I be, what the project look like and what the company will be able to say about this in 2 weeks or 2 years from now. I use this with my team as well. I find that visualisation gives me a sense of what I need to do to achieve the end goal, then you can solve the problem backwards from this. However, a word of warning, you need to be careful that in doing this you don’t start to live in the future, you can’t forget about what your today is looking like or about enjoying today. It needs to be a balancing act.
When it comes to self-awareness it is not just a matter of being self-aware, it is also a matter of what you do with this awareness? I like to look at it as a question of if I had 100 units of energy to put towards my strengths and weaknesses what would I do with those 100 units? Some might say that they would put 80 units into their weaknesses in order to improve them. My philosophy however is based on what is the ROI on that investment? If I put 80 units into my weaknesses I might get a 10% or 20% ROI, and this becomes restrictive to me as I would be putting a lid on my natural style, it would affect what I do very well as I would be acting unnaturally, but if I put the 80 units into my strengths I could get a double or triple my ROI. I am who I am; people around me have gotten use to this. I have a very straight up style and a certain way of communicating and interacting with people. I do not get distracted too much by my weaknesses; I rather focus my energy on my strengths. I look at the return on my energy.
I would recommend Frank Lowy’s auto-biography, A Second Life, Frank is of course the Chairman of the Westfield Group. His is a story of coming out of Europe post-depression and making a very humble start to go onto to build the business which we know today. I like autobiographies and case studies as I find them to be a great source of inspiration.