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Awakin call V.R. Ferose. “ Leadership Lessons from Specially Abled Children “

--Anne-Marie Bauer, on Sep 28, 2015

“V.R Ferose does not have an MBA degree but has managed more than 5,000 people. V.R. Ferose is a non-IIT engineer, but in 2010 he became the managing director of SAP Labs India, one of fifteen global R&D centers of the German software giant SAP — then becoming, at 33 years old, the youngest-ever (and first non-German) managing director of a global multinational firm in India overseeing a staff of thousands. Within 18 months, Ferose's participative and empowering leadership style led to more than a 50% reduction in his lab's attrition rate, unprecedented highs in employee engagement rates, a #1 ranking for his R&D lab in employee satisfaction across all of SAP and #4 across all the companies in India. His "empathy and high emotional quotient" led to recognition of his management achievements in the Harvard Business Review.

And then, while in the dizzying heights of corporate success, he faced and accepted seeming hardship and converted it into a "differentiator." Following the birth of his son Vivaan, who he learned was on the Autism spectrum, Ferose became a champion of the differently-abled and paved the way for the corporate world to recognize their unique talents.“

On this Awakin call, we explore the incredible service journey of V.R. Ferose. We learn that sometimes, you might find your life's purpose wrapped and delivered to you in the most unexpected package. We discover that, the manifestation of our fruits are most often not just from our doing alone. Furthermore, we gain insight that, the universe does indeed support our purest intentions. When we have faith and patience towards those heart driven intentions, great transformation can happen. And then, when we realize a greater hand is at play, that we actually have no control over outcomes, the broader picture begins to unveil itself.

Servant-Leadership

As the previous managing director at SAP labs, (Now the Senior-Vice President, and Head of Globalization Services, SAP SE) responsible for research and development in India, V.R Ferose conveys how leading from a space of humility has transformed the way he operates in both professional and personal conditions. For Ferose, working hard is a given when you are aiming to achieve your aspirations, but he also feels that he has been very fortunate in life to be where he is at now. “If I had looked back and thought I would be where I was, I wouldn't have given myself any chance.” He further states that he has been surrounded by numerous incredible people who he credits for playing a big part in some amazing opportunities. With that however, he also ventures on making the best out of those opportunities. “I think life is nothing but a series of what I call "defining moments."- He shares. These defining moments, he believes have called him to stand up for a greater way of operating in the world.

A self proclaimed problem-solver, Ferose depends on finding creative solutions to most challenges. This is evident in his leadership approach. Taking on the management of thousands of employees required him to overcome some great trials from the very beginning, but unlike many others in a similar position, his first approach was to begin with changes from within. With the guidance of his mentor, he was able to see that a top down approach perhaps isn't always the best way to operate. For someone who is gifted in communicating ideas, Ferose felt initially that this was a great way to motivate his employees. He later then learned that sometimes what we perceive as our greatest strength, when stretched, can prove to be our biggest weakness. “Very quickly I realized that the problem was, if I did all the speaking, the people never spoke up, and their ideas were not necessarily coming to the foreground. I was very fortunate to have a coach at that time... and he said: "Ferose, while you're a great speaker, you're a lousy listener. You don't listen at all. You speak too much." I think I very consciously started listening more than talking. Then I realized it was incredibly powerful that suddenly people started contributing more to discussions, and they felt they were heard, and more often than not they had much better ideas than I had.”

Admittedly, Ferose says he used to be an impatient person. He also shares that in a corporate world, there's an expectation to yield results promptly. Yet another great learning for him came from the realization that when we are attached to certain outcomes, it it doesn't bode well for us in the end. In his words: “If you're convinced of certain ideas, the first realization is, true success and true transformations take time... If you truly want to transform an organization, yourself, internally, externally, it takes time. True leadership is having the courage to go through a certain plan, to go do the right things, even at the most difficult moments. If you're able to cross that, more often than not the results will show up.” Indeed Ferose had that courage, and perhaps needed most after the birth of his son Vivaan.

Everyone Can Lead From Where They Are

In noticing early on that their only son Vivaan was showing questionable patters related to his development, Ferose and his wife sought out the help of experts. After a series of tests and questionnaires, the doctors confirmed a diagnosis of autism. Inconceivable for any parent to hear, the most natural response after such news is to want to fix that which is not 'right'. Ferose adds: “You give me a problem, I love to solve it. And here was a so-called problem and the doctor said "There is no cure. Of course there are therapies and things can improve. But don't expect now your child to become 'un-autistic.' He is autistic, he will remain like that, but of course therapies can improve things." I think that was a very difficult moment”. In those difficult moments it is easy to fall into despair.” For Ferose and his wife, denial was indeed the initial stage of the grieving process, but very soon came to acceptance and acknowledgment that this was to be their 'new reality.' The two of them began to ask themselves how they could be strong for each other and for Vivaan. With intense therapies and multiple hours of exercises for Vivaan, Ferose decided he needed to be more hands on.

Being a man of his position, Ferose was well known in SAP and in India, and subsequently questions around transparency about their son's diagnosis surfaced. “I can say that my wife and I of course had different ideas and thoughts about whom to share with, how to share. This is was not easy news...we went through that dilemma but I think we both agreed that sharing was incredibly powerful, and what we realized was that the more we shared, the more people opened up their hearts to help and support. And that was incredibly moving. So many doors opened up because I shared my story with people. That's the power that I saw, that the more you shared, the more people are willing to give back in their own small ways”. And soon after, an entire network of people lined up to do what ever they could, even people who they hadn't met in person, would offer what little help they could: “They would connect with me, send me emails and say- "You know, I know somebody who's going through this; I know some doctor here." It was incredible; the amount of love that I received was overwhelming.”

Ferose felt he was undoubtedly very fortunate to have the financial means and the network of support. However, through the process of learning more about treatments options, a flood of obstacles came his way. He found that therapies were expensive, and even if people could afford the therapies, there weren't enough therapists. He knew that if a person in his position faced these challenges, surely there were many other parents who did as well. “So then I started looking at ways to solve the problem, not just for my son, but for the larger ecosystem. That kept me getting deeper and deeper into trying to understand how to solve, or if not solve the problem, really tackle the problem, of special children at a much larger, holistic scale.” -Voiced Ferose. He continued by sharing that once he got deeper into one problem, another would arise. He realized there was much work to do to bring a greater movement for people on the spectrum and for people with disabilities overall.

With an already intense schedule in his professional world, Ferose's passion for his cause made life even more hustling, but if ever there was a reason to push trough it was for this new found meaning in his life. “ In some senses my son has given me the purpose that I was looking for. Instead of just focusing on what I can do for him, [what I was really looking at was], what is it I can do to make a difference in a meaningful way to the larger community of children with disabilities.” Ferore expressed. He also recognized, that although he was much more engaged with his son at home, without the support of his wife, and the 'heavy lifting' she did, plus the aid of the extended family, he wouldn't have had the clout to go in the direction he did with this work.

Compassion Wins

However, before it could gain any traction, there were two key factors he wished to address: First, to bring a greater awareness and secondly, challenge the current paradigm and think consciously about how to employ differently-abled people. Ferose adds: “The problem with lack of awareness is that if you're not aware, you're not sensitive, and if you're not sensitive, there is no action. So awareness is really at the bottom of everything we need to do.” He goes on:” At the end of the day every parent had one concern-who takes care of the children after they're gone? Hence, that's the problem we were trying to solve. If people are independent, it doesn't matter what kind of disability you have, in fact we're working where we say that people with extreme disabilities can also be employed.”

Where profitability is in the forefront of most business leaders minds, Ferose again led first with faith in giving people an opportunity to prevail. As a result of a conversation with a dear friend of his, Thorkil Sonne in Denmark, who also has a son with autism, Ferose learned that his friend had initiated a software company where he employed people on the spectrum. Intrigued, Ferose wondered if he could learn how his friend's model could be implemented in India, despite not having the same kind of government support that Denmark provides. He then hired five employees who were on the spectrum in SAP labs and created an environment that would be most conducive for them to work in. Ferose shares: “They were of course doing a great job because people on the spectrum have good memories and they have the ability to do the same things again and again without getting bored.” He carried on: “ By focusing on their strengths and not on their weaknesses, we were able to derive incredible business value out of these employees. I think that I've always believed that, more than the tangible benefits that we get, the intangibles are sometimes more powerful. We found that the team around them suddenly started having a larger purpose. The team started feeling good. The team started feeling a sense of pride working for a company like SAP, which was extremely compassionate.” It is this kind of leadership that is paving the way for other companies to similarly explore this kind of model within their own organizations, and Ferose hopes that the way companies look at employing people will drastically shift in the coming years.

Again, Ferose expresses gratitude for the team of people around him. At the end of the day the company needs to stay successful and and having even a few people on the team who believed in the vision of compassionate action later proved that his business rationale would indeed work. But he adds, if people are looking for short-term results, a different strategy is needed: “ I was fortunate that I didn't have a quarterly target to give every time. But also, if you look, when we started it, the scale was small. We were looking at three to five people in a 5,000-people organization. So this was not as severe as it seems from outside.” Still, Ferose managed to increase SAP Lab ratings to an all time high in 12-13 years, and raise overall employee ethos to one of pride. Furthermore, Harvard University is exploring ways to make an official case study out of his initiative.

Blessings Unveiled

Through this ongoing journey of discovery, it has become evident for Ferose that adversity can be one of our greatest teachers. When faced with calamity, it is not uncommon to want to run from pain. Ferose acknowledges that when you accept the unknown, it allows for humility to enter: " My realization was that humility comes from a very core understanding that you are never in control. That's the huge learning that I had." This is not to be confused with hopelessness, as for Ferose, a sense of purpose was found in the most unexpected way: “ My thinking is, the only way to shut down the pain is to create a bias for action. The only way that I have moved on is by doing something about it, and making a bigger change.” And indeed he did.

What Ferose exemplifies through his journey, gives great courage to others facing similar, if not all kinds of hardships in their lives. He inspires us with gem after gem of wisdom through his incredible journey of leadership. He also co-wrote a book with Sudha Menon titled "Gifted: Inspiring Stories of People with Disabilities," as a way to continue learning lessons in leadership from people who are overcoming inconceivable obstacles in their lives. Throughout the book, such incredible stories are highlighted such as the friendship between two people, Ashwin, who was born quadriplegic, and his friend, Bharat.

Ferose is leading the way of selfless service towards others, but much of his motivation he feels has been seeded from very early on. He pays gratitude for his parents and grandparents who themselves have exemplified acts of compassion and service: ” I think I was extremely fortunate that both sets of parents and both sets of grandparents had an incredible ability to give back to the society. My grandfather from my mother's side started one of the first schools in Kerala where women were sent to school...... My father... came from a very middle-class family, a very simple upbringing, but I've always seen that the whole idea of giving was very deeply-rooted. Very early on I realized that giving was not about how much absolute wealth you have. I think everybody can be a giver.”

Indeed We Can.

Please visit Awakin.org for the full transcript of this amazing Awakin call and learn more about other inspiring servant leaders in the community by joining our future Awakin calls.