Empowering for the Possibilities

Sunday, August 1, 2010 - 08:53

A believer in first impressions, Fuji Xerox's Nick Kugenthiran says that a leader's role is to create the opportunities for your teams to be amazing. By Richard Jones

Talking to the Managing Director of document services company Fuji Xerox, you get the distinct impression that he learns from his experiences.

Thirty-three years ago, when a pilot mistakenly guided two merchant ships into a collision, Sri Lankan-born Nick Kugenthiran was a 3rd officer on the bridge. He lost his ship and members of the crew and ended up in a Saudi immigration jail for a month until after the inquest.

While the reason for the collision was that the pilot made a mistake in translating his commands into English, Kugenthiran says it was really the lack of clarity that caused the disaster. It was an experience that taught him a lesson he's always remembered.

With the door closed on his merchant navy career, Kugenthiran headed back to Sri Lanka to continue his studies. He took up sales roles with Union Carbide and Olivetti before moving into office machine sales. He then made his way to Qatar, bordering the Persian Gulf, and Saudi Arabia, and eventually headed up Fuji Xerox's local operations.

Middle East experience

Kugenthiran took another lesson from his time in Qatar, then a rigidly-controlled society run by an emir. "So you're dealing with local Arabs and they tend to put you in a box, especially in that part of the world and in the context of my nationality. So how do you overcome that?" he asks.

He realised that first impressions were very important so he started 'dressing up'. Despite the 40-degree heat of the Gulf States, he wore a suit and tie, determined to make an impression. It worked; it allowed him to break through the barriers and the stereotypes. "It also started off my learning about how to engage with people," he adds.

After six years Kugenthiran came to Australia to join family members, and he started more or less at the bottom again, in sales for Fuji Xerox. Simply because he had been successful in Qatar in a controlled economy, he saw plenty of opportunity.

"In Australia, I witnessed this massive economy and potential everywhere, and yet so many people seemed to have tunnel vision and preconceived ideas about what they could achieve."

Kugenthiran worked his way through most areas of sales and management over 17 years before being offered the managing director job 12 months ago. This experience taught him another lesson.

"A lot of people have asked me about my ambitions to achieve the top job," he says. "Well, in fact, I never had the ambition to take up 'the next role'. I always focused on what I was doing and how I could achieve my best by focusing on the job at hand.

"It just always happened that somebody came and tapped me on the shoulder. I tell people don't worry about your own ambitions; if you're ambitious about the business and in what you do, it will reflect on you."

A soft heart and firm hands

When it comes to leadership Kugenthiran believes it is a relatively basic thing.

"Leadership is about creating possibilities for your people. It's about soft heart and firm hands. It's about empowering people and creating an environment where everyone can achieve their best.

"Management, however, is about the efficiency, the process and structure to achieve those possibilities."

While Kugenthiran believes a leader has to trust his people and give them the opportunity to achieve and focus on outcomes, he does stress the constant need to focus on key lead indicators.

"I give people empowerment but I hold them accountable; we have lead indicators so we can track progress. It's just too late to react to a situation after the outcome," he says.

He says that's why at his monthly business reviews he focuses on where the business is going rather than where it has been, "There's no point in looking in the rear-view mirror."

Management change

Kugenthiran believes Australia has changed significantly in the past 17 years. For example, he says that management is no longer as paternalistic or hierarchical as it was.

"Once, where we tended to always turn to our senior management for all the answers, now our people have the freedom to seek their own answers.

"For example, look at job descriptions. If you define a role or position too narrowly then people will simply comply with that role. I don't want to limit people in a role, I want to empower people to be creative and create amazing things.

"I want 2000 leaders in this business not just the 80 in senior management positions. I want everyone to take ownership in this business."

Challenging people

In a competitive industry, Kugenthiran also expects his people to challenge the status quo.

"My job is to support my managers with investment and encouragement and empowerment to come up with the right strategy. But if I feel things aren't going in the right direction, then it is to challenge them, and I expect them to do the same thing. If, in my management team, everybody agrees with me, then I haven't created the right environment. It's the ideas, the strategy, for example, that you are challenging, not the person."


Kugenthiran admits he has had some help along the way in the form of mentors and company guides.

"Internally, I've had lots of sponsors who picked and sponsored me. I believe they saw my potential. They saw somebody who would take up the tough challenges. I had three or four people within the organisation over my 17 years of tenure who have done that, including some former CEOs."

Kugenthiran strongly relates to Benjamin Zander, international orchestral conductor, leadership guru and author of bestsellers The art of possibility and Attitude: Radiating possibility. He is particularly taken with Zander's definition of leadership, not as a position you hold but as a way of being; doing this, you discover you can lead from wherever you stand.

"I share Zander's philosophy. What I want to do is stand next to my team members, grow with them and help them. When we achieve something great I want them to say 'I achieved it', not 'Kugenthiran achieved it'. It's about empowering your team and making them powerful."