Episode 377: Your Company Is Your Castle with Sandeep Chennakeshu

Episode Summary

Throughout our conversation, Sandeep shared brilliant insights on leadership and management and how to put broken companies back on track and prevent them from missing their path to success. We also talk about why many companies fail after 10 years and what’s the key to bringing transformation into a business.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host Steve Shallenberger with Becoming Your Best Global Leadership. We have a very talented guest with us with so much experience. He is a lifelong student and aspiring teacher whose heart is in technology and whose mind is in business. He earned a postgraduate diploma in industrial management from the Indian Institute of Science and a PhD in electrical engineering from Southern Methodist University. He then entered the electronics industry and led the development and launches of technology that billions use every day via cell phones, electronics, medical equipment, and cars. He is a Fellow of IEEE and a named inventor on 180 patents. Welcome, Sandeep Chennakeshu! 

Sandeep Chennakeshu: Hello, Steve. Thank you so much for that kind introduction.  

Steve Shallenberger: What a background. Before we get started, I’d like to tell our listeners a little bit more about you, which I think is helpful, that will set the stage for our discussion about your new book, about what’s in it, about your perspective and experience that you’ve had in life, which I think is going to help all of those that are in the business world, running organizations, or even running a home. I think this can apply across the spectrum. After two decades in corporate roles as CTO of Ericsson Mobile Phones and Sony Ericsson, president of Ericsson Mobile Platforms, SVP at Freescale, president of BlackBerry Technology Solutions, which I used to have one, EVP of AMD, Sandeep returned to consulting in the start-up world. He is currently COO at Uhnder Inc., a pioneer in digital-imaging radar, and sits on the advisory boards of exciting tech start-ups. He’s managed operations in fourteen different countries over the span of his career. Let’s just jump right into this. There’s so much that we can talk about. Let’s start with your background, Sandeep. Tell us about any turning points in your life that’s had a significant impact on you and how did you end up doing what you’ve done? 

Sandeep Chennakeshu: Thank you, Steve. I’m 65 years old. And when I look back, I probably didn’t plan anything, things just happened. And I got opportunities, which I grabbed. I think it started with a love for mathematics, and that led me to my PhD. I got a great job at GE corporate research after that. And then I built a team. Ericsson bought out my team. So I went to Ericsson and became head of research. I was able to do fun things. A few years later, I decided research was great, but I wanted to build products. So I jumped into product development. That was a big change from my comfort zone. I learned to adapt. And then once I learned the formula, I was able to constantly get out of my comfort zone, adapt, learn, and do that again. And I went on to run R&D, and I went on to run a big business, and then I slowly went on to transform businesses. Having learned the ropes of running a business, I was then sent to fix businesses that were in trouble. I did that for many years and then decided to go on my own and start my own consulting business. And I was basically now working from outside in, not inside out. Did that for many years with five multinational clients, and then got back into the corporate world. And then in the last chapter of my life, I decided, “Hey, let’s move away from multinationals to startups, very high tech startups.” And that’s where I am today. 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, what a fascinating background. I love your description, too: “65 and I just didn’t really plan it, it just happened.” I’m sure you followed your passion for things you are interested in. I’d like to talk about, right from the get-go, your new book, Your Company is Your Castle. This is an awesome book right here. I’m holding it up. And I know that, for most people, this will be an audio listen, but we also put snippets on TikTok and other social media. Tell us about the name of your book. What does it represent? I think that’s really important as we jump into this, Your Company is Your Castle. So let’s talk about what you mean about the castle. 

Sandeep Chennakeshu: For a long time, I had an infographic of a house and I tried to describe building a company like building a house. And then I felt that that infographic was not powerful. I struck upon the idea of how to use a castle and I asked myself, “Why had medieval castles lasted 500 years?” They have withstood nature’s elements. They have basically withstood hordes of invaders. And likewise, a company has to withstand macroeconomic factors, like wars, depressions, recessions, and pandemics. It also basically has to withstand competitors. So I found that the extended metaphor analogy of comparing a castle to a company was appropriate. And then I went on to describe the elements of a castle and the corresponding elements of a business. And I found there was a very, very good correlation. And that was the hook in my book to kind of explain how you build both a castle and a company.  

Steve Shallenberger: Well, I loved reading the book, and especially your analogy of a castle. I lived in Spain for three years. So when visitors would come, I’d take them to the castles. And some of those castles are very well preserved today. They have the towers, they have the whole works. And it’s really a work of inspiration. And that’s what you’re saying, how do I build a company that has the durability of these castles? I loved it. I loved how you compared each tower to something, it was very interesting. So let’s just start off by talking about business. And if you are a business leader in any way, you run a team, a whole company, whatever it might be, you might be starting a new product line, you may be in a startup of a company, let’s just think about this. Why do so many startups fail? The number is huge, within 10 years. My research shows anywhere from 70% up to 90%. It’s a big number. So, why do these companies fail, Sandeep? 

Sandeep Chennakeshu: I’ve been researching this topic and there’s a very nice article in Forbes that talks about why two-thirds of all companies fail within 10 years. There are five reasons that they cite, and one is that most companies run out of cash. A second reason is that their product is not relevant to the market so it’s not accepted. They don’t do enough research and they price their products in a manner that’s not accepted by the market or the market won’t pay for it. The fourth reason, they say, is they really have ignored competition and the power of competitors. And the fifth thing is they don’t hire the right people. All of those are very valid, and it’s substantiated by a lot of research. But I believe, having gone through both public, private and startups that a lot of companies, which are started by clever people with clever ideas, adopt for speed and don’t build a company with a systematic structure. It doesn’t mean you do your bureaucratic and follow the process. But if you don’t follow a systematic process to build your company, then you would not address the five factors that I talked about earlier that’s available in research. So if you don’t do certain things in a certain manner, then you will fall into all the pitfalls. For example, a company that is super good at technology, how do they focus on their go-to-market plan? How do they plan to sell it? How do they plan to make a profit? How do they plan to bring in money? So you’ve got to think through all aspects of the business before it can be successful. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, I’ve got four of the five. Can you tell me what number three is again? Number one is “ran out of cash.” Number two is “product was not relevant.” Number three is what? 

Sandeep Chennakeshu: Number three was the pricing. They basically price the product without relevance to the market, so the market would not pay or could not bear the price of the product.  

Steve Shallenberger: And number four is competition and number five is hiring the right people. Well, you have been successful, Sandeep, in transforming broken companies. What is your formula for doing that? I love these five steps that you gave. The antennae are going up for, I’m sure, our listeners here of how they’re doing in their organization. So, how do you fix a broken company? 

Sandeep Chennakeshu: First, we have to define what broken is. Usually, when people refer to a broken company or a company in trouble, it’s because they’re not growing profitably, they’re bleeding. So when I’m tasked to go look at a company, I focus on three things. The first is I start analyzing what went wrong and how are they generating cash because cash is the lifeblood of any company. These are all for-profit companies. So if you don’t have cash, you can’t invest in products, you can’t invest in sales, you can’t invest in marketing, you can’t hire talented employees, you can’t reward them. And if you’re bleeding cash, your customers won’t trust you because they say, “When are these guys going to go bankrupt?” Investors are loath to lend you money when you’re losing money. So the first thing I tried to do is to completely analyze and figure out how am I going to get profitable and grow profitably, that’s step one. Then the second thing is I try to make sure that the entire company is focused on a strategy. Because if you’re not focused on the strategy and what you want to do and you get distracted, then you’re going to fritter away money. I tell a story, I’ve written it in many articles, I call it “The Monkey and The Gourd.” I heard this story, it was basically a villager had a dried gourd, which had a broad base and a narrow neck. And it dropped a nice, juicy fruit into the gourd. And the monkey came down from the trees looking for some food and saw this new fruit, and put its hand into the gourd and grabbed the fruit. Now, with the fruit in its palm, it couldn’t pull its hand out of the gourd because of the narrow neck, and the gourd was tied to a pole. So the monkey kept pulling and he couldn’t get his hand out. He was also loath to let the fruit go away. And soon the villager came out and captured the monkey. That’s very similar. A lot of companies start going down and getting distracted and doing things like the monkey got distracted. He didn’t really think that he was going to get captured. So the key thing is, don’t get distracted because when you get distracted, you get into trouble. And the last aspect is engagement, how do you get your entire team, all the employees, to follow what you’re doing, and to create and deliver the promise that you have made of the goals? So how do you engage with your employees constantly, motivate them, and make sure that they can actually deliver to the objectives? So I follow these three simple things.  

Steve Shallenberger: How would you recommend that people stay focused and don’t get distracted? What are some of the best things you’ve seen to discipline yourself to stay focused on the things that count most? 

Sandeep Chennakeshu: Oh, it’s very simple. Essentially, in every company I’ve worked at, I start with an annual operating plan. It’s a very clear set of objectives that the company needs to achieve in that year. And these are financial objectives principally. And there are some other objectives that all drive towards the valuation and the growth of the company. Break those annual operating plans into department goals and individual goals. So everybody has goals that are tied into the common annual operating plan. And then I define certain metrics, diagnostic metrics, I call them thermostats, not thermometers, so that you can actually gauge where you are going. And then I have a regular cadence of reviews. And during those reviews, I can clearly see, from my matrix and the presentations, whether things are off track or on track. And if they’re off track, you double-click, and you can quickly find out if people are focusing on the right things. So the structure is quite well-known. The real issue is, can we be disciplined about doing this day in and day out?  

Steve Shallenberger: And it’s vital, isn’t it?  

Sandeep Chennakeshu: It’s vital. Because without execution, it doesn’t matter how fancy your plan is, you won’t get anywhere. 

Steve Shallenberger: And then another follow-up question is how have you found the most successful, most effective in employee engagement? In other words, helping them really be involved in the business, in the organization with a passion so they’re doing the right things. 

Sandeep Chennakeshu: I use three techniques. And I think a number of leaders do the same. The first is, I call them “Ask Me Anything” meetings. So I have groups of people, employees that meet me every month in roundtables where we get together, and you have to probably bring a cross-functional group of people, and you have an hour-long discussion about the objectives, what you want to do, and let the employees ask you questions so that they don’t have any myths in their head about what you’re doing. Because engagement drives awareness, awareness brings understanding, understanding probably gets to agreement and action. So the key is to have a very open dialogue and to address concerns, and to constantly do this every month so that you’re constantly keeping everyone informed about where the company is going, and you’ve got to be transparent. The second thing is, we have town halls or all-hands meetings. And in those meetings, you probably want to get good feedback from customers as to how you’re doing. In one company I worked at, the marketing manager was very clever. And she actually interviewed customers and took little videos of the interviews — short interviews, 5-10 minutes — and with very pointed questions about how we were doing. And in one meeting, one customer of ours, a very senior executive who was the Chief Technology Officer of the company, told us that we were the brightest group of people who had met, but we didn’t deliver and he lost his bonus for the year. That had a tremendous impact on my employees because they felt responsible. And when customers give you direct feedback like that, it helps basically everyone to start thinking, “What did we do wrong? What should we do to correct the issue?” And you start getting a groundswell of action that I could not have motivated even by getting 100 sets of talks, but it was the customer telling them what was necessary. And the third technique is, I write a newsletter every month. It’s just not me. I write one page, and my leadership team writes the other pages. And it’s our way of informing the employees and reporting to them, rather than them always reporting to us. What are we doing to move the company forward? What do we want them to do to help us move the company forward? Again, these collective techniques to basically reinforce what we need to do to be successful is what helps and motivates everyone to row in the same direction.  

Steve Shallenberger: Bravo! These are great ideas, Sandeep. They’re very much appreciated. I love the reminder. It’s good for all of us. Your book, “Your Company is Your Castle,” is very comprehensive on how to build a successful team, company, and organization. But nevertheless, from your point of view, from your experience, what are the two most important factors that drive business transformation? 

Sandeep Chennakeshu: I don’t know whether they’re two or three, but the key is you need to have a very, very good strategy, which defines a very concrete business plan for how you’re going to be successful. It’s got to be comprehensive. And you can’t do that without a deep understanding of the market. And you have to be very practical and realistic about making that plan. I talked about a model called ORC, which stands for Opportunity, Relevance, and Capability. So, opportunity is you want to address opportunities in the market that are pretty big. Relevance is, is your product relevant to the market? Will it be accepted? How are you going to differentiate to win? And how are your competitors going to react when you introduce your product? How are you going to combat that? And the last part is the capability. Do you have the capability to deliver your strategy and vision? In my book, I tell the story of capability, I talk about lions, leopards, and cheetah. Their business model is to eat. Lions need a lot of meat, so they can hunt large animals. And they have to work together as a team to hunt large animals. The cheetah doesn’t have the strength of the lion, but it’s got speed. It can basically chase down smaller but fleeter animals. The leopard doesn’t have the strength of the lion or the speed of the cheetah, so it relies on stealth. And it’s got enormous upper body strength so it can carry its prey up to the trees. Because if it was eating on the ground, and was challenged by hyenas or lions, it would lose its food. So their capabilities are hond also by nature and how they can go on to their business model, which is eating. So, similarly, a company needs to have the capability in order to match its strategy. And then the second part is culture. Strategy is what you want to get done. But culture is actually what you do get done. So if you cannot tie your culture to your strategy, and you cannot build your team in that fashion, and you cannot leave your team to deliver to your strategy, you have a problem. And I think I explained this in two chapters in the book. So I would think strategy and culture are probably the two most important things. But I say eight things in the book are important but if I had to pick two, it’ll be these two.  

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, I’d say there are quite a few things that are important in that book. What advice do you have for a new CEO or a new company? And I might pause, I’m pretty sure whatever the advice is for a new CEO or a new company applies to an experienced CEO and a mature company. Let’s see what you have to say on that. 

Sandeep Chennakeshu: If it’s a brand new CEO in a new company, I would basically tell them that you need to have a really, really well-thought business plan because your business plan is a reflection of you as a leader, your thinking, and where you’re going to take your company, how you’re going to win, why will you win, and what will you do to win. And you have to make that really comprehensive and thorough because that is essentially the blueprint for your success. It is also your plan about how much money you need before you can become profitable. So, if you do not have a really sound and solid business plan, it’s unlikely that you can raise money. And without that, you’re not going anywhere. The second thing that I would tell them is to have conviction in vision. You must be convinced that your vision is correct because there will be bad times in any business. If you have a wavering conviction, there’ll be a lot of skeptics who will tell you that you are wrong and where you’re going is wrong. But you have to have the conviction to persevere. So I would believe, I think that having a really good business model, well thought through. And if it’s well thought through, have the conviction to execute to it. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s really good advice. And I think it applies to experienced leaders as well to go back and say, “I need to have these things in place.” And that also applies if you have an experienced organization that wants to grow into a new business channel. I love the perspective that you bring. You have so much experience, Sandeep. It’s really fun to see that you’ve kept that in your book and so many wonderful ideas. I’m just always amazed how fast these interviews go. And just like that, we’re already at the end of our podcast today. But before we end today, I’d love to get any final tips that you have that you think would be helpful. 

Sandeep Chennakeshu: It’s the closing remarks that I make even in the book. And I said, “What I tell every mentee I have, I tell my children, and most of my employees, first, believe in yourself, because no one will believe in you more. Do the things you like, work with people you respect, and always look at the bright hope that the future brings.” I think that those principles are powerful when you use them. And I use them every day of my life and it’s made me happy.  

Steve Shallenberger: I love that. I love this word “happy.” It’s nice to be a successful business, but it’s really important to be happy along the way. And I’ve got a question, I don’t think I’ve ever asked in all of these podcasts over the last eight years, and I’m going to ask today. As you now sit back from this perspective of your career and look back, you’ve accomplished a lot, what are the things that have mattered most to you? The things that you cherish most, as you’re sitting in this place, looking back. And I know you’re still working, going forward, and that’s thrilling. So what are the things that you value most at this point in life, as you just sit back and reflect? 

Sandeep Chennakeshu: I dedicated the book to my wife of 32 years and all the people I worked with. So I think the thing that I cherish the most is the relationships I’ve built over 40 years, with mentors, bosses, customers, suppliers, and employees, a 360-degree view. And all my success is because of the them. It is they who contributed so well. I might have been the leader where every general is only as good as his troops. I was very fortunate to have terrific employees. The other thing is that what pleases me the most is that many people who worked with me always tell me that they learned so much by working with me. So it was mutual, I learn from them, and they learn from me. And that’s what I cherish the most. And I want to continue to learn and teach and hopefully share knowledge. 

Steve Shallenberger: Wonderful, that’s a great answer. And what a treasure those relationships are, that at the end of the day, I think those are among the things that matter most. So grateful that you’re willing to share that and give your perspective. How can people learn about what you’re doing? And how can they find your book? And thanks so much for taking time today, I have loved your contribution to making the world a better place and your interest in other people. So tell us about how people can find out about what you’re doing. 

Sandeep Chennakeshu: The first is you can get the book on Amazon. It is available in hardcover, as well as a Kindle version. You can contact me or look me up on LinkedIn. My email address is on my contact form. I typically respond to almost everyone. The third is I have a website, it’s my full name. You can either type out the full name of the book, “Your Company’s Your Castle”, or You can learn more and also contact me via the website. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, thank you so much for being with us. It’s been a great visit today. I’ve gained a lot myself. I’ve picked out some things I want to do that I think I can improve on, and I’ve been in business for a long time. So these are all refreshing ideas for us to go back and think about. We wish you the best in all that you’re doing, Sandeep. 

Sandeep Chennakeshu: Thank you so much, Steve, and thank you for the opportunity. It was very nice speaking to you. 

Steve Shallenberger: You bet. And to our listeners, we admire you, we honor you, we’re privileged that you have joined with us today, and we compliment you on your desire to become your best, to take the time to gain new ideas and knowledge, and to apply those to your life. And in the process of so doing, you are leaving the world a better place. And as we talked about with Sandeep, the end game is, it’s really wonderful to satisfy that have success in our lives of leaving things better than we found them. But really, the things that count most are happiness, fulfillment, and relationships that we build. That’s what you’re doing. Congratulations to you. And thank you for being with us today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger, signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, and Community Leader.

Sandeep Chennakeshu

COO at Uhnder, Inc.

Author, Business Transformation Veteran & Technologist

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