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7 Questions with Sunalini Benjamin
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7 Questions with Sunalini Benjamin
Name: Sunalini Benjamin
Current title: Chief Operating Officer
Current organisation: Vijay Kiran Group of Institutions
My learning of 25 years of experience as an English Teacher, MYP Coordinator for the IB programme, Curriculum Coordinator, a Head of School, a Principal and now a Chief Operating Officer, appears limited in learning. I believe experiences teach us meaningful life lessons. Today, as I look back I have so much more to learn and have a desire to continue this learning. Many people have influenced my thoughts and actions however two specific people have been my biggest mentors and supporters- Mrs. Rao, Principal of Indus International School, Bengaluru and Dr. N Vijaya Kumar, Chairman and Managing Director, Vijay Kiran Group. I look upto to them with respect as they identified leadership potential in me and paved the way for my growth as a human being and as a leader.
1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?
Universal values and Work Ethics. I find this the most challenging part of my work, to ensure people comply with organisational values and work ethics. The reason for this could be that as people, we are varied, different, unique - each with his/her defined personality and experiences.I believe you need to come to a workplace with the right values and attitude; and develop skills. Orchestration of a team is easier when we share the same values.
2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?
As an English teacher, I enjoyed my classes, my students and the generic chores of a teacher. However, the confirmation of my employment was delayed by six months which affected me tremendously. The reasons were not justified and the humiliation hit me hard. It is at this time in my life that I decided to make a difference- a difference to people and my authority through my behaviour, actions and work. After exactly a year of service, my Principal offered me a leadership position. Tears welled up and I declined it. She coaxed me into taking up the position. Her belief in me and my leadership potential is something I will ever be grateful for. From that day I saw myself getting promoted to various leadership positions every two years. Due to health conditions, I needed to move to a work place closer home. It is at this time I found myself as the Principal of a new school and my challenges of leadership never failed to overwhelm me. I overcame each one of them with patience, grit and will power.After being a Principal for three years, the Chairman offered me a position of the Chief Operating Officer to look after a group of Schools. Now, I work with large teams to oversee the functioning of our schools.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I believe in self- discipline and my habits are extremely disciplined. With an early morning rise, I spend time in spiritual meditation, yoga, a walk and some 'me' time.
Hitting the office by 8:30 am gives me plenty of room for fresh thoughts and smart work during those wealthy hours of the morning.
Emails, meetings, walks around the campus help me coordinate with team members to gauge our progress and work on areas of improvement.
As I commence winding down for the day, I spend time in planning for the next day, reflecting and having personal dialogues.
I never fail to end the day without doing something new as I need a bit of excitement and accomplishment. Family time, reading, listening to music takes up the evening slots.
As I get ready for bed time, I enjoy making a list of mistakes committed and corrective actions. This helps me to a fresh start in the morning.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
Accepting people the way they are. Identify their strengths and gauge how this fits in with the weakness of another member in the team. This helps get the balance right in a team.
I look out for weaknesses that challenge the functioning of the person and guide them with action plans to overcome those challenges.
A leader needs to be humane and vulnerable. It is fine to display these components of leadership. However, one must have the wisdom to practice styles of leadership based on the situation. Communication is a key tool for successful leadership and successful leaders use this intelligently.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell
the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
It is extremely challenging to list one book because as a leader I learnt skills and nuances of leadership through books, conversations and experiences. John Maxwell's books have had a profound impact on me as they taught me wonderful leadership attributes and lessons. Corporate Chanakya taught me the nuances of balanced leadership. Jonathan Livingston Seagull had the biggest impact on me as a teenager and I believe if I am extremely different and unique today, this book has had an influence on me.
6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?
Mentoring and Succession Planning. One should never be afraid of another person stepping into your shoes. If you create leaders and they occupy your place, you are the biggest achiever of success.
I ensure to delegate responsibilities to my team members, guide them when mistakes take place, yet be firm.
This process helps me evaluate capabilities, strengths and work on nurturing leaders.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?
The pandemic COVID- 19 saw us completely displaced. With no human physical interface, it called for extreme trust and faith in the entire team. Our success as a team in a 360 degree change of plans from January 2020 to March 2020 was touching, motivating and extremely beautiful.
Moving ahead with Distance Learning, operations for students to receive their books, coordinating with people in different parts of the country, with limited gadgets and its supporting systems made us believe in each other and be resilient in the most difficult time. All of this just to ensure learning never stopped for the children.
Each one of us a team had our bouts of lows and we worked to overcome those bad days together. Team bonding increased excessively. Success was the ultimate result and we have a great story to tell.