Sukhendu Pal: How to lead

Sukhendu Pal is one of the understated business leaders of his generation. He is an adviser to CEOs of some of the world’s most valuable companies and the lead mentor to many founders of Funding London’s 140+ portfolio companies. He is also an invited contributor to many global publications, including The Financial Times and The Economist. In this interview, he chats about his life journey from a boy playing cricket on the busy streets of Calcutta to a business leader.

You were born in India; how did you end up in the UK?

Sukhendu Pal

Sukhendu Pal

I was born in Calcutta, near the airport, and in my childhood, I saw aircrafts flying in and out of the airport every day. Consequently, as a teenager, I wanted to be a pilot, to fly and experience how others lived across the globe. However, as I dreamed of being a pilot, my parents had other ideas!

They decided to send me to Sheffield in Yorkshire, as my eldest brother moved to Sheffield University in the 1960s and became a professor. Imagine the challenge of the climate change I faced then – moving from the City of Joy with the average temperature in the mid-30s with sunshine to a cold, snowy and hilly Sheffield!

How did you get your first job?

I did well at university, and after graduating, I started my PhD in “distributed databases” – an up-and-coming subject in those days. Soon after starting my PhD, I had three job offers: a US technology start-up setting up their business in Europe, British Gas and a Canadian technology company based in Ottawa.

A tough decision had to be made considering the choices. However, I was particularly impressed by the two founders of the US technology start-up. They interviewed me in The Orange Tree pub in Richmond, Surrey, and after the interview, they asked me to join the company. I agreed and consequently dropped out of my PhD to join Oracle in March 1985.

What was it like to grow up in the UK as an immigrant?

I never saw myself as an immigrant who came to the UK for a better life. I already had a far better life in Calcutta, and my parents could have sent me to the USA, Canada, Australia or any other country in Europe.

When I came to this country as a young boy, Brexit wasn’t born, and the country was not visibly divided as it is now. Today, there is resentment towards immigrants, including immigrant students, who keep this country’s educational institutions alive. Imagine how many universities would survive without foreign student fees and the enormous amount of money they spend here.

My family has always had a global outlook, with five nieces and a nephew living in the US, Australia, UAE and UK. Our family is what you would call global, or as the former Prime Minister of this country, Theresa May, named “Citizens of nowhere”. I wonder where this country would be without these “Citizens of nowhere” working in the NHS, universities, schools and building unicorns employing tens of thousands of people, adding economic, social and cultural values to this country.

I grew up in the UK surrounded by open-minded, warm-hearted and culturally rich people and never thought of myself as someone different. Similarly, people around me embraced me as a person and not someone with a different colour of skin.

How did you become a business builder?

I was one of the youngest members of a large family, following a very successful brother, a world-renowned scientist, a cousin – a Nobel Prize nominee in Economics – and a teacher/mentor of the Economics Nobel Prize winner of 2019. I started my career as an explorer, not knowing where my exploration would lead.

When I left university, I didn’t set out to be a Vice President, Senior Vice President, Managing Director, Chief Executive Officer or Chairman. I had the belief that the only way to get noticed was to be good at what I did. I was fortunate to find myself at Oracle when it was a start-up, and my career took off from there.

After a decade with Oracle, I was headhunted to work for the biggest bank, where I was the youngest member of the executive management team. It was a hugely visible role responsible for tens of thousands of people and billions of dollars of business. I was seen as a whippersnapper executive in a conservative bank where the average age of a top banker was over 50, and I was in my 30s.

After a few years of leading a significant part of a global bank spanning over 72 countries, I again wanted to try something different and continue learning. I moved to a leading strategy consulting firm in a leadership role running Europe. A few years later, I asked myself, “why don’t I just start a strategy consulting firm myself instead of using someone else’s blueprint?” That thinking gave birth to Sirius & Company, the firm I founded.

I’ve been fortunate in my life, as I have worked with some of the most amazing and pioneering leaders over the past three decades, which has helped me learn how to build enduring businesses.

What have you learned from holding senior roles?

I hope everyone has at least one chance to work for someone as brilliant as Larry Ellison, Geoff Squire or Sandy Weill. The key lessons I learned from holding senior roles are:

  • Don’t lean in without the talent to back it up;
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses;
  • Motivate by setting examples;
  • Talk less, listen more and do more;
  • Hire people who are as good as or better than you;
  • Don’t command, collaborate;
  • Focus on elevating others;
  • Be honest and humble.

What was your first leadership lesson?

I remember what Larry Ellison would tell us when he founded Oracle; he wanted to grow Oracle into a world-leading technology company. This meant we all had to grow at the speed Oracle was growing, and if we failed, he’d have no option but to find others who would.

A true leader isn’t someone who says what he expects; they share the “how-to” as well, which Larry and Geoff always did. Many CEOs fail because they are inherent “empire builders” and reluctant to hire better people capable of growing fast and stronger.

For example, I promoted women to positions of power within Oracle more than three decades ago – long before companies worldwide embarked on gender diversity. I didn’t care about gender, sexual orientation, race, creed or colour. I saw the world as two groups: “exceptionally talented people” and “terribly lousy people.” Therefore, my first lesson in leadership was to hire exceptionally talented people without compromise.

Who is your leadership hero?

I resist the notion of a single heroic leader because so much of leadership is contextual. Many people influenced me, from childhood to my professional life. In my personal life, my Mum had a tremendous impact on me as I grew up. She exemplified and lived out the very best qualities of an inspiring leader, yet she was a homemaker. She encouraged my brothers, sisters and me to believe we can be anything we wish if we work hard and remain true to ourselves. There is no doubt that I would not have believed I could achieve half the things I have, had my mother not taught me to believe I could.

I would say that the leaders I admired most outside my personal life include Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Geoff Squire, Larry Ellison, Marc Benioff and Jamie Dimon. I worked with all of them except Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. I grew up near Mother Teresa’s first Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. I remember her telling my friends and me, in no uncertain terms, not to go on busy streets, where buses and trams were running, picking up balls while playing cricket on the pavements. Her directness taught me that true leaders don’t need blaster or waffle.

Similarly, I came across Nelson Mandela while I was at business school. He told us: “Successful leaders talk less, listen more and do more”, which remains the lens through which I see leadership heroes today.

If you were not a CEO/Chairman, what would you be?

All my brothers and sisters became teachers at universities. My father was also a teacher, and my mother wanted me to be a teacher. So, when I dropped out of my PhD and went to work for Oracle, she wasn’t pleased – I became the black sheep of my family.

I saw a real glint in the eyes of my Dad and eldest brother when they spoke about producing students running companies like Alphabet/Google, Berkshire Hathaway, Vodafone, and Tata, among others. This taught me that cutting deals, delivering quarterly revenue, and climbing corporate ladders don’t yield the profound rewards which come from growing people. So, I would have been a teacher.

What has been your biggest disappointment?

I found that disappointments can be powerful tools for personal drive and growth in life. My biggest disappointment was that I couldn’t follow my dream of being an airline pilot. Even though I was disappointed at the time, I realise now that if I had taken that direction, I would not have achieved what I’ve achieved today. It shows that you can find meaning, purpose, fulfilment and happiness in your life even when you realise you might need to let go of an earlier dream or two.

Why is “giving back” important to you?

Looking back, I realise that our core values, which drive our behaviour, are developed at home by seeing how our parents behaved. I often saw my Mum give away her food to beggars to feed their hungry children on the streets of Calcutta, which prompted me to ask her, “Why are you giving your food away when you’ll be going hungry?” Her answer was as profound then as it is today: “No one has ever gone hungry by giving.”

I also saw my Dad teach 12 to 18-year-olds from Calcutta’s slum for free in his spare time. Seeing how my parents acted taught me the importance of giving back and helping those less fortunate. Giving back is in my DNA. It provides me with an emotional reward, and the payback is far higher than any payment from my for-profit work. What’s more, giving is good. It gives me purpose and passion. I learned that some things in life don’t have a purpose, and some things really do; giving has a purpose in my life.

What prompted you to be a mentor?

I decided to move out from my day-to-day role of running a company four years ago because of my health. Since then, I decided to mentor, and I’ve gained huge fulfilment from sharing my insights with eager and emerging leaders. I’ve experienced situations many others have not, and I can draw on those experiences to help others. For example, I, along with a handful of my friends, organise business clinics for London-based start-ups funded by the Mayor of London. I also mentor start-up founders from underprivileged and disadvantaged backgrounds, including several female founders and executives worldwide.

The dispensation of wisdom and practical advice and helping others succeed as leaders is as rewarding as being the person relentlessly under the spotlight, making deals, delivering record-breaking revenue and growing profit. It isn’t about making money or seeking visibility but about impact and usefulness – mentoring gives me the purpose and passion. I enjoy helping smart, underrated, underserved and driven people realise their dreams.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

Life never follows a linear path, and mine is no exception: In 2019, I was diagnosed with cancer and faced the possibility of my life ending sooner than I had thought. However, I am very fortunate to find myself under the care of Professor Mary O’Brien of the Royal Marden Hospital. From the first day I met her, she has been the ultimate professional of the highest order. She and her team are providing me with brilliant care, for which I am very grateful. Thankfully, because of Professor O’Brien and her team at the Royal Marden, it now looks like I may be spared for a little while.

Living with cancer has given me an important insight into my life as I faced a binary situation: a victim, wondering why this has happened to me, or a survivor with the resolve to dispassionately face whatever the future may bring. Since my parents raised me to be an independent-minded person, not a victim of anything, I continue to live with the latter choice.

I’ve discovered that living with cancer is very personal, and found it extremely relevant to leadership, specifically, “How we lead”. For example, to focus on what we don’t want — that is, “I don’t want to fail,” or, in my case, “I don’t want to die” — is much less empowering than to focus on what we do want: “I want to succeed as a leader and create something amazing,” or, in my case, “I want to live well with goals to achieve.” This reframing helped me see the desired outcome and understand it more clearly — and it also made me even more determined to give my all in trying to reach it.

So, what have I learned? I have learned cancer cannot cripple my giving, it cannot shatter my hope, and it cannot conquer my spirit of never giving up. I discovered that hope is grief’s best music. I let my hope, not the trauma of cancer, shape my future. There is no cancer treatment like hope and no cancer drug so powerful as the expectation of something better tomorrow.

The gruelling cancer treatments that I’ve endured over the last three years have taught me that he who has a why to live can cope with almost any how. So, I don’t let the pain of cancer define me; instead, I’ve turned my pain into purpose and allowed it to refine and reinforce my resilience. I continue to nurture resilience through the network of my family members and friends. I remind myself every day that there is a life to be lived, with goals to achieve, while living with cancer.

What drives you now?

Throughout my career, I had a clear idea of how my dedication, drive and determination would generate success for the companies I worked for and founded; I also know I’ve had a substantial impact in every organisation I worked.

However, as I’ve faced cancer, it’s been humbling to see how unimportant that impact had become to me, especially as I recall what my mother used to say when I was a little boy: “You came to this world on your own. You will leave this world alone. People will only remember you if you’ve touched their lives in meaningful ways and helped them become better.”

So, I ask myself daily what is the primary purpose of my work, and how will it add tangible value to others? Who are the critical personal and professional relationships in my life, and how can I strengthen them? What more can I do to help others who are less fortunate than me?

As I answered these questions and connected the past events that shaped my life, I concluded that the criteria by which we should all look back on our lives isn’t the revenue, profit and market-share we helped to generate or how many unicorns/decacorns we created, or the fancy job titles we’ve accumulated, but the people whose lives we’ve touched and bettered. And this is what drives me today.