Leadership Needs No Title, It Needs Attitude, A Certain Attribute

By Mukul Yudhveer Singh

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The saying ‘Work Hard, Party Harder’ is of special significance to those students who succeed in getting admission to prestigious institutes after years of hard work and sacrifices. They complete their education at top institutes in India and land a good job in a foreign country such as the USA and start enjoying the life of their dreams.

This story is about an individual who graduated from IIT Madras, went on to get his Master’s and PhD degrees from the North Carolina State University in the United States, and landed a job as researcher with two premium research institutions—The Los Alamos National Lab and The Oak Ridge National Labs. But instead of going out on weekends and enjoying life in the States, he spent his time in finding a Vedas’ teacher and learnt to recite the Vedas with all the proper intonations. The individual is today the CEO of Syrma Technology.

Hailing from a famous temple-town in Tamil Nadu and growing up mostly in the North and in Vizag (known as Visakhapatnam today), Sreeram Srinivasan decided to leave the United States and fly back to India in the early 1990s to be with his parents, just when his career was starting to take off in the dream land of the USA. Sreeram got a job with Sundaram Fasteners as senior manager, and everything that happened afterwards never made him want to go back to the States. This is Sreeram’s Story!


There are few people who live on a shoestring budget but still manage to make the best of the choices. Sreeram is one such person. Born in a family of five siblings, he is the youngest of them all. Despite his father working for the Railways, the family lived on a tight budget. Sreeram’s father got his children the best of education available back then and at the same time saved enough to get his three daughters married.

Dr Sreeram Srinivasan, CEO, Syrma Technology
Dr Sreeram Srinivasan, CEO, Syrma Technology

“It was a shoestring budget that we lived on. I used to walk a few kilometres every day just to reach the bus stop for catching a rough ten-kilometre ride to the school in a crowded public bus and had to walk back the same distance in the evening every day and still catch up on the studies and homework. Sometimes, the afternoons got unpleasantly warm but going to school was one of the things that I looked forward to each day,” recalls Sreeram.

He was accompanied to the bus stand by a schoolmate who was three years senior to him, and his company was one of the reasons Sreeram wanted to study in an IIT from the start. The senior got admitted to IIT Kanpur and this ignited the desire in Sreeram also to make it to an IIT.

“He remains to be one of my best friends till date. If not for him, I would have never understood the true potential and power of getting into an IIT and the life that follows after it. He continuously kept motivating me during his visits back to town about IIT and how much fun it was,” says Sreeram.

Sreeram completed his schooling at Kendriya Vidyalayas. For those who do not know, Kendriya Vidyalayas are usually reserved for children whose parents are working in government jobs. He recalls that despite the frequent transfers his father had while working for the government, Kendriya Vidyalayas were the best thing that ever happened to him, because he got to interact and become friends with kids from all over the country.

“I was not at all a street smart kid growing up but studying in Kendriya Vidyalayas gave me an opportunity to interact with kids who belonged to different regions of the country,” recalls Sreeram.

A lot into studies, he explains summer vacations as the time that was mostly filled with heading to his native place in Tamil Nadu and wiling away time with his many cousins. It was almost a routine for his family to take him and other kids to their grandparents’ house during summer vacations. Spending time at the grandparents’ place has taught him how to find pleasure in a simple living.

“I would say I grew up quite a happy kid with elder siblings and grandparents to pamper me. If I look back, I feel quite blessed to have experienced happiness in my early life. The best part about my journey so far is that I am still in touch with a lot of friends from my childhood,” says Sreeram with a broad smile.

Into a lot of sports including cricket and football, Sreeram stopped playing as soon as he entered eleventh standard. He realised that making it to an IIT was his ticket to a larger arena and he knew the kind of tough work that goes into securing a seat there.

“I said to myself that I would trade one thing for the other. If I were to pursue my IIT dream, it was only through sacrificing sports that I was passionate about,” explains Sreeram.

But once Sreeram cleared the IIT entrance exam and made it to the institute, his love of sports returned—though it remained limited. He again found himself playing cricket, football, and hockey with new-found friends. As a matter of fact, Sreeram enrolled himself into the IIT hostel’s weight-lifting team and tried his hands at the sports for three years.

“I used to spend ten to twelve hours a week training with weights during my college. Weight training is one of the sports that I have enjoyed as it made me feel more confident of myself. But I had to give it up to pursue other dreams,” explains Sreeram.

New-found passion

Sreeram’s other favoured source of entertainment happens to be reading, right since his childhood. Though he enjoyed sports, as mentioned earlier, reading has remained close to his heart more than anything else. He still sometimes opens pages from classic cartoon series including the Asterix and TinTin. The latest habit that Sreeram has developed includes writing a lot. He came to know about his underlying talent for writing during the preparations for a school reunion get-together.

“It was the school reunion magazine that my friends were working on. I got a message asking if I would like to contribute anything for the same. That was the time when I wrote a poem,” recalls Sreeram.

Launching of book—Oh! So Magnifique—a collection of poems
Launching of book—Oh! So Magnifique—a collection of poems

Writing then became his new-found passion, a passion that has enabled him to write a book of poems on everyday life. This book contains around 53 pieces of poetry, all inspired by nature and everyday life.

“I had a book launch in 2012. Some of my old classmates came to that book launch and it was another event that reminded me how blessed I am to have such great people in my life,” explains Sreeram. Titled ‘Oh! So Magnifique’ the book is being sold on Amazon India.

“I have written on various subjects including education, beauty, womanhood, love, patriotism, environment, and a collection of naughty poems too!” Sreeram informs with some pride in his voice.

William Wordsworth has been one of the inspirations for Sreeram for the writing of poems. The poem titled ‘Daffodils’ is the one that is closest to his heart. Why? Because the theme of the poem is nature’s beauty with a mix of happiness and solitude. Wordsworth, in a pensive mood, often thinks of the daffodils swaying and dancing, portraying nature’s beauty, and feels happy and content.

Sreeram also happens to be a movie buff. His blogs somehow uncannily have references of movies and scenes that have inspired him. He was a blogger before he started writing poems. He says, he started blogging in the year 2007 and wrote about what was happening around him. One of his latest blogs (posted on LinkedIn) tries to define perfection, taking cue from the Hollywood blockbuster ‘The Matrix.’

In a meeting with former chief minister Ms. Jayalalitha
In a meeting with former chief minister Ms. Jayalalitha

“Many of us simply want to be perfect, or at least strive for perfection, only to grandly fail while several others, equally if not more perfectionist in their thinking and in their own personal lives, seem to move on, take things in stride and even progress in their life unaffected and unstressed,” Sreeram writes in that blog that ends with the lines inspired by The Matrix, “at what cost perfectionism when a lesser mind or a mind less bound by the parameters of perfection might perfectly do…”

He does not shy away from admitting that he responds to a lot of situations in his personal and professional life with one of the many favourite dialogues that have inspired him. The practice, as per him, helps him clarify situations to his colleagues and family in a better manner.

Getting an award from ELCINA
Getting an award from ELCINA

Cardiac stroke at young age

Sreeram was well settled in the United States when he had to take a call and move back to India in 1994. The main reason behind taking this call and leaving behind a good life in the USA was the simple fact that he wanted to be with his parents.

“That was a tough decision that I had to take. I also wanted to come back before my wife and I had kids. We were always sure that our kids will follow the good old Indian principles, and that is one of the other reasons we came back to India,” explains Sreeram.

He was able to land a job in a company which had been recently acquired by a TVS Group company. This company was burning cash and was waiting to be put back on the track of making profits. Sreeram explains that melting steel was a big part of the work this company did, and as he was hired for an R&D cum applications marketing role, Sreeram had to spend a lot of time next to furnaces where steel was being melted besides hitting the road often to meet customers.

“Six months into this new job and I found myself in an intensive cardiac care unit (ICCU) of a government hospital one evening. I had a very intense and unbearable pain in the chest and was unsure if I would survive the night. Somehow the very competent doctor found a way to keep me going and the company took great care of me at that time,” recalls Sreeram. “Many hospitals soon after wanted to cut me up citing complete blockage of my vessels. Fortunately, a very good doctor in Chennai cleared me and told me nothing was wrong with me and implored me to get back to work.”

He adds, “The chairman of my company himself met me and told me to not worry about anything. It took me three to four months to come out of it, but I think I came out of it stronger and hungrier to prove myself.”

Sreeram is of the view that the whole incident at the young age of 31 left him wiser and stronger. He recalls how his mother was concerned that he might never be able to lead a normal life again. He overheard a conversation where she was bemoaning his condition and wondering if her son would live a simple normal life ever again.

“I recall my mom telling someone that I should have never left the USA in the first place. I think, in all fairness, I fought hard mentally and physically. I was at an age when giving up was not an option,” he explains.

Sreeram picked himself up from that point and started a strict regimen of exercises, long walks, and slow jogging, which culminated after many years in a successful 5km run in 38 minutes at the Coimbatore Marathon. His aspiration was to run the 10km race next and eventually the half marathon for which he started practicing in the right earnest. But a small accident during one of the training sessions put an end to all this. He gave up jogging for the moment and started practicing yoga to get stronger mentally.

The other challenge that Sreeram faced on returning to India was the different styles of work cultures in the USA and here. He recalls that in the USA, a research job usually means interacting with a select group of people and reading a lot of technical papers and running experiments in a lab and coming up with insight and ideas. In India, he had to bear the dust and heat of the field and sell his products and solutions as an applications engineer and returning to the plant to incorporate customer feedback into the next-gen products. Far from complaining about these differences, Sreeram thinks that this opportunity of meeting a wide variety of people across the country helped him grow professionally and in his career.

“Working in India has been entirely different from working in the United States. The wide exposure you get is better here in India than any other country,” says Sreeram.

Turning businesses around

Sreeram, from his very first job in India, has been tasked with turning around the businesses. Starting with TVS, which was his first real job in the country, he was a part of the team that was responsible for helping the company acquire customers, develop new products, and burn less cash and become profitable in the shortest time possible. He says every company he has worked for in India since mid-90s has been a story of turnaround and looks like as if an invisible hand has led him to such opportunities as his destiny.

At CEO Forum - Invest India
At CEO Forum – Invest India

His love for numbers has probably also helped him in achieving his goals of profitable turnaround of the various businesses he has worked for. In fact, if not an engineer from IIT, he thinks he would have become an accountant or a finance professional and got associated with something to do with numbers and accounting. “I love numbers and numbers get struck in my mind as easily as it could,” explains Sreeram.

Sreeram says that every company he worked for was in the red in some way when he joined. He then had to work on new strategies, or quickly fine-tune existing strategies, to work out things and make the company profitable in a short time. In many cases, he recalls, the owners were, within a few weeks, forced to take a fresh look at the business and realise its importance to the overall scheme of things.

“Right from my first job in Hyderabad to my current job, I would typically go in when the situation was very very difficult and get the team to rally around on making things simpler and profitable. Probably I was destined for such things,” says Sreeram.

Sreeram, recalling his association with Saint Gobain, notes that he had joined the company at a difficult time—a new acquisition that was not doing well operationally and a huge investment in a greenfield facility in a different location. Sreeram and his team had to turnaround the business and simultaneously build a team afresh for the new greenfield plant. A five-fold profitable growth in six years resulted thanks to the dogged and spirited efforts of his teams. He says, he has only his team to thank for all this and thank himself only for staying out of their way!

Sreeram says, “I am not scared of meeting strangers and less-known people, and I can sit down and build rapport even in the worst of situations—a trait I credit to the wide variety of places I grew up in like Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, and a few summer vacations in Jalandhar (Punjab) as well and the schooling in Kendriya Vidyalayas, where every classroom was a mini India. I think this is why I have been able to bond with my teams and also my bosses and get them to rally around or support my ideas.”

Apart from his research work in the USA and turning around businesses back home, Sreeram believes the exposure that India has given him has enabled him to be a good problem solver and learn the art of damage control. He believes in working with companies and bosses that have a strong value system. A couple of jobs where he did not work for long was more due to value system mismatch than anything else. “On the other hand, I had some great mentors along the way and always will cherish the time I worked with Mr Sundar Ram at the Rane Group, and Mr Santhanam at Saint Gobain,” Sreeram says.

Romantic at heart

Hiding behind his professional getup is an individual who is probably a romantic at heart. “My wife and I went to Rome and Paris for our 25th marriage anniversary. This was despite the fact that we had already seen Europe three years earlier along with our twin daughters. I must add that this anniversary vacation was a complete surprise from me to my wife. I bought the tickets without letting her know and surprised her a few days before the travel,” says Sreeram with a smile.

Snorkeling in Phuket
Snorkeling in Phuket

“We spent our anniversary in Florence and got to eat some great local food. The only regret was we couldn’t make Venice on that trip and had to be satisfied with Rome and The Vatican but with our own exclusive tour guide. We said we would soon visit Venice with the whole family, but the pandemic has changed all our plans! We did make it to Dubai three years later for our 28th and even spent the night at the Atlantis Hotel in Dubai.”

Sreeram says, he always enjoyed Smita Patil’s portrayals in movies, but his favourite was always Rekha. A regular with Hollywood movies, he makes sure not to miss any movie that stars Leonardo Dicaprio or Tom Cruise. Of the actresses from Hollywood, Meryl Streep happens to be his favourite leading lady due to her simple acting style and becoming one with the character she portrays.

On family front, Sreeram wants to see his twin daughters soar higher in their research in bio-tech. He is thankful to his wife and to his father for standing by him and taking care of the home front while he pursued his career aspirations and his professional journey.

“Right from 2001, I have been heading one business or the other. My dad and my wife have been as supportive as they can be and have never let me digress from my work. All the professional goals that I have been able to achieve in life are because of them,” says Sreeram.

He adds, “I am often quite hard on myself. I find myself thinking if I have ever been a good father, a good husband, a good son, or even a good employee. The only solace I give myself on the work side is that I have been very disciplined. The flip side of that is expecting the people working around me to have the same level of discipline and penchant for perfection.”

Sreeram plans in the longer term to become a coach and mentor to the younger and aspiring leaders and give back as much as he can to help them achieve their goals. He is also of the view that leaders with entrepreneurial mindset work by the same yardsticks, whether they are employed by an organisation or they are working for their own venture.
One of his blogs about leadership reads, “Leadership is not about titles but it is about followership. It needs an attitude and a certain attribute. Go forth and be a leader from today. The world needs more of them.”


 

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