Sankar Hariharan - Ernst and Young
You might describe Sankar as somewhat unusual. When his university friends were transitioning from an undergraduate to a master’s degree, in computer science, Sankar was asking himself: ‘What is it I can do differently to make me stand out at the end of my studies?’ Then he bade his uni friends farewell and enrolled on an MBA. That decision gave him the ability to bridge between technical and business functions and he’s been in demand by employers ever since.
Eight years ago, he joined EY’s offshore operating centre in his Southern Indian hometown. He did well and was invited to apply for a position in London.
EY has some great career development programmes in place that give colleagues access to global opportunities, but this wasn’t one of them.
“When I was offered this role, I was delighted but, at the same time nervous, as it was a big step both professionally and personally.” Sankar moved to London two and a half years ago. In this new role, he was working with the organisation’s executive leadership and almost immediately he started running into some unexpected challenges.
With time of the essence, Sankar needed to be able to articulate his message in a concise and authoritative manner. But, working in his second language and feeling the pressure because he was talking to such senior executives, he was struggling to do that and was quickly losing confidence in himself.
Sankar had worked with people in English before but his preference had always been to have a slide to talk to - to help reinforce his message. His leadership audience were, however, often on the move and Sankar was finding it difficult to do that too.
“I’d be on a telephone conference and would need to convey something, but I would choke,” Sankar explains. “I’d eat my words, or they would simply fail me. It was impacting my ability to be heard.” Then one day, one of Sankar’s senior stakeholders told him outright that, ‘they couldn’t buy into what he was saying because he didn’t think he had any confidence in himself’.
That’s when Sankar took another step back, to ask himself what he needed to do differently to succeed. He approached his boss, Ray Schneider, who had, and continues to be, a huge supporter of Sankar’s development. With a degree in psychology, Ray understood the value of coaching, so introduced Sankar to his first coach, Susan.
Susan was selected because of her leadership experience and her ability to blend executive coaching – helping others to find their own answers – with voice coaching – which includes the teaching of practical tools and exercises.
“Susan’s impressive. The very first thing she did when we met was to say a couple of words in Malayalam, my mother tongue. Before we’d even met, she’d looked up my native language and established the impact it had on my English accent. I thought this is just what I need, someone who can tailor their approach to help with my specific challenges. The most difficult thing for me was trying to tackle a problem, without really understanding what that problem was.”
So, the pair sat down and had a good conversation about the challenges Sankar was facing. Based on that, Susan was able to explain what she thought they needed to cover and what they were going to try and achieve. “She was very clear about the objective,” says Sankar. “Susan gave me real confidence that she was someone who could lead me in the right direction because she was able to help me understand the actual problem. This, coupled with her experience and knowledge, meant she was able to focus me on what was needed to solve it.”
The duo had eight sessions in total, each lasting a couple of hours. Those sessions were very practical – focusing on voice and confidence. They covered the inner critic, breath control, pronunciation, inflection, projection and message efficiency.
“In a virtual world you can’t always see people face-to-face, your voice is your face, your body, your everything so I needed to master that,” says Sankar.
But they also addressed some cultural differences that were holding Sankar back - like his nervousness about being assertive – even when one of the team hadn’t delivered on something.
“As an Indian there are different cultural priorities - you have considerations like hierarchy. I’d always associated assertiveness with arrogance, so I’d shied away from it. I could see there were instances though when I needed to be assertive, so I wanted to find a way to adapt in my professional life, without losing the essence of who I am. Susan really helped me with that.” These were interactive sessions, spaced apart so Sankar had an opportunity to put into practice what he was learning.
“Susan is very understanding and patient, she passionately tries to help you - she’s not in a hurry. I quickly realised that this was going to be a journey not a one-day mega event. And even though our sessions have concluded, I’m still using the tools that Susan gave me every day, and every day I make an improvement.” And those incremental improvements seem to be having a major impact.
Colleagues have fed back they’ve seen a noticeable difference in how Sankar runs the show and articulates his message.
“The difference is I’m now able to table the important points I have to make with confidence – that wasn’t the case before. I’m not worrying all the time that I might be saying or doing something wrong. I simply accept that I’m human, sometimes I’ll get it wrong but if I make a mistake, I can just learn from it and continue to correct it. At the end of the day everything is a learning, and everything can be changed – I’m proof of that.”
Sankar supports the Global Assurance Markets leader drive and implements the go-to-market strategies across EY’s Assurance practice. He and Susan started working together in April 2018, concluding their formal sessions in the summer of 2019.