For Ajay Banga, leadership is about more than just a title. It’s about making a real difference in peoples’ lives. He believes those people who care and take thoughtful risks will be the successful leaders of the future.
Ajay worked for some of the biggest companies in the world, including Citigroup, Nestle, and PepsiCo, before joining MasterCard and then becoming CEO in 2010. He oversees nearly 15,000 employees in more than 60 countries, with customers in nearly every country around the world. Ajay is also passionate about social development issues, diversity and inclusion, and purpose and meaning. He is a co-founder of The Cyber Readiness Institute and is involved in numerous other councils and organizations to champion international business, U.S.-India strategic relationships, cybersecurity, and more. Ajay is a well-respected leader because he not only gets results but genuinely inspires and cares about his people. Ajay inspires me and I hope he will inspire you as well!
As part of the research for my new book, The Future Leader, I interviewed over 140 CEOs around the world to get their insights about what it will take to be a successful leader over the next decade and beyond. Ajay was one of these 140 CEOs, and I loved his thoughtful responses on the wide range of opportunities and challenges future leaders will face. You can get all of the insights and research by grabbing a copy of the book.
Let’s get into the interview.
Jacob: What trends do you think will impact the future of leadership?
Ajay: Firstly, consumers and the workforce are seeking more from companies in terms of sustainability, purpose, meaning, moral leadership, and rebuilding trust.
Secondly, technology will continue to be a powerful enabler of even better, more efficient, and intimately personalized services. But along with these benefits will come some fundamental questions and moral considerations related to personal privacy and cybersecurity.
Third, the geo-social-political environment is rapidly evolving. The need to facilitate international commerce has created a complex global regulatory environment.
Jacob: What mindsets do you think leaders of the next decade will need to have?
Ajay: Leaders need to have a sense of urgency. Today’s world of rapidly advancing technology and ever-shortening innovation cycles leaves no room for procrastination.
Leaders also need ownership and empowerment. Our people, at all levels, are expected to treat our company like it’s their own. Leaders also need to practice thoughtful risk-taking. Rarely are you going to have perfect information. The willingness to decide at that time will depend on your ability to take a thoughtful risk, which ultimately depends on your courage. The thoughtful part depends on your humility and realizing that you don’t have all the answers.
A leader must always operate with the belief that one person can make a difference. That means being willing to take things on versus waiting for someone else to take responsibility.
Jacob: What should leaders of the future need to know how to do? Are there any specific skills you can think of that come to mind?
Ajay: The leaders who deliver results now and in the future will be those who are able to build inclusive cultures and execute under rapidly changing circumstances. You need to harness the collective uniqueness of those around you to widen your field of vision.
In the past, leaders were chosen for what they could deliver, but tomorrow’s leaders will be defined by their good judgement. Never has the role of moral leadership played a more important or challenging role in defining the success of a company.
Jacob: When you think of leaders of today versus in the next decade, what do you think some of the main differences will be between the two?
Ajay: At the heart of leadership is people. As human beings, we have needs, wants, ambitions—these things fundamentally don’t change. What does change are the means at our disposal to pursue those needs and our expectations on how quickly and to what degree we get them met.
Jacob: If you were to imagine a day in the life of a leader in the next decade, how do you think they’re going to spend their day?
Ajay: The leader of the future will probably spend a lot of their day building bridges and relationships with new, unconventional, or unexpected partners. Leaders will probably also have to make a dedicated daily investment in receiving and adjusting feedback and metrics about their operation in real-time.
Jacob: What do you think some of the greatest challenges will be for leaders of the future?
Ajay: Finding the courage to take thoughtful risks. The willingness to make a timely decision always depends on your ability to take a thoughtful risk.
Also avoiding the temptation of short-term gain over sustainable growth. As a leader, it is in your own self-interest to operate in a way that connects you with people and allows you to interact with a sense of decency that creates respect and belonging. You need a purpose for your company. If you’re only looking at profit maximization, you’re likely just ordering people around, not leading them.
Jacob: Are there any leaders today that you can point to that you think illustrate what you think leaders will be like in the future?
Ajay: The purest expressions of leadership are timeless. Some of the best qualities we can hope to find in future leaders can be found in leaders from the past, like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, who exemplified the premise that one person can make a difference.
Jacob: Internally, are you thinking about leadership of the future?
Ajay: MasterCard believes in being a force for good. We believe that creating inclusive opportunities for all is the way to do business. We embed those values in everything we do—they’re not just words on a poster. We have a culture built on purpose where we embrace diversity as the key driving innovation.
Jacob: How do you define leadership?
Ajay: A leader is a person who can think strategically and communicate that strategy simply and clearly. Set the direction, make sure it’s clear so people can understand it, and take them along on the journey. That is leadership.
Jacob: Have you thought about skills that you will need as a leader in the future?
Ajay: I often tell my people that what made them successful to this point may not be what allows them to take the next step. It wouldn’t be very authentic of me not to take my own advice. I believe curiosity is a must. You need to constantly focus on learning new skills to help you adapt to new challenges.
Jacob: Do you have any leadership hacks that have worked well for you?
Ajay: I don’t believe in tricks or shortcuts to good leadership. But I would offer this advice: Be urgent and be patient…and embrace both completely. A lot of people think that urgency and patience are contradictory. And they could not be more wrong. You need to be patient enough to listen to everybody, but yet, you must have a sense of urgency to take a decision and execute.
Jacob: What one moment or experience most shaped your approach to leadership?
Ajay: My father was among the first graduates of the military academy in independent India. He served 35 – plus years in the Indian Army and retired as a three – star general. He was strict about certain things: timing, keeping your word and caring about people. At one point, we lived in a huge house with a big compound in Hyderabad, and every day on the way out, he would talk to the army guard at the gate with the same interest in his eyes that I saw him talking to a visiting general from a different country, or his boss or somebody else who was a colleague of his. And I think that’s the single most important lesson I got from him. Yes, it’s important to be on time. Yes, it’s important to care about stuff. But it’s really important to connect to people at every level, because that’s where you’ll get the tips and information and knowledge from — and the ability to be a better person.
Ajay was one of the over 140 CEOs who I interviewed for my new book, The Future Leader which explores the most crucial skills and mindsets for future leaders.
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