An officer in every sense of the word, Captain Akhilesh Saxena led from the front. An alumnus of the National Defence Academy (NDA) and the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Captain Saxena quickly saw action in Kashmir and served alongside military legends such as Captain Vikram Batra (Param Vir Chakra) and Captain. Vijayant Thapar (Vir Chakra) during the Kargil war, where he served as an artillery officer attached to 2 Rajputana Rifles and Jammu Kashmir Rifles.
He showed extraordinary leadership abilities and grit when he was tasked to direct artillery fire on the treacherous Tololing peak, which proved to be the turning point of the conflict. After sustaining grievous injuries rendering him medically unfit for combat operations, he left the army to pursue a career in the Civvy Street. Like a soldier he marched on clearing his management exams and securing a seat in five of the top management institutions in the country, graduating with a gold medal from FMS, Delhi, all the while undergoing treatment for his injuries at an Army R&R Facility.
Today Captain Akhilesh Saxena has a successful corporate life, he is currently the Vice President and head of Global Service Delivery and Customer Operations, a profile in which he has received many awards and accolades. He has had numerous media appearances and is a motivational speaker, avid runner and was recognised during the Republic Day parade as a distinguished veteran beyond uniform. For this issue of Fauji magazine Captain Saxena will the answering commonly asked questions from serving personnel and SSC officers nearing the end of their service in uniform.
Tell us about your journey in both the army and in, corporate so far?
I got commissioned in 1995 and served both in CI ops and Kargil war. During the Kargil war, I took part in three attacks on the enemy. We got critical victory on Tololing with proper synchronization between Infantry and Artillery, which has changed the course of Kargil war. In my final assault, I was hit by enemy shelling and bullets and got severely injured, but we finally achieved victory. Due to permanent severe injuries, I moved on from the army to join a full-time MBA course at the Faculty of Management Studies (FMS) and was a gold medalist of the class in 2004.
Subsequently, joined Wipro and was awarded prestigious “Super Boss” award, which is given to the best manager, at Wipro twice in a row. Post that joined Bharti Airtel and received various top recognition for my work. In my quest of excellence, I have successfully completed certification like PMP, Six Sigma master black belt, Tata business excellence Model (Gold medal) etc. was given highest global Award ‘Proclub’ at Tata Communication three times. Also identified as Potential top talent based on consistently “best in class” performance and potential to take a top management position. Was sent to Michigan University for Tata Executive leadership course.
I was heading Global business processes and Transformational initiative at Tata Communications and recently took over a new global profile as Vice President – Global Service Delivery and customer operations for Tata Communications.
Having spent the better part of your youth in uniform training for a particular environment, how did you adapt to the change? What were the initial challenges and culture shock?
I have decided to prepare for the change in a structured way, through full-time MBA from FMS, Delhi. This has helped me in adapting to change quickly. Army works on hierarchy, but corporate is more knowledge-based. However, all officers can overcome these initial challenges with the right attitude.
Given the different skill sets required in the military and in the corporate world, how did you go about preparing yourself for the Civvy Street? What courses did you do? What made you select those courses? How did you prepare for them?
I wanted to join corporate only after acquiring right skill set, so decided to go for full-time MBA and also successfully completed many other courses which have helped me in acquiring the skills required for success in the corporate world.
How is corporate life different from the military? Does the command and control model work in corporate, or does it become a bad habit?
Leadership principles remain the same both in corporate and civil. However, you need domain knowledge also as you are entering in a new sector/field. So, we need to get operational skills from that sector also.
What parallels do you draw from both military and civil? What learnings from your time in the military were you able to apply in, corporate? What did you realise, were not suitable in the new environment?
As I have written earlier, leadership principles remain the same both in corporate and civil. The lessons learnt in the army are of vast use in organisational management. Analysing and improving business processes is not unlike the strategic planning required in a battle. It’s crucial to be familiar with the environment in which one is operating, as much in military operations as in business – understanding obstacles, opportunities, planning for eventualities and contingencies.
The environment of a battleground is like the market environment for a corporate entity; the enemy in a war is not unlike the competitor in business. Rock outcrops present obstacles but also offer shelter from enemy fire. There are mines along the way as well as chance factors. I apply many lessons from my army experience.
Leaders in the Armed Forces live and work alongside the jawans in every action, especially in the field. Generally, officers are placed in the centre of a troop for better communication and organisation, but in crucial actions, especially suicide missions as at Kargil, officers move to the front,” he says. There’s pragmatism in this as it serves as a motivational tool, but the underlying ethic is that leaders lead from the front.
One of the principals with the army is leading by example and having synchronicity in action. In capturing a peak or any post, we ‘fire and move’, so that some troops fire at the enemy while others move forward. Without harmonization in such coordinated activities, many lives can be – and are – lost, people wounded severely, and materials mislaid. There’s a valuable lesson in this for civilian and corporate life.”
One of the most significant achievements of my life is a success in bringing together the many strands of my life, learnings from my family, experience in the Indian Army and my current stint in the corporate sector: Having done all that, I have a sense that I can do well in anything! No one can take that faith from me.
What are the most commonly faced problems in corporate by defence personnel regardless of their choice of service or arms?
Most important is planning for transition. We defence personnel assume that we will be able to handle anything from day one without preparing for this in advance. We need to get operational as well as domain knowledge before we make this transition. There is a vast difference in culture, and we need to adopt it fast.
Enlighten the rest of the forces community on how you went from being an artillery officer and leading attacks in the Kargil war in your early twenties to becoming an FMS, Delhi gold medallist in your thirties?
Every success requires passion, determination, planning and execution. I think any defence personnel will be able to do this if one plans correctly for transition.
A lot of short service commissioned officers retire in their mid-thirties which is during the prime of one’s career and family pressures, what specific advice would you like to give to them?
Most of the defence officers do carry a lot of leadership experience, determination, discipline and right focus. However, they need to plan their transition based on their strength, sector/field they wish to join. We need to flexible in attitude and ready to adopt a new culture.
What is your mantra for success in the corporate arena?
Understand the business goals of the company and don’t be just limited to your own KRA/ functional objectives. Like in the army, collaboration and teamwork play an essential part. Keep acquiring new skills/competencies as technologies and business models are changing very fast.
Is there anything else you would like to tell your brothers in uniform?
Prepare for your transition in advance. Do a realistic assessment of your skills and competencies against job profile, identify gaps and work on them and do some industry specific or domain-specific small duration courses to build your domain knowledge. Last but not least, be flexible and adopt a new culture as you make the transition from defence to corporate. I will be happy to guide you or support you if anyone of you requires it.
Captain Akhilesh Saxena can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org