Renu Swarup is presently Secretary, Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India. Having served in Department of Biotechnology for over 29 years, she also holds the position of Chairperson, Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), a Public Sector Company incorporated by the Government to nurture and promote innovation research in the Biotech Enterprise with special focus on Start‐ups and SMEs. In a candid telephonic interview, she opens up about her thoughts on teamwork and leadership.
According to you, what are the key qualities of a leader?
A leader, as I look at it, has a very large vision and works with the team that collectively owns that larger vision to be able to reach the end goal. What is hugely important for a leader is to carry the team along with that vision, and then collectively be responsible for delivering it. It is important for a leader to communicate the vision very effectively to the whole team and take them forward.
True leadership is about looking at the larger picture rather than looking at smaller components of it, and seeing how you connect the dots to be able to paint that larger picture. It is not just working towards the vision but letting the team become a part of the vision so that they eventually own that responsibility. The onus lies on the leader to ensure that the team does not just blindly follow him/her but truly owns that vision and gets on to the path of becoming future leaders. It is the quality of the leader to let each person in the team become responsible for what he/she is taking forward.
After a PhD and a postdoc, instead of following a usual career path, you took on the role of a science manager at DBT. This was way back in the late ’80s and you have come a long way since then. When did you realize during this journey that you have leadership qualities in you and that you are on the path towards leadership?
I don’t think anyone at any given point of time gets a eureka moment and decides that “I am a leader!” Instead, it is how you progress in your career path – you start learning hands-on, understanding the best ways to take major initiatives and challenges forward, and building on those as you grow further.
There has been no single turning point in my life when I realized that I am on a path towards leadership.
I think everyone has the quality to be a leader – just that you have to look inside and be aware of those wonderful qualities in you to be able to take the path towards leadership. You don’t suddenly realize one day that you can be a leader; it has a lot to do with your own personality. What is key is to have confidence in yourself and conviction in what you’re doing.
There has been no single turning point in my life when I realized that I am on a path towards leadership. I have been a very outward-looking person from the very beginning and the credit goes to my own background. Being a defense child, I think I learnt about clear targets and deliverables very early in life from the environment where I was growing up. I also picked up quick decision-making abilities alongside clarity of my own thoughts.
I went to 9 – 10 schools over the years – that gave me an opportunity to meet new people and build new friendships and strong networks (these were essential for survival when you join a school midway through a session). I think these are all qualities that a leader needs and they came very early on during my foundation years.
I also give credit to my parents who gave me values. I give a lot of credit to my teachers who brought that clarity in thoughts and taught me how to articulate well. I was always fond of participating in various oratory competitions, mock parliaments, and theatres in school. I used to be the class and house monitor and that taught me many leadership skills without my knowledge. These activities helped me in bringing out my own personality traits. All of this happened very early, when I had no clue that I would occupy a leadership position later in life. But yes, the foundation was laid right during my school years.
During this entire journey, what do you consider your biggest successes? What have these taught you?
I would say that I was fortunate to be associated with a vast number of different activities from their conceptual stage till their delivery and making them operational. My success has been being able to achieve the completion of a large number of such major programs at DBT from end to end. BIRAC has been one of the most successful programs and has given me maximum pleasure, not only because it has been instrumental in bringing out excellent science, excellent human resource, excellent infrastructure, but has also helped create a new ecosystem in the country which everyone is talking about today.
For any vision to come to fruition it must have a solid road map and there has to be a lot of thought that has to go in the actual implementation strategy.
There have been many other missions apart from BIRAC that I have led with a lot of satisfaction, like DBT’s joint program with the space department where we did the entire biodiversity characterization, or on taking plant tissue culture from just the technique in the lab to actually planting material in the fields, certification of tissue culture systems for the first time in the country, or the whole bio-energy program, where we looked at not just the techniques in the laboratory but delivered these for commercialization. There are many such examples but BIRAC occupies a special place.
The major learning outcomes of all the different programs that I have led have been that as a leader you are responsible for delivering the vision that has been laid down. The journey towards that vision is never smooth -there are challenges, there are obstacles, there are hurdles, and you cannot be deterred by any of these. It’s not a failure ‑each hurdle is a lesson for you to innovate and go around, to come up with newer and better ways of tackling that hurdle. For any vision to come to fruition it must have a solid road map and there has to be a lot of thought that has to go in the actual implementation strategy. If you do not take care of this aspect, a vision always remains a vision.
What are some of the instances when you have faced failure? What have you learned from these?
As I said Smita, I don’t see anything as a failure. Everything is a challenge or a hurdle; it becomes a new learning for something better to be done next time. Something is a failure only if you give up on it. What is critical is to look at it and understand where things went wrong and how to do it better next time. Nothing is a failure; it is all part of the learning process.
I don’t see anything as a failure. Everything is a challenge or a hurdle; it becomes a new learning for something better to be done next time.
This is what science is all about as well – we are all scientists who do experiments but do we ever fail in an experiment? The experiment may go wrong and give an unexpected result but what is important is to learn from the result and take it up again in a different way that would lead towards success.
How much value do you give to human relationships as a leader?
I think human relations are key and critical for anything to move forward. And a leader is a leader only if he/she is conscious and sensitive to that component. Everything can go wrong if you do not handle human resources in the right manner — it’s all about creating and building happy teams. It is about energizing the team with what you do as a leader. It is about working and being inclusive; it is about connecting with all the stakeholders. All that happens only by working with individuals. Human relationship is hugely, hugely important and I, as a leader, give a lot of importance to this component because if the teams are happy, they deliver their best.
What do you do to keep your team and people at work happy?
As a leader, you have to let everyone be participative. And as I said earlier, a leader is not just someone who lays the vision. A leader has to make sure that the team takes responsibility for and ownership of what they’re doing because by doing so, they automatically contribute towards the bigger picture.
If they contribute and feel part of the process, they enjoy the work and deliver their 100%. It becomes their own target, not a target that has been given to them. The delivery becomes associated with the passion. The leader has to make sure to bring in that passion into the team. The leader has to give the team their space and let them grow as future leaders. So that is my strategy to keep my teams happy.
How do you deal with difficult situations or difficult people?
I think everyone has his/her own way of working and own views/perceptions. Once you’re working together, it is not about ‘difficult’ or ‘easy’. The gaps that come are mainly because of lack of communication.
Mostly, very difficult situations get resolved just because you actually sat across the table and discussed it.
I think most of the issues get resolved by talking to each other. So, communication is very important to me — that is really what is key and critical. It helps you understand the issues that the other person is facing. Mostly, very difficult situations get resolved just because you actually sat across the table and discussed it.
I have always been a firm believer of this, and I think wherever I have faced a difficult situation or difficult person, I have always found it much easier to have a chat with the person on the other end and discuss it openly. This is the best way to resolve it collectively and it has been worth it most of the times.
What role does an able leadership play in scientific/academic environments?
The leadership role is key and critical – the direction and the vision come from the leader. While the teams play a key role in the success of the institution but what transpires at the end is how the leader is going to work with the teams below him/her. Leadership has to give the teams their space and freedom to work; the teams are constantly watching the way the leader is behaving, making the leadership fully responsible. It is also the responsibility of the leadership to make sure that the organization meets the challenges, the goals, the vision, and the way leader does this is to carry the teams along and make them responsible. The leadership role is of utmost importance in determining the success of any scientific/academic environment.
How and where did you pick up the leadership traits/skills that were necessary to bring you where you are now?
As I said before, the foundation was laid during my school days. But each part of my journey so far has taught me a lot – I have met with some very interesting people, got opportunities to work with great leaders, watched how they work, and have picked up and imbibed components that were of interest to me. Also, two leaders never have identical styles of working. But there are certain qualities and traits of the leadership which you pick up and take forward.
Keeping the eye on the vision and taking the team towards that vision is the most important principle of leadership.
Also, each bit of learning does not necessarily come from other leaders — you always have to be open to learning. Many times when you are working in teams, you find certain very interesting ways in which things are done and that becomes a lesson for you that you wish to incorporate in your next activity.
Thus, I feel that there is no prescribed course for leadership — I think every leader finds his or her own space. You have to be open to pick up these traits from your seniors, from your peers or from your teams.
What, according to you, is the most important principle of leadership?
I won’t say there’s just one — basically, the leader has to be one who has complete conviction and a person who can carry the team along. You have to be a team person in order to succeed. The message that the leader has to give to the team is about the importance of hard work with integrity, with discipline, and making sure that no one loses sight of the larger picture for which everyone is moving forward. Keeping the eye on the vision and taking the team towards that vision is the most important principle of leadership.
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