Throughout my career, I’ve been with the start-ups, joined as a founding member, or at the very initial stages, when the go-to-market strategies are still formulating. In the early phases of the product development life-cycle, right from conceptualization to the realization, it was possible to see how the products we build work in the real world and create a positive impact on human lives. This has allowed me to play a role in building these organizations, shaping the culture, and, to a great extent, setting the mission and values of the companies.
Through this journey, I have seen different styles of leadership, including colleagues embarking on careers that demand building successful teams and becoming outstanding leaders. There is no set job description for a perfect leader, and there is no one leader in an organization. Multiple leaders across different functions and disciplines make up the foundation of a company. We cannot hire a leader; we can spot the right leader from the herd, without any title. Do they necessarily be in the apex in an organogram? Not at all.
Being in a position of guiding a group of people, one needs to be ready to wear multiple hats across different functions of the organization. Some hard skills are non-negotiable in a company or for a specific role; for e.g., a data scientist should be extraordinary at math, a software developer should be able to handle codes in different languages, or within that, there is various expertise. Anyone in the leadership, or rather in a guiding role, should have a reasonable understanding of what goes into each function, what works and what doesn’t, to make sound decisions.
You need to be positive, and sometimes aggressive, to drive the organization to the next level. Understanding the strengths of every individual in the team, and being able to take risks or hard calls, when you firmly believe something is better for the organization, is a tough skill. One should build a team that can disagree with you, if need be, to always put the company’s interest above yours.
Diversity and leadership
Once I came across an interesting marketing ad by a company called Mindspace on gender biases. People were given a simple riddle to solve and identify the CEO among the mentioned characters in the story. All participants failed to answer as they could only identify the CEO with a male, whereas the CEO was a woman. Often, we associate certain positions with a particular gender. CEOs, CTOs, Commercial Heads, and COOs are often identified as male vs. People’s Officer and Marketing Heads are identified as women. Fundamentally, we should stop the divide between men, women, or other gender leaders and avoid debates on who is a better leader. These are circumstantial – there are certain traits a gender has, which could work well in some situations and help them make better decisions.
Research1 shows that organisations with gender diversity turn out to be much more productive, innovative and often linked to their market value. A diverse organisation has the advantage of gathering multiple perspectives in various aspects of a business. However, there are some caveats – while countries that have a normalised gender diversity have shown positive outcomes, those with statutory obligations have shown little to null effect, yet the overall performance at a country or industry level is at the forefront. I have also seen a trend in such settings (though my sample size is a few) where women across functions have done some phenomenal work, yet they don’t speak up on their achievements within or outside their organisation. They like to concentrate on getting it done perfectly and stay behind the scenes. They focus on ‘signal over noise’!
We often see organizations struggling to find positions for women to adjust for the skewed ratios. Instead of promotion into such roles, ‘because they are women’, it is best to give equal opportunities for all genders with no bias, including any cognitive biases. It is good to see that many companies, market leaders or otherwise, are setting an example by embracing all genders and diversity inclusiveness. Influential leaders create a culture with constant challenges and growth for the team and align everyone to the larger goal of the company. They make the environment conducive for diversity inclusion – and diversity inclusion shall not just mean different genders or races, but unique skill sets, experiences, thoughts, and ideas that everyone can bring to the table. A less known or discussed factor that influences imbalance in diversity inclusion is external – partners, clients, and anyone the organisation interacts with.
Any gender in the leadership role needs to be extremely open to free-flowing communication, and for being able to give and take feedback for improvement. I have had personal experiences, where colleagues with far less experience or different skill-sets have challenged my decisions. These suggestions have been thought-provoking and allowed me to change my decisions or perspectives – these are great learnings.
Imparting a culture where ideas are welcome and give ownership to people is more important. So, if we focus on this, an organization will naturally have a leadership that is strong and effective. It is also the responsibility of organisations to facilitate an environment conducive to all genders and diversities – equitable pay, opportunities, encouragement, and positions.
Leaders in the technology space.
Leaders also influence the changes and mindset in a market or an ecosystem. If we take the healthcare context, for example, the pandemic was an eye-opener to how the health systems need further strengthening. Even in countries, one would have otherwise thought to have the best infrastructure to support serious illnesses, went through a phase where they had to request support from other countries. Leadership at every level was challenged in all possible ways.
The leaders in the technology space, specifically in Artificial Intelligence (AI), in some ways, tried to create a drift of potential possibilities of quickly strengthening health systems through technology. They have made significant progress in showing the endless possibilities of AI and its quick turnaround in terms of development. I believe, the role of AI is designed to augment humans. In the present scenario, where any number of helping hands is falling short, AI can help to make powerful decisions and reduce workload. That is not only for healthcare but also in other domains and industries.
To cite the example of the company where I work, as the pandemic hit several countries, we had repurposed our existing AI-based chest X-ray interpretation software to identify findings that are suggestive of COVID-19 for triage and prioritisation of RT PCR tests, especially among the asymptomatic population. The solution was widely accepted among government, non-governmental and private sector organisations, as there were huge constraints in the availability of test kits and hospital beds with ICU. As an AI-based company, we had to conceptualise, train and deliver quickly on a solution that could bring about a change in the existing healthcare ecosystem.
We also had to keep iterating with a quick turn-around time to cope with the fast-moving trends of COVID-19. Many companies like ours deployed AI and digital health innovations during this time that supported screening, diagnosis, care management as well as supporting frontline healthcare workers. The situation and the health systems were vulnerable to the pandemic attack, and the major focus was on saving lives. We had to be very careful with every step that we had taken towards deploying our solutions across the world. At the same time, we had to ensure patient data privacy and protection, the accuracy of the solution and the potential implications of results generated by the products, how they were used on the ground, and the alignment with the recommendations.
As an innovator in healthcare, leaders in this space should feel responsible for their products and their effects on mankind – positive or negative. If there is a remote chance of a negative outcome, they shouldn’t be taking the risk to proceed. The role of leaders here is to evaluate and execute the positive impact of their solutions, while carefully assessing the repercussions of every minute step taken.
Companies working in AI need to be inventive at this point, at the same time adaptable with their products or solutions, and extend that support to humankind. Keeping in mind, for any experiment, roll-out needs to be done ethically by being compassionate, and deploy models and solutions where the benefits outweigh the risks.
About the author: Reshma Suresh heads Operations at Qure.ai and has experience in building and scaling product innovations in healthcare. She focuses on strategic operations and is passionate about new technologies and last mile healthcare delivery. Know more about her by clicking on the author link.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent that of her employer.
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Reshma Suresh heads Operations at Qure.ai and has several years of experience in building and scaling product innovations in healthcare. She focuses on strategic operations and is passionate about new technologies and last-mile healthcare delivery. With a background in engineering as well as management, she works closely with clients and product specialists to convert products to meaningful solutions.
Prior to joining Qure, she was the founding member at a health tech start-up building point of care diagnostics for maternal and child health, chronic kidney diseases, and pathology. She has diverse experience working with public health organisations, pharmaceuticals, and KOLs heralding product launches. Reshma believes that true impact can stem only from a patient-centric healthcare approach.