Nokia’s President and CEO Rajeev Suri, who graduated from Manipal University in 1989, was awarded a special doctorate at the university's 23th convocation. Feeling nostalgic on the campus on his return after 27 years, Suri spent quality time with the students, sharing with them his mantra for success. Sangeeta Yadav reports from Manipal
You should always take the best from the past, leave the worst back there and go forward into the future,” says Rajeev Suri, CEO, Nokia, quoting Nobel laureate Bob Dylan.
Addressing the 3000 students and their parents at his alma mater’s 23rd convocation ceremony, Suri said: “It is nostalgic to be back and a great honour to be awarded a doctorate. I got an opportunity to learn from some of the best professors in the world, like Dr TGS Murthy, Prof K Kamlaksha, Dr Harishchandra Hebbar, Dr SJ Bhat and Dr Niranjan UC. The lessons from Manipal went well beyond the classroom,” he added.
The chief guest on the first day of the convocation was Dr Anil Dattatraya Sahasrabudhe, chairman, All India Council for Technical Education, Delhi. Over a thousand students received their degrees by the dignitaries including president and chancellor of Manipal University, Dr Ramdas M Pai; Pro chancellor Dr HS Ballal; vice chancellor Dr H Vinod Bhat; pro vice chancellors Dr Abdul Razzak and Dr V Surendra Shetty and registrar Dr Narayana Sabhahit.
Opened by TMA Pai in 1953 as India’s first private medical campus, the Manipal University has now expanded to 19 colleges and eight departments and has given notable alumni like Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft; Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, Malaysian astronaut & Michellin starred celebrity chef Vikas Khanna, to name a few.
Suri graduated from the Manipal Institute of Technology in 1989. Born in Delhi and brought up in Kuwait till 1985, Suri came to India for his graduation. “In Class XI, I had decided to pursue my Engineering degree from the Manipal Institute of Technology. It is a place of diverse ideas, experiences, people and much more. Those days, I was an introvert and talked minimally. I was short and used to carry a briefcase to school. I was so nervous that my father decided to give me company at Manipal for two days but had to stay back for two weeks,” he recalls.
A hosteller, Suri made great friends who helped each other better themselves. “Having lived with seven friends in D-16 in my third and fourth years, it was like my second family. A place of early lessons in leadership, being founder and secretary of our private canteen Sheetal and supporting friends in student elections, all this helped me to become who I am today. Great roommates make you a better person,” he said.
As a student, Suri kept a balance in studies and leisure and often visited his favourite hang-outs. “It was an extraordinary mix of hard work, all-day studies in the reference library during exam time, all-nighters in the 5th block, pushing to graduation with distinction on one hand and evenings at Big Daddy on the other. Then there were those lovely walks at Sunset Point, weekend movies at Diana’s, filter coffee at Shanty’s and having a midwork midnight bun masala at the carts at Tiger Circle,” Suri recalled.
After passing out of college, Suri was clueless about what to do next. “like many others, I too wondered what to do after graduation. I used to have a nagging feeling that no one would hire me. And if somebody did, why would he pay me because I just had a degree with no experience,” he said.
His dream to do something big started shaping up when his wife Nina pushed him to do better. “I always wanted to do something big and everyone must too. I was always ambitious and a dreamer but I didn’t dream of becoming a CEO of large multinational company. At the age of 25, I put some life goals in my plan and said this is what I should be able to do within that time,” Suri said.
Throughout his journey, Suri encountered tough leaders under whom he learnt managerial and leadership skills. “In your career, you find leaders who are tough to work with. But you will always learn, be it from a good boss or bad boss. When I was in Nigeria, I had a difficult boss, but I learnt things from him that if you believe in something you should fight really hard for it and go up the hierarchy to get that done. I learnt from another boss how to develop values and cultures that are aligned to the broader mindset and goals of the company,” he said.
Suri switched to management and changed many job profiles. “If you stay in a profile for a very long time, you will start getting bored and the excitement to innovate will fizzle out. So I switched from one profile to another. From electronics to management and then to sales, product designing and much more. It made me learn and understand how every department works. I became more decisive and inquisitive. Switching profiles was a big risk but I decided to go out of my comfort zone and learn,” he recalled.
As the UN’s Broadband Commissioner, Suri knew that the telecom industry would grow by leaps and bounds. “The UN has 17 sustainable development goals for the world and society. Some of them aim to eliminate poverty and give better education and health care. Technology is the centre of all that. Everytime a broadband connection grows in a country, you get higher GDP growth, better education and healthcare. How do we make sure that we continue to increase the benefits with broadband but also make technology more humanIJ For me, it’s all about using technology to better human potential and experiences,” Suri said.
Talking about the next generation revolution in mobile networks, he said: “In the coming years, the world will become more connected. Connections will be counted in tens of billions and rise to 100 billion by 2025. Most of these new connections will come from devices, machines, sensors and robotics. What’s important is how these connections will make lives better and help innovation. If you follow the mobile industry, we are moving from 4G to 5G technology in mobile phones which will drive our cars, remote connect in healthcare and boost industrial Internet. All this will help people to shrug mundane tasks and focus on more important matters,” Suri said.
How to be CEO
In today’s uncertain times, what makes an employee and his organisation stronger is the work culture. Here are a few work ethics that Suri adopted as CEO:
Encourage people to dream
I used to work for a person called Simon who was Nokia’s country manager for India in 2000. When the global CEO of Nokia came to India, he said ‘one day Rajeev Suri will be in my place.’ This was 16 years ago. That was not my dream back then. But this man had a bigger dream for me. He dreamt something beyond my wildest expectations when I was just a middle management guy. He saw a spark in me and you should do the same. When you become a leader, the biggest joy is to develop other people to achieve their wildest dreams and potential.
Risk is ok, it makes you nervous but you also improve while devising ways to tackle the risks. It requires a lot of guts, conviction and analytics.
You need to encourage innovation from the top. Nokia is a 151-year-old company which started off with verticals like paper, rubber boots, TV and mobile phones. You will continue to see innovation. For this, you need your employees to embrace change. One of the things I take pride in is that people at Nokia have continuously adapted to change. We have changed so many times that people are not afraid of uncertainty anymore.
Your culture should have tolerance for failure. One should accept failures because you learn through your mistakes. If the company doesn’t take risks and doesn’t accept failures, then you can’t innovate. There are parts of my company that do research and development and I want to develop a Fail Fast Culture. I want them to fail quickly on some projects and then achieve great success eventually. We talk about it every weekend and we should agree to celebrate failure every now and then.
One of the most important things that leaders require is strong emotional intelligence. leadership is about being understanding, developing a connection with people and being able to guide and make the right decisions. All small experiences that we have in our daily life are the foundation of developing a leader in you.
Ask the right questions
Whenever we have review meetings, I emphasise on asking the right searching question. You don’t learn by always giving your answers but by asking searching questions. For me, asking questions is the best way to learn and that’s how I got my financial orientation.
A company is all about creating shareholder value, especially a public company. For me, it was about learning from my colleague. As an entrepreneur, you need to understand the aspirations at the top-line and bottom-line of the company.
KEEP IN MIND
Rajeev Suri shares a few life-long lessons which he learnt in Manipal University that have served him well to this day
Choose curiosity over clarity
In time, your marks and grades lose relevance. In time, many things that you learned during your graduation days will fade into the recesses of your mind. As the years pass by, I find that the recesses of my mind have their own recesses. But, one thing I learned at Manipal is how to be a lifelong learner. I hope you commit to the same. Never stop. Stay curious. Stay engaged. Question. learn.
Choose diversity over uniformity
One of the many things I learnt is how all the wonderful differences of our world make us a richer and better person, how embracing diversity and being inclusive makes us stronger, how walls between us diminish us all.
Choose passion over discipline
In my world of big business, discipline matters. It makes a difference between average and good results. But, getting stellar requires more and that ‘more’ is passion. People, who care and are committed, go the extra mile. People, who believe in what they do, always want to do better. Those are the people who make a difference. You should be one of them.
Choose honour over success
As you proceed in life, you will see people who look like winners, but aren’t. Do not ever mistake the trappings of success for the real thing. Doping athletes, business people who bribe and cheat, individuals who lie and abuse, fancy cars, Olympic Gold medals, strong business performance — none of it means anything if acquired the wrong way. Never succumb to temptation. It never lasts.
Choose humanity over technology
A simple truth: Technology by itself is meaningless. Technology that serves people is what matters. The connectivity that we have today is extraordinary as it brings people together. But, it will get even better. In the coming years, technology will automate and simplify mundane tasks. By doing so, it will give you the most precious resource, i.e. the gift of time. Use that time wisely. Not for another hour in the office, or another scan of social media, but to talk to the person next to you, to share your experiences and help others. To be human and to be part of humanity is the true promise.
Choose a balanced life
Having a work-life balance is extremely important. One should be passionate about work but not to the exclusion of the fullness of a life well lived. Socialise, have quality time with friends and family and do things which make you happy.