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How To Lead Thousands Of Employees You’ve Never Met

Gajen Kandiah Gajen Kandiah
President, Hitachi Digital and Executive Chairman, Hitachi Digital Services

March 23, 2021

As CEO of Hitachi Vantara, Gajen helps solve clients’ problems by bringing to bear Hitachi’s unrivaled industrial expertise across sectors.

I joined Hitachi Vantara as CEO on July 13, 2020. Getting to know the company’s 10,000 employees — and our clients and partners — has been a privilege but also an unusual challenge. So far, I’ve had to do it without meeting my leadership team in person or visiting our headquarters. I have also yet to shake the hand of a single colleague!

I have led some incredible teams and businesses over the course of my career. However, nothing could have prepared me for becoming the leader of an evolving global digital business that is shaping the future of a global conglomerate parent company, all in the middle of a pandemic. In the spirit of helping other leaders learn from my experience, I’d like to share four insights gained in my first six months as a “virtual” CEO.

1. Rely More On Instincts And Intuition To Read And Shape Culture

What happens to culture when it is the product of individual home lives more than a collective work experience? Getting the feel of the organization and shaping its culture was one of the toughest challenges I faced. Without mingling with employees before a town hall or discussing issues over dinner after meetings ended, how could I gauge the vibe of the business?

I executed a huge listening tour to make up for the lack of in-person opportunities. I quickly provided feedback to my leadership, human resources, and employee communications teams, as I have in past roles and will continue to do so in the future, but my methods for the “listening” itself have diverged from any approach I’ve taken before.

There were many virtual meetings, but reading a room when the room is digital is tough! I would love to hear from fellow CEOs about their approaches to virtual leadership, but I turned to my instincts and intuition, garnering whatever insights I could from facial expressions and body language. I upped the frequency and number of interactions, too, spending less time on group calls and more time on a rapid succession of candid, open, individual conversations to quickly formulate a big picture. My dad taught me, “You have two ears and one mouth; use them in those proportions,” so I am listening more intently than ever. I am reaching deeper into the organization, too. I’ve found employees are yearning for those one-on-one moments. They want to be heard. To be noticed. To be recognized.

2. Ask Powerful Questions

Covid-19 has extended our working days but condensed our windows of opportunity. Dramatic shifts in buying behavior, business models and value chains mean CEOs have less time to adapt to ensure their businesses thrive. A set of consistent and powerful questions has been one of the most valuable tools I’ve used to accelerate my learning and formulate my strategy quickly.

  • What can we do better for our clients, especially now?
  • Which of our teams is taking a unique approach that is making our clients, colleagues or partners more successful?
  • Who are the role-model colleagues whose work we should showcase to the rest of the organization?

Questions like these are challenging and sometimes uncomfortable, but they can promote insightful conversations to help you become a better partner for your clients at a crucial time.

3. Get Outside, Even If You’re Staying In

We business travelers share a secret: Travel can be grueling, but it can also bring respite and inspiration. Long flights offer time to think. Visits to clients yield invaluable feedback account teams never hear. I was largely grounded this year, but I have never talked to so many clients. They are traveling less, too, so it became easier to get on their calendars.

I also spent dozens of hours with analysts and partners, which helped me build a deeper understanding of client needs and industry trends and validate strategic decisions. Equally important, despite being separated by screens, I got to personally know the people who influence the success of our business. Ask yourself: Do you feel closer or more removed from your customers than you did before the pandemic?

4. Put Aside Formality But Emphasize Accountability

Staring at flat screens all day seems like the perfect metaphor for the diminished importance of hierarchy in today’s workplace. There is no “back of the room” or “offline” backchannel on a videoconference. And there is no hiding when a family member bursts into a meeting unannounced or a pet joins you on a client call!

Having flexibility is key to embracing new working realities, especially when it comes to employees who are home schooling or caring for elders. “Work from anywhere” is our future. What we learn today will be the foundation of our new working models in the future.

My only caution to leaders is to make sure informality does not lead to a lack of accountability. We may be working in new ways, but it is as true today as it ever was that accountability is a cornerstone of shared success — between colleagues, clients and partners. I am trying harder than ever to ensure I do what I say I am going to do. My team deserves that, and it is the best way I’ve found to instill accountability in others.

Finally, to keep up your energy, I urge you to block your calendar for “me time.” For me, it’s the only way to ensure I get on my bike or get in a workout. I also block time for my friends and family “bubble.” That has been tremendously helpful in maintaining a level of sanity and calm.


As leaders, we need to make it easier for our staff to get meaningful breaks, too. You must lead by example and encourage your team and colleagues to take time to decompress. Hitachi Vantara just announced two more “self-care” days in 2021. We shut the whole company down to give everyone time to breathe.

We all continue to live, learn and work to find ways to drive success in this post-pandemic world. I would love to hear about your learnings and how we can apply them in our post-pandemic future of work.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.

Gajen Kandiah

Gajen Kandiah

Gajen leads orchestration of digital and domain expertise of group companies, including Hitachi Digital Services, GlobalLogic and Hitachi Vantara, where he was CEO. Prior to that, he spent 15 years driving growth at Cognizant, most recently as President, Digital Business.