Vivek Sunder is CEO of Cuemath, an online learning platform for math. Sunder leads Cuemath’s overall business and its global expansion.
Most CEOs and executives have risen through the ranks because they have high business and leadership acumen and are not afraid to take calculated risks. But the best leaders also have the ability to listen to their gut, trust their peers and employees and pay attention to the landscape.
We can get our MBAs, take business courses and read all the leadership books. But, in the end, most of what leaders learn is learned from life, not from books or classes alone. I have been lucky enough to live and lead business teams in both India and Africa—places with lush landscapes and awe-inspiring animals. Since 2015, I have spent hundreds of hours in jungles, savannahs, wildlife parks, game reserves and historical sites taking photos.
At first, wildlife photography was a simple curiosity, but along the way, as I learned how to be a better photographer, I realized that I was using lessons learned in the wild as part of my leadership style at work. Here are four things I have learned and translated into business leadership.
1. Seek out a mentor.
When beginning anything new, getting started can be a big hurdle. But identifying and connecting with others in a similar position can offer a template that makes it easier to move forward. Look for a mentor who has traveled the same path, and then lean on them for advice when you come up against challenges.
I was lucky to connect with and learn from renowned photographer Jayanth Sharma. When I was struggling to get one particular shot I wanted, Jayanth explained his approach to me. He talked about gathering meticulous knowledge of the terrain and documenting the behavior of the macaw he was tracking. For me, learning the backstory and hearing about the obstacles overcome helped me see the bigger picture and gave me perspective on my own approach.
2. Consider your focus.
One of my favorite pictures is a shot I took of a chase between a cheetah and a gazelle in the Masai Mara. The cheetah was running straight toward me full tilt (well over 60 mph!). It was impossible to get the cheetah in sharp focus at that speed. I quickly realized that I was focusing on the wrong thing—there was no way I would get the shot if I tried to focus on a moving object. Instead, I took a risk and focused the lens on a flower in an area of the savannah that I expected the cheetah to pass through during the chase. And I got the shot. It was part luck but also part skill. I had to anticipate the movement and focus on where my target was going to be.
In business, we need to do the same thing. Focusing on where we are today is good, but focusing on where we need to be is better. We have to anticipate where our industry is going and where our customers will be in a year, five years or 10 years. Only then can we properly plan and build the kind of business that is intuitive, breeds long-term loyalty and creates revenue for the life of the business. Don’t be short-sighted because if you are, you’ll never get the shot.
In my experience, successful leaders spend 70% of their time building effective teams and only 30% of their time directly managing the business. Leaders must think ahead, lay out future scenarios, and then focus on preparing both the teams and the business to capitalize on what’s to come.
3. Develop persistence and passion.
In order to be truly successful in photography, you must have passion and persistence. I have no problem jumping out of bed at 4:45 a.m. for a jungle safari in the biting cold because my passion for the job is the biggest motivator. But even the best equipment, training and strong camera calculations don’t guarantee success. The best photos require hours of watching, waiting and sitting quietly, taking in all the aspects of your environment while you wait for the right opportunity.
Great leaders have this same mindset. Whether it is a passion to help employees and coworkers or a passion to deliver your best offerings to customers, waking up with the motivation to do your best work is very important. In the long run, one can only maintain passions if the reason for doing the job is real joy.
Many of my business roles have been focused on driving top-and bottom-line growth, growing startups and expanding market share and margins in a challenging macroeconomic climate. Accomplishing these goals takes time, strong planning to stay the course, patience and persistence to not give up. If we make something 1% better every day for a year, we make it 37 times better for the whole 365 days (1.01^365 = 37.8).
4. Be flexible and agile.
To capture one spectacular shot, I went on three different safari trips during a year. I attempted more than 300 shots before I got the one-keeper shot. This is nature. Things happen. And they don’t happen how we expect them to. I knew that to get what I wanted, I would have to be ready to pivot, try and try again and consider new ideas and angles. If I had stayed in one place thinking that I was right the first time, I would have failed. But being open to new ideas was what made all the difference.
The future will be tough for leaders who think they have all the right answers or who are rigid in their thinking. Instead, leaders must be flexible, agile and open to new approaches. These issues will always arise, but they can be managed with the right staff, resources and business strategy, as well as an agile mindset. Even more important is that an agile leader sets an example for others in the organization to practice innovation, look for creative solutions and embrace change—all key elements of a strong and growing business.