Interview with Sunil Kumar

6 May 2011

Sunil Kumar is the immediate past Chairman of the America International Group, and President and Chief Executive Officer of International Specialty Holdings Inc, a $1.6bn specialty chemicals manufacturer. International Specialty Products Inc (ISP) is a leading global supplier of specialty chemicals and performance-enhancing products for a wide variety of personal care, pharmaceutical, performance, beverage, and industrial applications. ISP produces more than 500 specialty chemicals, which it markets and sells worldwide.

What are the most important things you've learned in your career so far?
Optimism prevails over pessimism in macro as well as micro issues. Pessimistic world views, like those held by The 'Club of Rome' or Malthusian disaster predictions, which stated that exponential growth would eventually lead to economic and environmental collapse, drag individuals and organisations down. In contrast, the optimism and confidence in the future of great leaders, like Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln, can lift large groups of people to achieve big things. Be optimistic, work hard, but equally importantly, work on things that matter. Separate the urgent from the important. The latter will carry you far.

How have you set goals for yourself and managed to achieve them?
I manage my goals by sorting them into three categories:

  • Strategic goals: These are very important, but rarely urgent. They have profound impact and so need thought and analysis within a positive, optimistic framework.
  • Management objectives: These are related to the processes of the business and ensuring the right people are in place to staff the organisation with skills, energy, and systems to achieve.
  • Operating targets: These are near-term, financial, quantifiable improvements (even things like quality, and customer satisfaction can be measured and included).

Balance between the three sets of objectives is important. I also expect all managers to have their own goals, which should be clear and indexed to the organisation's purpose and aspirations.

What is your leadership style? How do you keep a team engaged and motivated?
I engage and motivate people by encouraging them to accept both personal and business risks. I allow individuals as much work and responsibility as they ask for, sometimes right away. Be hard on the issues, but soft on the people. Problems are usually because of management inadequacies, rarely due to people 'goofing off.'

What has been your proudest accomplishment in your work for the America International Group?
The most exciting development for me has been the SCI Scholar Program. This year we have 28 top quality students placed in prestigious summer internships, and have honoured 28 high school teachers for having inspired these students. I feel honoured for having had the opportunity to design the programme as Vice Chairman and finally launch this programme as Chairman of the SCI America Group.

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