Goodness. It’s a word you think about in connection with family life, or what an NGO does, but what does it have to do with the work of a business ops expert? The answer is everything, according to Kearney partner P.S. Subramaniam.
“My passion early on was deconstructing complex problems,” he says. “I was trying to create systems that could recommend solutions quickly. But when I got into consulting, I realized that what I was really trying to compute was what goodness looked like for a specific company.”
He realized that people are motivated by creating goodness in their own sphere of impact. That was true of his experience working in logistics at Nokia. “When I joined Nokia, it wasn’t to maximize shareholder value. Instead, the fundamental thing I liked about Nokia was being in the business of connecting people. Our problem set looked like this: there are 7 billion people in the world and very few of them could afford phones. So how do we make devices that allow people in sub-Saharan Africa to hold on to one for 15 years? How could we make a battery that allows the device to stay charged for more than a week? That was the mission. And if we connected 7 billion people with devices that served them, profits would come along the way.” In other words, he chased a mission of goodness, and the company benefited as a result.
“As companies and as people, we ought to care about a whole spectrum of things, not just shareholder value,” P.S. says, and he presents that perspective to his clients at Kearney. “If you’re very short-term focused, just trying to drive shareholder returns in the next quarter, you probably aren’t driving much goodness overall.” And, he points out, you’ll have a harder time building a motivated team around you. “People show up to work to make an impact, whether it’s on one other person or to change the world. You get people to swim in the same direction much faster if you talk about goodness. People don’t get as excited about increasing revenues, reducing costs, or improving profits.”
P.S. has applied his quest for goodness to consumer goods and technology industries. He describes helping one global beverage company solve questions of goodness in its business: how do we reduce the amount of artificial ingredients people consume? How do we reduce the amount of plastic waste that goes into the environment?
And supply chains are an important enabler in many of those areas of impact. “The common factor is the supply chain,” he says. “How do you make the supply chain better? What could goodness look like for the supply chain?”
Learning to think like an operator
P.S. started his early career in consulting at Kearney. After a few years he realized he needed to leave consulting to gain experience as an operator. Only then would he be able to truly understand his clients’ perspectives and pinpoint how to drive goodness for them.
He describes his aha moment: he was a manager at Kearney, sitting with a client pitching a project. “The client looked at me and he said, ‘You seem to talk a lot about supply chain. But have you ever actually managed any portion of a supply chain?’” P.S. admitted he hadn’t, and soon after took an opportunity to do just that for Nokia.
“My time at Nokia provided a very different perspective on how we do our work. When I came back to Kearney, I returned with the lens of an operator. I have less patience for theory now, and I’m more interested in the practical elements. What do clients really need to operationalize our recommendations? How can we help them find the goodness they’re looking for? That was a transformational pivot in my career. Now I think of myself as an operator first, then a solver of complex problems. I want to make sure our clients can actually use our work. I don’t want our recommendations to be the report that sits on the shelf.”
When he thinks about the projects that have been most meaningful in his career, it’s all about goodness. “Making an impact and doing work that people remember years later. That’s what makes this job fulfilling.”