Varun Chandra is Managing Partner of global strategic advisory firm Hakluyt. In this conversation, he reflects on leading a partnership of experts across the world, what it means to be a trusted advisor, and how human nature inspires his view of the world.
“We often think of big, faceless organizations running the world, but it’s people. Everything we do flows from human relationships.”
—Varun Chandra, Managing Partner, Hakluyt
Jessica Pliska: Let’s start with the here and now. We’re around 18 months into your tenure as Managing Partner of Hakluyt. You could work in a million different global business contexts. Why this one?
Varun Chandra: I consider it a privilege to work every day with decision-makers on matters of global importance. We often think of big, faceless organizations running the world, but it’s people. Everything we do flows from human relationships. In the case of our work at Hakluyt, the people involved are CEOs and board members of major corporations, working on matters of great consequence, on a global scale. It’s tremendously fulfilling.
Pliska: How would you describe your work?
Chandra: Decisions made by CEOs, boards, and the world’s largest investors are high-stakes. For each decision, these people are awash with information―data from consultants and lawyers and bankers and advisors, from senior people who work for them, and from the 24/7 media. They desperately need a way to cut through all of that, to identify signals in all of the noise, and to focus on what really matters. We try to provide clarity, threading conversations that happen in different places across the globe, understanding their meaning, and putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to help leaders see the true picture.
Pliska: How do you do this?
Chandra: What does anyone do when they’re weighing an important opportunity? It’s the most natural thing in the world to call a handful of folks you know, trust, and respect, and say: “What do you think?” You do that on the basis of your trust in their judgment and their experience. That’s what we’re doing, but at a scale and a velocity, in virtually every sector and geography, that has real impact. We leverage a network of well-connected individuals who have their own trusted relationships around the world.
Pliska: What does that mean in practice? What kind of information can have that kind of impact?
Chanda: If you’re thinking of buying a company, it’s standard to have an army of advisors on how much to pay, the legal structure of the new entity, revenue implications, analysis on how the market is likely to grow, etc. But who matters on the company’s board and what are the directors thinking? What about the culture of the organization you’re looking to buy and integrate? What about the likely response from the key political and regulatory players who may make or break the deal? Are your competitors considering acquiring the same company? How might your shareholders react to the transaction? What could the deal do to your standing with key stakeholders? We help you understand the perspectives, motivations and intentions of the audiences you care most about―people who, under normal circumstances, it would be very hard to know what they think.
Pliska: In your career, you have served as a ‘trusted advisor’ in many different contexts for many different people. How would you define that term? What purpose does a ‘trusted advisor’ serve?
Chandra: It’s someone who’s independent, who has your interests at heart, who doesn’t have an agenda beyond serving as a conduit to whatever you need. It’s someone who’s not trying to sell you a million different things, who doesn’t operate with an ulterior motive, who is not engaging in a performance of some kind. And someone who will be willing to speak truth to power. That’s an unusual and powerful combination of attributes.
Pliska: How much did you plan your career path versus seize opportunities in front of you?
Chandra: 100% the latter. I only ever wanted to be somewhere I could make a difference. And there have been strokes of luck along the way. I was lucky to be born to parents who valued education. I was lucky to be interviewed at university by someone who very kindly looked past the fact that I hadn’t read the book I said I’d read. (And engaged me in a conversation about a book I had read.) I was lucky to stumble across the opportunity to work for a former prime minister and, later, to meet people by chance at a company called Hakluyt. All of these things have been about being in the right place at the right time, and people helping me along the way. You could argue that my only part in it was being willing to take opportunities when they came.
Pliska: You’ve been in this job for around 18 months now. What’s a core leadership lesson you’ve learned?
Chandra: The importance of genuinely empowering others to go and do. You may think there is a best way to do something and you might be right―and you might be wrong―but you can’t do everything. And that for me was the hardest adjustment. I have to set a direction and strategy, but then give people the freedom to develop their own ways to execute. Moreover, in a partnership with your peers, when you’re not atop a tree, the way to get things done is to have your colleagues trust your intent. If people believe that you’re trying with every fiber in your body to do what’s right for the company, then I think you get the support to make change. But you have to earn that trust. Every time you make a decision, you have to think about earning trust.
Pliska: What’s ahead for your leadership? What’s ahead for Hakluyt?
Chandra: As we speak, we’re working with 40% of the largest 100 companies in the world by market capitalization, nearly one-third of the 50 largest U.S. companies, and nearly 50% of the FTSE 100. We have a global footprint and, while we’ll grow, we won’t grow just for growth’s sake. I care much more about prioritizing the impact and quality of our work. For example, we recently opened an office in San Francisco, because of the huge opportunity we see on the West Coast with tech companies facing new challenges as they globalize and as they deal with regulators. We’re excited about the possibilities there, and in other markets across the world.
Pliska: You sit on the Board of Directors of Sesame Workshop, which produces Sesame Street, which you’ve said fulfills a lifelong dream. Why is that?
Chandra: I’m not sure there is anything more important than what they do for children around the world. Their goal is to provide access to high-quality preschool education for children who can’t otherwise access it, and they do this in an incredibly thoughtful and effective way. We know that the preschool stage of a child’s life has the single greatest impact on their future, and the reach of Sesame Workshop is tremendous―whether it’s with children in India, Afghanistan, or South Africa, or refugee children in Jordan, Iraq or Lebanon, or the Rohingya in Bangladesh. Being able to contribute to the future strategy and growth of the organization doing this noble work is a great privilege.
Pliska: We’re living in very complicated geopolitical times and you do your work in the midst of it. What gives you optimism?
Chandra: Human nature. Superficially, a conversation with a businessperson in Mumbai will look and sound different from one in Tokyo, which in turn will be a very different experience from one in New York. We tend to fixate on these differences. But, in my experience, once you’re through the formalities, human beings are similar the world over. Everyone wants to feel respected, to feel they have autonomy, and that they’ve had impact. Everyone wants to experience warmth and kindness, and to be treated decently. These things are universal, and they bring us together.