Winning Strategies – Lessons for Talent Leaders from the IPL

The IPL is the theme of our April episode of Hireside Chats as the 16th season of the annual cricket festival unfolds, with a spectacular display of performance by the different teams. The episode features some interesting commonalities and analogies between cricket and talent acquisition. The conversation takes some interesting turns, from the evolution of the IPL to highlighting the power of fans towards an organization’s employer brand. Cricket fan or not, this episode has plenty of takeaways on leveraging best practices from sports and cricket to hire and build great teams.

To share his knowledge and wisdom on IPL and the lessons we can learn from it is Ram Ramanathan, Founder, and CEO of Fandom Sports & Entertainment, a super cool entertainment and sports firm based in Los Angeles. Ram was the first to launch the IPL 11 years ago in emerging markets outside India, and his company now represents some of the biggest names in the sports, music, and movie industry in North America and Asia. He started out as a technology specialist and business leader at Cognizant, where he led industry-defining engagements with marquee names in the show business. He then pivoted to the industry side leading digital business innovation at Warner Music Group, NewsCorp, and Amazon. All of that led him to his incredible journey as an entrepreneur.

  • Episode Highlights

    Huge cricket fans, Both SatJ and Ram, had a lot to discuss on the topic,

    • A big part of the IPL’s team successes rises from sourcing the right players, complete coordination, strong communication, relationship building, and of course, having the right leadership in the right roles. A closer look at the IPL reveals some of the best business lessons that leaders can leverage.
    • Our guest Ram compares the IPL to pulling off a great big Indian wedding. He says it is a robust ecosystem where everything from broadcast and digital marketing to event management and logistics comes together perfectly at the last minute.
    • IPL team building bears a striking resemblance to new-age corporate teams in more ways than one. In both, team dynamics keep changing, and for the teams to perform, it is essential to pick the right candidates with the right balance of skills and expertise with a good captain or leader to lead them to victory. Corporate success hinges on leadership and team spirit, both of which are abundantly on display in the IPL. There is plenty that talent leaders can learn from.
    • What stands out about the IPL is the fandom. The buzz that you see among the fans in India just cannot be manufactured. It’s organic, it’s inimitable, whether it’s in Chennai or Mumbai — it’s like a fan festival. This fandom, if created for an organization’s employer brand, can bring in top talent.

The conversation was lively, fun, and entertaining, with some personal revelations, analogies, and perspectives and a candid rapid fire. Our speaker is truly passionate about the sport and the topic of our episode, read the best parts of this conversation here …


Hireside Chats, Episode 4: The IPL Fandom: Game-Changing Lessons for Talent Leaders

SatJ: What do you think makes the IPL so special compared to all other professional leagues around the world?

Ram: That’s a great question, by the latest count, there are almost 9 or 10 different T20 leagues the world over. But the reason IPL really stands out is, number one – the fans! Because everything about the IPL is the fan frenzy, whether outside or inside the stadium, at the hotel, the practice sessions, the meet, and greets, etc. The buzz that you see among the fans in India, it just cannot be manufactured. It’s organic, it’s inimitable, whether it’s in Chennai or Mumbai — or wherever Chennai Super Kings goes, it’s like a fan festival. I think that’s really one thing that adds to the aura of the IPL. 

The other big thing is the supersized stage that the IPL provides because all the performances are amplified exponentially, and irrespective of how many leagues the players play in, they want to give their best and come out the best in the IPL. 

The most important thing is what the IPLs got nailed – the experience! It’s entertainment meets sports. It keeps people riveted to their seats. If I were to compare it to a major league baseball or an NFL game, people would watch the game for 15-20 minutes to get a hotdog and a beer, and when they come back to their seats they wouldn’t have missed much. But if you missed 20 minutes in an IPL game, there is a whole lot of action that you miss. 

The ability to keep viewers riveted to their seats is truly something special, And that’s what makes IPL the awesome spectacle that it has been— it’s made for the fans, by the fans that absolutely knocks it out of the park delivering a unique experience. 

SatJ: I totally agree with you. On to my next question, I know you’ve been involved in several behind-the-scenes IPL events. Give us a sneak preview of what it’s like being behind the scenes and pulling off such a big spectacle.

Ram: Okay, I’m not going to sugar-coat it. I have one word to describe it – jugaad. It’s season 16, and it still feels like season one. Every season is season one for the IPL. I call it organized chaos. Imagine a thousand-foot cruise ship that’s docked in the ocean for nine months of the year and is activated just in time for its trip and has to zip around at like a hundred knots, which is five times the speed that it can go around at.

And that’s basically what you have with the IPL—  get stuff done in four weeks that will normally take four months. Every season is like planning one big Indian wedding with a lot of last-minute suspense. It’s guaranteed that the bride and the groom will show up, which are the teams in this scenario. Everyone else burns the midnight oil, but come time for the ceremony, everyone shows up in their best attire, and it’s the best event that can be. And that’s the beauty of the IPL.

Here’s a personal experience, in 2014 BCCI decided with two weeks’ notice that the IPL will be played in UAE – because of the elections. And I was there in the afternoon before the first game in Abu Dhabi, and everything looked so underprepared. There were 3-4 guys lazily painting the sponsor logos on either side of the pitch, and then the boundary boards and all the electronic equipment were heaped up in the middle of the field, and there was not much activity happening. I left the stadium at like 6:00 PM thinking, how the hell the game would happen the next day. 

And lo behold, I showed up at 10:30 the next morning, and everything was in place on deck. The crowd was there, the teams were there, and the atmosphere was there.  And that’s what the IPL kind of brings to the table, a robust ecosystem. Everything from the broadcast, the digital marketing to the event management, logistics everything came through calmly at the last minute.  So if you’re involved in IPL behind the scenes, yes, your life expectancy will be shortened a little bit, both watching the game and being behind it, but it’s absolutely fascinating to see all of it come together – nimble, agile, and dare I say, just in time. 

SatJ: Wow, brilliant. I’m sure you’d agree with me now that you know IPL is not just about the two teams and the players, but it’s actually enabled careers for several people who are involved in the sport. So what I would like to ask you here is, if someone is considering a career, in general, in the sports, media, and entertainment industry, what would be your recommendation? Do you think it’s a good idea? 

Ram: As a 25-30-year-old, if I had the chance to be part of this industry and be part of this experience, I’d have given my right arm for it. Just given the number of opportunities that are there, just the sphere of influence, the exposure, the energy, and the empowerment that the youngsters these days get in being behind the IPL-it’s really inspiring to see. They are the engine that drives the industry, and it’s not just the IPL. It’s sports in general. Also, if you look at media and entertainment with broadcasting and event management and everything that’s going on, it’s youngsters that have really kind of stepped into it. They learn a lot on the job. They get the mentoring, they get the opportunities. So I think it really bodes well for up-and-coming talent.

SatJ: Before we jump onto some serious stuff, let me ask you some cricket/IPL trivia. 

What is your most memorable live IPL moment? 

Ram: Oh, this is probably going to get me in trouble with someone or the other. It was 2018, the first year that CSK was back from their hiatus, and it was the opening game of the IPL -the El Clásico, Chennai versus Mumbai. And incidentally, that was the year where we were bringing Rohit Sharma over to the US for a tour. So when I met him before the game, we talked about the tour and everything, and he said, “Hey, you should come for the game.” And I said, “Yeah, I am going to be there.” And he specifically said, “Well, just don’t come with this Chennai Super Kings jersey!”

I said, “Of course.” And on the day of the game, I had to go hunting for a team India jersey because that’s the most neutral thing that I could think of. And we headed over to the stadium, and my wife was accompanying me. It was her first IPL game, and she’s a huge Dhoni fan. And at Wankhede in the Garware Pavilion, there are four sections, and our seats were smack in the middle section, with the MI contingent to our right and the CSK contingent to our left. My wife is having the time of her life, thoroughly enjoying the game and the atmosphere. And here I was, sitting like an MCC member at the Lords, quietly applauding both teams, not able to show much emotion.

And towards the end of the game, it looked like MI was cruising to a win, and we decided to go check the food scene. And that’s when Bravo decided to go nuts. One of the best counter-attacking innings. I’ve never seen anybody play eight wickets down-backs against the wall. He was belting the ball all over the park, and that’s when all the decorum went out of the window, and the fan in me came out. To date, I think that’s one of the best live IPL experiences.

SatJ: That must have been something, I would’ve written off my entire property to you to basically take your spot there.

It’s time to get to know you a little better, Ram, you are doing some very interesting things in the media and entertainment space. Tell us a little bit about the industry, what you do, and how your companies, Fandom, Desh Vegas, and Ingene, came into being. 

Ram: Media & entertainment has always been close to my heart. I mean, I always saw myself as a creative guy, but then I started as a programmer and a coder, and I couldn’t wait to get out of it. So I picked the quickest path so that I could become an architect so could tell others how to code. As far as media & entertainment is concerned, I had the first opportunity at Cognizant and then spent the last 20 years in media & entertainment.  

What’s been appealing about the industry is it’s always been at the leading edge of digital transformation, whether direct to consumer, digital, or the experience. It’s been the lighthouse for all industry verticals, a place where technology drives innovation. Look at examples like Apple, what Apple did to disrupt the music industry with iTunes in 2004 was revolutionary. It was the first time we started talking about digital music, and in 2008, the music industry had taken a shellacking, and they had to adapt themselves to a completely new business model to adapt to the digital way of doing things. And then Netflix, with digital innovation and transformation, completely revolutionized the industry. Media and entertainment have always been at the leading edge of it. And the other thing is, all the innovations in media entertainment actually touch the end consumer, so you can actually see it come to life. So the industry constantly has to reinvent itself, and well, it’s sexy, too, right?  It’s like putting Friends and Big Bang Theory together. Beat that.

SatJ: I can see why you’re so passionate about the media and entertainment space. So what sparked your move to the entrepreneurial side Ram? And can you tie it back to what you would like talent and talent leaders to hear from your own personal experience? 

Ram: Early on at Cognizant, I was very fortunate to work with leaders who didn’t take a very templated approach to talent management and were willing to place potential over pedigree. Here I was, all four and a half years of experience coming out of the eBay engagement where I’d led the technical architecture and delivery, and I was looking to move on to the business side and Francisco D’Souza, who had just become the COO gave me the opportunity to come and work directly with him on a billion dollar initiative, reimagining the Cognizant internal strategies, operations, and business processes – basically a mission for to transform HR. Now, on paper, I didn’t have the qualifications to take on that assignment, but for him to actually place faith in my potential, gave me the empowerment, the space, and the mentoring needed for me to be successful, that was a huge boost of confidence for me, and honestly, the first seed of entrepreneurship that was planted in me.

Another was a conversation I had with Lakshmi, who was then the CEO. And his advice to me was very simple. He said you are the best judge of what you need to get into, but always ground it back to what your assessment of your own strengths and gaps are. I took that to heart, and it’s always served as a 360-degree perspective for me as I’ve undertaken any career moves and also my venturing into entrepreneurship.

 The other direct catalyst was the presidential key Executive MBA that I did at Pepperdine, a cohort-based program with an intimate group of people from a diverse set of industries. An eye-opener for me was the ability to be able to step back from my typical comfort zone and look at the big picture and connect the dots across industries. 

All of this culminated in what I was doing, launching a music business in India, in an emerging segment, in an emerging market. And it quickly became evident to me that there was a larger untapped potential in the international market for sports and entertainment properties. So I went the entrepreneurial route, and in six months, we built the first three IPL teams, and we were quickly onto the live experiences front. 

SatJ: It is truly powerful in terms of what the right ecosystem can do for you. How would that translate into your vision for the ventures that you’re running currently? 

Ram: The core themes for the ventures can be distilled down to the three E’s— which are Exclusive Content and Unique Experiences in Emerging Markets. And that’s how businesses are organized too. Fandom houses all of our content creation, licensing, and merchandising, including fandom, which is our flagship IPL merchandising storefront. It also houses grassroots sports development, whether it is cricket in North America or baseball coming into India. Desh Vegas houses all of our live experiences properties featuring the top sports and entertainment talent that we represent. The mantra is showcasing the best of young India to a global audience, so that includes the Destination Desh Vegas event experience that we are creating as well as similar experiences in other destinations. Ultimately, all of this needs to be brought together by a sound business and technology strategy, which is where Ingene comes in. And we turn the guts out on what we have been able to successfully do in terms of branding emerging markets and digital strategy and offering it as an advisory and as a service for global entertainment and sports brands which are looking to do the same.

SatJ: Sports has always been one of the purest forms of entertainment unscripted, exciting, and full of drama. Cricket transformed with T20, making it fast and even more exciting, creating a fandom like never before. As consumer demand evolved, so has the sport, and so have the fans. So Ram, let’s talk about the evolution of fan engagement  through the years. How has IPL addressed this evolving need of the fans?

Ram: I think IPL has done a great job of improving the live experience for fans. And then, from digital social media marketing, the offerings are a little too commoditized. It’s not quite commensurate with a 15 billion brand value property. You need to attract people based on brand value. 

Do you want to take guess of how many countries we’ve had IPL merchandise sales in?

SatJ: 5 or 6?

Ram: Can you go a little higher? 

SatJ: 15?

Ram: a little higher!

SatJ: 25? 50?

Ram: 62! 62 countries. 50 countries in year one, and then we added another 12 countries.

The IPL brand worldwide is much bigger than anybody can even imagine. We once had a family from the UK that bought five teams’ merchandise. We reached out to them and asked,  what’s going on? The customer was a lady shopping for herself and for her family. She was a Mumbai Indians fan, her husband was a Kolkata Riders fan, and her grandson was a Chennai Super Kings fan. They had like 5-6 different team fans within their own family. And she was like, when IPL happens, it’s an excuse for all of us to come together. For some good-spirited competition, we all root for different teams. 

Then we had a Hungarian customer, he had some friends who played cricket, and he wanted to blend in, so he adopted one of the IPL teams. Another customer, a girl from Utah, became an Ashwin fan when he was with Chennai Super Kings because one of her school classmates was an Indian girl who was rooting for Chennai Super Kings.

So you have all these different scenarios, all these different interconnections. We don’t even know the full extent of the reach of a brand like IPL. So I think the biggest risk that a brand can run is to short-sell itself by focusing too much on commodity products based on the narrow sliver of the fan base that it deals with.

SatJ: Now, let’s just shift gears a bit. I’m sure you’ll agree with me, Ram, that the IPL team-building exercise bears a striking resemblance to new-age corporate teams. In both, team dynamics keep changing, and for the teams to perform, it’s essential to pick the right candidates or the right players with the right balance of skills and expertise. You also need a good captain or a leader who can lead them to victory . This to me sounds a lot like what we do in talent acquisition and recruitment, doesn’t it? So let me just ask you a question here. What are some of the commonalities that you see between the IPL and the talent acquisition process?

Ram: There are a lot of parallels between how IPL and sports franchises and how talent acquisition teams function. It all starts with scouting which is the behind-the-scenes process and the most important step that happens long before the auction table shows up on TV screens. Scouts take a lot of factors into account, which goes into the capability fit because, ultimately, they want to have the right balance with people complimenting each other. You don’t want to have a homogenous team, you know where your strengths and gaps are and how much depth or bench strength that you need to build in. So that’s one very important input that goes into the scouting and the talent sourcing process. A big thing these days is IPL teams laying a lot of emphasis on team chemistry and team culture. Gone are the days when you have divas as individual contributors who can just walk through a team. Teams all want players to be able to buy into that team culture. Because in the IPL, the players are brought together and assembled just in time for the IPL, so there’s not enough time for team building. You need players who can readily fit into that team culture.

The one thing is the X factor. There are certain players that give you that consistent performance, and there are some that give you that X factor. The ability to change the game on its head, whether it’s a mystery spinner or that hard-hitting all-rounder. You want those X factors because if they win you those 1-2 games in a season, you’ve made your money’s worth.  

The role of a captain and the coach becomes really important. And the last thing is the consistency of expectations. You have to give the team enough chances to succeed. It’s very important for a leader to be able to go to talent and say, I’ve got your back. You have all these opportunities to show your full potential, and I’m going to back you up on it. And that way, the talent is not looking over his back all the time, and it gives them the freedom to experiment and the freedom to fail, but know that the leaders have their back. I think this is really important, and none of what I’ve talked about here is very different from what you typically have in any team in the industry.

SatJ:  What do you think is the secret sauce behind building the various IPL teams? And do you think they have a strategy that the talent leaders can learn from? 

Ram:  There’s quite a bit to take away from  how IPL franchises manage their talent that talent leaders can use in their own domain. If you were to go through the teams, you’d see a very quick pattern emerge. 

Let’s start with CSK. They’ve always relied on experience and chemistry and having that consistent core, you don’t see them chopping and changing the team too much. They rely more on experience. We talked about how the teams come together just in time for a two-month tournament. So people need to understand and adapt to their roles and know their swim lanes and be able to adapt in match situations. So their strategy has been to invest in experienced players even if they’re going to skew older ones. Dhoni is a captain who can actually manage all the egos and get everyone to buy into that team culture. And that’s what brings that team together. You’ll see them on the field, you see them harmonious. You don’t see any drama. Even if someone has to sit out for a couple of games, they take it in their stride. And that’s worked really well for CSK. 

And then RCB is enigmatic because, for the longest time, they went for flair. They want to make a splash with individual contributors and big-name players who don’t gel well with the team. They are changing their approach to match CSK in terms of getting these more seasoned players, who’ve got established performances, to come together as a team and enjoy playing as a team. Faf Du Plessis, the new captain, is much like Dhoni, and RCB is turning a corner, making them a dangerous competition.

MI is the team that is 50-50 in terms of relying on a solid core and investing in youth with the potential to build a team for the long run, a completely different strategy from CSK.

KKR and RR go for consistency of performance. They rely more on uncapped players who have the potential, and they find a way to take them to their peak potential. And they’ve built their team and performance around it, and I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done. A lot of the players on this team are big splash players, they give you consistent performance, higher value, and return on the investment. 

Gujarat Titans took on challenges, and the foresight to be able to pick Hardik Pandya as the captain when he was at the crossroads of his career, transformed his career and the team’s fortune. They were very deliberate in the whole squad that they picked, starting all the way from the coach to the captain to the players. They were very brand-focused, very team culture-focused. 

So many lessons for us to learn from the IPL, there’s no right or wrong answer, but what you see clearly emerges is a pattern where teams play to their strengths and their core values. And the franchises play to their strengths and their core values, and they build their teams around it. And that’s really something for us to think about in terms of how we do it in our own domains.

SatJ: I didn’t realize there was so much science behind putting together teams, and there was a clear strategy behind every single IPL team’s constitution. Thank you very much for highlighting that. A lot of takeaways for talent leaders from the way IPL teams are constituted, and I think you articulated that brilliantly. 

Now let’s talk a little bit about creating raving fans of one’s employer brand. When you think of fandom, a few things come to my mind— loyalty, passion, or even devotion. Basically a diehard fan’s relationship with the sport and the team, not just on the match day but every single day. And what happens if we were to take the same principle and use it to attract the best talent from the market?

Don’t you think organizations can greatly benefit from creating this kind of fandom for their brand for deep and lasting engagement? What are your thoughts on this, Ram, and what can fans of the employer brand or brand ambassadors do for an organization’s success?

Ram: I think it ultimately comes down to authenticity and alignment with the organization’s culture. I mean, you can have brand ambassadors, but the brand ambassadors need to exemplify what your culture is and what the brand image that you want to convey. Otherwise, it’s going to be kind of a tactical, short-term thing, right?

So a lot of times, I think the fans automatically gravitate towards the organic fan base that you have is always the fan base that buys into the team fabric, what the franchise stands for. It’s not just the one player, it’s not just the one season, but there’s something far more native than that, that the fans buy into.

A fan 360-degree view is really crucial, having some data and analytics around the fans, the engagements, etc., is vital. 

SatJ: Organizations can certainly create these diehard fans for the employer brand. Now we all know that IPL witnessed 400 billion viewing minutes during its last edition, which I presume was the largest viewership for an Indian sports tournament. Isn’t that something remarkable? And fandom for a company can evoke a sense of belonging to a community, and building these fan communities can greatly benefit in creating talent pipelines for organizations. So here is an interesting thought: we should transition from advertising jobs to everyone and instead focus on building a community of talent who are our followers, fans, and advocates.

Imagine a community of top talent fans that would be more than happy about being offered the opportunity to work for your organization and those who would advocate for your company amongst their peers. That would be an ideal situation to be in. 

Before we wrap it up,  I’ll be failing my duty if I don’t put you on the spot and ask you some very tough and pointed questions. Consider this a rapid-fire round. So according to you, who is the greatest cricketer of all time?

Ram: Kapil Dev!

SatJ: Who do you think is the greatest Indian captain of all time? 

Ram: Dhoni. 

SatJ: If you had to pick the greatest captain to lead your IPL team between Kapil Dev and Dhoni, whom would you pick and why? 

Ram: Dhoni, I think he’s taken captaincy to an art unlike anyone else before him. I still think that Kapil Dev is the greatest Indian cricketer, but Dhoni has been the best captain that India’s had.

SatJ: Who are you planning to place your bet on for IPL 2023? 

Ram: We are 3 games into the season. I would say Rajasthan, Chennai, Gujarat, and I think the fourth spot could be between Lucknow and Bangalore. 

 SatJ: Let’s wait for another month to figure out if you were right there, Ram.

This exciting and fun episode leaves us with some very important takeaways from sports and fandom on how culture and leadership are key in shaping the industry.

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