A mischievous child who did nothing much but plays and had fun in the most part of his school life, went onto attend a few lectures at Harvard Business School along with Mr. Anand Mahindra, Chairman of the USD 20.7 billion Mahindra Group. The kid in question is Neeraj Balani, Managing Director of International SOS India. If Neeraj ever tries to explain his life by plotting a line graph, it will always show an upward trend. After completing Chemical Engineering from the University of Bombay, Neeraj took an MBA from the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business in Finance, Marketing and Operation. Neeraj then started his career as a salesperson and went on to become the Vice-President of Sales and Business Development at Mahindra Logistic Limited, before joining International SOS as its Managing Director.
A charismatic leader whose career spans over two decades in sales and business management, Neeraj’s journey in the realm of business is a lesson for aspiring professionals. “I started my career as a salesperson, and I can tell you successful salespeople are difficult people to give lessons to! But my respects to my managers during my career who always held my hand when I stumbled and made me realise that it takes compassion and not aggression to be a true leader,” says Neeraj. Mistakes are essential lessons of any successful career, provided you have the right managers who help you learn from mistakes. Neeraj adds, “My career too has seen me stumble many times, but I was fortunate to work with managers who would help point out the mistake and make me learn from it, rather than reprimand me for the same. I think this aspect of managing people from the front was the biggest lesson for me.”
Neeraj has been influenced by many people, from his family, friends and colleagues. “Mr. Kiran Bhagwanani at HCL Technologies taught me the ropes of a sales manager with the focus on numbers. Mr. Kishor Chitale at Capgemini taught me that being a leader is all about building and aligning teams and having fun at work. At Mahindra Logistics I understood the importance of an organization’s objectives, from our CEO Mr. Phil Sarkari and the importance of an organization which make its people and its ecosystem rise,” explains Neeraj. Today, Neeraj also remembers the experiences of holistic thinking, like how leaders learn from all aspects of life, including arts, at the Mahindra Universe program at the Harvard Business School. He pinpoints, “Such lessons go a long way in explaining what leadership is and how do you build the leaders of tomorrow.”
Neeraj joined International SOS around two years ago from Mahindra Logistics. Neeraj shares, “I would say that my journey as a professional and a learner continued well from Mahindra to International SOS. My organisation gives me the freedom to perform and ensures that we work as a team guided by our values of Passion, Expertise, Respect and Care.” Neeraj has always believed that one needs to enjoy work, have fun to deliver his best. International SOS, which is in the business of saving lives, when people are faced with medical and security situations, provides him with a platform to enjoy what he is doing. “Every day, I see my team involved in aiding people facing medical and security-related concerns and it’s full-filling to see that we can make a difference. I have delivered customer experience in many organisations such as HCL Technologies, Capgemini and Mahindra and garnered customer appreciation for making a difference – but here at International SOS, we literally garner blessings,” says Neeraj.
Neeraj’s view of leadership is all about getting the right people together and creating a platform for them to deliver. He elaborates, “It is all about building a team and aligning them to victory, by achieving KPI’s every quarter and recognizing the effort put in by the team and their families. Leadership is also about keeping a close watch on the environment and the future trend and setting new courses for performance.” At International SOS, Neeraj reaches out to the different teams and talk to them about delivering customer experience in every transaction they handle. “It is important for every service organization to understand and value the customer experience it promises and delivers,” affirms Neeraj.
As a leader, Neeraj is exceptionally proud to see his team members doing well across the IT and logistics industry. He says, “It is boundless joy and a personal milestone when I get a “thank you’ from them when they achieve a promotion or a new path.” On the other side, Neeraj has achieved many milestones as a business professional. Neeraj recalls, “Contribute as the head of Customer Experience (Sales, Solution Design and Implementation) for all the efforts the team put in to get Mahindra Logistics listed on the BSE in 2017 gave me a huge sense of achievement.”
Neeraj has also been successful in putting International SOS, a global leader in Medical and Security services, at the forefront in India. “We set out to achieve a leadership position in the Indian market as a premium service provider and a thought leader in FY 2019/20 by seeking to increase our media exposure and increasing our advisory services,” shares Neeraj. In 12 months ending June 2020, Neeraj and his team overachieved the KPI for brand exposure in India by 100%. On the advisory front, International SOS ended up winning contracts for over 50 large organisations in India where they now deliver their Medical and Security Advisory services.
A Company That Saves Lives
Founded in 1985, the International SOS Group is trusted by 11,000 organisations, including over half of the Fortune Global 500, multi-national corporate clients and mid-size enterprises, governments, educational institutions and NGOs. The company helps organisations protect their employees’ lives, improve employee health and well-being, and strengthen its organisation’s resilience. “Our workforce resilience program includes everything organisations need to safely manage their global teams while they work around the world. Our service prepares employees for layered threat environments, helps them to feel supported and productive, and provides them with assistance whenever they have a question, concern or crisis – anytime, anywhere,” explains Neeraj.
At present, International SOS is helping over 25 CEOs in India as their Medical/Security Intelligence Advisory Experts. Experts from International SOS help the leaders and their teams build and audit business continuity plans, help communicate with employees on health and well-being and provide with various strategies such as Return to Office and Return to Travel. Neeraj adds, “We also are helping over 100 organisations from India and over 1000 global organisations with our Medical and Security Assistance program for their employees, which is available 24 X 7. We provide the employees’ access to a doctor or security expert, teleconsultation, on-ground services such as COVID-19 test arrangement, ambulance, hospitalization. All this at a click of a button on the International SOS app on their phone.”
International SOS also manages over 50 onsite/remote site medical clinics, Health and Wellness centres, which provides the right medical program to employees and help organisations build the right platform of engagement with their employees by providing them with a safe and healthy workplace. All this with a solid ROI, which is delivered by driving higher productivity. “We are also supporting our clients in India with International Medical evacuation, by providing aeromedical transportation/air ambulances for evacuating patients with various medical conditions and passenger charter evacuations for movement of a large number of passengers internationally,” shares Neeraj.
The Pandemic and the Leadership
While the businesses in India are struggling with the COVID-19 situation on many fronts, Neeraj urges the Crisis Management Team get a right perspective on the pandemic on the Medical front and use these insights to update their business continuity/resilience plans. According to him, organisations need to ensure that their business continuity plans are updated concerning the changing environment, including local medical infrastructure and lockdowns in a country as diverse as ours. Finally, the leaders need to align the employees and their communities to the new normal on how to prevent and how to manage COVID19 cases and spread so that risks in carrying out daily operations are minimised.
Neeraj says, “COVID-19 has also been declared an “infodemic”, excess information. My view is that this affects leaders in any organisation, the most.” Neeraj’s approach has been to keep the noise out and rely on expert medical and security intelligence advice for decision making on topics such as Return to Operations/Office, managing a COVID-19 positive case among employees and their families, communicating with employees to educate them and create confidence and ensure that the company’s operations as such remain unaffected. “As a leader, we have thus been able to avoid panic situations and act with a degree of confidence which ensures our employees are safe and continue to deliver to our objectives,” claims Neeraj.
As a visionary leader, Neeraj has a competitive spirit. Perhaps, he has been carrying it from his college days. Neeraj recalls, “I was lucky to have friends who would love to have fun but also challenge me at study and sports, which helped me build my competitive spirit! To date, I carry my inner sportsman onto my job and lead teams to front the front.” Neeraj knows that a good company during the early years can have a significant influence on your personality. He also gives a lot of credit to his mother and father who taught him the values of honesty, hard work and hygiene (physical and mental) to pursue happiness. “I always say, be passionate about what you want to learn and do. Enjoy what you are learning and doing and have fun while you are at it,” concludes Neeraj.