August 5, 2022

The road to recovery

In Part II of a conversation with Dream a Dream CEO Suchetha Bhat and co-founder Vishal Talreja learn about what it took to rebuild an organisation in crisis, and why it needed a new kind of leadership.

15 min read

Suchetha Bhat is the CEO of Dream a Dream, a nonprofit that empowers children from vulnerable backgrounds. Since starting her career in 2001, she has worked both in the corporate and social sectors. Under her leadership, Dream a Dream has grown from working with 10,000 young people in Bengaluru to more than one million children across five states. NITI Aayog has listed Suchetha among the 75 Women Entrepreneurs Transforming India in 2021.

Vishal Talreja co-founded Dream a Dream with 11 other people. He is an Ashoka Fellow, an Eisenhower Fellow, a Kamalnayan Bajaj (Aspen) Fellow, a Salzburg Global Fellow, and a board member at Goonj. Vishal was also the founder-director of UnLtd India and a board member of PYE Global and India Cares Foundation. He has been recognised as an ‘Architect of the Future’ by the Waldzell Institute in Austria and as ‘Innovator of the Year’ in 2019 by HundrED.

In Part II of this conversation, Suchetha and Vishal talk about what it took to rebuild an organisation in crisis, and how that led to discovering a new kind of leadership—one that the world needs more of. This article is an edited transcript of a Failure Files podcast episode that was recorded as part of a special series, where we look at the intersection of failure and well-being, in partnership with The Wellbeing Project.


Rachita: Previously, Vishal Talreja told me about the many failures he experienced as the CEO of Dream a Dream, a nonprofit based in Bangalore that helps young people from disadvantaged backgrounds overcome adversity by developing life skills. He opened up about his leadership style, his persistent self-doubt as an ambitious 20-something CEO. He shared what burning out felt like to him, and what it did to the organisation he was leading.

Coming up on a decade of leading Dream a Dream, Vishal discovered that he was completely burned out. He bought a bus ticket in Bangalore one day, with no destination in mind. Nine hours later, he found himself in Coorg, where he checked into a homestay and slept—for seven days straight. He knew something had to change within the organisation, and that what he had built was somehow very different from the vision he had had starting out. Around this time, when things seemed to have hit rock bottom, Suchetha joined. It was a mess, she told me. But slowly, and together, they began to rebuild Dream a Dream. And I got to talk to both of them about what that process looked and felt like.

And, Suchetha, you joined to look at strategy, but very soon your role became somewhat of a bridge between Vishal and the team. And then there were several steps that I believe you took to get the organisation’s emotional health, if you will, back up. So can you talk a little bit about that?

Suchetha: Sure, that’s how I saw my role as this bridge and to build these pathways. So some of the initial steps I took was to actually separate the day-to-day from Vishal, right, which I just said. “Let’s just separate that out; you don’t get involved.” So there was a period of time for a few years where we had a deal; Vishal and I literally had a deal that while he would handle the board and the fundraising and all of that, he would not talk to the teams directly, without me being present, or you know, in a setting where even I was there. Because, invariably, it would lead to confusion; either he would be confused about what people are doing, or people would be confused about what he’s expecting. And then we would have to have this big clean-up and all of that.

The second was that then I actually did push him. I pushed Vishal to articulate and give words—what is it that he really wanted? Because it’s nice to say, I’m not happy here, or I want an organisation that, you know, trusts everybody. But what does that really mean, right? Like, help us understand it, give us a sense of what that is. So just take those half-formed ideas in his head and help us convert them into policies, practices, role definition, so kind of helping myself understand him and helping him convert that into things that are more tangible. And also asking him to articulate what are the non-negotiables that led to his burnout. What is the culture that he needs that he can be proud of? So that’s kind of what, you know, were the first few years as I came—how to build that culture that he also aspires to, that everybody can feel proud of, and how the team could relate their day-to-day roles towards this big vision.

So these were at the person-to-person level, but there are certain organisational steps also that we took, for example, the strategy itself. When I came in, Vishal had this idea that in the next three years, we will work with 2,40,000 children; at that time we were working with 3,000. And how do you go from 3,000 to 2,40,000? In three years, right? And he said, I don’t know. But we just have to do it. And I realised that’s where he is operating from. He’s again, you know, he’s driven, he’s passionate, he almost feels guilty that we’re not impacting more children. So again there was this whole realignment—where is the team at, what can we realistically do while managing Vishal’s guilt, and, you know, we will do this, it’s just not in the next three years. So managing that at the strategy level.

We also rejigged the entire culture. We put in something called the people philosophy. So we have this philosophy at Dream a Dream now. It is really a set of guiding values, a set of principles about how we want to operate as a team that builds a culture of trust, accountability, dignity amongst us and, more importantly, is a role model for the world that we want to see outside. Because that’s what I heard from Vishal—that children should be able to see us and see a microcosm of the world that we are saying we want to offer.

Rachita: So what does that look like?

Suchetha: So the values we had defined then were around trust, that we’ll all trust each other. And we trust every person to make the best decisions for the organisation. Accountability, that every person is doing this because they want to be here. So they take accountability for their role. And they are committed to contributing more and taking on more responsibilities as they grow and evolve in the organisation. And dignity, that every person will be treated with equal dignity, irrespective of what their role is, or, you know, where they are in the hierarchy, so to say, because there was still a hierarchy. So that’s, you know, the set of values. And this then translated into policies. For example, we used to have this attendance register, everybody had to come and sign. And if we were late, we were trying to let go of that; it was trust about when you come in, you just put in the work to be done.

And there’s a broad guideline around the number of hours; we put in casual leaves. Even today, we have unlimited casual leaves, which basically means if you need to take a day off, you don’t have to apply for it. There’s no formal process; you can just say I need to take a day off. And it’s not counted. There’s no fixed number of these days off that you can take. So, again, an indication of trust.

rural women take part in a boat race in west bengal-leadership
We need a non-hero, a take-everyone-along kind of facilitative leadership that comes more naturally to women. | Picture courtesy: Sudipto Rana/CC BY

And the big piece was our performance management. Because this is where I found that most people would be upset, because till then, every time we did our performance appraisals, in March, we would go through this whole process—everybody’s done the reflections, the managers have given the feedback, everything, and then it’ll come to Vishal, and then Vishal would go decide who would actually get promoted, who will get the bonuses, and it used to lead to, you know, chaos and mess and just so much anger. And he had his own logic for decision-making, which nobody really understood.

So we let that whole thing go. And, even today, we have a self-reflection-based appraisal system, or a performance management system where each person decides on their own whether they are ready to move or not to the next level. And if you feel you’re ready, you can take feedback from your peers, from your managers, but your it’s your decision. And we have really created that environment that if you make that decision, sometimes we need to create roles for you. I mean, there might be some delay in doing that. But you are the decision maker, and you will decide when you’re ready to move. And that is again something that has really helped us grow and evolve as an organisation. So those are some of the practices then that we put in place that converted this idea that Vishal had, the kind of culture he was aspiring for but that we didn’t necessarily have, you know, the systems for.

Rachita: How long did it actually take to get the organisation back to a steady state, and what was it like for you because you clearly came in and you suddenly became this well for people. And so you were absorbing a lot of the negativity, the discontent, but then also offering solace, fixing things. What was that emotional journey for you?

Suchetha: At that time it was definitely stressful, a lot of sleepless nights and all of that. But at the core sense of…you know…when I think back today or when I think about what I was going through, it was an accelerated journey. It moved me and pushed me in ways that I didn’t think was possible. Because I did then and I continue to believe today that Vishal is a uniquely gifted person; he has an intuitive sense of what is needed and what is necessary for the future that we imagine and, you know, he believes that’s possible, right? It comes from a deep sense of belief that’s possible, much before maybe many of us have even processed what’s going on. So, to have him as a mentor, and through this journey of helping him articulate and all of that…it grounded me in my transition.

My strength is organisation building, my strength is holding people, holding space for conflict, you know, working through difficult situations.

Till then I was just a pre-sales consultant in IBM, one of two lakh employees in the country, literally a cog in the wheel. And suddenly I got this opportunity to test my own boundaries, what I am capable of, what my strengths are. I had never thought I could do organisation building; it was not even remotely close to the pre-sales job I was doing till then. So for me, too, it became this almost testing phase of how much can I do. What is my capacity, what is the potential that I lost out on in the 10 years that I said I was in the corporate sector? Because this is my strength.

My strength is organisation building, my strength is holding people, holding space for conflict, you know, working through difficult situations. And it was almost like discovering my own gifts and discovering, you know, what I could be. And that journey has continued, I think, for the first…I joined in 2010…for the six, seven years, I think it took us to really stabilise and make this transition.

The biggest transition for me through those six, seven years is moving from the idea that ‘Vishal is Dream a Dream, Dream a Dream is Vishal’ to actually expanding what Dream a Dream is way beyond Vishal. We even did a whole rebranding to support that. Where earlier we had just one logo that was the brand, there was Vishal and one logo, and we put that logo on every stationery. And that was kind of what the Dream a Dream brand stood for. And we got this great branding consultant who made us realise that it was really just a synonym for Vishal, that logo. So we changed the logo, we did this whole rethink, you know, what is the messaging? What is the work? So that, you know, along with the people philosophy, building the capacity of the team, and changing this narrative we had of ourselves and what the world had of us, from beyond Vishal, took about six, seven years.

And that is where I found my passion, my vision, who I want to be, what my imagined future is. Beyond Vishal, what do I see? And why did I make this change? And what is my contribution to how I want to impact the lives of young people. So in 2016–17 is when we said, maybe it’s time for the CEO transition as well. So we started talking about moving from the COO role that I was playing then to a more CEO role. I’m really today when I think back, I’m just grateful. And, yeah, just discovering what I can offer has been a big part of this journey. And I’m really grateful for that opportunity.

Rachita: Vishal, what was it like for you when Suchetha stepped into your role, as CEO?

Vishal: 2018 is when Suchetha took over as the CEO of the organisation. The board and Suchetha gave me a free hand, saying if you want to move on from the organisation, go ahead; if you want to try other things, you know, go ahead. If you want to stay in the organisation, why don’t you find your own role, create your own role? And I did that—I went out and explored, talked to many other entrepreneurs, other organisations, spent a year seeing what else I could do.

I’m contributing to that vision rather than taking the burden of having to try to achieve that vision myself.

And, interestingly, I came back to Dream a Dream. And I said, you know what, Suchetha is trying to achieve this vision she has for change in the world; it seems to be the most powerful vision out there. So if there’s any leader I want to work with today, it’s her. And this was without bias, that we’re married, and we have this special relationship with each other. Because I really did go out there.

So today, almost four years later, I’m glad I made that decision. Because every day I see the vision that I had 20 years back come alive. So I had the vision, but I didn’t know how to make it come alive. And that’s what’s amazing about the way Suchetha has built the organisation. She’s built an amazing leadership team, she’s broken down hierarchies; we have a flatter structure now. And I’m contributing to that vision rather than taking the burden of having to try to achieve that vision myself, which was how I used to operate earlier. So again that has been a journey of letting go of the ego as well.

Rachita: So what has letting go been like for you?

Vishal: In many parts very difficult as a process and in many parts very liberating. What was difficult was to let go of decision-making in many aspects of how the organisation is run. What is liberating is that I could now focus decision-making on things that are most important, such as strategy, culture, and I could truly let go of operations. What was difficult was to give away decision-making to other people in the organisation. But what is liberating was to learn to trust. Learn to trust my team, learn to trust Suchetha.

Also having grown up in a deeply patriarchal home environment, I have grown up with messages of me being special, of me being the hero as the boy, to now becoming part of a team where I’m no longer the hero but I’m one of many was very, very difficult. What was difficult was to now sit in team meetings and stay silent and have other voices come in and to listen to other ideas. But what is liberating is to realise that there are people out there who have much better ideas than I do. So it was a difficult journey to let go. And I feel I’m still in the journey; I’m still learning to let go. There are many other aspects in my personality that I hold on to. But what I’ve really enjoyed is the liberation of it. And I am really now focusing on the larger narrative in the sector, about how young people need to be supported to thrive, and playing that role and really thriving in that role. So that has been very fascinating. These are just some aspects. There’s a 10-year journey of fights and struggles and conflicts that Suchetha and I’ve had, and other team members have had through this journey.

Rachita: Is there something you would do differently, Vishal?

Vishal: I think many things I wouldn’t do differently. Because I think this was part of my own learning journey. As a human being, as an entrepreneur. I needed to experience some failures. Again, you know, having grown up in a household where you’re treated special, where you’re constantly given messages that you’re God’s gift to mankind, and you’re going to do great things in life just by virtue of being a man. It was important for me to let go of that message, that narrative. Failing, failing at something that I was so passionate and committed to, was important for me to then reimagine myself in a whole different way, as a different leader.

What I would probably do differently is I wish I had more self-awareness along the way, along this journey. I wish I could have apologised to the people that I hurt in the process. Even today, I know there are people that I haven’t reached out to and said sorry for the way I treated them, my colleagues, my co-founders. And I’m very scared to do that. So I wish I could do that. That continues to be one of my life goals; someday I can find the courage within me to reach out to them and say, “Hey, I’m sorry, sorry for the way I treated you.”

When the new people philosophy was launched, I was the last person to totally take it in. Because I had the most to lose in terms of identity.

When we made this shift in 2010 to a whole new organisation building journey, I did it very drastically. I came back from my break and said we need to change the culture of the organisation. I called the whole team into the room and said, “We’re going to throw out all our policies and processes and we’re going to rebuild from today.” Which was very much my style as an entrepreneur then. But looking back I wish I had more empathy and more mindfulness. And understanding of the impact this had on people, which it did. Many people were very confused and felt let down and left the organisation. I wish I had been a bit more mindful in recognising the implications of such big changes in the organisation on people, and people’s capacity to accept this kind of massive change so suddenly. Rather than again taking people along through this journey, you can come in and say I’m going on this journey, and you choose whether you want to join or not. So I think that I would do differently.

Lastly, I would say I wish I’d resisted less. Suchetha is aware and the rest of the team is aware that I resisted and when the new people philosophy was launched, I was the last person to totally take it in. Because I had the most to lose in terms of identity. So I wish I had resisted less and embraced it faster.

One thing we are careful about is that the narrative does not shift from one hero to the next hero, that the narrative does not move to now Suchetha being the hero, that today the narrative is truly about the cause, about young people. And that’s been a constant journey for us, and whenever we recognise that it is possibly becoming more person-centric again, we step back and try to break it. Yeah, those are some of the things I probably do differently.

Rachita: What about you, Suchetha? What would you do differently?

Suchetha: So I’m very aware that the way the story comes across and the way I say it is of someone who saw themselves and their role as something in the background, right? You’re somebody who quietly makes this possible by allowing the hero to take their place in the sun. And so for me it has been a journey of unpacking that, because that is how I perceived myself.

I did pursue…I always saw myself as, you know, nobody will know it was me, but I was there in the background supporting this man. And through this journey, we also, you know, we got involved, Vishal and I, we got married in 2013. And through that, while building Dream a Dream, and through the marriage, the first few years, that’s really how I saw myself. Because that was the narrative I had internalised, the patriarchy I had internalised that the hero is always the man. And the woman is the silent force, that no one never really knows about.

So I won’t say differently, because I think it’s a natural evolution. But that is, you know, what I feel I must caveat here, that by listening to the story, if it’s pulling on your, you know, instinct, especially the women to find the man that you can save, and you can rescue and, you know, be the quiet, silent force, and to really examine that, because I didn’t at that time. And today I see my whole, you know, approach to it differently.

I’m a big proponent today that can we as women actually take the lead, can we lead from the front, taking everyone along?

I think as a world itself, we need a very different kind of leadership; we need a non-hero, a take-everyone-along kind of facilitative leadership that comes more naturally to women. So I’m a big proponent today that can we as women actually take the lead, can we move, you know, lead from the front, taking everyone along, and really being generous with what we have to offer and the style that we can bring in. And it doesn’t always have to be to make the man’s dreams possible, or to make somebody else successful. So I might have taken, you know, even today, I might do many of the steps, maybe the same steps that I took. But I would not perceive myself as in the background, but as a unique, equally gifted, visionary, and operationally skilled leader who has something to offer. And I would do this more as a partnership, which we’re, you know, we’re kind of moving into today, versus a more held back approach in terms of who I am.

Rachita: There is so much to unpack in both Vishal’s and Suchetha’s accounts of their time at Dream a Dream. Listening to them share their failures and lessons, it struck me how each one of us can perhaps find so many parallels in our own lives, whether it’s about compensating for our own insecurities, coping with fatigue and burnout in the workplace, or watching our heroes let us down. What I am walking away with, and what I’d like to leave you with, is this. One, it takes courage to acknowledge that the one thing you care most about is the thing you’re also failing miserably at. And it takes a hell of a lot of courage to talk about it openly, courage that can only come with doing the hard work of self-reflection and looking inward. Two, trust is a sacred pact. Honouring it stubbornly, even in the face of resistance, can create space for big change. Dream a Dream’s path to recovery was embedded in trust, even if it took time for everyone to see that. And, finally, identity and leadership are closely linked—only when we truly meet ourselves, warts and all, can we grow into our full potential as leaders.

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