Kuldip Singh: ‘Ask Yourself How It Can Be Done Ten Times Faster and Better’

Kuldip Singh: ‘Ask Yourself How It Can Be Done Ten Times Faster and Better’
Kuldip Singh is No. 1 on the Next50-list of non-executive directors. His non-executive board memberships are impact-driven: ‘If you are active in one company you have an impact on that one company only and possibly to a small extent on the sector. It is much more interesting to take a broader approach.’ An open conversation about backbone, the importance of diversity and the power of digital transformations with an upcoming non-executive director who does not want to let go of the executive side. ‘Where and in what role can I achieve the most? I ask myself that question all the time.’

Kuldip Singh is considered the new kid on the block among supervisory directors in the Netherlands. Born in New Delhi and raised in Amsterdam, Singh heads the Next50 2024, Management Scope’s ranking of top upcoming non-executive directors. With his knowledge of digital transformations as well as his international and ‘diverse’ background, Singh seems to be an interesting catch for supervisory boards. His portfolio currently includes leading board memberships at high-voltage grid operator TenneT and accounting and consulting firm KPMG, the company where he began his career as a consultant in the 1990s. Singh: ‘It is an honor to be asked as a board member at the company where you started. I almost saw it as my moral obligation to accept the offer and give something back to the company that has given me so much.’

The meeting room of KPMG’s headquarters situated along the A9 in Amstelveen has an oriental design, with vibrant colors and sofas that invite relaxed, informal conversation. Kuldip Singh fits in well here. He looks fresh, energetic, toned and tough, he wears a suit and his characteristic turban. ‘I am often called ‘the one with the turban,’ he reveals in the conversation with Victor Prozesky, founder/director of consulting firm The Board Practice. This always makes Singh feel slightly uncomfortable. Yet he is especially proud of who he is and where he comes from. In the end, his multicultural background was, for him, mainly advantageous. ‘I have been exposed to many different cultures. At home we spoke Punjabi and Hindi and Indian norms and values were instilled in me. At the same time, I was just an Amsterdam boy growing up in Dutch culture. All these influences have made me who I am today. I bring it all with me to the boardroom.’

What has your background meant for your career?
‘It has served me well. For example, I am pretty good at building bridges between different cultures, between different people. I have also always tried to pick the best from each culture. I can be, in Dutch, very direct. But I mostly prefer to adopt a sensitive approach and consider how something may resonate with someone else. That is more my Indian side. I will always try to take something positive out of a proposal and to take it to the next level. If you find something ridiculous, you do not always have to express it in those exact terms so adamantly. Dutch people often do, but often it is not the most effective way. My antennae are well-tuned by all those influences.’

You yourself went back to your native India at one point. How did you experience that?
‘My native country has always intrigued me very much. I really wanted to go back and get to know the culture. When I had the opportunity to become CEO there, I grabbed it with both hands. It was a fantastic and very enriching experience. But I was also glad to return to the Netherlands. Ultimately, I feel more Dutch at heart than Indian. India is very hierarchical. Everyone there called me sir. I had a hard time getting used to that. ‘Just call me Kuldip,’ I would say. But that turned out to be an impossible mission. You just do not call the boss by his first name – he is always a sir. There is a lot of distance between the CEO and the rest of the organization. That is not how I envision an ideal working relationship. I believe more in an open relationship, with room for discussion and cooperation.’

Have you experienced prejudice or discrimination in your career?
‘I have always felt like an outsider. Dutch people think I look very Indian, but in India they think I look very western. Nowadays I can enjoy that, but I must confess that I struggled with it in the past. As a young boy I was very concerned with my identity. Who am I? What am I? Am I Dutch? Am I Indian? I was always ‘the other.’ When you are 15 or 16 years old, that is really hard. I did not want to be ‘the other’ at all, I just wanted to belong.’

Did you try to adapt? For example, did you consider changing your appearance?
‘I did struggle with that as a teenager and eventually found a balance for myself. I always stayed close to myself, though. I grew up with the Sikh religion and for me that is an essential part of my identity. It is extremely important to me. I also do not want to be judged on my appearance at all; I want to be judged on my work - on impact and output. Unfortunately, people are not always able to see it that way. They see you mainly as ‘that Indian’ or ‘that Sikh’. As someone with a turban, as someone who is ‘different’.
When I arrived here at KPMG as a consultant years ago, I was confronted with this already in the application process. At the final interview, I was suddenly asked if I would take off my turban if a client requested it. The question caught me off guard. I replied that I would talk to that client directly and tell him or her that he or she should not be too preoccupied with my appearance and that we should focus on the content of the job. To which I was told, ‘Okay, clear, but what if the client persists?’ I pondered and remained determined. Sorry, but no, I am not taking off my turban. Never. ‘Then you will have to find someone else for the job,’ I said. I was taken aback by the question and offended by it. But later in the interview process, it was made clear to me that the question had been asked deliberately. The partner came up to me and said he wanted to test whether I had a strong backbone. He congratulated me and wanted to work with me. We worked together very well for a long time after that.’

How important do you think diversity is as a boardroom topic?
‘Very. It is one of the points I will always stress: diversity and inclusion. I see it as my role as non-executive director to point out the importance of D&I to a board. Here at KPMG, in fact, we have covered much ground on the subject. Half of the board is female. But we should not only consider gender. As a member of the supervisory board, I also make the case for other forms of diversity and inclusion. We need to look at ethnicity, age and other aspects. I advocate strict targets and even quotas on ethnicity. I know it is privacy sensitive, but that is solvable. We can only get to the right level if we have strict agreements. In fact, with gender quotas we see that it works in improving the balance.’

Is it difficult to integrate people from ‘diverse backgrounds’ into supervisory boards?
‘Getting people on board is step one. That is the easiest step. Keeping people on board, step two, is far more complicated. That is where ‘inclusion’ comes in. A diverse person can quickly feel left out. If there is no genuine focus on inclusion, this person will soon feel unhappy, dissatisfied and lonely. We will have to listen; we will have to make sure they are allowed to add value. That does not happen automatically, you really have to make an effort. What helps here, for example, is having several colleagues with diverse ethnic backgrounds on a supervisory board.’

Do you know that lonely feeling yourself?
‘I have felt very lonely at times, yes. I was always the only Indian, the only Sikh, the only one with a turban. Personally, I could always deal with it reasonably well, but that is because I grew up here. I know the Dutch culture. You try to act like the tough guy, to pretend it all rolls off your back, but sometimes that is really hard. You quickly pick up little expressions that make you feel like you do not belong.’

Can you give an example?
‘They are small, almost inconspicuous things. Colleagues who energetically move their heads from side to side - a typical Indian movement to confirm that you agree with the other person - or parrot you with a typical ‘Hinglish’ accent. It is characterizing someone by outwardly highly visible characteristics or behaviors. Small expressions, intended as a joke. Often not intended to be offensive, not harsh, but we have to ask ourselves how we can do it more sensitively, without ‘jokingly’ hurting the other person.’

Let us move on to your resume. You have become more involved in supervisory roles in recent years. Was that a conscious decision or did it happen more or less by accident?
‘In all honesty, I was asked by KPMG over two years ago. That question came at the same time as the desire to get more involved in the non-executive side. At the time, I had already started as a supervisor at De Kindertelefoon and Stichting InnoBeweegLab. It seemed interesting and useful to share and transfer my knowledge, especially in the field of digital transformation. My personal motto is to drive impact at scale. That is what I believe in. I would like to make as much impact as possible. That is possible in the role of supervisory director. If you are an executive active in one company, you only have an impact on that one company, and possibly a little on the industry. I find it far more interesting to take a broader approach.
That is also how I started thinking about my portfolio. Where and how can I make the most impact? That is why I was very happy when I was asked to join the supervisory board of TenneT. There you work on the energy transition at Champions League level. A privilege.’

Does this mean you will be found mostly in commissioner roles in the next 10, 20 years?
‘Well, I still feel far too young to make that final choice. I also miss running a business on a daily basis. I am still looking for a balance in that and certainly do not want to let go of the executive side yet. But here too, I will always weigh the decision based on the amount of impact. Where and in what role can I achieve the most? I will always ask myself that question.’

You have looked at companies with different governance models: the Anglo-Saxon one-tier model where the supervisory board role has a much larger role. Or the more Dutch two-tier model, where the emphasis is more on the supervisory role and the employer part. Do you have a preference?
‘I personally have a slight preference for a one-tier board because it allows for closer involvement in operations. I am active on a one tier board at playground equipment manufacturer Wickey. There, I am closely involved in plans to enter the American market. Very enjoyable and interesting to do. I am about to accept a new role in a one-tier board, also based on the same consideration: being more closely involved in the organization. In supervisory boards there often is considerable knowledge and experience that are untapped. In one-tier boards, you can tap into that knowledge more easily. The disadvantage is that this can conflict with the supervisory part of the work. You have to be extra alert to that.’

You specialize primarily in digital transitions. Do boards have sufficient knowledge and skills in this area?
‘Unfortunately, not. Knowledge usually falls short. The bar really needs to be raised. Bringing in someone with that knowledge is an excellent first step. But a second step really should be to broaden and deepen the knowledge within the rest of the board. Especially in the field of digital, the world is changing extremely fast. For example, more than 90 percent of organizations will embrace generative AI in the next two years. This will have a direct impact on all functions within the organization. A supervisory board, in particular, must get to grips with the opportunities and risks it presents. And believe me: there are a lot of opportunities as well as a lot of risks.
I do not know whether the average supervisory board in the Netherlands understands this enormous impact. I too often notice that people think of ‘digital transformation’ only in terms of the IT department, and that digital transition means rolling out a fancy IT thingy (for example, new micro-services applications or a cloud-first strategy). But digital transformation is about the entire organization and the skills you need in the process. It is about rethinking your business model. It is a big change process that affects everything and everyone. That is often underestimated. Digital transformation is therefore a catch-all term. If we want to grasp it, we will have to specify far more clearly what we are talking about.’

Do you have any advice for a successful plan of action?
‘The most important thing is to keep looking at the digital transformation journey from the perspective of use cases. We must always ask ourselves what problem we are solving and for whom, and how that person will benefit. The next question to answer is what processes and technology you need for it. And also: what does it mean for the people I need? What skills must they have? Digitization also brings major risks, including in the area of cybersecurity. This demands extensive attention from management, directors and supervisory boards, not only because of the major compliance requirements, but also to ensure the continuity of the organization. Additionally, it is important to do the whole transition with ESG in mind. ESG is an important transformation topic. A good ESG agenda can help an organization transform into the future, something I notice strongly at KPMG and TenneT.
Finally, I would like to make a plea for thinking big. With the advent of artificial intelligence, we can make great strides. You should not think how to speed up or improve a process a little bit. You have to think how it can immediately become ten times better and faster. Ten X, or ‘everything times ten’ is important in everything you do. Impact on a large scale – that is what it is about.’

This interview was published in Management Scope 04 2024.

This article was last changed on 09-04-2024