Pioneers: Learn, Grow, Connect
Learn, Grow, Connect
By Jacque Kirkwood
Nooruddin (Rudy) S. Karsan, FSA, is one of the co–founders of Kenexa® Corp., a leading end–to–end provider of software, proprietary content, services and process outsourcing that enable organizations to more effectively recruit and retain employees. The company was founded in 1987 and started with two employees. Today Kenexa is 1,600 employees strong.
Karsan has been chairman of the Board of Directors since 1997 and chief executive officer since 1991. In June of last year, Karsan received the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in the software and technology category in the Greater Philadelphia area. The award recognizes outstanding entrepreneurs who are building and leading dynamic, growing businesses.
It's no wonder that he received the award. During his career, he has started nearly 10 different businesses—some under the Kenexa brand, others outside. He owns a real estate firm in India and manages a development company in Turkey, to name a few. He enjoys managing and building businesses, and challenging opportunities. But as Karsan tells it, that's just one part of his life. The other part is focusing on serving humanity—the two basic words, he says, that define Kenexa.
How does Kenexa serve humanity? Regardless of race, creed, color, religion or gender, one of the two or three most important things in people's lives is their jobs. It is through work that they provide dignity for themselves and education, health and food for their family. Being in the job they are most suited for and enjoy doing makes them truly engaged, and at Kenexa we believe that the engaged employee is a better parent, a better spouse, a better partner. Kenexa's goal is to help companies find the right person for the right job and maximize their opportunity while employed, and in this way, contribute to making the world a slightly better place.
What are your main goals when you walk into work every day? The way I manage myself and the company falls under what we call our Top 1 to 5. Everyone in the organization develops a list of their top five goals for the quarter—these need to tie in to our organizational objectives or benefit one of our clients, and are required to have specific timelines for completion. Setting these goals provides focus and enables us to prioritize our work. For example, let me give you a few of my top five for the quarter: establishing better metrics for measuring timeliness and accuracy within Kenexa; beginning the 2009 planning including interaction with Wall Street; ensuring and planning for Kenexa to expand into four new countries in 2008; and completing two confidential transactions. In our parlance a transaction can mean the purchase of a company, a strategic alliance or a significant leadership new hire.
I may or may not accomplish all that I set out to do for that particular quarter, so I re–evaluate and re–assess and may or may not add the incomplete goals to my top five for the next quarter. It's really important for me to remain focused. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that while most people have to do lists, my most important list is a not to do list.
And what is that? To give an example, one of the items on my not to do list is not to listen to a complaint without hearing a solution. Any employee is welcome to come and vent to me, but not without offering suggestions regarding how to turn things around, or without ways to achieve a positive outcome.
Another one is that I don't accept an answer with the words "sometimes," "a few," "small amount," "large amount" in it— those words don't mean anything to me. I need specific data. If someone comes to me and says, "Quite a few people are going to quit if we don't make changes to this process," my first reaction is: "What do you mean by quite a few?" Do you mean 5 percent? Do you mean 20 percent? What analysis did you perform to come up with that number? How rigorous was the analysis? They might answer with, "It's just my opinion." And I'll respond with, "Well, then give me prior examples of similar situations that helped you form the basis of that opinion and provide me with some specific data."
Tell me what sets Kenexa apart from other companies like it. At Kenexa, we are what we believe. We are unique in our industry in that we sell software, we sell services and we sell content. Kenexa is, to the best of my knowledge, the largest employer, for example, of organizational development throughout the world. When a company like General Electric or British Telecom or BASF or Unilever wants to understand what makes their work force tick and what gives them a competitive advantage, Kenexa can help them think through that problem with our scientists, offer them technology solutions and help them implement programs through our service components. We have Ph.D.s from all over the world who work here—more than 30 is our latest count. I feel very fortunate to have that wealth of intelligence around me.
What is Kenexa's greatest resource? Our greatest resource is the way we look at the employee pool and the employer/employee relationship. Our job is to maximize that relationship from both a client and company perspective. That means making the employee pool more productive and more engaged so that they can make significant contributions to humanity. I would say our number one advantage is our innovation. If I look at our sales figures for 2007, over 80 percent of our sales were from products and services and content that did not exist in 2003.
As far as you see it, what are the attributes of a successful manager, a successful employee? If I were to choose a universal definition, the most important thing in today's day and age is the ability to be flexible. Because of the rapid change, you really have two choices—either you embrace it, accept it and ride with it, or you repel it, in which case you are heading in a downward spiral toward failure.
As a manager, success depends largely on the culture and environment in which you're working. For example, if you work with an aviation company—with safety being the primary driver—you better make sure your processes are Six Sigma or better yet, Nine Sigma, because Six Sigma will cause two crashes a year in the United States, which would be unacceptable. As a manager, you have to be extremely focused that your processes are extremely tight so that no human error creeps in—so that the planes don't crash.
As an employee the same things apply. Know yourself and then figure out a way to apply your strengths in the best possible environment that fits your mode. There's a lot to be said for doing what you love and loving what you do.
What intrigues you most about business? My definition of happiness is growing and learning, having fun and seeing measurable outcomes. In the business world, it's really easy to see how you're growing and learning. One of Kenexa's strongest features is that we're a learning organization. In the business world, it's easy to have measurable outcomes because you can see whether you're making money by studying your profit and loss statements. The business world for me encompasses the ability to negotiate, to have intellectual warfare with my competition and to make a positive impact on the world. There are tremendous ways to have fun in business. If you're not having fun along the way, something is not right with the way you're running the show.
I'm constantly growing and learning and we have a tremendous amount of measurable outcomes, including making money, growing the number of employees within the company and watching the growth of our clients and our customers. This is what I call pure joy!
What about the actuarial profession has prepared you for business? The biggest strength of the actuarial profession is its ability to measure risk. The rigor and discipline that I went through in the passing of my exams has held me in great stead. Now I truly believe that the profession can grow in a number of different areas as well. At the same time, we should never forget our roots—how and where we learned to articulate and measure risk and understand the positive impact this can and does have on our society.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for the profession and I believe it has been instrumental in helping me think through many business issues—enabling me to measure risk, articulate it and take advantage of it when it has been mispriced in the market.
Describe what you would call a truly satisfying day on the job. At Kenexa we have what we call extreme service—a hierarchy which says you have to be timely, accurate and responsive; you have to be proactive and you have to be able to teach your client. If I'm able to deliver excellent service to a client in a given day, that's fantastic.
A truly satisfying day would also mean that I would have laughed at least 40 times. In our organization we have what we call the 10 truisms. Number five is you're allowed to laugh your way through a problem. Number three is we're addicted to momentum—without it we wither. Number eight is making friends, and it replaces the more traditional organizational hierarchy. I like a day where I've been able to enhance a relationship with someone or several someones I work with and enjoy spending time with.
How does it feel to be considered an actuarial pioneer by your peers? Although it is an honor to be regarded in that way, I don't view myself as a pioneer. I see myself as a traveler who, like most human beings, just happened to go on this journey and, along the way, took a fork that was a little bit different. But the road we're on today would not exist without the hard work and efforts of our ancestors, our parents and our grandparents. They are the true pioneers—they did most of the work and we're just collecting the fruits of their labor.
Of your many career accomplishments, what do you consider to be the most memorable or personally satisfying? From a career standpoint, I would say the biggest accomplishment has been that even though Kenexa has gone into and out of various businesses, it's never lost its core of serving humanity. These are more than just two words to us—it's in our DNA, because every relationship we enjoy is built upon trust. It's things like this that I'm most proud of. So often, the quality of the journey is so much more important than the destination, and I'm still on my journey and I'm enjoying it immensely.
On a personal note, I would say my greatest accomplishment is the bond I have with my two daughters. Even though they are now in their twenties, no matter how busy I am or they might be, I still speak to them, e–mail them, or see them at least four to five times a week. Equally important is the relationship I share with my wife, who is my best friend. We've been together for 30 years, and if I don't see her or talk to her for 24 hours, it's painful. To have that kind of relationship with your lifetime partner, I believe, is a tremendous accomplishment.
What words of wisdom can you share with up and coming actuaries? Number one, nurture your ego, but don't let it rule you. Always have the humility to learn from your peers and from everyone you meet. If you lose that sense of learning, it's like my grandfather says, "The day you stop learning is the day you start dying." Never let your ego interfere with your learning. My experience is that people with huge egos have trouble learning, exploring and accepting new and different ideas.
Second, understand what makes you successful; understand what your drivers are; understand what you're greedy for. Are you greedy for knowledge? Are you greedy about being able to serve? I'm using a strong word here, but I'm emphasizing that it's essential to know what your internal wants are and then figure out a way to feed those for the benefit of the people around you, for your community and for all the stakeholders. If you become singular in your greed, life has a notion of slapping you around and your success and happiness will be very short–lived. That will be tremendously painful, when the momentum switches the other way.
As you are nurturing your wants and your needs and your greed, make sure that you're taking your community and your stakeholders and the people you associate with along on that journey. It's a lot more fulfilling, it's a lot more satisfying, and it's a lot more inspirational.
Finally, learn to mitigate your risks. We all have fears and anxieties. Don't let them rule you. Understand what those fears are, understand what those anxieties are, and turn them into risk. Measure that risk, box it and then figure out a way how to mitigate it.
Do you have any favorite pastimes or hobbies that you'd like to share? My favorite hobby is thinking. I love sitting back and either writing in my journal or meditating or contemplating life. That's probably my favorite pastime, but I do the usual things as well. I love to work hard and play golf. I read a lot; about four books a week.
I'm currently reading A Good Earth by Eckhart Tolle, and I just finished Warped Passages by Lisa Randall. Randall is a tenured professor at Princeton and Harvard who has mathematically proven that we live in a multi–dimensional universe, and no one's been able to refute this, including Stephen Hawking.
Is there anything that you'd like to talk about that we haven't yet addressed? This is just a comment to actuaries in general. We have such a phenomenal profession. We are so fortunate and blessed with the mental gifts we've been given to become actuaries. I think we need to ask ourselves some questions. How can we truly make sure that our profession benefits humanity? What can we do to get beyond the bounds of what we're doing and reach out to make the world a better place? I'm not sure we're doing everything we can as a society. There's a challenge out there for actuaries, and for everyone in general.
We are incredibly blessed as individuals with our God–given talents and strengths and our intellectual capacities. Are we truly fulfilling our destiny? Are we truly helping one another? Are we truly contributing to society?
One last note ... I feel humbled at the thought that someone nominated me. Thank you very, very much for thinking of me—I truly appreciate it.
Jacque Kirkwood is a senior communications associate at the Society of Actuaries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.