Sven Dharmani: A Resilient Supply Chain Leader Passionately Nurturing the Next Generation

Top 10 Most Influential People in Supply Chain, 2023

Sven Dharmani is a Partner/Principal at Ernst & Young LLP (EY). As the Advanced Manufacturing & Mobility Supply Chain Leader, he is responsible for delivering the most effective solution to solve clients’ operational issues. His primary focus is to create value for clients, and drive growth for EY and its people, by developing the next generation of leaders.

An Exciting Journey in the Automotive Sector

Dharmani’s life changed while earning his Bachelor of Engineering degree, when he had the opportunity to intern with major automotive manufacturers, one in India and two in Germany. The experience developed his passion for the mobility sector. “I fell in love with it. I wasn’t a design engineer. My focus was on industrial operations, and it created a great foundation for supply chain,” he recalls.

After earning his undergraduate degree and a short stint at a heavy diesel manufacturer, Dharmani joined a major global automotive brand to start up its car operations in India. It was a joint venture with an Indian partner, with under 100 people when he started. He worked in numerous areas including market sizing, dealer selection, marketing, and participating in auto shows. Dharmani reminisces, “Think of it as getting thrown into a crucible with very aggressive goals and amazing work culture. I had to learn a lot very fast. I was an engineer and didn’t know very much about marketing and sales. We were given books to learn quickly, that we would take home and read up on. It was an extremely intense time, but that experience created a special place in my heart for the automotive sector.”

After the automotive start-up, Dharmani earned his MBA from Georgetown University, and then started his career in management consulting. He gained experience in various sectors, but it was when he engaged in an automotive project that he truly found his passion and intrinsic motivation. He says, “That was a fun period in my life where I cemented myself in the sector. I worked with several major global auto brands before I joined EY. And since, I’ve worked with several other major global auto brands. It has had its exciting twists and turns, and it’s been a really satisfying journey.”

Developing Tools and Processes that Redefined the Supply Chain Space

One of the ways Dharmani has contributed to redefining the supply chain space is the impact he has had from 2004 to 2016 on automotive operations across supply chain, retail operations, services, and parts. “What excites me is, when I talk to a dealer, they’re using the tools and processes that we designed and implemented as part of our work and improved upon it in the last decade,” he says. In terms of automotive service and parts, Dharmani helped implement retail inventory management that improves dealers’ operations and customers’ experience. As a result, for many OEMs, customers receive better service when they come in to get their car fixed – the parts are available in inventory, and their car is serviced the same/next day. “That has truly impacted the customer experience. What we did changed it globally and I’m very proud of that, he observes.”

Since 2017, Dharmani has been driving Industry 4.0 adoption across the supply chain space in a meaningful way. Along with his team, he has pioneered using IoT, sensor data, NLP/ML/AI, predictive analytics, Digital Twins and GPS tracking, etc., to drive improvements across the supply chain and operations.

He notes that too often these technologies had just been a “flavor of the month” option that sounded great but delivered little business value. Dharmani has been promoting the capabilities – educating clients and presenting at various conferences over the last 10 years on Industry 4.0 and how companies can adopt them to drive business improvements. “We’ve focused on how clients can just go from a pilot to broad deployment and reaping benefits from it – I feel that is the really exciting part,” he shares. Many of these technologies are now getting adopted broadly.

Finally, Dharmani helped create a groundswell of people who create impactful solutions, understand how to drive change, and are hawkishly focused on driving value with the right process, technology, and organization. His teams recognize that the most important element is solving the problems that deliver benefits, rather than implementing the new, shiny piece of technology.

The Importance of Continuous Innovation in Staying Ahead

EY’s values focus on integrity, diversity, respect, teaming, and doing the right thing, among others. These values support the organization’s purpose of building a better working world. Dharmani notes that this can happen in many ways, but it is about how they change people’s ways of working and improve their work lives.

“One of the most important tenets for me is honesty and respect. Occasionally we have to tell people what they don’t want to hear. It can be tempting to do something that a client wants, but you’re not 100 percent sure that it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes it means that you close a door as a result, but to me, adhering to your ethics and integrity is a big part of our values.”

In terms of dealing with competition, Dharmani insists that continuous improvement and learning are key. “This is something I do and instill in all my teams. You have to keep getting better and not get stagnant. We co-invest with a client to build something new and cutting-edge. The client gets tremendous value, we get to build something new, and it elevates us in the market. Continuous innovation is what keeps us ahead of our competition,” he states.

Creating Long-Term Business Value for All

Dharmani’s definition of success is creating long-term business value for his clients, his firm, and its people. For each of the three, it is distinct:

For clients, the value is in receiving support to drive transformational change and improvement, or with an obstacle that they have not been able to overcome. For example, EY transformed a Fortune 100 client’s entire marine transportation process which had not been addressed in nearly two decades. It unleashed hundreds of millions in value for them.

For EY, creating value means innovation – new products and services that the firm can help more clients with. For the last several years, Dharmani has innovated on multiple Industry 4.0 areas, creating capabilities that deliver more revenue and profit for the firm, and drive its growth as well as market leading position.

For EY’s people, Dharmani’s approach to growing the team includes getting to know them individually and spending time with them, including meeting their families. This helps him understand who they are and how to make them more successful, as well as enable their professional and personal growth.

Dealing with Challenges with Perseverance and Adaptability

Dharmani shares that he has dealt with plenty of challenges throughout his career. To overcome these challenges, he has used one of his strongest traits, perseverance, a characteristic that he finds very important both in life and in business.

He recalls an experience during his graduate studies that underline the importance of perseverance. Halfway into his first year, Dharmani ran out funds to the point where he could not even cover his rent. He recalls “It was a really challenging time and the easiest path would have been to give up on the MBA and return to India. I had to grit my teeth and persevere to make ends meet and get through my MBA. It was a real pivotal moment for me, and by persevering, I put myself firmly on the path to where I am today.”

A different challenge that Dharmani faced was having to overcome his deductive and linear approach resulting from his engineering background. He had to adapt to think laterally and be very creative to be successful in business. Another need for adaptation was having to learn how to conduct business in different international/multi-cultural settings. “There’s a whole lot of emotional intelligence required to adapt your style to work effectively with your clients and teams around the world. This is something I’ve had to work hard on throughout my career,” he states.

Nurturing Future Leaders to Drive a Domino Effect

Dharmani notes that a lot of people, including himself, can drive transformation and big change to have tremendous impact on clients. However, bigger accomplishment for him is to develop leaders that drive a multiplier/domino effect. These are the people he coaches and mentors but lets them fail in a safe environment so they can learn and become better leaders of tomorrow. He says, “This generation of future leaders is the one we’re going to pass the torch to, and they will drive the business to the next level.”

Two key elements in creating future leaders are resiliency and agility. Dharmani notes that things rarely go as planned, especially in supply chains these days. Leaders need to be resilient and be able to recover quickly. In addition, the pace of change has never been faster, hence future leaders must be agile and be able to adapt to a continuously changing environment.

“If you become good at creating future leaders, it’s much more valuable than purely driving transformations yourself,” he states. “When it comes to influencing the upcoming generation, I try to instil in them the qualities of diligence and commitment. What I mean by that is that you can get lucky, but typically the best outcomes are when opportunity meets preparedness. It’s no secret that hard work produces results, and preparedness and diligence are key to the things that make people successful.” Dharmani notes that the other piece is commitment because you must follow through with your responsibility. You cannot just abandon an assignment because it is no longer interesting or too challenging.

Dharmani shares a quote from Mario Andretti, one of the most successful drivers in motorsports, “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.” He believes that these values will allow people to push themselves to achieve great things and venture outside their comfort zone.

The Satisfaction of Impacting People’s Lives

Dharmnai’s philosophy of work-life balance is based more on harmony between work and life, since “balance” can feel like a zero-sum game. He believes it should not mean that doing more of one means you will lose out on the other. “I do like to have certain periods where I try to do only one of the two because you need that mental reset. If you don’t get that reset over the weekend or a holiday, then the energy that resonates with you isn’t very positive. So, you need to make sure that you get that recharge,” he insists.

Dharmani’s goals are to continue to have a positive impact on EY’s clients, business and people.

On the client side, this means helping them achieve what they did not even think was possible, get to a future they thought was going to be extremely difficult to achieve, and make their lives better. “This goes back to building a better working world. If you’re working with an Aviation Agency to improve maintenance using industry 4.0 capabilities for their systems, then it touches five million people every day. So, if I can have a little bit of impact, then I’m affecting the lives of five million people every day, and that is extremely rewarding,” he observes.

As for his people, Dharmani notes that, as he gets to know his team members personally, he can better appreciate their situation and know how to work with them more effectively. This results in them working more efficiently since they understand each other’s working style better. “For example, if somebody is dropping off their kids at school between 8 to 8.30, then I’m not going to disrupt their life with a call at that time, because that will cascade through the entire day. And if I have dinner with my family between 6.30 and 7.30, then I will not participate in a conference call unless it’s a crisis. So, it is important to consider how to keep my team leaders happy and healthy in a good mental space, and then they, in turn, can keep themselves and their teams in a positive cycle,” he clarifies.

Dharmani’s regular day at work usually involves meeting with clients to help them approach their key challenges, and spending time to genuinely understand the barriers they are facing. “I’ll be thinking through these issues and crafting the best approach to help clients tackle their issues. I’ll always look to spend some time working on innovation and getting together with colleagues to consider new ways to tackle problems,” he shares.

Finally, what motivates Dharmani is developing people – working through one-on-ones, coaching them, being their mentor/champion, and advocating for them when they are not in the room. “I find this part of the job perhaps the most important and the most rewarding, and I believe that often people don’t quit their jobs, they quit their bosses, either because they don’t feel the boss fully has their back, or lack trust, or they just don’t get along. In most cases, people don’t quit primarily because of what they’re doing, but how they feel in their jobs,” he explains.

In his parting message to aspiring business leaders, Dharmani offers the following advice: “Find what you love doing. If you love what you’re doing, you have fun with it, and you’ll naturally be more successful. The day will fly by, and you’re going to be emotionally engaged. You can’t inspire the teams you lead if you don’t love the work yourself, because people can tell when it’s not authentic.”