Article: Harish Manwani talks about how to lead in disrupting times


Harish Manwani talks about how to lead in disrupting times

At the Singapore Human Capital Summit today, Harish Manwani, Global Executive Advisor, Blackstone, and Former Chief Operating Office, Unilever shares his perspectives and experiences on leading in turbulent times. Here are some of the key takeaways from his session.
Harish Manwani talks about how to lead in disrupting times

There are two big things that are re-defining the world of business – anti-globalization with nations closing borders, and the double-edged sword of technology that is empowering customers at one end and threatening jobs and employment at the other end. But, at the heart of it all lies the real problem – lack of growth

In the 60s, the 70s and the 80s, the world was growing at a steady pace of 6% and when the pie started shrinking, nations have started closing their borders. And today, the world is caught in a paradox – there is reduced growth at one end and then there is the technology sword looming at the other end. However, traditionally these challenges have led to revolutions like Industrial Revolution, globalization and so and so forth – and that probably is what is the need of the hour. Manwani suggests that the organizations need to adopt the new model of local at the heart and the technology to drive the businesses. 

Today, there are more mobile phones in the world than the number of people and profound amount of information is being generated every single moment. The age of digitization is tectonic and its implications are huge. 

Implication #1 – No matter the business, it will be disrupted through technology – be it the business model or the product or the ways the organizations operate.

Implication #2 – Being big is no longer competitive and faster nimble organizations have the potential today to disrupt the larger ones and race ahead of the curve.

Implication #3 – Sustainability and inclusiveness: With increasing friction, businesses will have to define their roles in the serving the community they thrive in.

So, what can organizations do sustain and excel in these turbulent times? Here are few things that Manwani wants us to know:


There are two types of cultures in any organization: growth culture and cost culture. And as we grow as businesses, it is essential to look at business as usual on growth culture and business as unusual on cost culture. Organizations also need to focus on fostering the culture of innovativeness and innovation is not about doing new things but about doing things differently that adds value. There are two types of groups in the world – poets, who think and strategize and farmers, the one who execute it to perfection. Great organizations have a mix of both poets and farmers, a perfect mix of magic and logic. 

Organization structures

Mark Twain once said, “Don’t let the school get in the way of education”. Hence don’t let the structures get in the way of growth. The organizations need to mimic agile structures that employees from newer generations would like to work in.  

HR teams need to design teams in a way that they are able to deliver in an agile manner. Speed is the new currency.

Another important aspect that organizations needs to manage is to “mind the gap” between those who are actually impacting business outcomes and those who are managing interfaces. Technology can manage all interfaces and hence the focus should be on those who are delivering real business outcomes.


Strategy and execution go hand in hand. Strategy has a very simple definition – it is all about making choices.  With a very well-articulated strategy, it is the execution what makes the difference. And an exceptional everyday execution is what builds the edge for businesses. It is not how good the businesses are but how many fewer mistakes they make in execution vis-à-vis the competition, which sets them for success. And the direct measure of this vector called execution is its velocity which essentially is the P&L.


In today’s world, attracting, retaining and engaging talent is more critical than ever before. 30-40% of the basic skills required today to perform tasks successfully will change tomorrow. And hence we need to build a workforce that has a license to operate tomorrow. When you look at athletes, they train 85% of the time and perform 15% of their time. Drawing an analogy with corporates, 95% of the time is spent on performing and only 5% on development. Therefore, successful are going to be those who focus on continuously developing themselves as individuals and as organizations. The other aspect on talent related to changing business models of being local at heart and yet being global compels organizations to think beyond the gender diversity and focus on other forms like nationalities and ways of working.


Leaders have two roles to play – manage the reputation of the organization and unleashing the energy to bring the best out of the people they lead. The talent pool of the competition and one’s own organization is same but what makes the difference is the energy that fills them. Leadership should be driven by a purpose and value-based relations. It’s this purpose and value that galvanizes the employees. At Unilever, we have made a lofty sustainability commitment to double the business and half our impact on the environment. Unilever has been on top of the Dow Jones sustainability index for 14 years in a row and this purpose is what drives us as an organization and us as individuals.

Businesses have been successful so far with a focus on the 3 tier success model of consistency, competitiveness, and profitability. Today, there is an additional another to it in the name of responsibility towards the community and the world they thrive in. And hence the leaders should endeavor to build businesses which are great for community to survive in these turbulent times.

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Topics: Leadership, Technology, Talent Management, #Culture

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