Wisdom tells us never to waste a crisis.
That's why even in the midst of disruptions from the COVID pandemic, entrepreneur Harsh Mariwala turned even more productive and took to writing his book Harsh Realities. The bestseller chronicles the journey of the consumer goods company he founded – Marico – and shares invaluable leadership lessons along the way.
Harsh recently sat down with People Matters for an exclusive interview ahead of his upcoming appearance at the highly anticipated People Matters TechHR Conference India 2022.
In this interview, he talks about how Marico grew the business despite setbacks from the pandemic and how his people became closer to one another. He also gives advice to leaders on how to thrive in the face of crisis:
The COVID era has been a time of great reflection for you on the journey of Marico, as chronicled in your 2021 book Harsh Realities. How is the pandemic prompting the evolution of an FMCG company like Marico? What is the silver lining behind this period of disruption?
I see it as two sides of a coin. One mindset is to look at the pandemic from a positive lens. And if I look at the positives at Marico, I strongly believe that efforts which we had put into culture building played a very, very important role in [helping us to] come back on our feet, especially in an environment where there was immediate lockdown, and we had to line up our supply chain. We were able to do it seamlessly because we're very open, transparent, empowered and organised.
We were one of the first companies in the FMCG segment which was able to continue to supply products. I think the key [factor] was people were internally driven; they were empowered. There was no hierarchy coming in the way unlike in some organizations.
The pandemic taught us ways of doing things in a far more agile manner: doing a lot of research, developing new products, going for excellence versus agility. We've been able to condense our cycle time for new product development substantially and we were able to develop a new range of products, mainly because the awareness for health and hygiene increased dramatically amongst people. People wanted to eat healthy.
The pandemic gave us a lot of opportunities to not only be in touch with our own members, but their families. We had this golden opportunity where the family was sitting at home all the time; you don't have anything else to do. We leveraged this by having a lot of programs for the elderly, for children. We did Zumba classes. We did hobbies. We did online games, education. And we just kept them occupied throughout the day.
More importantly, it was just not sessions. But we also created internal competitions, and awarded winners. There was a lot of interest in winning that prize for either art or music or whatever. I think that played a very important role in bringing the family very close to us.
And then the whole mindset of consumers – in terms of going digital – has played a very, very important role. Our sales through ecommerce have trebled in the last few years.
How does Marico bolster organisational performance in a post-pandemic world? Please share with us one practice or program that has inspired the people at Marico to perform better in the face of crisis.
Agility has meant that our cycle times have gone down. Instead of doing new product development in a structured manner, we asked: can we start doing things simultaneously? Can we start developing product testing with the consumers rather than developing the product for testing?
Also, because the organisation has to make inroads into digital ways of doing things, we have employed some very young minds whose job is to drive going digital in the organisation.
I think organisations have to realise that if you had to make opportunities out of the environmental disruption, you'd have to identify what is going to change and back it up with good quality talent. Competent talent.
As you zoom out and look into the future of business and work, what is the #1 trend or force that you see ahead of us that is really going to change the business landscape? As you zoom in, what is the #1 roadblock or barrier that needs to be broken to make the most out of these opportunities?
The biggest change, apart from the pandemic, is the confluence of so many technologies which are bringing in disruption. One has to identify [change] depending on what business one is in. How is technology going to change your offering to the consumer? What is competition going to do? Is it going to cause a huge level of disruption?
I think it's very important that you identify forces which are going to be disruptive, and there are two ways of looking at it. One is to say that I will be threatened by it. The other is to identify what will happen in the future, and invest and create opportunities out of it. We have, at Marico, an opportunity mindset where disruption is leveraged. Create future growth rather than be scared of some new or emerging competition.
As the theme of the event this year is 'Rethink What’s Possible', how is Harsh Mariwala rethinking what's possible?
First of all, I have a positive mindset. All of us have negatives in our lives. The key thing is to look at the positive side. They say you never waste a crisis. I see that this crisis has shown up some very interesting challenges and very interesting opportunities. Once you have a positive mindset, then automatically you're leveraging that mindset to create opportunities to grow.
If learning doesn't happen, then there is no future. So, I want to look at this pandemic from the lens of opportunity to drive growth, to innovate, to experiment, and more importantly, to learn from this – not only for me but also for everybody who was part of [our journey].
What is your word of advice to other leaders in inspiring them to look at the world with fresh eyes? What is one thing to start / one thing to stop as they venture into this new era of business?
What kind of future I see coming is difficult to predict in a fast-changing environment. But can I start identifying scenarios where something will happen, which will change my way of doing things? So, be proactive.
It's very important that leaders have that 'outside in' mindset because if you're [looking at the world] inside out, then you may be missing out on a lot of developments. Many of the global trends, which are consumer-facing trends, whether it's vegan or organic, or better quality, will come all over India. Try to start investing in that. Not everything will succeed. Some predictions might not come true, but the key thing is to predict the future [by thinking] 'outside in'. By researching and talking to thought leaders. Encourage experimentation and remove the fear of failure.