“There is a necessary condition for leadership, and that is authenticity. Your best chance at being a leader is being yourself” - Nitin Paranjpe, COO, Unilever
In yet another inspiring session of “Be the Best Version of Yourself” webinar series hosted by SOIL Institute of Management, their Founder and Chairman, Anil Sachdev, engaged in an exhilarating conversation with Unilever’s COO Nitin Paranjpe, where the latter spoke about the two crisis that shaped his leadership journey, and emphasized the need to grow out of self-limiting beliefs.
A believer of people first, in a multi-stakeholder business model, Paranjpe has led Unilever through some of the most challenging circumstances, and while he helped scale performance and numbers, he was able to do that while retaining trust and values at the core of it all. With a guiding mantra of, “Serving the society should be the purpose, shareholder wealth maximization is the outcome,” and conviction that good guys can make it big, he has made a mark for himself as a distinguished leader and is also among Britain’s Top 100 influential Asians.
Read on for highlights from the conversation.
The trickle down effect of being an enabling leader
On being asked to share an instance from work where he felt most proud and happy while working with his team, Paranjpe narrated an incident from 1997, noting, “A few times in your life you feel incredibly fulfilled and incredibly proud!”
Having has spent about 9-10 years with the organization back in 1997, then in the capacity of a Branch Manager, Paranjpe encountered a situation where Unilever faced a boycott from retailers in Kerala, with a large proportion of the sales coming to a standstill. In such a situation where his team looked to him for guidance, and he himself being answerable to the senior leadership, he found solace, hope and encouragement from his leader through a phone call, where his leader expressed trust and empowerment. “I call you every time not so that you are under pressure, but to let you know that you enjoy everyone’s trust, and that you are the man on the ground, and that everyone in the company, will go by what you recommend.”
That one conversation followed by his leader’s undeterred focus on values, “We will always take a principle stand. We will not succumb. We will not give in on our values,” instilled a sense of raised level of responsibility in Paranjpe and changed how he felt and dealt with the situation by a great magnitude.
“This was the time our values were tested and in that one act he demonstrated that this company really believes in those. That was a massive lesson for me.”
As he narrated this conversation to the team amid the crisis, the team felt energized and proud to work for a company that lived by its principles and wanted to do what was right. This inspired them to do things well beyond their call of duty.
Mismatch of ambition and resources is key to innovation
Yet another interesting recollection from the past was a conversation between Paranjpe and late Professor CK Prahlad, that helped him lead the company yet again with conviction and ambition, bolstered by the consequent efforts of the workforce, despite “wildly-off” expectations. “In the right conditions or circumstances, the same set of people can unleash magic and together can achieve results that seem hard to believe individually.”
During a mentoring session, Late Professor CK Prahlad, familiarized Paranjpe with the Ambition(A) and Resources(R) theory, as per which:
- For a person with a managerial mindset, A=R
- For a person with an entrepreneurial mindset, A is substantially greater than R
Emphasizing on the need for an entrepreneurial mindset for innovation, he explained, “An entrepreneur has no correlation between ambition and resource...It is the inequality of ambition and resource, that is the driver of innovation”, therefore, the person is able to live with this thought, and the longer they live with this thought, they get closer to finding an answer - a new way of using that resource, making ambition equal to resource - “and once they do, a great entrepreneur changes this ambition again.”
“A necessary condition for innovation is mismatch. If you can’t live with a mismatch, you can’t innovate.”
Overcoming self-limiting beliefs
“We are all afraid of failing, that’s what keeps us from dreaming big.”
With a strong leadership team on his side and inspiration from the A/R theory, Paranjpe was able to get the organization to work towards achieving what he calls a “wildly off number”, amid the 2008 financial crisis, in an endeavor to leap out of the normal way of doing things and help the company sustain, expand and prosper. “It was just the pursuit of things that no one had tried before.”
The human spirit and the way it has evolved and adapted can surprisingly make one go through their life with some significantly self-limiting beliefs. However, Paranjpe urged, “If you want to win big time, you must be ok to fail, if you are too afraid of failing, you will play within yourselves.” By stepping up the game one can liberate themselves and create new degrees of freedom.
“Leave your crease, otherwise you don’t have a chance of hitting the ball out of the park.”
“All of us go through our lives so afraid of failing that we don’t even explore the depth of the capability that exists in all of us. If you can liberate yourself, and if leaders can create conditions where you are not afraid to fail, where you are not working towards conventional targets, where targets are things that make you feel proud, that’s the emotion, that’s the thing you work towards. And then magic happens, beyond what any of us have imagined,” shared Paranjpe.
‘There is a necessary condition for leadership, and that is authenticity’
“There is a necessary condition for leadership, and that is authenticity. Your best chance at being a leader is being yourself.” In times of doubt, “When you go back to what you believe in, deciding what’s right and what’s wrong becomes relatively easy, if we have the clarity and the touchstone of our belief system.”
“Great leaders don’t become great leaders because they seek followers, they become great leaders because they follow their beliefs, their conviction." Advising leaders on navigating the current crisis Paranjpe recommended, “Your values will guide you between right and wrong, because there is no playbook or guidance for the current context.” In his 30 years of experience, that he sums up as one glorious failure, one chance encounter with Professor Prahlad and one serious adversity, the three defining moments of his career, he said that these three allowed him to carry out human experiments and challenge the well-accepted limitations on human capabilities and potential.
Having encountered a phase in his professional journey where he experienced sleepless nights and self-doubt, Paranjpe happened to come across a thought that he holds true as a law even today, ‘When you do the right things, the right outcomes must follow.”
He strongly believes that in any challenge, the answers are often staring at us, “Just do the right things, and play for the long-term even if it seems expensive at this moment.” To be able to determine what’s right from wrong, one often requires to invest time in reflection and introspection.
“If you postpone a difficult conversation with yourself it will turn ugly,” he claimed.
“There is no chance of winning a war with self-doubt,” Panranjpe shared. The self-doubt deosn't just exist among those in leadership roles, but in fact is a very common perception and sense of inadequacy that persits in humans. Paranjpe cautions leaders to address this tendency of employees with utmost care. “In difficult times, a leader shouldn’t make their teams feel inadequate and hopeless. When you are going through tough times, people feel terrible about themselves, they are not sure whether they can win. So if you are a boss in such a situation, your job is to instill belief, your job is to instill hope.”