Mr. Suresh Narayanan, MD, and CEO, Nestlé, in a candid conversation with Mr. Abhijit Bhaduri (Founder, Bhaduri and Associates) talks about some of the essentials of leadership. Herewith presenting few key takeaways from the session:
When Mr. Narayanan was asked to design a 15 minutes version of “what CEOs miss out the most as they go on to build organizations”? He answered by saying that, “leadership is fundamentally a set of capabilities and instincts that come together to cast a major influence”. The following three abilities are extremely important for leaders as well as for any individual to function effectively:
- Authenticity or the ability to be under your skin, to be comfortable with it and to resonate that to the people around you.
- The art of story-telling: Over all these years we have become so KPI oriented that we have lost this art somewhere. We are so caught up in achieving a particular number that we always talk in a language which is not very exciting, e.g. "my vision is to become a 20 billion dollar company in five years. Rather the leaders should tell its people, “Where they will be in five years, where they could be and how they could contribute to it."
- The third ability is to make choices: It is all about making choices in one’s life. The choices can either be good, tough, and relatively easy or where we all make mistakes.
These three key attributes or abilities should essentially be possessed by the leaders irrespective of the fact that they are leading 2 people or 2000 people.
Emphasizing more on authenticity, Mr. Narayanan deliberated on “how he keeps his feet on the ground”; he basically talked about the two critical aspects:
- Value system: Value system is something with which you have been brought up; it casts a major influence in one’s life. Retrospectively Mr. Narayanan said that, “right from our school days, we were taught to be humble, kind, courteous and good. The oft popular theory that “tough guys always win” has always been there but I also believed that “nice guys can also do nice things."
- Second aspect is around how your career has evolved, for me the journey towards the destination has been more exciting than the destination itself. I have always believed that as a leader one should be able to influence and positively mould the lives of people.
Leaders sometimes forget that we have to evoke both head and the heart of the people and it is the heart that makes one says that "I will move."
Since Mr. Narayanan fondly talked about the ‘Story telling’ ability, it was asked “how does someone learn that art”?
Commemorating his past experiences, Mr. Narayanan said -the best presentations he attended never had more than a slide or two, but they always had some evocative story which not only won the head but also the heart of the people. He went on to say that sometimes, we forget as leaders that we have to evoke both head and the heart of the people and it is the heart that makes one says that “I will move”. He elaborated that focusing on story-telling doesn’t mean that you are flippant or soft or unprofessional, in fact it sounds extremely professional when you are able to translate and enliven a slide into an actual end state that the person sees himself in.
Mr. Bhaduri reflected on Mr. Narayanan’s early career and asked, “you were leading groups of people who were older and more experienced than you, how did you handle that challenge?” to which Mr. Narayanan replied, fundamentally it comes from the following beliefs that I have:
Respect for everybody: I respect everyone in the organization, irrespective of his/her designation; everyone deserves respect, be it a coffee boy or my co-worker or my boss.
Curiosity and sensibility to understand a point of view: People are bundle of experiences and emotions and if you are able to understand that as a leader and normalize it, lot of problems will be resolved and it will help bring the truth to the table. The challenge of the leaders is to build consistent muscle memory in the organization during the tenure of the leadership. The generational divide is not a valid proposition rather it is sometimes a lazy thinking as you don’t wish to make that effort and simply say that the person is ten years older and hence he won’t listen. A touch of humility, a touch of being respectful and a touch of genuinely trying to understand other’s perspective is all what it takes. Personally, I have learned more from my experiences than what I have learned from the books or any serious presentations.
It was further asked, “there are times in leaders’ lives when they may need to let go of people, how difficult is it and how have you dealt with such situations?” to which Mr. Narayanan answered:
I have always kept two principles in my mind, firstly, if it is professional, fair and if it needs to be done then it has to be done. I have kept the professional and the reason part of it on one side. The second non negotiable element is deep sense of dignity and respect for an individual. A leader will always encounter situations where bad news has to be given but at times, it is done in such deprecating, insulting manner which makes the other person feel that he is simply not worth the existence; this practice is very wrong. So my advice is “when you have the professional reasons to take tough calls, please treat the other person with respect, dignity and sensibility that they deserve and trust me it will mostly come out as positive.”
“People will never remember you for the growth, revenue, profits and the factories that you build rather people will always remember you how you made them feel," said Mr. Narayanan.
He said that, “For me, the tragedy of the leadership is that the leaders are not sensitive; being empathetic is seen as a negative trait which is not the case rather it is one of the foremost traits which makes any leader truly successful.”
Lastly, his views and advice were asked around the ‘human side’ of the digitization – the question was “with digitization becoming a social fabric, do you think looking at the human element is out of place and not relevant or will it coexist?
Mr. Narayanan answered it by saying, “for me digital relevance will seek its goal only when people are relevant”. Any great revolution in terms of information and in terms of method, is ultimately ‘for people’. In this age of machine learning, my advice to people is to understand “what organizational unlearning which we need to do?” We always talk about the benefits of getting automated, to get everything standardized, but we never realize the other part of the reason - that the part of the muscle memory of the organization is redundant and we don’t do this unlearning process. It is important to have a ‘conscious people process’ to unlearn some of the elements which is and might not be relevant for the future. This consciousness when applied will certainly make organizations far happier and productive workplace.
He concluded the talk by saying that, if he can continue to be a good human being and contribute to the best of his abilities, he will be happier than adding more crowns to his head!
Aren’t leaders like Mr. Narayanan epitomize elements of humility, empathy and respect for others? Such leaders give major leadership goals to others by demonstrating how one can be successful by keeping their head high and feet firmly on the ground! Much respect!