As you know, this year the GLF is themed on the choices we make. Drawing from this, one of the things that I would like encourage to you to reflect on, is how, while we focus on managing our near term business, it is also important to think about what kind of lasting impact we want to create. What is the role that we will play in ensuring that we leave behind a stronger company? One that thrives for decades. A big part of this responsibility will also involve grooming the next generation of leaders to deal with challenges that we can’t even imagine today. How can we best equip them for this? To borrow from author Tom Rath, “Perhaps the ultimate test of a leader is not what you are able to do in the here and now, but instead what continues to grow long after you’re gone.”
So, I want to focus this week on what it means to build a legacy. And ask you – What do you want to be remembered for at Godrej?
I am very pleased that Mathew Eipe has agreed to write this message. For those of you who haven’t met him, Mathew is a Godrej legend in himself. He joined us out of business school and went on to spend several successful decades at Godrej, leading our Chemicals business. Mathew’s signature leadership style, strong people connect and championing of the Godrej values, made him a deeply respected leader across the Group. When he retired, he left behind an admirable legacy, in the many younger leaders who he mentored and the business that he helped create and establish.
Please read on…
When Vivek asked me to write this message, it got me thinking. 36 years is a long time. For all practical purposes, I grew up at Godrej. This is where I have celebrated my biggest wins, tided through some of my tougher times and met people who have gone on to become my most trusted friends. I started out as a Management Trainee when I was just 25 and when I retired in 2013, I had been running our Chemicals business for 19 years. I even lived for many years at the Godrej Hillside Colony at Vikhroli. Godrej was never just work for me.
One of the most wonderful aspects of working at Godrej, has always been the tremendous freedom that you are allowed. You are encouraged to be entrepreneurial, really own your work and take an active part in shaping our great company. Both as a young manager learning the ropes and then later, as a senior member of the leadership team, I have had the privilege of doing just this.
When you ask me today, what it means to have built a legacy, I must confess that I never thought of it like that. There was no real formula that I was following. What I wanted to create was simple and that never changed – I wanted us to build the best business we could. And by that, I don’t just mean a solid, high performing business. While that was of course imperative, what was more important was that we built a business that we could all be proud of. That came from the values and the grounding that makes us uniquely Godrej. It is what has held us in good stead through our over 115 year ‘young’ legacy and I believe, always will.
What I would like to share with you today, are the principles that I based my approach on, both on a personal front, as well as a Godrej leader. These have evolved over the years. They have been my yardstick of learning, especially when things got tough.
1. Call a spade a spade
I have always believed in being upfront and not cutting corners. True, sometimes this approach has been tough. It hasn’t always made people happy. But I strongly believe that overall, being honest and open, earns you respect. In the long run, people would much rather you told them what was coming their way.
Ours was a business which went through a fair share of tough times. We never pretended that it wasn’t going to turn out that way, or that we wouldn’t have difficult calls to make. In fact, it was in being completely comfortable with calling a spade a spade, that we often found the answers that we were looking for.
2. Stop to listen
In 1995, I was tasked with the turnaround of our Valia factory. We had just undergone a financial restructuring, where this factory had been made part of the Chemicals business. As the new Marketing Head, this was a big challenge for me.
The first thing we did during the turnaround, was to just listen. There was much trust lost between the Valia and Vikhroli Chemicals teams and we needed to bridge this. So, every month, our team visited Valia to spend time with people and talk about issues. This was how concerns surfaced and we were able to address them. There is no substitute for hearing people out. And if you can do it in person, then there is nothing like it. Eventually, it was the mutual confidence that the teams built in each other that helped focus efforts towards a lasting solution.
Later, in 2011, when we were moving our factory from Vikhroli to Ambernath, it involved a long-term settlement with the union. Our approach here too, was to dialogue as much as we could. Our workmen, after all, have a very close relationship with Godrej. We were able to work out a fair agreement and in fact, they went on to help make the transition smooth.
3. Ask for help
You don’t need to do it alone. Ask for help when you need it. It doesn’t make you appear weak. One of the biggest reasons for the Valia turn around, was that we stopped approaching it as a Chemicals only problem to solve. We brought the resources of the entire Godrej Group to the table, to figure this out. At my suggestion, Adi constituted a turnaround committee to be chaired by him. The team met once a month over a period of six to seven months, to review progress. Rakesh Sinha (who now leads Global Supply Chain for GCPL) was Secretary of this committee. It was these combined efforts that helped us pull the business back on track.
4. Take a decision and follow through
As a leader, the one thing you should do is build a strong network that you can dip into whenever you need a sounding board. Hear people out. But then, know that you need to take a decision and follow through on it. That is your responsibility.
Our call on Valia was to refine the strategy of the business. Move away from alpha-olefin, to its precursor fatty alcohol. This was a regular product, with some demand in India and a large market, internationally. To make this successful, Nitin Nabar and I travelled to our agents in our principle alcohol markets of the United States, Europe and Japan. We wanted to push for higher volumes. We attended conferences and met with customers like Unilever and L’Oreal, among others, to get global approvals for our products.
It paid off. Slowly, but surely, volumes grew. By 2000, five years down the line, we were selling close to the full capacity of the plant. Our business was awarded ‘Outstanding Business’ that year at the Godrej Awards, based on our huge performance improvement. This was one of the proudest moments of my career.
5. Genuinely care for your team
You are only as good as your team. You owe it to them to be the best possible friend, philosopher and guide that you can be. I have been privileged to have worked with the many talented people that I have, and I know that my contributions could not have been possible without their commitment. I have always appreciated and held in the greatest regard, their candid feedback. It made me a better leader and possibly, even a better person. But building that relationship takes time and trust. There is no shortcut to it. And there is nothing more rewarding.
6. Stay connected
Make it a point to know what happens across your company. One of the downsides getting more senior, is that you tend to be walled up in glass cabins. But that is not where the real action takes place. My years of eating at the canteen have taught me that. So, make sure that you are plugged in!
7. Know your business
At the end of the day, you are running the business and you need to know it really well. I am not suggesting that you need to have all the answers. What I mean however, is that you need to keep working hard to stay at the top of your game. You need to know how and why things are working in your business, what the next big thing in your industry is, be well networked in your peer groups and make your breadth of knowledge an asset to your team. Build on your strengths and wherever you feel you need help, make it a point to create a team to complement you. Keep earning the right to be where you are, every day.
8. Cherish your friends
My biggest takeaway today, apart from the incredible memories, are the great, enduring friendships that I have with so many people from Godrej. I am in touch with many of them even today, if not personally, then on Facebook and through occasional meetings when I travel. Amit Choudhury, one my closest friends, was many years my senior and my next-door neighbour at the Godrej Hillside Colony. Vijay Santhanam, my old colleague from Chennai, who now lives in China. Kersi Treasurywalla, again was many years my senior and left Godrej much earlier on. Omar Momin, who I have known ever since he joined Godrej, has also been a great friend and colleague.
A big thanks to Mathew for writing such an inspirational piece. We all miss Mathew and are grateful for the mark that he has left behind at Godrej.
I am sure that most of us, apart from those of you who may be close to retirement, have not for a minute thought about what impact we want to leave behind at Godrej. We all get so consumed by the here-and-now that we don’t really bother introspecting on what it means to build a lasting legacy.
So, in the midst of all the work that you are doing to deliver on this year’s objectives, do set aside some time to reflect on what you want to leave behind at Godrej.
Remember that your legacy does not depend on your age or the number of years you have spent at Godrej.
You don’t have to wait till you get close to retirement to dwell on this. This is something that you can impact every day. And your daily actions will shape you as a leader and the kind of influence you will have.
Do think about what changes you will drive to make Godrej a better place. How will you groom and inspire members of your team to make our company stronger? What are the stories that you want people to tell about you?
Hopefully, you will find that thinking about these questions and the kind of impact you want to leave behind, will enable you to become a better leader today.
P.S. Two of our stalwarts, Kailash Tadkase and Subhas “Dada” Mukherjee have recently retired after many years of association and service to the company. Thank you to both of them for touching our lives in such a positive and meaningful way, for their tremendous loyalty to the Group and for their remarkable contributions. We wish them all the best for their next innings. They will be greatly missed!