As a young executive at JWT, New Delhi, a couple of decades ago, I had made a presentation on the 'Future of Work' at one of our workshops. Mike Khanna, the then CEO who was present at the workshop, was impressed and thought it would be a good idea for me to present it to his executive committee in Mumbai. A few weeks later, I was in Mumbai at a retreat at Madh Island. The EXCO was in progress, and I was summoned to make my presentation. I walked in and looked around at the people seated around the table with Mike. I knew then Mike's secret of success - surround yourself with very competent people, build a great team and win. And that has been my single most important lesson in my career. It is a leadership lesson and not a management lesson. In the corporate world, I believe, good leadership trumps good management any day. You manage companies, processes, but the most important aspect of any corporation is its people. And people want to be led, not managed.
Building strong teams is easier said than done. For starters, the leader needs to be very confident and must not have insecurities. For an insecure leader, the opposite holds true - surround yourself with pygmies and you will look tall. And the other very important aspect of building a winning team is the ability to delegate well. There is no point in building a fantastic team and then micromanaging everything. Another learning has been about effective delegation. All leaders must remember, though, that they are only delegating authority, not responsibility. The responsibility stays with the leader, but he/she trusts the team or team member enough to delegate his/her authority to them.
It brings me to another leadership lesson that I learnt from my father. It is about trust. How can you delegate if you do not trust the people in your team? How do you take that first leap of faith and entrust your team member with an assignment, which is of huge importance to your organisation? My father used to tell me that there are two ways to assess a person you do not know well: Assume they are good and competent till they prove to be otherwise or assume they are useless till they prove to be good. He always encouraged me to follow the former. Trust your team members, give them bigger responsibilities and nine out of 10 times they will not let you down.
While I have been practising some of these learnings all through my career, they were brought sharply into focus when I left JWT after 19 years to join Worldwide Media - a Times of India/BBC Worldwide joint venture - as the CEO. I had joined a completely new industry. I needed to learn fast as the board wanted me to present my vision for the company at the next board meeting, which was only three weeks away. In my first week, I set up my leadership team. The nomenclature was chosen deliberately - leadership team and not an executive committee. It was a cross-functional team made up of all my direct reports. We went for an offsite, spent two days understanding our current business and the opportunities. From them, I got a crash course on the current business. We had a workshop on what we wanted to be and what we wanted to do as a company. At the end of the two days, we had a vision for our company. Since it was a vision that the leadership team worked on and arrived at together, it became "our" vision and not the CEO's vision. The buy-in was instant. The board meeting went well, and our company was on its way. The leadership team grew in size as our business grew. We maintained the regularity of the team meetings, ideally every quarter and at worst, every four months. All issues, from sales to editorial to HR and finance were discussed with complete transparency. Decisions were taken and the implementation started immediately. It was simple; if the team as a whole has agreed on a course of action, it should be implemented immediately. With the buy-in of a cross-functional team, there should be no impediments to implementation. A team decision eliminates that yawning gap between intention and implementation.
Taking a leap of faith with people, as my father suggested, is something I have always tried to practise. Sometimes even when the person himself is not ready for that leap. When I decided to entrust the role of editor to a 27-year-old in my former company for the launch of an iconic travel magazine, his response was one of disbelief. He kept asking me why I thought he was ready for the job even though he thought he wasn't. I had to convince him of my belief in his capability. He did take up that role and did an excellent job.
As I returned to head JWT South Asia a couple of years ago, my first decision was to form my leadership team. I have surrounded myself with very bright people. We have a shared vision for the company and its future. We meet regularly - more interaction means better integration - we collaborate well, and we move fast. They are a bunch of very competent individuals and as a team, they are unbeatable. The reason why we had two record-breaking years at JWT since my return, is almost entirely due to this fantastic team.
By Tarun Rai, CEO, J. Walter Thompson South Asia