tête-à-tête: Leadership Through Influence

The value of six months as a management trainee doing front line sales in Haryana is comparable to the six years I spent in engineering and management, put together, says Sumit Bidani, CEO - USG Boral (India)

Beginning from your family, school, university and first job what was your journey like to get where you are?

I grew up in Kolkata where I did all my schooling. Post this I did my Engineering from IIT Madras and Management from XLRI, Jamshedpur. My first job was with Colgate Palmolive as a management trainee and I spent the first six months doing front line sales in Haryana.

While working as management trainee and as a front line salesperson, I got a whole lot of “life” experience and not just work experience. One thing that comes to my mind is the time when there were floods in Haryana around October 1995. I was travelling by bus from Delhi to Hisar (By the way, travel allowances would be same as other front line sales employees even if you were a management trainee) and we were stuck in the bus because of the floods.

It was still raining and we had no option but to stay inside the bus. When the rains stopped after a couple of hours, few of us came outside and met some villagers passing by. We were told that food packets were being dropped a little distance away. Alternatively, there was a relatively high lying village close by and we could try and meet the sarpanch and stay overnight there. So, a decision had to be made. I felt that everyone in the bus was looking towards me for the decision. I was told that I looked educated and I could guide them. I realised that I was perhaps the only person in the bus who would have gone to college.

We did decide to walk towards the closest village as the rains had stopped and there was no point staying on the bus through the night. Thankfully, that turned out to be a very good decision. The sarpanch was kind enough to have us stay in a large unused room within his house. He provided us with blankets and tea. For us, that was enough. Next morning, thankfully there was no rain this allowed everyone to go to their destinations. I came back to Delhi through a mix of walking, standing on a tractor and bus. Basically, I started on the first morning and came back to Delhi by the next afternoon. All this while, the only thing I had was the tea at the sarpanch’s house. During my stint at Colgate Palmolive, I was visiting a number of towns that I never knew existed and experienced a culture very different from my metro upbringing. Those six months were a very big learning experience and looking back I feel that the value of these six months in my professional life is comparable to the six years I spent in engineering and management put together.

How important has your initial experience been in your overall career?

I was lucky to have a rigorous first-hand junior level experience in FMCG sales and then marketing as a management trainee. While it was difficult then, especially when I heard of would stand you in good stead over the years.

I did a number of sales and marketing assignments with FMCG companies for the first 11 years of my work life. Post that, I moved to Shell Lubricants where I spent 9+ years and had a number of assignments including the last four years in a global marketing role. This was followed by a stint with Formica Laminates and now with USG Boral.

What was your experience working with different nationalities?

I have really enjoyed working with people across nationalities. This has included working in various Asian markets as well as dealing with cross functional teams in the West. Virtual working and reliance on telecoms increase the complexity. I have had to adapt myself to be able to work more efficiently in a global multicultural working environment. A lot of it was focused on soft skills starting with the way I would speak. I have seen the importance of speaking slowly and pronouncing the words fully when speaking to people of different nationalities. This neutralizes your accent and ensures that people understand you better. One also has to recognize that most Asian countries are not as comfortable with English as Indians typically are. So, in emails one needs to write simple words and as few words as possible. While speaking, besides being less verbose you have to give more time for people to translate in their mind. Indians are used to a lot of diversity within India itself and I feel are quick to learn on dealing better with different nationalities. One thing that needs to be thrown out of the window is ascribing x behaviour to y nationality. There is no way one can stereotype any group of people.

What was it like working in matrix structures?

In most MNCs, working in a matrix structure is a reality. This could be formal or even informal. Organizations do well when they imbibe a strong culture where cross functional teams, possibly geographically spread out as well, work towards a common goal. As leaders, one has to get work done from people who may not be reporting to you. So, “leadership through influence” as against “leadership through authority” becomes very important. I struggled with this initially but later found my sweet spot. One important thing is to ensure a better understanding of the context and get a good alignment of the common goals. Spending more time on this aspect is important as it makes things easier as you go along. Post that, sharing clear expectations and deliverables as well as having regular structured reviews is quite critical.

How did you adapt to more senior general management roles from functional roles?

As one gets more senior and has larger teams and influence, I feel it is very important to let go of a lot of things one did earlier. Frankly, one has to realise that you may not have the best plan or opinion on everything and you have people down the line who are far better at many things. So, it is best to encourage ideas without following hierarchies. Also, very important to delegate some decisions down the line as well as create cross-functional project teams to solve some complex multi-dimensional problems. One analogy I keep using is the one with Internet Bandwidth. If we assume there is an average bandwidth for individuals, each individual comes with a different bandwidth but it is not possible for any individual to have a bandwidth very significantly higher than the average. However, an organization needs a bandwidth that is a significant multiple of the average individual bandwidth and hence the importance of an organization to ensure pooling in of all individual bandwidth.

Do you see property demand from a booming middle class in India turning out to be a key driver of growth?

The Indian market is tremendously important for our business with India’s construction industry expecting to continue to grow in excess of seven per cent over the next decade-as per GDP trends and classified information. Growth will be underpinned by stable government support for infrastructure development, as well as expanding private sector investments. Low per-capita consumption is the key growth opportunity and with accelerated adoption of dry construction that we are seeing, coupled with the scarcity of sand and water and general escalation in conventional building materials, is cumulatively triggering growth.

You have held senior positions in global companies such as Colgate Palmolive, General Mills, and Shell Lubricants, as CEO of USG Boral, what unique challenges do you face in the building materials industry that you did not face earlier in your professional career?

In the building material industry, there are multiple external stakeholders to deal with while prospecting, besides the end customer. Running an organization that is adequately structured to deal with this as well as coordinates efficiently internally, has its own challenges.

By Orchie Bandopadhyay