Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Storyboard18 - "Add value, not intelligence," Ram Raghavan, Colgate's MD on leadership

Ram Raghavan opens up about his journey from management trainee to marketing director to managing director, in an exclusive interview with Storyboard18

Published: Feb 17, 2022 03:43:28 PM IST
Updated: Feb 18, 2022 01:25:16 PM IST

Storyboard18 - "Add value, not intelligence," Ram Raghavan, Colgate's MD on leadershipRam Raghavan, MD, Colgate-Palmolive India

Several career marketers have made bold and confident transitions to lead organisations. They bring with them training and traits which are more critical today than ever before. In our ‘Marketers to Leaders - Journeys to the corner office’ series we track one such remarkable journey. In a special interview with Storyboard18’s Delshad Irani, Colgate-Palmolive India’s MD, Ram Raghavan, talks about his view on leadership and the company's approach to career development, as he opens up about his journey from management trainee to marketing director to managing director.

Edited excerpts.

Q. To start off, tell us about your journey at Colgate-Palmolive?
It's been almost 25 years at this wonderful organisation. It’s an unbelievably humbling experience to be sitting in the corner office of the same company that you joined as a trainee. One of the best parts about the journey has been how we at Colgate look to approach careers and people's personal growth opportunities.

Classically, it's always been looked at as a ladder, a corporate ladder. But we prefer to call it a honeycomb. It's a honeycomb which is made up of a series of diverse experiences that are strategically and thoughtfully put together so that it brings together a phenomenal set of experiences where people continue to grow and learn along the way. It's a more holistic outlook to making sure that you have the breadth of experiences that best enables you then to be in those kinds of leadership roles.

My marketing assignments gave me a more holistic outlook to the organisation because marketing as a function tends to touch upon everything from R&D to sales, supply chain and finance. I started in sales or customer development, and very early in my career I had the opportunity to manage a team.

Something that in other functions, perhaps you would do significantly later.
Sales also helps you amplify that mindset of getting things done, a results orientation.

Fundamentally, I would say my journey at Colgate has really been one of integration and of diverse, rich and wide set of experiences.

Q. Can you share some examples of how your previous roles helped you become a better leader?
I had the great opportunity of working in Colgate Latin American’s operations and I was heading innovation. If you're doing Innovation, more often than not, you'll fail about seven times. And those three times that you'll do well, you'll do really well. What it really teaches you then as a leader is resilience and overcoming the fear of failure. Then when you are in the corner office, the courage you have to learn or experiment, the comfort you have making decisions knowing fully well that some of them will be wrong, is unbelievable.

Similarly, one of our strengths as an organisation is what we call a constant ‘external mindset’. So even today, I spend time in kirana stores in the smallest of towns and do home visits. I go to people's homes, and when they give us permission, I enter their bathrooms as well and I look at what's inside their bathroom closets.

When you go to a consumer’s home and you sit down and have a conversation with them, a lot of people will often give you responses that they expect you want to hear. But then you start listening with your broader set of senses. You start listening with your eyes. It’s the power of observation. We look for body language, we look at how their homes are decorated, and each of those aspects gives you a richer and a deeper insight into the true psyche, behaviour and what’s really making them tick. Fast forward to where I am today. That people centric mindset and approach allows me to amplify my levels of empathy.

My experience in sales and leading people has taught me that my job as a leader is not to solve the problem, it is to provide clarity. It is to be able to ask the right questions and create the right playground, so to speak, where people can thrive and prosper and great things happen.

Q. We’ve noticed new-age firms also betting on marketers to lead them. There are very successful startup brands helmed by leaders and founders with backgrounds in marketing and sales or CMOs who transitioned to CEOs. Perhaps they’re borrowing from the leadership playbook of legacy companies like Colgate.
In a startup ecosystem, you may or may not have the most classical functional delineations; you may not have the structural profiles of what you define as a legacy organisation. It has given rise to wonderful leadership skill sets like risk taking, entrepreneurial skills, and ability to have a holistic outlook very early in your career. So it has, to some extent, broken the classic cookie-cutter approach of how your career has to be built.

Now, on the flip side of it is even legacy organisations have very different things to teach and help people grow. They give you a phenomenal exposure to structure and processes that allow you to scale as well as gain subject matter expertise. The depth of a particular thing that you want more information, knowledge or understanding of is phenomenal.

This future actually is going to allow for unbelievably well thought through leaders to emerge. And at the same time, it's going to allow for people to continually grow and be challenged because you're going to have to do something different. You cannot be static anymore.

Q. Do startups take earlier bets on people vis à vis legacy firms?
I don't know about how other corporations operate. But I think what the startup environment has done is, it has most certainly asked every one of us to rethink how we build leadership profiles, and offer career opportunities.

I can only talk about our programme and one of the things we're extremely proud of is a programme that I originally joined at the company over 20 years ago. It’s been rechristened LEAP - Leadership Experiences and Advancement Programme.

The core of the programme rests on the fact that we now realise that talent is looking for a lot more. They want experiences and they want these experiences earlier in their careers. The LEAP model looks to make sure that you get the principles of whatever it takes to succeed, run great businesses and build brands, while at the same time you're equally embedded in the new, in the cutting-edge.

This hybrid approach to leadership development allows us to actually help people frame career profiles. Now our whole challenge is extending these principles to folks who are 10, 15 years into their careers as well.

The other variable that I think new business models have taught us is skills like design thinking. Having been through the course myself, it's been one of the most eye-opening learning experiences. The first principle of design thinking is about designing for people. There are going to be skills like this, which perhaps weren't in the older curriculums of leadership development. And now they're going to be an integral part of it.

Q. What’s the best advice you have for people looking to transition into leadership roles?
The first and biggest, broad piece of advice I'll offer is build a leadership point of view early in your career. And put yourself in touch with people who are genuinely concerned about your growth.

My leadership lessons:
1) Listening with empathy.
2) Courageousness. Have the courage to own and drive change, and start with yourself before anything else. It helps build resilience and it helps overcome fear of failure.
3) Amplify your curiosity quotient.
4) You can never provide certainty as a leader, but you can certainly give clarity. That’s the role of a leader.
5) A lot of leaders will give orders but then back off. Hold yourself accountable for outcomes.
6) An evergreen leadership trait for me, personally, is integrity. Do what's right, not what's easy. This is going to hold itself true even more as we get into a world of amplified ESG principles.
7) Common sense. I think it's a highly underrated trait.
8) Have a sense of humour. I'm not saying become a stand up comedian. This is Colgate, smiles kind of come naturally to us. But it's amazing, when you smile in a meeting, for example, instantly the mood changes. Being light-hearted is a phenomenal skill.
9) Add value, not intelligence. And sometimes adding value as a leader could mean saying nothing at all, by learning to let go and letting your team and people take you forward.

The interview also aired on CNBC-TV18. Read and watch Storyboard18 on Forbes India, Moneycontrol, CNBC-TV18, and