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Gaurav Choudhury, Hindustan Times
November 07, 2012
Leading footwear and apparel brand Woodland was started in Quebec, Canada, as a maker of winter boots, and was launched in India in 1992. The company’s managing director Harkirat Singh spoke to HT on a range of issues on leadership. Excerpts:
Q:How do you define a leader? What are the most important traits of a leader?
A: A leader is the chief custodian of the brand-force of the organisation —  someone who is sure about organisational goals and focus and can instantly infuse  a ‘go, get and achieve’ spirit. Passionate curiosity, an inquisitive mind, a simple mindset, the ability to take a complicated situation and boil it down to manageable tasks are all important qualities of a forward-thinking leader.

Q: Can leadership be learnt? In other words, how can a manager become a leader?
A: Yes, leadership is a performance art that one learns. An attitude of leadership can be cultivated by anyone by recognising the weaknesses in his area of work and then making improvements to overcome them. Simply put, critique your performance, get feedback and keep getting better.

Q:What is the role of a professional leader in a promoter-driven company?
A:My role is to provide periodic guidance and knock down obstacles in their way. Within the company, people have been promoted and treated on merit. That explains the zero attrition rate among senior professionals at Woodland.

Q:What is the role of a leader in times of a slowdown?
A:I think it is only in such times that you can differentiate a good leader from an average one. Every crisis presents an opportunity and a good leader is excited by it.

Q:How important is the role of communication in leadership?
A:Good communication not only helps to lead effectively, but it also helps to lead ethically. By understanding the process and role of communication, as well as the channels through which communication flows, leaders can increase their effectiveness and accomplish their objectives more optimally.

Q:Can you share some of your experiences during your career where may have been called upon to take decisions on retrenchment and downsizing?
A:I try to be fully involved in the hiring process, especially for middle and senior management roles. We have always tried to keep a lean organisational structure which can sustain the market high and lows, while delivering efficiently on the key parameters. Personally, I believe that the real cost of layoffs is much more when viewed in the long term. Not only does the employees’ morale take a hit, but the company also sees a downward spiral, since a lot of factors are at play when employees are laid-off.

Q:What has been the biggest leadership challenge you’ve faced?
A:Embracing change, and convincing stakeholders that it is good for them when the company sometimes asks them to come out of their comfort zones. The hard part is all of us react differently to change and that’s where leadership comes to play. We have to do the right thing but the hardest time in any transformation is when the results haven’t arrived and no one knows exactly when they will. Doing it the slow way, organically, can set us back - while any missteps can translate into expensive mistakes.
 
Q:Who are the leaders that have inspired you?
A:There are many CEOs and leaders whom I admire. If I had to pick one it would be Jack Welch. He has the aggression to win, together with integrity. I also admire Bill Gates. Steve Jobs is another leader that I admire for his sheer creativity and his refusal to accept mediocrity.

Q:What is the worst decision you have taken as a leader?
A:Decision making is easy, but gooddecision making isn’t. Also, making the unpopular but right decision is much harder than choosing an alternative that people will find the most acceptable.

Q:What is the best decision that you have taken as a leader?
A:There have been many but one of them was to enter India at the time when it was “looking” like an exciting market. We grabbed the opportunity at the right time and today, we are aggressively growing in the most exciting market in the world.

Q:What is the biggest leadership lesson that you have learnt?
A:The best way to make a ‘defining-moment’ decision is to study all the facts, learn everything you can about the circumstances you’re in, evaluate all the pros and cons, undetake a thorough cost-benefit analysis, and then make your decision. It’s really got to be well thought out.

Q:What is your leadership mantra?   
A:Be open, be transparent and be authentic.