His management style has evolved through years of hands-on experience of leading his company, a style which has filled in nicely for the absence of a management degree on his curriculum vitae. However that hasn’t stopped him from devouring management books, just to be on the same page as his senior MBA-armed managers, says Harsh C Mariwala, chairman and managing director, Marico, in an interview. Excerpts:
Harsh C Mariwala, chairman and managing director, Marico. Kalpak Pathak/HT Photo
How would you define a leader?
A leader should create a long term sustainable model of success for the organisation. Even if he is not there tomorrow, the organisation should run — to me that’s a great leader. You’ve seen that many leaders, when they are there, the organisation does great, but once they leave, the whole organisation falls apart. That kind of a leader has more of yes men.
How would you define your own style?
It would definitely be one of consensus, delegative but with a broad direction — my job is to set the direction for the organisation because we want to be, in whatever we do, in the leadership position.
But were you always like that as a leader, or have you evolved?
I have evolved. Earlier I was more directive because at that time the focus was growth. But now it is to build consensus, drive a few initiatives within the organisation and not control, but to add value. Over a period of time, my style has become more catalytic, more influential. Maybe I was little more impulsive then and impatient — I am still impatient.
So change in leadership style is imperative?
Yes, I think the role of a leader changes as the organisation grows. As an entrepreneur, leadership means doing things because you’re a small organisation. And then from then on, if you become a medium-sized organisation, you have to get things done. And when you grow still bigger — from small to medium to large — you have to influence things.
In your journey as a leader, have you made wrong judgements?
There have been many — either chasing a wrong business or underestimating a challenge. We bought a company in the US, in ayurvedic products and services and supplying to all the spas in the US (Sundari skin care products, which Marico bought in 2003 and sold in 2009). It was a small company and I thought we would leverage our knowledge of ayurveda and make it big in the US but our business model has always been B2C and that business was B2B and we were not able to get the scale. Hence we sold it off. In another instance, we went into Saffola snack, but the snacks distribution business is quite different from managing a personal products business. However, it taught us a lot and we have now launched a breakfast cereal, under the Saffola brand name. The lessons from that failure have really helped us.
What do you look for when hiring talent for a potential leadership position?
The first thing I look for is how capable that person is in that role and whether he is better than the earlier incumbent. Number two, you also have to look at the leadership style of that person especially at senior levels, because you have built a certain culture in the organisation and you don’t want a leader who will practice a leadership style that is completely different because that will destroy the culture of the organisation. Then, it’s very important to have the right values — there are some basic values such as financial integrity which is almost a given, but it’s about overall intellectual integrity, because we don’t want people to play games in the organisation. So you look at that, you look at his past record and then his ambition level because you want persons who have a burning desire to succeed.
Do you agree with the perception that corporate leadership in today’s era takes greater recourse to poor economic environment to cover up for their own failure to lead successfully?
It all depends on what kind of industry you are in and to what extent you are dependent on government support. So if you’re in an industry, which is heavily controlled, for example infrastructure or telecom, or which require environmental clearance then a lot will depend on what happens at the government level.
Having said that, if you are in a sector which is less regulatory, then it is the CEO’s responsibility to chart out the future and don't go on blaming the environment.