After more than 25 years in manufacturing, marketing, and retailing of readymade garments, the founder and promoter of the Future Group, Kishore Biyani, is preparing himself for a second innings. Born in a middle-class trading family and credited for introducing modern retail in India, Biyani chose to dream big and take risks even as others viewed his ideas with scepticism. Biyani spoke to HT about why failure is important, and how he has groomed everyone in his company to laugh at failures.
What does leadership mean to you?
Leadership is all about taking decisions. It is about how you build teams, achieve fruitful outcomes, deliver and execute while taking people along and also about creating positive attitude and removing negative energy.
Can leadership be nurtured?
While some are born leaders, in many instances leadership can be developed. Overall, there are two kinds of leaders — the thinking ones, and the skilled ones. Thought leadership is ingrained, while the other is acquired. Thought leaders are born. At 25 years of age, one cannot suddenly turn into a thought leader as by then thought is developed. But one can develop skills anytime.
Who are your role models?
One can have a role model in every discipline of life. On the supply chain side for instance, Victor Fung (group chairman of Li & Fung) is my role model. I see him as a thought leader. The first time I read one of his articles was 20 years ago in Harvard Business Review, where he was a regular contributor. For retail, Sam Walton (an American businessman best known for founding the retailers Walmart and Sam’s Club) is our role model at the Future Group.
When it comes to entrepreneurship, all of us grew up with Dhirubhai Ambani (founder of Reliance Industries) as a role model and he is still an inspiration for what he achieved and the way he overcame challenges. At a personal level, I find Anil Agarwal (founder and executive chairman of the UK-based Vedanta Resources Corporation) fascinating in terms of his vision and his ability to take big decisions.
What are your strengths?
All of us have both positives and negatives. If you look at it from the retail point of view, to give an example, a good retailer has to be strong on every point. I cannot claim that I am strong in all areas. I believe a strong leader is the one who recognises one’s weaknesses and flaws and finds people to fill in those areas.
What are your weaknesses?
We have too many weaknesses. For instance, an ambition to do a lot of things and achieve too much...
What are these weaknesses? Is supply chain a weakness?
Supply chain was never a weakness for us. We have always been the best and we are keeping apace of remaining the best. We can be better on the capital side, though inflow of foreign funds is no longer a worry. Even the best-laid plans do not fall in place at times.
Are failures stepping-stones to success?
One cannot achieve much without failures. The only ones who make no mistakes are the ones who sleep. I think we know how to learn from failures and have learnt to laugh at them. We are perhaps the only company in India that has acknowledged failure.
We have trained everyone to admit failure because until one admits failure, he is unable to change. The first thing is to defend, then escape and pass on the blame. I have never blamed anyone for my mistakes. The leader has to take the blame.
After Independence, has India nurtured enough leaders?
India still lags in this area. We are somewhat weak in thought leadership. We have been under foreign rule for so many centuries, and that has affected our thought leadership, our ability to believe in ourselves and pursue our own ideas. We are still ‘not there’ when it comes to product innovation. Nevertheless, we are at a stage where we are building the nation. India is transforming, and fast. You will see more thought leaders, who are innovators, emerge.
Has your leadership style changed over?
At every stage in life, one learns and matures and sees new scenarios, new opportunities and new possibilities. In a fast growing economy, one focusses on growing revenues, exploring new businesses. In a subdued economy, growth has to be multi-dimensional — growth could mean growing efficiencies, growing margins and getting more from the same. Even today, we are just as ambitious, but our ambition is more about getting more from the same scale of business or operations or resources through better productivity and better execution.
You have built your retail empire from scratch. What do you think will be the challenges for the next generation?
The pace of change is increasing every day — there are new trends, new technologies and often contra-trends as well. Each of these brings new challenges and opportunities — depending upon how innovative and agile one is. For leaders of tomorrow, coping with change, and even benefiting from it, will be the biggest challenge.
First generation entrepreneurs start with almost nothing and therefore have little fear of failure. As business grows, achievements, success and scale come in, and then people often fear losing these. That affects fresh thoughts and innovation in the enterprise. Second-generation entrepreneurs, who can overcome this and pursue new ideas, and not just act as preservers of an enterprise, will create a name for themselves.