In this ‘CEO Insights’ edition, as part of the Great Manager Awards, we have Mr. Vishak Kumar, who is the Chief Executive Officer at Madura Fashion & Lifestyle. In his conversation with Mr. Rahul Mahajan, Country-Lead of Great Manager Awards, he shares with us his values and principles as a CEO.
Rahul: Tell us a bit about your leadership style, what’s it like to work with you?
Vishak: My leadership style is built around a few things. First, to provide support to people to do their best. Second, there is a business mandate or set of results to be delivered, and third is the ingrained culture within which we do these things. These to me are intertwined and not mutually exclusive.
I have a 5-year objective for the business, which is broken down to an annual objective and which is further divided into monthly work plans. Usually, in the last week of every month, I crystalize my work plan for the next month along with a self-assessment routine for the month gone by; about 95% of the time I’m able to stick to my list. It also gives me clarity on what I want to achieve.
I’m not a big fan of servant leadership with my team. I believe that once I brief them about their task, it’s up to them to figure out how to deliver the best, though I will provide them the necessary support and resources that they require to achieve it. I have one more dimension to this, i.e. when I’m inside your business be it inside your store or reviewing your store or factory site, I’m your worst critic. I will try to push you into everything possible. But when I’m outside your business, I will do whatever it takes to make it successful.
My cultural guardrails are focused around 20 postulates of Maduraism. For example, one of the postulates states that ‘our people are good, and they people come every day to do a good job’. This statement means that we trust people by default and assume that people are coming to do a good job. Another one says, ‘There should be a hierarchy for decision making and democracy for information’. I can cut through 5 layers of hierarchy and talk to the front end staff and get a sense of what’s happening there; but if a store manager asks me for capital to renovate the store, then he will have to follow a certain hierarchy.
We prefer to hire people from outside only at entry levels as Management Trainees and then develop them internally. We try and avoid lateral hires, especially in senior roles.
Rahul: If you were to find a successor for your role, what would be the two or three qualities that you would be looking at?
Vishak: there are many ways to succeed in business. At one level, we are a people business; at another level our business is all about understanding fashion from the eyes of the consumers. Third, we are all about strengthening the business of brands, which is about understanding consumer insights, behaviours, creating products with the highest of quality standards, staying updated. Anyone who enjoys the process of watching people dressing up well has a better chance of success in this business.
Rahul: What are some of your learnings over the last year?
Vishak: There are hard learnings as well as soft ones. Our understandings around digital platforms, new consumer opportunities, work-from-home apparel. At another level, we learnt how to make high quality masks!
During the first lockdown, with everything closed, within the first 14 days, we built our first mask – a product which we had never made before. People talk about N-95 masks now, our masks one year ago were of that quality.
We’re proud that we didn’t lay off anyone. It was not easy, there was tremendous cost pressure. We all took salary cuts – with the most senior people taking the highest cuts.
Rahul: In an interview, if you had the opportunity to ask only one question and basis that decide whether to hire or not, what could that question be?
Vishak: I don’t have a one-liner for this because usually, my interview methodology is different. I start with a normal conversation. Within half an hour I will get a gut feeling which says “hire him versus don’t hire him”. The remaining 1 ½ hours is to challenge that gut feeling. I always try to look into their past achievements, to find how real those are or whether they’re trying to put up some credit for somebody else’s work. While there is no simple checklist, I do make it a point to probe deep into the person’s value systems
Rahul: What are some of the challenges that you face when it comes to people management?
Vishak: I don’t think you need to have an explicit job or role for ‘People Management’, But, I mentor people as I have conversations with them about their career. This is because it is our responsibility to advise people on how to become better and improve their performance.
“Sometimes a mentor’s job is to just show a mirror”
People will have a different self-image than what we’re trying to show them. There are times when we don’t have a solution for people because they’re completely personal. This is a new challenge that we all are facing, where the personal and professional has become intertwined.
“To make people see their blind spots can be challenging for a leader.”
Rahul: What is the most common piece of advice that you find yourself giving the younger generation?
Vishak: When I was in my 20s, I was in a generation where we only started learning to be confident about things. But this generation is far more self-aware and much more confident for the things that they want. One area which I feel this generation should work on is their attention spans. For example, being away from their phones for more than 10-15 minutes would be a good start.
Rahul: What do you think are your leadership team’s learnings from last year, and what are the things that you would like to focus on in the next six months?
Vishak: I think that everyone has learned to adapt to different ways of working like video calls, tighter inventories, being more nimble, optimistic, and agile in decision making. We’ve all faced a very different year, which has changed our priorities, ambitions, and ways of working, but there will come a day when we will have to switch gears dramatically and that is something my teams are preparing for.
“Learn to change gears fast at the right time.”
Rahul: According to you, what is the most crucial competency required to be a Great Manager?
Vishak: I use three words that would define a Great Manager – “Neeyat, Mehnat and Kabiliyat”– ‘character’, ‘hard work’, and ‘capability’.
A good filter to know if you are in the right job – ask yourself if you are Learning, Enjoying and Contributing – if the answer is a No to any of these three questions, it’s time for some reflections!
About Rahul Mahajan:
Rahul is the Country Lead of Great Manager Awards and has played a pivotal role in strengthening the Great Manager Awards program in partnership with The Economic Times over the last 6 years in India. Rahul closely works with Business & HR leaders to help them identify and develop successors for their organization.
About Great Manager Awards:
Great Manager Awards Program is an initiative by ‘People Business’ to identify, recognize and reward “Companies with Great Managers” in India.
This program enables the participant organizations to compare and benchmark themselves and their managers across the industry. It helps organizations create real competitive advantage through its managers.