Willingness to Learn & Adapt: Succeeding as a Great Manager

In this edition of the ‘CEO Insights,’ we have Mr. Kapil Agrawal, Chief Executive Officer at Aditya Birla Yarn. In his conversation with Mr. Rahul Mahajan, Country-Lead of Great Manager Awards, he shares with us his views as a leader.


Rahul: What is your leadership style?

Kapil: I think I’m a number-driven person. For me, numbers are very critical, analytics are very important for decision making. It is one of my biggest strengths in terms of being able to dig into any kind of data or any kind of numbers.

I am very open and transparent in my interaction and also expect my team to be so. If they think I’m doing something wrong, they can directly tell me that I am not right, and that’s the kind of atmosphere I enjoy working in.

I believe in being disciplined to deliver the commitments on time. Deadlines are ahead of anything. I can work with my team and go to any detail, but to me, any compromise or failure on that part is unacceptable. But at the same time, I get involved with my team and help them to whatever extent, to deliver the results. I always want to involve my team and be very transparent in terms of sharing information and what I do.

I’m also very passionate in terms of whatever I do. In the last couple of years, I’ve been able to drive change. One of the theories I go by is that I don’t want to be in an organization and just follow what it has built over the years; I want to add more value to it in terms of bringing some positive changes.

Rahul: What are some of the leadership lessons you have learned over the last year in times of crisis?

Kapil: One lesson is decision-making with limited information and what we can call “ Decision making in Grey Areas”. One of the challenges which I had earlier was that I needed all the information to make a decision, and in that process,  decisions get delayed.

‘I think last year was one where information was not available, the way you would have expected, and made you make a decision with very limited information.’

The second lesson which I learned is that we should be more agile in terms of responding to a situation. Textile as a business is very traditional and an old business, people have their style of working, and I think the past year allowed us to look at how we could be more agile.

The third lesson was digitalization. I was never a guy who was very keen on online scenarios. Being a traditionally old industry, we were slow to get out of the tracks and adopt digitalization. In the last year, we made progress and we were one of the first to launch a digital swatch book for Yarns. We also revamped our website completely and started digitizing our offerings to our customers.

I think the fourth and most important thing for me is empathy. Being a taskmaster, people always used to tell me that I am less empathetic. But I think being more empathetic towards people is the other big thing that I learned during the last 12 to 14 months.

Rahul: How do you go about defining the strategy and the vision of the organization? And what is your approach in terms of the trickle-down effect on your employees?

Kapil: As a group, we normally have a three to five-year rolling plan and have to submit that every year. In the last couple of years, I was fortunate to travel a lot and understand this industry more. That gave me ideas to reflect and evaluate the direction in which the industry is moving. This helped me in setting the direction of our business. As a team, we defined our vision in terms of the size of the business, which segment we want to play in, which geographies we should be present in, and then we worked out our numbers accordingly.

Once this proposal was approved, we created a team, which was led by one of the senior EXCOM members, and he then drove the things. That’s the way we started sharing the larger picture with our teams. This larger picture gets divided into numerous immediate actions, which all of us have to follow.

The way we trickle it down is the budget process. During this, we form small teams across various elements; to name a few of the modules, cost reduction, or outsourcing. And that’s the way we start trickling it down to the general level in terms of where we want the business to be.

We conduct town halls where I interact with the teams, share the vision, progress on various initiatives, challenges, and achievements.

Rahul: What are the qualities that you would look for in your successor?

Kapil: I look at somebody who is a growth-oriented person. I feel if somebody does not have a vision of growth, any business over some time will start shrinking. It will move into a trajectory that would make  survival  difficult.

‘I look at a person who is growth-oriented and has a vision in terms of taking this business to the next level.’

Secondly,  I would look for somebody who can interact and connect with the teams. They need to be fair and equal to everyone.

Thirdly, I would look for somebody ambitious, not in terms of delivering, but in terms of bringing change. I believe when I leave this company, there will be a lot of areas for improvement. Someone who challenges the status quo, takes things forward, brings in something new, and allows this business to evolve.

Rahul: If you are in an interview with very little time and you can only ask one question to that particular candidate, based on which you have to decide whether that candidate is the right fit or not. What would that question be?

Kapil: I would ask, “Are you ambitious?” You could look at the body language of an interviewee, it brings out certain aspects. It allows me to gauge the ambition and the way they speak reveals how they are going to handle their team with the sentences and words they use.

If they talk only about their ambition, then they will leave the team behind. What I would like to understand from them is how ambitious they are, as individuals and collectively.

Rahul: What is the most crucial or critical competency required of a great manager?

Kapil: I think one competency is their willingness to learn. When I move to  next level, I always start at the bottom of the pyramid, having to climb up again.

‘So, their willingness to learn and leave the baggage or whatever legacy they have, in terms of how successful they were, relook at the role through a new lens, and adapt themselves.’

I also think about the willingness to change themselves and the way things are currently. If there are failures, accept them and do not give up.

Rahul: What are some of the typical people management challenges that you face?

Kapil: One of the challenges I face is the growth that is to be given to our employees, especially in a business that is not growing. Textiles is a traditional industry to attract and retain good talent, this is another issue which we face. It is important to motivate your team and keep them engaged, this is something which we always try to do.

Rahul: If you had the opportunity to give some piece of advice to your younger self from about ten years ago, what would that be?

Kapil: One piece of advice is definitely to have more patience. I think I was a little impatient in terms of my growth. I’m a very ambitious guy who wants to grow very fast, thankfully I got the opportunities, so I have no complaints.

I think the other bigger  advice would be to be a little bit more empathetic in terms of people’s feelings. I would also have liked to have spent more time with my family. I regret not having done that because of spending more on pushing for mywork..


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 has been consulting organizations for over a decade to identify & develop successors

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.