What makes a successful business leader?
Is your definition solely focused on numerical targets? Or is it about building a loyal team that works, grows and innovates together, through good times and bad?
With more than three decades experience managing large, complex and fast-growing organisations in Asia, Achal Agarwal, has given the subject of leadership much thought. Whether you are successful, he says, depends on how you measure and define what success means.
The president of Kimberly-Clark Asia gave his thoughts on the subject in a recent presentation in the Leadership Dialogue Series at NUS Business School.
Among his recommendations: avoid the trap of focusing too much on formulating and defining a strategy. Leadership is about execution – about getting things done and how you go about doing it.
His advice is a roll-your-sleeves-up-and-get-stuck-in approach to leading business success. Here are eight points from his presentation:
Execution is critical. Formulating a strategy is relatively easy, but it is during the process of execution where companies can differentiate themselves from the competition. In Agarwal’s opinion, execution is about creativity and problem solving. More importantly, execution helps shape the business strategy.
He recalls how in a previous role he helped his former company set up a successful go-to-market model in China in a space of just six months. The organisation had previously tried for eight years, but was overly cautious and spent too much time running pilot programmes.
“We just went in and learned from our mistakes along the way. Get to the solution and write the manual afterwards,” he says.
Create a winning feeling. Sales targets are important, but what happens when the team fails to meet them? A successful leader never let his team feel like losers, says Agarwal.
When your children are not scoring grades in school, do we say ‘you are lousy’?
In fact, shower your team with love the way you treat your own children, he says. This way, the team members feel they can still learn and grow with the organisation.
“When your children are not scoring grades in school, do we say ‘you are lousy’? No, we show them our love and keep working with them so they can make progress in life.”
That’s not to dismiss a culture of accountability, he advises. Team members need to understand that there is a price to pay for not meeting targets such as missing out on performance bonuses.
Make hard choices on team personnel. It is almost a certainty that business leaders will, at some point, make mistakes in hiring people, Agarwal says. To make things worse, many leaders choose to do nothing to rectify their errors.
One reason, he suggests, is that the act of removing employees requires a lengthy HR process. It will also result in an awkward conversation with the worker or workers involved.
For Agarwal, this indecisiveness is actually one of the biggest barriers leaders face in building a successful team.
Nonetheless, the process needs to be carried out in a respectful manner, he says.
“I would go out of my way to make sure the person lands safely in another role. I would actually call up my contacts to get that person a job. This is not about being ruthless, but simply making choices.”
Be (almost) boringly repetitive. A leader is always under the spotlight and needs to be consistent – even predictable – in terms of the actions and words they use with their team.
Communicating a team strategy needs to be repeated to the extent that the members believe in it completely, says Agarwal.
“That belief is what drives the team forward when the chips are down.”
Find strength in smaller numbers. Agarwal describes the regional teams at Kimberly-Clark as one of the leanest organisations in the consumer goods industry in Asia.
For instance, there are only nine people in marketing, while he says other companies of similar size would typically have 30 to 50 people in the roles.
The challenge with having too many people is that it often leads to layers of bureaucracy, casting restrictions on the country teams, he says.
“What is the role of the regional team? It is to add value to the country teams. Adding value is based on your experience and how good a leader you are. Adding value is not a function of having many people.”
Ensure team members understand what you are saying. A good leader gives regular feedback to team members – that is commonly understood.
But what is less commonly understood or acknowledged is that the person receiving the feedback might not fully understand the comments that they’ve been given.
There is one way to ensure that the message has been correctly received, Agarwal says. The notes made by the team member and Agarwal during the performance appraisal need to be similar.
Develop yourself by reading widely. Being a good leader means “understanding issues and views around you, Agarwal says, because it allows you to put things in context.
To do that, leaders need to read as broadly as possible and he encourages students to even read on topics well outside of the courses they are studying.
“Leadership is best learned through experience. And when you are reading enough, it gives you the power to translate both into something that you form as part of your personal leadership style,” he says.
And finally… Be more than just a business leader. Successful business leaders take a holistic approach help their team members, and the people they interact with, to realise their full potential, Agarwal says.
He sums up his outlook as: “I have been given a certain responsibility in terms of people, and must discharge that duty honourably as a good human being.”
He recalls a time when he saw the potential of a new hire who was joining Kimberly-Clark in a strategy role. He told the surprised employee that he would become a managing director within two years. “He did not believe he was going to become a managing director, but today he absolutely has the self-belief that he can do the job,” he says.
Agarwal says it is crucial for his team members to believe in him as a leader and that he is working for their success. This inspires employees to greater heights.
“Once you achieve that level of trust, then a lot of things can happen… What happens next is that relationships can be built and great personal stories formed. This, is what life is about.”