Leading Self, Teams & Organisations for Sustainable Growth

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I did most of my schooling in a small school, in the beautiful city of Jodhpur. I grew up in a conservative, small community and that shaped a lot of my values. When you grow up in a middle-class family in India, you grow up with striving, willingness to work hard, try be personally frugal and yet want great success.
From there, I went to IIT and IIM and life was just a straight line. I joined Pond’s and remained in sales throughout my career there. Within seven years, I ran the national sales, managing a sales force of well over 200. Under 30 years of age, it was quite a responsibility and it taught me a lot – leading large teams, being authentic, sincere, liking the people and delivering results and taking hard decisions but always doing them with great empathy and respecting people.
In 1991, I had the first twist in my career. Hindustan Lever at that time had taken over Pond’s operation. They asked me to run the South Region as branch manager and I thought it was a good stepping stone.
Down, but Up Again
After a couple of years, I got a call from Mr Harish Manwani. He said, “You had a spectacular sales career. You have great potential and I think it is time for you to do some marketing. Since you do not have any brand marketing experience, you will have to go two levels from your current position. You will be marketing manager of detergents. Is that something you want to do?”
It was a tough decision, for somebody who has had constant promotions and running a big organization. Nevertheless, it made a lot of sense. If I wanted a career, then I had to do this. I took the demotion, moved to Bombay from Chennai and worked on brands like Surf, Rin and Wheel. It turned out to be an amazing experience. I learned a lot and was able to contribute a lot to the company’s success.
On a Slippery Road
My career with Levers was going extremely well when I had an unforgettable experience. We had a North Region sales conference in Shimla. After attending it, my colleague Ashwini Mehta and I went from Shimla, took a drive to a place called Kufri where we wanted to see snow fall, which we had never seen. It did snow and snowed a lot.
On the way back, the roads were slippery. We kept telling the driver that we should stop and wait. But he dismissed our concern and said that he could even drive the stretch with closed eyes.
At one particular turn, the car started skidding and I could see it was going over the edge. So I opened the door, told Ashwini that we should jump immediately; we both jumped and the car went over the cliff. The driver was rescued by an Army convoy that came that way but he did not survive. This incident woke me up to a number of existential things.
Hong Kong Terrace and Interviews
That’s when I got this interesting call from a friend of mine who was a head-hunter. He asked me, “Do you want to see Britain handing over Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997, from the Mandarin Oriental, sitting on top of the Hong Kong Terrace?.” “I’d love to,” I said. I had to spend five days watching all the ceremonies as a VIP. Somebody was going to pay for everything. The catch was that I had to attend a few interviews with an option to say ‘no,’ if the offer did not suit me.
There was a Coca-Cola interview session and I was offered the position of marketing director in India. I was already marketing director of Levers for detergents. So I declined. After a few months, they offered me the post of marketing director of Latin America based in Buenos Aires. I agreed and that’s how I started my next phase. My family and I moved from Mumbai to Buenos Aires. Moving to a new country where they spoke a new language and a new company, all at the same time, could have worked out disastrously but luckily it turned out well for me.
There were many twists and turns since. I moved to Atlanta. I went to Philippines and ran Coke business there. For the last 10 years, I’ve been in Denver managing the international business as CEO and Chief Growth Officer of Molson Coors. I did some of the cutting edge things and handled M&A for them. Since January 2020, I’ve set up my own business.
Leadership frameworks generally deal with how you become a great leader, which is about living leadership or leading the self. But it is also about how you get teams and enterprises to become great. Sustainable breakthrough success happens if we can keep these three things—leading self, teams and the enterprise—integrated and keep all of them in mind.
3 Things About Leadership
Enterprise Leadership is about three things:
• People and inspiring culture
• Gaining commercial edge
• Shaping future with competitive advantage.
This is something that I have distilled based on my experience. To be able to lead an organisation, you have to lead people and set an inspiring culture. An inspiring culture leads to motivation and performance.
The business needs to have a commercial edge in different aspects. The areas of supply chain, production, sales, marketing, brands or innovation need to have an edge in terms of what it does commercially. Organizations need to look at and shape or create the future.
People and An Inspiring Culture
I’ve seen in my experience that four things have worked tremendously in every organization that has been successful and they are:
1) Inspiring vision
2) Balance between flair and rigour
3) Trust, empowerment and accountability
4) Investing in future capability
A Coke for Every Soldier
Coca-Cola is an interesting organization. At the time I joined in 1996, it had only three CEOs in the previous hundred years. Those CEOs built a business with creative vision. After that, it had a series of changes.
Coca-Cola became successful during and in the aftermath of World War II. The then CEO Robert Woodruff had a vision that a cold Coke must be available wherever there is an American soldier, at five cents, no matter which end of the world he is. To make that vision a real event in 140 countries in a matter of two years, they set up bottling plants and all kinds of refrigeration and other facilities.
This explains why Coke has been far more successful globally, even though they had a much more of a fight in the US with Pepsi. After WWII, the American soldiers went everywhere and Coke either followed or preceded them to all these countries.
Robert was followed by the next CEO Roberto Goizueta who headed Coca Cola when I joined. He died soon after in 97. He wanted Coke within an arm’s reach of every human being in this world who desired it.
Both these leaders created a sense of purpose. The purpose created everything from reaching every corner, having cold refrigeration and creating desire in the minds of the people. All these led to the second golden period for Coke between 94 and 98. Their market cap increased four to five times during this period and the business really exploded. It was a tremendous expression of what the company wanted to do.
Flair and Rigour: Winning a War
Pond’s was a business that had a lot of flair. People were empowered to do a lot of things. Hindustan Lever, when I moved in, was more about rigour—process, approvals, steps, market research and rechecking of the research. There was rigour in whatever it did.
Proctor and Gamble (P&G) was entering India then and we knew they were going to come up with great products which Hindustan Lever might not be able to match. Here is an interesting story.
I had very capable people working with me in the marketing team in Hindustan Lever. One of our members visited a printing press and there he discovered a proof of a detergent to be launched by P&G lying there. It was a failure of P&G not to have taken care of it. It gave us an idea of what they might be doing.
We had only Surf in our kitty. We had to do something spectacular and fast. Arun Adhikari who headed the division gave me total freedom and said, “Kandy, do anything but don’t lose this war.” Within three weeks, we formulated and tested and in a month’s time, we were able to create an absolutely spectacular new brand of Excel which could match and beat what we expected from P&G.
In parallel, we created sales plans. We had no time to check and do market research. These had to be done with a lot of flair. After about a year, P&G scaled back their launch thanks to the power of the distribution of Levers and the tremendous product advantage we had. We were ahead of them in the market with the next generation products and all these happened within weeks.
We introduced Surf Excel in sachets and our demand exploded. All the rigour had to come in, without that we wouldn’t have been successful over time, but that flair truly helped us take off and pre-empt our big competitor. This balance between flair and rigour may vary based on business and life cycle, but leaders must keep thinking about it as they build their organization.
Pond’s is the best example for trust, accountability and investing in future capabilities. They had the ability to get the best talent, invested in their capability and then trusted and empowered them; at the same time, it held them accountable. This created a pipeline of success for Pond’s during those periods.
Cultural sensitivity is extremely important. Different companies operate differently on this dimension. There has to be a balance between the organisational culture and the country’s culture.
The leadership should aim for a commercial edge. From a consumer product oriented company’s perspective, three aspects are critical:
• Experience of the consumer
• Engagement of the customer
• Effectiveness of the organisation; it should earn more, use less and invest wisely
Investing in Innovation

It is important to innovate in your core areas because that is your business, but you have to go beyond the edge and also be disruptive (Fig 1). To cite an example, in late 2014, White Claw launched a hard Seltzer—an alcoholic, flavoured carbonated water in the US. It is not made from distillation but from fermented sugar and it has a food flavour. In 5 years, it has reached a category of $5Bn and is growing at 100% a year. The market leaders White Claw and Truly hold 75% share.
When I was in Molson Coors, I found it impossible to convince my management that this is a category that we should invest in and ideally do an acquisition. They dismissed it as a fad and that we have to focus only on beer. Eventually, we launched it in 2019 but it was two years late. It needed new capability, technology and new investments. If we had launched this disruptive innovation, or done the M&A on time, we would have been in a far commanding position.
Shaping the Market
Having missed out on Seltzer, we learnt our lessons. In US and Canada, the regulations on Cannabis were loosening up. When it is used in beverages in low doses, it is like a beer without any side effects (like hangover), unless it is misused. I have helped the company to launch these in Canada where Molson Coors Canada and HEXO have created a Joint Venture called Truss, focused on non-alcoholic, cannabis-infused beverages for the Canadian market. (Fig 2)

My team and I had to go through a huge amount of internal and external barriers to launch these. This will shape the future of beverages in the US and Canada and is an example of how you can shape a non-existent market.
Living Leadership
Three things are important for leading self:
• Attitude and motivation; Be out of the box
• Growth mindset
• Breakthrough thinking
We put ourselves into a box because we think we can’t do it; we need to survive; we have to do it for the sake of duty; or to satisfy our desire. Unless we know why we are in the box, we can’t break out of it. Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Mandela (Fig 3) did not get bogged down by the boxes. They had a purpose in their lives and went out of the box.

When I joined Coca Cola, Coke sales was declining. There were top level changes and the CEOs then had not only put themselves but others too in the boxes. When Neville Isdell took over as CEO, things began to change. He created a purposeful organisation.

When Trouble Brewed in a Deal
In Molson Coors, in the year 2012, I had to finalise a huge deal in London to acquire the Central and Eastern European business of StarBev. At that time, my family’s health situation put me in a box. I could not go ahead with negotiating the deal. I flew back to Denver and with my family’s support, I went again to London and clinched the buy out for $3.5Bn, which totally transformed Molson Coors. The concept of growth mindset developed by Carol Dweck and popularised in recent times by Satya Nadella of Microsoft is another important attribute of leadership. With growth mindset, Microsoft has transformed itself.
Aprender (Learn) Spanish
When I joined Coke, Buenos Aires in February 1998, there was a football world cup in France. We created a marketing campaign in Spanish as the whole of Latin America was football crazy. It was very good but I could not fully grasp the message as it was in Spanish. I told my team that within the next three months, all of us should work only in Spanish. It was a challenge but I set myself the goal. I stopped reading English newspapers and listening to English news channels; instead, I switched to Spanish newspapers and channels. It was tough. But I learnt the language soon, broke my barriers and started speaking in Spanish. This is an instance of how growth mindset can help you as a leader.
Breakthrough Thinking
This requires us to take a breakthrough stand, identify biases and beliefs that are not working, identify pathways to breakthrough, be agile and dynamic and not to give up. Apple and Tesla are good examples of breakthrough thinking.
In 2004, the diet coke sales were declining. It was essentially meant for professional women. We decided to do something different. We introduced a new product called Coke Zero which was meant for the men. It became a big success and a profit-earner for Coke.