Suresh Narayanan is one of the few CXOs in the country who effortlessly warms up a room with his wit and wisdom. It was no different when he kick-started the first chapter of Storyboard18’s Visionaries held recently in Gurgaon. Storyboard18’s Visionaries was an occasion to celebrate CMOs who have made a deep impact through their work that has catapulted the growth of their respective companies and brands. The night opened with a powerful keynote speech by Narayanan.
With a career spanning over three decades and enriched by a wealth of diverse experiences, Narayanan has firmly established himself as a paragon of transformation in the FMCG industry. As the chairman and managing director of Nestle India, he has not only led the organisation to greater heights but has also been a trailblazer, navigating the ever-evolving marketing landscape.
Narayanan’s distinguished career has been marked by his unwavering commitment to innovation, an attribute that has consistently set him apart as a seer in the marketing and business world. In his keynote speech at Visionaries, Narayanan shared four leadership lessons that he swears by. In a room full of fellow-thinkers, his tips and tricks were on how to stay strong on the leadership ladder. Here’s what he had to share.
Have the right attitude
According to Narayanan, it is important to have the right and positive attitude while leading a team. There are going to be several challenges, various crises and roadblocks to deal with. Only having the right mindset will help leaders to stay stable and move the pedal in the right direction. “We shall overcome” is the motto leaders should have, especially in today’s complex business world, where things are constantly changing. It is important for leaders to pass on that attitude to their teams too, said Narayanan. He recalled the famous quote by Mahatma Gandhi, “A sign of a good leader is not how many followers you have but how many leaders you create,” before moving on to share his next tip.
Narayanan was blunt: “The world is full of fakes.” He added that everyone is trying to make their way by trying to pretend to be someone else altogether. It’s important to cultivate an authentic culture. “You will realise that the stress in your life will come down dramatically if you stay true to yourself,” he said.
“This is a world where you have to discard your thoughts every second day,” said Narayanan. Many of the successful leaders of today have been there and done that to have reached a point where they work with fresh ideas every day and were able to let go of ideas that were good but did not seed success. “Agility comes with another feature, which is humility. If you think you are clever, there can’t be any bigger idiot than you,” he said candidly. Narayanan cited an example, recalling the time Nestle had to relaunch its most popular product, Maggi noodles, in India after dealing with a controversy.
In June 2015, Maggi noodles were recalled and banned temporarily across India due to concerns over excessive levels of lead and the presence of monosodium glutamate (MSG). About 400 million packs of Maggi noodles were reportedly destroyed. Narayanan said when the brand was set to go out in the market again, a young brand manager reminded him about how important it is to plan an e-commerce strategy too and not just think of old-style FMCG distribution play. Narayanan said he instantly realised that he wasn’t in generational sync and had to upgrade himself.
At that time, Snapdeal was an emerging marketplace. Nestle decided to relaunch Maggi there too. Some 50 thousand boxes of Maggi were sold in less than 15 minutes on day one and the brand got publicity for the next eight months for this strategy.
“You see heroes becoming zeroes not because of lousy strategies, it's because of lousy leadership,” said Narayanan. He added that some of the brightest people in top organisations end up giving disappointing results only because there is a toxic culture that’s perpetuated from the corner room. The sooner leaders realise these things, the easier it will be for them to bring in change and stand strong.
“Your only legacy as a leader will be the culture you will leave behind. Culture is the unspoken language that helps you act in difficult times,” he said.
During the Covid-19 crisis, Narayanan recalls one particular moment that moved him. One of his colleagues walked for three days around Sikkim to seek permission to restart distribution of Nestle products. Narayanan said this colleague did it all on his own without anyone leading him. The word “purpose” is getting lost these days, he said. Purpose, planet, partnership and performance are the strong pillars of any company. All too often companies focus on performance and forget about their people, and that needs to change, said Narayanan.
Competence, clarity, confidence, creativity and finally compassion will make a visionary leader, he concluded.
We also had the Visionary of Indian Startups, Info Edge’s Sanjeev Bikhchandani talk about how he started Naukri, advertising and the famous Hari Sadu ad from 2006, during a fireside chat with brand consultant Vani Gupta Dandia.
The evening also included stimulating panel discussions on key topics. One of them, chaired by Storyboard18’s Delshad Irani, included prominent names such as Kulmeet Bawa, president and MD, SAP India; Aseem Kaushik, MD, L’Oreal India; Prativa Mohapatra, VP and MD, Adobe India; Sukhleen Aneja, CEO, Good Glamm Group; Madhav Sheth, CEO, HTECH; and Devendra Chawla, CEO, GreenCell Mobility. The panel shared insights on a rather interesting topic—the relationship between CEOs and their CMOs and if CMOs can be CEOs.
Read more: Visionaries: CEO-CMO partnerships powering growth
The event also included valuable discussions on the state of media quality in India by Saurabh Khattar, country manager, India, Integral Ad Science, and the promising future of generative AI in marketing by Gan.ai’s founder and CEO Suvrat Bhooshan, both mediated by Storyboard18’s Shibani Gharat.
Storyboard’s Visionaries was predominantly an occasion to celebrate CMOs who have made a deep impact through their work that has catapulted the growth of their respective companies and brands. This first edition of Visionaries at Gurgaon felicitated leading lights such as Shashank Srivastava, executive director, Maruti Suzuki India Ltd; Paras Sharma, director and head of content and community partnerships, Meta India; Saurabh Jain, regional marketing director & SPOC, South Asia, Reckitt Hygiene; Virat Khullar, Group head - marketing, Hyundai Motor India; Anita Nayyar, COO, media, branding and communications, Patanjali Ayurved; Sumit Mathur, CMO, Paytm; Sahibjeet Singh Sawhney, marketing head, Zomato; Ruchira Jaitly, CMO, Diageo India; Tarun Bhagat, CMO, India beverages, PepsiCo; Vikrant Mudaliar, CMO, Dream11; Anoop Manohar, CMO, Axis Bank; Kartik Mohindra, CMO, Pernod Ricard India; Rajat Abbi, vice president, global marketing, Schneider Electric; Sunil Suresh, CMO, Air India; Raj Rishi Singh, CMO and CBO, MakeMyTrip; Rahul Talwar, CMO, Max Life; Rajeev Jain, director, corporate marketing, DS Group; Pooja Baid, CMO; Philips Domestic Appliances; Anukool Kumar, head of marketing, India, Tinder; Ankit Desai, CMO, Hersheys India; Rahul Singh, vice president and head of marketing and sales, SAP India; and Ashish Tiwari, CMO, Home Credit India, among many others.
For more on Storyboard18 Visionaries click here.