Leading From the Front: 20 Minutes Live with Ninad Karpe





Mr. Suresh Narayanan, Chairman & Managing Director, Nestle India, was interviewed by Mr. Ninad Karpe, Partner, 100X.VC.

Mr. Suresh Narayanan has over 35 years of experience in the FMCG industry. He has been on the board of Nestle India since 2015, as the Chairman and Managing Director. He joined Nestle in 1999 as Executive Vice President - Sales, and after that, he was in senior positions across the world. He has delivered talks across several prestigious forums around the world. Under his able leadership, in 2019, Nestle won the Best Governed Company Award at the Asian Centre for Corporate Governance and Sustainability. 

Mr. Suresh Narayan's views on 'Leading From the Front':

As the format of this session of the interview is quite crisp, Mr. Suresh Narayan explained the Top 5 Key Pointers about Leadership. His views are based on his journey and not a kind of distillation of the subject. Mr. Suresh Narayanan told that taking care of the following five aspects would be essential for leaders in the crisis:

Learn to Manage Yourself:

If you could manage yourself, half the battle would be won. Managing the following aspects would be most crucial:

  • Managing your emotions
  • Managing your attitudes
  • Consistent positive mindset

Develop an attitude of acceptance as this pandemic is the crisis is of unprecedented proportions.

Keep yourself in behaviour and in spirit with the economy to have a great start to leading your team.

It is vital to remember in a crisis that you don't run a company, but you serve a family.

You may not know all the answers. But, it would help if you kept on asking questions. With the help of your people, you would get the solutions.

Manage Your People Well:

The single most crucial task a leader has in the crisis is not maximizing the shareholder return, maximizing the stakeholder return, or maximizing a metric that you have in your business; yet, it is managing your people. So, the safety, security, and well-being of your people would be taken care of cent percent. 

This is the most critical aspect of a leader. In the problematic scenario, your remuneration and whatever you might be getting comes secondary because this is the time when you need to stand up and ensure that your people are taken care of. So, whatever may be their worries; if they are worried about their jobs, worried about their salaries, if they are concerned about how life is going to plan out, and so on. At this time, apart from being their boss, you are an elder brother. So, as an elder member of the family, you have a critical task. Because, in a crisis, your people would have only you to look up to and seek help.

Your people may have family members and others; yet, everybody would be in an uncertain mode. Again, you may not have all the answers. However, it would help if you had the spirit, the zest, the desire, and the passion for your people. So, managing your people is the second most crucial aspect.

Managing Your Partnerships

In a business like Nestle, they have thousands of partners. They deal with 100,000 dairy farmers, from whom they had been collecting milk for about sixty years. They have continued with their collection through every single day in this pandemic. Not a single farmer is left high and dry and with uncertainty. There are about 70,000 women dairy farmers from Punjab.

It is trust, credibility, and importance that the same people that have made them who they are. Significantly, that you stand by these partners in this crisis. Nestle is a 108 years old company in this country. And for them, the trust, equity in the organization, and credibility are precious.

Similarly, you have numerous suppliers and partners that are dealing with you for many years. Some of them might be very small. They might have two to ten people employed in their business. Please ensure that they are also protected. Take the attitude of being a banyan tree if you are a large company. And ensure that everyone in your ecosystem is protected. Because this pandemic would come and go. Yet, your relationships and what you stood for during the crisis would be remembered. So, get remembered by standing by your partnerships.

Managing Your Business

Mr. Suresh Narayanan gives confidence to the audience that they know their businesses well. Again, he insists that this is the part that needs to be emotion-free. You cannot cover emotional decisions in this section, he says. It is about ensuring that you have an able team to look after all the aspects of cost. Your team needs to eliminate, postpone, or question each element of value ruthlessly. Keep an eye on your cash flows. It is essential to gauge the impact of the crisis on buying behaviour, which may be different for different sectors.

He expresses empathy with the people in the hospitality, retail, and travel sectors, as these are very very difficult times for these sectors. You don't have straight answers to finding the sources of revenue. It is time to make some hard decisions about your costs. He suggests looking into non-people related costs for pruning and chopping at this stage. He urges to avoid or postpone any people-related decisions. Because our jobs are not the only remuneration, but it is our self-respect as well.

Keep an eye on your costs, cash flows, and inefficiencies considering this crisis as an opportunity. He asserts that crises are the best opportunities to look at inefficiencies and low-value addition to your businesses. This is the time to prove, harvest, recast, re-calibrate, and redirect your business in a manner you would want to. It is important to remember that the post-pandemic situation would not be the same. Some say it might be better, while some say it might be worse.

So, as a leader of your business or company, you should prepare for a different world by recasting your business. 

Manage Your Environment

You need to take care of the agencies, bodies, and stakeholders concerning the environment. 

Questions & Answers

What is the advice for start-ups at this point in time?

Mr. Suresh Narayanan gives two suggestions:

The entrepreneurs need to answer the question: 

  • 'Are you confident about their business model and proposition?'
  • 'Have you invested in the right people to pull you out of this situation?'

2. What advice would you give to the fresher graduating MBA students by the next year? Do they need to get trained in some special skill

Mr. Suresh Narayanan urges the young students coming out of the universities and entering into the job market to have 3 characteristics:

  • Have complete confidence and faith in yourselves
  • Be tenacious and take the jobs that come your way so that you would achieve perfection in your lives.
  • Keep a positive attitude at all points of time.

3. How important is Data Analysis in Nestle's context, when e-commerce and m-commerce are booming?

The use of data analysis, analytic systems, artificial intelligence, machine learning practices are all extremely important in the context of every organization. Especially for larger organizations where they have different kinds of silos built-up over some time; the power of analytics cannot be understated. So, if you are planning to make a career in data analytics and the use of data to enable efficient decision systems, you probably are on the right track.

4. What makes 'Maggi' so famous?

Maggi Saga is among the most loved products by the consumers. People have shown fundamental emotion, devotion, and passion for this brand. Nestle's consumers stood by them even in the tough times. This connection and love with the company and brand make the brand so popular.

5. How difficult is it to handle your people in the current crisis compared to the Maggi crisis?

Mr. Suresh Narayanan appreciates the efforts put by thousands of people in the company for overcoming the Maggi crisis. The one big lesson taught during the crisis is that the culture always matters. The ethical, honest, respectful, middle-class family culture Nestle follows with middle-class aspirations made his task very easy. So, we are using the same cultural principles having gone through the galvanizing crisis, in the current pandemic. He appreciates his team for doing magic every day. 

6. Has COVID-19 surfaced the importance of EQ compared to IQ?

Both EQ & IQ are significant for a leader in every stage. Ethics, purpose, values, and culture have always been important for leadership. Yet, if you are trying to invest in these aspects during the crisis, it is a bit late. It is essential to cultivate these aspects right from the beginning. They cannot become important suddenly.

7. Have you ever worried or scared of your decision, as it impacts a large family?

Mr. Suresh Narayanan says that he works for his conscience, his values, and his principles. If he decides within these borders, worrying or feeling scared would be out of the question. He admits that he is a bit conservative and careful while deciding something, as he aims to keep his people safe and secure.

8. What would be your advice for Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises?

MSMEs have suffered the most during the pandemic in India. Nestle has done 3 most important things for MSMEs:

  • Providing training for securities, sanitization, manufacturing practices, and so on.
  • Nestle ensures that every single person is paid on time.
  • To support some MSMEs, Nestle has placed advance orders and advance payments.

9. What would be your advice for millionaires?

Mr. Suresh Narayanan has 3 significant advice for the millionaires:

  • Always stay positive
  • Look at life in perspective
  • Don't allow self-doubt and self-pity

10. Are the changes during the pandemic like work from home, e-commerce, and m-commerce permanent? Would these changes discontinue post-COVID or there would be a hybrid model?

In the context of Nestle, as it is a consumer-centric organization, and it is a part of the work culture to meet people and discuss, it may not be a 'Work From Home' sort of operation all the time. 'Storytelling' in a human form is far better than through a digital platform. So, it will be a mixed model because a human would grace a company's longevity to human contact.

11. What would be your advice when it comes to taking tough decisions related to people-related processes in a company or business?

During the crisis, many leaders may face situations where you may need to let the people go. Yet, it is advisable to treat these people with the dignity and respect they deserve. The employers should not send emails and Facebook posts to convey any bitter news. It is better to call the people and talk to them personally. 

Transparency in communication with people is essential. It is also vital to keep the sewerage package as per the law and dignified with the people. Upholding the dignity of the people is your significant job as a leader. The people would overcome this situation someday; however, if you make them feel bad, they would never overcome it. So, be transparent, trustworthy, and respectful.

12. Is this critical situation an opportunity or a threat to businessmen?

For the well-intentioned, well-directed, and well-positioned companies, with the right head and heart, this crisis would be an opportunity. 

13. Have you picked up a new hobby during this 4-months long lockdown?

Mr. Suresh Narayanan described 2 things that he started during the lockdown:

  • He learned to read the newspapers on the iPad.
  • He has learned to wash the vessels at home to help his wife.

Summary Comment by Mr. Suresh Narayanan:

Mr. Suresh Narayanan expresses his delight to be a part of the program: '20 Minutes Live'. Keeping your spirits, outlook, attitude, and mindset positive to manage yourselves would be the most significant aspect to take care of during this situation. It is easy to get into a defeated mode. We are getting bad news every day. 

Yet, one should spare 5 minutes to look at the positivity in life and to thank for the blessings that you have received and also to express gratitude towards the people that have made your life. Following this, we would tide over this difficult situation. Hopefully, we would find a rainbow by the end of this dark cloud. 


- 100X.VC Team

Published on: September 14, 2020