Nykaa and the hedgehog concept

I used an entire hour on the flight to clean my whatsapp. Delete images from the groups, exit unwanted groups, delete chats that were no longer relevant, blocked some spam messages etc. That was like Diwali cleaning my whatsapp. As the aircraft touched the ground and the network was back, there were umpteen messages again, mostly of Diwali greetings and then there was this one, a special one: 

The sender had a couple of queries regarding the forward thinking course SHIFT and had messaged me through the website contact page. The concerns I heard and yet didn’t help her with answers, were her own doubts related to age/work experience and if her profile was fit enough to attend a forward thinking course. To clear someone’s self-doubt, one can help only by showing the path, but the bridge has to be crossed by the person herself. That is what I did, I showed the path and left the conversation. By evening, she had paid for the upcoming course cohort starting 19th November. She had crossed the bridge herself and seeing that I smiled, ‘Tum hi ho nayaka’. (You are the heroine of your story)

It is not my line, it is a beautiful line borrowed from Nykaa’s ad1

Kahani koi bhi ho, tum hi ho nayaka 

As the nayaka of her own unique story, each woman in the film charts a journey fraught with challenges to achieve her own success. The film journeys through hardships of women like a biker who tries stunts, a mountaineer, a rapper in hijab, an entrepreneur and some more. This is what the lady, who had signed up for the course did- she created her own storyline. 

Nykaa got its name from the word Nayaka, the heroine. But if I had to relate Nykaa to an animal today, it would not be a beautiful, strong, graceful animal but it would be a small animal with a cone-shaped face, short legs and body that is covered with porcupine-like quills, the hedgehog, the one that remains focussed on its mission. In today’s Habits for Thinking, let me introduce you to a ‘Good to Great Companies’ concept by Jim Collins, called the Hedgehog Concept.  That is what Nykaa is, a hedgehog. 

The Hedgehog Concept is developed in the book Good to Great. A simple, crystalline concept that flows from deep understanding about the intersection of three circles: 1) what you are deeply passionate about, 2) what you can be the best in the world at, and 3) what best drives your economic or resource engine. Transformations from good to great come about by a series of good decisions made consistently with a Hedgehog Concept, supremely well executed, accumulating one upon another, over a long period of time.

The hedgehog concept

Are you a hedgehog or a fox? In his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin divided the world into hedgehogs and foxes, based upon an ancient Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” 

Those who built the good-to-great companies were, to one degree or another, hedgehogs. They used their hedgehog nature to drive toward what we came to call a Hedgehog Concept for their companies. Those who led the comparison companies tended to be foxes, never gaining the clarifying advantage of a Hedgehog Concept, being instead scattered, diffused, and inconsistent. 

Here are three circles of the Hedgehog concept explained: 

1. What you can be the best in the world at

(and, equally important, what you cannot be the best in the world at). This discerning standard goes far beyond core competence. Just because you possess a core competence doesn’t necessarily mean you can be the best in the world at it. Conversely, what you can become the best at might not even be something in which you are currently engaged. 

Example: Gillette – could become the best at building premier global brands of daily necessities that required sophisticated manufacturing technology. Notes: Gillette ability to manufacture low cost, high tolerance products, ability to build global consumer brands. 

NYKAA: Could become the best in cosmetics shopping. 

Just some of several initiatives that the company has taken to become the best:  a) understand the customer cosmetics shopping journey- customers like to read blogs, reviews etc. before buying a product. Nykaa has focussed on creating content both on its platform through customer reviews and outside on the internet space through influencers, videos etc. Nykaa has a strong ecosystem2 which includes Network, TV, Beauty Book, Army among others. There are >1,350 influencers; YouTube based platform has >1m subscribers; 3.1m members are in the peer-to-peer community.  b) catering to the sachet market: Nykaa understands the market and has made available samples and mini product sizes for sampling and consumption. 

2. What drives your economic engine?

All the good-to-great companies attained piercing insight into how to most effectively generate sustained and robust cash flow and profitability. In particular, they discovered the single denominator—profit per x—that had the greatest impact on their economics. (It would be  cash flow per x in the social sector.) 

Example : Gillette-Shift from profit per division to profit per customer reflected the economic power of repeatable purchases e.g. razor cartridges.

NYKAA: Strong Unit economics, a key differentiator3 

While most e-commerce players in India have been burning cash to acquire new customers and drive adoption/ penetration, Nykaa stands out given its strong focus on unit economics. At an Ebitda level, the company has been making steady progress with break-even achieved in FY19, and since then, Ebitda margin expanded to 6.6% in FY21. With growing scale, Nykaa also achieved PAT break-even in FY21. A high Average Order Value, good intake margins and focus on assortment over discounting are the key factors that drive Nykaa’s strong unit economics.

I remember visiting one of the first stores of Nykaa, in 2015 or so. This one was at the airport. Barely stocked with some perfumes, the store was barren of both products and customers. Over the years, not just that store but several other stores came up. Had it been a focus on profit per store, it would not have survived even a few months. Focus on unit economics has been a great strength for Nykaa. 

3. What you are deeply passionate about.  

The good-to-great companies focused on those activities that ignited their passion.  The idea here is not to stimulate passion but to discover what makes you passionate. 

Example: when Gillette executives made the choice to build sophisticated, relatively expensive shaving systems rather than fight a low margin battle with disposables, they did so in large part because they just couldn’t get excited about cheap disposable razors. “Zeien talks about shaving systems with the sort of technical gusto one expects from a Boeing or Hughes engineer.”wrote a journalist about Gillette’s CEO in 1996.

NYKAA: Customer experience:

Nykaa, from its early days and unlike other market places, initiated stocking of inventory to manage customer experience for timely, quick delivery and for authenticity of products. “We didn’t want to be a discount store,” Falguni Nayar said in an interview. “We’d rather sell the right color of lipstick at full price, than the wrong shade at half off which would make the buyer unhappy within minutes of wearing.”

This is just a suggestive hedgehog4 concept for Nykaa. It takes years for companies to find the right hedgehog alignment. When asked how do we accelerate the process of getting a hedgehog concept- Jim Collins replies- “It is an inherently iterative process, not an event. The essence of the process is to get the right people engaged in dialogues to ask right questions guided by three circles.”

The Hedgehog concept is not only applied for companies but also for individuals. It is not a strategy but it is a reflection tool that helps one understand what one can be best at. 

I feel that I was just born to be doing this/ I get paid to be doing this/I look forward to getting up and throwing myself into the daily work

 A Hedgehog Concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best or a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be the best at. The distinction is absolutely crucial.   

Falguni Nayar, the nayaka of Nykaa, crafts the path of a success story. The Hedgehog concept, very similar to Ikigai, stands true for both companies and individuals. The framework to reflect, build, reiterate a growth path is a necessity for both an individual and companies. This is the path to growth, this is the path from good to great. 

This Diwali, this festive season, like the lady who signed up for the course, like Nykaa, remember to be the Nayaka of your own story!



  • 1Brand: Nykaa; Advertising Agency: Sideways 
  • 2,3Excerpts from Nykaa IPO: Growth and Profitability Need Not Be Mutually Exclusive by Jefferies dated 18 August 2021.
  • 4I, the author of this piece, have not spoken to anyone from Nykaa before writing this piece. The Hedgehog Concept for Nykaa is based on my years of observing Nykaa, conversations with people in the industry, secondary research that is interviews and equity analysts’ documents. 

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The MILK Crate aka Silos Challenge For Leaders

Adventure, as you and I know it, is an experience that is very unusual, exciting or dangerous. Still, it is bewildering to see, men and women, adults in their bodies, childlike in minds, taking adventure as their mode of entertainment and risking their own lives. Take the instance of the Milk Crate challenge that has become a craze in some parts of the world and in many parts of the digital world.You take up the crate challenge, make a video, post it online  and see you and your friends failing it, others get compelled to take it too. It is not like the ice bucket challenge where it was easy to put a bucket of ice over your head. In the Milk Crate challenge, plastic milk crates that are used for milk distribution and sale are stacked on top of each other in a staircase pyramid fashion. The person, who takes the challenge, has to climb up on this high podium of crates and then climb down from the other side. As the challenge started trending on social media, platforms and doctors raised an alarm on the dangerous impact of the fall. The chances of falling and failing the challenge is very high. 

Why it is guaranteed to fail? As explained in a video by Wired, unsupported columns go through a sudden horizontal movement called Buckling. 

Column buckling is a curious and unique subject. It is perhaps the only area of structural mechanics in which failure is not related to the strength of the material. A column buckling analysis consists of determining the maximum load a column can support before it collapses.

Buckling refers to the loss of stability of a component and is usually independent of material strength. This loss of stability usually occurs within the elastic range of the material. 

A simple way to demonstrate column buckling is to hold a ruler at either end and to push your hands toward one another. The ruler will buckle at the center.

In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am urging you leaders to spend some time on thinking about the presence of silos in your  organisation. Silos, or columns in the organisation, especially in large organisations are independent teams not interacting with each other.

The Silo Mentality as defined by the Business Dictionary is a mindset present when certain departments or sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same company. This type of mentality will reduce efficiency in the overall operation, reduce morale, and may contribute to the demise of a productive company culture.

Sounds like a Milk Crate challenge, isn’t it? It is true. Independent teams are great for organisations but independent, uncommunicative teams are a burden on productivity. It is an invisible force that exists to create resistance and leads to falls and failure like in the Milk Crate challenge, that can be extremely harmful for the business. Silos do not appear overnight in an organization. Organizational structures are designed to deliver key results. Organisational structures can be functional like marketing, sales, technology, delivery etc. The structure can be consumer facing if there are several product lines in a company like in banks – credit cards, consumer loans, corporate banking, SME etc. In new age technology driven businesses, the role of a product manager is to bring together consumer facing teams and backend engineering teams aligned to the business goals. The organizational structure is not designed to create columns or silos, it is designed to deliver results but yet, the teams create silos. There are primarily two reasons for it: culture and leadership teams. In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am bringing your attention to the Milk Crate Challenge in your own organisation, to look for the existence of these unsupported columns or silos, to assess the buckling load and to strengthen it. 

Accept the Challenge: 

1. The SILOS Challenge: Leadership and Unified Vision

It trickles down from the top. The pressure applied at the top leads to buckling of the column- the horizontal movement which brings a fall. It becomes critical to have a unified vision for all business heads and leaders. The integrated approach drives down the message and keeps the integration support between several teams too. A unified vision not only brings the leaders together, keeps them together too. 

2.The SILOS Challenge: Cultural brokers

To launch Times Now as the first news channel from the group, an entire new business unit was created within the Times of India group. The team, designed as an independent unit grew, moved into a new building and started rolling the business. As a beginner it needed support from the parent company across several departments.One of my functional roles was to manage and forge alliances between the old and the new business teams. Today, I would give a name to that role ‘a cultural broker.’ A cultural broker is someone who understands the cultural differences of the two teams  in an organisation and is able to forge alliances for the benefit of the two set ups. Product managers play that role between departments with an eye on the goal. 

3. The SILOS Challenge: Communicate often 

Open office space encourages a lot of informal communication within team members but what if there are separate floors for separate departments. Removing physical barriers like seating, creating watercooler moments for interdepartmental teams are some simple tools that can create frequent communication. More communication, formal and informal, leads to understanding of each other, builds empathetic inter team relationships that becomes the support for the columns. 

There are other ways of creating inter department communication opportunities.Training and learning brings people together for the common goal of the business. 

4. The SILOS Challenge: Removing data silos

Dependency on data and information to drive business decisions is critical. As data dependency grows, so does the protection and ownership of that data. Often, this creates data silos between leaders and teams. Data silos mean an incomplete view of reality. This could lead to bad customer experience, slower pace of change and roadblock to innovations.

Friction that makes teams less collaborative slows down the pace of the organisation. Data silos can be handled through software platforms which can create relevant access for different teams. 

Column buckling, the bending of a column or the failure of the column, is not related to the strength of the material. You take a steel ruler in your hand and put pressure from the top and the ruler will bend. Similarly, independent teams, in their own respective area, are very strong performing teams. But like column buckling, if teams are not supported with each other, buckling of one column or one team can crash the growth of the organisation. Organisational silos are like columns in a physical structure and can be supported by four pillars, pillars of Leadership and unified vision, presence of cultural brokers, focus on inter- team communication flow and relevant data access to teams. Invisible forces like silos are a real challenge but can be handled. 



The Phenomenon called Pradeep Guha

‘Etsy’ said the Facebook representative and a few heads turned towards me. It was mid-morning on a sunny October day in San Francisco, nearly a decade ago. The IAA* Indian delegation of twenty people were seated in a small room at Facebook headquarters with a bright orange wall on the backside. As a part of the delegation,I was attending a session by Facebook’s Paul Adams on building communities. It was 2012, when the words ‘digital communities’ appeared like precious jewels in our conversations, in small quantities. Building communities as a business model was new for the world and Facebook was showing the path, in action and in presentations. The speaker was then head of Facebook planning and had just released a book titled ‘Grouped’ on communities which we later received as a gift. 

Led by Pradeep Guha, IAA had organised a digital tour for the CEOs to the USA to visit and learn from the big tech companies. The 2012 digital tour was the second initiative from IAA  and I had onboarded the delegation to visit Microsoft, Youtube, Facebook, Google, Twitter.

That October morning, at the Facebook headquarters, in the middle of a talk by Facebook, I had earned a special spot in Pradeep Guha’s thoughts. Before the start of the tour, in Pradeep Guha’s Mumbai office, sitting across his large wooden table, I had requested him to include a visit to the Etsy office too. A listed company, Etsy is dedicated to building small, home grown businesses and has been building communities since its inception. Those days Etsy was not widely popular. PG was not familiar with Etsy but he took interest in my conversation on Etsy.  So as the Facebook speaker talked about ETSY as the leading example in building communities, Pradeep Guha, sitting at the centre of the table, leaned forward and gestured a thumbs up to me. And, the heads on the table turned in my direction on this rare appreciation coming from him. I was suddenly noticed. Etsy had marked a respectable spot for me in his mind. 

Pradeep Guha
Pradeep Guha at Microsoft, Seattle, 2012
IAA Team Pradeep Guha Vishakha Singh
IAA- India Chapter delegation at Big Tech Companies. 2012

In today’s Habits for Thinking, I want to bring your attention to the phenomenon called Pradeep Guha. To the unknown, you can read about Pradeep Guha in the tribute written here and a lot over the internet. 

The Curious: 

Techcrunch Disrupt is an annual event held in San Francisco for the tech startup world. It not only showcases new ideas but also the making of ideas, successes and failures. I had described the event to PG and had recommended him to attend it. One fine morning in 2019, I received a message from him on how excited he was to attend it. Curiosity fuels learning and he stayed at the top of knowledge by attending not just Techcrunch but also Singularity University and some other courses. A sharp thinker feeds his mind with new knowledge. He makes efforts to attend courses to learn and unlearn, no matter his age or designation. This is what Pradeep Guha maintained. It was not just an Etsy moment at Facebook, PG made efforts to learn the new from across fields and continents. He displayed curiosity with a proficiency that lacked any arrogance, the arrogance that becomes a second nature for being successful for a long time. 

The secret of making a phenomenon is to live a life with a growth mindset, to stay curious and to hone the knowledge. 

The Contrast:

What is the opposite of grand? Insignificant. To balance the two opposites effortlessly is a magical trait and that is what came easy to the phenomenon called PG. He always came up with a grand vision but stayed true to the most insignificant details in execution of that vision. There was never any room for error in execution of the grandest of the vision. This reflected in all aspects of his work whether it was related to media selling by designing Mastermind or in creation of landmark events or even in maintaining his relationships with the world. He effortlessly balanced the contrast of big and trivial detail. It was neither compromised nor showcased. The balancing of the contrast was a given, it came like yin and yang, always together.

The Compassionate: 

Pradeep Guha, the media stalwart passed away on 21st August 2021. On 9th August, I had a message exchange where he wrote to me saying, “All good, thank you.” The news of his passing filled me with all shades of emotions, primarily being upset. He had hidden the suffering, at the same time, he had responded. When tributes poured in, all of it had the same tone of how he made people feel very special. Losing him became a personal loss on a mass level. Another contrast. His ability to connect, support, bind with people is an ability less possessed by leaders. I was a nobody in his aura of things but from time to time I received a message, sometimes a gentle scolding for staying quiet for months. His ability to keep people in his thoughts, to make them feel important and needed is a lesson in generosity. It was a construct maintained over the years. Not just colleagues and friends, he maintained a magical vibe with celebrities too. Renowned personalities treated him like their closest pal, yet he asked for a picture to keep the podium well defined for both. 

Pradeep Guha and Nandan Nilekani. Kochi. 2019.

Pradeep Guha, the phenomenon, lit the path with his way of life, with childlike curiosity, manlike balancing of contrast and naturelike compassion for people. All we need to do is to keep the lights on.

*International Advertising Association

3 essential tools for leaders to embrace diversity

‘A hand gesture that involves rotating your wrist externally as your thumb, index and middle finger unfurl open.” Do you know what it is? 

That is the name sign for US Vice President Kamala Harris. Name signs, also known as sign names, are an important component of deaf culture. They provide deaf people with a way to identify themselves and others in conversation, while also representing “a Deaf person’s membership in the Deaf community.” 

The selection of the name sign for Kamala Harris was itself a process done by the community which was inclusive and diverse. Five women- Ebony Gooden, Kavita Pipalia, Smita Kothari, Candace Jones and Arlene Ngalle-Paryani — as Black and Indian members of the “capital D Deaf community”* — felt it was important that the selection of Ms. Harris’s name sign be the result of an inclusive and democratic process. Given that Vice President Harris was the first female vice president, as well as the first Black and Indian candidate to fill the role, they agreed that her heritage should inform that process, the women recalled in an interview using interpreters.

Name sign Kamala Harris Deaf club

How did we pick this particular sign name? I want to explain briefly about Kamala Harris. She did ask people to use her name, Kamala, because it means a lot to her. “Kamala” means a lotus flower. I will explain briefly what a lotus flower means. Purity. Enlightenment. Rebirth. A lotus flower has strong roots that can bore through dirt. The flower shows its beauty when it blooms. I am making it an analogy with Kamala, who appears in the midst of a dark and divided America. She brings enlightenment and purity. Rebirth. Why do we use three fingers? It’s because she is the first Black, Indian, and female, and it is represented in the three fingers that bloom. She’s not the “first” but has “three firsts.” Kamala! 

-Explanation on the name sign

A name is an identity. It doesn’t matter which language, spoken or sign, native or acquired. A name marks the place of shared culture, of shared values. Deaf people have become more engaged in the process of selecting name signs for hearing politicians and well-known individuals. It is a way for people to acknowledge those individuals “and show alliance with them,” said the article in the New York Times. 

You create a language to stand in and not out, to come together. You create a name sign to be understood, to include diversity and in this Independence day edition of Habits for Thinking, I want your attention on embracing diversity at workplaces. Embracing diversity in a culture depends on how we think and act. 

In today’s Habits for Thinking, the focus is on leaders who are increasingly working on diversity and inclusion at workplaces, especially gender diversity. Gender diversity is being seeded through several corporate policies. The workforce is growing with more diverse recruitments, the first step in bringing in diversity. Recruitment needs to be followed by adopting diversity across the organisation as a part of regular life. Providing support facilities to attract and recruit  like extended leaves, child care support etc is the easy part of encouraging gender diversity. The tougher part is to genuinely embrace diversity as a culture of the organisation. An embraced diverse culture means everyone has a voice to share, everyone feels heard, everyone belongs to the community equally and everyone becomes responsible for the diverse culture to grow. It is only when people are heard and own a share of voice is when there can be a real growth, growth of people, growth of the organisation and growth of diversity. 

Gender Equality UN Goal 5

Diversity is accepting the diverse opinion and thoughts in a culture. But how does a culture embrace diversity? The culture, unless it is a startup venture, has been around for years, even before the diversity policy came in. To make room for diversity, the culture needs to evolve and that can only happen through a mindset shift of its people. The mindset change has good news and bad news. The bad news is that it is far tougher to achieve behavioural change  than creating support facilities. The good news is more and more people are open and ready to be guided for the shift. All it takes is a leader to walk the path of embracing diversity.  A leader shapes the culture and the culture can be chiseled through three essential tools to embrace diversity: 

1. Show, don’t tell to address diversity: 

Telling people to embrace diversity is not enough. The leader has to show the action by designing processes that bring in change. The processes that are aligned to the mission of diversity drive should be measurable. One must remember, what gets measured, gets done. Showing is not only restricted to action and processes, showing through visuals is critical too. Women are called ‘the invisible workforce’ both at home and at workplaces. In large organisations, to enable women to step up for leadership roles, it is important to create opportunities to showcase the faces behind the work. It is infectious, it inspires others to step up and makes everyone feel heard.

2. Language to weave diversity in the culture: 

The language that the leader uses acts as a moral compass for the people, influencing how they think, act and feel in different situations. An article in Harvard Business Review talks about how languages shape the organisation. The article states, “Your influence over the behavior of your people is not limited to carefully-prescribed internal communications; it lies in the daily sentiments, conversations and values you share. The best leaders understand this — like Horst Schulze of Ritz-Carlton, who shaped his employee’s decorum and conduct with “We’re ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” These leaders used simple, highly motivating and prescriptive words that set the right cultural permission for their organizations. This language, carefully articulated and shared, offers rich opportunities to codify and crystallize what your company is about, and what your company seeks. 

3. Shift mindsets through nudges

Gender Diversity is a fundamental need. It is not only about following a mandated policy. It is a war against generations of societal biases that have made the gap so wide and so large that it is difficult to be ironed out. Deep rooted attitudes about the role of women in society leads to biases like availability bias where you think and react to a situation with what is available as an easy information in your mind. This bias gets ironed out by a disciplined mindset shift. You work on your habits to change your attitude. Behavioural nudges work as reminders at the appropriate time to help in changing habits and behaviours of people, organisations. Read more about nudge here in an earlier article written by me. 

A diverse team of women came together to bridge the gap between deaf and non deaf community by assigning a name sign for the first woman of color, The Vice President. Using the first three fingers they not only designed her name sign, they showed the path that the bridge of inclusion and diversity can be made through language. All we need to do is consciously change our habits to think and act in the right manner. 

*(a term used by some deaf people to indicate that they embrace deafness as a cultural identity and communicate primarily through ASL) 

The magic that makes good to great: Sindhu, Chanu, Deepinder, Falguni

“She had tears in her eyes. I told her to think it was a gift for me,” PV Sindhu’s father lifted her spirits when the semi final defeat to Tai Tzu-Ying on Saturday weighed her down. 

“Through all your experiences of ups and downs, did you ever come close to giving up in all these 12-odd years?” asked the interviewer. 

“About a couple of times every week,’’ answered Deepinder Goyal, in his interview after Zomato’s IPO.  

The timelines are palpitating with sheer excitement and nervousness floating when history is in the making, whether in the Olympics stadiums or at Dalal Street. Both sports and startups personalities are weaving some magic in the air. It is filled with hope, with ambition and dreams and most importantly it seems achievable. Yes, we can do it. 

PV Sindhu won her second medal at the Olympics last week. It makes her the first Indian woman to win two medals at the Olympics. Also, in the same week Deepinder Goyal’s startup, Zomato rang the opening bell at the stock market. The event makes him the first startup boy, made-in-India, to reach this high level of success. Zomato’s listing is not only impressive because it is the first new-age startup, but also because it is the first company without profits in its books that has pocketed the likes of people. It doesn’t stop here, there are more names. Chanu Saikom Mirabai, Rani Rampal, Ravi Kumar Dahiya, P R Sreejesh, Simranjeet Singh, Savita Punia and the list goes on for athletes who have been shining bright at the Olympics. In a parallel startup world, being successfully listed at the stock market is almost equivalent to securing an olympic medal. Zomato is a new age startup that had its IPO recently. The next in the pipeline is Nykaa. Cartrade, Mobikwik and several others are waiting in the wings. It is just the beginning.

From Olympics to startups, the made-in-India story is not a story of fiction or mere skill, hardwork and grit. It is the story of leadership, leadership of not just excellence but where the ambition for the mission and institution, exceeds the ambition for the self. In today’s column, I bring to you an understanding of a leadership personality trait that takes goodness to greatness, in both sports and startups. It is called Level 5 Leadership. 

Level 5 leadership is a concept developed in the book Good to Great. Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.

As the events unfolded in both startups and the sports world, it became clearer that how the two worlds are similar in performance and delivery. Like an athlete is developed by a village of experts, startups are run by leaders supported by teams across all functions. An athlete digs deeper inside her for courage, so does the founder. The stories of sports and startups match. The leadership style matches. 

Grit and hardwork:

Mirabai Chanu’s  self-discovery of weightlifting started with carrying firewood from the jungle at the age of 12. To train she travelled 40kms everyday. “At times, she would hitch a ride on a truck or if she got lucky share a tuk-tuk, some days she would cycle, and some days she would come half the way and then walk back home. She never threw in the towel,” her mother Tombi Devi said in an interview. 

Deepinder Goyal’s childhood training was to save himself from terrorists. Here is an excerpt from his mentor and investor Sanjeev Bhikchandani: He was born in Muktsar – a small town in Punjab in 1983. His father was a teacher in a government school. For the first ten years of his life the family lived in the fear of terrorists. As a child he was tutored by his parents that if the terrorists ever came he should tell them that his name was Deepinder and he was a Sikh. That way they would spare his life even if they killed his parents. Thankfully the terrorists never came.

When he was fifteen his parents sent him to Chandigarh to study for the last two years in school. He lived in a hostel – ragging was tough but he survived. Academically he was totally out of his depth initially since the standard of study was far higher than he had ever encountered. But he tried hard and managed to clear the IIT entrance examination. From IIT he went to Bain and then launched Foodiebay which became Zomato later on.

Skill and speed: 

Sjoerd Marijne, the Indian Hockey girls team coach, talks about Rani Rampal’s skills in a story by Sharda Ugra. The secret sauce, he says, about her physical properties lies in the fact “that she is faster with the ball than without the ball.” With the ball on her stick, she turns into an elusive quicksilver with the most minimal feints and dummies, wrong-footing defenders, leaving them behind, earning her extra slices of time. During a training run, Marijne said he asked the faster players to hustle against Rani, press hard and fast around her, but still she slipped through. Later, she told the bemused Marijne, “She might be faster with the ball, but I am quicker with the thinking.”

Pandemic lockdown in 2020 had presented a problem for businesses. Falguni Nayar knew it would take some quick pivots and strategic thinking to keep the business rolling. And Nayar didn’t waste any time. With operations and logistics coming to a halt, she decided to sell everyday essentials online. “Overnight we pivoted to an essentials-only online store and to handle that we utilised our 70 offline stores across the country to do hyperlocal delivery,” says the 57-year-old Nayar. The hyperlocal focus was, of course, because intra-state shipment of products was restricted during the initial phase of the lockdown. “We would match the products ordered online with what was available at the store to deliver to the nearest pin code,” she adds, as mentioned in an article

Like hardwork and determination, skills and speed to execute is an essential path to being successful in both sports and startups. What separates the good to great is the level of leadership that they exhibit. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great illustrated that long lasting companies are built by level 5 leaders. Level 1 being a highly capable individual, Level 2- contributing team member, Level 3- a competent manager, Level 4- Effective leader, Level 5 – builds enduring greatness.  

Level 5 leadership trait that makes them good to great: 

It is not that level 5 leaders have no ego or self interest. Indeed they are incredibly ambitious- but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.  For Sindhu, who aspired to get a Gold at Tokyo 2020 faced a setback with the loss in semifinals. 

She gathered courage and focus to fight again to earn a bronze, for herself and for the country. 

Deepinder Goyal, continues on giving up: “It is about how fast you can pick yourself up and get back.” In another conversation he gives a peek into his thoughts while talking about delivery partners. He says, “We are always focused on doing more for them, doing better for them” showing his larger mission. 

Nykaa’s Falguni Nayyar has carved her own successful path operating in a highly competitive space with giants like Amazon and Flipkart. She has skillfully built the company in a capital intensive space, has made it profitable and brought it to IPO stage. 

The unwavering resolve, to do what must be done for the success, no matter how deep they have to dig inside themselves for courage and clarity, is what takes them from good to great. 

Level 5 leaders are fanatically driven, infected with an incurable need to produce sustained results. They are resolved to do whatever it takes to make the company great, no matter how big or hard the decisions. 

That is how the leaders have performed and achieved, in sports and in startups. P.V Sindhu, Mirabai Chanu, Deepinder Goyal, Falguni Nayar. The unwavering resolve of a Level-5 leadership to dig to leap from goodness to greatness. 

Good to great


A leadership skill I watched in a thief

leadershio skill

Have you been woken up around 7.45am by a burglar? It happened to me. I was away with family and friends for our prized winter break in the last week of December. We were sharing a holiday home, nestled in a residential colony and secured by a tall compound wall with only one main entrance to the house. It must have been around 7.45am, I heard someone push open the door with a force. I had secured the door with a latch the night before but it must have been easy for the barrel to slip down with the brute force applied on the door.  The first thought crossed my mind was of my daughter who was in the other room and I jumped out to check that door when I saw this man walking up the stairs to rooms. The holiday home has a couple of rooms on the ground floor and a lovely, wooden staircase going up to the rooms on the first floor.  The man paused in his steps, turned around and gave me a stare and I thought how rude this housekeeping guy was! 

Later, almost an hour after this, we slowly came to realise that the man was a thief, had walked up to the bedroom on the first floor and taken out laptops from one room and then stepped into the other room and took some more gadgets and a laptop bag. In one room one person was sleeping and another one was inside the washroom. In the second room two people were sleeping when their devices were swept off. Work and school from home means we travel with our computer devices. That man had a big haul of gadgets in a matter of a few minutes that morning. The irony is, he not only saw me briefly, he met another guest on the first floor who asked him for a housekeeping errand as she walked out of the house for her morning stroll. This guest had a few seconds of exchanges with the thief. CCTV cameras on the property have recorded him walking in through the main gate, towards the building with rooms, getting inside it, coming out with a water jug following the guest, walking back in, walking out again empty handed may be to check on the guest’s whereabouts and walking back again into the holiday home and eventually coming out with a laptop bag full of gadgets and walking out of the main gate into one of the narrow lanes. There was no vehicle waiting for him. He had come empty handed and walked out with a backpack full of devices. 

My memory said he wore a white shirt which the CCTV confirmed. The other guest’s memory said he was in red trainers, again confirmed through CCTV footage. He wore a mask, as expected during these times. 

I am not narrating this story to bring to your attention that uncertainties are an everyday phenomenon and that uncertainties come in various forms. I am also not going to talk about how we dealt or how one should deal with such events afterwards. 

Every time I think about the incident, it reminds me of this man’s courage. The courage to walk in broad daylight, the courage to continue on his mission after meeting two adults on the way. But courage doesn’t come alone. We don’t know how he would have reacted if the person would have come out from the washroom while he was packing gadgets in the bag. Courage doesn’t mean absence of fear. 

In the first week of 2021, I am bringing your attention to a leadership skill that Nelson Mandela spoke about in 1994. He said,

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

TIME’s former managing editor Richard Stengel outlined the world leader’s eight leadership lessons, starting with, “Courage is not the absence of fear–it’s inspiring others to move beyond it. Stengel wrote- 

In 1994, during the presidential-election campaign, Mandela got on a tiny propeller plane to fly down to the killing fields of Natal and give a speech to his Zulu supporters. I agreed to meet him at the airport, where we would continue our work after his speech. When the plane was 20 minutes from landing, one of its engines failed. Some on the plane began to panic. The only thing that calmed them was looking at Mandela, who quietly read his newspaper as if he were a commuter on his morning train to the office. The airport prepared for an emergency landing, and the pilot managed to land the plane safely. When Mandela and I got in the backseat of his bulletproof BMW that would take us to the rally, he turned to me and said, “Man, I was terrified up there!”

Mandela was often afraid during his time underground, during the Rivonia trial that led to his imprisonment, during his time on Robben Island. “Of course I was afraid!” he would tell me later. It would have been irrational, he suggested, not to be. “I can’t pretend that I’m brave and that I can beat the whole world.” But as a leader, you cannot let people know. “You must put up a front.”

And that’s precisely what he learned to do: pretend and, through the act of appearing fearless, inspire others. It was a pantomime Mandela perfected on Robben Island, where there was much to fear. Prisoners who were with him said watching Mandela walk across the courtyard, upright and proud, was enough to keep them going for days. He knew that he was a model for others, and that gave him the strength to triumph over his own fear.

Often, during business decisions, leaders crumble not because they do not have the courage to take the decision but because they get crippled by the prospect of failure. New project decisions, a new product design, a new market exploration, a new important hire… there are many decisions that the business leader has to make during his tenure. Most decisions require logical thinking and are supported by data but there are some decisions, decisions that have a consequential impact, that require courage to move forward. Sometimes it is not the data, it is the fear of failure that holds the decision from becoming a reality. 

Like intuition, fear is also an integral part of thinking like we face fear of failure, fear of being judged as indecisive etc. Fear is like a package offer with courage, buy courage, get fear free! Sometimes it is in insignificant form but sometimes it takes a larger space.  This fear takes the path to safe decisions instead of bold, courageous decisions. In business decisions, there are multiple paths that vary in degree of boldness and outcome. Some bold decisions have bigger chances of failure. Safe decisions are decisions that do not deliver spectacular outcomes but these also are not the reason for any failure or may fail only with limited damage. Leaders take safe decisions,well, to remain safe. That is why we see less change in culture, lesser innovations because staying in the safe territory requires less or no courage. 

Courage overshadowed by fear for any leader becomes visible to the team. Nelson Mandela was conscious as a leader that his expression of fear will have an impact on his followers. 

It is an important leadership skill to develop that while courage is an individual’s experience, it is being watched. So is fear. As a leader, it is important to remember the following:

1. Courage is not the absence of fear.

2. Bold decisions have chances of getting overshadowed by fear. If the decision maker is conscious of fear, he can address it logically and not let fear overshadow bold decisions. 

3. Leaders are watched by team members. At times, it is imperative to display courage and keep fear under wraps. 

If the man in the holiday home would have displayed any fear, maybe, one of us would have sensed misdeed. It is ironic that a burglar, in bright morning light, in a house full of people, brought our attention to the fact – ‘courage is not the absence of fear.’ He enacted it. It takes negative circumstances to show us lessons, it takes a pandemic to teach us many values, it takes a thief to remind us that courage and fear co-exist and managing the balance between our courage and fear is the key to our success. 

leadership skill

The mammoth power of Dhoni’s attention

“His captaincy approach is functional and realistic. He guides youngsters to negotiate forked paths, and more importantly makes them aware about the game’s inevitabilities,” writes Sandeep Dwivedi for Indian Express on CSK’s fourth victory at IPL, 2021. Dhoni has a magical power, the power of empathy (read the article below) which makes him a great leader, as he is called with love and admiration, Namma Thala.


Everyone around me has a story to tell about Dhoni. Some claimed to be true, some genuinely real stories. Mine is my father- in- law’s tale. Now retired, he used to work with Mecon limited, the same place where Dhoni’s father was employed. Mecon is not just a workplace but is a culture in Ranchi. A community has developed around Mecon, and this community lives a closely-knit life in the residential colony and in and around the famous Mecon ground, Dhoni‘s first playfield. There is a gentleman called Sunil, whose father, like Dhoni’s father, was employed with Mecon, and like other boys, Sunil grew up playing with Dhoni in the colony. As life’s needle moved, Sunil took up a job at Mecon limited in his father’s place and became a narrator of this story. In his early days of popularity & meteoric rise, Dhoni lived in the same colony. His intimidating success distanced the people around him. One day, Sunil was riding his bicycle to work; he crossed Dhoni driving his SUV. Shy Sunil thought Dhoni had not noticed him. As he rode past, Dhoni stopped, called out for Sunil, and met him as his old friend and offered his care.  Even today, years later, Sunil’s eyes well up narrating that moment. 

There are several articles and videos about Dhoni as a cricketer and as a captain. But the most beautiful stories are not the grand stories of his strategies and his successes but are the small gestures that keep him human and yet make him God-like. Like the gesture in this story of a pause in his stride to touch a chord. 

Seems natural and effortless? It requires an effort and a conscious mind to build a deeply empathetic nature. We build businesses. We build brands. For our brands, we build communities and connections. What stands apart is how our relationships touch a chord and strengthen the brand and the business. 

Your brand story is your story. And your account has three tenets of writing. A) Are you empathetic?  B)Have you built a culture of empathy for your brand?  C) Do you make others feel heard?

1. Being empathetic:

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and actions of another person. It is about going out of own perspective and stepping into the other person’s view. Being empathetic holds one from being judgemental and, it helps in touching a chord. 

Empathy mapping is the core of the design thinking process. Simply because understanding the consumer helps one find areas to create innovations. When one understands the need, especially the latent needs of the consumer, it helps in creating solutions that surprise and delight the consumer. Brand marketers get insights from being empathetic. Entrepreneurs launch their business as an answer to the question – what problem are they solving? 

There are various ways of developing the skill. Here is a simple framework that I have referred to in the course SHIFT to build and nurture empathy skills.  

2. Not just the brand manager’s job:

Working with empathy is not a one-time exercise. It is a journey. So, it is not just the brand leader’s responsibility. When the leaders equip teams with the tools to become better listeners, they nurture a culture of empathy. Behind every business’s systems and processes are human relationships. Lockdowns brought stillness to these workflows but businesses with an empathetic culture have been able to spring back faster in action as compared to others. Take a look at Amul cooperative, their narrative of business in this year is a story of empathy for their suppliers and their customers.

To build to scale, one has to skill people for empathy across all departments.

3.Make them feel heard:

As we target different customer groups for the same brand, we end up creating not just segments but communities. Communities are customers bound together by similar interests. So a financial product has young professionals and retired professionals as two communities. The basic tenet of a community is the feeling of being with like-minded people, the feeling of not being alone. A community-led by a brand has to make people feel safe and cared for. Today, there is a need for a community manager to encourage two-way communications to make the members feel comfortable and heard.

To touch the chord, on a scale, let the community members feel noticed. 

MS Dhoni would have done something similar. He is not just empathetic, he has built a culture of empathy around him and he makes people feel noticed even if that is just a fan running to his crease during a match. I was in awe to see his Vijay Rath- his victory ride after T-20 World Cup in 2007. I had stood with my two-year-old son on the sides of Worli to watch him. The journey had taken hours to commute a short distance. People had rallied on foot, on their bikes, in their cars for hours. That was a moment of pride and faith for the country. That victory seeded hope of winning. Looking at, now framed, the next day’s cover page of the Times of India still evokes that faith. (See the image above)

MS Dhoni is a story of empathy. He has a mammoth power of empathy, power of attention for people. The neighbour in the Mecon colony, the friend from school days, the captain for his team, the winner for the country, Dhoni has made everyone feel noticed. 

Dhoni

MS Dhoni’s image: Fizdi.com

10 Expert Skills- from an orchestra conductor to the digital leader

Last week three events happened around the same time in my house.  My younger child, twelve years old and three years younger to her sibling, started paid classes for Python coding with the help of a coding tutor.  Meanwhile, my older child started an online Python course by MIT, free of charge and independent classes. Parallely, he also made an ECG machine through an inter-disciplinary summer project with Plaksha University. And, the third event was when I landed at this article on Chiefmartec.com : Why does the massive landscape of marketing services firms not bother people the way martech does?

Welcome to the world of democratization of knowledge. Where a twelve year old is learning something that was not available to another twelve year old just three years ago, where a fifteen year old school going kid has learnt something that he might have come across in graduate studies. To understand functioning of an electrocardiogram machine, to connect it to the Arduino IDE, transfer data to Python and design threshold levels was executed end to end in an online two week camp. Democratization of knowledge means the knowledge is increasingly available to everyone, irrespective of years of experience or age. Democratization of knowledge also means it is available in smaller, modular forms at a price that is affordable, and in many cases, free of cost.  Democratization of knowledge means you can attain mastery in an area of your interest, irrespective of your age and experience.

How does it impact you:

The democratization of knowledge is creating skilled resources. And technological advancements are bringing products that replace parts of high skilled jobs. For example, even some parts of highly specialized jobs of a doctor are being democratized. If you have heard about oximeters and if you have access to an oximeter, you know what I mean. You have taken one job of a healthcare worker. 

This is how our work lives are changing where a technology platform picks up the task and the person who has acquired specific skills takes over as the driver of the platform. 

Martech as the name suggests is about marketing and technology as a combined force where creativity meets technology meets people. The independent departments of IT and Marketing & Sales & Finance are merging. Business is to be driven by Martech. Below is the excerpt from the article Why does the massive landscape of marketing services firms not bother people the way martech does?

The number of agencies and consultancies is more than 10X the number of martech companies in these countries. Marketers and agencies aren’t locked in battle against a burgeoning martech landscape. They are becoming part of the martech landscape. In the UK, they identified 1,820 martech companies — but 21,570 agencies and consultancies serving marketers.

https://martech5000.com/ lists 8000 Marketing technology companies. For a close look, please visit the link

Any industry that you are in be it consumer facing, business to business, healthcare, edutech, defence, finance, you are a part of the landscape. The way you hone your skill is the way you will stay relevant in the landscape. Or, the future could be similar to the front desk attendant at your doctor’s place whose job was to take the Oximeter reading. 

What can you do

They say acquire a digital skill. You chose a course “Understanding AI’ on Coursera or may be, you do a ‘content marketing’ course on Hub Academy. And you feel equipped. But what you need to learn is not just one technical skill, you need to learn to be an orchestra conductor. 

These are ten must have skills in your resume to be a digital leader. 

Here is the mapping of ten digital leadership skills with the skills of an Orchestra Conductor. The orchestra conductor skills has been taken from American Orchestras: Traits and skills of a music director. Your platforms are the instruments, your tech experts, your service agencies, your team members are your musicians. You are the master conductor.

1 Mastery of at least one platform: Mastery of at least one instrument is vital to the development of greater musical insight and an understanding of music-making from a player’s point of view. 

Read: Understanding of a platform helps in understanding of the scope.

2. Voracious appetite for tech landscape: a voracious appetite for hearing performances of all types-experiences as a soloist, chamber musician, orchestral musician, and conductor

Read: There are more than 8000 technology platforms available. A voracious appetite helps in knowing what is suited best for your business goals. 

3. The listening ability for ideas Inquisitiveness about what composers may have wished to communicate in their music.

The opportunity to create solutions can come from anywhere. Democratization of knowledge and the availability of cloud computing opens up the world of possibilities.

4. The capacity to focus on outcome- The capacity to invoke a range of emotional responses, and the skill to create drama, contrast, and well-defined gestures in music, from the smallest detail to the overall shape of a piece. 

Read: The orchestra’s success lies in connecting with audience through emotional responses. Similarly, staying focused on the business objective while creating several digital solutions is a necessity for the leader.

5. Analytical skills to meet the goal- Advanced aural skills to deal with complex problems of orchestral intonation, balance, and color; advanced skills in sight-reading and transposition, especially as applied to the preparation of orchestral scores for performance. 

Read : Aural skills are like analytical skills. You may not be a data scientist, but you need to have the ability to know what you need to measure to meet your objectives.

6. Ability to have a clear vision: Practical experience in composition so that there is an awareness of the creative process and its choices, systems, and procedures. 

Read: An understanding of composition helps in defining a clear vision. 

7. Baton technique to manage the team and its tempo: Ability to maintain continuity of rhythm, line, structure, and interpretive integrity in the overall performance of a work while evoking and controlling response using gestures at all levels of musical detail.

Read: A campaign needs to be rendered in different formats to suit the medium and yet come together as a complete campaign. The baton technique is the ability to manage different things in a way that brings them cohesively to create the big show. 

8. Rehearsal technique: to test, analyse, align to the vision. Rehearsal technique is the  ability to recognize, diagnose, and correct musical, interpretive, rhythmic, balance, and intonation problems in an efficient, sequential, and creative manner. Ability to fuse the analytic knowledge of the structure of a work and an artistic conception into a sonic realization in the available rehearsal time. 

Read: The ability to select and buy appropriate platforms & services is almost like A/B testing of a campaign.

9. Podium presence: Perform and enthrall:  Podium presence is the awareness of how the conductor’s body language enhances the quality of music-making, as well as how it affects the physical and emotional well being of the players

Read: the ability to deliver the business objective with confident decision making.

10. Ability to gain respect by leading through an example of creativity, knowledge, and dedicationA passion for the orchestra and its repertoire and an ability to translate that passion into well-coordinated programs and activities that carry out the orchestra’s mission.

Read: The passion to inspire the team and service providers. The ability to attract the talent.

Image courtesy: The film ‘The Conductor’ based on the true story of Antonia Brico- Dutch-born American conductor and pianist, the first woman to gain wide recognition and acceptance as a leader of world-class symphony orchestras.

Disclaimer : Evaluating conductors objectively can be difficult: The orchestra, not the conductor, physically creates the sound. It is not always clear to what extent the conductor is responsible for a good (or bad) performance, though the picture generally becomes clearer over time.

How do you master critical thinking?

Have you seen Bosch, the drama series on Amazon Prime? Last night I was watching the 8th or 9th episode, season four. Detective Bosch’s partner, Edgar takes a split second decision and fires a gunshot at the armed suspect. He hasn’t clearly seen the weapon on the suspect, yet he has made the right move. Bosch says, this was Edgar’s  ‘training kicking in.’ In another instance, Edgar gets shot by a sniper. After the first hit, injured Edgar rolls behind the car. The second bullet hits the bonnet. Bosch reads the crime scene and comments Edgar’s training kicked in!

When something “kicks in” it means that it starts to work. Something that can “kick in” is an instinct, a feeling, or a certain way of thinking. For example, ‘as soon as he heard the gunshot, his military training kicked in and he dropped straight to the ground.’

Critical thinking is a skill, like any other skill that needs training. It is the training and the practice that kicks in at the time of the need. To master critical thinking, you need to follow the training. 

thewoodpeckermethod Axelsmith

In chess, there is a popular book titled The Woodpecker Method. The Woodpecker Method is the name given by Axel Smith to a training system developed by his co-author Hans Tikkanen. After training with his method in 2010, Tikkanen achieved three GM (GrandMaster) norms within a seven-week period. The quick explanation of the Woodpecker Method is that you need to solve a large number of puzzles in a row; then solve the same puzzles again and again, only faster. There is no lazy shortcut to success – hard work is required. But the reward can be re-programming your unconscious mind. Benefits include sharper tactical vision, fewer blunders, better play when in time trouble and improved intuition.

This is how critical thinking works too, practice and sharpen. Critical thinking is a personal skill, it is not a team skill. While, one does problem solving and innovation designs in groups but each one brings a certain set of skill and expertise to the group.

To hone, personal critical thinking skills, we look it through the following framework:

PERSONAL– How might I inculcate habits to sharpen critical thinking skills? 

SOCIAL – How might I pick up ideas from my social life?

PROCESSES– How might I make my work process more efficient? 

Each of these areas, when paid attention to, help in sharpening the skill.

For training, we seek lessons from contextual references around us. We decode it, mostly subconsciously, for our own learning outcomes. To consciously train, here are examples of articles that have been published in the last few weeks. In the table below, you will see how each article falls within this critical thinking framework, the contextual reference and the learning area. The outcome or the learning from each article is detailed on the article pages.

S.noArticle on habitsforthinkingFrameworkContextual referenceLearning Area
1Language in the new normalPersonal- ProcessNew vocabulary after big eventsCommunication skills
2The snake queues & the art of making choicesPersonal _ ProcessSnake queues for liquor shopsPersonal habit
3The four tenets of effective community communicationSocial – ProcessCommunity health safety measuresBehavioural Economics
4
Six reasons why you shouldn’t ignore the power of work from office
Social- PersonalNeed to keep office spaceCommunity
5Tumse Na ho PayegaPersonal- ProcessCovid- 19 Vaccine development plan Pivot/ Innovation
6Today, I am in my 20sPersonal habitCommencement speeches for graduatesPersonal positioning
7Three must know skills for leaders to ask right questionsPersonal – ProcessAsking for help for a job, ask for help if you are mentally illProblem Solving

Here are two examples of articles with learning outcomes.

Events and actions around us are our training modules. When we read an article or a book or listen to a podcast or attend a course, it helps us in seeding new thoughts. Gradually, these lessons kick in at the right time. Next time when you read an article that makes you think, try to answer if it helps you in changing a personal habit, or makes your process more efficient or is it just a social learning lesson to be bookmarked!

Let us be the woodpecker and the training will kick in when it is the right time.