RISING LIKE A PHOENIX – THE COMEBACK OF MAGGI
I’m a great believer of a quote in the Bhagavad Gita that “you are in transition and you’re always in transition,” so what was yours yesterday is someone else’s today and what will be yours tomorrow will also be someone else’s says Suresh Narayanan, Chairman and MD, Nestlé India.
Suresh Narayanan is the Chairman and Managing Director of Nestlé, India. He is also the man who brought Maggi back. Suresh was the Chairman and CEO of Nestlé Philippines when he was asked to come back to India in August 2015, and put out a potentially devastating fire. That June, Maggi Noodles, the most popular packaged snack in India, was found to have seven times the permitted amounts of lead and was banned. His challenge was to restore Maggi’s popularity and rebuild the lost trust among the consumers. Not only has Maggi regained a considerable amount of its market share, but it has also launched a number of new variants based on a three-year-plan Suresh spearheaded. As he sits sipping green tea, he describes how he dealt with one of the toughest assignments of his career. Here are edited excerpts of his interview.
How do you react to being called the “Turnaround MD”?
Suresh Narayanan: It’s never about me but about the people around me and what I can do to leverage their strengths in a given situation. So, the descriptor “turnaround MD” doesn’t impact me personally. Whatever I have done with my team, if that is seen as a turnaround situation for an organization, then that keeps me happy. I’m a great believer of a quote in the Bhagavad Gita that “you are in transition and you’re always in transition,” so what was yours yesterday is someone else’s today and what will be yours tomorrow will also be someone else’s. So I consciously don’t allow myself to get affected. I think the root cause of suffering is an overpowering ego, and I don’t allow that to happen.
When Nestlé called you in Manila to ask you to return to India and take control of the Maggi crisis, what was your first thought?
When you’re called upon to a challenge, the first question always is, “why me?” I was quite happy in the Philippines, except for the typhoons and earthquakes. Everything was good. But then I thought to myself (and my wife and my dad later told me) that one is rarely called upon with such a request. If they have called upon me to address such a challenge, then it’s a badge of honor for me. Well, you know, you don’t send your least trusted man out on the battlefield. That was my first reaction. It was a big weight of responsibility but I took it on.
Also, I’ve risen in this company because I’ve gotten lots of opportunities and developed mutual respect with my colleagues. These team members have been partners in my progress. I couldn’t bear the thought that they were going through something so huge and I would just sit it out. In life there are three stages: learning, acquisition, and then payback. I’m at that stage of my career when it’s payback time. If I can make a difference because of my position of leadership, the legacy of the organization will be much stronger.
Did you have a plan and how did you prioritize what you had to do?
The nice answer to HBR Ascend would be that I had a plan. But my honest answer is that things were so fluid initially that there couldn’t have been a plan. Maggi has touched the lives of millions of people. Nestle’s single core value is that of respect—for each other, for diversity, and for values. The bedrock of
this company is our food quality and safety so I knew my foundation was strong. I did not have self-doubts that maybe something was wrong with us. I was never defensive. My issue was how to deal best with the authorities, media, colleagues, and consumers and manage the situation.
My top priority was my people. My people weren’t expecting answers, but were expecting me to give hope—this is the task of leadership. This is something leaders sometimes don’t focus on or forget about. Second was the authorities. I am deeply grateful to people in the bureaucracy for having listened patiently to us to understand that Maggi was safe to consume and that food quality and safety have always been Nestle’s top priority. [Editor’s note: Maggi challenged the court ruling and produced a voluminous 2,700 tests that proved that Maggi was safe to consume. The ban on Maggi noodles and its variants was lifted in October 2015]. And finally, the stakeholders, the suppliers, and distributors and the millions of people who sell Maggi for a living!
The strength of an organization is most apparent in moments of weakness and I am proud of the fact that we came out with our head held high, not because we did a miracle but because we have lived the purpose and values of this company for 105 years.
That is the kind of return you get having invested in all this. In business, it is not always about how clever or smart you are but about every transaction being a win-win. We’re at a stage now where we’ve re-established our credentials, restored our customers’ trust, and we have most of our market share back. If the people would have felt that we had short-changed them, it wouldn’t have lasted, however clever we may have been.
What should a leader keep in mind in times of crisis?
A leader is like an orchestra conductor. He doesn’t make the sound but how he orchestrates is what creates great or bad music. Companies don’t fail in times of crisis because the model was faulty; they fail because the leader didn’t create a good enough culture to take that model through. What you do and how you behave reflects in how your people respond in times of crisis. They see everything, even the nonverbal cues. A crisis can be a blessing in disguise and a great time to introspect and refocus on where you are and where you want to go.
How do you define your role as a leader?
About 70% of Nestlé India’s workforce is made up of millennials. There isn’t a shortage of cranial abilities or technical skills; what’s missing is coping mechanisms.
I often ask myself this question, “What differentiates a satisfying career from a tepid career?” It’s not your brains and capability of solving complex numbers, but your coping capabilities—how you deal with a VUCA (short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) environment, how you deal with people and stress. I think the leader’s challenge is to build an organization’s muscle memory. And to build muscle memory you need to infuse the right kind of culture, examples, values, methods, and leadership.
So now that the Maggi crisis is over, what is keeping you up at night?
Oh, Maggi is still not done! We exited at a 75% share. We’re back to about 60% now, so I still have miles to go before I sleep. The question of what should we do next is what keeps me up at night.
What advice would you give a young professional about to enter the workforce?
Everyone has a different path to get to where you want to. Some people are on a narrow gauge, some on a broad gauge, and well, some people just fly. So if you’re on a narrow gauge, don’t look at the person who is flying and ask, “Why am I not there?” Make the best of your narrow gauge and do what you can to make it even better. When your purpose is clear, the path always lights up!
And don’t stop learning. Learning is like being a hamster on a wheel. It’s a continuous process. What I learned when I started is not relevant today. So how will I stay relevant if I stop my learning process?
What advice would you give your younger self if you were starting out now?
Keep a check on your attitude and wear your values on your sleeve. As people grow in their roles, some start compromising on the values. You may feel like when you compromise you gain, but the reality is that when you compromise, you lose. You need to be able to look at the person in the mirror and say, “Yes, you’re doing a great job!” You need to know deep within that you’re doing the right thing. If you can’t face that person in the mirror, then it’s not worth it.
This article was first published on www.hbrascend.in. HBR Ascend is a digital learning companion for graduating students and millennials in India.