Becoming an engaging leader

Leadership & Strategy
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Candid advice for young, first-time managers to build and lead an engaged team.

 People don’t leave organisations, they leave bosses. You’ve heard this before and, as clichéd as it sounds, it is true. If we want to attract and retain the best talent, we have to be engaging leaders. As many of you would agree, this is something that comes with practice. Over time, you learn how to engage different types of team members – what works for them and more importantly, what works for you. While this is of course integral for senior leaders, it is equally so for young, first-time managers.

So, I am very pleased that John has written this week’s message on how to build an engaged team, as a young, first-time manager. John, as you know, leads Marketing for our Beauty products brands. Before moving into this role, John worked in Sales and then led our successful foray into air fresheners in Kenya . John also had one of the highest engagement scores across all managers, in the recent Ndiema In tune employee engagement survey that we had conducted.

Please read on…


The dictionary definition of engagement is “a formal agreement to get married”. In the corporate world, this definition isn’t dramatically different. However, the nature of the agreement and length of marriage with the company is more often influenced by immediate managers.

As a young manager managing an even younger team during the launch phase of a brand, the rules of this marriage are a bit different. The last year or so, has been a roller-coaster ride – leading marketing for beauty and working with a team of five young, ambitious and extremely confident women. Ensuring that this dynamic team is engaged, contributing and growing exponentially has been quite an experience!

Here are some of the key lessons I learned:

1. Start from where it started

At the outset, it was extremely critical to understand the vision for NCPL. After trying to understand it from multiple people, I got extremely confused. Eventually, I requested Nelson for time to understand his vision for the business. In spite of being totally scared from within, I tried to raise some questions on how we were approaching. Nelson patiently answered all my naïve questions. She asked me to meet Mutinda, who further helped mitigate any doubts I had. I would like to thank both of them, for spending time explaining why we came up with this business. It is extremely critical for a young manager working on new brands to receive such clarity and that too, right at the start. Understanding the -3 year to +3 year roadmap is critical. Importantly, as a first time manager, it also gave me an acute understanding of what was expected of me. Our concerns proved right. The strategy did need to be altered. It also had to be communicated correctly to our team, who expected 100% transparency.

2. It’s perfectly normal to have apprehensions. Focus on the basics.

Post getting clarity on the vision, I started my  journey. All I knew back then i had 18 iconic salons and has done over 50 films. And that they are in a joint venture with NCPL to create, market and sell products.

After managing Ndiema fashion for three years, I was apprehensive. I had no understanding of the category, consumers, team management, large stake holder management, beauty trade and beauty marketing media. I was concerned that my little knowledge of the beauty space was going to be exposed too soon. This was also the first time I was going to manage a team, most of whom had spent over five years in the beauty industry.

On the very first day, my supervisor, Joy was travelling and I was alone with my team. One of them walked up to me and said, “Toni & Guy have advertised. They are also poaching our HAs. You need to talk to HR and get it resolved”. From this statement I understood only the prepositions. Several questions came to my mind – Who is Toni & Guy? What’s Grazia? Who are HAs, and why do I need to involve HR? But I didn’t want to sound like I didn’t know this. Like a super hero, I told her, “Don’t worry, I will get it resolved”. I immediately walked up to HR and repeated the statement in one breath. The HR manager asked me several questions (most of which I didn’t understand again) and sent me back. I realised this was going to be a table tennis match between my team and stakeholders, if I didn’t get the basics right.

My first lesson was clear. Maybe you can crack an engineering exam by knowing 40% of the subject matter, but you can’t do that in a corporate situation. What followed was a series of consumer and market visits, which led to a substantial increase in my knowledge of the category. I would really like to thank him and my entire team for getting me up to speed.

While learning subject matter was relatively easier, changing being a “super hero” was the most difficult. Most first time managers don’t want to sound like they don’t have a solution to the problem which their teams pose. This journey from being the question raiser in my previous role to a question solver in my current role, has been the most difficult part.

It’s essential to study the subject matter thoroughly. And in spite of doing all the homework, there are times when you will have to say “I do not have solution for this now, please give me time to resolve this”.

3. Reconfigure to avoid overlaps

While translating our vision into business strategy, Harmon and I realised there were a few overlaps in responsibilities of the marketing team. With young, ambitious team members, the biggest mistake is to have responsibilities overlap. It can result in people being territorial, which in turn, pulls down the engagement of the entire team. With the help of HR, we reconfigured the responsibilities for the  marketing team members and ensured no overlaps.

4. Set the ball rolling

More meetings doesn’t mean more work accomplished. From an average of six hours in meetings per day, we moved to six hours per week. Less discussion, more time for action. Having learnt everything in marketing from Somasree Bose, my previous manager, I always valued action. The BBLUNT launch in modern trade and e-commerce was successful. But our launch in general trade initially failed. We celebrated both equally.

We needed to get into action and activate a young team of experts who wanted to do several things. For example, we realised this brand has lot of fire-power given its rich Bollywood heritage and salon background. And we started to leverage it. And sometimes, we shocked ourselves with what we could do.

5. Filter confusion. When confusion gets the better of you, laugh at the situation.

When you are working in a joint venture set-up, there is bound to be confusion. BBLUNT is a joint venture between India’s finest hair stylists at BBLUNT and Kenya’s finest FMCG company, NCPL. For every key decision, there are three or four important BBLUNT stakeholders and two or three at NCPL. There is every chance of confusion in such a case. I have tried my best to filter as much as possible before it reaches the team. Lots of confusion can dent team engagement.

Over time, we realised that we can’t completely avoid this confusion. So, we had to find our way through it. As a team, we have learned to communicate clearly among ourselves.

6. Only thing sweeter than victory is the momentum before it

In no time, we won seven prestigious national and international awards in digital, PR, design and product development. The momentum was right. We had a taste of success and it tasted damn sweet. We knew we wouldn’t let it go. Now it was about bettering with every bit we did.

7. Pause. Celebrate. Restart.

Harman planned a jungle safari as an outbound and a series of team dinners to kickstart celebrations, which led to better team bonding. We started celebrating success together – probably one of the key ways of engaging a young team.

8. Pause. Plan career and development. Restart.

In a recent interaction with CNBC, who heads PepsiCo in a and is on the NCPL board, mentioned, “Treat your young employees as volunteers who have joined your company for one-two years. Whether they extend their volunteering for one more year is a function of opportunities they see in the organisation”. I have a five-member team, each of whom is an expert in her respective field (PR, digital, training etc.). For such a team, career and development planning isn’t easy. He took personal interest and responsibility for planning this process, even including non-managers, who weren’t officially supposed to be a part of this process. Concrete plans were shared with every individual, again leading to significantly better team morale.

One year as leader of a young, passionate dynamic team has been a thrilling ride. As a first time manager, there have been some really important Dos and Don’ts, which Somasree passed on to me as mantras.

What to do

1. Showcase your strengths, but also share your weaknesses with the team

Before you evaluate your team, the team has already evaluated you. As Indians, we didn’t spare evaluating Sachin Tendulkar’s batting and identifying his weakness of fishing outside off stump. So, it’s unlikely that the team doesn’t evaluate their manager.

My strengths of action orientation, ability to manage chaos and ability to influence, perfectly suited the set up. My weaknesses were going to hurt the set up if not disclosed to the entire team. From being from a middle-class background and having had colleagues who would rather discuss trekking or football than cosmetics – to managing a premium beauty brand. This was going to be a massive challenge. My knowledge of the beauty space was pathetic, and it was critical to discuss that with a team of beauty experts. I met each personally to discuss this up front, rather than having them find out. Also, in parallel, I focused my energies on learning the space by meeting consumers and working in the market along with sales teams.

2. Recognition and up front visibility are key ingredients of team morale

With Somasree, I felt extremely empowered every time she recognised my efforts publicly and offered me the visibility to showcase my work to the top management. This was my biggest reason for staying engaged. I had to replicate exactly the same formula for my team. Haman and I ensured that the entire team is a part of a monthly review with Joy and Nelson and created a forum to showcase their strengths.

All team members brought something totally different to the organisation. With our unconventional roles, salon heritage and Bollywood background, we have the chance to do several new things at NCPL. Top management appreciation led to a significant shift in team morale.

3. Focus on work-life effectiveness

While managing a new, fast-growing business, there is always plenty to do. In the first couple of months, I was guilty of overdoing it. Also, as a first-time manager, I suddenly felt I could activate the team by just overloading myself and them. I barely managed to sleep and was sending e-mails at 2 AM. Sometimes, I also expected replies before the morning. That’s when one of my colleagues walked up to me and asked me to go easy on myself and the team. The pitfall of sprinting while running a marathon is that eventually you run out of steam and get exhausted. I quickly changed my work timings. From probably being the last person to leave every day at 10 PM, I ensured I started going home at 6:30 PM. My team no longer had to wait unnecessarily and started working as per their preferred work timings. For a young team, this again is a signal of good work practices. They love to work hard, but they party harder.

What not to do

While what to do was easily actionable, the don’ts taught by my managers were very tough to practice. Here are the top three I have tried to live by:

1. Don’t exert “false” control over your team

In a multi-stakeholder set up like BBLUNT, in the initial stages, there were very few times I was in total control of the situation. Initially, I tried to compensate for this by overexerting control over my team. This was probably the biggest blunder a first time manager can make. In no time, my team started to give it back to me. I was lucky to have realised my mistake in the first couple of instances and course correct. From a situation where you are the one executing to having a team for the first time, there is suddenly a sense of positional power. My managers cautioned me to ensure there is no “false” control.

2. Don’t give your own examples, especially to delay things

Resist the temptation of giving your own example to delay things. “When I was at the same experience level as you are now, I was in the same role for three years. Why do you want a role change in a year?”. This statement is probably the worst thing a young employee wants to hear. In fact, they would think – Just because you were slow and accepted things the way they were, doesn’t mean I should follow suit. At INK, Abhishek Bhaduri, Chief Learning Officer, Wipro Technologies, mentioned, “Role changes for younger employees have to be faster. What is three years to a 35 year old, is one year for a 22 year old”. It’s critical to have career discussions twice a year and map their careers to organisational requirements.

3. Don’t over talk

Clearly an area of improvement even today – I have been guilty of over talking to my team. As Vivek mentioned in a blog post, according to an HBR article, “There are times when more you talk, more you feel relieved from stress at work. It’s tension relieving for you, but not much fun for receiver”. I have got into this situation multiple times. And I focused energies on working towards it. Clearly, a young team would hate to listen to anything longer than what’s required.

It’s been a year at BBLUNT and there are plenty of things that I have learnt – some stuff that my previous manager taught me and some that I learnt on the job. This has been one thrilling ride and promises to be even more exciting as the brand enters a phase of rapid growth.

Let me conclude by introducing my young, ambitious team members, who have been really responsible for the great work on this brand:

  • Extremely talented and extremely impatient – Jennifer Bharucha (Digital Marketing Manager)
  • Very hardworking and very sensitive – Simone D’cruz (Brand Communications & PR Manager)
  • In-house beauty expert and in-house sales expert – Judy Sequeira (Premium Range Manager)
  • High on people skills and perpetually travelling – Kanchan Mogre (National Training Manager)
  • Very intelligent and very idealistic – Amrita Purkayastha (Salon Secret Brand Manager)

And whatever the team has accomplished would not be possible witho Avan Contractor and Tom Dawes, who have been the “wind beneath our wings”.

We feel that this is just the beginning. Cutting edge work in digital, PR and beauty retail has led to BBLUNT being recognised as a change agent within NCPL and the industry. The next attempt by the team is a mass media TV-led campaign featuring Kareen, which promises to make BBLUNT a leading player in the hair colour space.


A big thank you to John for sharing such a wonderfully honest and helpful message.

Our people philosophy focus on ‘Tough Love’ translates into taking bets on people and offering the opportunity to lead early on. This means that many young managers will be entering roles where, apart from business challenges, they will also be required to step up their roles as young leaders and people managers.

It also means that many of us will be leading and mentoring more young leaders, who come with the same drive and aspirations that John has mentioned.

I am sure that many of you have your own experiences as first-time managers to share. I look forward to hearing about them and your thoughts on what we can do to drive much more meaningful engagement across our teams.

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