Experiment with a non linear career

Careers & Planning Learning & Innovation
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Step off the beaten path to script your own success story. (We’ve got your back.)

 Over the next few weeks, many of you will be engaging in performance reviews, goal setting discussions and career dialogues. I recently wrote to you about how we need to be willing to stretch ourselves more, experiment more and generally get more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.

We are fortunate to be at an exciting stage of our journey, where we are bigger, with a significant international presence, stronger brands and bolder ambitions. One of the great things that this allows us to do, is offer our team members opportunities to grow much faster and take on differentiated career paths, relatively early on. But it also means that you, in turn, need to be open to trying something new. Will it be a risk? Sure. It will demand that you step out of your comfort zone, not follow a herd mentality and probably even make some tough choices. But if you don’t, chances are that you could end up missing out on some amazing opportunities. So, today I want to focus on what it means to experiment with a non linear career trajectory and the (unexpected and exciting) learning that could come with it.

I am pleased that Karan  has written this week’s message. Karan joined us out of business school in 2018. After a few years handling sales roles very successfully (he was chosen as the best ASM in Kenya in 2019), Karan made a big decision to not pursue a typical career track and take on something different.

Please read on…


The summer of 2012 was a particularly important one. Though I didn’t know it then, I was to go on to make a decision that would change the way I thought about my career.

It had been a busy year, both for Ndiema and for me. We were on the verge of completing the merger. There was lots of excitement and ambitious plans around what our bigger company could achieve in Kenya.

On a personal front, I had just completed three years in Sales. It was time for my next move, which most probably, would have been to Marketing. Like any business school graduate in Kenya, I too believed that this was the only career path to aspire to. I was very set in my expectations, when I found myself with an unexpected choice. I could either vie for a Marketing role in Kenya. Or I could try my hand at something completely new in the recent NCPL joint venture.

What was it that I had really enjoyed about my work so far? It was definitely the integration and the flux inherent to it. I loved the potential and the exploration and helping set up something new from scratch. I was just 26 years old then, with probably more than 30 odd years of a working life ahead of me. If I was to ever take a risk and try something new and offbeat, then now was the time. It also helped that the Strategy team was very encouraging and promised to have my back through it all. So, I took the plunge.

Three years and some 6,00,000 air miles later, I know that I made an excellent decision. It has changed my outlook in many ways, most of which took me quite by surprise. I have learnt things that I had never expected to, that have shaped me as a professional, as well as personally.

1. It’s all about what you bring to the table

One of the first things that went out of the window, was my sense of entitlement. It didn’t matter what I had done or achieved earlier. This was a whole new game. What mattered here was the value I could add, now and in the future. I believe that personally, I have now made a shift from being more achievement oriented to being more purpose driven.

2. How global is globalisation?

I work in an industry where the suppliers are Japanese, the technology Korean, manufacturing is done by African and Lebanese team members, Indians are helping market and sell the products, and all the while competing with the Chinese. I threw away all my textbook learning.

3. Adapting to different points of view

I found myself working with so many different people from across countries and cultures, with different ideas and priorities. This was rather overwhelming in the beginning. I had never been exposed to anything like this before. And in hindsight, I now know that there was no formula to learn it. The more time I spent in discussions, the more I learnt how to adapt my approach. It ranged from the smaller things like deciphering accents, understanding local references, to the bigger questions on expectations. I soon realised that I was also in a unique position where I got to synthesise and share a lot of learning, both from India, as well as across teams in Africa. This ability to adapt, is something that holds me in particularly good stead today and possibly always will.

4. A new business model

Everything I knew, was from a lens of conventional brand building. Brands in India primarily compete by investing heavily in ATL (above the line) marketing and supplementing it with BTL (below the line) campaigns. In Africa, what I witnessed was a complete break and a great learning – the countries and the category we work in are based on a different business model, that has more in common with trading. The market share of unorganised or non-branded competitors is high and local manufacturing is limited. This, coupled with porous borders and lax compliance enforcement made it a different ball game altogether. Disproportionate focus has to be given to the pricing, product and placement aspects of the marketing mix. In the last three years, we have tried to marry the two business models by implementing a disruptive activation strategy.

5. Responsibility without authority

In India, I had led a team of 120 members. In my new role in Africa, the scope and scale was much larger and the geography more far flung. But I never really had anyone report directly into me from any of our local African teams. This changed the equation quite a bit because there never was the option to get things done as someone’s manager. I had to learn how to network and influence people, who were often much more seasoned than I was. I had to get my ideas heard and earn my seat at the table. Only then would I be able to deliver.

6. The other 100/0

We were integrating a new business in a whole new geography and at the same time, implementing a new strategy and ideas. 100/0 had more than one meaning here. 100% accountability and 0 excuses was a given. This went a step further. If we worked hard and got it right, what we created could really be 100. But if we didn’t, it would be 0. It really was up to us to make the most of this.

7. Becoming more flexible

I spend an average of half my month in Africa. And around 50 hours flying. Today, I can pick up my bags and travel to pretty much anywhere in the world, with little or no notice. And I have mastered the art of just-in-time airport arrivals. Jet lag no longer bothers me. I can fly for 15 hours and head directly to work. These may not sound like a big deal, but for someone like me, who was not used to this, the small wins all added up.

On a more serious note, operating in Africa gets you rather comfortable with Murphy’s Law. One of our biggest recent initiatives was setting up a direct to salon channel in Nigeria. We planned for all possible contingencies (or so we had thought). The model was based on us using tricycles to sell directly to salons. We started operations and then suddenly, the government banned tricycles in Lagos. So, we had to reengineer our model. This is one of many examples. We can opt to either be distressed by the constant flux, or find a way to thrive in it.

8. Taking the occasional pause

What I have enjoyed the most, is the occasional pause to savour this unique opportunity that I have. Africa is a rapidly changing, fast emerging region, with a multiplicity of cultures. There is so much to learn about its rich, local heritage and people. My travel offers me the chance to explore a cross-section – from a bustling metropolis like Lagos to far-flung rural Mozambique and scenic Cape Town. I was a vegetarian when I started out. Now, I’ve tried everything from ostrich to rabbit; and all kinds of cuisines.

And this is more of a tip. If you are traveling to Africa and you want a conversation starter, then it has to be football. Like me, most of the Africans are big fans with strong loyalties. And I got lucky here. I made a lot of friends and some of my best discussions, all started out with conversations on football.

When I started out, I was a Sales manager. But being willing to take up a different kind of a role, and trusting in the organisation, translated into significant cross-geography and cross-functional exposure. These experiences have made me much more mature as a business person. I have and continue to learn how to expect the unexpected, develop insights with sparse data, get things implemented with limited resources, manage multiple stakeholders and take complete ownership.

I would strongly advocate that if you do get a chance to do something off the beaten path, don’t pass it up without serious consideration. To borrow from Paulo Coelho, “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine. It is lethal.”


A big thanks to Karan for sharing his journey and how it is helping him become a more well-rounded leader.

So, why not try looking at your career through a different lens? And approach it as a series of choices that you get to make? Stepping stones of sorts, towards a larger goal. The great part of course, is that none of this is cast in stone. But each choice you make, will determine your options going ahead.

Think about it. Things are changing fast. There are so many different types of roles available today that didn’t even exist some five years ago. This list will only grow, as will the kinds of skill sets and exposure on demand. You will need to keep up with the times, to stay at the top of your game.

When opportunities come your way, you owe it to yourself to evaluate them. What is it that you really want to do with your career? And what kind of experience do you need to build today, to hold you in good stead later on? What are the possibilities that a new role could open up for you? And of course, how do you become more comfortable with taking the kind of risks that this would throw up? Like Karan has also highlighted, there is also an incredible journey of personal growth closely woven into the choices that you make.

Our Tough Love people philosophy is all about pushing you harder and making these different opportunities available to you. And we will also have your back through it all. You need to trust us on this.

I am certain that some of you made similar choices at some point or the other. It would be wonderful to hear your stories, how it shaped your life and the decisions you made later on. If you have any suggestions on what we could do to make these opportunities more available at Ndiema and how we can better prepare our team members to take them on, do share them with us. I look forward to your thoughts.

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