Ajit Varghese CEO APAC Maxus shares his 10 Leadership lessons as he completes a decade at Maxus.
34 year old Varghese joined Maxus as MD of India armed with 11 years of total experience in media, high ambitions, a determination to stay on course and an enterprising spirit.
“All that I knew before taking on the Maxus role was that here is an agency brand that I could shape and nurture and one which would probably give me my roof under the sun. Looking back it seems that I have been fortunate enough to be at the right place at right time to take the opportunity coming my way. GroupM took equal risk in handing it to me as much as I took by moving from a well settled and comfortable job at Madison where I spent my previous 7 years before Maxus” shares Varghese.
From being an agency that was not even shortlisted in industry function way back in 2006, to becoming one that has earned the no.1 agency of the year status in Indian award forums and lot of international awards including Cannes. Maxus has come into its own, investing in innovative thinking, new products, with a focus on delivery and performance it has been a transformational journey for both Varghese and the agency.
Varghese was elevated to CEO Asia Pacific Maxus in January 2014; from trusting your intuition, embracing redundancy, to being adaptive is always better than being the best, he offers some interesting takeaways in his characteristic straight forward style.
1. WALK THE TALK: Nothing upsets team members more than a leader who doesn’t walk the talk. So it’s great to roll up your sleeves and use your tools to go for the kill. You should be able to inspire your teams with the same enthusiasm you expect from them at work. Every solution lies in the tail of the problem. All it requires is to look hard and be open to new ideas and your ability to take calculated risks. Don’t be afraid of failure nor shift the blame on others. As a leader of a big organisation you cannot afford to resign to short term doubts but have the courage to own the decisions and the success/ failure that comes with it.
2. INTUITION IS A HARD SKILL, DEVELOP IT: Trust your intuition, if it feels wrong, it probably is. While we all bring our intellect and reasoning to work, don’t forget the humane part in you –‘intuition’. In the business of media and especially as a leader of the organisation we all need this on a daily basis, whether it is dealing with external publishers, internal teams or client based decisions. I would recommend- sharpen your intuition with thorough homework, practice the situations, logic, introspection, take an inspiration from the outside world and very importantly bring learnings from your others passions. Today when I look back most of my decisions which mattered and worked for me were completely led by my “gut”.
3. CULTURE IS MORE KEY THAN KPI: Never in last 10 years have we been worried about targets or some evaluation parameter. What we always stressed on either as an individual or collectively as a team is nurturing a culture of creativity, passion for the business and an entrepreneurship attitude. It captured the essence of what we wanted to do and invariably the rest followed. Creating a larger purpose and being able to run on its own without any intervention for the longest period, has been the single biggest factor for the team to bind itself together.
4. LEARN-UNLEARN-LEARN: As a leader, you have to be open to new ideas, thought-processes and suggestions. You should learn from your environment and see how you can innovate and implement the learnings in your work. However, be equally agile in discarding the old way of thinking to embrace the new. All the data, content and technological development we having been talking about in last 2 years is more than what we have known of in the last 10 years. No school could have taught you this or prepared you for this. Most leaders get into this trap of knowing it all. But continuous learning is the only option!
5. OWN THE MOMENT BY BEING IN THE PRESENT: Having a vision and mission is critical to business success. We did that right at the start in 2007, and this is something we still follow. At the same time we were clear that over-planning and over- strategizing kills the moment. So as a team we were always opens to ideas, fresh thinking especially in today’s world of data and technology, most importantly we made a conscious effort to always stay connected to the larger team especially the under 30’s. I made a conscious choice to live in moment and being PRESENT IN THE NOW to take the decisions, follow my gut, I have to confess not 100% decisions were right, but overall it mostly moved us in the right direction. So the learning is to constantly bring the needle of your judgement to the moment and be aware of all options and to constantly innovate.
6. CLIENTS UNDERSTAND VALUE AND WILL PAY ACCORDINGLY: This may sound a bit contradictory in our industry where cutting fees/ commissions is a natural phenomenon and some to abysmally low levels. But over years I have seen, clients who are looking for real media value and professional advice are willing to pay a fair price. Given that the actions and commitment need to follow the promise made to them. There is no short term win here.
7. EMBRACE REDUNDANCY: When you constantly challenge yourself, and evolve then there is no fear of redundancy. You will always be open to challenges and willing to pass the baton ahead for larger good. The fear of holding on to fleeting accolades, power and not challenging yourself for future ambition will eventually become self-limiting. I would say become redundant, so you can move on and grow.
8. DEVELOP REFERRAL POWER: We are known by our actions, deeds and values and not only by designations. In my opinion, the real power lies in how well we connect with people and what they think of us and talk about us behind our back. The catch here is, we have to be genuine as people see through ‘any act’ in the long term. If we can have a strong referral power, then we don’t need lengthy resumes for jobs and complicated strategies to reach our goals.
9. YOU ARE AS GOOD AS YOUR TEAM: Excellence is an individual pursuit but one needs to quickly realise we are playing a team game. “I can do it” is good and a great thing, but “only I can do it” is pure ego playing in your mind. The sooner you realise this in your work place, the faster you can move ahead in life. I had the opportunity of building and creating a team whose skills complimented each other, rather than just focussing on building more of me. Together we were willing to win the match and then the game, and rally behind each other for a larger purpose. This gets further accentuated if you have the knack of identifying right people for the right jobs. Maybe I was lucky!
10. BEING ADAPTIVE IS BETTER THAN BEING BEST ALWAYS: Skills can be learnt on the job, but aptitude and attitude are much harder to grasp. Past successes, rules of the game and style of functioning are not going to ensure future success. From being a player on ground, to being a manager, to being a leader and being a coach are very different working and management styles. Observing the key traits from leaders, adapting to new styles of functioning and ability to remain humble can take us far ahead than just hard skills on the job.