As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Ashwani Dhar.
Ashwani Dhar is an experienced executive, board director, and venture capitalist serving as CEO of Adlucent, a performance marketing agency for retail. Dhar has led the organization’s growth charge over the past 14 years, including strategic direction, customer acquisition, and overall client success. He’s achieved an industry-leading client retention rate, secured Adlucent’s standing as Google’s largest shopping ads agency in the U.S., and pioneered an innovative performance-based model that aligns the agency’s compensation with client outcomes. Dhar also serves as a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) Board Member for Adlucent’s parent company, Advantage Solutions (NASDAQ; ADV), a leading business solutions provider ranked as one of the top marketing companies in the U.S. by AdAge.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve traveled and lived in many countries throughout my life. Originally from Kashmir, India, I did my grammar school in Bristol, England, middle school in Montreal, Canada, and high school in New Milford, CT. I also spent four years living and working in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I met my wife and have raised three wonderful children; two beautiful daughters and a tall son. They are all native Austinites, as we’ve spent the last 24 years in Austin, TX.
As the son of Indian parents, I often joke that I had one of two career choices; doctor or engineer. Fortunately, while completing an Electrical Engineering degree, I was able to get a strong undergraduate foundation at Wharton which was enhanced by an MBA at Harvard. That has served me well during my career in balancing the opportunities and challenges of bringing technology innovation to market as an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and now leader of a very tenured and successful digital marketing agency.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There are many, but one of the most memorable occurred during my first year at Adlucent. We just made the Inc. 500 list at #79, which was a huge testament to the work we were doing with our largest customer at the time, Amazon. However, six months into my tenure, Amazon took their business in-house, and as you can imagine, this was a huge blow to the company and our early success. Regardless, we were convinced we had built a better mousetrap, especially for the retail and ecommerce industries, so all executives took half or no salaries, and we re-bootstrapped the company. Within another six months, we were back to full salaries, hiring new team members, and building our second phase of growth and success. This attitude, comradery, and perseverance have been infusing and a staple of our culture ever since.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There are so many early lessons to share, especially around finding and growing the right people.
However, as a performance digital agency that focuses on proving outcomes, data is always critical. So one of the funniest early lessons occurred with two different clients, coincidentally both in Omaha. After a careful onboarding and data verification process with each, we were surprised to discover that conversion values, or attributed revenue from online orders placed after clicking the ads we were managing, were slightly changing over time. This resulted in our budget and bid management misaligning with the client’s ultimate goal. In bringing this to the clients, they both had very compelling business drivers behind their approaches.
The lesson learned that we still use today in all our onboarding and integration processes is truly understanding the client’s business up front and mapping end-to-end the client’s goals to the metrics of the program. As digital marketing experts, we can sometimes get myopic about our metrics and changing landscape of new capabilities. However, keeping a holistic client-centric view has been paramount to our success in growing with clients over several years.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors in my career but most prominently was my first Organization Behavior professor at Wharton, Dr. David Thomas. I didn’t realize it at the time I was in the first class he ever taught, but we developed a strong bond as he served as my undergraduate advisor. We have stayed close over the years during both our careers, and that type of long-term mentorship is very powerful, especially for leaders of color being mentored by coaches of color.
Specifically, at Adlucent, I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to be coached by two leading industry professionals in very different leadership models and approaches. The first, Angela Vasquez, was our former CFO turned leadership development coach within Patrick Lencioni’s The Table Group organization. The second, Keith Lewis with VeraSpark, is a 20-year coaching professional adopting The Leadership Circle model for individual and team coaching. Both have been instrumental to me and my entire leadership team, and I would strongly recommend any new CEO to pursue a coach and invest in leadership team development.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diversity, first and foremost, is a business imperative. As a data person, the data is clear and profound that diverse teams deliver better results. While the empirical evidence continues to be discussed and sometimes debated, it is heartening to see the changes we are witnessing in both the business and broader cultural environments around Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI).
Better business results are the outcome when leadership teams proactively engage and encourage diverse conversations. We all come to our roles and careers with our individual perspective, which is naturally filled with conscious and unconscious biases. I often say that ‘my greatest strength can be my greatest weakness.’ It takes others from diverse backgrounds to point out those weaknesses and other perspectives that I don’t always see.
When organizations embrace diversity, it can be infectious and allow people the room to express and be their authentic selves. When curated and cultivated in a proactive care for culture, the resulting business environment can be a huge competitive advantage, as emphasized by Peter Drucker in his famous quote ‘Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.’ This has materialized at Adlucent in our very active Culture Council and is interwoven in the activities planned by our Employee Engagement Team. We have activities presented to and participated by all Adlucites, including special DEI activities. This includes a cookbook with recipes written by Adlucites representing their cultural and family meals, a DEI book club, and specific philanthropic efforts to support marginalized groups. This emphasis on DEI in the fabric of our regular culture is what has made it more meaningful and had a stronger impact.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
As leaders in our organizations, we have the opportunity and responsibility to establish the importance, tone, and direction of DEI within an enterprise. Across the broader society, we have an amplified voice to lead through action. These actions must be deeply personal to have the authentic resonance that can influence a broader public audience.
The first and most important step is to find out where you personally gravitate in today’s challenges. Be specific and be personal about what topics resonate for you. In my case, it would be influencing children and the next generation. Parents’ active involvement, especially business leaders in schools, youth groups, and after-school activities can have lifelong effects. For me personally, I remember an annual event with Rotaract Chicago early in my career where we actively worked with a local orphanage. The repeated influence we had on the same group of children — and they had on us — has stayed with me all these years.
Additionally, as business leaders, we influence how our organization and employees interact in society. If you have fostered a culture of inclusivity and representation in your company, encourage and expand that influence beyond your organization’s boundaries. Allow, support, and directly be involved in programs that your employees or DEI councils foster within the community. Not just donations and monetary support, but mentorship programs, community cleanup in diverse neighborhoods, and active involvement in community-sponsored diversity initiatives. At Adlucent, we are active every month for Black History, PRIDE, Hispanic, and Asian Heritage months, in addition to many other specific programs.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
The key difference as a CEO is that you don’t have a specific responsibility. My leaders have specific functional duties and goals that are clear and measurable. The CEO is ultimately responsible and accountable for business success, and therefore some would say that CEOs have ALL the responsibilities, but I would argue that is not true either.
There are two key differences between the CEO and other leaders; the CEO needs to establish a clear strategic direction. Then, they develop, align, and hold accountable their leaders to execute that vision. CEOs are responsible for empowering and growing the key leaders in their organizations. This critical aspect of the CEO’s role around leadership development has many components, but three crucial elements of this role are to:
- Cascade a clear and strategic message of where we are going and, as importantly, why.
- Align those leaders to work collectively and effectively together across organizational boundaries.
- Hold leaders accountable for the actions and results within their departments.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
There are many ‘glamor’ myths about CEOs being able to do what they want. While CEOs do have tremendous control over many decisions, great CEOs empower and guide other leaders to make most decisions to help the organization run smoothly. To make this work well, CEOs should implement ‘reverse accountability.’
A myth is that the CEO is only accountable to the board or investors. I would argue great CEOs are accountable to their direct reports and their employees in a ‘servant leadership’ pyramid structure. When CEOs allow their leaders and even employees to call them out and hold them accountable, the resulting trust and alignment foster a world-class leadership team and company. This type of ‘reverse accountability’ isn’t always easy to embrace by the broader organization but very important for CEOs to establish and practice.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
When I first stepped into the role, I was surprised by the amount of operational tasks and decisions that were required. With ultimate responsibility for financial goals, decisions around office space, facilities, and other large operational costs were quite time-consuming. It is vital for the CEO to recognize when in their organization’s growth to establish an operations department to guide and grow this important and sometimes expensive function clearly.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
There is a common belief in sales that a great sales rep doesn’t always become a great sales manager. Sometimes, great individual contributors are more valuable to an organization than departmental leaders. In a correlated fashion, while many senior executives aspire to be CEOs, that path is not always the best option.
Great CEOs have to recognize that what brought them success at a functional or departmental level is not always the skills needed in the sometimes lonely executive suite. Functional leaders need to execute against results and collaborate with other teams. As mentioned earlier, executives need to create the environment for other leaders to succeed.
One specific trait that I think is important for successful executives is actually sales. I know it can sometimes feel like a bad word, and I know there are very few degrees in sales at business schools, but I think it’s an essential executive skill. CEOs are the chief cheerleaders of the company with all constituents. While that includes new and existing customers, it is equally important for the employees, shareholders, and partners. Authentically championing and selling the virtues and values of the company is a primary responsibility for all executives but, most importantly, the CEO.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
While business strategy needs to be driven top-down, I believe an effective work culture needs to drive bottom-up. The elements of strategy and culture ultimately need to align and support each other, but you cannot force culture onto an organization.
At Adlucent, we have experimented with both approaches. Several years ago, we established the core value of our culture top-down, and they never stuck. Then, two years ago, we embarked on a bottom-up, seven-month exercise that gave us our current three core values. Not only have they stuck, but they are lived, spoken, and practiced regularly across the organization.
With this clear and meaningful articulation of the culture, we have been able to align culture and strategy across Adlucent in a pyramid representation that I talk about extensively at the company and articulated more clearly in our recent The Culture + Strategy Pyramid blog post.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Born as a Hindu, married to a Catholic, and currently a spiritual Taoist, understanding and appreciating all faiths has been important to me personally. Joseph Campbell embodied many of these ideals in his work and something I try to practice — and hopefully not preach — every day.
Impacting the world through understanding and tolerance is the best way to instill change in yourself and those around you. I truly believe it can happen every day and have personally experienced the impact at the beginning of the pandemic. Following David Emerald’s The Empowerment Dynamic principles have allowed me to create outcomes and conversations that inspire me and hopefully others around me. I constantly look forward and step into these small and potentially impactful moments to challenge myself and others around me. I genuinely believe the best years of impacting change in this world are still ahead of me and I’m looking forward to opportunities that will arise and that I create.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
First, you don’t need to solve the problem; empower the team. Getting into details of a client or organizational issue may sometimes be required but be very careful how often and how deep you go in solving problems. Resist the temptation to use the skills you have successfully developed to solve situations. Challenge your leaders and teams to discover the answers, and only when truly needed dive in to resolve issues or conflicts while training the leaders with the lesson of each situation.
Second, find the right people and have crucial conversations with those that don’t fit. Critical to making the first point successful is to have the right leaders individually and collectively across a leadership team. Individual superstars can be disruptive, as well as leaders that are not held accountable. It is your job as CEO to find the best leaders and establish the functional overlaps for collaboration. Then get out of the way and let the team develop and work together. When changes to the leadership team are needed, make them quickly and decisively. I’ve had to change a few key members of my leadership team early in my tenure and while hard at the time it was needed and very healthy in the longer term.
Third, uncover and understand your blind spots, yes really, those deep ‘blind’ spots. I would strongly recommend that all CEOs, especially new ones, conduct an externally administered 360 review. The model I used was The Leadership Circle and included my customers to provide a complete 360 view. Working with an external coach is also critical to have the tough conversations to dive deeper into those challenging blind spots and, more importantly, the beliefs behind the behavior. CEO groups can also be a helpful tool, but I’ve found individual 360 feedback invaluable and continued to administer a formal review every two years.
Fourth, hold accountability with candor and care. It’s critical to set clear expectations and goals. Holding accountability can also seem straightforward. However, approaching those conversations with both candor and care around the development gaps of your direct reports is crucial to unlocking and understanding a leader’s true potential. My approach is to lead with that I care about the growth and development of their career and leadership skills. I highlight a recent success that has been achieved especially if it’s something we have recently been discussing or working on. I then focus on the ‘gaps’ that I saw in the work, the approach, or the outcome that was needed. I stress the roles of this level of execution and challenge them on acknowledging the gap and identifying ways to bridge or fill the gap.
Fifth, repeat your inspiration, and strategic direction at least seven times. This one I borrowed from Patrick Lencioni in his book, Advantage.’ Patrick talks about answering the six core questions to align an organization on a common and clear set of purpose, vision, and mission. However, a crucial aspect of making this work across a broad enterprise is cascading that message across all levels of the organization. Repeating the same message at least seven times is needed to really ensure the entire company can live these principles and make them relevant in their everyday work.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
On a professional level, I really like the movement towards conscientious capitalism and B corporations. I would love to be more actively involved in this movement as we see the impacts of companies like data.world here in Austin.
On a personal level, I would really like to see how we can bring business principles and models to socially impactful ideas. I know there are several approaches and examples of this already, and personally, I would like to focus on orphanages. I have been exploring this idea for a couple of years now, and hopefully, as the next step in my personal journey, I will get the opportunity to turn these ideas into reality.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are many sayings and quotes I repeat at Adlucent that are turning into ‘Ash-ism,’ but one of my favorites is ‘sometimes you win, and sometimes you learn.’ This is part of the tagline in one of our core values in ‘Make $#%& Happen’ and also embodied in our cultural pillar of ‘Better Every Day.’ Striving for continuous improvement is not a new concept, but embodying it in these words has infused it into our culture and company.
An important aspect of any saying is understanding any unintended consequences of taking it to the extreme. While ‘Better Every Day’ has been a powerful mantra for over a decade at Adlucent, I often tell Adlucites that we need to be careful not to let it go too far so that we don’t get to ‘Never Good Enough.’ In every expression, there is typically another side that needs to be visible to never take it to an unintended extreme.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I am fortunate to be blessed to have been an inaugural student in Dr. David Thomas’ first class at Wharton over 30 years ago. He was again my professor at Harvard Business School and continues to be a mentor and friend during my career, even in his current, prominent position as President of the Morehouse College. I feel truly blessed to have this great leader in my life.
A great leader that I would very much enjoy having a conversation with is Deepak Chopra. I am impressed at how he transferred his academic and professional medical knowledge into a mass message for humanity. I think there are parallels in business as we see the movement toward continuous capitalism and B corporations which would be something I would like to discuss with Deepak.