As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vikas Agarwal.
Vikas is the CEO at Kaya Ltd (Kaya Skin Clinic), Middle East. He has over 17 years of experience in Marketing and Sales/operations across some of ‘most loved’ consumer brands across FMCG, Consumer Services and Automotive categories, spanning India and Middle East markets.
As the CEO of Kaya Ltd, he is tasked with managing the brand in the Middle East, leading a multicultural team, across varied functions of Marketing, Operations, HR, Finance, Engineering, Supply Chain, etc to deliver brand and business goals.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Born in a small town, in the heart of India’s most populous state, I spent most of my schooling years, in a boarding school, in the gorgeous hills of North India. Born to a business family, the future seemed very clear to me — To do my MBA, and come back and join the family business. But I did not do that. I did graduate in Commerce (from SRCC, Delhi), and did my MBA in Marketing (from IIFT, Delhi), but that was where my story took a turn. Fascinated by a corporate career, I landed my first job, in sales, with Maruti Suzuki, one of India’s largest automobile company. Within two years, I moved on to realize my dream, and joined Marico, a leading FMCG in India. That was 2004, and little did I know at that time that I would spend another 16 years (still counting) with the group, and in the process transcend roles, functions, brands, categories and countries. From sales to marketing, from hair oils to edible oils, and from India to the Middle East. Looking back, it’s a journey that has shaped me professionally and personally, with experiences, learnings and memories I cherish, and instilled enough confidence, that did not let any challenge that came in way intimidate me.
I joined Kaya in Dubai, ten years ago, when it was still a division of Marico (now a listed group company). Moving out of the FMCG world, or India, was never part of the plan, but life took yet another turn, and I moved from marketing ‘affordable everyday necessities’, to marketing ‘premium advanced skin care solutions’. A marketer at heart, I did not ever think that I would see myself in any other place. But the love and commitment for an organization can sometimes take you to places, you have never imagined for yourself. So, here I am, leading the business of a brand I love, people I value, and an organization I credit my career to.
The last 10 years have been marvelous, professionally and personally. Personally, while Mumbai will always be close to my heart, Dubai has been quite overwhelming. A flood of experiences, cultures, and travel. Professionally, moving from a big business with large budgets, to a niche premium brand, opened up a completely new era of learning and challenges.
While work has been enriching, life beyond work has been too. The yearning to explore the world, combined with capturing moments with my love for photography, has been more and more possible after coming to a city like Dubai.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
My first role in sales, involved leading a team of 5 people, who were at least 10 years older, and collectively 10 times more experienced than me in what they do. Fresh out of my MBA, I took off on every leadership lesson learnt in my MBA courses, and started throwing jargon and instructions around liberally. A month in, and I had started believing that I have control of the team and the targets, and believed that they were very eager to listen to my directions. It was only a month later, when I realized, both, the team’s feedback to me and my target achievement was contrary to what I had believed. And one of them actually walked up to me one day and said, “Boss fantastic lessons, we are writing it down, but we will do it our way”. That was a lesson learnt — keep aside the theory, jargons, logic and welcome to the real world, to learn to connect and manage, beyond what the books have taught you.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
While many have had life changing lessons, the book and the workshop I attended — ‘7 habits of highly effective people’, stands out the most in my mind. In this, particularly the chapters of “Big Rocks vs Small Rocks” & “Think Win Win”, have been huge guiding principles in my life, professionally and personally. I have not just imbibed them myself, but have actively shared my experiences with my team and colleagues.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
‘It’s only with the heart, that one can see right and clear, even in business. So, while models and theories are important in the process, the final decision usually comes from your gut and heart. Your heart is what will most get you followers to meet the vision you set out’
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I believe ‘decision making’ has been my pivotal principle in business. A decision that goes wrong, is still more effective, than a decision not taken. In fact, if you are not getting it wrong 2/10 times, you might be playing it too safe. So, decision making every day, is what moves people and organizations forward. You might not be able to control a situation, but what you can definitely control, is taking a decision.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I derive my fuel from traveling across countries and cultures — now with the lock down I am working on finding other things that can engage me as much. I will tell you, what that is, when I do figure it out. Staying around more vulnerable older people, I need to exercise extra caution, and this involves some sacrifices, even if it feels stifling.
Sometimes, at the early stages at work, I did not realize, when the day began and when it ended — I have now got a proper routine and schedule, which clearly is helping me in dedicating hours at work, and the switch offs.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
As is in most businesses anywhere in the world, the biggest challenge in a lock down is how do we not drown and ensure business continuity. The second challenge is the uncertainty and unpredictability of these times. The third challenge is to keep the team together and strong. In a time like this, when even the world’s most powerful leaders do not have a solution, who does the world look at, for security and certainty.
Communication, Empathy, Transparency and Decision Making, are the four things I have consciously practiced more and more, to overcome these times for myself and the team. As a leader, you are not expected to have all the answers. But being honest about it, and not shying away from communicating the same, empathetically, is all what it takes. Decision making in these times, takes exponentially higher courage, and has an exponentially higher impact.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Show up your vulnerability, don’t be scared of sharing what you really feel — because the person on the other side is most likely feeling the same.
Move from messaging to talking. We all need to see each other, something we take for granted in our regular lives, overwhelmed with chat messaging — so always switch on that camera even if you are not looking your best.
Be grateful for the extra time you have — don’t load them with activities, but allow yourself to pause and breathe.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
Having lived through the recession, the usual definition of corporate success in a rat race is dead — we are moving towards talents, who want to work flex, and are now no longer in the rat race — this will give rise to a new breed of talent, who are looking for new opportunities. And talent will be in abundance.
Everything will be seen with the lens of hygiene, and it will command the highest premium.
E-everything is the new model, and this goes beyond the obvious like e-commerce, as a shopping channel to e robotics/ e -selling etc.
Less is more — Big budgets and big corporate spends, will be seen with skepticism, as the world becomes more woke.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
We will no longer live a Life of excesses. The definition of ‘necessary’ will change. There will be a rediscovered sense of equality in this unequal world, as everyone, no matter how rich and powerful, is as vulnerable
Many of us would realize the effectiveness of working from home, or working virtually from anywhere — so the whole notion of a dedicated office space will disappear — this does not mean there will be no need for face to face connect between teams, but this will happen anytime / anywhere, without the confines of an office space.
The realization of our own mortality, will make us rethink, what’s really important in life beyond the rat race.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
There are no playbooks and holy grails anymore — question every fundamental.
Know your ‘new consumer’. The change in behavior could be an ongoing journey for quite some time, as consumers are also reeling with the same uncertainty.
You have to rise above organizational silos, and reach more like-minded partners to join forces together — do this in business partnerships, do this sometimes with your competitors too.
Get together a team that loves riding those roller coasters, as you need people who will enjoy the ride ahead.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Encourage others to pursue health more actively — as only when they are healthy, they will be able to brace themselves for what lies ahead.
Simple acts of kindness. The world needs it right now, to get through these times.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Follow your heart”. Simple yet powerful. This has been something I have grown on, more and more, every day of my life, personally and professionally. No matter how transactional the world might be or the person across you might be, no matter, how difficult the situation might be, and how impossible it might seem, following your heart finds you the right path.
How can our readers further follow your work?