Note to readers: How do corporate leaders surf life after hanging up their boots? What do they do next? What are the lessons they learned in their eventful journeys? What advice do they have for the current crop of leaders? Veterans Unpacked is a new series of interviews aimed to offer readers lessons from retired bosses on life outside the corner office.
Ravi Kant retired as non-executive vice-chairman of Tata Motors Ltd on May 31, 2014. In his 15 years at Tata Motors, he led the acquisition of Jaguar Land Rover and the launch of the immensely successful Tata Ace, among other things.
Prior to Tata Motors, Kant had held senior positions at Philips India, LML Ltd, Titan Watches, Kinetic Engineering, Hawkins and Hindalco Industries Ltd.
Kant is an alumnus of Mayo College, Ajmer, and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
What have you been up to since hanging up your boots?
I have not hung up my boots, but merely changed my shoes. I had nearly five decades of rich, enjoyable experiences in the corporate world, and the opportunity of being exposed to a variety of companies that included Hindalco, Hawkins, Philips, Titan, Kinetic and LML Vespa, and Tata Motors in different sizes, all the way from from $25 million to $40 billion in different phases. That included business growth, turnaround from loss making to a profitable company, entry into new areas, new extensions, and mergers and acquisitions. I was also exposed to several companies simultaneously at board positions.
I felt I should understand life, challenges outside the corporate world, and how they contribute to society. So, I chose education and health. I was associated with a number of institutions, either as chairman, board member or adviser for IIM Rohtak, IIT Allahabad, business schools at IIT Bombay and Kharagpur, the National University of Singapore, China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), Shanghai, and WMG at the University of Warwick, England. Over a period of time, my association in the education area got diluted and simultaneously my engagement in healthcare increased.
What keeps you busy now?
I am engaged in activities that can be classified into six groups - healthcare, education, corporate, startups, thought leadership and personal pursuits.Examples are the Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital led by Mritunjay Tiwary, located in rural Bihar and engaged in eliminating blindness and encouraging women empowerment; Med Therapy USA/India led by Dr Bikash Verma and promoted by former Harvard professors and Novartis doctors to enable gene therapy, as a treatment for cancer, to be available at affordable prices; and Karkinos led by R. Venkataramanan (ex-Tata) to make cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment available at affordable rates and international quality.
In education, I'm a visiting leader at CEIBS, Shanghai, and a distinguished professor at IIT Kharagpur. I'm also involved in board and advisory positions at the Finnish elevator company Kone, Accenture India and Hawkins. I also spend time as adviser and mentor for startups that include logistics technology company Umeandus Technologies led by Rajeev Chanan, and Aspire Impact led by Amit Bhatia. It drives social climate and economic justice.
My explorations on thought leadership on alternative management methods based on changing society and technology focus on the theory of "testing the limit, by leading from the back".
Finally, the personal stuff includes time with family, especially the granddaughters, rekindling my interest in slow cooking, infra-red cooking the skills which I acquired during my time at Hawkins. Also, staying fit - one hour walk every day (at home during lockdown) and yoga.
Looking back, can you tell us about three interesting events or anything that has stayed with you since?
I'll share four. One during the education phase and three during the corporate life.
Mayo College, Ajmer, where I attended, was led by Jack Gibson. He instilled a desire for independent thinking, and the values of integrity, morality and discipline, because he lived it. Once, he asked someone a question on geography and the student got it wrong and he made him rollover on the ground, but later came back and realized the answer was correct and he asked the student to punch him in the stomach, which the student eventually hesitated to but did and he took it like a good sport, and he acknowledged his mistake.
Then, at Hawkins Cookers, which was led by Brahm Vasudeva, I learned about marketing and attention to detail. Vasudeva, despite being an executive head, was a man of great detail. He would look at ad copy in very close detail, and strove to ensure everything was perfect. That taught me a lot.
While at Titan, then led by Xerxes Desai, the strategy of going only for quartz watches (as opposed to predominantly mechanical watches by HMT) in tune with the changes in consumer lifestyle, and then turning most of the marketing factors like product, pricing, distribution and promotion and advertising on its head proved to be path-breaking. That gave Titan a flying start to become the leader in the watch industry, replacing HMT which eventually disappeared from the industry.
At the Ratan Tata-led Tata Motors, I learned how to think big and take bold decisions with confidence. I was given the opportunity to deal with a wide variety of situations that led to the turnaround of the company from Rs 500 crore loss to Rs 500 crore profit in two years. Big successful mergers and acquisitions like Tata Daewoo in South Korea and Jaguar-Land Rover in the UK. All that led the company turnover to jump from $1.6 billion to $39 billion in 15 years.
Also read: Brahm Vasudeva: The man who made brand Hawkins synonymous with core focus
What do you miss about the C-suite?
Surprisingly I do not miss the C-Suite at all except for the fact that I have to do most of everything by myself. I have always believed that these are transitory attachments, and should never be allowed to become permanent ones. A quick transition to a host of activities as enumerated earlier, helped me to leave behind any desire I may have had for the C-suite.
If you had to relive your corporate career, what would you do differently?
Our experiences are a product of two circumstances which are external and internal. We don't have much influence on external situations, like business cycles, phases of evolution of the company, timing of opportunities.
Internally one's roles are limited by the structure and culture of the company, the leadership and the team. However, what is amazing is that in spite of so many constraints and challenges, one can still contribute and have a major impact on the fortunes of the company. Having said that, I would have liked to spend more time with the family, make bolder decisions, and be a little more visible.
What are the changes in the corporate world that you see now that are vastly different from your time?
Things have changed a lot in 50 years, and more things have changed in the last five years than in the previous 50 years.
Some major ones are an increase in uncertainty and unpredictability. This has made the job of predicting the future difficult, and is forcing companies to be leaner, more flexible and agile.Then there is the pervasiveness of technology in all spheres of human activity. This is creating a digital divide. It is getting more intensified through AI, robotics, machine learning, IoT (internet of things), and so on. While beneficial in many respects, it would have a vastly differential impact on different sectors of society and geography.
Flatter organisations are especially catalyzed by WFH (work from home), and would call for different approaches to leadership and role of employees. The future of work is undergoing a radical change and needs urgent attention.
Lastly, younger people coming to the forefront means that “seniority and experience” are no longer protective armours. The young generation is innovative, creative, more conscious of the environment, value systems, and concerned for the disadvantaged. They are entrepreneurial and vastly bolder in breaking established rules and creating new ones.
Which business leader in the current crop impresses you?
My pick in the international corporate sector and whom I don’t know personally, would be Satya Nadella. I admire him for steering a very successful organization to even greater heights, with a quiet and self-effacing style of leadership.
The other I would pick is in the social sector, not known at all. He is Mritunjay Tiwary, the founder and the spirit of Akhand Jyoti Hospital. The goal of eradicating blindness in the poorer parts of the country and encouraging women empowerment is exemplary. And the passion and commitment to achieve it through the team at Mastichak village in Bihar is impressive.
How do you plan for life after retirement?
I stepped down as managing director and CEO of Tata Motors in 2009 and was made the vice-chairman of the board for the next five years. This coincided with the takeover of Jaguar Land Rover in 2008, and kept me busy for the next few years. However, towards the end of my tenure, two changes took place - Tata Motors got a new chairman and managing director. This gave me nearly one year and an opportunity to think about life beyond Tata Motors. I had clarity about one thing, which was to move away from the corporate world but I wasn’t sure in which direction. That evolved with time, as explained earlier.
Is there anything you would tell your younger self?
Each situation calls for unique solutions. And so, my only advice would be to see the big picture and the connectivity with each part of the picture in great detail. Be ambitious and set a bold set of goals. Work backwards in what I would term as an “Outside – In” approach to make an action plan, and always use collaborative strength.
What is your advice for the next cadre of corporate leaders?
I would put forth two thoughts for consideration. Test the limits. It is important to test the limits of capacity and capability to achieve extraordinary results. We need to constantly strive for finding, and push for finding, and testing the boundaries in society, industry, organization, team and in individuals. Mostly, we are limited by our own imagination, and the beauty is that most of the time you will get surprised by the success achieved in surpassing these limits.The other is leading from the back. Leading from the front is the popular adage but several factors enumerated earlier call for trying an alternative form of leadership. The corporate world absorbs a lot from the military. Now, even the conduct of war is done from the back, in these times of advanced and pervasive technology, it is time for the corporate world to sit up and take notice of the changes. Like Nelson Mandela said, 'lead from the back and let others believe they are in the front'.