03 Jul 2021 16:14 IST

Create a caring organisation: Former COO Unilever Harish Manwani

Harish Manwani, Former COO, Unilever

Unravelling Manwani’s eight point recipe for leading through a crisis at V Narayanan’s memorial lecture at MMA

Successful companies of the future will have to deal with the paradigm of managing the short-term with the long-term, while the ‘medium-term’ is dead, said Harish Manwani, former COO, Unilever and Senior Operating Partner at Blackstone. He delivered the first V Narayanan (former Chairman of Pond’s India who passed away recently) Endowment memorial lecture on the theme, ‘Leadership in Turbulent Times’ organised virtually by the Madras Management Association (MMA) and Pond’s veterans, who worked several years in the company.



(clockwise from top left) Ravichandran Purshotaman, V Balaraman, Harish Manwani, and N Sankar



Mapping the context of the VUCA world and the Covid times, he quoted Vladimir Lenin who said decades ago, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” We are now in the weeks where decades happen, he said, and added that some of the big trends started evolving even prior to Covid, like rising inequality, resources-stressed environment, return to protectionism and technology playing the part of a double-edged sword.

“While people are deeply concerned about business continuity through Covid times, they can draw solace from the Sanskrit expression, ‘Neti, neti’ found in the Upanishad that means, “neither this, nor that;” in other words, nothing is permanent in life — neither the good times nor the bad times. Instead of speculating the shape of recovery — U, V or K shape, they can focus on what will remain unchanged and what will change, post Covid,” he suggested.

“The role of business today has sharply changed and it is about managing stakeholders,” he remarked and discussed eight lessons for leadership in turbulent times, not necessarily in the order of importance.

No growth, no future

A business has to continuously focus on growth, irrespective of the times it goes through, because growth means business as usual. The business, though, has to be unusual on cost and profitability. You cannot grow unless you invest and you cannot invest unless you generate surplus. Growth and profitability require innovation to happen. In the words of innovation guru Clayton Christensen, innovation is doings things differently that create value. An organisation needs both poets and farmers — those who can think about the future as well as those who can do things today.

Listen to stakeholders

An organisation must have a responsible growth and stay relevant to all stakeholders. It must listen to the voice of the customers, employees, and the community.

Strategy is execution; execution is strategy

Strategy is about making choices but the critical aspect is execution. A leader must have the ability not just to paint the big picture but also to spot the pixels.

Medium-term is dead

In a world that is so volatile, companies must focus on managing the here and now, which is mission critical. At the same time, they must look at the long term as well, which is to create a sense of purpose and destination. The rest of the things have to be tackled dynamically.


Every company is either a creator or enabler or user of technology. The sooner the leaders understand this, the better. Tesla is not just a car but a software on wheels. So, embrace technology.

Go for horizontal culture

Mark Twain said, “Don’t let schooling interfere with education.” Do away with silos and let not organisational structure get in the way of growth. Organise around outcomes and agility. The more the interfaces, the lesser the agility.

Caring is a competitive advantage

Create a caring organisation. Caring has two dimensions. One, build people who can take care of the organisation, and constantly upskill them. Two, care for people in a crisis, like the present Covid times. You don’t get a second chance to make the first impression.

Leadership matters

A leader has two crucial roles — giving energy to the organisation and managing the corporate reputation. A leader must generate energy by creating a purpose larger than the business. A leader must also generate energy by his mere presence. It is so important to set a list of non-negotiables and create a values-driven organisation.

In conclusion, Harish Manwani flipped the title of the book ‘Good to Great’ written by Jim Collins. “Companies of the future will move from great to good,” he reckoned, and said that they must produce great financial results and performance, but more importantly, they must turn out to be companies that are good to the society they serve.

‘Collection of reminiscences’


V Narayanan, Former Chairman, Pond’s India


Ravichandran Purshothaman, President, MMA and President, Danfoss Industries delivered the welcome address. V Balaraman, former MD, Pond’s India Ltd narrated the background for the memorial lecture and explained the rationale for the creation of Narayanan (Pond’s) Endowment Fund which will be managed by MMA. The proceeds will be used to giving merit scholarship to deserving MBA students that will be chosen by a MMA committee and to organise future Narayanan memorial lectures.

N Sankar, Chairman, The Sanmar group, recollected his 50 years of association with V Narayanan. He described Narayanan, fondly called Nari by his close friends, as a great human being, an outstanding entrepreneur, a thoroughbred professional, one who guided many companies serving on their boards as an Independent Director and lastly, a most valuable friend. Sankar released a special edition of V Narayanan memorial issue of MMA Business Mandate and a collection of reminiscences about Narayanan by Pond’s veterans.

(The author is a freelance writer based in Chennai, a corporate trainer, and a visiting faculty for various B-Schools.)