An Indian living and working in Beijing, Aditya Sehgal says there are some unique aspects to dealing with the Chinese market, where partnership, rather than competition, is key.
I’m not the most natural of leaders. I wasn’t drawn to being a leader as a child and, even today, leading doesn’t come naturally. But while I may not be the first person to step up to the plate in any situation, I believe that leadership can come from a number of different expressions of behaviour. One of those is being aggressive and wanting to be first, but another – and this is true in my case – comes from defining what is the right thing to do and then finding ways to inspire first yourself, then others, to go on that path. It’s a pull kind of leadership – rather than a push one – that works for me.
Long-term thinking is key. I often think about the kind advice I’d like to have received when I started out. For instance, I wish someone had advised me to think about mapping out trends 10 to 15 years ahead. If you do that, you can position yourself to have the right skills at the right time, in a way that coincides with what you like doing. It could be any trend – an ageing population, the market moving east and south, or fast-changing technology, just to name some examples. I wish someone had said to me, “What are the things you need to think about today so that when these trends hit, you are fully prepared?”
Embrace your surroundings. Leading in a different culture never really works unless you immerse yourself in that culture. Many people go to a country like China and don’t like it at all. They stay outside the mainstream, like a bird dipping its beak in the water to drink, then going back up for air. But I think you need to be more like a fish and stay in the water a while. You can still come out when you want, but unless you really experience life under water, you can’t really know the culture. And if you don’t really know the culture, it’s very difficult to make your business work in that cultural context.
Working in India changed my life. One of my most defining experiences was during my management training, when I was sent to rural India. I was this MBA student from India, who was earning a lot of money and in a sense was very privileged. But when I became a trainee in this company, I was sent to a rural area of India, where I was given a van loaded with stuff and a driver. We’d go from village to village, unloading stuff off the van for 15 days, sleeping outside with the mosquitoes keeping us company. It was very humbling and watching what happened to our goods in these small stores taught me a lot about selling too. I learned that what you need to do is not sell, but to find a way for people to want to buy. Then the selling becomes automatic. This way of looking at business has been more important than ever in China, which is a country not so much of competition, but partnership.
I constantly learn from others. Some of my mentors are in very high positions in my company. Then there are those who are not senior or not even from this company, but just people who have taught me lessons in life. For example, I was launching a new product with one of our partners in China and six months into our launch plans, I commented on how badly it was going. The partner just said, “We are doing better than expected.” Six months later, I went back and said, “Look, this is terrible, we are only achieving 25 per cent of what we should have done.” But he just repeated what he’d said before. So I went away and looked in more depth about the launch process in China and I learned that they project growth using an “S” curve. I was applying Western ways of projection, which don’t necessarily work in China. There have been lots of people like this that have provided valuable lessons.
Inspiration can come from anywhere. My best ideas can come from something completely leftfield and not even related to the problem I am working through. You just get this flash of insight, and you put yourself in the best position of having flashes of insight if you have a diverse set of interests. So I try and spend a lot of time outside the business and even now, I read about two books a week, whether that’s fiction, management, history or war history. I also seek people out who have skills that I find interesting on social networks like LinkedIn and I go and buy them coffee and have conversations with them. Sometimes I end up recruiting them.
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Adi Sehgal, Senior Vice President East Asia at Reckitt Benckiser, was the Cambridge Executive MBA after-dinner speaker at Sidney Sussex College on 3 October 2014. Learn more about the Cambridge Executive MBA
Learn more about other visiting speakers on the Cambridge Executive MBA