Meet Nisa Godrej who believes the insider finds acceptance inside
Kala Vijayraghavan, Economic Times, 03 June 2014
Zoran Godrej, all of one month, is already making the daily pilgrimage to his family business. Blame it on his mother, Nisaba Godrej, all of 36, who has spent a good part of the last eight years challenging—and changing —old and set templates at the 117-year Adi Godrej Group. A delivery is not holding her back, especially with more changed to be delivered.
So, she brings Zoran to work every day and leaves him at the office nursery, a facility available to all working mothers in the group's office in Vikhroli, Mumbai. "The nurse keeps an eye on him while I try and get my work done," grins Nisa. Her father Adi Godrej, who is also the group chairman, says it was inevitable. "I have always been very proud of Nisa's dedication and commitment to her work.
So, I wasn't expecting anything else from her," he says. "The bonus is I get to see my little grandson, Zoran, in the office often." He will also see a lot more of Nisa on how Godrej needs to change and why it needs to be done now. Those impassioned pleas, which Nisa carries forward with great involvement, has seen the Rs 25,000 crore Adi Godrej Group strive for a culture of innovation, go on an acquisition spree, draft in diverse talent, and rethink its consumer portfolio.
One outcome is the numbers for the last five years of Godrej Consumer Products Limited (GCPL), the group flagship that houses its FMCG business: 42% compounded annual growth in revenues and 38% in net profit. And a 42% increase in market capitalisation, to Rs 28,317 crore.
Recently, Forbes Magazine assessed a 58.7% 'innovation premium' embedded by investors in that valuation, which will be realised in the coming years via new products, services and markets. It used that metric, and that assessment, to rank GCPL 31 on a list of 100 most 'innovative growth companies' in the world and the highest ranked among nine Indian ones.
For Nisa, executive director of GCPL, all this is validation, not just of being an agent of change at Godrej, but also how she has changed. "When I joined here, I would get up at four in the morning and put out long mails on what was wrong and what we needed to do," she chuckles. "I was probably seen as a little more aggressive back then."
Change came with experience, responsibility and results. As the owner's daughter, she was always the insider. Increasingly, she is also finding acceptance inside. "When Nisa came into the group, people skills were not her strength," says Balram Yadav, MD of Godrej Agrovet, one of her picks. "She had a temper, and there were some strong likes and dislikes. Today, she engages more with employees, smiles more, listens more and is more inclusive."
With every acquisition, every vision map, every strategic push, every key hiring, every policy change, Nisa is burnishing her credentials. "Nisa is a very strong leader," says Ireena Vittal, an independent director on the GCPL board. "I particularly admire her big-picture ability, strategic thinking and decisiveness, passion and motivation to make Godrej the best, ability to learn and evolve, and talent in spotting the best people from within and outside the group and leveraging them to the full."
Even though Adi Godrej, 72, is showing no signs of slowing down, Nisa is the person from the next generation who is shaping up to step into the kind of central role he plays today—not managing day-today operations, but watching keenly and intensely, plotting strategically. "Nisa is a dynamic organisational change agent, one of the most impressive I have seen in her generation," says Bharat Anand, professor of strategy at Harvard, who has mentored Nisa.
Her time at Godrej has been one of two halves. The first one was from 2000 to 2004, reporting to other senior managers. Then, she went to Harvard for two years. When she returned in 2006, she hit the business end. "There was a time when I was seen in the group as this young lady probably amusing herself till she is married and packed off," she says. "But I had this advantage of being from the family. So, nobody could fire me."
Nisa's initial decisions didn't exactly endear her within the group. When it came to employees, the group's culture then was to choose loyalty over performance, diplomacy over honesty. She set about inverting that by promoting a culture of meritocracy. "It was about widening the lens from an attitude of lifelong employment and loyalty to just one or two people to include all stakeholders," she says. "It helped push through some tough decisions on senior people."
Senior managers were passed over in favour of performers in the middle rung and younger managers from the outside. Many left. "Tough love" is how Nisa describes the group's people philosophy. "It's our way of explaining that we will continue to be a place where we treat people like family and give them lots of opportunity, empowerment and respect," she says. "The tough part is saying we will demand a lot back in return and we will run a tight, meritocratic ship. A big part of tough love is authentic and tough feedback, so you know how you are doing and what you need to do to improve."
Challenging Status Quo
Her first major demonstration of that philosophy was at Godrej Agrovet, which produces animal feed and agrochemicals, and was bleeding. In 2008, Nisa was appointed to its board. Two new appointments, which sidestepped—and sidelined— the old guard, showed the shape of things to come.
The first was that of her Harvard classmate Mark Kahn, who had worked for agrichemical giant Syngenta. Hiring a foreigner in a leadership role was unheard of in Godrej. The second appointment was Balram Yadav, then a blunt and outspoken 41-year-old vice-president, who wanted the company to let go off some of its parts. "The old Godrej culture was all about hierarchy. The Godrej way was not to ask questions and maintain status quo," says Yadav, who was appointed as the company's MD. "She came in and said performance was supreme. The whole organisation grew hostile for we had broken tradition. I would have been ineffective had Nisa not supported me."
Nisa had, by then, figured out she would bet on people who question the way things were done at Godrej. "She's very self-aware—knowing her strengths and limitations— and she surrounds herself with people who balance her strengths well and also bring different ones to the table," says Anand.
That thinking shaped another appointment that has been central to GCPL: Vivek Gambhir. Back in 2008, he was at Bain and had been consulting with Godrej for two years. Nisa liked him. He challenged status quo, unlike several other consultants, who Nisa thought were a bit of "yes men".
She sought Gambhir's help on a five-year roadmap for GCPL she was preparing, titled Project Leapfrog. A year after that project ended, Nisa persuaded Gambhir to join the group as head of strategy—a role that did not exist previously. Today, he is CEO and managing director of GCPL. "Again, Vivek and me are completely different from each other and we disagree a lot."
Project Leapfrog, their first big piece of work together, defined specific initiatives and targets to make GCPL a more global company, to accelerate domestic growth, and to become innovative in products and processes.
In the last five or six years, GCPL has ticked all those boxes. Through a string of acquisitions, it has expanded to UK, Indonesia, Latin America and Africa. It has transplanted learnings across geographies - for example, Aer air freshner was developed from its experience in Indonesia. It's been a marker with some of its innovations—for example, introducing hair colour creme in a sachet. "It was a laggard in the (hair) colour business," says Abneesh Roy, vice-president of Edelweiss Securities. "Today, a multinational like L'Oreal has copied its creme sachet innovation."
According to Gambhir, Nisa has focused on pushing the team to be more aggressive and more disruptive, particularly in innovation. "She called a spade a spade, and bet on young talent like Balram and Mark Kahn," he says. "She hung out with the troops, sat with them through difficult situations. She took on senior leadership and challenged status quo. Fortunately, Nisa had the ears of her father who was willing to listen to both sides."
Next 50 years
Known to be apolitical and practical, Adi Godrej was open to changes and yet concerned about upsetting seniors. But Nisa was persuasive. To get his undivided attention outside office hours, she would join him in his two-hour walks every day. "He had no choice but to listen to me," she says.
According to Nisa, her father sees them as different people who make a good team. "I have picked from him the sense of integrity, being honest, ability to take people along and his sense of fairness," says Nisa. "He is a big giver to people in the business, he is always there for the team."
Today, Adi Godrej is the executive chairman of the group and drives the overall group portfolio. Among the immediate family, Nisa focuses on innovation, strategy and human resources. Sister Tanya, who is elder to her by nine years, is the chief brand officer for the group, and also oversees corporate communications and health-food chain Nature's Basket. Brother Pirojsha is in charge of Godrej Properties, the group's real estate business.
Nisa is thinking of the next 50 years for GCPL, plotting the next phase of growth, which she feels will again come through a balanced strategy: acquisitions in the agri space, rethinking the consumer portfolio, especially in the context of the young consumer, and leveraging the group's strengths. "Today, work is a lot more fun for me," she says. "I don't have to through the initial struggle of convincing people."
"Her leadership style has evolved with the needs of the group: from a strong, persuasive style to a more mentoring role, one of more quiet leadership," says Bharat Anand. "The team that she and Vivek Gambhir have built at GCPL now comprises several dynamic managers who are unafraid to think and act boldly." One day, even Zoran might join those ranks. For now, her mother is holding the fort. And she is holding it well.