Being an insightful leader: An interview with Nihal Kaviratne CBE

In this blog, the second in our summer leadership series, Andy Bird and Nihal Kaviratne CBE explore what it takes to be an insightful leader and 3 common pitfalls to avoid.

“A true leader cares. He or she cares about the people they are leading and the things they care about. That’s where the relationship begins.”

This is the point of view of Nihal Kaviratne CBE, a man who spent over 40 years in an illustrious career with Unilever. Recently named by Forbes India as one of the five best leaders to have on your Board, Nihal now serves as a non-executive director for many top multinational companies.

Nihal was kind enough to join us for the closing lunch at the end of the recent International Marketing Leaders Programme in Singapore, run in partnership with the Marketing Society. He shared some fascinating perspectives about what being a successful marketing leader involves.

Curiosity only kills cats

“We need to recognize that the boundaries of what we know are merely the boundaries of what we don’t know, so you have to keep pushing those boundaries further all the time,” he argues. “I believe in an unrelenting quest for truth. It doesn’t mean that you don’t need to take decisions based on the best information you have available at certain points in time, but it’s vital to remain curious and to always keep searching for learning.”

Interestingly, the way in which this curiosity manifested itself in Nihal’s own mindset and behaviour went through a pivotal reorientation as he developed as a leader. “In the early years of my career, I thought it was all-important to know the answers to everything. If I didn’t, I felt insecure, unprepared and vulnerable to being found out,” he admits. “The moment when I became more of a leader was when I realized it was more important to be asking the right questions.”

“So often, we get caught up in a very blinkered view of things,” he continues. “I feel an important responsibility to help people open their minds and make sure we’ve examined things properly. I always force myself to ask the question: ‘Is this part of a bigger picture that we should be aware of’?”

Winning the mind game

Nihal’s passion for learning combines with his care for other people to generate another vital trait of insightful marketing leaders – empathy. “Marketing is a mind game. A lot of people imagine that the battle we have to fight is in the market place. I disagree – the real battle is in the minds of various constituencies.”

Of greatest importance, of course, is to win in the mind of the consumer by discovering ways to serve their interests in new and better ways. But Nihal also highlights the need to become more insightful by putting ourselves in the shoes of other interest groups too – trade customers, employees, investors, regulators and competitors. “Leaders have to think through what all of these people are thinking and feeling. They are all interrelated. You have to get the people you need to win on your side, and you have to get competitors to believe they’re completely blocked, that for them winning is impossible.”

3 pitfalls to avoid

Nihal concludes by highlighting three traits that are least likely to serve a marketing leader well. The first is arrogance. “It is one of the paradoxes of being an effective leader - you have to be self-confident, but you also need to have humility,” he explains. “The minute you start getting too proud or arrogant, you stop searching for the truth.”
The second pitfall is an unwillingness to listen to others. “You can be a star and rise up to positions of leadership, but if you’re not a good listener you run the risk of becoming a diva, not a leader!”

“The final mindset to avoid at all costs is stubbornness – holding your ground whatever the situation. “A leader needs to be open-minded and sometimes you need the strength to bend like the willow, not to remain steadfast like the oak,” Nihal asserts. 

So what are the practical implications of Nihal Kaviratne’s leadership advice? Try taking a step back and having a think about the way you are showing up at work every day.

Do you genuinely care about your consumers and the people you are leading? If so, how are you demonstrating this?

Are you asking enough questions and listening to the people around you, as opposed to feeling like you always have to have all the answers?

Are you doing enough to think about things from the perspective of your consumers and also your other stakeholders

Insightfulness is key to being a great leader and the foundation of our Purpose to Performance leadership model. Take this self-assessment to learn more about your own insightfulness.

Brand Learning regularly writes about our work in developing leadership capabilities of marketing and sales leaders and their teams. Subscribe to our blog or follow us on LinkedIn.

This discussion with Nihal Kaviratne CBE will also be featured in Andy Bird’s forthcoming book, The Inspired Leader, which will be published by Bloomsbury in November.


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