Taking on the mantle of leading a legacy brand can be both intimidating and exhilarating. Intimidating, because, well yes, because it’s a ‘Legacy’ built over generations and you don’t want to be the one to scar it in any way; and exhilarating, because it’s a veritable treasure chest filled with so much history that you want to add to it, albeit without cannibalising it in any way. Helming a legacy brand tests a leader’s mettle to the core, and when it is a brand that has continually earned the tag of being amongst the “most trusted brands’, it only puts the spotlight, and the pressure, on the leader. I say this from my personal experience.
So, what is typically the journey of a legacy brand? It takes vision, eagle-eyed focus, perseverance, determination, and most of all, a lot of hard work. You have to literally earn your legacy.
As leaders of today, we must consistently honour legacy brands we helm keeping intact the vision and expanding it further by inculcating all we can, to grow it aligned to business goals. Speaking for myself, there is so much to learn when one is given the responsibility of leading a legacy brand, especially if we truly uphold the vision and philosophy of the founders. The most important thing is to stay true to your roots while embracing the modern
Here are a few of the lessons I have learned during my time helming a legacy brand, mind you these by no means all the lessons I have learnt, but the ones I feel will stand many in good stead.
It’s all in the foundation
Akin to a modern day building whose foundations are built to absorb major tremors caused by earthquakes, legacy brands have the ability to withstand major impact without any real damage. While it’s critical to evolve as the world in which we conduct our business changes, it is equally important to stay true to our roots. Many brands end up losing their way as they don’t have the depth of maturity to see through the real goal, often floundering as they pretend to be what they are not and ending up on shaky terrain. Authenticity is very high on the priority list of what consumers want, and given how aware and savvy today’s consumers are, make-believe moves may lure them into your fold for a bit but it’s never going to win you long-term loyalty.
Usha’s foundations are laid on ‘swadeshi’, the concept championed by Mahatma Gandhi who wanted India and Indians to be self-reliant. This is the India of the 1920’s and 30’s – India’s textile movement had gained ground, khadi was being spun, textile mills were coming up, and this spurred the idea of a swadeshi brand of sewing machines that could turn all the textile into apparel locally. This led to the setting up of one of India’s largest sewing machine manufacturing units in the country.
Cloth done, sewing machines done, but the situation begged a question – who would buy these machines? Meant to give impetus to the swadeshi movement and create self-reliance amongst people of rural India, there were still some boxes that needed to be ticked before things fell into place.
Being the visionary that he was, Lala Shri Ram did two things that set the course for Usha’s future:
1 – In what is probably amongst the first major direct marketing campaigns in the country, he created awareness about the brand of sewing machines by putting together a sales team that travelled far and wide in cars, vans, rickshaws, and where needed, bullock carts, using local performers and hand-wound gramophones playing Usha jingles on a 78 rpm vinyl.
2 – Awareness created, he realised that while many in smaller towns would love the idea of owning a sewing machine made by an Indian company, they would shy away from actual purchase as they did not know how to use it. He resolved this by setting up sewing schools across the country and very soon there were 1200 sewing schools skilling people in the art of sewing.
This was a win-win situation for all concerned. Usha provided the tools and means to equip the customer and the customer bought into the concept of a better tomorrow.
This, in brief, was the foundation of Usha.
But, as we all know, you cannot rest on past laurels, it’s a cut-throat world out there and the idea is the consolidate, embrace, grow, and, in the course of the journey, keeping the big picture in focus become imperative.
Aligning to the larger vision
The ‘vision’ of an organization is what defines the ‘why’ of the business in a nutshell. It is what brings together a diverse group of stakeholders – the management, the workforce, customers, the community, and the society at large. It is the shared goal that brings together people who believe in it, breaking down silos between them.
A truly grounded leader must never lose sight of his/her company’s vision and mission, no matter the ups and downs along the way. In today’s world, it is so easy to lose your true ‘why’ in the rat race. A crucial responsibility of all leaders is to ensure that employees remember that every business decision or action needs to be governed by, and contribute to, the overall vision.
Each employee is your brand ambassador
This is a trap I’ve witnessed many leaders fall prey to. As we ascend up the corporate ladder, it becomes critical to remember that while we may lead a team/teams, it is each member of this team that is responsible for enhancing corporate brand reputation. Employees make up the heart and soul of an organization. They are the ones who keep the doors of our brands open, they are the ones who burn the midnight oil to become doers, problem solvers, innovators, and trailblazers of any organization. Thus, it shouldn’t be news to you when I say – their needs, their health, and their growth (yes – both professional as well as personal) must take priority over all else.
When you do right by your employees, rest assured you will have the most powerful army of ‘brand ambassadors’ who will only spread the good word about you, and it today’s times customers are most likely to believe when opinions are shared by ‘people like us’. So champion their growth, and see how they champion yours!
Ethics must flow through rank and file
How many brands have been undone by employees not treated right? Read the papers regularly and ever so often, there are horror stories coming to light about corrupt practices in organisations. It’s the age of the whistleblowers and as a leader, one has to understand that shaping an ethical culture has to be a function of the common denominator, not that of one individual. Creating an business founded on ethical practises is a part and parcel of legacy brands built painstakingly over years and decades, making it all the more critical that ethics are steeped into the corporate culture. As a leader, you have to be absolutely above reproach, only then can you fearlessly command the same of your troops. There should be zero-tolerance for non! The mark of a truly great leader is that they lead by action and example, and seek to do the right thing by their people, their company, their consumers, and society at large.
While ethics traditionally flows top-down, what truly makes it pervasive and effective is when it becomes inherent in the blood and veins of the organization. Top-down or bottom-up – it takes a holistic change in attitudes, mindsets, and behavior patterns of all employees, no matter their position.
People want to have a ‘purpose’
Purpose is a word that’s driving not just organisations, but increasingly individuals as well. Purpose varies, and can be personal or professional. As leaders, it is important that we ensure our people ‘feel a sense of purpose’ doing what they do every day of their lives. It is in our interest to make them feel they truly in the right place.
So how does purpose work in the individual and the larger scheme of things? Purpose could be as simple as working towards achieving a financial goal, or a more altruistic one where the larger organisational purpose comes into play – there is an ever-increasing tribe of people who choose not to work with large corporates that are perceived as being detrimental to conservation or are perceived to not do right by communities they work with. For people looking for purpose, it becomes imperative to work in a space they feel is aligned, allowing them to be the best version of themselves. This goes a long way in ensuring people feel a sense of connection to the workplace, as well as deeper engagement, creativity, and business productivity in the long run.
Stay curious, adopt a learner’s attitude
Given the rapid pace of change all around – people consumptions patterns, technology, trends – it’s absolutely critical to be open to change and, more importantly, learning. The day you decide you know it all, is the day your downward spiral begins. As a leader your benchmark has to be your own, you cannot afford to sit complacent, your hunger to learn, to better yourself and your organisation must be core to everything you do. I’ve realised, the most successful leaders do not measure their success it the regular defined parameters, they rise far beyond that, and that can only happen if you acknowledge, learn, adopt, and adapt, and as many times as it takes till you intuitively know you are on top of it.
A leader with a ‘always learning’ attitude in this battlefield threated by sneaky mines which are the order of the day, is one whose troops (and be extension their business) will follow him wherever he leads them, that’s the confidence you will inspire.
Be Prepped for Crisis
The curious thing about a crisis is that most times it’s not a crisis till you allow it fester and grow into one. Most crises start as small issues, which if managed and nipped in the bud will not grow any further. However, the ones that come knocking without any warning are the ones leaders must absolutely be prepared for. Every organisation must have a handbook ready which should have a list of probable crises that may hit their business along with categorisation (amber, red), names and contact details of people who the first call is to be made to, at which point the person contacted needs to escalate it, the escalation point of contact, and the rapid action task force in place depending upon the nature of the crisis – i.e. financial, legal, factory, employee. All leaders must be trained to face the media during a crisis. Every employee must know they cannot speak to anyone – as a friend, or family, or confidante. Many a plans have become unravelled as someone considered inconsequential has had a great evening catching up with a close friend.
Having helmed a brand such as Usha for over a decade now, I have learnt many lessons, prime among them is to take calculated risks that enhance and extend the brand, and that definitely involves a lot of deep thinking, strategizing, and then getting your hands dirty, for if you don’t walk the talk and talk the walk, anything and everything you say will be taken with fists full of salt. If you want to keep the flag flying, your actions, and the results thereof, will need to prove that you are a cut above the rest. So, you need to keep learning, evolving, innovating, and growing – not just yourself, but also grow your teams – in order to scale new heights with every passing year.
Mr Dinesh Chhabra, Chief Executive Officer, Usha International