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In February last year, Vivek Gambhir—the former CEO and MD of Godrej Consumer Products—joined audio and wearables brand boAt as its new chief executive officer. As the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic raged on, it was a time of worry, panic and chaos across the country, with state bulletins releasing news figures of infections and active cases every day.
“It was our biggest learning experience,” says Gambhir as he recounts how he navigated the unprecedented challenge—undoubtedly the toughest in his leadership career thus far—without any playbook to rely on. He outlines four main difficulties that he encountered then: ensuring the safety and health of employees; navigating business disruption; engaging with employees for various purposes; and supporting the community at large. “We have come out much more resilient and future-ready,” he says.
The experience altered his personal leadership style in significant ways, especially by helping him remain calm and positive and treat employees and partners with empathy when hard-pressed to make decisions quickly with no or imperfect information. Leadership is a continuous learning process; leadership styles have to evolve and adapt over time, discovered Gambhir.
“I aspire to be a ‘heart-head-hands’ leader. The heart symbolises passion and purpose in coaching and motivating our team members; the head represents the big picture of business goals, objectives and opportunities; and the hands remind me to roll up my sleeves to get immersed in details. As boAt’s leader, I mainly follow two broad principles: the African concept of Ubuntu, which constitutes collective responsibility and compassion, and servant leadership, which increases my sense of individual ownership, accountability and responsibility,” he says.
With a turnover of around INR 3,000 crore, boAt is currently in the middle of a transformation as Gambhir aims to build a billion-dollar profitable company over the next three years with a sustainable trajectory. According to him, sustainability is not an after-thought but a deeply embedded element of the organisation’s fundamental approach: for instance, the company targets reducing its plastic consumption by 20 per cent over the next three years; it is working with battery and chip set manufacturers to create energy-efficient products; and boAt labs, its in-house R&D teams, are designing next gen energy-efficient products.
Environmental awareness is not all that the pandemic bestowed upon corporate India—’working-from-home’ is another one of its legacies. The last two years have proven remote working to be a viable option and employees are reluctant to give it up now even as the pandemic-induced restrictions have been lifted and offices opened across the country. What does Gambhir think about that? “Water-cooler chats build the kind of culture we want at boAt,” he responds.
“While we understand that employees sometimes need to work from home, say, due to family obligations, we also feel that they are at their creative and innovative best while working with and around each other,” he explains, stating that all 400 of the company’s employees are back at work as of now. “Instead of rigidly latching on to a specific amount of face-time, we have adopted flexibility. We encourage our employees to come to office as much as possible while also allowing work-from-home occasionally for their convenience,” he adds. The company recently inculcated a wellness time-off for employees during the Diwali break between October 22 and 30.
At the age of 53 years, Gambhir has accumulated enough wisdom and seriousness, both inscribed in his name, to set an ambitious target: “I aim to lead boAt into becoming a large multi-category multi-geography omni channel player.”