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BW Businessworld

‘Banish Silos, Build Networks’

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Sanjay Khosla is a Senior Fellow at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University ,Illinois, and was President of Developing Markets of Kraft Foods (now Mondelez International) from 2007 to 2013, where he oversaw revenue growth from $5 billion to $16 billion in six years. Khosla co-author of ‘Fewer, Bigger, Bolder: From Mindless Expansion to Focused Growth’ explains to BW | Businessworld’s Sanjitha Rao Chaini on the importance of having local leaders and new leadership rules in today’s connected world.

How did the idea of writing this book come to you?
I had seen from direct experience how easy it is for a company eager to expand to sprawl and get mired in complexity. So, for years, I had been developing Focus7 – a seven-step programme that guides a company to concentrate attention and resources on aspects of the business with the best chance to win. The programme evolved over time, as I applied it to companies where I worked, learning from both successes and failures.

I then met Professor Mohan Sawhney of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, who brought an academic perspective to the mix. We refined Focus7 and created a practical, energising how-to. We knew the programme worked and it was fun to see it in action in assorted businesses and contexts. It was an easy decision to spread the word through writing a book.

You talk about Kraft's China experience in your book? How important is having local leaders in a global company...

You absolutely need leaders on the ground who can connect locally and make things happen. The bosses back in headquarters can’t be expected to know the ins and outs on the front line – for that you need people who are there. Of course, finding the right people is key, and I learned two lessons on winning the war for talent in countries like China. First, inspire people by giving them complete freedom to operate in a strategic framework. Second, give people a sense of purpose by allowing them to work for local communities – do good while doing well. I should add that it helps if people are having fun while working hard.

Are there new leadership rules in today’s world?
It is a complete myth that senior leaders have superior knowledge. And command and control as a form of leadership died some years back. In today’s globally connected world, a business that wants to succeed banishes silos and builds collaborative networks. I have always preferred teams working together to produce extraordinary results, rather than individual superstars.

Leadership now involves 3 things: 1) Find the right people; 2) Give them the right resource; and 3) Get the hell out of the way!

The Oreo biscuit campaign during the power outage during Superbowl ('You can still dunk in the dark') created a wave in social media. How has been the transformation of Kraft after you embraced social media campaigns? Can you measure it in terms of tangible growth?
As I consult with a number of companies in different industries now, I am seeing a dramatic rise in spending on social media. The successful companies integrate the message across different touch points with much sharper targeting – an approach that is constantly improving given progress in data analytics. The key is to convert targeted data into competitive advantage – and speed is of the essence.

Significant progress has been made to measure the impact of social media. This is very different to the time when I was told that 50 per cent of all advertising is wasted – and no one knows which 50 per cent!

You write in the book: "Everybody talks about focus and nobody does anything about it." How do you ensure that focus graduates to action in a global company like Kraft, for instance?
Indeed, talk is cheap. That’s what led to the creation of Focus7 – the need to find a systematic way to implement the focus you need to win. It’s so easy for a company – even the best of companies – to get distracted and let complexity and bureaucracy creep in. We have found that if you take a disciplined approach and stay with it, the idea of focus eventually spreads throughout the organization.

What is Focus7 and is it relevant to all kinds of companies, especially the mushrooming e-commerce companies?

Focus7 is a practical seven-step model that can be applied across industries – small and big – and across geographies. This includes mushrooming e-commerce companies. Indeed, it may be particularly important in a new field, such as e-commerce, since it’s easy to get distracted pursuing too many opportunities, chasing too many rabbits.

Focus7 explains the importance of staying focused and doing a few things well, as opposed to spreading yourself thin. How to avoid confusing activity and bustle with output.

In fact, the core advice is helpful in almost any field. Whether you are in business, the arts, sports or whatever, you need to stay focused. ‘Fewer Bigger Bolder’ offers a system for getting there and staying there.

And how can startups and entrepreneurs make use of your book?

In the few start-ups with which I have been involved as a consultant, I have found a high degree of excitement and energy. In some of them, however, the leaders are doing too many things, going in too many directions. Failing to concentrate on their core assets. As we say in the book, Focus7 offers a GPS, so to speak, a practical, step-by-step guide to gaining and maintaining focus on those few things that can lead to sustained, profitable growth.

Key to making things work is to learn by doing and focusing on execution. Success is 10 per cent strategy and 90 per cent execution.

On an average, you mention at least two company names and their experiences on a single page. What kind of research did you put into this book? And how long did you and Professor Mohanbir Sawhney take to complete it?
The book draws on a number of interviews we conducted around the world, covering small and big companies in different industries. It also builds on our combined experience of over 50 years of running businesses, consulting, and working in academia. We wrote the book in two years, but it’s fair to say that Focus7 has been in development for decades.

A version of this interview appeared in BW | Businessworld issue dated 08 September 2014 on page 144

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