Merging Sales with Soul
Ravi Saligram took over as the CEO of Newell Brands, a Fortune 500 company that manufactures iconic brands like Calphalon, Contigo, Graco, Sharpie, and Yankee Candle. From the headquarters in Sandy Springs, Georgia, Saligram keeps his eye on the bigger picture as he steers the mammoth corporation with the steady hand of a seasoned businessman and the heart of a loving father.
[Left] Ravi Saligram: Speaking to employees before the coronavirus pandemic.
You got off the starting block with a degree in engineering from Bangalore University and soon switched gears to earn an MBA from the University of Michigan. What propelled the early change in trajectory?
One of my strengths is to know my weaknesses. When I did engineering I realized I would be a total dud as an engineer! I loved marketing.
How important is it to conduct business with integrity?
While some believe the two are mutually exclusive, studies have shown that companies with high ethical standards have greater shareholder value. You have to do well with customers and employees. A majority of consumers feel that the job of brands and corporations is to do good. Many millennials and Gen Z believe companies should help unify the division in the country. The role of the CEO is evolving. It’s not just about being a financial genius or a tech genius. It is not just about doing things right but doing the right thing. It helps me sleep better.
Patrick Campbell of the Board of Directors of Newell credits you for building diverse leadership teams. How do you incorporate the tenets of inclusion in your modus operandi?
Newell is a journey in progress where the drive for diversity is gaining momentum. For me, it is a personal thing. When I saw what happened to George Floyd, it bothered the hell out of me, moved me, touched a chord in me. As CEOs, you are trained to not get into things that are political or religious. But this was about basic human decency and human rights. I sent a letter titled “Embracing our Humanity” to my employees, urging everyone to not succumb to tawdry stereotypes, or allow the insidious hand of unconscious bias to seep deep into our souls. I created a movement in the company called Black Lives Thrive.
When I talked to our employees, I kept hearing that they do not bring their whole selves to work. Some said they live double lives, and that troubled me. You have to be yourself and be comfortable to do your best work.
Diversity is just having representation; inclusion is where you are getting a voice. Belonging is the ultimate goal where you are part of the fabric. Then there is an emotional alignment, a passion for the purpose of the company. You become part of the family.
We have made history by electing a woman as the first vice president in the country. How do you view the role of women in the workplace?
I have great admiration for women. I grew up with five aunts in India. And when my father, who was in the Indian army, died young, my mother had to take charge. My wife has worked all her life. She is far smarter than I am! I learn constantly from my two daughters. Women are truly superheroes. Especially now, during the pandemic, they are on the job 24 hours a day—attending meetings while managing home and family.
I have revamped my leadership team to include more women. Their perspectives are different from men, and the two lenses drive innovation and diversity of thought, and that propels the company forward. We have a young woman CEO who has four young children and runs a billion-dollar business without missing a beat, and she is always smiling. I don’t know how she does it!
How do your experiences as an immigrant factor into your perspective at the helm?
America has been very kind to me. When I came to this country, I had $9 in my pocket, all of it borrowed, on a plane ticket that was borrowed. I often walked to school so I could save money to buy biscuits. That brought about a sense of humility, empathy; it allows me to be a better listener and never take success for granted. It is extraordinary that an engineer from India comes and runs different types of companies. I believe here you can truly fulfill your potential when you work and show merit.
You have worked and lived in several different countries. Can you share an experience where you learned something unexpected?
Yes, I have lived in six different countries and worked in 50. Human beings are more alike than we are different. But sometimes, the differences get accentuated rather than similarities. As a leader, I focus on the positive differences. When I lived in Korea and worked for SC Johnson, Glade air freshener was going nowhere. We were considering discontinuing the line. Right after the Olympics, we started seeing a pickup in Glade, small but significant. We realized that in America, Glade was being used primarily in kitchens and bathrooms, but in Korea, women were using it in bedrooms. We changed the packaging to be more romantic, more Korean, and introduced scents they prefer, like potpourri. The brand took off on a huge trajectory. That insight came because we did not try to force an American viewpoint. It was a great lesson.
In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, you said Atlanta has the opportunity to become a model city for racial harmony. You also spoke about creating a community of belonging, not just inclusion. How can we engineer a bridge between tolerance and acceptance to achieve bonhomie?
When we first lived here 20 years ago, we had just come from the U.K. We realized that not everyone in the city was from here. People were very welcoming. My daughter was two months late coming into Westminster
but she was still elected class president. I thought that was neat. There is a special quality about Atlanta because of its history and heritage.
Recently, I was very impressed with our mayor and police chief, in the way that they handled the unrest in the city. It can be a highly inclusive city. There is no need for favoritism or creating quotas. I am not in favor of that. It is about creating a level playing field where eventually there is no majority and minority. This can be achieved by creating leadership all around.
What are some of the most valuable lessons you have learned in your role as father to two children?
My daughters are 32 and 31, and the roles are reversed. Over the last three-four years, it has become a reverse mentorship. They keep me connected with the younger generation on social media and consumer trends. I learn through their lens and seek their advice. I had my younger daughter look at the letter, “Embracing our Humanity,” that I wrote late at night. She gave me some insightful edits. You are never too old to learn. You have to keep reinventing yourself. You have to learn from younger people. My tutor on tech is my 17-year-old nephew!
What are your thoughts on the economic recovery?
America is a resilient country; we are going through a difficult patch, but we have an entrepreneurial spirit. We will find ways to adapt and get back on track. In the short term, hopefully, there will be a vaccine and a return to some semblance of normalcy. But there will be some profound changes. A lot of companies will have to rethink their models. I am an optimist. America has been built by innovators and entrepreneurs. Ultimately we will come out stronger.
What advice would you offer the business community during these challenging times?
We keep our focus on three priorities: safety and well being, every big decision is based on placing people first. Second, to keep the plants running and recognize our frontline workers. Third, the liquidity of the company.
The softer qualities are important right now. The leadership should show that they genuinely care about the employees. You can’t fake it. This is not a time for slogan management. You have to be authentic and be vulnerable and show humanness. If employees have kids at home, don’t hold a meeting at lunchtime. You have to be empathic. Listen to your people. Don’t feel you have all the answers. We are constantly conducting surveys to see how employees are doing and assess their needs. Over communicate. Create hope.
Author of Kismetwali & Other Stories, Reetika Khanna is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who likes to spotlight people with purpose. She has worked with ELLE as a senior features writer, and as an associate features editor with ELLE DÉCOR, Mumbai. For more, go to ReetikaKhanna.com
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