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A leader by design

Raghavan, who recently completed 20 years with Landor, has turned her Buddha sculpture at home into a signature motif for her home office. Clients like to see it as a backdrop to on-video calls as it gives them a sense of calm, she says.  (Photo: S. Kumar)Premium
Raghavan, who recently completed 20 years with Landor, has turned her Buddha sculpture at home into a signature motif for her home office. Clients like to see it as a backdrop to on-video calls as it gives them a sense of calm, she says. (Photo: S. Kumar)

Landor & Fitch India’s managing director Lulu Raghavan on her work style, the importance of focused energy, five Es of leadership, and how to manage a merger from the dining table

I’m sitting in a large, shaded balcony of a lovely south Mumbai apartment, when the doorbell rings and I see something for the first time in a Head Office interview: helium balloons and a champagne bottle. No, not to congratulate me on my first in-person interview in 10 months, but to wish the home-owner, Lulu Raghavan, on her 20th anniversary with strategic design and branding consultancy Landor (now called Landor & Fitch, after its merger with retail design firm Fitch). “Two decades, three continents, four offices, and ten bosses" is how the 45-year old chief executive describes her tenure with the company. Having worked in San Francisco, New York, London and Mumbai, Raghavan is one of the most global, and senior, design and branding professionals in India today. The balloons are from her colleagues.

Over the past year, Raghavan has adopted a unique work style. She likes to wander around her house during the workday, which she shares with her husband and two daughters. The long wooden dining table in the living room near a Buddha sculpture is where she spends 80% of her time, doing video calls and online brainstorming sessions, using platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Miro. The balcony, and a nook in the semi-open-plan kitchen, are great for phone calls. The library is ideal “when I want to do some thinking work and for some inspiration." A basic desk, with some books, placed in the corner of the guest bedroom, is also a good place to work, although the background is less attractive than the Buddha, she says.

Her biggest “saviour", however, has been the gym. A compact space near the living room, it has been meticulously planned to accommodate a Reebok stepper and an assortment of weights, including a kettle bell, yoga mats and a treadmill. “I have converted my travel time to my gym time. I work out every day. From 5-6am, either I go for a walk, or I have a trainer, or do yoga now. That really energizes me for the day. I’m a huge fan of Robin Sharma’s The 5 AM Club, that changed my life," she says.

An Agile workday

Her workstyle leaves me with three takeaways. First, the future of work. The “hybrid workplace" is a fashionable term, as companies try to establish new norms of working. What Raghavan seems to have constructed instead is a “hybrid home". Her agile workday demonstrates that different spaces are conducive for different activities—some, which require less concentration; others, more. It suggests that remote working will continue to be a way of life, post-covid-19, as the office might not be required for all activities.

She herself doesn’t have a definite answer when the office might open. “We are looking at March or April, and opening in a very measured way, but it won’t be compulsory. Anybody who’s uncomfortable can continue working from home. Personally, I think I will probably just go twice or thrice a week for meetings, or just to be there for the team physically in the space. I wouldn’t not go. At the same time, I think the era of waking up early and commuting every day is gone forever, as is hopping on to early morning flights to go to Delhi or Bengaluru," she says.

The more pressing challenge for Raghavan is how do you manage an integration from the dining table, when the individual teams may not have even met each other? Especially, as in this case, when the combined entity is over three times the size of your original company in headcount? Landor employed 30 people in India before the integration, Fitch had 70. Although 100 people might seem to be a small headcount in overall terms, it is large for a creative professional services firm.

Raghavan is trying to “get people together, being transparent, communicating and making them feel that ownership of ‘okay, this is also my company.’ I take time to recognize individual people," she says. Structured initiatives for employees to get to know each other, such as Monday morning huddles, with all employees online, as well as smaller online group sessions, promote collaboration, she insists. Early days, but Raghavan says she’s pleased with the teamwork thus far.

A shot of energy

The second lesson is even more obvious than the first: Raghavan’s focused energy. Not only is she physically energetic, she is thoughtful in her application of it at work. For her, it is one of five essential Es of leadership (others being, empathy, emotional quotient, equitable and execution).

“Energy is hugely important because it transmits. And I’ve been physically in the office, I remember, on days when I was tired or irritated, and the vibe would be different. I realized that, gosh, actually the leaders’ impact is there, it just transmits down the organization," she says.

Not all of us might want to wake up at 5am every day, even if we did go to bed at 9:30pm (as Raghavan does). More than her actual daily routine itself, what Raghavan’s discipline underlines is a central theme of this column. It is a quote by Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

Where personal branding serves

Finally, personal branding. Branding is about seizing the opportunity to differentiate a product, a service, a space, or oneself. Raghavan has turned her Buddha sculpture into a signature motif. Clients like to see it on video calls, as a backdrop, for its peacefulness, she says. It is a visible element of her brand, and while it is a simple effect, it highlights Raghavan’s attention to detail in how she projects herself, and how she encourages colleagues to similarly design appealing backdrops for themselves.

“Branding sounds very sexy, but it’s actually an incredibly hard discipline, a rigorous journey that you have to do every day. Strategy plays a minimal role. Making sure that it manifests in every touchpoint is the harder part. As former Unilever chairperson Paul Polman said, 99% of brand building is execution," she says.

She is increasingly interested in promoting personal branding. “Personal branding is a way to leave an impact. It’s about how you choose to be remembered." She wants to encourage others to think about their personal brands, through her own website and a weekly newsletter focused on personal growth. There can be downsides of a strong personal brand too, she acknowledges, such as being too personified with Landor in the past, making it harder to institutionalize the firm. It now has “a superb team, it’s at a stage where anyone can run it," she says.

Very few of us have the luxury of reimagining the “hybrid workplace" in our homes like Raghavan. But her work style offers lessons for all our daily work lives—on how we choose to spend our days, and what our personal brands say about us, every day.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.

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