“Strategic direction is more important today. It's about providing a framework for managers to navigate through the fog of complex chokes. No company can avoid this."

– C.K. Prahalad –

AQoL Dec 2020 | A Bottle of Johnnie Walker

It was a couple of days before Diwali in Calcutta in 1977. Rahul, my friend and colleague, had returned from the office late in the evening to find a gift hamper on the dining table. His wife told him it was from one of the local distributors. The card stapled to the cellophane told him it was from the distributor not far from his apartment in South Calcutta.

He unwrapped the cellophane to find a box of sweets and another of dry fruits. To his surprise, a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label Whisky lay nestled below. The hamper had been packed to keep it out of sight.

A question of propriety
Rahul and I were Area Sales Managers in Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL), now Hindustan Unilever. The Company paid us enough to comfortably meet all needs, but Scotch whisky was well beyond our means.

Rahul picked up the hamper and immediately took a taxi to the distributor’s office. He was aware they would close at 7:30 PM. The proprietor, an elderly man, had been associated with the Company for many years. He welcomed him and they exchanged greetings.

Rahul placed the hamper on his table and politely told him he could not accept it. As a longstanding distributor, he should have known managers of the Company could not accept such gifts. It was not appropriate of him to have sent it in the first place. Soon he returned to have tea with his wife.

No rulebook
An unremarkable story? No. And no, it is not about my friend. Undoubtedly, he was and continued to be an upright and principled manager. The story is about the Company, Hindustan Lever.

In my three years till then in HLL, I had never seen a rulebook that laid down a code of conduct. None of our bosses had ever told us either.

It was just something you picked up from peers in conversations. It was like so many little things you learned that was the norm, that everyone believed everyone did.

Rahul could have kept the bottle and no one would have known. He didn’t.

Why did managers behave ethically in spite of the absence of formal guidelines or rules, especially when they could not be supervised? Who created the deeply ingrained value system?

The work of leadership
No one person, and everyone. Leaders of the Company had patiently established an ethical culture over many years. By telling stories of honesty, encouraging managers to do the right thing, and backing them up when they did. Making sure they were never punished for living the values even when it cost the Company. And they themselves walked the talk.

This little story is not about A leader, it is about Leadership. It is about the difficult task of embedding a culture of upright, morally correct behaviour. Of ensuring managers do the right thing even when no one is looking.