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Bossing It: Raji Ramaswamy on Why Positivity Trumps Everything in Leadership


For the CEO of Contract India, a Wunderman Thompson India company, leadership isn’t just about being fearless, it’s about empowering a fearless team

Bossing It: Raji Ramaswamy on Why Positivity Trumps Everything in Leadership

It’s no overstatement to describe Raji Ramaswamy as a diamond of the Indian advertising industry. Sharply-focused and clear-sighted, like the gemstone, Raji kicked off her leadership career running the world famous De Beers brand in India. Her glittering career took her to the agency world and prior to her current role as  CEO Contract India, a Wunderman Thompson India group company, she ran JWT Kolkata and has worked with giant brands like  HSBC, Shopper’s Stop, Orient, Wipro, Asian Paints, Bata, ITC, Tata Steel and Exide.

Raji’s many achievements include helping make Kellogg a household name in India and developing some of Tata Steel’s biggest brands like Tata Tiscon, Tata Shaktee, Tata Pravesh and in the development of Tata steel as a corporate brand. At Contract, she is taking the business to the next level with new business wins, scaling up the current offerings like iContract, Core Consulting, Design Sutra and newer capabilities like Commerce, Tech, CRM.

As a leader, she also prioritises empowering and inspiring her team to reach their own potential. As Wunderman Thompson India kicks off its International Women’s Day activity, celebrating its phenomenal female talent, Raji discusses her leadership journey and shares words of wisdom.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Raji> My first experience of leadership was running the De Beers (now DTC) business in early 2000. We launched the first diamond brand in the world – Nakshatra and followed it with multiple others like Asmi, Arisia, Sangini. It was an amazing experience working with a young talented team and building a category. It was a challenging and rewarding experience for the entire team. 

LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

Raji> I worked with some great clients and learnt how to motivate, inspire, and lead. I also learnt from the mistakes of others who I worked with early in life. It made me realise that everyone wants to make a difference in their own way and as a leader our job is to value that and tap into their potential.  

LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

Raji> It was a series of discoveries and not just one moment. Courage, integrity, and vision are perhaps the most important qualities for a leader. My biggest lesson in leadership is to be fearless and allow others in the team to be fearless too.

LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

Raji> I have always felt that being empowered is key to success and wanted to have an impact not just on the outcome but also how we get to the outcome. I also knew that taking on the responsibility of making things happen came naturally to me. I also realised early that I love challenges and enjoy working and leading teams rather than be an individual contributor. So, I took on the role when the opportunity presented itself in early 2000. And I have never looked back after that.

LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

Raji> I feel you embrace the parts that come naturally to you as a leader and focus on the aspects that you may not be good at. It needs a level of awareness and openness to know that.  For me being positive trumps everything else.

LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

Raji> Finding a way to deal with cynicism and negativity of some individuals. I try to change their perception of the situation.  

LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Raji> My approach is to have a Plan B and go with it if Plan A fails.

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

Raji> Being transparent always helps you to build trust and credibility as leader. However, it’s good to be careful and considered when it comes to giving feedback, or when there is a clear performance issue to be addressed within a team or for an individual contributor.

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

Raji> I have always felt rewarded mentoring aspiring leaders. The hunger and enthusiasm of a mentee for learning and development is a great high for a mentor. The relationship is based mutual respect and focus is on what they want to achieve and get better at. And often I use my own experience to give a new perspective and leave it to them to choose the best way to act/execute.

LBB> It's been a really challenging few years - and that's an understatement. How do you lead a team out the other side of a difficult period?

Raji> By always staying positive, looking at the possibilities, keeping the team motivated through the difficult and uncertain times. Being available always and finally ensuring that we are executing as per the plan.

LBB> What are some ambitions and plans you have for the company and yourself in the coming year? 

Raji> Scale up the agency business, market our capabilities in commerce, tech, and CRM, build our divisions icontract, Design Sutra and Core Consulting, create work that moves the needle on our client businesses, collaborate with the WT group companies to win big and create an inclusive culture.  

LBB> What have you noticed as the biggest changes in the industry during your career thus far? And do you have any predictions for future trends or themes? 

Raji> The top 10 changes that I see are: 

1. Acceleration in Digital and mobile first communication and consumption. This has created a shift in the organisational structures and business models. 

2. Technology has become an enabler for scale and user experience. AI, cloud computing, IOT 5G have all gained traction and will continue to transform the communication Industry and our lives. It will go beyond being just an immersive experience. 

3. Web 3.0, Metaverse and NFT’s will change the way the way we communicate in the future as a new band of consumers live across platforms.

4. Data and CRM will continue to power the marketing efforts and shape our communication. Marketing automation as a tool will be table-stakes for all marketeers.

5. Content will be the lens through which consumer will view the world of brand.

6. Focus on Omni channel marketing, e- commerce and social commerce even for legacy brands has gained precedence and will be key to success. 

7. B2B marketing has become far more sophisticated with renewed focus on consumer experience - owned data, website and mobile platforms and their performance on marketplaces. 

8. There is growing consciousness among consumers and clients on Sustainability and the impact of our actions on the planet and people. Consumers are choosing brands that live up to that promise in the connected world. Gender sensitivity and Inclusion are being recognised as essential elements of corporate culture and are critical to become an employer of choice. 

9. Virtual communication and remote working even if partial is here to stay post the pandemic.

10. Consumers are choosing healthier lifestyles, better work life balance, focus on fitness and mental wellness, flexible working more than ever in the past. 

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business?

Raji> Culture is everything for us. It’s the passion, pace, positivity, and the inclusive culture of Contract that makes us who we are. It has helped us succeed during the recent most challenging and difficult times. 

LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

Raji>bConstant learning and development; Ability to embrace change; having interests other than work like art, travel, books, yoga, meditation. Being positive and looking ahead. 

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Wunderman Thompson India, Fri, 03 Mar 2023 09:09:57 GMT