I don’t manage people, I help them to find themselves,’’ says Vivek Dhawan, who is the chief executive and chief coach of Mega Lifesciences Plc, the company he has run since 1986.
‘’All of us have something interesting in ourselves. The challenges are to find it, put it to use and try to utilize the most of it.’’
Mega manufactures high quality medicines including nutritional supplements and pharmaceuticals. Initially, its business model was built around making capsules for another company. However, Mr Dhawan believed Mega could create its own brand, a journey it began in 1995.
He gradually built up the business from Thailand, entering Myanmar and Vietnam in 1995 and Cambodia in 1996. Mega has since expanded in Asia and developing markets in Africa and exports to 29 countries in all. With 4,000 employees and affiliates in 18 developing countries, it has annual sales of US$200 million, with 30% from Myanmar and 25% from Vietnam. The firm listed on the SET last November.
‘’As leaders, we should help people to find themselves, maximize the good things they have and learn to manage their weaknesses, which we all have,’’ Mr Dhawan says of his approach. ‘’We’re supposed to allow people to find a way to improve and manage their weaknesses by focusing on the good things they have. Then we can build a strength based organisation.
‘’We’ve come a long way when we realize that none of us is complete. In order to build a good company, we need a lot of things. Each one of us has something to contribute. If we stop competing with ourselves but start to enjoy the same we play together, then we will have a good chance to end up creating good organisation.’’
Having fun together: Mr Dhawan says his philosophy is rooted in the team sports he enjoyed when he was younger, he realised he was not good at many things, and if he wanted to get better, he needed other people who were good at other things to work and play together.
‘’Some people may not know what they’re good at. We’re living in a world where we measure ourselves according what others think of us. We depend so much on scores based on what people think of us, and we forget who we really are,’’ he says.
‘’We need to help people to find themselves first. Then we help them to enjoy using their strengths. People can find what they enjoy naturally – for me, it’s talking to people. When I do more of this, I am in a happy zone where I keep continuing to learn.
‘’A company can end up going the wrong way by teaching us to be something else. We don’t have to fight each other. We don’t have to compete to see who will get the higher position. We play, have fun together and try to bring the best of each person to the organization with one goal. We have a common goal and common cultures.
At Mega, Mr Dhawan Promotes a “culture of truth”: “we don’t have to hide anything. People can come out and say, ‘I’m sorry, I did it wrong and I want to correct myself.’ It’s an environment where people can express themselves and bring out the truth.
“We learn to trust ourselves and also trust others. We’ve changed all the models of measurement. We don’t measure how good your own performance is but the results of the whole team. We create wealth together, we share wealth. If we don’t create wealth, none of us gets anything. The environment of trust is built around the organisation.
We respect each other. I’m not good in finance, but I am good at talking. Therefore, we let others do what they’re good at. Hence, we respect each other for what each one does best. We love freedom here. We don’t want to be controlled. I also don’t want anyone to control me. If there are too many controls and regulations, my mind stops thinking.
“However, it doesn’t mean we can do things without discipline. We are a pharmaceutical company after all and must meet strict standards. For example, we have complied with and been licensed by the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration, which is one of the strictest authorities in the industry, since 1992. So, the discipline is there. We believe in the harmony of madness and freedom, or we could compare it with the Chinese concept of yin and yang, or Shiva and Shakti in Hinduism.”
First break the rules: while people at mega are disciplined, they are also expected to do things differently and challenge ideas.
“If we didn’t break the rules, the world would be stagnant,” says Mr Dhawan. “Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean we should grow long hair, isolate ourselves from the outside world and do nothing but artwork. What I mean is we should do both parts very well with an end in mind of building the culture to support the work.
“It’s important to have an environment built on these cultures – freedom, respect, trust and truth – in order to let people work with passion. This way, they’ll wake up in the morning feeling they ‘want’ to work, not that they ‘have’ to work.
‘’As the man who’s running the company, I ask myself, ‘how can we carry people together? What can we do to encourage our people to express their passion continuously and have fun working every day?’’
When Mega Lifesciences Plc was preparing to list on the Stock Exchange of Thailand last year, chief executive Vivek Dhawan began thinking about something that hadn’t occupied much of his attention in the past.
“For me, an employee stock ownership plan (Esop) was not a big issue because although we owned some shares, we didn’t realise what they are worth,” he told me. “Up until last year [before the listing], nobody knew what they were worth.”As a matter of fact, whether Esops drive business growth remains one of the most famously debated issues in the Harvard Business Review and many business forums. “Some say they don’t, as management will focus only on the short term to earn high share values. In our case, what drives our business to grow to where it is today is not share ownership but the fun and passion of working here.”
Mr Dhawan has positioned himself as the head coach and cheerleader to the company’s staff ever since he founded Mega Lifesciences as a maker of medicine capsules in 1986. Today it has evolved into a major producer and distributor of pharmaceuticals and other health-related products, with 4,000 employees in 18 countries and annual sales of US$200 million.
“At times, companies forget to bring out the best in their people,” he says. “There are procedures, rules and regulations that become a burden for people to create a future for company. Think of Steve Jobs, who was really driven by a passion to do things. Sometimes a company kills that passion. The design of the organisation kills that passion.”
The boss syndrome : Mr Dhawan prefers to let his people choose how they want to become better, as then they will have a self-motivated attitude. A good salesman should not be promoted to sales manager if he doesn’t really want the job. Some of the best salesmen excel because they are very good at talking to and helping customers. When they become sales managers, most of their days are spent preparing reports and managing other people. They don’t like it, it’s not fun, and they miss being out in the field meeting people.
“We have to help people to find what they’re good at,” says Mr Dhawan. “In this respect, I have to say that I’m not a boss. I’m a friend and a colleague. I need my people as much as they need me. I’m lucky to sit in this chair because I’ve been here longer or have more knowledge. Beyond that, each person is the boss in his or her own job, not me. When we remove the boss syndrome and work like a team, the team starts to play. Teams can manage themselves.”
He likens the environment to an orchestra in which the conductor does not play but coordinates like a coach to bring out the best in the team players. The head of an organisation should be humble and remember he is there to help others. “I am the chief coach because I stay under the radar.
I help them to play and work together in harmony. I don’t see myself as a boss.”
Practical bookworm : One of Mr Dhawan’s passions is reading about other leaders and businesses that he admires, and management theory in general. Among the books he recommends are First, Break All the Rules (Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman), Theory of Constraints (Eliyahu Goldratt), Maverick (Ricardo Semler), Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success (Kevin and Jackie Freiberg), What the Customer Wants You to Know (Ram Charan), How Will You Measure Your Life (Clayton Christensen), Jugaad Innovation (Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu and Simone Ahuja), and The Lean Startup (Eric Ries), among others.
“I like Nordstrom and Southwest Airlines because they run their businesses with respect for employees and no rules but based on shared values,” he tells me. “People will have fun. This is what I aim for in running the company. I will be the happiest man when I see this happen. To do that I cannot be a boss, I have to be a coach.”
What really impresses me is the approach he uses to turn knowledge from the books he has read into practical lessons that can be applied in his own business. For example, under the “Mind We Share” programme, Mr Dhawan brings world-class gurus to speak to his top 150 lieutenants. It’s a five-day programme, with two days dedicated to outside speakers, one day for internal speakers and two days for practical exercises.
“For seven years in a row, we’ve brought in world-famous business thinkers, such as Dr Clotaire Rapaille (The Culture Code), Dr Jae Won Park (senior partner and facilitator for Blue Ocean Strategy, written by W. Chan Kim), Jason Jennings (Think Big, Act Small), Curt Coffman (First, Break All the Rules), Robert Spector (The Nordstrom Way), Jody Hoffer Gittell (The Southwest Airlines Way), Fredrik Haren (The Idea Book) and more to share with us their visionary thinking. This year, we started a new ‘Change by Design’ programme to bring it down to the front-line level. We also have built our own academy internally.”
The thinking organisation : At Mega Lifesciences, the goal is to promote wellness in people by providing quality medicine at the right price. In this regard, Mr Dhawan believes in educating consumers, doctors and retailers. Everyone in the organisation can play a role — once his people realise they are not alone, the focus of the team will be on working together, having fun and creating the same outcome together.
“A thinking organisation can change before it is forced to change,” he explains. “If we can build thinking — right thinking — we can make the right changes. Then this company can live and grow. Growth is an outcome of good thinking and the right changes. Growth will happen because we will do the right thing and only what we know and become the best at it.
“We will make sure consumers will enjoy and be happy with our products. Our people will enjoy what they do as well. Then the company will be hard to beat. It will live and grow beyond each one of us.”
Sorayuth Vathanavisuth is the principal and executive coach at the center for Southeast Asia Leadership and lectures at Mahidol University’s College of Management. His areas of interest are corporate strategy, executive coaching and leadership development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org