Asian leaders perspectives: Sunil D’Souza, managing director and CEO of Tata Consumer Products
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consulting

Asian leaders perspectives: Sunil D’Souza, managing director and CEO of Tata Consumer Products

Sunil D’Souza shares what he believes are the three big things that build successful Asian leaders: their work ethic, the macro environment they grow up in, and their creativity.
Heidrick & Struggles
Sunil D'Souza
Sunil S'Douza image

Sunil D’Souza has been the managing director and CEO of Tata Consumer Products since April 2020. Prior to this, he served as the managing director of Whirlpool India Ltd. for over four years and is credited with having turned Whirlpool into a remarkable growth story in India. Prior to joining Whirlpool, he spent around 15 years at PepsiCo, where he held several leadership roles, handling commercial aspects of the company’s foods and beverages portfolio and successfully leading the business in a large cluster of Asian countries. Sunil began his career at Hindustan Unilever in 1993. With 29 years of rich experience, he has strong domain knowledge of the consumer products business with distinct focus on strategy, growth and execution.

Heidrick & Struggles: Can you briefly take us through your career milestones and perhaps share a point of inflection in your career?

Sunil D’Souza: Out of management school, I started my career with Unilever, then The Coca-Cola Company in India. After that it was PepsiCo across different markets in Southeast Asia, and then Whirlpool in India, before finally landing up in Tata Consumer Products. I learnt different life and career skills at each of these companies and these learnings and experiences have helped shape my career.

Unilever provided me with the base grounding in the consumer business, whether it was marketing, distribution, innovation or execution—all the right levers that you need in a fast-moving consumer goods company. At that time, they had probably the best and the brightest in the consumer business, especially in the sales and marketing community, and I had the opportunity to learn from them.

I also learned a lot while working for Coca-Cola because I was a franchise manager literally without a franchise (with the Coke Bottler in Ahmedabad having sold out to PepsiCo), helping stabilize the operation in terms of distribution and logistics at a young age. I was three years out of management school and trying to fix big problems. Later I became the general manager of the Surat bottling plant, participating in the M&A process of acquiring that plant and later handling that plant at the age of 31; which is very rare. I was responsible for the entire Coke business in the territory including production, logistics, HR, sales, and marketing. The bottling business of Coke was a great place to learn how to manage a business and a P&L holistically.

Moving to Bombay and running the Coke business in the metropolis was a completely different experience. I was now in the big league and learnt how to tackle the environment, including unions, politicians, law enforcement, bureaucrats and side-stepping local organized crime groups. The Cola wars those days meant high spending and that got everyone’s interest with everyone trying to get on to the gravy train. Rebuilding the Coke business in that environment and focusing on distribution, sales and marketing to grow market shares was a critical learning.

Later, I moved to Hanoi in Vietnam with PepsiCo, and this was yet another different experience. I still remember a boss of mine who said: “The only reason you are here is because you can add value with your knowledge and experience. If you don’t add value day in and day out, there is no need for an expat in this position. You’ve been brought in here to transfer your learnings and build a business.” I learnt to survive and thrive in a completely alien environment and add value on a daily basis. I couldn't read the local language, I couldn't understand what people said, and culturally, things were completely different. My family also had to learn to manage in an environment where they didn't understand the local language and customs and couldn't communicate with anyone in their language. But after the initial cultural shock, we adapted to the place and managed very well. From a family perspective, it is probably one of the best postings we have had.  Even on the business front, Vietnam is often quoted as a super success for PepsiCo and the business that we started from scratch in North Vietnam is one of the cornerstones of the Vietnam success story. Adapting to a different culture and learning how to operate and thrive in a completely alien environment is probably one learning basis which the fear of the unknown starts to diminish and builds your confidence in taking on any challenge, and this is an experience I cherish.

Moving to PepsiCo in the Philippines, I was part of a team rebuilding a business for a bottler who had literally flirted with bankruptcy, and getting them back on track. The PepsiCo system allows enough entrepreneurship within its operating framework. One of the key drivers to building this business back was the fact that we drove execution and a whole load of differentiated innovation to keep the top-line and share prices humming despite our constraint on resources. The fact that as long as you believe in the end goal, focus on the right levers, have a few good people with you on your team and persist on execution you will achieve success, was a great learning.

When I joined Whirlpool in India, I had to adjust a few switches in my mind. It was a listed company where I quickly realized that your report card is public. Everything about the way you run the company and its performance is out in the open and reflects on you as a professional. You had to make the big decisions, quickly, and at the same time learn to manage multiple stakeholders in the business. Your board, analysts, and shareholders could ask you any question and you should be in a position to answer them and carry them along. I learnt the art of wearing multiple hats at the same time as juggling six different balls in the air, all the while explaining to the audience of how and why I was doing that.

Heidrick & Struggles: In hindsight, what do you think were elements that really stood you in good stead, and why do you think Asian leaders clearly have an edge in terms of being able to cope with situations that are fluid?

Sunil D’Souza: I would say there are three big things that build Asian leaders: work ethics, the macro environment you grow up in, and creativity. And these experiences have shaped me and my career journey as well.

Hard work is important everywhere in the world, but more so in Asia. Not only do you have to be smart, but you also need the legs to back it up to succeed. When you live in a country with a billion plus people, you've got to be much more driven, much hungrier, in order to rise beyond those billion people and stand out. This hunger to prove yourself translates into your work ethic that you carry forward, no matter which business and which part of the world you operate in.

From a macro environment perspective, Asian laws in general, and Indian laws in particular, regulations and political backdrop are fluid and keep changing ever so often. It is a fast-moving market and the consumer trends are changing rapidly. To tackle all of these changes, you’ve got to be constantly on your toes. The word VUCA was coined not too long ago, but in the Asian context, VUCA on the ground has been around for a very long time and you had to learn to deal with it.

And in an Asian context, given the price focus of the consumer and the intense competition, you've got to be creative. Innovation is extremely critical. And it is innovation and creativity in every aspect of business, not necessarily all “big-bang”, but innovation that is also incremental every day and ongoing. You have to strive to be better tomorrow than today, and that itself drives progress and results.

Heidrick & Struggles: You’ve worked with some of the world’s largest, most respected companies—Unilever, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, these are iconic brands that almost everyone has used, that have touched their lives. And now you’ve gone to a company, Tata Consumer Products, that also is going to touch consumers in almost every aspect of their lives. What would your advice be to aspiring leaders who want to succeed in large global companies? What have you learned and what does it take to succeed in those sorts of companies?

Sunil D’Souza: I have seen some common themes in the Western multinationals I worked for: enhanced professionalism, high ethics, a focus on the big picture, getting the execution pieces right, diversity, and a commitment to the future. And to succeed in these corporations, you have to figure out how you can add value. If you can't, then you seldom have a reason to exist in those companies.

The work environment in the Tata group is similar to Western multinationals when it comes to ethics or professionalism. However, there is not as much bureaucracy that exists in large global corporations, which slows down decision making significantly. In fact, here, I get the best of both worlds. I get the advantage of the professionalism and ethics of a Western corporation, and the hunger and the speed of decision making of an entrepreneurial Indian company.

But to succeed, whether it is in the Western multinationals or large Indian conglomerates, ultimately, it’s about adding value and making a difference. You have to bring all the analytical skills to get big picture correct, get a few good people on your side, focus on execution and stay hungry constantly for profitable growth.

But I would also add a rider for aspiring leaders to succeed in any of the environments that I mentioned. Remember that your career is a marathon and not a sprint, and therefore patience while building out your career is very important. In the initial phases of your career, putting your head down and learning as much as you can is extremely important, and it is that learning and experience then pays you back in the later stages.

Heidrick & Struggles: The Tata group is almost synonymous with India and is driven by values that are intrinsically Indian. As you manage a global business, are there elements or values that an Asian leader specifically can bring to a large global business?

Sunil D’Souza: At the Tata group, we are focused on making sure that while we do business, we are good—if not the best—corporate citizens around. During the pandemic, we helped ramp up hospital facilities, medical supplies and infrastructure around the country and collaborated closely with various state governments to help them tackle the pandemic. We opened up our systems and infrastructure to support people who needed help. It was not about how much we were spending, but about doing the right thing when people around us needed it most.

Similarly in business on a daily basis, when you make decisions in the Group, it’s not only about the results but about achieving the results in the right way. You also have to be fair, not necessarily nice, but always fair.

In terms of how Asian leaders can add value to large global businesses, I would say firstly most Asians managers over-index on data and therefore should focus on data-based decision making. That brings you some clear issues to solve, with crisp analysis to help support your decisions.

Second, because of the way most Asian companies are structured, we are not bound to alignment as most multinationals are, having to manoeuvre a number of decisions that need to come together and manage a wide set of stakeholders. So, we save all that time and effort and are able to go to market faster than multinationals. So especially in situations where Asian leaders are in positions to make decisions on organization structures, they should focus on simplifying structures to enable faster and better execution.

Risk taking is inherently higher in Asian cultures, because our markets are dynamic. If you get it right, the reward is big. However if it’s wrong, you close shop very quickly and go on to something else. Therefore flexibility in business models is essential in Asia. In this part of the world, if you're not running as fast as the treadmill, you'll get thrown off. Bringing in the perspective that the right level of risk taking can lead to disproportionate rewards is another possible contribution from Asian leaders.

Heidrick & Struggles: How easy is it for an Asian leader who has never had the benefit of your kind of experience, has always worked with a respected Asian company, to make that transition to global leadership? What would your views and thoughts and maybe even advice be to some of them?

Sunil D’Souza: I think it is probably easier for Asian leaders working in Asian companies to move into multinationals than it is for those working in multinationals to make the move into local organizations, because a lot of the leadership, cultures, and styles are different. The Tata group is slightly different because it’s culturally closer to the professionalism and ethics of multinationals and has the speed and movement of an entrepreneurial Asian culture.

In general, Asian leaders will go into multinationals with a lot of strength and the ability to handle complexity, and with a very keen eye for detail, execution, and analytics. However, in a large multinational there always a strong preference for process, structure, and hierarchy. For Asian leaders operating in Asian companies which are very fluid in terms of structure and business models and very entrepreneurial in their approach, risk-taking is different. Once you have the board’s buy in, you just move with speed. In a multinational however, you have to carry the entire bureaucracy and the global leadership structure. So your ability to paint and communicate the right picture vividly, convince all stakeholders, and carry them along with you in a very patient manner is one key differentiator when leading in a multinational. An Asian leader who wants to succeed in a large multinational has to learn these capabilities.

It is also about understanding different cultures, because many Asian companies might not have a heterogeneous cultural population, may not have interacted with different cultures. However in the context of large multinational corporations, every country and culture is different. Even within western cultures the way the Europeans approach business is slightly longer term and lower risk, whereas Americans take a slightly shorter term but higher risk approach. There are significant other nuances. So learning about those nuances of all of these cultures in a heterogenous multinational from a consumer and team perspective and adapting quickly to these nuances becomes an imperative to succeed.

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