Lord Karan Bilimoria is the Founder of Cobra Beer, one of the most award-winning beers in the world, Founding Chairman of the UK India Business Council, a Deputy Lieutenant of Greater London and a former Chancellor of Thames Valley University, and he was the youngest University Chancellor in the UK.
As part of our series of interviews showcasing the guest speakers for Leaders’ second high-impact leadership conference next month, Phil Eyre spoke to Lord Bilimoria about his view of ‘horizon thinking’, coping in a crisis and the importance of measuring success.
How would you define leadership?
Leaders need a very clear vision of exactly where they want their business to go and what the future looks like. They then need the ability to deliver that vision very clearly to their team, inspiring them to buy into it and helping to execute it.
The key here is not telling your team what to do, but getting them inspired to go on that journey with you.
In the early days of building a business, when everything is on a smaller scale, how do you get people to supply or buy into what you do when you have no credibility? If you have the passion and faith in your product, business and yourself, that will give people the confidence and faith to trust in you.
The same applies to people; if you are passionate and committed, they can see that and it becomes infectious. People will want to join you on that journey.
Do you find many leaders with those traits, or are they hard to find?
There is no one typical profile of a leader; leaders are very different in every way, but the one thing that a good leader always is, is authentic.
That authenticity has to come through, if not, people won’t follow you or trust you. That authenticity means being transparent and possessing visible flaws as people appreciate that more.
If you are an authentic leader, even with faults you will be a better leader than those who are artificial.
How has this been tested in your experience?
The test of a good leader is how they cope in the tough times - how does a leader deal with a crisis? If you are an authentic leader, it will shine through.
Good leaders are very true to their values and will always behave with integrity. That is crucial when things are tough, those who lack integrity will lose their principles and take short cuts.
I have got through my tough times by using my integrity. When you are under fire you will be truly tested.
How do leaders train themselves for those under-fire moments?
How you behave on a day-to-day basis and the whole tone of your organisation is set by the leader.
They understand that the daily decisions they make can’t be compromised on. That benchmark will spread through the whole organisation so people will know and understand things about zero tolerance and the dangers of corruption.
You never compromise on principles. It’s better to fail doing the right thing than succeed doing the wrong thing.
Who would you call an inspirational leader and why?
I was very lucky - my own father was in the Indian army and I was able to watch him as a leader on his journey to becoming the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Central Army Command of the Indian Army. To observe that leadership style and learn from it first hand was a true privilege.
For example, the first lesson he ever gave me at EY, my first job, was that whenever you are asked to do something, do a little bit more; take the initiative, be creative, it’s one of the best lessons I ever learned.
He also taught me that there was no point in having an efficient team - it’s important to have a happy and efficient team.
He also taught me to delegate and praise publicly, in front of other people. He was the sort of leader people remember for the conversations they had with him that inspired them to this day. He truly had a long-term impact.
Can you share an example of ‘horizon thinking’ from your career?
My maternal great-grandfather was a member of the House of Lords in India. He nearly lost his business but was a great public servant. He was known to be a man of great foresight who understood how important it is to continually think at least five years ahead.
Before the first shipment of Cobra was shipped, I had prepared a month-by-month forecast for five years before I had even bottled a single beer. You have to make those long-term targets, but break them down into short-term ones.
This links into having a mission; have something you could always measure. By producing the finest Indian beer and making it a global beer brand - we can measure its success - we’ve won medals to prove it.
Although it’s brewed in Belgium and Holland and delivered to 40 countries across the world, it still isn’t entirely global so I can measure my progress against that mission.
What do you believe is the greatest barrier to that kind of long-term thinking?
In the listed world, it’s the quarterly reporting and the constant pressure from analysts that is a barrier. In the political world, everyone looks at the next election, it’s very limited and that can mean sacrificing the long term for the short term.
If you have a turnaround situation, you have to commit to it for a long time, it’s a committed effort and sustained approach.
Lord Bilimoria will be speaking at our Leadership Conference on Thursday 20 June.
This year’s panel of speakers will draw upon their diverse experiences to challenge leadership thinking and stimulate discussions around the theme of ‘horizon thinking’.
For more information and to reserve a ticket click here.