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Emerging Leaders: Cracking the leadership code with What Clicks’ Rahul Vengalil

‘Emerging Leaders’ is Adgully’s newest Exclusive feature in collaboration with Republic TV that highlights the achievements of young turks in the industry who are changing the game in their organisations or who have ventured out on their own and creating a niche for themselves. We believe that these rising stars are to watch out for and their views and way of working will encourage more leaders-in-the-waiting to take charge. 

Rahul Vengalil, Founder & CEO, What Clicks, started his career as an entrepreneur back in 2006, as part of a gang of friends who introduced a lifestyle tabloid in the emerging markets of Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. The tabloid was created keeping in mind the aspirations of the urban IT crowd, who wanted to experience the various nuances of life with special focus on the happenings in the city of residence. 

When Vengalil realised that the content and the format was much ahead of time, he moved to Bangalore in 2008 and joined DNA newspaper to handle ad sales. 

Taking a leap of faith in 2010, he switched gears and moved to digital marketing with Interactive Avenues, where he learnt the basics of digital marketing. Vengalil had the opportunity to work with some of the leading brands like Tanishq, Xylus, Toyota, Myntra, Britannia, and Carat Lane, to name a few. In 2011, he was entrusted with the responsibility of setting up Isobar, a Dentsu Aegis Network company, in Bangalore. In a span of 5 years, Isobar grew from a single person agency to 50 employees by December 2016. At Isobar, Vengalil worked with Air Asia, Myntra Fashion Brands, Wrangler, Sterling Holidays, Sun Network, Sonata Watches, Flipkart Ads, 3M India, Acer, and TTK, among others. 

Vengalil quit Isobar to set up What Clicks in January 2017. What Clicks helps brands and agencies alike to manoeuvre through the intricacies of digital media marketing and improve efficiency and effectiveness by driving awareness about ad fraud, viewability, security, campaign optimisation, etc. 

How do you spot an emerging leader? What are the key attributes that they possess?
Different people identify with different styles of leadership. They can be the imaginative type, the conscientious type, the communicative/ people-led type, and so on. While there is absolutely no right type of leadership, I believe that one must be well balanced and display some qualities across the spectrum. What I look for are typically are:

  • Honesty
  • Ability to communicate well with people
  • Agility

What are the ways in which organisations can develop and expand the leadership capacity of rising leaders?
I was lucky to be part of an organisation that stressed on developing future leaders. There were many programmes that I was part of and what I learnt from these are:

  • Life will throw many challenges at you and we will have to face failures multiple times. This could make leaders averse to risk. It is important to find ways to bounce back. 
  • Working as a team will be challenging. Different people tend to respond to different cues. I learnt to give it time and adapt to the team dynamics.
  • It is important to bring in resilience to your mind and spirit as we are bound to make mistakes, leading to failure. It is how we bounce back to fight another day that matters.

Programmes that help with these are good for the organisation. The challenge though is that it doesn’t happen in one go. There needs to be a continuous development programme that helps you understand these and also tracks the progress that you have made.  

What does it take for employees to become agents of change in their organisations?
The only time when this will happen is when the employees identify with the goal of the organisations and feel that a large part of their personal goal overlaps with that of the organisations’. In other words, the leaders need to identify, create and articulate a path of personal growth for the employees, which impacts the business positively.  

In what ways can emerging leaders be groomed to develop strong soft skills and emotional intelligence?
The single most important course for the person would be to gain the experience that others have had by reading about it. There are thousands of books available which have documented real life challenges and actions. The challenge that I find with changing times is that the aptitude of these emerging leaders towards books have gone down drastically. In such a scenario, it is important that the organisation is able to find alternative ways where the knowledge can be passed on. This is the starting point of developing soft skill and EQ.  

The second aspect is to encourage these leaders to implement the learning in a small way to test and find out what is working for them in the current role and then polish it better. This is also an opportunity to fail and learn fast and adapt to the circumstances.  

I still remember one of my team mates asking me few years back “After reading all this, how do you know what works for you?” The only response I had is ‘I try it out and understand what works and that becomes my guiding principle”. While knowledge gives the base, implementing it and course correcting it helps you in creating your own framework.  

How can organisations structure a successful mentoring or coaching relationship?
Communication is the key. Forget the programmes and sessions and coaching. What is needed is for the leader of the organisation to be able to communicate with everyone in the organisation on a regular basis, as a leader, as a colleague, as a friend. And when I say regular, I am talking about a weekly affair. It can be a casual affair after hours, or it can be during the lunch breaks, but it is important that a two-way communication happens regularly. That is the basis of any mentoring/ coaching. Mind you, this is going to be a costly affair as it would mean about an hour from everyone each week. I have tried putting this into practice in both previous organisation and current organisation, and found varying levels of success.  

Who do you look up to as a guru/ mentor who inspired you to take the leadership plunge?
There are two people actually – Ashish Bhasin and Shamsuddin Jasani. One single lesson that I would want to take on from Ashish Bhasin is the importance of communicating the same message again and again and again. A large number of organisations fail in this and that’s the reason why teams tend to work in silos. 

From Shamsuddin Jasani I have learnt to push the envelope and also that it’s okay to fail – what’s important is getting up to fight another day.  

Emerging leaders want opportunities to lead others and practice managing key initiatives. How is your organisation providing these opportunities?
As a small organisation, the opportunities that we have in addressing this are smaller compared to what I had in my previous organisation. At the stage that we are in, we have identified Knowledge as a key peg for growth of the individuals and our focus has been on that so far. We address this in two ways – individuals are encouraged to share articles with the team along with a summary wherever possible. This is done in an ad-hoc manner as well as on a weekly basis. Another practice that we have started in this is to share summary of books that I am reading on leadership/ personal development with the larger team.  

We also initiated a weekly session on sharing experiences of the week with each other. While we started this with full gusto a few months back, we have not been 100 per cent committed to this. The idea is to go beyond just technical knowledge, but also other aspects of professional life.  

I believe that we should soon have a self assessment plan to understand where we stand as a team and individual, identify the areas to be addressed and create an action plan for the same.  

What are the key differences that you see in the leadership grooming practices in large corporate vis-à-vis small companies with a flatter structure?
I was once part of a large organisation, which had a structured programme for nurturing leadership. Today, I run a start-up with flat structure. As a start-up, our focus is to keep the company running with available resources. This is also an opportunity for everyone in the team to push themselves, find new solutions, fail and learn from the mistakes. This will push agility a lot.  

How do you think India is placed when it comes to grooming the next rung of leaders?
Most of us associate leaders with ‘boss’. So, when we identify young leaders and make them responsible, it tends to get to their head and they start acting like bosses. This works out to be counter-productive.  

I was inspired by Ashish Bhasin’s view, “Aim to create an organisation filled with Giants”. While I agree with this statement 100 per cent, I believe that existing leaders in many organisations feel that hiring giants will make their role redundant. Because of this, we fare badly in identifying and nurturing young leaders.  

This is my personal view, after having interacted and worked with many brands. 

What are the best ways to tackle professional jealousy that might arise, especially when a younger, high potential employee is superseding employees who have been serving the organisation for a longer time?
There is no single way to handle this. In fact, these are challenges that I have faced in my career as well. The first requirement is for the organisation to communicate to every employee that meritocracy is the key. Talent takes people forward, and the right attitude helps them stay ahead. If this message is set in, then half the work is done. The other activities that can support the cause are:

  • The leader of the organisation should instil the confidence in the team that they are still there for all the support and encouragement. They should never close down the direct line of communication with the team, even if an emerging leader takes over, at any cost. This, in my opinion, is the very important, as this creates a sense of security among the employees. 
  • The emerging leader who is going to take over should be encouraged to create their own framework on adapting to their team and give all the support they would need to improve on that.

Read more: Ad land’s Young Guns: Shreya Natasha Shah, FCB Ulka 

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