Think at London Business School
Alison Cox, SEP alumna and Executive Director of Engineering & Technical Services at Sir Robert McAlpine, on leadership in challenging times
By Sophie Haydock
Gautam Gangoli SLN2019 is humble and friendly – disarming qualities for a shrewd business operator. He has held senior roles in the cutthroat worlds of general management, commercial and marketing, product management and advertising in some of the world’s biggest beverages companies, including United Spirits (now part of Diageo India) and Bacardi, which owns more than 200 spirits brands, including Dewar’s whisky, Bombay Sapphire gin and its signature white rum.
In each of those roles, he revived an underperforming business, refreshed a brand and grew the top-line as well as the bottom-line by millions of dollars a year. Yet Gangoli, now Chief Operating Officer at the non-profit Narrative 4, remains modest about his business achievements.
“I’ve always viewed my career as an opportunity to learn and grow. Once I’d exhausted the challenge of one role, I was lucky enough to find the next big thing that I could profitably scale up,” he says.
Gangoli, who has a Bachelor of Science degree and an MBA from Mumbai University, is learning again now in a completely new role, in a completely new sector. He is working for a non-profit organisation that aims to develop compassion and empathy in teenagers and young adults to improve their lives and those of their communities and reintroduce diplomacy and listening skills.
“I’ve always viewed my career as an opportunity to learn and grow”
“This is really big,” says Gangoli. “This role is the challenge of my lifetime – and what N4 was set up to fix. That’s the challenge of this age: to address the growing disconnect and lack of understanding in the world and rekindle in people the compassion for those who are different from them. Right now, the walls are getting higher and harder between those with differing views and outlook.”
“This polarisation is a scary trend, which has infiltrated into our society along economic, cultural and political lines, compounded by social media, making it easier to sow division. To be able to extend a hand to people we don’t agree with – to say, ‘I think differently, but I want to understand how you feel and overcome our differences to work together for our mutual benefit’ – that’s the challenge of the 21st century.
“As life becomes more digital, it’s all the more important to foster connections and build compassion like we build muscle, to maintain our humanity.”
Narrative 4 (N4) is a non-profit organisation launched by Lisa Consiglio (and N4 CEO) and award winning Irish novelist Colum McCann (and N4 Chairman) that aims to create compassionate and caring future leaders through the power of storytelling, creative writing and visual arts delivered in the form of educational resources in schools.
Mumbai-born Gangoli explains: “The core methodology of N4 is the story exchange. N4 ambassadors train teachers in schools and community groups. In a story exchange, individuals are paired together and participants share a story that in some way defines them. Afterwards, participants are responsible for telling their partner’s story in the first person. This exchange of personal narratives helps them see the world and themselves more empathetically. One of our powerful story exchange sessions in the US involved the parents of the children lost in the Sandy Hook shooting and pro-gun campaigners who listened to each others’ stories. You could actually see the empathy and understanding developing in the room.”
“It’s not about changing minds; it’s about really listening and understanding why someone may hold the perspectives they do. Sharing personal stories helps to broaden perspectives for people who hold opposing views – whether that be on religion, politics, diversity or other aspects of identity - and it enables true understanding and the deepening of connections between people and communities who on the surface may have nothing in common”.
“This then can open people’s eyes to different ways to think about problems, which they will hopefully build on to become empathetic global leaders and citizens one day.”
Gangoli was introduced to Narrative 4 through London Business School’s Career Centre, while studying the Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy programme. “I must be honest: before Sloan, I hadn’t considered working for a non-profit. But I did know that I was looking for a fresh challenge – something meaningful and impactful”.
“What could be more meaningful than being tasked to exponentially grow an initiative that has the power to create tangible change for future progress of society?”
In his pre-Sloan career, Gangoli excelled at scaling businesses. As Sales and Marketing Director and then as Country Manager at Bacardi Thailand he turned around a flagging business, which was losing money and turned it into a profitable business by the time he was promoted to Interim MD, Bacardi China to achieve similar results in a larger and more challenging market.
“The China assignment was the most challenging one where we tripled our top line and turned the business into a profitable entity in less than 4 years. There are two principles that helped me take on this challenge. One, my belief in the principle that if you take care of people, the business takes care of itself and the second, to pursue competency building rather than chasing success. That’s one of the reasons I joined Sloan.”
“The Sloan changed my whole perspective on how I see myself and what I am capable of doing”
“The Sloan made me recognise my unique strengths that enabled me to pull off an achievement like that. It gave me a new way of looking at my skillset, which changed my whole perspective on how I see myself and what I am capable of. Through my interactions with faculty, career coaches and peers, I had an epiphany that scaling up businesses is my true calling,” Gangoli reflects.
This is what he was urgently looking for before he discovered the Sloan programme: a period of self-reflection to calibrate on his experiences and be exposed to new worlds which he hoped would point him in an exciting new direction.
He says: “I needed to know how I stacked up against other high-performing executives. What unique and core skills did I have that could be of value to the world? Should I find a bigger organisation or a bigger role? Or should I start my own business? It was these big soul-searching questions that I had as I started the Sloan in January 2019 – and it has been nothing short of game-changing for my life.”
Narrative 4 was operations in the East Coast of United States and Ireland when Gangoli joined the organisation. Those were the home locations of its founders. Since taking on the new position of Chief Operating Officer, he has launched the social impact initiative in schools in six regions across the US and taken it into South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria. N4 donors include the Bezos Family Foundation, Stand Together Foundation and Moriah Foundation to name a few.
“N4 is now evolving into a holistic edtech organisation with educational material created by N4 author and educator network to cultivate unbiased attention, suspend judgement and inspire introspection in students. The curriculum is developed to support teachers in linking the big, timeless human themes in high school textbooks, like To Kill A Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby to the big issues of today, like racism and social injustice. In many countries, the school curriculum has been designed with the assumption that all teachers are knowledgeable about the history of the slave trade and are able to teach their students about racism, diversity and cultural capital in an appropriate, respectful and knowledgeable way. But this is just not the case.”
“We are hoping to close this gap with our content by establishing long-term learning relationships with teachers and students. In time, we hope we can be that bridge and offer that framework so that they are able to discuss and debate sensitive topics and work through strong emotions in a safe space.”
“Our plan is to accelerate our global expansion. However, it’s not a linear approach and growth won’t be systematic. A successful launch in a country will depend on the ambassadors we find to partner with as well as the schools and community groups who agree to take part in our programmes. This year, one of our priorities is to launch in the UK and embed it into the curriculum as part of the Government’s wellbeing and mental health support agenda.”
Under Gangoli’s stewardship, against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, N4 launched a number of other initiatives to help key partner communities in urgent financial need. This included a campaign in the Joe Slovo Township in Port Elizabeth, South Africa called “Trash to Treasure” in which recyclable rubbish can be exchanged for grocery coupons. Another “Empathy-into-Action” campaign last year included a partnership with charity Tomorrow’s Youth Organization to help seriously-at-risk families in the West Bank of Palestine to help raise money for urgent food, medical and hygiene supplies.
“The whole point of N4 is to build civic engagement; through storytelling, through the school curriculum; through community outreach,” Gangoli explains. “I can finally see the value of my skills and experiences in scaling up – helping to rebuild the foundations of communities, opening up people’s minds to new ways of thinking about differences and shattering stereotypes so that people from varied backgrounds can more clearly see what unites them, rather than what divides them. Our vision is for N4 programmes to reach every school in the world. This excites me more than anything I’ve done before.”