Salil Murthy

Country Head, General Mills India

When Curiosity Sprinted to Take a Shot at Life!
by Sunayana Nair
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It was quarter past 5 in the evening when our team reached the residence of Salil Murthy, known to most as Country Head of General Mills India. As we rang the doorbell of the 29th storey apartment, set in the plush neighbourhood of Powai, Mumbai, anticipating to be ushered in by an aide, a beaming Salil opened the door, politely welcoming us in. In retrospect, that first moment of meeting provides an instant glimpse of the essence of Salil, which unravelled itself consistently during the remainder of the interaction. A zesty, committed and sincere leader thriving on an innate sense of curiosity, seeking possibilities while simultaneously setting and achieving high aims by placing his people higher.

“Figure out your definition of success but put in the work to make it happen.”

Salil was recently adjudged as among the best 40 business leaders in India under 40 (years) by Fortune India magazine. A remarkable achievement, considering it is only about four years since Salil returned to India from Singapore to head the Marketing division of General Mills India. A move, which was partly triggered by the desire to enable his son, Vihaan, get in touch with his roots and which proved to be a key turning point for Salil. In 2017, Salil was entrusted with heading the Indian arm of General Mills and with it, its 500 people, towards whom he admittedly feels the most accountable. His leadership style of empowering people to achieve the high goals set, by giving them enough freedom to go about it their way, is in-line with his upbringing in Chennai by dedicated parents who gave him and his brother ample freedom to pursue what they wanted to, while ensuring they did it to the best of their ability.

“At the end of the day, I don’t do much. My job is to take care of the people I work with and ensure they have three things. First, they believe they have an impact, second, they are learning something and third, they feel like they are having fun. That’s when you get great ideas, since people are willing to go that extra mile. That’s when profits come in. Jim Barksdale of Netscape had said,‘You got to put people, products, profits in that order’ and I genuinely agree.”

Salil Murthy with team

Salil with his team at General Mills

And have the profits rolled in! Within three years of Salil joining General Mills India, the growth rate of the company tripled. And yet, refreshingly, Salil’s remarkably rapid ascension to the top of the corporate pyramid, isn’t his only notable achievement. Salil is an avid runner and a passionate golfer. In 2016, Salil won the Turkish Airlines World Golf Cup for Bombay and represented India at the World Amateur Finals in Turkey. Apart from having participated in 10 marathons including three Abbot World Majors, so far across the globe, Salil has also won a couple of golf tournaments in Singapore, where he was for a little over a decade before he moved to India. Salil described that decade as the first major milestone of his journey, wherein, he had embarked on the roles that define him so clearly today of a husband, a father, a leader at work, a runner and a golfer.

“Finding your life’s purpose is overvalued. There is no grand overarching purpose that needs to be figured; it is the process that is the most important part. Some of the most successful people in the world whom I know, still don’t know what to do with their lives! I think what is important, is to figure what is it that you love doing, what you are good at, what you are passionate about. And the way to get there is to keep being curious. Continue to go down the rabbit holes, and find out where they lead, explore the edges and interstices and you will find your way out.”

Salil Murthy at Marathon

Salil after the New York Marathon

Salil Murthy - Fortune India Event

Salil being felicitated by Fortune India

“I look at success differently now, than I used to earlier. At work, it is how I can build the organisation, how can I get the people who work for me become successful in their careers. That is more important for me than any specific personal achievement.”

Salil attributes his biggest achievement to the one decision that had the biggest impact on his life – marrying his college sweetheart, Bharathi, fifteen years ago. It was the move to Singapore with his newly-wedded wife that augured the christening of a myriad of different perspectives. Apart from rising to the position of Associate Marketing Director in Procter & Gamble, Singapore, within 8 years of commencing his role as an Assistant Brand Manager at the MNC, Salil had also begun running and playing golf. Salil took to running around eleven years ago for the most ‘mundane reason’ of losing weight and getting fit. From collapsing on the treadmill after clocking just a kilometre to running marathons around the world, backed by his competitive spirit, he went on to surprise more than a couple of people around him (including himself) with his feisty flight.

“Running a marathon is the ultimate test of mental and physical doggedness - when your body and mind are ready to give up. I learned how to push myself when I thought I couldn’t go ahead and how to play little tricks in my mind to get through the next kilometre and the next hill.”

Running his first marathon was ‘strenuous’ and also revelatory for Salil which taught him to push his limits. The journey was entirely self-driven as he coached himself by listening to and understanding his body and strengthening his mind, wiser with every race he ran. He carved out his own dietary regime on a trial-error basis until he figured out strategies to tackle that sudden energy deficit or cramp that would seem to creep in from nowhere. Salil admits that every run is different and that even now, no run is a cake walk.

“Every single marathon, at the 32nd kilometre, I think to myself, I am such an idiot why am I doing this?! I am never going to run another marathon in my life! And then, the minute the marathon is over, I am saying, okay, what’s the next race I can run? Every runner is like that. It is hard while you are doing it.”

Perhaps, it is here, that playing golf ‘well’ with his buddies across the globe gives him much joy to unwind, though, he humouredly admits to have a love-hate relationship with both running and golf, swapping the ‘favourite’ tag depending on what is giving him less pain or more joy at that moment! Salil discovered golf with his friends in Singapore, assuming it would be an easy game to play. The first fourteen shots at the golf course, with the ball untouched, made them realise how wrong they were. But, what began as hitting a grounder a decade ago, soon, became a joy for Salil that now comes close only to him spending time with his family. His passion for the game is evident when Salil divulges that every now and then, he flirts with the idea of taking a break from work to practice competing at professional golf tournaments, but, ‘sanity kicks in’ eventually and he concedes to the current, twice-a-month, golf routine.

“It is unlikely that every cricket fan can go and play at Lords where only a Sachin Tendulkar can play. But, pretty much every golfer can go and play on the great courses of the world. Pretty much every amateur golfer can hit a shot that a professional can only dream of hitting. That is the beauty of the game. Every now and then, there are these moments of perfection that make it worthwhile.”

Salil Murthy Turkish Airlines Golf Cup

Salil at World Amateur Finals

As any passion begets an introspection of what ails the one bitten by its bug, Salil accedes to striking similarities between playing golf and running, in that, it has much to do with mental fortitude than physical prowess. His love for both the sports stems from his philosophy of pitting Salil against Salil rather than getting a thrill of leaving someone else behind. It is only persistence and discipline that failed to deter Salil from running even when he was traveling or was not feeling well or even when the weather wasn’t conducive (he hates running in the rain). Even the basic decision to pursue the sport or acquiring a healthy habit stemmed from ‘just showing up’, consistently.

“It is more of a mental than physical game. It is about keeping your nerve. It is not how far you drive the ball, it is the six inches between your ears that matter. Likewise, the last ten kilometres when running a marathon, is more of a mental game than of physical endurance.”

One can but wonder the arduous rigour with which a life ought to be lead, to pursue several aspects of it so diligently. To have attained that elusive work-life balance is in itself a massive achievement. Salil, however, simply boils it down to getting clarity about what one likes to do, is good at doing and what gives one satisfaction. He believes that once such clarity is achieved, the discipline to prioritise and therefore, micromanage tasks at hand is likely to flow in accordingly. Even though Salil applied this simple and diligent approach with the intent of only ‘achieving certain local maxima’, he amazed himself at the way it magically led him to constantly reinvent his own potential, without planning or obsessing over any particular outcome.

“I don’t think there is ever a secret formula or that there should be one, to success. A person who inspired me tremendously, John Pepper who was CEO of P&G many years ago, once said, ‘Life is funny. It is full of the little dots and somehow, at the end, they all connect.’ We spend too much time trying to figure out the dots, they connect by themselves.”

Every leader leads by example. We aren’t surprised when Salil shares the importance of having a positive work culture that promotes bringing one’s most ‘authentic self’ to work, the tone for which, Salil ascertains, is set at the top. At General Mills India, employees are constantly encouraged to participate in marathons and a number of sporting events. They are also given to understand that their personal time is important and hence each one of them is empowered to achieve their goals flexibly.

“The first step is that people recognise that their personal time is important as well. When we can bring our authentic selves to life, that is critical work life balance. The underlying assumption is work is different and life is different. But, if I can bring my whole authentic self to work and life, then it begins to fade away a little bit. At work, it’s ok for me to goof off a little bit some days which sends the message to the organisation it is okay for them too, and it is, indeed.”

With wife Bharathi and son - Vihaan

With wife Bharathi & son – Vihaan

As a parting shot, we probed Salil on what he was committed to keeping alive within him. “Sense of curiosity,” he quipped. A critical dimension of success for him includes primarily, among other things, to preserve the curiosity that he sees in his seven-year-old son, Vihaan. It seems to be a hereditary affliction, considering Salil described himself as ‘super-curious’ when young – inquisitive enough to read the once-revered collection of World Book Encyclopaedias (which he has safeguarded in his library now) ‘cover to cover’, whilst also taking up quizzing in school! Quizzing remains an old love that Salil confessed he would love to revisit sometime, apart from finding more time for his newfound love for teaching business and communications strategy to eager young minds at a couple of management colleges in the city.

“They say that in a beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in an expert’s mind there are few.”

It is the ‘possibilities of reinventing the future’ with his team that makes Salil look forward to the next day, which we believe weaves in seamlessly with why he thinks golf is so challenging.

“People think playing golf is easy because the ball is just lying there, right. In other sports, the ball is in midst of some kind of action always; it is being hurled at you or is being diverted away from you... But then, in golf, it is just you, the ball and the course. The onus lies with you and it is only you who can give it that thrust.”

Much like his role as a leader, we believe, wherein what a leader makes of his position and how he propels his vision – seeking and sifting through various possibilities – sets the tone for his success along with that of his team and the organisation. What was it, but the seeking of possibilities, that led Salil to lead the diversification of the product portfolio of General Mills, entering the snacks market from only being a flour-maker, or, when he decided to relocate to Singapore, and then, back to India, or, when he decided to challenge his own physical and mental limitations, adopting with such reverence, the two sports that now define him. In each of these instances, we see Salil as an astute pursuer of possibilities, a curious pied piper, if you will! And we genuinely wish countless possibilities seek him as much as he sprints to hunt them down!

Follow Salil on Twitter. You can also listen to podcast or watch the video of the entire conversation with Salil Murthy on his journey so far.

CXOFUNFACTS with

Favourite colour

Blue

Birthday

April 18th

Favourite cuisine

Thai street food

Favourite brands

Zara & Adidas

Favourite comfort food

Biryani

Favourite holiday destination

Australia

One thing he always carries

A Pen

Favourite city to run

Sydney

Dream lunch date

Charlie Munger

Recommended books

How Not To Be Wrong & Poor Charlie’s Almanac

A business leader he admires

Elon Musk

A superstition he follows

Prefers getting out of the left side of the bed before marathons

Favourite eating joint

Bombay Canteen

Favourite golfer

Tiger Woods

Best gift ever received

Salil’s portrait drawn by son Vihaan

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