Cover Story of Smart CEO magazine (December issue) by Divya M. Chandramouli

Chief Belief Officer. The sort of designation that makes you stop and wonder, for the sort of man who makes you pause and think. For someone who prides herself in taking the most pragmatic approach to life, my one-hour interview with Devdutt Pattanaik had me re-examining my life-skills that I held sacred.

When I walked past his cabin at Future Group (FG) for our meeting, he was deep in a conversation with a 20-something member from his team, passionately conveying his ideas to her. She was as engaged as he was in the conversation and there was no indication of an organisational hierarchy in the room. It took me by surprise that he could put across his principles that draw inspiration from ancient Indian mythology with such ease to today’s generation. When Pattanaik spoke about the importance of knowing one’s audience to establish a connect with them, I realised the connect he could make with his 20-something employee was simple because of his ability to talk to them, in their own language. And that led me to the answer to the question I came in asking –  is the gen-next truly willing to listen and more importantly, absorb all that he has to say? Quite simply, yes. By speaking the language of his audience, Pattanaik has often demystified India, her culture, her principles to young Indians in his team and elsewhere by making them stop, think and question.

Stepping out-of-the-box

A typical day at the office could mean just interacting with his colleagues, for Pattanaik’s job follows no set description. “I have no KPI (key performance indicators); I have been given the freedom to discuss and share my ideas with the leadership team at FG and anyone else,” he says. When prodded further on what it is that he does, he asks, “Why is that people never question what CEO (chief executive officer) stands for? CEO is not a natural phenomenon, it is a cultural construction, yet, nobody thinks of it that way.” He elaborates by saying that when founder-chief executive, Kishore Biyani, extended him an invitation to join FG, he asked Pattanaik for his choice of designation. “I told him that it was all about belief, so why not Chief Belief Officer (CBO)?” he remarks. And thus began the CBO’s journey at FG.

Till then, Pattanaik’s career had resembled that of an aspiring professional. After completing an undergraduate degree in medicine, he opted out of specialisation in surgery to pursue medical marketing and communication. This move led Pattanaik to build a career in the pharmaceutical industry, first as an independent vendor following which he was instrumental in establishing a website ( that became a success. It was here that he discovered his ability to manage a team effectively and this experience led to many others in the industry. In the years that followed, Pattanaik had several opportunities to understand power and leadership, from close quarters. And he felt that as a result of the power struggle, there was a gap between what was thought, said and done.

While his career graph grew, Pattanaik had simultaneously delved deep into the world of Indian mythology. “Because I did not come from an academic space, both in the corporate world and the mythological world, I questioned fundamentals,” says Pattanaik. This inquisitive approach extended to everything he was involved in. While discussing mythology with others, Pattanaik observed that there were heated arguments about perceived ideas as opposed to facts and it was much the same when it came to ideas a corporation paid attention to. As he says, “The concept of a brand is as intangible as the concept of Rama (Hindu God). People fight over what they believe to be right, often ignoring the facts.”

A few months before he met Biyani, Pattanaik, who was then a consultant with Ernst & Young, observed that most people followed a set template and were unwilling to listen to another person’s point of view. And this, according to him, was one of the prime barriers to growth in any organisation. This is when Pattanaik began penning columns which made him popular amongst advertising professionals. They sought his help to decode advertisements to help understand subliminal messages within advertising. He narrates, “They would ask me to talk about the advertisement and I would share with them all that I could perceive.” Again, it was his derivations from Indian mythology that the advertisement-makers found most useful.

His tryst with the advertising world led to a chance meeting with Biyani. This meeting of two minds, (both believed that corporate world had a lot to learn from mythology), led to Pattanaik being offered a job which he turned down, but, instead, he took up a role of a consultant. “For about six months, I worked in a consulting capacity, sitting in on meetings, interacting with people, sharing my ideas with the people at FG and was privy to conversations on subjects such as sociology, anthropology, metaphysics, mythology and more, to a degree of sophistication that I had not seen before. This made me realise that this is where I should be,” he adds.

Business in India

“The fundamental premise is this; to do business in India, you have to think Indian,” says Pattanaik. “Today, everything from our education system to accounting practices and even our legal methodologies follows templates set by the West. We must realise that we are different.” And adapting to this difference in terms of business is to turn to customisation. “We are under the assumption that we are modern and Kishoreji (Biyani) intuitively knew that this was the problem,” emphasises Pattanaik. He elaborates by saying that Biyani recognised that to set up a successful retail business in India, he needed to meet the variables that were his customer’s needs. “The West was coming from the concept of efficiency leading to effectiveness, but, in India, we are highly inefficient and effectiveness here demands customisation,” says Pattanaik while explaining how a young Indian’s definition of being modern is nothing but Western thoughts in a Trojan horse. What leads one to understand this is the understanding of Indian mythology. “If you understand mythology, you can decode everything very easily. While the West accepts one notion, it rejects another making it exclusive whereas we have always been inclusive and this allows us to understand mythology better than most,” he says.

And decoding is part and parcel of Pattanaik’s job at FG. “Kishoreji asks me to sit in on meetings and shake open people’s minds, to show them what they believe to be the absolute truth, global truth is nothing but cultural truth,” he states. Pattanaik believes that this openness of thought, practiced by FG, is something that other organisations can benefit from adopting.

Defining the difference

While individuals and organisations alike feel that India is different, most fail to define this difference. “It is quite simple, really. We are different because we are the only part of the world that believes in rebirth. The rest of the world believes that there is only one life to lead and is in a hurry to make the most of it,” says Pattanaik while explaining that the implication of this subconscious thought makes Indians comfortable with diversity. “We breathe diversity and have grown up with it,” he says further. This understanding of Indian people has been the base for business at FG. At the group’s retail outlets of Big Bazaar or eZone, the customer does not see an obvious difference, yet, even the subliminal changes define the shopping experience.

“The best place to understand Indian retail is Chennai’s Saravanna Stores,” says Pattanaik. “The place is far from ideal, it is crowded, things are falling from shelves despite which the customer service executives are genuine, gentle, but, effective. There is a beautiful energy there and it is Kishoreji’s pilgrim spot.” Biyani’s challenge was to bring the same experience to the different parts of India and in doing so, he has created what Pattanaik defines as a ‘bazaar with air conditioning’.  He attributes a part of the success to the abundance on display at FG enterprises. “Even in presentation, Indians prefer heaps to plenty of white space,” he says while adding that the biggest struggle in the organisation is for the back-end to accommodate the realities of the front-end.

Pattanaik also illustrates how Indians are comfortable with the unpredictable, right down to everyday details, such as an unexpected traffic jam. “Unlike here, the need to remove unpredictability is very strong in the west,” he adds. In a business sense, Indian organisations develop patience for the unpredictable. “People do not have to be taught to innovate; the process of finding solutions on a daily basis is innovation.” As Pattanaik states, the only thing Indians lack is a sense of belief and he hopes to show people that a little faith can take them a long way.

Leading the way

One way of making people believe in themselves is by recognising their strengths and few Indian organisations pay heed to this aspect while hiring their workforce. Pattanaik draws attention to the traditional hiring practice that has now been forgotten. “The traditional method was to look at your strength and figure out where to slot you rather than looking at the slot and force-fitting you into that slot,” he says while likening the organisation to a growing organism. “When you think of an organisation, you think of a rigid structure. Can I look at the organisation as an organism which will change according to the people I hire?” he questions. By functioning as an organism, an organisation can respond to its environment and adapt to its dynamics.

While identifying people for their strengths is important, it also allows for an organisation to pick out leaders. Leaders who can help people grow or simply get the job done. Pattanaik explains, “Does the leader domesticate his team or does he inspire them? And the difference between the two is creating growth.” He goes on to elaborate that to retain leaders in the organisation, an organisation must let go of its ‘balance-sheet approach’. “People leave companies where they do not grow. Imagine if the company looked at it as why are people leaving us? There is no empathy for the people who are leaving, their worry is about the number,” he says. “Neeyat theek nahi hai (The intent is not right). That is how indifference to people leaving creeps in,” he states. And Pattanaik identifies sensitivity to be one of the most undervalued traits of an organisation. “Is your boss sensitive to your ambitions, your needs, your growth? If this relationship is defined by a pay-slip then it is doomed,” he adds, emphatically. Being sensitive to different individuals also means treading a tricky path where all cannot be treated equally simply because each person is different; so one must learn to get comfortable with inequality. While these traits might be viewed as individualistic and perhaps are, it is the organisation’s responsibility to encourage its people to display traits that in turn, foster growth.

Most importantly, an organisation must allow people to be themselves. Even while interacting with his co-workers at FG, Pattanaik is not driven by the output of his interactions. “My job is to give them principles. Let them figure it out and then they will become sensitive to other people’s fundamentals. Output driven goals where everybody has to behave in a particular way goes against the very grain of diversity,” he says.

At the crux of the change, Pattanaik would like to see India Inc. make a shift in focus – from a purely monetary approach to one that is holistic. If organisations focused their energies on growth, money will inevitably come their way. “As an organisation, you have to grow emotionally, grow intellectually and grow materially,” elaborates Pattanaik. And when organisations grow on all planes, there is a true sense of achievement. Perhaps, then, they can take into their fold many more Devdutt Pattanaiks to show the way forward.