Tag Americas CEO Ajit Kara on leadership and creating a safe, diverse and collaborative workplace
Ajit Kara> The values I hold highest are centred around inclusivity; making sure that all voices are heard, inspiring people to do their best; and creating a safe and comfortable environment. I like to spend time listening to our people and understanding what makes them tick. I like to think of Tag as a family, and I believe that when people are highly connected to a business, as a family, they tend to be more energised, creative and passionate about their work. You can’t force or demand great work – you have to create a culture where doing great work becomes second nature.
LBB> Are these values innate or did you learn to value them on the job?
Ajit> I think it comes naturally to me because of how I grew up. I had my first company at 21 and I recognised that making people feel connected was critically important because I had nothing to compete with against the bigger companies except my story. I’ve always gravitated towards these values and tried to achieve them at a larger scale globally as I grew in my career.
LBB> Who have been some of the great leaders that you learned from in your career journey?
Ajit> There are many leaders who I admire, but the most inspiration comes from the lessons learned talking and listening to the people I work with – colleagues, clients, suppliers, friends. The best insights can come from somebody who may not be hierarchically high up in the business but they have an influential perspective as to what’s going on within the business or with customers. In the same way, our customers have incredible insights. The best ideas come from listening to and collaborating with people within the business.
LBB> What have been some of the biggest lessons you have learned?
Ajit> To fail fast. Indecision is a horrible thing, as is over analysis. When you overanalyse you can be inhibited from creatively running a business. People are going to make mistakes – so you have to be comfortable with that. When you use experience to learn and adapt quickly, then mistakes can often lead to the best results. Not many people can get the perfect score or get the perfect result, first time. It’s far better to foster a culture in which people feel that they can own up to their mistakes and be supported in rectifying them. Always encourage that level of openness in your business.
LBB> What have been some of your proudest accomplishments so far?
Ajit> One of my proudest achievements is coming to the U.S. and joining the Tag Americas team. We've grown to a significant size as an organisation, and we're now becoming the marketing partner of choice for many big brands here.
I love the confidence and honesty of the people and the collaborative nature of the culture – both internally within the Tag organisation and in the way we work with our clients and partners. We’ve found a great home for Tag in the Americas.
"I've gone through being the minority or odd one out and now
I’m in a place where I'm changing that dynamic"
LBB> Have you had to overcome many challenges in your journey to the top?
Ajit> I don't think anyone is ever born to do a certain role. You have to evolve and grow into it. For me, the challenge has been how to adapt my style and my skill sets for each specific opportunity. When I first started running my own business, I was much more financially and metrically driven. My move to lead a business meant that I needed to shift my focus from straight metrics to helping our people and our customers grow. To evolve from an analytical person to a more intuitive and instinctive person was a big shift and a challenge, but an incredibly meaningful and successful change.
LBB> You’re very passionate about diversity and inclusion – what plans do you have in place to improve the workplace for the future?
Ajit> As a CEO, it is important to me that I stand for diversity and inclusion. As a person of colour, I am very passionate about bringing more diverse and inclusive environments in our industry. At Tag Americas, we have very specific, actionable plans in place to make a difference. Part one is our hiring practice, which is focused on diversity. I believe because of Covid-19 and remote working, we're actually in a better place to not be limited around commuter locations allowing talent from all locations to step up for open opportunities.
Part two is around inclusivity. We have a Diversity and Inclusion Council which was created to educate employees on D&I issues and unconscious bias. We do this to make sure we have a workplace that supports inclusivity, where each employee feels supported and heard. Giving employees training opportunities and a space to practice what they learn is critical to inclusivity.
Part three is our opportunity to drive diversity in our supply chain. So many of our customers come to us not only for our creative production, but also for the connected sourcing element which is very unique about our proposition We encourage our clients to be very vocal about their diversity and sustainability KPIs so we can continually improve our supplier bench to meet the needs and expectations of their customers and stakeholders.
LBB> How can having a more diverse workplace, improve collaboration, improve creativity?
Ajit> The smallest voice can make a big impact. The more diverse the point of view, the more creativity and the better the output. It’s important to ensure that you get a diverse range of thoughts and input, especially from those who have so far been overlooked. I've observed this many times – when a dominant person is driving a project. But you need a secure, diverse room of people all listening to each other to get the best results.
My management team is 50% female. And I worked hard to get to that point. You don't achieve this overnight but if you keep focused on it, change will happen.
LBB> A lot of people have argued that they just don't get enough diverse talent applying to be in advertising in the first place. How should we tackle that problem?
Ajit> That is a fair point but if there's one advantage of Covid-19, it’s that it’s changed the way we hire and work with people. We can now work 100% remotely so we can create great opportunities for talent in different locations who may not have been able to work with us before. It's about how we provide the training and the confidence that they can join an organisation like Tag and start their career in this sector. I'm actually quite excited that the marketplace is changing, the conditions are changing, and the talent creation pool is changing. It is our job to be ready and to embrace change and new talent.
LBB> The ad industry is renowned for its lack of diversity. Have you any first-hand experience of the challenges faced by minority groups within the field?
Ajit> The short answer is yes. It can be a self-inflicted challenge that when you go into a room, and you're the only person that's different, it does make you more self-conscious and you find that you double check yourself. I've learned that's actually not the way to deal with it. It's made me work harder; it's made me more confident, and it's actually driven me to be a strong voice in that room. But it's not easy. When you go into a room and you are a minority, it's tough. And that's the reason why I'm listening to and encouraging other business leaders, everyone really, to hear the quietest voices in the room. In my experience, you have to face up to the challenge and join together the people who can change the journey. I've gone through being the minority or odd one out and now I’m in a place where I'm changing that dynamic for my meetings, my people and my clients.
LBB> What are some of the simple ways that a company leader can help create a more inclusive environment within their company?
Ajit> In 2020, our Diversity and Inclusion Council held multiple webinars with people across our company globally, who shared experiences of when they faced discrimination in their career. Hearing employees sharing stories is eye opening and an opportunity to learn. Our programme in 2021 will continue to address topics and issues that are important to our employees such as women in the workplace, ageism, white privilege and the difference between personal bias and institutionalised privilege, and mental health. I encourage other company leaders to take action by implementing programmes which allow employees to learn from the experiences of others.
LBB> On another topic, how did you find leading the company through various lockdowns this year?
Ajit> When we went into lockdown, we decided to do things that we normally don't have time or a need for, and it helped us get closer while being more remote. We worked hard to be connected as a team and to stay connected with our customers. We added internal meetings and virtual socialising – I even sent out weekly videos, shot with my iPhone. And they were always terrible and unscripted but it became a bit of a humorous thing that employees looked forward to. It quickly became clear that employees needed reassurance from the top that everything was going to be OK.
Everyone is dealing with the Covid-19 crisis in a different way and as a leader, you have to be flexible. Once we open our offices, we're not forcing anyone to come in, we're being considerate of people’s needs and personal life. By being understanding and accommodating, our people connect even more with our company.
LBB> Do you think this will have lasting changes in terms of the future role of the office?
Ajit> Absolutely. I still believe the office is a very important place, especially for what we do around collaboration. But as we build more talent across the Americas, I don't believe we need someone to be in the office for 10 hours a day. We haven’t actually missed a beat in our performance. The newer work culture allows you to work for four hours in the morning, go and do things in the afternoon, and then work another four hours in the evening. The work life balance is completely different now. And I think we have to embrace that.
LBB> Lastly, what advice would you give to up and coming talent at this uncertain time in the industry?
Ajit> People should remain confident and excited. I understand that it is very hard for those who may not have full employment or may be struggling and I'm not diminishing that, but it will spin back quickly. It's about being adaptable and being flexible in your skill sets.