Nazim Farhan Choudhury On Leadership, The Importance Of Questioning, How To Read, And The Meaning Of Life

Nazim Farhan Choudhury On Leadership, The Importance Of Questioning, How To Read, And The Meaning Of Life

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For those who don’t know Nazim Farhan Choudhury, he is the Managing Director of Adcomm Limited, one of the oldest and largest full-service advertising agencies in Bangladesh. Started his career in advertising in 1994, Mr. Farhan is considered as one of the most influential admen and entrepreneurs in the country.

As the world of agency business experience a rapid change, he has doubled down on transforming Adcomm to meet the challenges of the new digital age, reshaping its positioning in the market, attracting fresh talents, and investing in digital while also pushing Adcomm to become more customer-focused, innovative, and collaborative.

Here we talk about his take on leadership and what does it take to be an effective leader, how to design a strategy that works, why asking question is the best way to get to the core of a problem, the changing reality of workplace, future of works, most in-demand skills, reading as a guide to finding yourself and why seeking the meaning of our life outside is a futile exercise because meaning lies within ourselves.

You can find a previous episode of this interview here.

Future Startup

What does it take to be an effective CEO?

Nazim Farhan Choudhury

I’m not quite sure whether I’m the right person to answer that question since I don’t consider myself to be an effective CEO. But I do ponder over what makes great CEOs great.

I believe that an effective leader is someone who has empathy for people. It’s essential for CEOs to be empathetic to understand why people behave how they behave and see things through their lens.

Empathy also helps to identify ways to motivate your employees and build better relationships with your customers.

A great CEO is also well-aware of her/his team members. The knowledge of your coworkers’ strengths and weaknesses will allow you to rely on them more wisely. Moreover, CEOs should learn to control emotional outburst and restraint when they feel overwhelmed.

Future Startup

Discussion around strategy is a commonplace thing in a corporate setting these days. Small and big companies alike want to find foolproof strategies that would take them to the next level. The question is: how do you design a strategy that works? Is there any formula?

Nazim Farhan

I’m afraid that there’s no singular formula for designing strategies. It varies from one case to another.

As someone who is concerned with the big picture, I think designing great strategies involves experimenting with ideas and testing different ways to realize them in your own environment. A good strategy should be able to bridge the needs of different stakeholders. Also, if a particular strategy is proven effective for, say, the FMCG industry, it doesn’t mean that it’ll be equally successful in agriculture.

Inquisitiveness helps in designing sound strategies. Particularly, when you are trying to get to the core of a problem or anything for that matter. You need to question if you want your strategy to be effective. I apply this strategy when it comes to making a strategic decision. When you ask “why” for enough times, you get to the core of the things. And when you cut the fat and get to the core, things get clearer. And you make better decisions.

For instance, when one of my clients came up with a proposal to design an ad campaign for his newly introduced breakfast cereal, the first thing I did was to ask him why he was really producing it. And when he replied that it was popular in the market, I asked him why his product was any different and the questioning went on which eventually helped us to come up with a better decision. So, when you ask a question, problems tend to present themselves and it becomes easier to figure out a foolproof strategy.

I believe that an effective leader is someone who has empathy for people. It’s essential for CEOs to be empathetic to understand why people behave how they behave and see things through their lens. Empathy also helps to identify ways to motivate your employees and build better relationships with your customers.

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Future Startup

Everybody makes mistake. That’s natural. But it’s important that you learn from your mistakes and don’t repeat them. How do you learn from your mistakes?

Nazim Farhan

I don’t have a particular formula for dealing with mistakes. To dive into my deeds and find out the root of where I have slipped, I talk things out with my peers. I have a lengthy discussion with my friends and they would ask me questions. And as I explain, it becomes clear to me where I made a misstep.

Although I wouldn’t say that I’ve never had the urge to blame others for the mistakes I have committed. Humans are fallible after all. But even if I am partially responsible, I need to take my part of the blame and ponder over my own shortcomings. The lessons begin with accepting the responsibility for the mistake made. When you accept it, it gets easier to deal with it.

Inquisitiveness helps in designing sound strategies. Particularly, when you are trying to get to the core of a problem or anything for that matter. You need to question if you want your strategy to be effective. I apply this strategy when it comes to making a strategic decision. When you ask “why” for enough times, you get to the core of the things. And when you cut the fat and get to the core, things get clearer. And you make better decisions.

Future Startup

How do you deal with stress that comes with being an entrepreneur? How do you stay motivated?

Nazim Farhan

Honestly speaking, I really like my job. I enjoy advertising. It’s an interesting field that offers you the opportunity to work with a lot of different brands and every one of them poses different sorts of challenges. Solving problem is fun.

There’s also the intrigue of working with different concerns at our company like Adcomm and Colors FM. These are things that keep me going.

Future Startup

A few pieces of advice you would give to your 20-year-old self.

Nazim Farhan

In the early days of my career, I got into too many businesses out of amateurish excitement. I didn’t think my plans through. So I would have advised my younger self to focus on something in particular and not to engage in too many businesses at once.

Another suggestion I’d give him is to remain stress-free as much as possible. Worrying is not a solution to any problem. If you have a crisis, relax and plan your way out of it. That’s the right approach in the big scheme of things.

Lastly, I would suggest him to take opportunities when they are available. I say this particularly because I missed some really great investment opportunities in the early days. As I look back now, I obviously made many short-sighted decisions.

Although I wouldn’t say that I’ve never had the urge to blame others for the mistakes I have committed. Humans are fallible after all. But even if I am partially responsible, I need to take my part of the blame and ponder over my own shortcomings. The lessons begin with accepting the responsibility for the mistake made. When you accept it, it gets easier to deal with it.

Future Startup

What are some major lessons you’ve learned?

Nazim Farhan

Apart from the industry-specific knowledge that I have already shared, as a general learning, I believe that honesty is the key to a fulfilling career.

You can achieve a lot of things and lead a fancy life by adopting dishonest means, but they won’t be able to satisfy you and your credibility among the people around you would perish before long. When your soul is not content, it does not matter how rich you are, it does not matter.

Be good to people. And know that things often happen beyond our normal comprehension.

Future Startup

You are one of the few people I know genuinely passionate about youth empowerment. We had a lengthy discussion about young people and change in our last interview. Let me read back a paragraph from that interview to you: “I’m also passionate about the youth and the future of the country like where we are heading towards and how we can leverage the power of youth to ensure a better future.” You made a valid point emphasizing the role of youth in building a better future provided that our median age is approximately 26 years. If we can harness the power of youth, we can positively enjoy the demographic dividend. But have we been successful in doing so?

Nazim Farhan

I do believe that the youths have a vital role to play in building our future. But frankly speaking, I can’t find any evidence to attest that we are being successful in enabling them to fulfill that role.

That is not to say that there are no young people doing good work; there of course are. In fact, today, more than any time before, young people are doing consequential work in this country. But the problem is that, at the same time, a greater number of young people are not doing anything meaningful.

I see increasing lethargy among young people nowadays. Many of them have become alarmingly self-obsessed and averse to hard work.

Social media has paved way for superficial, instant gratification and young people don’t want to put much effort into anything. Hard work and discipline – these are cornerstone habits.

I remember passing countless hours with my sister thinking what we should do with our leisure. And out of our desperation used to come up with meaningful and innovative ideas. The scene is completely different now.

We continuously try to supply our children with gadgets so that they never get bored. It is hard to get bored these days and it is not a good thing. Because in many ways boring pushes you to be creative. It is like the mother of all good ideas.

Work needs to be done to ensure that we don’t miss out on this huge opportunity to take advantage of the demographic dividend.

There are young people who are really seeking to do something meaningful in their life. That’s what you’re trying to find with your Under 35 list if I’m correct.

What we need to do is to bring such innovator and change-makers more in a favorable light and inspire others to do the same.

The nature of the workplace is changing rapidly. Jobs are becoming more and more interdisciplinary in nature. Most jobs these days come without any manual. You need to figure it out as you enter the workplace. In this set-up, people who’re passionate, inquisitive and have a knack for finding creative solutions to critical problems will be better off than those with a traditional, outdated mindset.

Future Startup

What are the qualities you look for when you hire someone? And what type of people would thrive in today’s workplace? 

Nazim Farhan

The first I look for in an aspirant is passion. A simple conversation with her/him enables me to get an idea whether she is really passionate about the work for which she has applied for.

Creativity also plays an important role in hiring. We need creative people in the advertisement industry.

The nature of the workplace is changing rapidly. Jobs are becoming more and more interdisciplinary in nature. Most jobs these days come without any manual. You need to figure it out as you enter the workplace.

In this set-up, people who’re passionate, inquisitive and have a knack for finding creative solutions to critical problems will be better off than those with a traditional, outdated mindset. And it feels amazing to note too that people with new-age mindsets are not rare to find in Bangladesh.

Future Startup

What have you been reading lately?

Nazim Farhan

I’m kind of a multitasker when it comes to reading, a multi-reader perhaps. I try to read multiple books at the same time. I’m, in fact, reading four books simultaneously now. One is Crown and Country: A History of England Through the Monarchy written by David Starkey. Then, there’s The First Muslim written by Lesley Hazleton on Mohammed, the prophet of the Muslim faith.

I’m also reading a book written by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed called Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World. As the title suggests, the book attempts to the break the stereotypes surrounding the Muslim youth of they being conservatives and fundamentalists and explains how today’s brands are appealing to these youths.

Lastly, I’m reading Unbound which is a collection of essays written by progressive women figures (both late and alive) in South Asia. For instance, it contains a short story called Sultana’s Dream written by a beloved popular figure Begum Rokeya which portrays a Utopian society where women take the place of men and their roles are reversed. It’s fascinating to think that, despite being a Muslim woman in a colonized country, she had written this story in a time when the women in England hadn’t even get the right to vote yet.

I remember passing countless hours with my sister thinking what we should do with our leisure. And out of our desperation used to come up with meaningful and innovative ideas. The scene is completely different now. We continuously try to supply our children with gadgets so that they never get bored. It is hard to get bored these days and it is not a good thing. Because in many ways boring pushes you to be creative. It is like the mother of all good ideas.

Future Startup

How do you think about life?

Nazim Farhan

Life is really significantly small. It is so transient but we do not feel so until we are faced with the inevitable end.

All the life we strive for success and try to find happiness in the outside world whereas we should be really looking at is inside of ourselves.

I have a golden rule: do unto others what you want others to do unto you. I have followed this principle throughout my life.

Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Rahatil Ashekan

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