A good leader knows how to empower and coach rather than coerce their people says Robin Kuriakose (MBA 2008/9), newly appointed Chief Marketing and Sales Officer at Sonae Arauco. And this takes vision and self-knowledge.
Graduating cum laude with an actuarial science degree is all very well, but Robin Kuriakose feels that it is only half of the story. The degree may have given him the necessary analytical background for a successful career, but on his leadership journey, it has been the acquisition of the so called “softer” skills that have made all the difference.
“As you can imagine, with my background — seven distinctions in matric and graduating cum laude in actuarial science — I was so focused on my studies that I didn’t pay attention to the softer skills. I think like many people with my background, my formative years were probably quite isolated, and I didn’t have many social skills. But over my career, I’ve really invested in the self-awareness and self-reflection essential to take on any leadership position — particularly my new role at Sonae Arauco.”
Sonae Arauco is a leading player in the global wood-based panel industry with a sizable market share in South Africa. The company manufactures particle board, medium density fibre board and melamine-faced boards for use in kitchens, bathrooms, offices and the retail environment.
As the newly appointed Chief Marketing and Sales Officer, Robin is responsible for supplying product to sub-Saharan Africa, managing the sales and marketing functions and contributing to the overall management of the South African business as part of the leadership team.
Robin’s career spans three industries (power generation, agricultural commodity trading and now the industrial sector) and over that time he has moved from actuarial science studies into broader roles. This move have been driven by “a passion for leadership and management of processes and systems in spaces where physical products are being delivered to customers”.
“Delivering a product that you can touch and feel is a key driver for me,” he says.
In his new environment, the technical elements from the MBA that he draws most on are operations, finance and marketing. “Key take-outs of the course content for me were around lean manufacturing — this is a high-volume business which is rapidly changing due to customer requirements, so the theory around being more efficient and identifying and overcoming bottlenecks is very useful. Finance skills to ensure we are selling the right product in the right markets at the right prices with the aim of maximising shareholder value and marketing, especially when it comes to releasing new products every year that move the market to the latest trends, are also key.”
In addition, Robin found huge value in the MBA’s leadership focus. He says, “I have come to realise the difference between managing and leading. To lead an organisation, no matter how good your academic skills are, you need to get people behind you. This takes vision and self-knowledge. You need to translate your numerical abilities in a way that empowers people rather than intimidating or disenfranchising them.”
He adds, “managing diversity is an important part of leadership — covering race, culture, different levels of experience and educational background. My MBA taught me to be sensitive to people in a diverse environment and to take an attitude of empowerment and coaching as opposed to coercion and enforcement.”
Robin also believes firmly in the principle of giving back. As the Chair of the Careers Council at the UCT GSB and a member of the Alumni Board, he works closely with the alumni relations team at the UCT GSB to strengthen the alumni network.
“It’s so important to engage, to give back, and to tap into the resources and people of the GSB. This continuous engagement can only enhance your skills as you go forward in your leadership journey,” he says.