IWF UK Leadership Stories: Pinky Lilani

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In the second in the 'Our Leadership Stories' series we feature entrepreneur Pinky Lilani CBE DL, founder and chair of several award programmes recognising women’s leadership.

Pinky Lilani

Born in Calcutta, she is an author, speaker and Indian food expert, and owner of Spice Magic Ltd. In her Leadership Story, Pinky talks about building a brand based on kindness, collaboration, and five chocolate gifts a day.

What does being a leader mean to you?

The first time somebody referred to me as a leader, I was incredulous. Who me? Having grown up in India with no aspirations to work, let alone lead, it was new territory. However, I began to like the idea and I guess I grew into the role.

For me, being a leader is about being yourself, being authentic. One of my great joys is cooking and sharing food – so every Friday my team works from my house and I cook for them. Spicy food and team productivity seem to work well together. To make it even more interesting, I invite people in for meetings on the day too – so it’s party time every Friday.

I also love taking food along when I go to meet people. I still remember the time I was meeting a CEO and took some chickpeas for him. The security people on the scanning machine were amused and asked if they could taste it to make sure it was safe, and the CEO and his secretary were thrilled. Needless to say, I never had a problem getting a meeting with him after that.

Leadership is about doing what you love with passion, courage and tenacity. Most important for me is motivating those who work with me. Listening, empathising and caring are important traits. Taking on new challenges is what I most enjoy – leadership is about getting a team to achieve much more than what they believed they could.

What have been the one or two biggest challenges in your life and how have you overcome them?

The biggest challenge of my life was when I lost a great deal of my hearing very rapidly. I was 40 and suddenly phone conversations become very difficult, large meetings were challenging and going to a reception with many people talking simultaneously in the room was trying. Hearing aids were quite primitive at that time, and the background noise was louder than the conversation.

After spending some time feeling very sorry for myself, I decided I needed to find a way of dealing with it. I decided to tell people at the outset that I only have a small percentage of my hearing so that, if I asked a question that had just been asked or gave a totally inappropriate answer, they would understand. Once, a woman told me and two others that her mother had been on holiday and had a fall. I heard that her mother ‘had a ball’. So I said ‘How wonderful’, and was perplexed that she gave me a strange look.

What do you regard as your greatest successes, and why?

The DNA of ‘The Women of the Future Programme’ is kindness and collaboration and I feel my greatest success is building a brand based on those two qualities. The simplicity of the strategy is that everyone can be kind and collaborative and hence be part of our narrative. I have made kindness the currency and, because anyone can be kind, they can be with us on the journey.

Every day I leave home with five chocolates and distribute them to people. It could be a receptionist who smiles when she welcomes me to a corporation or someone sitting next to me on a bus. I just tell them I give out five each day and would they like a chocolate. For me, real kindness is when there is no expectation of getting anything back. And if they smile and look happy, that is the icing on the cake.

How has your leadership style changed over time, and why?

I think I have much more confidence and I am less afraid of taking risks. I am not afraid of failure as I was at the start of the journey. I know what I stand for and don’t try to please everyone. I am not afraid of saying I don’t understand or don’t know something that people mention. I love learning something new every week and try to be much more creative. At the start of my journey I thought I knew all the answers, now I realize how little I know.

Taking my wok into some of the most conservative venues in the country and showing how leadership and cooking have a lot in common is hugely enjoyable and energising.  Collaboration is at the heart of my leadership style and it is so exciting to start a conversation with someone in a very different field and then work together.

A wonderful example of this is when I gave a talk and did a cooking demonstration at a school for sixth formers and their parents (I had driven two hours to get there and was questioning my decision to have agreed to go). It was a small crowd but one of the parents came up to me and gave me his card – he was the CEO of RICS and was really passionate about getting more women into construction, property and infrastructure. They came on board as a sponsor and we created a new category for women in this field. It is one of our success stories and now we have a critical mass of brilliant women leveraging their success to inspire the next generation.

So I guess my style has changed because I think much more out of the box and how to work in partnership.

What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles? 

Be yourself, be patient, be creative, love what you do, have passion, listen to others, build a support network, set yourself challenges and be KIND. Remember when you meet someone, don’t let them leave thinking you are the clever person. Let them go away thinking they are really clever. Leaders make others feel great.

Enjoy what you do … therein lies the real joy of living. In the words of Seneca, 'As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters'.