Golam Safwat Choudhury, Head of Brand & Strategy of BAT Bangladesh talks about his incredible career, how a new generation of professionals can work the grind and the trajectory the multinational company is on.
Tell us about your journey with BAT?
I joined BAT Bangladesh as a Territory Officer in 2002 right after I graduated, being posted in Rangpur. This was my first job after completing my Bachelor of Business Administration from IBA, Dhaka University. Since then, it’s been 19 years and it feels as if all of it has passed in the blink of an eye.
I would say my career has been fairly balanced between different functions of marketing (in BAT we call them Trade Marketing, Brands and SPI) and different layers of control (End market, Area-level multi market role and Regional strategic unit). In these 19 years, apart from Bangladesh, I have worked in Malaysia, South Korea, and Pakistan in South Asia Area Capacity and then in Hong Kong in a Regional Capacity covering the Asia Pacific and Middle East Region.
I returned to Bangladesh in Q1, 2019 to join BATB leadership team and now, I’m preparing to start another leg of the journey in a new country very soon.
When the general trend is to switch jobs or even to switch industries; why have you stuck to a single employer for 19 years?
When I started working, I thought I’ll spend four to five years in a corporate job and then possibly switch somewhere or build something of my own. This was my initial objective. Along the way, I even thought about moving abroad, seeking immigration but none of these ideas materialized into fruition. There are three main factors that influenced this.
The first one was effective line management. Prior to joining BAT Bangladesh, I had an impression that bosses exist only to catch you doing something wrong. However, at BAT, I was taught that if you make a mistake the first person to go to is your boss because his future is also tied to your success. At BAT, I have seen bosses planning their subordinates’ success and that creates an affinity and builds a friendship which lasts for a lifetime. This surely eased some of the nerves and lifted off pressure.
Secondly, I was always offered a carrot at the right time. This meant that switching, leaving, and migrating would come at a high opportunity cost as I knew that at every turn there was a coveted yet achievable reward.
The third and most vital reason was the presence of a high-performance culture where there is fair judgement of people’s talent. Fortunately, I joined a company where employees were judged on their work and not on affinity, orientation, ethnicity, gender or any other bias. This is difficult to achieve especially when you work in a multicultural setup where people from various backgrounds work. But, a high-performance culture made getting into the game psychologically stimulating and it became easier to keep going.
Things like effective communication, networking, getting yourself heard, taking a stance would help you thrive in a leadership position. You have to be willing to take risks and this is where Bangladeshis have to let go of their tendency of playing safe or trying to hold onto a job too tightly.
How did you, or many others like you in BAT, end up having international careers while your education is fully in Bangladesh?
BAT is as widely spread across the world with large scale operations in over 180 countries. As you climb up the ladder in BAT, after a point, the talent pool becomes global. Job appointments are posted on a common platform so a vacancy in the UK would be viewed by applicants around the globe. That’s the general principle. After a while, you get used to knowing that your competitor is not in Bangladesh, but sitting in other countries, and you are all competing for a common prize. As you become a senior manager, it truly becomes a global game. You can’t be tied to one place. If you’re good enough, you’ll be sought after.
This requires quite a few perspectives on the part of the employer company. It means once you are in – your talent, your quality, your motivation, your passion – these things matter. Your educational background, skin, race, gender, religion doesn’t matter – your work does. The global-regional leadership teams at BAT are comprised of globally diverse individuals from a wide variety of nationalities and backgrounds. This is true for our Global Management Board, Global Functional Leadership, and Regional Leadership etc. This is really stimulating, and I believe that given good platforms Bangladeshi talents can really push the boundaries and that’s why you see so many of us going for a global career.
In your experience, how do Bangladeshis fare against international talent in a foreign set-up?
Bangladeshis are doing very well, in fact Bangladeshis are doing much better than a lot of people’s expectations. Starting from managing complex factories to taking up regional engineering projects; from leading some of the HR work streams globally to shaping our transformation strategy in global functional capacity and even leading some of our top brands globally as Brand Directors – you see Bangladeshis managing a wide portfolio of senior management projects all across the world. This is a true testament of how BAT Bangladesh develops human capital, fit to compete at an international level.
When you provide Bangladeshis a clear-cut mandate with a clear set of rules and a fair chance to compete, our talents put their hearts into it. Let me give a general example: In Bangladesh, you see chaos on the streets, but in foreign countries, Bangladeshis are some of the most disciplined, well behaved and committed citizens. Similarly in corporate settings abroad, I have seen Bangladeshis demonstrate a clear edge in commitment and drive. It also takes far less effort or reward to motivate Bangladeshi talent, and that is why we are so sought.
What are some of the factors/development areas to watch out for young professionals who are planning to make a mark someday in the corporate sector abroad or in the local scenario?
The game in the country and the game abroad might be slightly different. Let me try to answer my take on a career in a foreign land first. Bangladeshis don’t struggle in the early to mid-management levels because that’s where your own commitment, dedication, hard work and discipline comes into play. Bangladeshis are inherently committed, motivated and they like to take ownership. A lot of people thrive in a foreign context after joining a corporate set up overseas and rise through the ranks in early and mid-management levels.
The improvement area is when you transition from mid management to leadership positions. That’s where Bangladeshi folks have a bit of catching up to do. I would highlight a few things – the main change that happens is when you are in a leadership position, whether you are a good employee, good manager or whether you are good at your job doesn’t really matter because you have managers you need to manage who in turn, have employees they have to manage; it’s a big team to look after. How you work or are individually really goes out the window. You need to be able to bring the best out of people in your own team. Often, Bangladeshis may not be mentally prepared to take on the challenges and responsibilities that come with leadership positions.
We as a nation are not very extroverted. We don’t reach out, do public speaking, deal with uncomfortable issues, talk openly about vulnerabilities, address conflicts – these are some of the things we tend to face during senior leadership levels. I would say, things like effective communication, networking, getting yourself heard, taking a stance would help you thrive in a leadership position. You have to be willing to take risks and this is where Bangladeshis have to let go of their tendency of playing safe or trying to hold onto a job too tightly.
Tobacco companies have to figure out how to transform their business away from tobacco and into stimulants. There are options already available and according to scientific and medical studies, these products are substantially harm-reduced
In the local scenario, if you ask jobseekers, they’ll tell you there aren’t enough jobs and on the other hand if you ask leaders across industries, they’ll tell you there are not enough good employees. It’s not that there aren’t enough jobs, it’s also that there aren’t enough capable managers. Job seekers need to invest 5-7 years learning a trade instead of harboring a tendency for immediate gratification without putting in the time, effort, and development.
My advice is not just for job seekers, it is for people early into their career – do not trade your job for something possibly slightly better today. Evaluate your job from a learning and development perspective. If it does not offer you something to grow into in five years, that’s not a venture worth sticking to even if it pays well. Even if something is not up to the mark but it is building you up as a professional in a certain sector, stick to it, and invest your five years. It’s not as if your youth is being lost in a grind, it is perhaps the best form of investment you can put in to secure the rest of your future.
How do you see the future of tobacco with the growing health-concerns and stringent regulations against tobacco?
Tobacco companies have to figure out how to transform their business away from tobacco and into stimulants. There are options already available and according to scientific and medical studies, these products are substantially harm-reduced, and we are communicating this in different countries following permission from government authorities. Products like vapes and oral pouches satisfy nicotine craving but also cause significantly less harm. We are thinking of offering our consumers in Bangladesh with harm-reduced options if regulations permit.
The BAT down the line will be nothing like the one we see today. Eventually, our offers will range from both nicotine-based and non-nicotine stimulants. That is a pathway BAT recognizes and it’s a road to survival for us.
How has BAT faced COVID challenges and what has been your success mantra?
BAT Bangladesh has been around for 110 years in Bangladesh. We have seen World Wars, the Liberation War, regimes being changed, catastrophic natural disasters to achieve middle-income status. All this while, we have been development partners to the government, and we are now actively contributing to its agenda of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. The reason we have survived this long is that we don’t do business for a short period; instead we create partnerships with our suppliers, distributors and retailers, and look out for everyone associated with us.
When the pandemic struck, we went back to our basic playbook which is to take care of everyone in the value chain. We promised that not a single job will be lost unless our business is affected significantly, and we have been able to keep our word.
BAT Bangladesh doesn’t only look out for its 1,500 employees, it extends the care to our 35,000+ farmers, 16,000+ field force and over 800,000 retailers. If we survive, their employment will survive. If we take care of them, our bond will get stronger and we will continue to reap the benefits even in the next decade. We engaged with the government and explained that farmers’ families need to survive which meant buying tobacco. We gave special allowances to our field force and sent care packages regularly while we reached out to retailers whose livelihoods were getting affected. The pandemic is an opportunity to prove that your partnerships matter to you, and that you are committed to reaching out. The whole objective is if you want to go far and long in business, you cannot just grow yourself alone, everyone around you needs to grow too.