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Nov. 24, 2020

Leading with soul, scheduling more meetings and brownies on the table with Rishad Tobaccowala | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

Leading with soul, scheduling more meetings and brownies on the table with Rishad Tobaccowala | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader
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In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Rishad Tobaccowala, Author of Restoring the Soul of Business, talks about the turd on the table, the story behind his book, and his perspective on the future of work.

Some highlights:

Rishad Tobacocowala’s view on the role of data in business

Leading organizations through change 

Team communication strategies

Rishad Tobaccowala’s five characteristics of leaders that have soul

Building a strong team culture

How to lead and motivate a team

Factors that will affect the future of work

Connect with Rishad Tobaccowala:

Rishad Tobaccowala Official Website




Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:


More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 



Mahan Tavakoli: Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be speaking with Rishad Tobaccowala. He has been a chief strategist and chief growth officer at Publicis group and advertising and communications firm with over 80,000 employees worldwide. Rishad has been recognized by business week as one of top business leaders globally, and by Time Magazine as one of top five marketing leaders worldwide. 

I really enjoyed the conversation with Rishad. We talked about pandemic aftermath and most specifically, restoring the soul of business, which is the subject of his most recent book. Rishad calls it as he sees it.

He talks about the turd on the table, and he talks about leaders, and what leaders need to do to move their organizations forward. You will really enjoy this conversation too. And if you do, please make sure to share it with at least one colleague, one other leader, so you can help change organizational culture too. 

Now, here is my conversation with Rishad Tobaccowala.

Mahan Tavakoli:Rishad Tobaccowala, welcome to Partnering Leadership. 

Rishad Tobaccowala: Thank you very much and thank you for having me. 

Mahan Tavakoli: Rishad, I have to tell you, you're one of those people that after having read your book, I've gotten into reading your blog posts, and they have had a significant impact on my leadership thought, and I shared it with lots of people.

So starting at the conversation, I would definitely recommend for people to go read your book, and follow you on social media. 

Rishad Tobaccowala: Thank you very much. Yes. Thanks. In fact, this new newsletter that I began, which I was mentioning to you, which people can find at rishad.substack.com, where you can put in your show notes, has become intensely popular.

And I think there is a hunger for a combination of advice that both is relevant, that people can do, and often takes on certain myths that we all know don't matter. Something that I call the turd on the table, which is too many times at work, we gather around a table. When we used to gather on tables, now, we gather around, I guess, screens. And we look at something that's moist and brown, and we think it's a brownie, but we all know it's a piece of shit.

So I just say, look, it's a piece of shit, that helps. 

Mahan Tavakoli: And I absolutely love that. That's a great chapter in the book also, Rishad. 

Rishad, actually in the book, you have a great perspective with respect to everyone talking about data and data being the future of where business is headed. And that goes partially to the basis of your book. Love the title, Restoring the Soul of Business. So what inspired you to write a book?

Rishad Tobaccowala:  So the three reasons I wrote the book. The first reason I wrote the book was increasingly, I was beginning to worry that too many of my clients and to some extent, parts of my company were increasingly becoming so besotted by data.

And they were not paying attention to some other components like culture, creativity, storytelling. As someone who was in the marketing and advertising business, my belief was like, I don't know how this works, because if you think about it, the reason somebody buys a bread is emotionally, not rational.

In fact, we don't make many decisions that are rational. If we made decisions that were rational, human life would seize because no parent would compute all the costs and heartache of having kids and say, we want to have it anyway. If they're on a spreadsheet, they would do it. The reason you buy your car, unless your car is the cheapest car you could get. You sometimes get a car twice as expensive as the cheapest car, sometimes that's three times expensive. 

There's no data that supports, buy a Mercedes, or a high level Toyota, or a Cadillac, there is none. None. It's a sense of feeling pride, achievement, design, everything that has got nothing to do with data. And so my whole stuff is people choose with their hearts, so they used numbers to justify what they just did. 

So the second reason was, everything I was learning, did it actually factor in how people are making decisions. So why do people were skewing too much towards data, but the other was “Hey listen, that's not the way people are making decisions so I know what you're doing. But the third was companies that were very data centric or, on the other hand, completely story centric. Get it to do much worse than companies that can abide the soul of the business data, the story of the spreadsheet. 

So the very simple thought is that you basically think about Southwest airlines versus United airlines. United airlines is fixated on data. Southwest can't fly without safety. Southwest flies, the same kind of planes that United flies. What is the subsection? It was a 737. Same airports, same FAA rules. Actually cheaper tickets, better service, better experience. What's the difference? Culture, stewards and stewardesses. Serving peanuts in your face, whatever it is. Costco vs old Walmart. Microsoft before and after Satya Nadella.It's all around us.

And my whole stuff is that we got cosmically blind just because some of the most high capital companies like Google and Amazon are data companies. They're unique. They're very unique, almost no company, there are less than two dozen companies that have the kind of information and data they have. 

For all the data that Proctor and gamble has, what do they know? They eventually know my dirt removal habits because everything they talk about is about dirt. Removing it from my back, my teeth, et cetera. I don't define my life with dirt removal. So the whole idea of basically is yes, data is a part of this. It's like electricity. Your business can’t do without it. 

But tell me which business differentiates itself on the use of electricity. Does the company say, we know how to do kilowatts better than anybody else, so hire us. Come on. And that is the whole thing. We have this collective delusion where people refuse to actually speak. They refuse to think. And so this book was like, think about people, let's talk about it. And so it was, those were the reasons that I wrote it. 

Mahan Tavakoli:  And I would love to get your perspective on a couple of things. Rishad. You say change sucks, but irrelevance is worse.

So I want to get some of your thoughts and insights on leaders as they're reflecting on leading their organizations through change at a time when that is needed more than probably ever before. 

Rishad Tobaccowala:  Yes. So one of the key things when people tell you that change is good. As someone who stayed in the same company for 37 and I still work with them, I'm still an advisor, I'm doing a lot of stuff. And I've stayed in the same city of Chicago for 40 years that I've known my wife, like today's our 36th anniversary, but we've known each other for 44 years. So I would basically say you're looking at someone who doesn't like change. You know, same bosses, same company, same city, same wife, what the hell!

And that's because when someone tells me, change is good, I say, I'm happy why don’t you change? And change is difficult because when you start changing, you don't know what you're doing. Like when you were young, you were learning how to have a bike, guess what happened? You basically have little pain in your knees, little scrapes, you fell off, people laughed at you, changes like that. 

Whenever you have to do something new, it's like riding a bike for the first time. You fall off, people laugh at you. You don't know what the hell you're doing. And so you pretend. You say, yes, I've rented a bike or you talk about bike parts, but you yourself had never got on a bike, which is what most leaders now are pretending. I buy stuff if we get these, get on the bike, fall down a little but because you're good, you figure it out. 

But if you don't do that and you just talk about it and watch movies about biking, you would become irrelevant. Because I always would say like, what about this? And then you won't know. And I said, you have to start learning and doing. But, at the same time, you've got to remember that inside a company, there is no use putting out a change manifesto, having change agents doing every day. The way change happens at a company is if you tell people why it's good for them, not just what's good for the company.

Number two is you incentivize them either with money, promotion, opportunity to change. And the third is you provide training, so they learn how to have the bike. So the whole idea basically is you should learn the bike because learning a bike will be good for you because you won’t have to spend so much time walking.

By the way, if you learn the bike, we will basically promote you so you will be higher at the organization. And by the way, when you start this biking thing, you're going to be falling down so we're going to have to train you. So people will laugh at you less because you'll be in the training program. The training program, people works at. Now, you can have change happen, then you can do all your everyday and all your other things. But people don't care about training, incentives, or communications as to why it's good for the individual. They care about communication of a press release. Bringing in an outside change agent.

Mahan Tavakoli: Then they wonder why it didn't work for them. Leading to your book Rishad, with how to lead with soul. So how would you recommend again at this time for leaders to lead with soul? 

Rishad Tobaccowala: So what has happened is there are five characteristics of leaders that have soul. And as you have read the book, most people were sort of surprised. It's like, how did you spend time writing this book? 

I spent a year doing research for the book. And then I spent a year writing it. So I had lots and lots of research, which is one of the reasons I could do all these newsletters so easy because I've got so much shit from the past. But what tends to basically happen is one of the big things I did was I studied leadership. I read books on leadership. I observed leadership. I read articles. I went online to all the leadership things or the Harvard business review. And if you put everything together, you'd have 75 things to do as a leader. And that means nothing's getting done. 

So these are five characteristics of leaders. So the first one is capability, a leader can't be good unless they're capable. You know, you can’t be a leading doctor if you don't know medicine. So that's number one. 

Second is integrity. Now inside integrity, I've pushed a few things in. So one is integrity, and the fact that I trust you. Integrity is transparency, which is how you're making your decisions.

Integrity is reality. Are you actually facing the real world or you're facing some imaginary world? Now, unfortunately, today we live in a world where many world leaders are living in an imaginary world. They refuse to accept science. They refuse to accept technology. They refuse to accept reality.

And my basic belief is, Hey, they said, you're going to be dead. And that's weird, When you jumped out of the window, weird. If you decide you don't like science, please don't put on electricity. So don't basically think that we don’t realize how stupid you think we are. The people who are treating us stupidly are not stupid themselves, they're basically telling us we're stupid. 

So my always basic belief is make sure that you don't idol worship anybody because they actually think you're stupid. And that wakes people up, so that's reality. 

The third one is empathy which is, can you think about the other person.

The fourth one is vulnerability, which is, can you say you've made mistakes and therefore you surround yourself with people with other skills, including those who can call out the turd on the table and say, boss, you're making a mistake here. 

And the fifth one is, inspiration. Because in the end, a combination of leadership traits, behavior and storytelling will inspire people to do things that their rational minds will say is impossible, like winning a pitch where they're not supposed to win a pitch or whatever it is. 

And so those five characteristics are really what are there. And I say, very simple, this is what people are doing. I just put those up, capability, integrity, empathy, vulnerability, and inspiration. And then I say it, write down three leaders, write down your mayor, write down your governor, and write down your president, whichever country or your prime minister in whichever country you are and rate them.

It's that simple. See if it works. Then rate your bosses. See if it works. 

Mahan Tavakoli: Those are brilliant insights, Rishad. And, just the tip of the iceberg with respect to all the great content that you have in restoring the soul of business. 

Now I do have one more question before I let you go, Rishad. You had a brilliant cartoon in this last writing that you had sent out. I would love to get your perspective on the future of work as you see it.

Rishad Tobaccowala: Sure. So that cartoon it's from the New Yorker. I believe the future of work will never be the same again. The reality of it is the future of work has never been the same. If you think about work the way we were doing it the last decade, and compare it to 40 to 50 years ago, it was dramatically different.

So work always evolves. When we come to a particular point in time where it takes a quantum evolution. So there's a gradual evolution, and then suddenly you do this quantum jump to another level. In the past it came, because of some sort of technology. So when you began to have electricity, change the way factories, where things would basically be, you know, computing and telecommunications brought another change in work.

What has today brought a change in work is a combination of three factors. There's obviously COVID-19. And what COVID-19 has done is, this made everybody forced to do things that they never had done before. And the biggest one is distributed workplaces. That you're working from home. You're relying on screens, less physical movement of people and less physical gatherings of people.

So one part of what I believe the future of work will be is we will go back to gatherings. We will go back to offices. We will go back. But all of those things will be a minority of what we do. What's in the past, it was a majority of what we did. In the past, we had to explain why we were not in the office. In the future, we are going to have to explain why we have to be at the office. And when you think about why we have to be at the office is because we either need infrastructure. 

So if you're a dentist, you have to be at the office. If you're basically creating hardware, you need some of that equipment. But a lot of telemarketers, they want their people to be there. So that's one case. Or you need to basically, collaborate and learn from other people. So that's both education, training and some sort of creativity. Or third is because there's a client thing that you have to do. You have to be in class. You can't be in class at home. it may be safer to go to a place which is controlled by your office to go to any Starbucks, especially if it's winter, to have a meeting. So clients collaboration and creativity training, or necessarily for infrastructure. 

Most of us white collar workers don't need the first. And the number of client meetings are gonna go down dramatically. I used to fly 140 flight segments a year. I used to think about making sure I always ended the year on the highest level of United and America, which is called concierge key and global services. And now my whole thing is I don't want to fly. I was sort of on a vacation. I don't want to fly ever again.

And like what I do all of these things, I said, I get access to CEO's fast without all of their gunners, haggis on and people who tell me, you have to say this, and you have to say that. In fact, most C level executives are asking me. "Why did we have all these people hanging around us?"

So the nature of work is going to basically change pretty dramatically. And I think all of us have to recognize that we are going to become companies of one. Even if we're at companies of billions. That, in effect, we're going to be looking at, we are part of an ecosystem of our company, but we need to have an expertise. We need to be well-regarded by others and we know how to collaborate with people. And we need to continue to constantly upgrade our skills in order that we continuously get collabed in. Because it affects this world, it's the way it's going to be. 

You're going to primarily be working remotely outside of a few industries. Which means 75% of your time, you are going to be working by yourself, or a small subset of people at a local Wework or Regis or something of the sort. That is a pretty dramatic difference. You're going to primarily be interfacing through screens. Yes, you're going to have training but you're going to have to have much more self motivated training, which is why the whole thing about self upgrading yourself, and your mental operating system. 

And that the other one, which is a couple of philosophical ones. This I give, especially to people who are students, young people in their careers, or sometimes people who are okay. They're doing okay, but they're not sure what they want to do. And my whole thing is, all you need is less. And I said, there is a lot of the US, and obviously much more around the world, people who need stuff, desperately. Food, housing, healthcare. And then there's about 70, 65% of the US which is okay. So 35 - 40% is not, and 60% is okay. 

Many of the people that I deal with, fortunately, are okay. I mean, They have a roof. They know how to pay their bills. They don't have a food problem. They have other issues, but they don't have these. So putting that aside, if you look at all of these other things, the thing that is extremely clear to me is in such a world where you've got all of these things. Now think about how you're living the last six months? Tell me how much of your wardrobe are you using? How many of all of the things that you've collected or you're using? And most people have figured out, they use the same two or three sweatpants or two or three shirts and two or three things that they redo.

And I said, so if you think about it, you are working really hard to pay a lot of debt servicing on things that you don't use at all when you're even at home. So could it be that all you need is less. And why that's important is therefore then, you don't have to price yourself out of the dream of what you really wanted to do.

Mahan Tavakoli:Rishad, what a brilliant insight to end on all you need is less, and it has taken a pandemic for us to realize that, but I would highly encourage all of our listeners to connect with you on social media. To read your brilliant book, Restoring the Soul of Business. We just touched the very surface of it and obviously to read the blog posts that you put on, on a weekly basis.

So Rishad Tobaccowala, thank you so much for joining us on Partnering Leadership. 

Rishad Tobaccowala:  Thank you very much for having me.

Rishad Tobaccowala

Author of Restoring the Soul of Business

Rishad’s is the author of “Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data” published by Harper Collins. Additional writings can be found on the Re-Inventing blog. He was named by BusinessWeek as one of the top business leaders for his pioneering innovation and TIME magazine dubbed him one of five “Marketing Innovators. Rishad is a Senior Adviser to the Publicis Groupe, the world’s third largest communication firm with 80,000 employees serving most recently as its Chief Growth Officer and Chief Strategist. Rishad has a BS in Mathematics from the University of Bombay and an MBA in Marketing and Finance from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.