Having begun his advertising career in 1999 with the Mumbai-based Rediffusion Dentsu Young & Rubicam Private, Syed Gousul Alam Shaon assumed responsibility of Grey Group's strategic planning and creative department in early 2007. Now, as a managing partner and country head, he leads the global advertising and marketing agency's Bangladesh operations. During the second episode of The Daily Star's 'The Chief Executive Show', he spoke about his turbulent youth, risk taking, various challenges to success, creative leadership and more.
To handle the pressures of doing business, Shaon prefers a philosophical approach.
"The mind must be like a calm pond where nothing moves," he said, adding that when faced with adversities, a leader should only smile and say: "Don't worry, there's a solution".
In order to avoid bringing one's work problems home, one should compartmentalise his/her life. For example, in a book titled, 'Six Thinking Hats', the author Edward De Bono talks about when and how to switch off certain parts of one's brain.
"Even Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina uses an interesting model to switch on and off, which I came to know from interviewing her," he said.
However, Shaon's life was not always easy as he underwent turbulent youth on his journey towards the top.
Despite having faced hardships while completing his SSC, Shaon went to study economics in Delhi, where he met a man who would define the course of his life by simply saying, "You will do very well in advertising".
With this man's guidance, Shaon began fostering an interest in brand marketing and communication and ultimately decided to join the Indian Institute of Mass Communication.
"In a long-distance call to my father, who was a government employee at that time, I told him that I do not want an MBA degree but would rather study marketing and communication," he said.
"Surprisingly, the man I feared the most gave me permission to pursue my dream. My father eventually told me that it was a very difficult call for him. But seeing how things turned out, he thought I made the right choice," Shaon added.
Having made the right decision at the right time, it turns out that the advertising and marketing wiz is a huge believer of risk taking.
When a person becomes complacent at any point in life, that person will get stuck but people who take risks will move up.
Asked about the most challenging experience of his professional life, Shaon said it must have been the first few days of his job as Grey's Bangladesh country head.
"It was around 2006 when many multinational clients left the company. As a result, many co-workers vacated their positions and suddenly, the office became smaller.
"It was then that my bosses told me 'you have to run this office', and I was not prepared," he said.
After considering his options for two days, Shaon realised his two greatest strengths -- innovative strategies and creative thinking. He then discovered that there are not many advertising agencies in the country that offer cutting edge creative or strong communication-based brand strategies.
Since Grey was only employed by multinational companies at the time, Shaon decided to expand their clientele by working with local firms.
"And all it took was two great campaigns," he said, adding that the first two years were hard for his 28-member team but he enjoyed every bit of it.
However, risk taking does not mean a person should engage in knee-jerk reactions.
"When a crisis comes, you have to sleep over it and think before you take a decision. That crisis taught me that challenge makes a person," he said.
As a member of Grey's top brass, Shaon plays the role of a creative leader but has the attitude of a lifelong learner.
"The day you believe you know everything is the day you die. Experience is an enemy to creative thinking," he said.
When it comes to working as a team, everyone should contribute and there must be a healthy atmosphere for debate.
In regards to thinking divergently or convergently, Shaon said thinking patterns have changed all over the world.
One problem could have several solutions but choosing the right one depends on the unique situation and a person's judgement.
"Even a few years ago, branding and marketing were not as prevalent as it is now. Back then, strategies were formal but now, we have even adopted Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell's psychological models," Shaon said.
Being a multitalented personality with forays into screenwriting, acting and producing, Shaon believes in 'multipotentiality'.
"When we were young, our elders asked us to choose one aim in life. But later, I realised that there is no need for only a single target," he said.
There is currently a concept on this theory called, 'multipotentiality', which states that a person can do two or more things if it brings him joy.
He also has some tips for newcomers to the corporate world.
"There are no right or wrong decisions but there are consequences. Whatever your heart says you should follow, go for it but make sure that you make the right choice," he said, adding that he thinks rushed decisions are usually based on 'gut feelings'.
"Like author Paulo Coelho expresses in his novel 'The Alchemist', life will keep giving you hints and it's your duty to pick up on these opportunities," Shaon added.