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Climb every mountain

Farooq Kathwari ascends to the top

by on
in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

In his office are photos of Farooq Kathwari and his family hiking the mountains of Kashmir, India. Kathwari grew up there, and his love of mountain climbing serves as a metaphor for his corporate ascent. He’s chairman and CEO of Ethan Allen Inc., the $1.2 billion home furnishing chain with 12,000 employees.

Kathwari moved to the United States in 1965 after earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Kashmir University. He earned an M.B.A. from New York University in 1968 and then joined an investment bank. Five years later, he started a firm that imported Kashmir wool and handcrafts. Ethan Allen eventually bought Kathwari’s business and hired him as a VP in 1980.

WS: Did you always set your sights on becoming CEO of a major company?

Kathwari: Not really. But I knew from an early age that I enjoyed providing leadership, that it came naturally to me. Ever since I was in school in Kashmir, when I was involved in activities like political demonstrations, I ended up leading whatever teams I was on. People who find themselves in leadership positions when they’re young tend to be leaders their whole lives.

WS: Why do some managers get promoted to the senior executive ranks while others never climb very high?

Kathwari: You have to start thinking about your competitive advantage early on. What will differentiate you? Just as a business must differentiate itself in a constructive way and offer a constructive service, you must identify how you’re going to stand out. Then apply yourself.

WS: What was your competitive advantage?

Kathwari: Maybe it’s the way I define success. Aside from money, I think in terms of spiritual success, which I define as thinking well of yourself and having others think well of you.

WS: What are some ways that your top managers have differentiated themselves?

Kathwari: The ones who get the promotions usually differentiate themselves by hard work, establishing credibility and being honest. They don’t care as much about getting credit. They understand that being known isn’t enough; you have to be preferred and desired.

WS: Can you give an example?

Kathwari: When we needed someone to run our manufacturing in the Southeast eight years ago, I knew a plant manager who was a hard worker and a great motivator. These strengths made him preferred and desired, a standout. I recall saying to him, ‘I’d like you to run this whole place. Can you do it?’ He said, ‘But I never went to college.’ I told him it doesn’t matter. Now he has 1,500 employees, and he’s doing great.

WS: What did mountain climbing teach you about success?

Kathwari: The need to maintain balance. If you go too fast, you have problems breathing. And if you don’t come down at the right time, you can die. I’ve seen employees climb too fast, and they have trouble breathing. They take on too much work. They don’t pace themselves.

WS: But some CEOs love managers who push themselves to excel.

Kathwari: I like people who push themselves. But I’ve had to say, ‘Let me take back your work. You have too much.’ I need to remind them not to lose their balance.

WS: Aside from pushing too hard, how else do ambitious people sabotage themselves?

Kathwari: The biggest enemy we have is our egos. Understand that if someone promotes you, he wants you to succeed. When he offers to help, don’t say, ‘I don’t want help.’ Be open to others and their guidance.

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