New age leadership in plantation industry

Chacko Thomas

A career in Plantations not long ago was something that many a fresh graduate from one of the premiere colleges in India aspired for. The job which was well paying, truly embodied the much maligned work hard and play hard credo.  The job brought along with it several perks that included domestic help many in number, Club membership that hosted a few wild parties, close camaraderie which often lasted a lifetime and vacations that could include a furlough. Many facilities, amenities and perquisites clearly transcended the days of the Raj and were a regular part of a planter’s life. The life in Plantations was as close as you could get to a life in the armed forces. Hierarchy, command and control was a way of life. The seniors were expected to and mostly delivered what was good for you and the business. As a youngster or in the middle management you pretty much made one’s reputation implementing plans. In short life was as good as it came.

As is the wont things never stay the same, times change, industries and businesses evolve. Over the years what was once a flourishing industry that was protected and shielded from competition by government and policy alike woke up to the harsh reality that technology and entrepreneurship are a great leveler. Knowledge would never be proprietary and will always be accessible to who would seek it first. Free markets and availability of cheaper and better-quality produce from other parts of the world would mean that what was once a space that one strode like a colossus was now becoming increasingly grey and difficult to call out. In times like these when an industry goes through turmoil and change often there is churn. This churn includes people, ideology and the shape of the industry. Embracing change, mostly at the top is often the most difficult and hard part. Having been part of an industry for many years and attuned to a certain way of operating and often just a few more years of active service left many a times senior leadership does not embrace change. I hasten to add that not all organizations resist change but the ones that do, fall into a cycle of denial that translates into a slow yet interminable demise of the business.  Non- Competitive Costs, poor productivity, disadvantages of geography, trade blocs and often illegal smuggling of plantation products now would have become the new normal.

It is not a hyperbole when one says that the plantation industry has changed and dramatically at that due to some of the reasons I have mentioned above. The change brought about by business compulsions and the landscape is best embraced and good companies that look at protecting its legacy do it with alacrity. These companies understand that complaining is no longer a strategy anymore. One of the key changes that they bring about is in their style of management. I will take the next few paragraphs to try and explain some of the changes these companies make.


 The first change and the one I consider most important is transparency. With technology and real time information available the organization and specially the middle and junior level employees are very quick to pick up inconsistency. Possible decisions that are going to be made cannot be cloaked in secrecy or on misplaced need to know basis. Good leaders of agile organizations maintain the least number of layers of information. No employee wishes to or has the bandwidth to know everything that the company is doing but he/she surely wants to know why the organization is doing what it is doing. Obviously sensitive information cannot be shared but an employee feels included and responsible when he is made aware of what the organizational issues are and when plans to mitigate the same are disclosed individually or collectively. I believe that a management that exhibits a measure of vulnerability, humility and humaneness can feed of the positive energy that builds in the organization. Today our younger colleagues more than often are willing to take up challenges and contribute than ever before. What they do not like and quickly lose interest is when the narrative is are of facts that are obfuscated.

Walking the talk      

Often senior leadership is prone to giving stirring speeches, replete with promises and exhorting employees to work doubly hard. There are talks about practicing austerity and taking one for the organization. Senior leadership that doesn’t practice what they preach are the first ones to be called out for hypocrisy and a subsequent loss of face. Every action of the Senior leadership is under a microscope and even small things like the travel face scrutiny. Employees expect bosses to demand as much as the bosses would themselves stretch to do. If one expects an employee to be out early in the plantation, it would be the same expectation from the employee that the bosses would do the same occasionally.

Creating a constant buzz

Very few employees are motivated or want to work long in an organization where there is no apparent intent or hunger for growth. Most young employees feel that the best and most productive years should be in an organization that is not just brimming with activity and action but should exhibit ambition. Employees want to be known as working for an organization that have growth plans, engagement at all levels and working towards a very clear goal and ambition. A constant buzz for the right reasons can keep people engaged and there is no power greater than an engaged workforce.

Care for the planet

Increasingly it is evident that not just because we are here talking about the plantation industry employee’s world over and younger ones at that very strongly relate to the planet and its sustainability. The new norm is to constantly monitor the how green the company is or what the company does to give back to the planet. Employees are deeply connected to the impact that they or the company makes to the sustainability of the planet. I have in my many interactions seen many youngsters talk and action on many of the burgeoning sustainability issues. Earlier small actions in offices to ban plastic bottles and give glass water bottles were considered as initiatives by HR but today many of my younger colleagues are turning Vegan just because of the purported links to saving the planet. In these times a good company harnesses these sentiments and ensures that not is it seen as caring to the planet but also actively works with the employees who rightfully feel that they could contribute so much more.

Now to think about it when I joined the plantations many years I thought all that was needed to succeed was to follow orders and the rest would fall in line!


  1. Harmandeep Singh Bhandal

    Very well written! Especially the key values which I am personally aware the author has been developing over quite some time.

    The best part about the article is that it subtly hints at the many many aspects that can make the plantation industry ‘sexy’ again for the youth, especially with the influx of the above values, technology and the need to contribute towards the planet.

  2. Praveen Rengaraj

    Well penned Chacko. Yes, indeed the only constant in today’s world is change. It is the need of the hour to adapt and change and more often than not change for the better. A bold move is still a lot better than burying one’s head in the sand and wishing the tough times away. The turmoil in the plantation industry over the past decade and a half is purely because of the ‘ostrich’ syndrome. Those who saw it coming and took some bold calls including corporate re-organisation have survived the storm and i reckon its a matter of time before their efforts yield fruit. After all tea and coffee are something the world drinks. Yes, with tech at one’s fingertips, one can neither hide information nor oneself. Hiring the best talent in the plantations will continue to be an issue unless one sees a meaningful and mutually beneficial challenge.Of course the planet comes first ,always, without it we are nothing. Keep up the good work.

  3. Sampath Appaya

    The old style of leadership in plantation industry is out dated and will not serve any useful purpose going by the current scenario. Leadership is about guiding people. It is about listening, observing and influencing individuals and the team’s dynamics. It involves making team members feel valued, orchestrating participation, and shaping the team’s perceptions of what they are doing together and why.leading is motivating the team to persist through conflict and confusion to meet its higher purpose.
    Glad to note that you have made a conscious decision to change the leadership style in plantation industry. This will go a long way in motivating the younger generation of your industry.

  4. Arun Kumar

    Great reading and brings back the nostalgia memories of my earlier career with Tata Coffee Limited!!
    Keep it up!!
    Arun kumar

  5. Somanna

    Well written Chacko.. captures the changing times in the planting life, challenges , ecosystem, the physical strain.sustainbilty issues.

  6. KG Rajeev

    As you flip back the pages of plantation experience this is exactly the journey every passionate planter would have experienced. Adaptation today to the changing scenario is inevitable. But there is light at the end of the tunnel.
    A very good read.

  7. S,Jayaratnam

    Well written Chacko.I am not surprised as when I met you first in Aravikad, I was able to judge your potential. Now these seem to be rolling out.It is avery fast changing world, where only the fittest will survive.People have to adopt to change & age should not be a barrier.This year I am 50years in Tea ( especially Manufacture) & I have witnessed many changes in the Tea Industry.
    Best Wishes

  8. Anukram Singh Jhala

    We practiced what we preached then. And enjoyed every bit of the planting days then inspite of the industry going through a bad phase.
    Paragraph on care for planet is nice, happy to know plastic is being shunned and more environment friendly practices are being inculcated. But do not agree to the vegan ….
    Overall a good article Chacko well written and gives an insight into what changes have happened in this beautiful industry which was and will always remain my family. Congratulations!

  9. Prashanth Aiyappa

    Very well written. Hope the plantation industry takes the cue, that the well being of their people and the planet is the only way forward to sustain themselves and stay relevant in this day and age.

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