Rakesh Kapoor (chief executive of Reckitt Benckiser) in “The Corner Office”

KapoorAdam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Rakesh Kapoor, chief executive of Reckitt Benckiser, the consumer goods company based in England, who says employees — and leaders — should leave their comfort zones and not “keep complaining about how life should be.”

To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.

Photo credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

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Bryant: What were some important early lessons for you?

Kapoor: I was born in a very small town in India, and the literacy rate at the time was just one in six. Thankfully, one of the biggest things my parents could do for me is to recognize that if I stayed in that town it would be very difficult to get out. And I remember learning how my parents decided that I had to leave. I was playing marbles, and I had an exam the next day. My mother said, “Why aren’t you studying for your exam?” And I said: “What’s the point? I’ll be first anyway.”

I wasn’t that bright, but in that small town, I would have been first. So my parents sent me to the No. 1 school in India, which happened to be a boarding school in New Delhi. It immediately changed the game for me. I went from somebody who had never been second in class to the middle of the class. The bar was immediately raised, and I had to work really hard.

The lesson for me is that a very important part of leadership is to set a bar for people and to constantly keep them out of their comfort zone. I think status quo is a real enemy for progress. And getting out of my own comfort zone is just as important.

Bryant: Any other influences from your parents?

Kapoor: I asked my mom recently if she saw anything in my early childhood years that would tell her that there was something greater in store for me. She told a story of when I was pretty young, and I had some medical problem. She took me to an ayurvedic doctor, and he gave me a concoction that I had to put on my tongue, rather than swallowing, every day. I would do it every day and not complain.

One day, my mom tried the medicine to see what it tasted like. And she said it was the most bitter, awful medicine. When she was telling me about this recently, she said, “I think one of the things about you is that you don’t complain about something you have to do.” And I think this is a leadership lesson, too. You have to swallow many bitter pills in your life. You just can’t keep complaining about how life should be. You’ve got to accept the way you have to run your life and then do the very best you can.

Bryant: Tell me about your first career job.

Kapoor: I come from a background of entrepreneurs, and after I got my M.B.A., I joined a start-up rather than a big company. I found that to be a much more exciting way of learning.

I became an area sales manager for an electric typewriter company, and I was sent to a state called Gujarat. We went there and there was nothing. I said to my boss: “Can you even tell me where’s the office? Which way do you want me to go?” He said: “There’s no office address. That’s why we hired you, to build our business.” And for the next couple of years I recruited a huge number of people and we created the second-largest business of that company. So I tell people that when you choose your first job, choose one where you can really make a difference from Day 1, rather than getting submerged in a big-company mind-set.

It also taught me that if you are going to be successful, you’ve got to treat your company like your very own. Because, as an entrepreneur, you are depending on yourself to create the value, not anyone else. You cannot rely on other people to tell you what to do. You’ve got to take the initiative yourself. And if you do that, you know, you are going to have a great chance of success.

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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. His next book, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation, will also be published by Times Books (January 2014). To contact him, please click here.

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