Dishoom, the 2017 Sunday Times #36 best place to work, is led by its Head Babus - Shamil Thakrar and his cousin Kavi. We invited Shamil to talk to us about the leadership challenges they’ve faced when cultures have collided and how they’ve managed to create such a strong work environment.

Shamil’s talk took us on a journey through the history of Irani cafés, bringing us up to his modern-day UK restaurants - which pay homage to those old Irani cafés of Bombay. Shamil spoke with great reverence for the past; which has clearly influenced and inspired his values. It was clear to see that Shamil’s leadership is driven by purpose and humility. Shamil and his team are continuing the legacy of the Irani cafés and their fundamental tenet of bringing cultures together.

To quote Shamil ‘We want to create an environment where we don’t just tolerate each other, but we celebrate each other for all the colours that we have’ – Not an easy task, especially when he deliberately designs an environment where many cultures work together, so how does he do it?

1 – A leader’s symbolic act can have a deep impact on an employee’s sense of belonging

As we know, when leaders act – their employees react, for good or for bad. A leader’s actions become symbolic when they really resonate with the audience. A symbolic act will remain in the audience’s memory and will become a part of their understanding of who that leader is.  Be it Mark Zuckerberg wearing a hoodie to an investors meeting, or Emma Gonzalez falling silent for 6 minutes during her March for Our Lives speech – these symbolic acts live in the minds of others, and become folklore understanding of what that leader stands for.

When leaders are genuine and true in their actions, they show what is in their Core. By showing this, they are inviting others in and showing them that it is OK to be themselves too. But, what about a symbolic act that challenges colliding cultures? What about taking action to break down those cultural barriers and to bring people together? That’s a fine line to walk.

At Dishoom, the teams are proudly made up of many diverse groups, groups that cross many boundaries but that work together in one space. Shamil shared a story with us, which illustrates how respecting those differences can bring teams together.

Shamil is a Hindu and Dishoom’s Head Chef, Naved Nasir, is a Muslim. As a Muslim, Naved fasts for Ramadan – and now, each year, Shamil joins Naved for one day in that fast. During the month of Ramadan, they organise a special Iftar (the meal that breaks the day-long fast at sunset) to which all staff, regardless of their religious beliefs and whether they have fasted or not, are invited to attend. (They also organise a similar event for the Hindu festival of Janmastmi and Naved fasts with Shamil.)

Shamil reflects on these actions, which he humbly refuses to call symbolic, as simple act of respect between colleagues, but it was the reaction of the wider team which had the most impact on Shamil. A young Muslim chef said to Shamil, “I can’t believe that you, my employer, who isn’t a Muslim, would fast with us – that’s amazing. I feel welcome here. I feel like I can be me.”

2 – Leaders who live the values of the company make their vision a reality

Most companies will have a Charter, their brand values, a purpose or mission statement – but do they embody them? Do the leaders of those companies really reflect on them in all of their actions and act as ambassadors for them?

Is it important that leaders live their company’s values, does it really matter? As a leader, Shamil believes it’s incredibly important – so important that he and the Dishoom team created the Dishoom Dharma.

In Hinduism, a Dharma signifies a set of behaviours, values and virtues which lay out the ‘right way of living’. At Dishoom their Dharma explains what the ‘Dishoom World’ means to its staff and for its customers. The Dharma and its supporting principle of Seva (the act of selfless service) underpin all that Dishoom does and crucially, how Shamil and the senior team act as leaders.

Shamil is an active ambassador of the Dishoom Dharma, championing it both internally and externally. The Dharma is referred to frequently and at all levels of the business. By embedding the Dharma throughout Dishoom, Shamil is leading his team with purpose and inviting them to truly engage with the central values of the company – giving them another reason to feel they belong and are contributing to something more than their day-to-day work.

3 – When you’ve created an inclusive environment, you can be confident in what you will exclude

As leaders where does the line of inclusivity get drawn, or is there a line? To be truly inclusive must we allow all values and beliefs to be heard? What about those that create divides and threaten other people’s sense of belonging?

At Dishoom, they proudly recite their Dharma and have many great examples of where differences are celebrated – but for Shamil, what does he do as a leader when a different view-point threatens the inclusive environment that he has so carefully built? When those cultural collisions happen, which they do, how does he lead in that environment? He and the Dishoom leadership team created the Dishoom Community Standards – a sort of code of conduct and behaviours which sits with the values and beliefs illustrated in the Dharma.

The Dishoom Community Standards are, as Shamil described them, about ‘pinning your colours to the mast, and standing by them’.  It is about acknowledging that there are different view-points and perspectives, some of which you won’t share, but knowing where you as a leader feel you should draw the line. For Shamil, the line was one of respect.

As a leader, Shamil felt confident that having created a flexible environment, where people felt included and could share their differences, he and the leadership team of Dishoom had a duty to be firm in protecting it.

By excluding disrespectful behaviours, through the Community Standards, Shamil believes Dishoom will be able to continue to lead an inclusive environment.

Shamil joined Common Purpose at our Cultures Collide event; a series of talks from leaders about the challenges they’ve faced at the point of cultural collision. To learn more about Cultures Collide, and to register your interest for the next talk, please visit our Cultures Collide page