Thursday, June 2, 2016

The MD and the Mop

I was privileged to get a fantastic lesson in leadership recently, and I thought I must share that with you.

I was in a meeting with the managing director of a company and with him, was his head of Learning & Development We sat down around a table in their guest house - a little round table where you could have a discussion. Just as we got started, I realised that the Managing Director had got up and gone into the kitchen, and come back in a jiffy with a mop in his hand. He then went on to wipe the table clean. And as he saw the look of surprise on our faces, he said that when he put his diary on the table, he figured there was dust there! And he just decided to clean it!  Now, I thought to myself, this is such a rare sight! When was the last time you saw the Managing Director of a company actually take a mop out and clean a table - in front of a group of other people?

Think about it. He could have easily done something else. He could have called out to the attendant, who at that stage was busy making some tea and coffee for us and said, "Come I want you to clean the table right now!" Or he could've screamed and shouted at him for not having maintained a clean table. Or he could've complained about the world we live in and said, "Look, how there's so much dust around us!". He didn't do any of that. He was a man who had seen a problem (which none of us actually noticed) and then he decided, 'Hey, let me do something about it!'. He went out, got a mop and cleaned the table. That's just the kind of leadership that's becoming so rare to find in our world today. But, it's also just the kind of leadership that we all need to see more of. 

Maybe you and I need to do this too. The next time you see a problem, you see that dust on the table which nobody else has noticed, don't just leave it there. Don't scream and shout and ask someone to set it right. Maybe all you need to do is get up, find a mop and clean it! You'll have a clean table, sure. Hey, you'll also become a role model for what great leadership looks like! 

Just like this MD. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Pencil and the Eraser!

There’s an interesting story of an imaginary conversation between a pencil and an eraser. 

 “I am sorry,” said the pencil to the eraser.
“Whatever for?” asked the eraser.
“I am sorry because you get hurt because of me,” continued the pencil. “Every time I make a mistake, you are there to erase it. And every time you erase one of my mistakes, you lose a bit of yourself. You become smaller and smaller. And just a bit dirty too.”

“You shouldn’t really worry,” responded the eraser. “I was meant to help you whenever you made a mistake, and I am happy doing my job. And I know one day I’ll be gone and you will find someone else to do my job – but while I am around, I take pride in knowing I did my bit to help erase your mistakes. Keep writing. And remember, never be scared to make a mistake. There will always be an eraser around to set it right!”

If you think about it, you’ll probably recognize that our teachers were the erasers early in our lives. We were the pencils, sharp, pointed, colourful. And every time we made a mistake, our teachers were there to correct us. They gave a bit of themselves – so that we could emerge looking just a bit better. And then as we moved from school to college and then to work, we found new teachers. But there is no mistaking the fact that we are what we are today, because of those teachers, those wonderful, magical erasers.

That conversation between the pencil and the eraser could well be a conversation between a corporate leader and a protégé, a mentor and a mentee. Good leaders never forget that one of the key roles they play is that of a teacher. Folks who help young managers become great pencils. Who erase the mistakes that help the pencil’s work look good. People who give up a bit of themselves to help the pencils get better. And most importantly, leaders are the ones who give their subordinates the freedom and the confidence to make mistakes – secure in the knowledge that they’d be around to correct mistakes if and when required.

And there’s something else about teachers that makes them truly special. Their ability to look at every student, every child, and see the genius inside. They know that each child is different – and that there is a unique skill or strength inside each and every one.

And yes, as a Teachers’ Day special, do yourself a favour. Pick up a pencil. And send a message to an old teacher or leader to thank him or her for being that wonderful eraser in your life. Do that. You will, won’t you?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Life Lessons from the Ping-Pong Table!

Like several of my colleagues at work, I too look forward to the lunch hour every day. Not just for the appetizing canteen food, or the lunch room conversations – but for the table-tennis game that follows after lunch.

It is a pastime that seems to be gaining in popularity, and with younger folks joining the organization, the standards seem to be going up too. It’s usually a series of matches involving doubles teams, and apart from being a healthy stress-buster it is also a great leveler (where else would you find the rookie accounts officer hammering the CFO!)

As I sat back and thought of the fun-and-games, I couldn’t help thinking that the daily ping-pong session also offers us some interesting life lessons. Here are just a few:

1.      Not too high, not too low. It’s a simple game after all. Hit the ball – not so low that it doesn’t clear the net - and not so high that it does not land on the table. Most things in business – and in life - are like that. It’s about finding balance. In dealing with people, you can’t be so hard that no one wants to work with you – and you can’t be so soft that no one takes you seriously. You can’t invest so much that the returns never seem enough, nor should you invest so little that sustaining the business becomes unviable. And remember, you have to make that adjustment. The net won’t get any lower – nor will the table become any longer. You need to adjust.

2.      Two better players don’t always make a stronger team. We often think great teams are just about having highly talented individual players. As we see every afternoon, the two stronger individual players don’t always end up winning as a team. Teamwork is about learning to get the best out of your team-mate, covering for the other’s weaknesses – and helping him (or her) to play to his full potential. Good lesson to remember – on the table-tennis table and off it too.

3.      Small things matter. We have a table that cost quite a bit and some very nice, expensive racquets too. And yet, there are days when we don’t get to play – because we have run out of table-tennis balls! A ball only cost some 15 rupees or so – but without it – life comes to a standstill. And we seem to only worry about them when they are not there. Good question to ask yourself: what are the ping-pong balls in your life? Who are those almost forgotten, seemingly insignificant folks – without whom your life wouldn’t be the same?

4.      Blame it on the racquet! It happens all the time. Someone hits a bad shot, or loses a few points – and then what does he do? He looks disgustedly at his racquet and reaches out for a change of racquets. The message seems to be clear: The problem is not with me, it’s that damn racquet! When things go wrong we always look for someone or something to blame it on. A bad workman – even in sport – still blames his tools. Maybe a good idea to just take a deep breath, and focus on your game – and not worry about the racquet. Most times, the racquet is only as good as the person holding it!

5.      It’s just a sport – but everyone wants to win! The competitiveness on the table is to be seen to be believed. It doesn’t matter that not every player is an expert and there are no big prizes to be won, everybody is playing to win. It’s fun alright, but there is an underlying desire to do well, to get that next point, to win. And that’s a good attitude to have in life. Have fun. But ensure you are playing to win. Focus on the next point – don’t worry about the last one. Remember, no matter how strong the opposition maybe, you can win the next point. And the next. You can win. That’s what sport is all about. Heck, isn’t that what life is all about?


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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Who is Your Hero?

Here’s a question for you. Who is your hero?

There is tremendous value in having a hero. Heroes can inspire us to dream big, and do the impossible. Heroes can lift us in moments of depression and give us hope. And heroes blaze a trail which tells us that if we did similar things, we could achieve our dreams too. Our heroes can change over time – and that’s probably an indication of our own changing situations in life. And yes, don’t expect your heroes to be perfect in all respects. You will be disappointed and might get put off heroes forever – which would be a pity!

A question I often get asked is who my hero was. I have had several heroes in my life. And I thought it might be useful to share some of those stories. So here goes…

One of my earliest heroes in life was my father. Now that’s probably true for many of us! As a little kid, I was hugely inspired by the things he did. A self-made man – he left home in a village in Kerala to come to Mumbai to make a living, went on to study engineering, and forged a successful career. He even mastered the Hindi language enough to be able to teach it. Incredible! And I got my first lessons in writing and speaking from him. I also got my first lessons in people management – as a six year old kid. Here are two simple lessons I haven’t forgotten: One, always call the driver by his name. So it was always Nathu-bhaiyya – not ‘driver’! And lesson two: Carry your own school bag – don’t have someone else to do it for you!

As a cricket-crazy kid in school, I got a new hero when Sunil Gavaskar burst on the scene. He was short, opened the innings, and took on the fastest bowlers in the world without a helmet. He was also articulate, and wrote a fabulous book! In an interview at that time, Gavaskar said how he used his height (or lack of it) to his advantage – it helped him avoid the bouncers! And he talked of how playing cricket in the balcony of his little Mumbai home taught him to hit the ball straight – in the ‘V’. For me they were huge lessons: make the most of what you have. And don’t complain about what you may have missed out on!

And then came the angry young man. Amitabh Bachchan was a hero not just because he managed to beat up all the bad guys even while ensuring he was the son every mom wished she had! For me, the Amitabh story was all about having the courage to give up a steady job to chase your dreams, about being rejected, seeing repeated failure (and even being turned down by All India Radio because they felt he didn’t have a great voice!) And through it all, fighting, persevering, and never, never giving up.

A huge influence at work was one of my early bosses – Suman Sinha! He taught me that a leader at work was like an alchemist. Just as an alchemist turns metal to gold, a true leader turns men and women into managers. And he taught me the importance of values, of integrity, and the habit of doing the right thing – at all times.

There have been several other heroes too. Rahul Dravid, the ultimate team man. And Steve Jobs. And of course, my driver Karunan, who shared pearls of wisdom from his own life (sample this: Early in your career, what you learn is more important than what you earn. And don’t worry about which car you are driving. Focus on being a good driver!). Karunan is also a good reminder that heroes are everywhere. They don’t have to be famous people! And the important bit is not who the hero is, but about what you learn from him and how he inspires you.

So that’s it about me. But tell me, who is your hero? I am keen to hear! And in case you don’t have a hero, find one. Today!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Getting a Licence Does Not Make You a Driver!

He is 58 years old, bespectacled with distinguished silver grey hair. He’s spent 25 years working for one of India’s most respected corporate houses. I have learnt a lot from him. But it is unlikely you would have ever heard of him. His name is Karunan. And he worked with me as my driver.

Sometimes, the biggest lessons in life come from very unlikely sources. And as Karunan spoke to me one morning about his life and times, I thought young people would benefit from listening to what he has to say. Since Karunan will probably never be invited to deliver a convocation speech or a commencement address at a college, I decided to share those lessons with you. Here goes:

1. Getting a driving licence does not make you a driver. “I was 18 when I got my licence. But it was only after several months of driving a car that I actually learnt to drive, and became a real driver.” Young people must remember that. A licence is only a permit – and not a stamp of authority. An MBA does not make you a manager. It is only after you spend several more years learning on the job that you truly qualify to call yourself a manager. Many young people confuse getting a degree as signifying the end of their learning. Wrong. It’s just the beginning. A degree or a diploma – the licence – simply marks you out as someone qualified to learn from real life experiences. It doesn’t make you an expert.

2. The real world is very different from a classroom. “I learnt to drive a car. But my first job required me to drive a little tempo. The steering wheel was different, and so were the gears. I thought I knew how to drive – but I couldn’t even get the tempo started.” The world outside the classroom is a very different place. That’s as true for engineers and MBAs and accountants as it is for drivers. Get ready to get surprised.

3. Slog. Get your hands dirty. “I spent nights working as a cleaner. That’s when I learnt all about the insides of an automobile. Knowing what’s under the bonnet has made me a better driver today.” Most of the brightest marketing professionals in the country will tell you that they learnt their biggest lessons in the days they spent slogging in small towns selling soaps or colas. There’s no other way. If you want to be successful, work hard, dirty your hands – and go beyond your specific role.

4. In the early years, what you learn is more important than what you earn. “In my first job, the pay was bad but the boss was good. He gave me opportunities to learn, to make mistakes. He trusted me. I banged his tempo quite a bit – and while the dents were quickly repaired and touched up, the lessons I learnt remain firmly etched in my mind.” In your first job – don’t worry about your pay packet or the size of the organization. Get a good boss. A good mentor. That’s priceless.

5. Don’t worry about which car you drive. Focus on being a good driver. “I always wanted to drive the best cars – but rather than complain about having to drive a tempo or a school van or the city transport bus, I focused on driving well. I told myself that if I do that, the good cars will come. And they did.” Now that’s a great lesson. It’s not about the company. It’s about you. Do the best with what you have, wherever you are. Karunan spent fifteen years struggling in odd jobs before landing a driver’s job in one of India’s largest companies. We could all benefit by staying focused on doing a great job – rather than worrying about the next job, or the next promotion. Do a good job. Success and happiness will follow. Inevitably.

Those then are five fabulous life lessons from an unlikely guru. Follow Karunan’s advice and I guarantee they’ll make a difference to your career. And to your life!

(This appeared in the January issue of Careers 360. For more, jump to

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Betting on Unripe Fruit!

A friend I met last week was recalling his experiences from his first job and telling me about his boss. The friend had started off as a rookie reporter with Sportsworld – the magazine that Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi used to edit!

His boss was the assistant editor at Sportsworld: David McMahon. And he recalled with great enthusiasm the one trait that marked David out as someone rather special: his willingness to bet on youth! And here’s the story:

When the Indian cricket team travelled to the West Indies in 1983, every newspaper sent its senior-most reporter out to cover the tour. There was Rajan Bala from the Indian Express and Sunder Rajan from the Times, R Mohan from the Hindu and Ayaz Memon – all senior folks, recognized and respected. After all, this was a big tour. And who did David choose to send to cover the tour for Sportsworld? A young not-yet-out-of-his-teens lad called Mudar Patherya.

Mudar went on to do a great job – and his youthful exuberance, his natural curiosity and the desire to ‘live up to David’s trust’ ensured that Sportsworld had some of the finest coverage of the tour. In fact one Sunday morning – an off day with no cricketing action on the tour, Mudar happened to hear that Viv Richards – the big man – was going to be playing beach cricket with some kids in Antigua. And while the rest of the senior folks were either relaxing in the hotel or out sight-seeing, Mudar drove out to the beach, saw a bare-chested Richards having a blast with the kids on the beach and quickly clicked a picture of Viv Richards – with his amateur camera. The picture made it to the front pages of the Anand Bazar Patrika newspapers, and Mudar had another exclusive story to his credit. And David’s faith in the youngster had been vindicated.

Mudar went on to become one of our finest cricket writers, and now runs a successful financial communication services company with his wife in Kolkata. And I am sure he will admit to the role that ‘early break' – that vote of confidence from David - played in his eventual success.

And Mudar wasn’t alone. When it was time for Wimbledon, David – himself a terrific tennis writer – chose to pick another rookie: Rohit Brijnath. Rohit apparently did not even have a passport when he got told that he’d be covering Wimbledon! Rohit went on to become one of the finest sports writers India has produced.

Most good leaders have a knack of spotting great talent. But it’s the exceptional leaders who bet on that young talent – ahead of it’s time. A big assignment, a special project – or an out-of-turn promotion – and suddenly that young talent becomes a hot success. Many many successful people owe their meteoric rise not just to their talent – but also to that leader who was willing to bet on them. And when a leader does that, the whole team benefits. Notice how the story of David’s greatness was being narrated to me by not by Mudar or Rohit – but someone else who was on that team!

The bet may not always come good. And when it goes wrong, the leader and the young prodigy often pay a heavy price. And here’s the irony: If the leader plays safe – he doesn’t really attract any criticism for not giving the youngster a chance. Which is why it take a special kind of leader – and a courageous one at that - to take that bet. And then the fearlessness of youth takes over. The enthusiasm – and the desire to prove the leader right – usually pave the way for the youngster’s success.

The day after I heard David McMahon’s story, India was fighting to win a test match in Bangalore. The big hope – Sehwag was out cheaply. And when all of KSCA roared to welcome Dravid, out came the debutant Cheteshwar Pujara. And my mind went back to David and Mudar and Rohit. Pujara had failed in the first innings – and yet was now was being trusted by his captain to play a defining innings. And he did.

Had he failed, it would have been easy to say that Dhoni erred. After all, the youngster had failed in the first innings. Why put him under pressure? Why change the batting order? Why… and the questions would have been many. Hindsight is usually pure genius.

Which is why you need to doff your hat to Dhoni. And David. And others like them. It takes courage to bet on a youngster.

So think back then, When it was your turn to take a punt on the kid, did you play safe, or did you bet on the youngster?

And hey, remember the guy who bet on you? Clearly, the corporate world needs more Dhonis and Davids.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Elevator Not Taken!

It happens to me almost every day. The dilemma of choice. And I wonder if you have a similar tale to tell too.

As I park my car in the basement and wait for the elevator to take me to my office on the sixth floor - I am confronted by choice. There are two elevators that I could possibly choose from. One is a 'slow' option: it stops on every floor. And the other is the 'express' option: It stops only at the even number floors - and of course at the basement. Which elevator should we take? The express one? Or whichever comes first? And as I wait with other folks for an elevator - it's fascinating to watch the dilemma play out every morning.

And I wonder if it's only in my mind - but it seems to me that the 'slow' elevator option almost always presents itself first. We get into it, rather reluctantly - longingly eyeing the panel of the elusive express elevator. And as it stops on the first floor, you can hear a collective sigh of disappointment. People turn their wrists to look at that watch - "Argh! late again!". People look at each other with a shared sense of dismay. One face seems to say "Why did this lift have to stop on every floor?" And all the faces seem to be saying "We should have taken the other lift!" If elevators had a mood indicator - this one would clearly be showing "irritated".

Makes me think. Our experience with elevators is probably true of our lives too. We see two paths ahead of us - and are never sure which one to choose. And we make a choice - and then worry about the road not taken.

And often our choice is dictated not by what we know is the better option - but by what presents itself first. A bird in hand - seems like several in the bush. We are not willing to wait. So we take the elevator that comes first. Or the first job we get offered. Waiting seems such a waste of time.

So what's the way out? Should we just decide what's best - the express elevator for instance - and then not get tempted when life's slow elevator comes up first? Easier said than done?

Maybe we should all just learn to relax a bit and not get too stressed by every choice we need to make. Both the elevators eventually get to the sixth floor, to our destination - and maybe that's what should really matter. No one's gonna look at us and say "ha, ha, he took the slow elevator!" And by not getting too caught up in the choice of the elevator, we might learn to enjoy the ride, just a bit more. And maybe, just maybe, that might help wipe out the frown on our face and replace it with a smile. Now what's that worth!

And in life - as in the elevator - it might help us to let go of our fascination with this misplaced sense of urgency. Getting there faster - nay, first - doesn't need to become an over-riding tenet of our lives. Think about it. Wherever you go, you see people agitated about getting ahead. Look at the queues in the supermarket, and you'll see this young couple splitting and waiting in two separate queues - just in case Murphy is right again. Why give up the pleasure of each other's company for five minutes - just to possibly check out 30 seconds faster? It happens early morning in the airport - as busy executives jostle like school kids - just to get past security first. Worth the stress?

As I mentioned to my wife the other evening about my daily elevator dilemma - she didn't even look up from the book she was reading. She just said: "Why don't you take the stairs? That would be really good for you!"