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!"

Friday, February 26, 2010

Give Yourself The 40% Advantage

Have you seen the new HDFC Bank ATM ad? It's neat. And I think there’s a nice message hidden in there somewhere, for all of us!

It’s the ad where a young man parks his car near the Bank’s ATM, and is being watched by this suspicious looking rouge. The evil guy makes a signal to his team – to move in for the kill. Turns out he’s actually a guy whose job it is to tow vehicles that are parked in ‘no parking’ areas. And just as they reach under the car to hook the vehicle, they hear the car honk. The driver is back from the ATM in a flash. The Message: HDFC Bank ATM’s help you withdraw cash – 40% faster!

It’s a nice ad, and anyone who has withdrawn cash from an ATM (or parked his car in a no parking area for just 2 minutes!) will find it easy to relate to. And I like it because it’s built on a nifty little consumer insight, easily converted into a benefit.

What HDFC Bank does is actually very simple. The system remembers the amount you “usually” withdraw, and the account number, and the preferred language and stores it as “My favourite”. And when you click on “My favourite”… you get your cash, in a flash – and off you go. The number of screens you need to work through comes down from 9 to 5. And hence the 40% faster advantage!

So while all Bank ATMs remember your name when you put in your card, HDFC Bank goes a step further. It remembers the amount of cash you usually withdraw, and your preferred language. And that thoughtful little extra makes for a 40% faster service. Simple. But effective!
And I think we could all learn from the Bank and get a 40% advantage in our relationships with other people too. Here’s how.

Next time you meet someone, don’t just stop at getting to know his or her name. Go a step further. Find out just a bit more. Show interest in the other person – and you’ll soon get to hear about her daughter’s school, her favourite movie, their last holiday to an exotic island, the missing driver’s licence, or his favourite football team. Pay attention, and you’ll get to hear several interesting, unique and memorable stories. Stories that will help you connect far better the next time you meet.

We all love it when the person you meet is able to recall a small incident or a peculiar trait. It brings a smile on the face. It breaks barriers, makes you feel closer. And the other person immediately becomes a nicer person. You hand him the 40% advantage!

And as the following story shows, great leaders learn to do that well.

Indra Nooyi the CEO of PepsiCo was on a visit to India several years ago. And in my first meeting with her, she noticed I had a plaster on my left arm. I explained that I had broken my hand while playing the annual cricket match between Pepsi and KPMG. We joked about fitness levels and talked about India’s passion with the game of cricket, before getting on with the business at hand.

We met six months later in Purchase, Pepsico’s headquarters near New York. (I have always thought it ironic that one of the best Sales organizations in the world is headquartered in a place called Purchase!). And Indra’s opening remark? “Good to see you again Prakash. And I am glad you haven’t been jumping around a cricket field and breaking your bones!” Hard to explain why, but that opening line has stayed with me ever since – and everytime I think of Indra, that seemingly innocuous line comes back to me!

Next time you meet someone new, go beyond the name. Show interest. Listen in. And find that little nugget of information that can give you a huge edge in future.

Trust me. It makes a difference. As the HDFC Bank guys are telling us, a 40% difference!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Tale of Two Seas

Sitting in the Geography class in school, I remember how fascinated I was when we were being taught all about the Dead Sea.

As you probably recall, the Dead Sea is really a Lake, not a sea (and as my Geography teacher pointed out, if you understood that, it would guarantee 4 marks in the term paper!)

It’s so high in salt content that the human body can float easily. You can almost lie down and read a book! The salt in the Dead Sea is as high as 35% - almost 10 times the normal ocean water. And all that saltiness has meant that there is no life at all in the Dead Sea. No fish. No vegetation. No sea animals. Nothing lives in the Dead sea.

And hence the name: Dead Sea.

While the Dead Sea has remained etched in my memory, I don’t seem to recall learning about the Sea of Galilee in my school Geography lesson. So when I heard about the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea – and the tale of the two seas - I was intrigued.

Turns out that the Sea of Galilee is just north of the Dead Sea. Both the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea receive their water from river Jordan. And yet, they are very, very different.

Unlike the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee is pretty, resplendent with rich, colourful marine life. There are lots of plants. And lots of fish too. In fact, the sea of Galilee is home to over twenty different types of fishes.

Same region, same source of water, and yet while one sea is full of life, the other is dead. How come?

Here’s apparently why. The River Jordan flows into the Sea of Galilee and then flows out. The water simply passes through the Sea of Galilee – in and then out - and that keeps the Sea healthy and vibrant, teeming with marine life.

But the Dead Sea is so far below the mean sea level, that it has no outlet. The
water flows in from the river Jordan, but does not flow out. There are no outlet streams. It is estimated that over 7 million tons of water evaporate from the Dead Sea every day. Leaving it salty. Too full of minerals. And unfit for any marine life.

The Dead Sea takes water from the River Jordan, and holds it. It does not give. Result? No life at all.

Think about it.

And as we start a new year – nay, a new decade, maybe useful to learn a lesson or two from the tale of the two Seas.

Life is not just about getting. It’s about giving. We all need to be a bit like the Sea of Galilee.

We are fortunate to get wealth, knowledge, love and respect. But if we don’t learn to give, we could all end up like the Dead Sea. The love and the respect, the wealth and the knowledge could all evaporate. Like the water in the Dead Sea.

If we get the Dead Sea mentality of merely taking in more – more water, more money, more everything – the results can be disastrous. Good idea to make sure that in the sea of your own life, you have outlets. Many outlets. For love and wealth - and everything else that you get in your life. Make sure you don’t just get, you give too.

Open the taps. And you’ll open the floodgates to happiness.

Make that a habit. To share. To give.

And experience life. Experience the magic!