Sunday, December 30, 2012

Of Gifts and Return Gifts

Recently, a senior colleague of mine came in from the United States to meet with us.  Let me call her M. A feisty lady, strong willed and tough, she had a gentle side too as I discovered.  I liked her. She was warm and caring. She wanted to meet some orphan children at a modestly funded NGO in Hyderabad. She had come prepared for the visit having spent a whole day shopping for gifts for girls. Her goodies included some shampoo, hair oils, bright-hued hair pins and clips, some chap sticks for cracked lips and warm clothes for the mild winter of Hyderabad. Very thoughtful!

Her trip to the orphanage was eventful, both for her and for many others who she had invited to accompany her. Giving is very touching. The girls were very excited. What M did was to make sure that there was a more sustainable program that would give the orphans a decent education and a life. She had come to the place a year ago, and on that visit, had promised a girl that she would return — and she did. She gave the girls hope, a vision, a reason to live, and a life of accomplishment. Very heartrending!

Later that evening, she called her teenage son who was in college in the US, (his morning) and recounted the day, of where it all started – the day of shopping for gifts for the orphans, to the day she spent with them.  M told me about her chat with her son and the calmness that she had experienced. She added that he seemed ‘off-color’ and was more lost in the exams that were a day away. I told her that one never knows what children pick up as values, and that she could be surprised.

The next day, I met M in the morning, and she had just got off a call from her son. She had asked him whether he had studied well for his exams. He mentioned quite casually that he had gone to the supermarket and spent over four hours. M was furious and asked what he kept him away from his studies for half a day. Her son replied that he had been shopping for warm blankets and food for those affected by cyclone Sandy. He had also formed a group of friends who would help the homeless.

M’s eyes were moist. She no longer cared about the exams. Her son had passed the test, the test of what matters in life – values. She had a faraway look in her eyes.  The gift had been returned and how!  I smiled.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Of Advice — Received and Given

I am just amazed at the amount of free advice that is given out and received each day — all well intended and some very profound.  Some said in jest but precious all the same. So, here it how it all began…

‘Get up early, it makes you healthy wealthy and wise’, said my sleepy wife. It was 6 am. That morning I met my friend Ganesh from Mumbai and he mentioned quite casually that the best advice he received was from his colleague Kumar, who told him, “Sell your bike before you go to Bombay,” This seemed to be an everyday advice anyone would give, but not for Ganesh. This called for his giving up something he really loved – his bike. And yet he knew that there was some truth in the advice as given his health condition, he could not afford to take chances. He said that over the years, he could count off many near misses he has had on the roads in Bombay and remembered Kumar. Advice, oftentimes, may not be the thing you want to hear!

That afternoon, I met my colleague of many years, Ravi, and he said he received the best advice from me! I had asked him to ‘add some focus and commitment to life’ and asked him to ‘buy a house’. He had said it was beyond his means. I added that most things were ‘within your grasp, beyond your reach’, and that he should try. Today, he is a proud owner of a flat in Mumbai, and his appreciation (pun intended), knew no bounds.

This was beginning to be interesting. The same afternoon Venkat, a head hunter called me. I got the best advice from him several years ago. He had told me: “You don’t get far being a rolling stone, so don’t change your jobs every 3 years.” Precious! How can I ever thank him enough? Incidentally, he called to let me know that he had changed his job, but that is another story.

I came home. The maid servant was engrossed in her mopping. I lauded her for it. She responded saying that it was her duty to ‘do simple things exceedingly well’. Here she was giving me some sage advice in a graceful way. I was touched.

Later that evening, I met my sons, one of whom told me, “You got to relax, Dad!” And the other came in a few minutes later and added, “Dad, you got to chill!” I called my mother who lives in Chennai, who asked me to take care of my health. Big hugs, mom!  Advice was raining on me. My wife asked me not to “think too much” but remain “in the moment.” This was a Family package of advice – precious indeed!

It occurs to me that the world cares, people care, friends care, family cares and just about anyone you meet – care for you. They all express it in different ways.  We like some of the advice we get, some we don’t. I recognize that if anyone gives an advice, it is because they care!  I felt good.

A dear friend called me and advised me to pen my thoughts. Even as I write this, I am beaming with the joy of gratitude, of a day well spent – heeding the priceless advice... of the priceless!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Of Deep Desires and a (S)pot of Luck

Flash back to four years ago. He loved Hyderabad and wanted to buy a house and settle down here. He had said the same thing when he was in Bangalore a few years ago, but this time it was different. It was serious. So, he and his wife went house hunting.

First, he went to Taj Krishna, a very nice hotel which was hosting a real estate jamboree infested with upper class people. “What the heck, let me try to blend in,” he said to himself. He met a young man from a leading builder and asked for a brochure, and he reluctantly gave him one. “I should have dressed better for the occasion. Brochure prospecting is a serious business, and I should have known,” he thought to himself.  With a casual air, he asked for the price of a villa that they seemed to like.  The realtor quoted a figure that he thought was steep for a clutch of such villas. But he did not flinch. Instead, he asked him if he had anything better. Never let your guard down when buying a house.

He then picked out another bigger brochure and his amusement showed in his eyes. Now, this house was terrific. He fell in love with one that was available, that overlooked a park and had some really good frontage. When asked for the price, and it was like a blow to the solar plexus. Whew! But he held my ground, asked him to show him the booking chart and in his own hand, marked it off, and said, “I will return, keep this one for me.” His wife thought he was mad. This was way beyond any budget. “Anyways, I scored over the sales guy, didn't I?” he thought.

Life moved on. He could not afford that house. He opted for an apartment that overlooked the golf links. Life was going to be good.  He was steadily paying up for the apartment for a couple of years. Bad luck smiled.  The housing board played spoilsport and the flat went into litigation — for me and many more. He was in deep trouble. Life was at its ebb. He had paid up too much for an apartment that went into litigation!

His wife asked him to ‘perk up’ and buy a house. He loved advice. This was the best!  So, they went house hunting — again. Innumerous Saturdays were spent hunting for a place that they could call their own.  Six months of searching … and almost all properties and projects of the city were seen. None would come close to the house of his dreams, the one that he had liked.  His agent was getting tired of him.  Patience was running thin. And he asked him to see one last house, after which he wished to part ways.

The house was lovely, exactly the way he wanted, the park in front, good environs, nice façade. He wanted to close the deal and went to the builder. He was in trepidation as the prices were all too high. But the saving grace was that the prices had fallen by almost 40% owed to some regional politics (bless them!). The price was finalized. He would have to a fat loan from the bank and would now be working for many years for ICICI bank (to pay off his mortgage).

The builder asked for the booking chart to seal the deal. And as the page turned to the booking chart — lo behold, there was in his very own tick mark on the brochure — the one that he had marked off some four years ago. The dream house finally did come back to him!

I am touched by the power of deep desire and a (s)pot of luck. If you really want something, in a miraculous way, it does come to you. Not all the time, but when it does, it makes life worth living for something you deeply desire. It can happen to relationships, to jobs, and careers. Life does hold out its magic wand of goodness in all its seemingly endless road of pain and conflicts. Where there is a desire, there is hope, and where there is hope, there is life and miracles.

I welcome you to my new home and partake in our humble offering of fine humor, food for mortals and spirits of the Gods, for it is I, with that big fat dream! J

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Of Satellite Launches and Commitment

A recent incident within the family got me thinking about the whole nature of commitment at work. My wife and I went to Mumbai as one of the elders in the family had passed away. That day was a red-letter day in Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)’s history: They were scheduled to launch their 100th satellite.

The younger son of the deceased – let me call him Ravi, is a test engineer at ISRO. He was to be at the launch site, and instead came to Mumbai for the funeral – shattered and scattered. After he performed the last rites of his mother, the first thing he asked when he came home was to turn on the television. He then sat in front of the TV and followed the launch of the satellite.

There, as I saw him fully hooked to the TV, I noticed a certain ambivalence in him. On one hand, there was pain of losing his dear mother and on the other, a deep sense of concern for the outcome of the launch. When the launch was declared a success, he heaved a sigh of relief. And why not! He was part of the team that had tested each and every aspect of the rocket that went into space.

Like Ravi, people in the government are not really paid big salaries. They have modest means of earning and living – very different from the private sector. The sense of commitment was outstanding! As I thought about this incident, it helped providing answers pertaining to purpose and commitment.

What really motivates people is a sense of purpose. What really drives commitment is a clearly stated goal, and a will to succeed. Commitment really comes from within. It depends largely on how you have been wired, how you have been shaped by the environment, how you have risen to the high demands placed on you.

I was absolutely in awe of all the people at ISRO and their leadership team, including former Director, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam for instilling a culture of commitment, excellence and pride in what they do for this country. They have managed to instill a deep sense of purpose and patriotism.

Coming to think of it, the light bulbs flashed – commitment is no rocket science!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Of Math Tests & Second Chances

A profound insight into building character happened early in my life during my days in college. I was then a student of Mathematics at Vivekananda College, Madras. I remember Prof. Venkat, who taught us Theory of Automotive languages – a tough subject. Prof. Venkat, who returned from the US, was a giver. He loved to teach and accepted a salary of just Re.1. He came with the clear intention of making a difference, and he was a tough guy. As a professor, Prof. Venkat was par excellence. He was also one of my early teachers of ‘Ethics in Action.’

Mid-Year exams were approaching. The theory part was a bone crusher.  Many, like me, were not confident about the exam and we were trying to see how we could sit by the side of someone who knew the answers! I had never failed in an exam and this was going to be the first, for sure. On the day of the exam, when we all filed into the class, Prof. Venkat quickly distributed the question papers and asked us to keep them face down. We were a nervous wreck. Noticing a little flicker of fear in our eyes, he asked, “How many of you are not at all ready for the exam today?” A few of us raised our hands, hesitatingly. He said “Students sitting in room, I urge you not to copy. It challenges my imagination that somebody would have to copy in Mathematics!” Hopes faded in an instant.

Prof. Venkat continued: “If some of you believe that you are not ready, I will give you another chance. I will reschedule this exam to the next Sunday and we can have the same 3-hour text. I will change the question paper but next week would be your last chance. How many of you would want to come in on Sunday for the test?” We could have hugged Prof. Venkat. Only four people took the test that day. The rest of us came in on the following Sunday.

The incident left a deep impression on me.  Prof. Venkat gave me a second chance. He taught me to be honest. The simple deed of giving and not making a big deal about it was an act of grace. I will always remember Prof. Venkat for this magnanimous act. He taught me an important principle of human endeavor – to give people a chance. 

Over the years, I realized that it is very important to give each other a second chance. We all need a second chance – both as a giver and a receiver.  In giving you receive, and in receiving you take the responsibility to pay it forward. Recently, I was cleaning my cupboard and saw my old text book, and out fell a photograph of Prof Venkat. He had taught us more than just math … and I smiled.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

This was for That, and That was for This!

Very early in my career, I had a boss who was an incredibly nice man. I was working as an industrial relations officer, in a company manufacturing explosives for use in the coal mines in the heart of Bihar – and the union leaders ruled the roost. We had a new union leader who was elected called Ishwar.

On pay day, the cashier would count and hand over pay-packets to everyone in envelopes, a far cry from today's ATM cash fed machines. Pathak, the cashier who worked with the company for over 30 years, handed over a pay packet to the new union leader Ishwar. Even as he started counting the notes, he suddenly claimed that 100 rupees were missing. The average salary in those days was about Rs1300. So, 100 Rs meant a big loss for Ishwar, and he made a big hullaballoo directing profanity at Pathak and asked all employees to stop taking their salary. A big scene ensued. Pathak kept pleading that he was not at fault, as he was a very careful man. Ishwar had started well indeed.

The matter reached the ears of my general manager Om Prakash aka OP. He was a kind man. He knew Pathak to be an honest man but he wanted to defuse the situation. OP told Pathak to compensate the same amount from his account. Pathak was in tears as this had never happened in his long career and it came as a blotch on his impeccable record. Everybody forgot about the incident except Pathak. He was confident about it was the mischief of the union leader. We all knew that Pathak was right, but the damage was done.

The following month, prior to pay day, my boss OP called Pathak and spoke something to him. We all knew that OP would tell Pathak to be careful. The word was abuzz that Ishwar was coming for his pay-packet. This time again, the same 100-rupees was missing and Ishwar created an even bigger ruckus – same ritual.
OP went to the cashier’s area, looked at Ishwar and said, “Why is it only your cover has 100 rupees less, every month? This never happens to anyone else, but you? And Pathak has been here for ages! Will you doubt your fellow being wrong each time?”

OP then looked at the crowd of people and in a measured way left the place. The crowd shouted at Ishwar accusing him of being an unfit union leader who found fault with his own staff. Ishwar had no answer and went away without the 100 rupees.

That evening, I was with OP’s office when Pathak came in and fell at OP’s feet and thanked him profusely. Seeing the bewilderment on my face, OP said he trusted Pathak and knew that Ishwar was out to create trouble when the first time he claimed he got less money. This time around he deliberately instructed Pathak to put 100 rupees less in Ishwar's pay packet, and appealed to the people about his innocence. Given the reputation of the cashier, the people were sure that Pathak was innocent. And it worked … aah what drama! That day, Pathak went home walking tall, his reputation preserved.

Sometimes it pays to pay back in one's own coin. After all ... "This was for that and that was for this!"

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Of Flipping Coins and Decision Making

I had an uncle called Krishnamurthy.  We used to call him Kittu Mama – a very quiet and thoughtful man. He was very popular with all the children at home. He was non-judgmental and always supported us in any way he could.

My earliest memory of him was his taking me to a shop in Madras to buy me a candy called 'kamarakattu', a specialty in those days. I don’t see them in the malls any more. What an expectation! Like many of the things of my younger days, it has not passed the Darwinian test – survival of the tastiest!

During the summer holidays, he indulged all of us by teaching to make a special candy made of tamarind, sugar, salt mixture, stuck to a small toothpick-like stick. We used to walk around the house feeling like Edison having invented something new. Such was the power of his persona. Nowadays, we need more of such Kittu uncles.

One day, I was caught up with myself in some decision-making bind – Do I? Do I not? It was all too confusing and I resorted to the usual – flip a coin, make a wish, and see what the coin lands up with. Seemed easy! I tossed the coin and 'asked' for heads. When it landed on my palm, it was 'tails'. Hmm ... best of 3s, I told myself. Rats ... again, tails. Hmm ... best of 5s, I said to myself.

And as I flipped the coin, Kittu Mama appeared from nowhere and caught the coin mid-air. He looked at me and asked me what I was doing. I told him that I was making a decision, and of course, that I was betting on best of 5 flips of the coin and if I called correctly, it would lead me one way...

Kittu Mama looked at me in a good-natured way and said that flipping coins was a great way to make a decision, and said that we need not flip it more than once. The coin would never lie, he added. He asked me to flip for the last time, and asked me to call out if this were 'heads or tails'.

I called heads, and even as the coin went flipping, he caught it as it came down, covered the coin in his palm, and said, “What did you wish for when the coin came falling down – a deep desire?”

I said, “I wanted heads, and badly so.”

He said, “Then don’t look at the coin. It does not matter if this were heads or tails.”

The decision making was complete, even as the coin was in the air. “The outcome of the coin in his palm was inconsequential,” he added.  He said, “No more 'best of 3s' etc.”

Suddenly it all fell in place. I wanted a desired outcome, and could not decide and flipped a coin. Even as the coin was in the air, the heart knew what it wanted. That was the right answer! This was magic – what a great and simple philosophy!

Recently, I flipped a coin and even as the coin flashed in the air, I knew what I wanted … and I remembered my late Kittu Mama.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Prophetic Lie

In the morning of August 29, 2011, we had the Hyderabad Marathon and a dear friend of mine, Bhasker Sharma, from Bangalore, was participating in it. He had asked me to come to the Gachibowli Sports ground at 9 a.m., by which time he would have finished the race. I went there at about 9 a.m. and was very excited as I was meeting Bhasker after many moons.

At the gate, I was flagged down by an officious police official who prevented me from going to a spot closer to the stadium. I told him that I was there to receive the marathoner who had come in first in the event. He looked at me and flagged me off with a big smile on his face. I had lied, as I had no idea if Bhasker came first or not. I did not feel good about it. It was playing on my conscience, even as I alighted from my car.

I met Bhasker on the track and realized he was a celebrity! He had done some 31 marathons and everyone seemed to know him. I was in great company. I was basking in his glory and was holding his bib, his small eats, anything for somebody to know that I was Bhasker’s friend! I managed to catch up on old times but after a marathon, it is a bit hard, and Bhasker was patient with me.

The Prize distribution was on and we were heading toward the podium. Then came the vote of thanks. No, Bhasker’s name was not called out. Dutifully, I got Bhasker and his brother into my car to the nearest auto-rickshaw and he left. I felt guilty on two counts — I had not spoken to Bhasker long enough or taken him home, and I had lied to the police guy at the gate.

About 4 p.m., I called Bhasker and caught up with some quick chat on the phone as he was heading out to the airport. He said that it was a great marathon, his personal best timing of sub-4 hours, and added that it was a bitter-sweet one for him. He had been called out by the organizers for being the first in his category (above 50 years), and at that time we were out of earshot. He missed receiving his trophy from the Governor. His prize would be sent to Bangalore.

And I remembered the conversation with the policeman and smiled. It was a prophetic lie, indeed!

Sometimes in life, if there is an universal truth out there, even a lie turns true...

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Of Ambys, Splutters and Stutters...

Years ago, there was this senior colleague who I much admired. Let me call him Dr Rajan. A fine man, he used to be especially kind to his car. He owned an Amby – the good old Ambassador – and used to speak to his car in a kind sort of way. Winter mornings were not good for the cars in those days. Fiats and Ambys were subject to a lot of ignition coaxing and cajoling, and the whining of the engine in the mornings was a regular feature of the times.

Dr Rajan used to talk to his Amby, allow for her to splutter and in all the intervening times would say sweet things to her and forgive her whining. Notice the gender here. To Dr Rajan it was a ‘her’. I was very young then, and used to watch him with amusement. He believed in her and was often said that he knew she could ‘make it’.  It appeared as if his car u came to life after his words of endearment. I learnt then that a dollop of kindness here and there worked wonders, even with inanimate objects!

Many moons later, I had the opportunity to meet a fine student called Chandramohan at a campus at Tiruchi. He was a brilliant man and a passionate soul – a whiz with the web and a technophile. He was shortlisted for the final round of interviews on the basis of his test scores. Before the interviews, he met me – something I always evade, but could not avoid this time – and started to speak to me. I noticed a lot of stutter in his speech. I knew that this had its foundation in confidence and told him that he needs to ‘keep his chin up’ and do his best, etc. When he told me about himself and I was confident he would leave a mark wherever he went. He was passionate, intelligent and caring. I liked him a lot for I knew we had a winner on our hands. However, I knew that it was going to be tough for the young man at the interview, what with his minor handicap.

The interviews started and when Mohan came in, I confronted my worst fears. He seemed nervous and was stuttering a lot. He could not do much and despite my support, his candidature was looking at risk. The panel members sat in the evening to discuss the finalists and I guess, it was my lucky day that I was able to persuade them to clear Mohan. He was put into Sales and Marketing – killer job for such a person! His boss was unrelenting and for about two years he silently bore the brunt of her demands that he “should not stutter.” Long story short, Mohan decided to leave and start his own firm. On his last day at work, he came to me and thanked me and I asked him to have belief and faith in himself – he would one day be an outstanding guy. I told him that I trusted him and his abilities more than anyone, and he thanked me for my words of encouragement. I wish I had done more to help him.

Many years later, Mohan tracked me down, and wanted me to address his top team in Chennai.  He was a hugely successful software entrepreneur and was doing very well in his field. He was very upbeat, very effusive of his praise of the company where we worked and recounted in fondness of what he had learnt in the place where we had worked before. I was a bit embarrassed and while he was being a good host, I was lost in the wonderment of his accomplishments. I had no doubt about his capabilities. His team was very passionate about the company and were very competent professionals. The meeting ended, and I came away feeling really on top of the world. As I sat in my car, it occurred to me that in all the time I was with Mohan there was something very different about him. The stutter had vanished!

What a spoon of self-confidence and self-help can do to oneself! We all need to help ourselves. And we need someone who can be in that hour when support is needed most … someone to help get past that splutter – those cajoles and coaxes with a gentle touch – to find that confidence in ourselves. And I remembered Dr Rajan.

Of Androcles and What Goes Around Comes Around

My grandmother taught me to read and instilled in me values, as all grandmas do. I remember her telling me the story of Androcles where this young man was in a cave and he saw a lion in a cave, roaring in pain and recognized it needed help and removed a thorn from its paw. Later, the same lion saved him when he was being thrown to the lions in the arena, as throwing people to the lions was a popular sport then. This story stayed with me for a long time.

Fast forward in time, about 1997, I was recruiting at a campus in Calcutta and made job offers to a few students. About two months later, one of the candidates – and I will call him Sai, an outstanding guy – called me to say that he had failed a paper and so, he would not be getting his ‘Degree.’ His widowed mother made entreaties and asked me to extend the validity of his appointment letter by six months that would allow for him to clear his exams.

Although this was against policy, I took a view that we would allow for an extension that could have Sai join us. His mother was happy, Sai was happy. One day, Sai wrote to us to say that he had found a job closer home and was very thankful that we kept his offer valid as this gave him a big leg up to his sagging confidence. We were sorry that he could not join. All was forgiven and forgotten.

Fast forward to 2011. About four months ago, a colleague of mine called on me with a request to help him find a job for his wife, Sudha, a qualified sales person. I wrote to a good friend – let me call him Ram – a HR head of one of the largest Indian banking institutions in the country and asked that he consider her candidature on merits. Ram responded to me to say he would try and forwarded my mail to some colleague of his.

A couple of months later, Sudha called me to say that she had ‘got the job’ and was most thankful to me. The excitement and gratitude got jumbled in the words that gushed and I was as thrilled she got the job. That is all that mattered. I was very impressed that her resumé got the right attention at the right level and the speed at which it was evaluated and an appointment letter issued, in one of the largest banks!

I was in wonderment of it all, when I got a call at my desk. It was from the Bank, and the head of HR wanted to speak to me. He mentioned that the mail came over to him, had noted where the mail emanated and had gone the extra mile to ensure that the CV got the right attention, etc. I thanked him profusely. He asked me if I remembered giving a helping hand to a candidate who had failed his exams many years ago. It was Sai. I could not believe it. Virtual hugs followed.

Today, Sudha called me and told me that she was awarded the highest order of merit by the bank for her performance and I congratulated her. I started humming Justin Timberlake’s song, “What goes around comes around.” And I remembered my grandmother...

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Of Evaluation and Evocation

I can never forget the first annual review of performance of my work in an organization. The appraiser was my boss, my hero, Ravindran G, working with the Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), a then leading, UK-based multinational. Being a management trainee, there wasn’t anything substantial I believed I had achieved. I had visited seven departments over the year, observed how they worked, how we could improvise, working on small projects, but had not really done anything that stood out. So, when the time for the review came closer, I was quite worried. What had I to show? How would I be received? And there was money tied to the evaluation. Worse, heart of hearts, I knew it was not a great year. I was feeling really low.

Ravi scheduled a two hour meeting with me for my review, which didn’t make me feel any better! I was totally unprepared about what to say. At the appointed time, he took me in his ‘buggy’ to the club and we sat over a cup of coffee. He pepped me up saying, “Looking sharp, Nathan,” which meant that I had dressed well. This made me feel at ease, and I was starting to feel better. This was going to be easy, hopefully.

Ravi started off by asking me, “How was the year, gone by? Do you believe we have lived up to your expectations? What does your conscience tell you?,” etc. The two hours that were to be my evaluation, actually turned out to be one of the most engaging conversations I have ever had. He kept egging me on with appreciative nods. I told him about my fear of evaluation and my nervousness, and everything I had done over the past year. I admitted my failures, mentioned my small wins, owned my goof-ups and discussed my plans. I spoke like one who didn’t fear evaluation.

At the end of the two hours, I felt a huge burden off my shoulders. I asked my boss what I could do better, and he told me in simple words, “You have done well! Do what you are doing; stay honest and you will go way up ahead. And, by the way, focus on your strengths. Don’t worry about what you are not good at. And, do small things exceedingly well.

From this experience, I came out stronger and enriched, with the knowledge that one needs to put in a lot into the job and not overly focus on evaluations. For years, I strive to conduct meaningful review sessions where I focus on what has been achieved, evaluate performance, not the person, not scare them off, but evaluate to give them developmental feedback, shore up their confidence and be in their moment of evocation of their professional and personal growth ... just as Ravindran G did years ago.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Of Marathons and Careers

I am always very fascinated with marathons. In my younger days, I used to do a lot of long-distance running. The more I think about a marathon race, the more I am convinced that it is very similar to how our careers pan out.

In a marathon, there is a start line, a finish line, and a goal to be achieved. How well you perform depends on how you prepare for the race, and how you run that race. And at the end of the finish line when the marathon is over and done with, along with the sheer joy of completing the marathon, we all start to look forward to another marathon—just like we do in our jobs.

The warm-up: As I see it, preparing for a marathon is like preparing for a career. There is a lot of learning, a lot of rigor, lots of discipline, and not to forget, a compelling reason to excel. I have also learned that it is important to run the race because you’re committed to running it, and not because you have to win.
When you join an organization, it’s almost like preparing yourself to run the marathon. You finish your education and get ready to begin your career.

The start: As the race starts, you can see an apparent commotion and jostling for space as people try to get ahead of each other—oftentimes at the cost of your co-runner. But I’ve seen that the people who’ve really run a good marathon, are people who pace their race well, allow for people to pass by yet keep to the running. So, in real life, planning and pacing a career is more important than getting a good head-start.

In a marathon, just because someone, who started with you, is ahead of you by a few hundred meters, does not mean much! And if you’re ahead of someone, it again means nothing! It’s a long, long race!

The middle: I remember a boss of mine, Daljit Singh – a wonderful man! I was running this mini marathon on a crisp winter morning, and was wanting to give up somewhere in the middle, when he came by in a scooter and exhorted me to keep running and used some gentle words of persuasion. Words that I dare not print :). I found a renewed energy and started to run hell bent for leather. It was a pleasure breasting the tape as the winner. The trophy was special, all owed to Daljit. He had no need to be there with me. Yet he came to cheer me. In your career you will find a lot of Daljits. Their only intention is to support you and in a selfless way.

The final leg: The final leg of the marathon is perhaps the most difficult part of the race. There are two things that happen to you— either you almost give up or you experience a tremendous surge of energy that takes you through. You’re not distracted by anyone, but keep going on and on and on … and right yonder you see the tape. There may be others who may have already breasted the tape, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve now finished the race. Even as you’re huffing and puffing, you realize that you have finally found your own edge, your own winning formula.

The end: When you finish the race, amongst a lot of cheering and applauding, there comes a great sense of satisfaction: “I have made the marathon.” The marathon is complete because you’ve achieved your goal. You recognize that completing a marathon is a big deal in your life, and when you start to walk back slowly toward your home, your mind is already made up that you will, for sure, run another marathon.

Discovering your true self: A part of our lives is about goals, about how we achieve those goals, and how we move things around it. As we embark upon running a marathon on a cold winter morning, we know that the 26 miles 385 yards will take a long time to cover. But, so are careers—it is really long-distance. It tests, among other things, your patience, perseverance, and discipline. There is a certain cheer and camaraderie as there are lots of people running the race. It is very enlivening because it helps you to discover your true self—about who you are as a person.

Just like in real life, in a marathon too, there are highs and lows. Sometimes when you believe that you are too worn out to take another step, someone gently nudges you and says, “You can!” Discovering yourself in the course of a marathon of a career becomes your ultimate gain. A Daljit comes your way!

I love marathons. It helps me be human. It is not just about winning but also about how run the race. And I also truly believe that the only person you compete against in a marathon race is your own self. Careers are no different. I hope you too see it this way. Now go run one or at the very least, cheer those who are running one.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Of Faith and Target Practice

I was part of a team that represented my college in rifle shooting as part of the National Cadet Corps (NCC.) We had to travel almost 30 km to a firing range every morning and this extended even during the weekends. Our coach, Major Sairangan was a remarkable guy – a man of great character and principle.

One Saturday, I remember distinctly, Major Sairangan called us to the shooting range very early in the morning and we were up there at 6 am in our uniform, but the rifles hadn’t arrived and the ammunition was to be brought by Major Sairangan. The firing ranges of our days were quite different from the ones that you see today. It was a huge open field and there was a hill in the horizon … there were no trees around and the place was completely barren and fenced off to ensure that there was no casualties.

We were waiting for Major Sairangan out in the sun… 6 became 9 became 12 became 4 pm and there was no trace of the Major. We didn’t want to leave the place because we knew if he said he’s going to come – he will come! In those days, we didn’t have mobile phones, but the spoken word was more powerful than anything else. There was a certain connect with Major Sairangan. We had huge faith in the Major as we knew him as a man of his words. It was well past lunchtime, but still nobody wanted to move out of that place. It was almost four – we were hungry, irritated and terribly tired.

At 5 o’clock a rickety army van arrived at the range. And Major Sairangan bounced out of the vehicle. He was disheveled and his clothes were dirty. The first thing he said was “Folks, let’s unload the materials and start shooting. We started unloading and getting ready for target practice. There was no mention of the reason of his getting late or thanking us for waiting for him. By the time we set up the targets and started shooting, it was 5:30 pm and getting dark. We could hardly see, but all that our coach said was if we were to fire by the candle light, we would. And we fired away. Would you believe it – we had the best group score ever! Although we could hardly see the target, we scored our best. At a point when we could see almost nothing, we stopped firing and packed up.
Finally, when everything was done, the Major opened up: “Boys, I am very proud of you! You had the faith in me… you waited and you knew that I would come. Just wanted to tell you that my truck broke down in a remote area and it was a desolate place. So, I had to repair the vehicle myself. I went down to the town to get the parts, came back and fixed the broken axle myself. That’s why I was late. By the way, I have brought some food for you.”

That evening, as I sat down, I realized how extremely important it is to have faith in yourself and trust in your people. How you perform depends a lot on the kind of relationship you have with your team mates and your leaders. Relationships have a great way of testing you out. But if you have the resilience and the faith then even in the darkest of days, when the sun is failing you, and your spirit is weak, faith in the relationship can get you the highest score and on target.

It is clear that we succeeded because we had the faith. There was a huge urge to let Major Sairangan know that we wanted to give our best. We didn’t want to make him feel low that it is because of him that we didn’t fire well. But, we really wanted to show him that as much as we had the faith in him that he should have faith in us… that we would be giving our best!

This is one story that will always remain with me as hugely inspiring. On any of my bad days, I recount this story and feel the palpable power of faith and trust, resilience and self-belief in me.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Of Bamboo Shoots and Growth

Sometime back, I read an article on the Web about bamboo shoots and grass. It mentioned how bamboo takes six years to grow and develop roots before it shoots up, and grass on the other hand grows almost instantly.  I never found the need to watch bamboo shoots grow, but, the central theme of this article stayed in my mind for a few days. Experience is a great teacher and lays the foundation of becoming a good professional. And experience takes time…

As far as I can remember, I have always been a man in a hurry. I wanted to get things done quickly and race to the top. Be it during my school days, or at the workplace. In fact, in one of my earlier organizations, my boss recognized this trait in me. He repeatedly told me that ‘everything takes time.’ I never really paid attention to his words. To me, it seemed unfair that a few of my batch mates had risen to the next-level, while I was where I began. I knew I deserved a promotion, but instead felt unappreciated and not valued.

In those days, it was not normal to go ask your boss, ‘why not me?’ My manager sensed the question but didn’t allow me to surface it. Today, I know why. He wanted me to understand the value of experience. The perfect opportunity came his way. As part of an employee engagement program, I made a recommendation to introduce a suggestion scheme for our 3000 factory employees. I had a plan - 50 suggestion boxes, placed in strategic areas across the buildings. My boss was apprehensive and told me, ‘Nathan, I don’t think this will work. We as an organization aren’t ready for this.’ But, I was eager to prove myself and quite insistent. The project involved an amount of Rs. 12,000 (equivalent to over a lakh rupees today), something my boss rightly questioned. It came down to being a case of my idea versus his ‘wisdom,’ and, finally my idea (read ego) prevailed. I got the go ahead!
The scheme was launched. I waited through the day with bated breath, expecting tons of suggestions. The first day, I had sambhar poured into one of the suggestion box that was kept in the cafeteria and chewing tobacco wrappers the next. Six months later, in spite of promotions and publicity, things were no different.

 I went for a review of the suggestion scheme with my boss, and accepted that it was a complete mess. Instead of saying ‘I told you so,’ he asked me why I thought it had failed. I reiterated his words; we were not ready for it. I spoke to various department heads to figure out a way to make it work. We concluded that the workers didn’t trust the management enough to come forward and offer suggestions. In order to get, we had to give and earn the trust of our people. We covered the necessary ground and launched the same suggestion boxes a year later. And this time, the suggestions poured in.

My boss asked me the same question, again. ‘Why has it been a success this time around?’  I finally understood what he meant by things take time. Sometimes, they just do take time.

Coming back to my position in the organization. I continued to do my work and never asked my boss why he hadn’t promoted me in almost seven years in spite of a high success rate. I finally understood that maybe it wasn’t yet the right time.

Then one day, he called me and told me about my new role. It was two rungs higher than my current position. He smiled and said, ‘I know it’s been a long time, but I hope it was worth your wait.’ It truly was.  As I look back and reflect on my career, I do believe that it is better to wait and work hard on operating on the next level. When you deserve, you will receive, but sometimes, these things just take some time. I wish I had read the bamboo shoots article early on in my career, to understand better, how the long-lasting bamboo takes longer – to shoot up – grass.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Mentoring and Why I Polish My Shoes

A compass; an instrument that provides direction, most often leading us to our destination.

An anchor; a guide in our journey, professional or personal, most often helps us stay rooted to our goals.

A mentor is that anchor, and that compass in our lives that we need to get our ship to the shores of our choice.

In my career of several years, mentoring has played an important role. I have been a protégé and in more recent times, a mentor. Mentoring is a personal way of sharing knowledge and ideas, combining perspectives in new, motivating ways, with your juniors and peers. It is a developmental partnership. One that for me has even got me to do the most basic of habits, of polishing my shoes!

A mentor is someone we speak to, our sounding board, a mirror, maybe even our microscope or telescope, a compass and an anchor. He/she is someone who helps us create a space for reflection through a few simple questions that help lead to the path of self discovery of our potential.

Creating self awareness in the mind of the protégé: ‘Who am I? Where am I?’

  • Building a vision in the mind of the protégé:  ‘Where do I want to go?’
  • Change to be brought about: ‘What do I need to change to get where I want to be?’
  • ‘What do I do to get ahead in my goal?’

These simple questions are the crux of every mentor-protégé relationship. The way these questions might be put across and embedded in your professional and personal journey is what makes every mentor-protégé relationship unique and exciting.

Over the years I have been lucky to have numerous colleagues and seniors as mentors. Many of them are the ones I still turn to for advice and guidance. One of the first mentors’ experience in my professional life that I will never forget, was the one I shared with my first boss. I was working as a management trainee. He had this knack of noticing the good in people more than their faults!  I for one did not lose a moment to point out a fault. My boss noticed this in me, and could have easily called me out on it, but he didn’t. I used to have a habit of not polishing my shoes. Almost every day, my shoes were unpolished and muddied, walking through the narrow road I took to work. But again, my boss never said anything about this to me. A few months later, the rainy season began, and my shoes were clean, walking in the rain. My boss looked at me and said, “Nathan, your shoes are polished, well done!” A little embarrassed but only because I knew he had noticed the earlier times when they weren’t shiny, I mumbled thanks and walked out of the room.

The next day onwards, what do you think was the one thing I did before I set out to work? - polish my shoes! He caught me off guard, but at a time when something I did was right, as opposed to pointing out something wrong that I was repeatedly doing. This has been a memorable lesson, one that got me to notice people doing something right and point it out. I realized early in my career, positive affirmations are more powerful than negative comments and helps change behavior. A mantra that has been extremely helpful in my relationships as a professional.

You can have a mentor for different aspects of your life. You can have a mentor for helping you with your finance, or a spiritual mentor, a technology mentor or a mentor for your career. Choose your mentor well. Someone who you look up to, and has the time and the patience to help you. Someone you can rely on to keep you honest when you falter. And, when you see someone who meets your threshold, all you need to do is to reach out and ask that person. Over time I have found a need to choose new mentors and that is equally important. So go on, find a mentor if you don’t have one already, and work towards building a meaningful and successful association. Shine your shoes, shine your life.

We also need to be ‘coached’ to be better professionals and that is another story... so stay tuned.

Of Purpose and Job Satisfaction

I went to Bangalore recently and was fortunate to see a special cricket match. Each team was made up of a few employees of my company and a few young children below the age of 8 or so. It was a well contested match and was attended by a large contingent of unruly children who were not even sure of the rules of the game but were applauding when it seemed appropriate. A few teachers were around to keep some of the restive children in check lest they wandered over. The rest of the spectators were office goers on a late Friday afternoon, enjoying the game.

Then I met a young lady - Mom Banerjee. Yes that is her name. She runs a trust called ‘Samridhdhi’ which she founded in 2007. She runs a bridge school program that makes the children of migrant workers ‘ready’ for main stream school. Mom was once working in a large MNC and in a comfortable job. Where she worked, there were a lot of construction activity around her campus. She noticed that a lot of migrant workers from Bihar, Bengal Orissa really had no access to education for their children. So, almost 1500 of such children were sans education and pretty much played around the whole day or were employed as rag pickers. Being picked in their prime instead. Sad.

Mom could not come to terms with herself, and decided that the children needed an education. She quit her well-paying job, and started a prep school for such children who could go to normal school once they caught up with the learning they had missed. So, Mom and a bunch of teachers now work to ‘bridge the schooling of three years’ into one and make them ready for normal school. So, they could enroll in grade 3 instead of LKG !!  This meant teaching them for over 8 hours a day, motivating them to come to learn, and get their parents to recognize that they would have to pay for normal schooling. Very difficult indeed!! It asked for a lot of commitment from Mom and her teachers. As I was listening to her I was fascinated by her passion and zeal in her work. She had to network with other NGOs and organizations to seek funds, train teachers, organize health camps, motivate parents to continue sending children to school!

Why would a well-paid young executive give up everything to do such a thing? Meanwhile the cricket match was in full swing. And I was completely absorbed in what Mom was doing. I asked her as to what motivated her to give up everything to plunge into such work of long hours and little appreciation. Where did she derive her job satisfaction?    Just then a child came up to her. Mom bent down to listen to her. The child told her that she wanted to go back to her prep school instead of wasting her time watching the cricket match. Would her teachers teach them some more time in the afternoon, so that she could ‘quickly’ go to a regular school?  Mom looked at me and smiled.

I got my answer in her smile. As I walked away from her I understood the meaning of purpose…and what satisfaction meant to a selfless leader in our midst. Mom, you live your name, you do!