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.