Monday, August 8, 2016

Slice of Work #8 - Driving a Lesson in Humility

I was a freshly minted graduate of a leading B School and wore its stripes proudly on my shoulders. I was to join an MNC in one of their plants in Gomia, Bihar as a Management Trainee. They chose only the best. And I was full of it, all puffed up. The night train from Calcutta would reach Gomia in the morning. I had a letter that said that there would be a car to pick me up from the station and take me to the guest house.

The coal fired engine creaked up to the station and I alighted with my canvas hold-all, yes we had such things in those days. There was not a soul in sight to receive me. I felt let down. I heaved the luggage on my shoulder and came to the exit. There I saw a nice car the driver in a khaki shorts and a white colored tee shirt was walking towards the car. Aah, my driver, there he was!

I went up to him and rudely asked him to open the trunk and keep my luggage. He asked me in Hindi who I was and I introduced myself. All this in a condescending way, and asked him to take me to the Guest House. He said he would be happy to drop me. He heaved the luggage in and opened the rear door and had me seated and asked me if I was comfortable. This was getting better.

All through the ride he asked me questions about my family etc in a kind sort of way. I was getting irritated with a driver who spoke too much. At the guest house a couple of the staff ran up to the car and saluted me.They respectfully carried my luggage. I waved out to the driver who wished me the best in my new job. The next day was a big day. I was to meet the big daddy of the place- the Chief Executive – Dr. S.K.Varma. And I was nervous.

At the appointed time, I knocked on the door and walked in.The big man in his factory overalls, had his back to me and as he turned, I burst out – 'Hey what are you doing in this office?' He gave me a broad smile and in chaste English said he was Dr. Varma, and asked me to take a seat. I choked and could have died in that instant. I apologized profusely for my behavior and was at a loss for words. He said that he had come to the station to see off a friend. And he had seen me and wanted to be of assistance. And played along for he knew I had mistaken him to be a driver.

He offered me tea. Said that outside of work one should not wear their education, only use them. As I waked away I learnt the greatest lesson in humility. So, the guest house staff were actually saluting him, not me!!. My ego came crashing down, my stripes i lost. Shoulders hunched, weighing heavily with lessons learnt, I exited his office.

Humility is playing a role, any role, sans ego, whatever the role be. Even if this were that of a driver. In so doing, Dr. Varma drove home a lesson in humility.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Slice of Work #7 – A B-School Called Attitude

Years ago, I had joined a hospitality firm. A fantastic organisation: A positive culture that was all pervasive. Vibrant and young! I had all the badges of a soldier from a top B-school and was wearing it proudly for all to see. A really stupid thing to do as I later realized much later.

I was keen on bringing good talent (read MBAs) they joined too, but the sales started to go downhill. There was a sense of loss all around. Our dynamic business leader called for an open house of our sales-force and had them speak openly about the situation. One of them mentioned that the firm was getting crowded by the MBA-types and since they did not have an MBA they were perceived to be low performers. I was summoned by the leader and had a chat.

That was how a program called Core Management Skills was born. This would instill the MBA skills in great schools. A wonderful training leader and some great trainers led the program. The first batch of the CMS programs was outstanding. They ratcheted up their contributions several-fold and things started to brighten and sales started climbing again. Much later, I left the firm. What I carried was the sense of winning and teaming that the program generated. The attitude of winning together.

Fast forward – I landed in the US on a Friday bumped into a CMS grad! We were excited! By the weekend, a bunch of them flew down from various parts of the US and we had a great time. All of them were doing really well. Some were successful businessmen and some, VPs of large organisations. And as I sat on the plane on the on the long flight home, it occurred to me that there was something magical I had seen. I learnt that what matters is what we do with what we learn. And it is not at an MBA school at all. The school of experience and attitude matters more.

Never judge a person by just his college credentials. Talent matters and talent with a winning attitude matters more. For, many a successful person hardly went to portals of knowledge. Life gives back to you what you put into it. This was my best learning ever from the batch from the grads of a B-school called Attitude.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Slice of Work #6 – A Rejected Job Offer & Integrity

This was many years ago, when I was a recruiting manager and I was asked to find a leader for a function based out of Delhi for an MNC that I was working for. It was a difficult assignment and I was really at my wits end, for the skills were rare in those days and my boss was looking for a strong-willed person. Finally, I found someone from Bangalore. He was an interesting person and warm and genuine.

The rounds of interviews grew longer and this was a good sign as any recruiter would know. We all loved him. Next, a job offer was to be made. And it was on terms that he did not have to argue about as it was a very generous one and he knew it. In those days, if you throw in a big car and a house it was a big deal. We also offered him admissions to the school of his choice for his children.

His wife and children went school hunting and things were settled. He was on, and life was good. He had resigned from his company and I was “keeping him warm” – an expression for making sure that we did not lose him to any other company after he resigned. Suddenly, out of the blue, the phone rang and my boss called me to his room. It was urgent, he said.

When I went to his room he showed me a letter. It was from the potential hire. He thanked us profusely and said that he was regretful that he would not take up our offer. Said that he decided to rescind our offer for family reasons. His father was unwell. He was most apologetic and said, he could never repay us for our efforts and for enormous goodness that he experienced. He added that he was enclosing a check for Rs. 30,000 to partly compensate for all our expenses incurred with his recruitment. And that it would never be a restitution for all what we have done for him.

My boss was a fine man. He wrote back to the person to say that he was most taken in with his uprightness and that he would wait for another three months, and of course not encash his cheque, etc. As expected, the man did not show up. But what showed up was his integrity and character. I could never forget the man. And he did give us some leads on who could be a suitable and ‘better’ person for the job. He stayed in touch with me, and each time he would start the conversation with an apology for wasting our time and energy. And I would wish there were more like him in this world.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Slice of Life #10 - Mother’s Pickle & Bottled-Up Emotions

This happened a long time ago. I always loved mother’s pickles, the lemon ones were just finger-licking good. My mother had packed a small bottle all packed and was in my cabin luggage, a small satchel. The airlines had introduced some serious checking at the airports, something new in those days. And I was not aware of it. In all ignorance I placed my bag on the scanner and the security guard at the other end stopped me and asked me what I had in the bag.

"My mother’s home made pickle," I said with a sense of pride. He looked at me and said in a rather rude way that I could not take it in my handbag. And I asked him what a pickle bottle could possibly do, and tried all my ways of persuasion. He did not budge. 'Put this into the checked in bag' he said. And I had nothing to check it in I pleaded. He was adamant, as he should be. The queue was getting backed up.

And then I started pleading with him, and did I look like a person who could do any harm. My words fell on deaf ears and he was getting irritated. Finally, in a rather sentimental way I gifted the bottle to him asking him not throw it into the waste bin. It was my mother’s gift to him I said. And quickly added that he would thank mother if he tasted it. He gave me a blank stare. Just then a smart young man in a white shirt asked me where I was going, walked to the guard said a few words, and took the carefully packed bottle.

It was the commander of the flight I was taking to Hyderabad and he said that he would take it with him for safekeeping. And would give it to me on landing. Upon landing, I was called out and the captain gave me the bottle. He had gone out of his way to do something extraordinary for me. I was touched. I looked into his kind eyes and thanked him profusely and asked him why he stepped out to do this for me. His eyes moistened and he said that he had lost his mother a week ago. ‘I know the value of love packed in a bottle of pickles’ he said. I hugged him, took the bottle and walked away, my eyes welling up with tears.

Happy Mothers Day!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Slice of Work #5 – Appraisals: Year-Ends and New Beginnings

It was one of those dreaded meetings. The very thought of getting to discuss appraisals with his new reporting manager was daunting. It had been not been the best of years, and Vasu knew it. But did not want to acknowledge it. The previous year was a great one for him. It was a long walk to the manager's cabin.

VG his manager shook hands with him and asked him to “take the chair.” It sounded ominous already. VG was gentle and invited him to speak about the high points of the year and what played to his strengths. VG kept nodding his head and was encouraging, And playing back his strengths to him. Not a trace of the dreaded word “but…”

VG summarized his accomplishments and asked him as to what he thought were things that could have been done better and asked, “How can I be of support to you? Vasu was in full flow now and held back nothing. He blurted out his failings. And VG said 'it is okay to have a setback and important to look ahead'.” And then the questions about what he wanted to do in his career and what he was good at. This was getting better!

VG, a well-respected man and had a sterling career of over 25 years. He broke into a monologue. Said that there would be some great years and some not so good ones. Difficult for anyone to have an outstanding year, year on year he said. Some ups and some downs were part of the journey.

It was most important to focus on becoming a better professional. And the years that were the down years, were the ones that taught him the most. Focus on the upward trajectory of personal growth. And as for compensation, it would follow you like your shadow, he added smilingly.
Made sense. Vasu felt much better and accepted that he had had a ‘modest’ year. And VG was not even focused on that. Vasu was looking at his mirror, but this mirror told him what he was capable of as well. His focus was clear, he would play to his strengths. He would be a better professional. The best. The ‘chair’ was only a seat after all. He walked out with a hope, an agenda and a smile spreading on his face.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Slice of Work #4 – Typewriting and Aspirations

I was in college, years ago. That was years ago and my first summer holidays was coming up. I had saved some money for doing ‘something useful’. Quickly I went in and enrolled myself at the typewriting institute to learn to type. Yes, in those days, we had proper places that taught us to do that. They also taught you shorthand, care a ‘Pitman’ book. I had in my hands a page of asdfgf…. :lkjhj..neatly typed. And as soon as my dad came home I thrust the page at him. I had notions of him praising me for putting the scarce money to good use.

My dad ripped the typed page flung it to my face and asked me if I had decided to end up as a typist and if I had any high aspirations at all. And told me to never go to the place again. My plea to complete the course fell on deaf ears. He was okay for me to lose the deposit on the course. I felt lousy but stomached it. Grow up he said, expand your reach of what you can become, not end up as a typist. I protested that it was a skill. He shooed me away. I sulked and sank.

Many years later I was interviewing someone for an assistant. Naga sat in front of me and had all the credentials. My final question was – ‘what did you do in your undergrad and what was your ‘percentage’. He said he did his Physics and secured 86 %. It was my turn to stand up in amazement! Here was a top class graduate and he did a secretarial job for 20 years!! He said that he had to as he did not know what else to do. Naga got hired that day with a promise that he would not stay an assistant if he worked with us.

I went home, lost in thought of my dad who years ago had forced me to think beyond ‘typewriting’. Chiding my aspirational deficit, stoking me to think beyond. I did not understand him then. I was smarting in anger at losing money for a program. I was blind to the concern of my dad who did not want me to get sucked into a profession that he once started with ... and the long perilous climb thereafter.

At times, we don’t understand what it means to think big. What it means to reach our potential. To look for something that is beyond your reach within your grasp. To take the hard road, and expand your horizons. I am always in debt to my dad. BTW, I type really fast now. And as for Naga, he went on to do great things in the years after he joined us, and is now a GM in a large company.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Slice of Life #9 – Mindful Timelessness

I met her in the airport lounge the other day. As ever, immaculate in her crisp saree and warmth in her eyes, on a call, a Kindle in her hands. The moment she saw me she excused herself from the call, rose and gave me an affectionate hug. And we got talking. And I was keeping an eye on the time, just to make sure I did not miss the flight. One can get lost in conversations with Dr. Indira Parikh. We had some 20 minutes to go. The intensity of the conversation was evident. And ‘how’ of it was not lost on me.

Several years ago, Dr. Hemant Parikh, her late husband, an Indian scientist and the young bride Indira Parikh were invited to attend the grand dinner ball in Stockholm on the 10th of Dec. Nobel Prize investiture. And Indira all of 21 years was the only one in an elegant saree, while the wives of Nobel laureates and invitees were in evening gowns and boring black dresses. As always she was the center of attention and many of the Nobel Laureates went out of the way to meet her. In a moment of innocence and naivety she asked one if she could spend an hour with him in his office the following day to know more about his work. There was a shocked silence, as no one would dare ask time of such luminaries.

He was a kindly man and he agreed. His secretary quickly told Indira that she was to meet him only for 15 minutes the following morning. And asked her to come in early so he was not kept waiting. Indira was nervous as came early. At the appointed time she was ushered into his room. There was a great calmness about him. They spoke for a long time, a long long time. And gently as she was ushered in, she was escorted out. There were no calls, no interruptions. Only the two of them. That long meeting was all of fifteen minutes!

She had told me this story earlier. Mindfulness, focus and deep sense of care for another stretches time. I could feel the same thing … some things are worth learning and practicing. Being in the moment. Sans mobile, sans distraction, sans disruption. I had never asked her as to how she managed to do so much in such a short time. My flight got announced, and my watch was all of 18 minutes. Seemed like an hour. I am deeply in gratitude, Indira. For in your company, time is timeless.