Friday, November 8, 2013

Of Meaningful Chats and Meteoric Careers

He was a maverick. Correction, he is a maverick! Let us call him M. He was a successful sales guy working in a mid-sized IT company. One day, he put down his papers. Said he was getting a much better offer, big fat ESOP and a salary about 3 times his current pay, from an MNC. His CEO, a rock star himself, tried his best to retain him, of no avail. Per process, he had to meet the HR head, a fairly new man in the firm. Everyone was resigned to his resignation.

The HR head knew it was an uphill task trying to reason against a compelling offer. He knew that he was looking at a very talented man, an engineer he did not want to lose. But it looked hopeless. And as all things bright and beautiful, it all starts with a chat.

A dialogue is a difficult thing and this was a crucial conversation. He decided to start with the heart. For, the heart is where life begins and ends anyway. He asked M to speak of what he wanted – not from the head but from his heart - what he valued, what he wanted of life, and where he wanted to reach. He gently added that he had all the time in the world to help him make the right choice. He said he wanted M to succeed in his life and that was all he cared about. And he meant it. You will be surprised how opportunities spring when you keep a willing heart and an open mind, he said.

M spoke about his family, his parents, and wafted into a dream-world of aspirations. It is magical to listen to someone who had so much to ask of life. The HR guy was now even more interested in making sure he supported M. ‘I can help you change the course of your destiny, far beyond your aspirations. And I need 2 years of your life’, he added. M said, he would think it over.

One of the best ways to influence someone is to just listen to them – with care. Helplessness is a stage of inaction of a weak mind and actions abound for the brave heart. M’s strengths and his aspirations were weighed for that day against the potential of the future. M was told he would make a good HR professional and that he would invest in his development, personally. M took a day to agree. The HR guy pressed on ‘ Hey, what about that company’s ‘offer one could never refuse?’ M smiled and said – I just did !

Things happened in a whir. In six months he got seconded to the US office. One day, he called his leader and said he was getting bored. Not unexpected, of course! Another of those conversations – M was told ¬ to get an education, at London School of Economics no less, and added that he would provide all the testimonials he needed. That would be easy to write, was the thoughtful encouragement.

Rise he did, he would. Meteoric it was, of course. M put in hard work, kept an open mind, directed energies to build a career of choice. “Each one has ¬ the edge. The talent edge. Just keep at it, hone it, feed it with a spot of education and a dollop of ‘can-do’ attitude. And smile a lot,” M said. Make bold moves with confidence. Really bold. Ah, the power of a meaningful conversation. The significant changes it brings.

Oh, I forgot to mention, M is the HR Director for a fantastic firm in the social media world. Works out of Singapore. The gracious M never forgot that HR chap.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Of Payroll nights and Shining Diamonds

He was a different kind of guy. I met him 15 years ago. It was almost 11 PM and I took my briefcase (those days, office-goers had these things called briefcase), and was headed out of my office (those days, no work from home flexibility). As I was going out, I saw a light in the corner of the large work bay. Out of curiosity, I walked towards it and heard some humming and foot tapping. He was the lone guy there, printing reams of paper. Payroll slips, he said. He had some radio in the background, which he switched off, out of respect. Those days there was plenty of respect.

I was new and asked him about his background. He said he did his MBA from a place I had not heard of. This was not going right. For me, a premier institute guy, and an arrogant one at that, it is difficult to absorb this. A one-year program and the institute shut shop after he graduated, he added happily. I winced. He said he graduated in history. My impression of him headed south. And his marks—I will never forget this—48%! Third class, he said with a smile. He said he was glad his college was over. LOL!

Let me call him ‘M’! I asked M why he was working late. He said that it was very important to ensure quality and he was checking everything. It was difficult to ignore this guy. M seemed so happy doing what he was doing. Moreover, he was passionate about doing it right. And he had a sense of humor. My impression about him was melting as he took me through some details. His excellence in his work was shining through. He had a glint in his eye. He looked confident. I started to like this chap. I left the place deep in thought. Excellence is all around if you choose to be aware of it.

The next day, our Regional Manager-West, called me and was pounding me for not finding a right HR lead for the West. I told him I found such a person, and that he was my right hand man. He was my best and had to be empowered, I added. Next I called M, and asked him if he was willing to go to Mumbai as the Regional’s HR head. “Happy to,” he said, adding, “Naukari kari, toh na, na-kari’. Loosely translated - never say no, if there is a job to be done. I had every confidence in him. The best part, he was not even a Manager at that time.

M turned out to be a winner all the way. He was voted the best HR Manager time and again. I had the privilege to be working with him for a few years and then he left. He grew rapidly in a short period of time. His mantra: “Stay positive, be passionate at work, never miss an opportunity, and stay ahead of the game – always.”

M called me recently to let me know that he was going to some faraway fun place — Hawaii. Said, he was chosen as one of the top 1% of performers of one of the top U.S. computer firms. Said, he was going for the 4th time. I forgot all about his background and his third-class marks in college.

You can never put a good man down. What a diamond! We don’t care which mine the diamond came from or its pedigree. Diamonds sparkle in the darkest nights and in the brightest of times. Diamonds are Diamonds. Forever!

Ah yes, I forgot a minor detail, Mahi is an HR Director in that company.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Of Departed Flights and Goodness

Let me call him AB. I did not know him well. He was a very senior person in the industry. I held a slightly arm’s length with him. In meetings he was always vociferous and made his points clearly. Today was no different. In all the cacophony in the room, his voice was clear and soft. He ran his own company. I was not sure of him. I thought he was wanting to get something from everyone. After the meeting, he said he would drop me to the airport. I agreed. Nice car, his BMW. We reached the airport. He parked his car and he wanted to have some coffee with me. He was doing some ‘business development’ I thought. He had 40 minutes, he said.

The coffee arrived as did a lean young man with a hint of worry on his forehead. He hesitatingly asked us if we could help him. He had missed his flight and the airline was not in a position to take him on the next without a fresh ticket, which was really expensive. He was going to Srinagar. And he had no money to foot the big cost.

Here we were two suited gentlemen and he thought we wielded some influence! I was not sure what to do. AB did not hesitate. He simply asked some questions and asked me if we would help the man in trouble. He did not wait for a response, and went to the reservation counter and spent the next 30 minutes speaking with passion that we ought to be gentler with our Kashmiri brother. Rulebooks were thrown at us. AB would not give up. I added my two rupees’ worth.

Finally, the reservation manager relented and a fresh ticket was issued for a flight the next day – something that is seldom done. All thanks to AB, for a complete stranger who approached us.

AB need never have done this. Yet he did. And he did not allow for any big drama of gratitude. And made it look easy in the eyes of a stranger who almost gave up hope of getting back and in time, to his family.

How easy it is to judge someone and sometimes unfairly, and carry an impression that is never validated. A simple act of kindness witnessed at close quarters left me in wonderment.

Respect does not grow in an instant. In my case it did. And I was acutely aware of my failing - Inability to see the goodness beyond the image is the same as impaired vision. I thanked the young man. It was time to leave. Our 40 minutes were up. I felt the extra warmth when I hugged AB.

It took a departed flight to understand the goodness in someone.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Of Sinking Cars and Soaring Careers

Many years ago, on a pleasant summer evening, or rather night, a car careened into the still waters of the Kodaikanal Lake in Tamil Nadu. The driver was to take a right turn into the resort, but instead took a left and went down into the lake. All owed to the spirit of Bacchus. Not too bad, considering that the drunk driver managed to just enter the lake at the shallow end. A much sobered man, he ran into the resort, and yelled for help.

The sole staff on duty was a gym instructor, Venky, who was busy attending to his biceps. Venky rushed to the hapless customer, asked him not to worry and that he would take care. Then he, along with some four other men, worked through the night to get the car out of the lake, and had it fully cleaned and serviced. At 7 a.m., he went to the customer and handed the keys to the car, along with a pot of hot coffee and a song on his lips. The customer was delighted and was raving happy.

A General Manager of HR from the head office was on site and he met Venky and gave him and his men a spot award in front of the staff, and exhorted them to have the attitude of Venky. Later that evening he met Venky and asked him if he needed anything from him. Venky was quick to respond – “I need your OWNERSHIP of me,sir”, he said. And so it began, a long period of support to Venky, who wanted to “become someone of gravitas.”

The General Manager, HR asked him to get some education, and encouraged him to continue to stay connected. More, he called him up very often to check on his progress. Venky was a good student of the time and was quick to learn.
Years passed. The GM went on to join another company. Once when he went to another city for some business meeting, and as he alighted from the plane, he saw Venky, who was there to receive him and let him know that he was now in HR. So, the GM managed to get Venky transferred to his own company, given that Venky was very persuasive.

The journey of learning and development of Venky continued. He was a man of great positive outlook, born to serve, and never say die attitude. Later the GM left the company to take on another assignment in another city. Venky, by then, joined a retail company of repute, as an Asst. Manager. The GM never forgot Venky and continued to call him each month and check on his progress and gave him some context of his development. All very good!

Over the few years that passed, the GM continued to contact Venky and learnt that he was growing into a very fine professional. He even persuaded him to buy a flat, in Mumbai. Once as was his wont, when he called Venky to check on him, Venky told him that he was keen to share something important. He said that he owed a lot of his progress to one man – his GM. And broke the news that he had been called by K, and told that he would now be the Chief People Officer of his organization, the Future Group! The GM was in a faint — out of sheer happiness. What a journey! What a life!

I know this to be true. As many years ago, I saw Venky, handing the keys of a half sunken car – all in fine fettle, to a customer and as I handed him that spot award, I saw a glint of a man possessed. He took that and more … the time to study and to learn the hard way.

He was now the CPO of a very large retail chain. When reminded of his fantastic streak of progress, he shrugs it off saying he was in eternal debt to the man who drove his car into the lake. It got him to think what he needed to do in life, and reinvent himself.

As for sinking cars and soaring careers, it all starts at the altar of attitude: A will to be relentless, to serve and be positive in the face of pressure, and deliver relentlessly. I wish there were more cars that dive into the lake and more Venkys become CPOs Life is beautiful!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Of Pencil Stubs and Recognition

I can never forget Prema teacher. Many years back my father got transferred from Kolkata to Chennai. As it was middle of the term, I had lost six months of school and struggled to catch up on studies. I joined fourth standard and worked really hard to keep pace with the others. Mid-term exam results were upon us, and the dreaded day came up, when the class teacher would read out all our report cards. Ms Prema called out our names and to each one she said some words of encouragement. The toppers got shiny cups and a certificate of merit. My name was read out the last as I was new to the class. She handed with flourish a green colored stub of a pencil to me and said, “I am sure you will do much better in the coming days.” 'This is for your efforts', she said and patted me on my back.

The moment was special—while other students were given a trophy and a certificate, I was given a used pencil stub. But that was priceless. That pencil till date remains as the single most memorable recognition in my life. It left a deep impression on me for a reason: it was my teacher’s way of reposing faith and trust in me. To the toppers, it was an acknowledgment of an achievement, to me, it was to cheer me on.

Years passed and I got married. I remember my wife had cooked us our first meal. I had hardly had my first morsel when she asked me how it was. I smiled, and said it was the most wonderful food I had ever had and added that it was much better than my mother's cooking. A different matter that my mother was not around. It was terrific moment of bonding. I felt great, and she felt as if she had won ' Master Chef'. I realized that, in that instant, both the giver and the receiver both feel wonderful. Voila! This is so easy.

Recently, I went to a colleague at her workplace. It was festooned with certificates and trophies. I asked her what was the most prized one in that lot, and she picked among all her medals, a handwritten note given by her boss. Priceless, she said. That piece of paper mattered the most, as it was a real token of appreciation of her achievement, albeit small. He had come over to her desk and personally pinned it on her board, she said. I could see pride in her eyes, that special moment of joy that she was reliving.

This morning I went to the Badminton court to meet someone. There were a bunch of my colleagues playing there. They invited me to play, and I had never played that game. I started with a lot of tentativeness, and for each of my return of the shuttle, there was much applause and encouragement. When I left the court , I was feeling like a champion. Recognition is like oxygen, a life giver. Everybody needs it. People work in organizations, but they stay because there is someone who cares, and values what they do.

We all need appreciation. Even bosses need them. As do your spouse, children and other family members. Anyone. Facebook cracked the code and added the 'like' feature (and not the 'dislike' one). Small wonder we turn to it, for there are many out there who care to 'like' what you post. Small acts of kindness go a long way. We tend to find faults easily. Can we catch people doing something right? In that moment, it can be life changing. For these are the moments that matter! And shows that you care.

Start recognizing and appreciating anyone you care about, if you have not already. Your spouse, colleagues, friends, relatives all need a hug. Even virtual will do.. And let me know what your call meant to that old aunt that you almost forgot, or to your long lost friend who made a difference to your life. This morning I remembered the green pencil stub of Ms Prema and I smiled.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Of Catapults, Passion, and Success

I quite like Angry Birds—especially the catapult you use to hurl the birds, for it reminds me of my childhood and the memories associated with a dear old friend of mine.

Many years ago, as a high school student in Nagpur, I met a very interesting guy, who, over time, became my best friend. His mother used to tell him that he ought to spend more time with me because she thought that keeping the company of a studious boy will benefit her son. My friend had varied interests … was pious and went to church to see pretty girls.

Once he planned to make catapults and sell them to friends. I knew the difficulty of selling such ‘devices’ those days since nobody really wanted to buy them. But my friend insisted on it. He searched and gathered a few iron rods from a local scrapyard. After some hard work, he got them cut into the right shape and size. He then got the ‘V’ shaped rods chrome-plated to make them look cool and shiny. For the rubber part, he secured them from the railways scrapyard, the one that is used as a beading to line the windows in the local trains. He then got a cobbler who cut the rubber and stitched them onto a piece of leather, for which he paid him a handsome two rupees per piece. At each step of the way, you could see that he was like a man possessed. Finally, he was ready with a slick looking catapult, a shiny object of desire that everyone wanted to buy at a princely Rs.25. That’s a huge price for a device that was deemed quite unimportant in those days! Each of the catapults was a masterpiece.

Months passed by and my friend and I parted ways as he went on to live in Ahmadabad and I lost touch with him. Ten years later on a visit to Ahmadabad  I tracked where his mother lived and went to meet her. She told me that my friend lived in the U.S. and is one of the successful imaging scientists in the country! I couldn't believe my ears when she told that he studied Physics! And that he went to the U.S. and secured a PhD from University of Michigan. Incredible!

It got me thinking! So what was special about this guy, who was never big into studies? Anything he did, he did that with a lot of passion. If he had to buy a Beatles record, he would stand in long queues for hours on end to buy it (remember, in those days we did not have iTunes). If he decided to make a radio, he would not rest till he made one. I would emulate this quality in my life!

Now, back to the Angry Birds … The catapult remains an iconic device in my life, as it represents the passion of a beautiful mind that catapulted him to greatness. I managed to track him down in the US, courtesy Facebook.

Take a bow, Brian Rodricks, PhD! I owe you one!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Of Affection, Appreciation and Gratitude

I left for my morning walk and came near a park. An eight-year-old child running off the park into a busy road had my heart racing. Suddenly a man appeared from nowhere and scooped up the child, just in time and laughed heartily. And the child screamed with joy, “Dad, you saved my life! You are best father in the world.” That was father-son bonding at its best. Whew! No chiding, no shouting; just two souls in a bond of affection—precious, timeless.

Tea at home after a walk was a routine affair. My neighbor dropped in with his daughter Priya, a youngster who had secured admission into a good technology college. My wife congratulated Priya and sang her praise in high notes, only to be told by the neighbor that this was not a big deal, etc, downplaying her achievement. Priya was a bit under the sun and under the cloud at the same time, and she ran off.

The afternoon brought in news of an unfortunate nature: A good friend and a guru of many years passed away after a brief illness. He was 63. I shared the news of his demise and wrote a few lines of what VS Mahesh meant to me, on Facebook and other groups. Felt guilty that i had not told him this. There was a flood of eulogy from people talking about what a wonderful man he was … and this went on for a long time. We captured our thoughts in a page, which we sent to his widow, later that week.

This morning I was deep in thought of those 3 incidents. It struck me that as we grow older; our propensity to express our affection for someone goes down. Our appreciation, and our gratitude, and what people mean to us, goes down over time. It does pick up when one is a lot older, as in a grandparent’s unbridled love of their grandchild, something that they missed out as a parent, unrequited love, no holds barred ... Small wonder grandparents are loved the world over. 

The child taught me unconditional love. I am sure Priya would have loved to be acknowledged. And what use of praising someone when he long since gone?

Perhaps, in our living day, can we catch someone doing something right each day? Can we appreciate someone once a day? Can we let our friends know what they mean to us? And express gratitude to people who made a difference, in our lives … when they are still around? Maybe you want to start right now? Call your aunt / uncle / dad / mom / friend anyone! And let them know what they mean to you and why. I am sure VS Mahesh would have loved that.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Of Sour Grapes, Conviction, and Risks

In 1995, Ram, a friend of mine, surprised a lot of us by declaring that he was going into farming – to grow grapes. For a successful engineer this was an eye popping move. We tried to cajole Ram against it but he said, “What is life if I don’t take a chance? I’ll never be able to do this again. I’m young enough to take this risk.” So he put all his life’s savings and bought himself a parcel of land somewhere near Shamirpet – in the outskirts of Hyderabad. Ram was a determined man. He spent a lot of time researching farming and its methods. He set up a small shack for the farm hands to stay and did all that he needed to do to get a good crop. 

When I met him a few years later, I asked him, “Ram, how are the grapes?” He proudly opened a small box of grapes. I popped one into my mouth and almost spat it out – it was really sour. Was this all he had to show after eight years of toil I thought. He smiled in a knowing way. ‘I just manage to survive by selling a few boxes these to my people who work at the farm”. I asked ‘Where is your life going? Do you seriously want to pursue this?” He said he was convinced it was the right thing for him to do. He was not making money, but he was firm that he would continue farming. It was an affirmation of his faith in his farm. I asked him to stick to his convictions and not aver a bit. I felt a bit awkward and left Ram to his farms. Sometimes in our careers we do something risky born out of our convictions. But was that the right thing to do?

I recently met Ram and nothing much seemed to have changed with him or his farm. He seemed ebullient. As usual, he gave me a bunch of grapes to taste and asked me, “What do you think about these grapes?” This time I was honest with him and said, “These grapes are sour. How will this ever sell? How will work for you? “Yes buddy, I know, but they seem to work for me,” he replied smilingly. It didn’t make any sense to me. 

Ram explained, “The grapes haven’t done very well but the land that grows these grapes seems to have done a lot better.” He had bought two parcels of land along the highway. The price of land had shot up to some astronomical levels. He had sold the smaller piece and bought himself a house and bought more land in some other place. He still retained the bigger piece of land for growing grapes. He thanked me for giving him the courage to have faith in his own conviction and said that the land has turned into gold! He was smiling ear to ear.

I left the farm feeling happy for Ram and was lost in thought about what courage and conviction can do for life and careers. There must have been so many trials and tribulations in his life, so many years of doubting Thomas and a long journey of questions that he had to go through. And I guess Ram just dug in!

What is life without risk in it? Life is to be lived a bit on the edge and in doing so; it is convictions that tease out the results. However unintended, positive consequences play out for the brave. 

Ram still believes that one day he will produce grapes that aren’t sour. I am convinced he will.