Have A Plan B? Junk It!
Every morning at 6 am, my wife and I step out for a walk. The intent is to walk for an hour, get our quota of physical activity, and catch up on conversation. As we step out of our home, we have a choice of two alternative routes we can take for the hour long walk.
The first option – let’s call it ‘the long road’ – is to take a circuitous 6 km walk around the area we live in. It’s a path that circumnavigates the entire neighbourhood, going past an assortment of villas, apartments, then around the office buildings and the local shopping complex, and past a temple and a school, finally bringing us back home after completing one long loop. A full 60-minute walk it is.
The other option – let’s call it ’round and round’- is for us to walk from home to a circular garden that’s about six minutes away and then do four rounds of the garden – each of which takes about twelve minutes – and then walk back home along the same path, completing the hour long morning ritual. Both the routes have their own charms, but I’ve noticed something interesting about the two choices.
On days when we take the long road – we are quickly lost in conversation, and don’t really think too much about the walk itself, or the time or the distance. Once we decide to take that circumnavigation route, we know that it will be an hour before we are back home. There’s no other way out.
But when we take the option of doing four rounds of the garden, something strange seems to happen. After completing the first round, one of us will feel a slight tightening of the calf muscle. After the second round, I swear I can magically sense the aroma of the home-made filter coffee beckoning – and I can’t wait to go home! Sometimes as we complete round two, the wife will say “I am feeling tired today’ (‘ah, didn’t really sleep too well last night, I think’) – and then look longingly at the road that will take us back home. Often, after the third round, I am convinced that it was in fact round four we just completed – and not round three – so it’s time to head back! Result? Most days when we go round and round the garden, we actually end up walking for less than an hour! The intent is always the same. Walk for an hour. But the presence of an option to walk for less than an hour actually means that the outcomes are different. We take the soft option!
And that set me thinking. Maybe this happens to us in other walks of life too. The existence of an option – an alternative – often makes us deviate from our chosen path, leading to sub-optimal outcomes. Success comes through grit, through sticking it out, and staying the course, even when the going gets tough. Giving up is easy. And when you have an option, it gets easier.
Businesses and leaders love having a Plan B. That’s the alternative that they can resort to when the preferred path – plan A – appears to be a tough, long haul. The consequence? At the first hint of trouble, we give up on our stated strategy. In fact, forget the first hint of trouble, we imagine there’s trouble, and almost seek out trouble when there’s a tempting Plan B in sight! Choice then isn’t always a good thing.
Reminds me of what happened several years ago, in the third century BC. General Xiang Yu sent some troops across the Yangtze river – to fight the Qin dynasty. And once they landed across the river, General Yu ordered the ships to be set ablaze. He then told his soldiers the hard truth: “You have a choice, young men. Either you fight to win the war. Or you die.”
Maybe a good idea for us to burn our ships too. We cling on to our escape routes, and our plan B’s – because we treasure the safety of retreat to the risks of progress and the challenge of achievement.
Take the long road. Burn the ships. Have a plan B? Junk it. And you’ll suddenly discover new ways – and new energy – to make Plan A work!
Be a Nagesh. Help people with their bags!
If I told you that Nagesh Kolte was my hero of the week, you’d be forgiven for asking Nagesh, who?
Nagesh is actually a driver at Uber and I had the pleasure of driving with him this morning as I went to the airport in Pune. As I sat down in that seat I saw a little certificate hanging behind the headrests of the seat in front of me and it said certificate of achievement .Nagesh apparently is a gold partner at Uber .He has had over a thousand rides where passengers have given him five stars. Clearly he’s a star in his own right.
What I really loved about this though is that that certificate went on to inform me that what riders love about Nagesh is the fact that he helps them with their luggage.
Just imagine, I think there’s a message in that for all of us. Success in our life is not just about doing all that you’re expected to do but about doing just a little bit more!
It’s just not enough to be saying ‘I have done my job’, it’s really about how do you go the extra mile to do a little bit more. In Nagesh’s case, he’s a good driver, he’s courteous, he knows his road map pretty well but that’s not all, people love him because he helps them with their luggage.
Maybe there’s a message in it for all of us. We should aim to be that kind of a person. Not just someone who does everything that’s expected of him / her but does a little bit more.
Let’s become that kind of person who helps other people with their bags and when you do that, remember to thank Nagesh for a lesson well learnt!
My 17 for 2017
It’s that time of the year when we make new year resolutions.
Research shows that on top of most lists are resolutions relating to weight loss (diet / fitness), finances (spend less / save more), work-life balance (spend more time with loved ones) and the pursuit of a passion /hobby. Have you made your resolutions for 2017?
Here’s my list of 17 slightly off-beat resolutions for 2017. Which of these do you think are the most interesting? Which one would you adopt?
1. Digital detox: Keep the cellphone away from the bedroom from 10 pm to 6 am. And never keep the phone within eyesight during a meeting — or a meal.
2. Phone-a-friend. Reach out — every day — to one old friend (or new) — or a colleague or relative. Every day. For no other reason than to say hello, and and to check how they are doing. Takes less than 3 minutes. Did I say where’s the time?
3. Give away those extra clothes / shoes that I seldom wear. And make sure every time a new one in gets in — and old one goes out.
4. Speak to the kids — at least once every day. No matter which part of the world they are in. Truth is, they are never too far away.
5. Watch 52 movies — one movie a week — with the wife. Not because I love them, but because I love her.
6. Learn to cook. And make a meal at least once a week. (eggs and cereals don’t count as meals. Dosas do!)
7. Finish the 3 volume set of the Bhagwad Gita that my aunt gifted me. And then try and finish more of those waiting-to-be-read books on my bookshelf. And on my Kindle.
8. Write. Every day. Work on the next book. And the next. Or a column. Or a blog. But write. Shobha De once told me she writes 3000 words every day. What’s my excuse?
9. Break 90 in Golf. Consistently. And maybe the best way to do that would be to play more often — which would mean getting the wife to play too.
10. Be there. If it’s a celebration — make the effort to be there. A friend’s birthday, a marriage in the family, be there. No excuses. The pain of the trip will be long forgotten. The remorse of missing out will linger.
11. Have a meal (or a cup of coffee) once a month with someone I don’t know too well — but want to get to know.
12. Learn the tricks of stand up comedy. Watch standups perform. Create and put out a 5 minute stand-up comedy gig of my own.
13. Send Thank you notes. Always. Acknowledge little things other people do. And if someone asks for a favour, try my damnedest to help. Yes, damnedest.
14. Check email only when I am in a position to respond. And respond immediately. See an email only once. And respond within 24 hours.
15. Pick up that old Nikon D3100. Take lots of pictures. Learn. And become a better photographer. (Owning a camera does not make you a photographer!)
16. Never plan a second visit to the same restaurant. Discover new places. Try new cuisines. Explore.
17. Holiday with the wife. Often. Pick a place in the countryside — and spend a week there. And not try and do five cities in 6 days.
What’s on your list? Keen to hear!
Five Lessons for the New Leader
On the occasion of Navroz, we could all learn a lesson or two from Dastur Neryosang Dhaval, the leader of the first group of Zoroastrians that came into India. It all happened in 755 AD in the small Gujarati town called Sanjan. About five hundred Parsi families landed on Indian shores, having fled from Persia. They reached Sanjan, a prosperous little town ruled by a benevolent Hindu king called Jadi Rana. Dastur, the chief of the Parsis, went to the king’s court to request him for refuge. Being somewhat apprehensive of the tall, fair warrior-like tribe and unsure of his little kingdom’s ability to absorb and provide for the immigrants, the king called for a bowl of milk, filled to the brim. He showed it to the Parsi chief, to symbolize the fact that the kingdom was full. There was no room for more people! But Dastur was not to about to give up so easily. He asked one of the attendants to get him some sugar. He took a spoonful of the sugar and mixed it in the bowl, letting it dissolve—signifying that the Zoroastrians would mingle with the people in Sanjan and sweeten their lives. Impressed, the king allowed the Parsis to settle in his kingdom. The rest, as they say, is history.
Several valuable lessons in leadership flow from that bowl of milk and sugar.
First, leaders moving into a new team or organization must remember that, in most cases, the bowl is almost always perceived to be full to the brim.
Second, like the sugar itself, leaders must learn to mingle with the team and be willing to let their identity, and their ego, become subservient to the needs of the team.
Third, it also helps to remember that once the sugar dissolves in the milk, it sweetens the last drop of milk. The sugar’s impact is not confined merely to the drops of milk that come in direct contact with it.
Fourth, it’s most important to understand what’s inside the bowl. Is it milk? Or water? Or soda? Understanding the people and the organization has to be the first step in the leader’s journey.
And finally, once the sugar dissolves in the team, you want people to exclaim how sweet the milk is. Not how good the sugar was.
The MD and the Mop
The MD and the Mop
I was privileged to get a fantastic lesson in leadership recently, and I thought I must share that with you.
I was in a meeting with the Managing Director of a company and with him, was his head of Learning & Development. We sat down around a table in their guest house – a little round table where you could have a discussion. Just as we got started, I realised that the Managing Director had got up and gone into the kitchen, and had come back in a jiffy with a mop in his hand. He then went on to wipe the table clean. And as he saw the look of surprise on our faces, he said that when he put his diary on the table, he figured there was dust there! And he just decided to clean it.
Now, I thought to myself, this is such a rare sight! When was the last time you saw the Managing Director of a company actually take a mop out and clean a table – in front of a group of other people?
Think about it. He could have easily done something else. He could have called out to the attendant, who at that stage was busy making some tea and coffee for us, and said, “Come I want you to clean the table right now!” Or he could’ve screamed and shouted at him for not having maintained a clean table. Or he could’ve complained about the world we live in and said, “Look, there’s so much dust around us!”. He didn’t do any of that. He was a man who had seen a problem (which none of us actually noticed) and then he decided, ‘Hey, let me do something about it!’. He went out, got a mop and cleaned the table. That’s just the kind of leadership that’s becoming so rare to find in our world today. But, it’s also just the kind of leadership that we all need to see more of.
Maybe you and I need to do this too. The next time you see a problem, you see that dust on the table which nobody else has noticed, don’t just leave it there. Don’t scream and shout and ask someone to set it right. Maybe all you need to do is get up, find a mop and clean it! You’ll have a clean table, sure. Hey, you’ll also become a role model for what great leadership looks like!
Just like this MD.
Gandhi and The One Shoe Syndrome
And for another Gandhi Jayanti, I thought I’d share one of my favorite stories from the life of the Mahatma.
It concerns a rail journey that the young Gandhi was to undertake on his return to India. He waited on the platform at the railway station for the train to arrive. In those days, it was not unusual for the British rail company to stop the train at a station only if some whites wanted to get on. Or off. In case there were no white passengers, the train would slow down at the station – and Indians – old and young – would scramble onto (or off) the moving train.
And it so happened that as the young Gandhi climbed onto the moving train, one shoe slipped off his foot. And as he bent to try and grab it, it slithered down onto the track, even as the train gathered momentum.
In a flash, Gandhi reached for the shoe on the other foot, and threw it down towards the fast-disappearing other shoe on the track.
As a perplexed onlooker wondered aloud if Gandhi had indeed lost it completely, he explained: “Ah well, if someone was to find one of my shoes, hopefully he’ll find the other one too, and thus have a fine new pair of shoes for himself!”
What a man! And what a wonderful instinctive response!
In this age of scams and greed and never-ending wants and the growing multitude of unhappy-rich, it just strikes me that we could all benefit from taking a leaf out of the Mahatma’s book.
Our typical response is different – so very different from the Mahatma’s. If you – or I – were in the Mahatma’s shoes (literally!), how would we have reacted?
Probably felt miserable for the rest of the journey, at the loss of a new shoe. Complained about the callousness of the railway system. Cursed the engine driver who had caused the loss. Worried about how we’d manage once we reached our destination. That one lost shoe would have played on our mind all the way, piling on the misery.
Unfortunately for us, we tend to focus on what we don’t have. Our mind zeroes in on what we’ve lost. That other shoe. And we carry that burden of loss, adding to our woes. When instead we could so easily focus on what we have – and see if that could be of use to someone. Giving away that second shoe didn’t just make some poor Indian happy (remember, a shoe was quite a luxury for most of our countrymen in those days!) It made Gandhi a happier man too.
So maybe it’s time we all shifted focus. And instead of jostling to become go-getters – wanting more, more, more, we ought to learn to become go-givers. Learning to give. To share. Instead of spending our waking lives worrying about the shoe that got away, maybe we should thank God for the shoe we still have, and discover how giving it away could make us – and someone else – happier.
The Pencil and the Eraser
There’s an interesting story of an imaginary conversation between a pencil and an eraser.
“I am sorry,” said the pencil to the eraser.
“Whatever for?” asked the eraser.
“I am sorry because you get hurt because of me,” continued the pencil. “Every time I make a mistake, you are there to erase it. And every time you erase one of my mistakes, you lose a bit of yourself. You become smaller and smaller. And just a bit dirty too.”
“You shouldn’t really worry,” responded the eraser. “I was meant to help you whenever you made a mistake, and I am happy doing my job. And I know one day I’ll be gone and you will find someone else to do my job – but while I am around, I take pride in knowing I did my bit to help erase your mistakes. Keep writing. And remember, never be scared to make a mistake. There will always be an eraser around to set it right!”
If you think about it, you’ll probably recognize that our teachers were the erasers early in our lives. We were the pencils, sharp, pointed, colourful. And every time we made a mistake, our teachers were there to correct us. They gave a bit of themselves – so that we could emerge looking just a bit better. And then as we moved from school to college and then to work, we found new teachers. But there is no mistaking the fact that we are what we are today, because of those teachers, those wonderful, magical erasers.
That conversation between the pencil and the eraser could well be a conversation between a corporate leader and a protégé, a mentor and a mentee. Good leaders never forget that one of the key roles they play is that of a teacher. Folks who help young managers become great pencils. Who erase the mistakes that help the pencil’s work look good. People who give up a bit of themselves to help the pencils get better. And most importantly, leaders are the ones who give their subordinates the freedom and the confidence to make mistakes – secure in the knowledge that they’d be around to correct mistakes if and when required.
And there’s something else about teachers that makes them truly special. Their ability to look at every student, every child, and see the genius inside. They know that each child is different – and that there is a unique skill or strength inside each and every one.
And yes, as a Teachers’ Day special, do yourself a favour. Pick up a pencil. And send a message to an old teacher or leader to thank him or her for being that wonderful eraser in your life. Do that. You will, won’t you?
Who is Your Hero?
Here’s a question for you. Who is your hero?
There is tremendous value in having a hero. Heroes can inspire us to dream big, and do the impossible. Heroes can lift us in moments of depression and give us hope. And heroes blaze a trail which tells us that if we did similar things, we could achieve our dreams too. Our heroes can change over time – and that’s probably an indication of our own changing situations in life. And yes, don’t expect your heroes to be perfect in all respects. You will be disappointed and might get put off heroes forever – which would be a pity!
A question I often get asked is who my hero was. I have had several heroes in my life. And I thought it might be useful to share some of those stories. So here goes…
One of my earliest heroes in life was my father. Now that’s probably true for many of us! As a little kid, I was hugely inspired by the things he did. A self-made man – he left home in a village in Kerala to come to Mumbai to make a living, went on to study engineering, and forged a successful career. He even mastered the Hindi language enough to be able to teach it. Incredible! And I got my first lessons in writing and speaking from him. I also got my first lessons in people management – as a six year old kid. Here are two simple lessons I haven’t forgotten: One, always call the driver by his name. So it was always Nathu-bhaiyya – not ‘driver’! And lesson two: Carry your own school bag – don’t have someone else to do it for you!
As a cricket-crazy kid in school, I got a new hero when Sunil Gavaskar burst on the scene. He was short, opened the innings, and took on the fastest bowlers in the world without a helmet. He was also articulate, and wrote a fabulous book! In an interview at that time, Gavaskar said how he used his height (or lack of it) to his advantage – it helped him avoid the bouncers! And he talked of how playing cricket in the balcony of his little Mumbai home taught him to hit the ball straight – in the ‘V’. For me they were huge lessons: make the most of what you have. And don’t complain about what you may have missed out on!
And then came the angry young man. Amitabh Bachchan was a hero not just because he managed to beat up all the bad guys even while ensuring he was the son every mom wished she had! For me, the Amitabh story was all about having the courage to give up a steady job to chase your dreams, about being rejected, seeing repeated failure (and even being turned down by All India Radio because they felt he didn’t have a great voice!) And through it all, fighting, persevering, and never, never giving up.
A huge influence at work was one of my early bosses – Suman Sinha! He taught me that a leader at work was like an alchemist. Just as an alchemist turns metal to gold, a true leader turns men and women into managers. And he taught me the importance of values, of integrity, and the habit of doing the right thing – at all times.
There have been several other heroes too. Rahul Dravid, the ultimate team man. And Steve Jobs. And of course, my driver Karunan, who shared pearls of wisdom from his own life (sample this: Early in your career, what you learn is more important than what you earn. And don’t worry about which car you are driving. Focus on being a good driver!). Karunan is also a good reminder that heroes are everywhere. They don’t have to be famous people! And the important bit is not who the hero is, but about what you learn from him and how he inspires you.
So that’s it about me. But tell me, who is your hero? I am keen to hear! And in case you don’t have a hero, find one. Today!
Getting a Licence Does Not Make You a Driver!
He is 58 years old, bespectacled with distinguished silver grey hair. He’s spent 25 years working for one of India’s most respected corporate houses. I have learnt a lot from him. But it is unlikely you would have ever heard of him. His name is Karunan. And he worked with me as my driver.
Sometimes, the biggest lessons in life come from very unlikely sources. And as Karunan spoke to me one morning about his life and times, I thought young people would benefit from listening to what he has to say. Since Karunan will probably never be invited to deliver a convocation speech or a commencement address at a college, I decided to share those lessons with you. Here goes:
1. Getting a driving licence does not make you a driver. “I was 18 when I got my licence. But it was only after several months of driving a car that I actually learnt to drive, and became a real driver.” Young people must remember that. A licence is only a permit – and not a stamp of authority. An MBA does not make you a manager. It is only after you spend several more years learning on the job that you truly qualify to call yourself a manager. Many young people confuse getting a degree as signifying the end of their learning. Wrong. It’s just the beginning. A degree or a diploma – the licence – simply marks you out as someone qualified to learn from real life experiences. It doesn’t make you an expert.
2. The real world is very different from a classroom. “I learnt to drive a car. But my first job required me to drive a little tempo. The steering wheel was different, and so were the gears. I thought I knew how to drive – but I couldn’t even get the tempo started.” The world outside the classroom is a very different place. That’s as true for engineers and MBAs and accountants as it is for drivers. Get ready to get surprised.
3. Slog. Get your hands dirty. “I spent nights working as a cleaner. That’s when I learnt all about the insides of an automobile. Knowing what’s under the bonnet has made me a better driver today.” Most of the brightest marketing professionals in the country will tell you that they learnt their biggest lessons in the days they spent slogging in small towns selling soaps or colas. There’s no other way. If you want to be successful, work hard, dirty your hands – and go beyond your specific role.
4. In the early years, what you learn is more important than what you earn. “In my first job, the pay was bad but the boss was good. He gave me opportunities to learn, to make mistakes. He trusted me. I banged his tempo quite a bit – and while the dents were quickly repaired and touched up, the lessons I learnt remain firmly etched in my mind.” In your first job – don’t worry about your pay packet or the size of the organization. Get a good boss. A good mentor. That’s priceless.
5. Don’t worry about which car you drive. Focus on being a good driver. “I always wanted to drive the best cars – but rather than complain about having to drive a tempo or a school van or the city transport bus, I focused on driving well. I told myself that if I do that, the good cars will come. And they did.” Now that’s a great lesson. It’s not about the company. It’s about you. Do the best with what you have, wherever you are. Karunan spent fifteen years struggling in odd jobs before landing a driver’s job in one of India’s largest companies. We could all benefit by staying focused on doing a great job – rather than worrying about the next job, or the next promotion. Do a good job. Success and happiness will follow. Inevitably.
Those then are five fabulous life lessons from an unlikely guru. Follow Karunan’s advice and I guarantee they’ll make a difference to your career. And to your life!
(This appeared in the January issue of Careers 360. For more, jump to http://careers360.com/news/5086–Prakash-Iyer-s-advice-Slog-Get-your-hands-dirty
Betting on Unripe Fruit!
A friend I met last week was recalling his experiences from his first job and telling me about his boss. The friend had started off as a rookie reporter with Sportsworld – the magazine that Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi used to edit!
His boss was the assistant editor at Sportsworld: David McMahon. And he recalled with great enthusiasm the one trait that marked David out as someone rather special: his willingness to bet on youth! And here’s the story:
When the Indian cricket team travelled to the West Indies in 1983, every newspaper sent its senior-most reporter out to cover the tour. There was Rajan Bala from the Indian Express and Sunder Rajan from the Times, R Mohan from the Hindu and Ayaz Memon – all senior folks, recognized and respected. After all, this was a big tour. And who did David choose to send to cover the tour for Sportsworld? A young not-yet-out-of-his-teens lad called Mudar Patherya.
Mudar went on to do a great job – and his youthful exuberance, his natural curiosity and the desire to ‘live up to David’s trust’ ensured that Sportsworld had some of the finest coverage of the tour. In fact one Sunday morning – an off day with no cricketing action on the tour, Mudar happened to hear that Viv Richards – the big man – was going to be playing beach cricket with some kids in Antigua. And while the rest of the senior folks were either relaxing in the hotel or out sight-seeing, Mudar drove out to the beach, saw a bare-chested Richards having a blast with the kids on the beach and quickly clicked a picture of Viv Richards – with his amateur camera. The picture made it to the front pages of the Anand Bazar Patrika newspapers, and Mudar had another exclusive story to his credit. And David’s faith in the youngster had been vindicated.
Mudar went on to become one of our finest cricket writers, and now runs a successful financial communication services company with his wife in Kolkata. And I am sure he will admit to the role that ‘early break’ – that vote of confidence from David – played in his eventual success.
And Mudar wasn’t alone. When it was time for Wimbledon, David – himself a terrific tennis writer – chose to pick another rookie: Rohit Brijnath. Rohit apparently did not even have a passport when he got told that he’d be covering Wimbledon! Rohit went on to become one of the finest sports writers India has produced.
Most good leaders have a knack of spotting great talent. But it’s the exceptional leaders who bet on that young talent – ahead of it’s time. A big assignment, a special project – or an out-of-turn promotion – and suddenly that young talent becomes a hot success. Many many successful people owe their meteoric rise not just to their talent – but also to that leader who was willing to bet on them. And when a leader does that, the whole team benefits. Notice how the story of David’s greatness was being narrated to me by not by Mudar or Rohit – but someone else who was on that team!
The bet may not always come good. And when it goes wrong, the leader and the young prodigy often pay a heavy price. And here’s the irony: If the leader plays safe – he doesn’t really attract any criticism for not giving the youngster a chance. Which is why it take a special kind of leader – and a courageous one at that – to take that bet. And then the fearlessness of youth takes over. The enthusiasm – and the desire to prove the leader right – usually pave the way for the youngster’s success.
The day after I heard David McMahon’s story, India was fighting to win a test match in Bangalore. The big hope – Sehwag was out cheaply. And when all of KSCA roared to welcome Dravid, out came the debutant Cheteshwar Pujara. And my mind went back to David and Mudar and Rohit. Pujara had failed in the first innings – and yet was now was being trusted by his captain to play a defining innings. And he did.
Had he failed, it would have been easy to say that Dhoni erred. After all, the youngster had failed in the first innings. Why put him under pressure? Why change the batting order? Why… and the questions would have been many. Hindsight is usually pure genius.
Which is why you need to doff your hat to Dhoni. And David. And others like them. It takes courage to bet on a youngster.
So think back then, When it was your turn to take a punt on the kid, did you play safe, or did you bet on the youngster?
And hey, remember the guy who bet on you? Clearly, the corporate world needs more Dhonis and Davids.