There are many reasons why bright and highly competent professionals choose to work for family businesses over working for global MNCs.
One of the most common reasons that professionals join family businesses is to be close to the seat of power. It is the nature of the family business that key professionals get maximum exposure to the family. This is a source of satisfaction for many professionals for whom a personal touch is important. Being able to influence significant outcomes is more satisfying for some people than doing it themselves. Being king maker is more powerful than being king. In global MNCs actual personal contact with the CEO is rare indeed even for many senior managers. In a family business it is almost daily and at a close personal level.
Another common reason is generally a slower pace of life and more rational working hours. As technology becomes our slave-driver instead of being our servant, this is more and more true. Most managers who work for global MNCs in the East have superiors, key clients and even colleagues who live and work in the US or Europe. So, conference calls which are ideally suited to their timing are the norm. That means the Indian manager must be hooked onto his computer talking shop while all others about him are eating dinner or playing with their children or fast asleep. Yet next morning he must be back in his office in India at 0830 like every one of them.
Another reason is the traveling. Once again it is the Easterner working in the global MNC who does most of the travel. More so as travel has become more and more odious and less pleasurable with all the security considerations. ‘Going abroad’ which used to be a major reason why young professionals joined global MNCs soon wears out its novelty and becomes a drudge. It is not just common but an expectation and a norm that someone from India will take a non-stop or connecting flight to the US (18 – 20 hours), land in the middle of the night in his hotel and be ready to attend a meeting at 0800 am the next morning, bright eyed and bubbly and never mind the jet-lag. I have done this myself enough to know from experience how much of a toll it can take on you. One does it for a while for a lot of reasons, but after that?? So people look for jobs where the only travel they will do is from home to office every day or at the most a couple of convenient domestic flights a month.
Whatever be the reason for your shift, when you decide to go to work for a family business, you may like to remember five things.
- If values don’t match nothing else will matter:
Be very clear in your mind about your values and see if they match those of the Business Family. If they don’t, waste no more time and look for another opportunity. If you join a family business which has values in conflict with yours, nothing else will matter for you. You will not do well and will almost certainly come to grief. Ask frank questions in the interview. Don’t be shy to ask anything that you want to have clarified. The interview is also a good place for you to assess how you are likely to be treated once you join. Talk to people who know the family and do your own ‘reference check’ and have the good sense to listen to advice.
- Don’t play with your source of power:
Remember that in a family business, ultimate authority lies with the family and therefore loyalty is the cardinal virtue. So never play with the source of your power. That is a battle you can never win, because if you win, you lose and if you lose you lose anyway. Treat the family you are now working for, as your own. Be loyal to them. You owe it to them, because they are paying you well and giving you freedom to make a career for yourself. Be good to them. It is entirely likely that the family member you work with does not have your knowledge or experience. Remember that’s the precise reason why you were hired; to teach the family, help them to become more competent and capable and build a great company. You were not hired to make them feel like fools. I am amazed at how many professionals forget this and go around telling the world what an ignoramus their boss (family member) is.
Remember that you may call him ignorant, but he still owns the company and even though he does not have your degrees, he is the one who is paying your salary and probably has a personal net worth that is 1000 times your own. So, he must have done something right, eh! Respect that talent, the risk taking that built the business and the capability that enabled him to hire you. If you were more capable than him, he would be working for you, not vice versa. Sure, you have some special expertise for which he hired you. Use it for his benefit, help him, guide him and respect him. Never talk behind his back because the world is round and what goes around, comes around. And then it bites, very hard.
- Blood is thicker than water:
Family is about the genes first. Family will always be family. No matter how many times you were invited to the Chairman’s home, you have not become a family member. No matter that the Chairman asked you to ‘think of yourself as his son’; it does not make you his son. His son will succeed him, not you. So, if you are one of those who can’t stomach that, then you are in the wrong place. Learn to take satisfaction from being ‘king maker’ for you will never be ‘king’. Guide the successor, train him, support him and protect him, for one day he will become your boss. And you can still have a great career. After all, if you worked for GE it is unlikely that you could realistically imagine that one day you would be the Chairman.
- You work for the business, not for any family member:
Don’t offer to do personal things, even as a favor because this can be misconstrued and then lo and behold you will be seen as a lackey instead of a professional colleague. Don’t fall into this trap. Always keep a respectful distance. Don’t accept too many personal invitations and never loosen your hair too much no matter how much you are encouraged. Under no circumstances should you get involved in any family disputes. Don’t talk about one family member to another. If a family member talks about any other member to you, listen if you must, but make no comments. Don’t take sides because that is not your role. Never discuss the family with anyone. Especially in social circles. Treat the whole family as your client, not any individual member. Don’t become a ‘confidante’. That is not your role.
Trust does not come easy in family businesses. You will need to earn your trust the hard way. Most non-family professionals will be seen as a ‘cost’ and that too a ‘necessary-evil cost’. The onus to prove that you are a ‘value-buy’ is on you. Beware of the founder’s over involvement with detail. In many cases family members, especially founders, have a very close, even fierce sense of ownership of the business and do not see how this attention to minute detail can be seen as nitpicking by others. You will need to have a high degree of tolerance for such behavior and the tact to gently show the founder how he can safely delegate responsibility and hand it over to you. Confrontation does not work. Empathy, understanding and patience, does.
- Never lose your edge:
Remember that you were hired because of your competence and ability to deliver results. To maintain that edge, you need to continuously invest in your own development. Never link your development to what the company can provide. Invest on your own and let your boss know what you are doing. Plan your own learning every year and track it. Ask for assignments where you can demonstrate your competence. Participate in international seminars and symposia. Publish and teach. Participate in training both as a learner as well as, as a teacher. Introduce innovative initiatives in the company and with the permission of your boss, make them public. Consciously work to facilitate the transformation from being person-led to process-driven. This will help you to create the kind of climate and culture that you will find personally stimulating. Become a coach and mentor to the family and guide the younger generation to become worthy successors.
Remember that the prestige of the company and the family is your prestige. Show gratitude and do good to them. If you do, you will find that it will come back to you in full measure. It is possible to have a very satisfying career in a family business provided you follow the rules of that world. They are different from the world you came from. Not better or worse. Just different.
For more, please read my book,
‘The Business of Family Business’, http://amzn.to/2ptG4sc
It is a no brainer to say that there is no family in the world that can continue to provide all the knowledge, talent and energy it needs, to fuel the growth and development of their business, indefinitely. Yet it is amazing to see the usual reluctance to bring in outside talent, even when it has become abundantly clear that the business will flounder if the knowledge and skills that are needed are not provided in a timely manner.
Here are some important things that Family Business Owners/CEO’s must keep in mind so that they can create a climate that can attract and retain the best professional talent.
The first and foremost thing to do is to consciously make the decision to hire professionals. If professionals from big-name MNCs are hired as a matter of prestige or fashion as happens more often than one would like to believe, it is almost certain that the hire will go wrong. Once the conscious decision has been taken it is essential for the family to spend a sufficient amount of time helping the professional to understand what he or she is getting into. Family business cultures are as different from each other as can be. The professional that the family business hires will more than likely not have any idea about the dynamics, culture, taboos, norms and accepted behaviors of the family and their business. It is likely that given the corporate MNC culture of a Western company, he may find some of the norms and expected behaviors difficult or even impossible to follow. In such cases it is better that this is discovered early and the hiring is not done, rather than have to go through what can be a painful and embarrassing termination. Be frank with the incumbent; let him see what and how you are from as close as possible. Share all that you do and expect him to do without reservation and then let him decide if he wants to join. It is a good idea also to create a space for his family to meet your family and share some mindscape. The social interaction can help in breaking the ice and helping both parties to see each other without any pretense, voluntary or otherwise.
- Choose the best:
Believe me, the best really want to work for you. Get professional help to hire the best because the best don’t just happen round the corner. It is a common mistake that many family business owners make of treating professionals as a ‘cost’. They hire below themselves as they don’t want to pay what it takes to hire the best. This is a very costly mistake. And you will pay that price. It is an accepted fact in leading edge global MNCs that hiring superior people is the most cost-effective choice. Survey after survey shows that superior people may be up to 15% more expensive but produce between 40-50% more in terms of output. Hire the best and from them, demand the best. Those who are worthy of their salt will welcome working to high standards. This will also create the kind of achievement-oriented culture you need to attract the best talent. Winners attract winners. So do losers.
- Treat them with respect:
They are not the ‘hired help’. They work for the company, not for you personally. Don’t use them to do your personal jobs and actively discourage those who will offer to do them to suck-up to you. Give professionals responsibility that is commensurate with their qualifications so that you can really leverage their talent and experience for your company. Some family business CEOs collect professionals from various MNCs like people collect watches or paintings. Then they talk about who they have working for them. But when it comes to giving them freedom and authority to take decisions and really bring about change in the company, they tie their hands and don’t allow them to function. Professionals who have self-respect and who are interested in their careers, leave when they see what is happening. Others, for their own personal reasons stay on, lose their edge and gradually vegetate at your expense.
- Don’t make promises you can’t or won’t keep:
Treat them like the professional colleagues they are. Some business owners in their eagerness to hire some high profile professional promise them all kinds of things which they personally have no authority to deliver. When the promises don’t pan out, the professional justifiably feels let down and will more than likely leave. I recall one case where one family business CEO hired a high-profile HR head from a global MNC with the ‘incentive’ that the family wanted to replicate the global MNC’s corporate university in India. The HR professional was very excited believed the dream merchant who hired him, only to be hugely disappointed later. He lasted with them for all of six months.
- Pay well:
This is a big one. Many family business owners are so used to doing things themselves or getting their family or friends to do things for them for love that they almost take umbrage if anyone suggests that service needs to be paid for in cash. When hiring professionals, they treat having to pay a salary like having teeth extracted and try to haggle and pay as little as possible. On the other end of the spectrum are those who are over generous and pay out of guilt or to tell their friends how much they are paying key professionals. Both approaches are wrong. If you pay peanuts you get monkeys who will steal the peanuts. Honesty does have a price, believe it or not. And overpaying does not buy either loyalty or dedication. Check the market. Pay either the market value or 5% -10% more, since your company may not be such a great name to have on the CV. But don’t pay more than that. If the person you are hiring needs to be literally purchased, then he is not worth hiring. You want people to join you also for the challenge and for what they think they can achieve for you.
- Create a clear career path for them:
Professionals are very anxious in family businesses to know where their career will take them. They may accept not becoming the CEO, but they would naturally expect to get to the No.2 position or to the head of a functional or SBU role in a reasonable time. Create a career path for them based on clearly defined goals. I have recommended that even the CEO’s job must be open to professionals because you want the CEO to be the best qualified person. And if it is a non-family person, so be it. That is good for the business and by inference good for the family.
- Demand excellence:
Demonstrate excellence. Inspire and then never settle for anything but the best. Competent professionals like to demonstrate what they can do. Set high goals and reward those who exceed them, handsomely. A good objective performance management system is also a major asset in attracting and retaining the right people. Many professionals are very apprehensive of subjective appraisals in family businesses and the whole business of being ‘liked’. A clear-cut performance management system assures them that their achievements will be noticed and rewarded objectively and that their career progress does not depend on subjective likes and dislikes.
- Expose them internationally: Invest in their learning:
Give your key professionals international exposure. Let them publish, present papers at international seminars, teach at business schools, participate in service programs. Only if they meet others will they learn. What they learn they will bring back to you. Sure, a couple will leave. Those couple would have left anyway. In any case you need a flow of a clean cool breeze, now and again. But others will join you because they see the caliber of people you have working with you. Make learning an item on the Performance Appraisal System. Provide learning opportunities, pay for them, and support those who learn. Then ask them how you can enable them to apply what they learnt in your place. Without the challenge of international exposure professionals will lose their edge and thereby their usefulness to you.
Don’t be shortsighted with respect to employee development. People who want to learn are precisely the kind of people you need. Don’t punish them for wanting to learn. Appreciate their spirit and support them, so that they will create a culture of learning in the organization. Some employers think differently, to their own detriment.
- Give them a stake in the business:
Key professionals help you to become more profitable. They are the cause of your wellbeing. Acknowledge and appreciate that materially. Believe me, they are smart enough to know their own worth. They need to be appreciated and their contributions acknowledged. The best option is to give key executives a percentage of the profit. Some people recommend stock options or phantom stocks, but these can have other implications for the family itself. A percentage of the profit is a neat, clean way to give the professional a stake in the company without raising other issues. They get it if they deliver. Not unless.
In conclusion, business success is about skills and knowledge. Not about genetics and surnames. The family needs the business. The business doesn’t need the family. Just like flying a plane and owning it are two different things and signing the cheque for the plane doesn’t make you a pilot, so also in business. Owning a business doesn’t automatically make you a great businessman. Hire the right people, treat them right, pay them right. That’s the best way to ensure that your own lifestyle doesn’t suffer.
For more, please read my book,
The Business of Family Business’, http://amzn.to/2ptG4sc
I expect most of you, if not all, saw this post on WhatsApp about how and why fake news spreads faster than real news. For those who didn’t here it is.
This is a ten plus year MIT study which comes up with many surprising findings one of which is: “A surprising twist in the study was that bots spread fake news at the same rate as true news, suggesting, “False news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”
Another report about this study is here:
What does fake news do?
It results in violence, hatred, death, destruction of property and disruption of lives. Perhaps one day, your own. Self-interest seems to be the only effective deterrent today in a world that seems to be free of any sense of community, responsibility, compassion or accountability. So be it. Think of yourself at the end of the fake news, if that is what it takes to prevent you from spreading fake news. All it takes is one click. All it takes to do the opposite is not to do that one click.
What must you do when you receive stuff that people ask you to forward?
- Simply use your head. Look at the fake news below, which I am sure you have all seen; the so-called anti-corruption drive with a list of names of all those who allegedly have money hidden in Swiss banks.
Then read the passionate appeal at the end and ask if the person writing this can do simple math. The US, at last count, was a $13 trillion economy. How then can $1.3 trillion, if brought back from Swiss banks, make India ten times bigger than the US? So, the real question is not whether the one who posted this nonsense knows math but whether, you, Mr/Mrs/Ms Forwarder, do?
Take another one about the construction of a mosque in a football stadium. Sounds like a nice cosy, cuddly story of love and mutual respect and would have been if it were true. Here is the story:
And here is my simple investigation:
The mosque mentioned is a Turkish mosque in Cologne, Germany and not in the Allianz area. This is the mosque: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6oIichi5CuU
No mention of any mosque on the official website of the club. See for yourself.
- Verify the fake news. It is quite easy. Go to https://www.snopes.com/ and type in your fake news or read their archives and you will discover whether it is true or false. Microsoft is not giving away free computers, Ericsson is not giving away free phones and NASA didn’t announce that the sun has risen in the West. To verify videos please go to https://www.snopes.com/video/ Mindless fans of Justin Beiber are called ‘Beliebers’. Really. Mindless forwarders of fake news, what shall we call them? ‘Believers’: those who believe without thinking.
- And finally, the easiest thing to do; DO NOTHING. Hit ‘Delete’. And use the baseball rules: 3 strikes is OUT. In this case, anyone who sends you fake news thrice, block him, ban him and delete him from your address book. I do this because I don’t need mindless idiots in my life. Believe me, neither do you.
- For those who still want to continue to forward fake news imagining that writing, ‘AS RECEIVED’ saves you, please wake up and stop smoking whatever keeps you in your haze of fantasy; it doesn’t. Not in this life or the next. In this life, forwarding fake stuff can land you in jail. In the next life you will be called to account for having forwarded stuff that led to all kinds of pain and suffering for others. You read it, you decided to forward it, so you are RESPONSIBLE. It is as simple as that.
A language, any language, is not simply sounds and script characters which represent thoughts. A language is the soul of the people. It is the vehicle which connects their past to their present, their present to their dreams. It is the means by which one generation leaves its legacy for the next. In my view the single most significant event in human development is the evolution of languages. It was this process that enabled human beings to preserve their thoughts, teach others, learn from history and talk to generations yet unborn. Language is the elixir of eternal life. Or as close to it as we are likely to come.
Among the many strange developments in our country is a resurgence of hostility against poor Urdu, which is wrongfully alleged to be the language of Muslims. And since Muslims are people non-grata their language is language non-grata. No matter that it has nothing to do with Muslims in the first place. It is seen as that and so it must become unseen. There is a long history to all this and for those who are interested in it, please read this excellent article:
While I lament the completely undeserved hostility to Urdu, which is in the nature of cutting your nose to spite your face; I must say that nobody and no government can kill a language that people want to use. The very birth and rise of Urdu is testimony to that. Farsi was the official language of the time. Yet Urdu eventually supplanted it without any official support, simply because the people wanted to speak it, wrote in it, transacted business in it and so on. When you read the history of the development of Urdu literature and poetry you can’t help being struck by the enormous vitality of the language, its ease of expression, it beauty of turn of phrase, which thanks mainly to the fact that it was understood by the masses, gradually and then rapidly supplanted Farsi. English was repressed in South Africa during the rule of Afrikaners and Afrikaans was strongly propagated to the extent that even today most South African people speak Afrikaans. Yet we know that Afrikaans is dying and will die, and English is alive and well and growing.
The same is true of English in this country which has seen its share of hostility yet all the Hindutva and other chauvinists, send their children to English medium schools for one reason only; because without it they will not have access to the global culture. Languages must cater to the aspirations of people. What happened with Urdu as well as with almost every other Indian language, is that they didn’t keep up with scientific development. Indeed, Urdu has some of the most beautiful poetry, especially love poetry in existence. As an Urdu speaker, I can’t tell you how it has the power to move me to tears. English poetry on the other hand leaves me cold. There is no other word to describe that. However, when I need to work, think, write my thoughts to an audience that spans borders, it is English that enables me to do so. When I am explaining any concept in science, psychology, sociology or politics, it is English that has the words to describe precisely what I need to say. With Urdu (or Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu) I find myself translating the English to create cumbersome and ungainly expressions that make little sense.
Call it my lack of expertise in the Indian languages compared to my mastery of English, the fact remains that this is my experience. Talk to a million others like me and you will find that there are rather a lot of us around. Take that forward and ask how many like me are likely to teach Urdu to our children and you have the perfect diagnosis of the fatal ailment that besets Urdu. I was teaching a leadership course to a group of senior Muslim scholars in Urdu, simultaneously translating my material from English to Urdu when I realized, very painfully, this fact, that Urdu simply doesn’t have the words to translate the concepts I was talking about. I did my best and by explaining where I would have used a single word, I managed to do my job, but the fact was clear; Urdu no longer speaks to the modern person. It is like Arabic in a way that has more than twenty words for horse and camel, but not a single one for DNA, corpuscle, neuron or clavicle. Ask yourself, which is more important?
There are many Indian languages which have died over the years, not because someone actively prohibited them, punished those who spoke them and burnt all their literature and poetry, but simply because the people who spoke them, chose not to do so any more. Not a single one of them was spoken by Muslims. Not a single one of them was the target of any Governmental hostility. Yet they all died. Languages die because they no longer have words to express what people want to say. This doesn’t happen overnight but is a gradual process, where they fall into disuse. This is what is happening to Urdu. It simply doesn’t have the words to cater to our modern world or way of life. The world today has little value for the arts, for sublime thoughts or lofty ideals. It speaks in the language of the present, material, prosaic but real.
Gul o Bulbul kay fasanay hain bahut khoob magar
(Stories of the flower and Bulbul are beautiful but)
Roti tho kamana hi paday ga is mehfil kay baad
(I still have to earn my bread after this gathering)
This is the harsh reality of our life today. No matter how brutal or crass that sounds, language must be utilitarian first. Urdu seems to have lost that race. Incidentally I wrote that couplet just now to illustrate the dilemma of Urdu.
Today Urdu is dying in India, mainly because traditionally Urdu speaking people, Muslims and Hindus, have stopped speaking it. This is the inconvenient truth that those who complain about the impending death of Urdu choose not to face. Ask how many of those who talk of the need to protect Urdu, subscribe to Urdu newspapers? Ask how many children in their homes can read or write Urdu? Ask how many can quote, or even read or memorize Urdu poetry? I am not talking about Islam at all. The language of Islam is Arabic. Not Urdu. I am talking about Urdu literature and poetry; how many can read it, understand it or quote it? The answer is clear and visible before our eyes. But we like to blame the Government when we must look at ourselves first. The fact that Urdu is not the medium of instruction in schools or that it is not an ‘official’ language, is neither here nor there. Urdu’s history is witness that it was not the medium of instruction in schools nor was it the official language yet it supplanted Farsi which was both. It did that without governmental support and despite governmental neglect. It did that for one reason only; because people decided they wanted to use Urdu and not Farsi.
Languages die, not because of the aggression of enemies but the neglect of friends. Aggression may actually help a language which will go underground and remain alive and gain strength thanks to the dangers it faces above ground. This is how Arabic remained alive and well and was taught in secret to Muslim children to enable them to read the Qur’an during the more than eighty years of brutal repression of Islam and all its symbols in erstwhile Soviet Russia. Soviet Russia then became erstwhile. Not Islam or Arabic or the Qur’an.
The situation is not hopeless. Far from it. But the solution doesn’t lie in the hands of the Government. It lies in the hands of people. Our hands. The hands of those who claim to love Urdu. Start speaking it yourself. Subscribe to Urdu newspapers. Teach Urdu to your children at home, if schools don’t teach it. Listen to Urdu poetry and support Urdu poets. Read Urdu books and write in Urdu. No power on earth can stop you from doing any of this. You don’t need any money or time or resources to do any of these. Just the will to get up and do something instead of complaining and blaming the Government. This Government has much it must be held accountable for. But neglect of Urdu is the responsibility of Urdu speaking people. Not the Government.
Yes, the Government of India must support Urdu because it is a truly Indian language. It was born in India, is spoken my millions in India and is a part of the history of India. But before that, Urdu speaking people must support it. If people do it, what the Government does or doesn’t do, will not matter. If people don’t support it, no Government can keep any language alive. Sanskrit is the example to illustrate that. Politicians taking oaths of office in Sanskrit proves nothing. Ask how many speak Sanskrit at home or read Sanskrit papers. Much like Usha Utup singing Hindi songs.
I started working in India in the Anamallai Hills, part of the Western Ghats as they tapered down all the way into the tip of the subcontinent. Before that I had worked for five years in bauxite mining in Guyana, South America and lived on the bank of Rio Berbice, in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest. But that is another story.
The area that contained the tea plantations was part of the Indira Gandhi National Park. The park is home to an amazing variety of wildlife which thanks to the difficult terrain, plethora of leeches, and shortage of motorable roads is still safe from the depredations of ‘brave’ hunters buzzing around in their Jeeps and shooting animals blinded and frozen in their searchlight beams. In the Anamallais if you want to hunt (it is illegal to shoot anything in the National Park, but there are those who are not bothered about what is legal and what is not) you must be prepared to walk in the forest, up and down some very steep hills, be bitten by leeches and have a very good chance at becoming history at the feet of an elephant.
However, if you are not interested in hunting and killing animals, you have all the same pleasures and thrills with the animal healthy and alive at the end of it. I want to see and photograph animals, not kill them. I have hunted enough in my youth and lost interest in killing things as my connection with nature strengthened. I was looking for an opportunity to just spend time in the environment that I loved. My job as an Assistant Manager in Sheikalmudi Estate, my first posting with a princely salary of ₹850 per month, gave me all that I could have wished for.
Sheikalmudi borders the Parambikulam forest. This extends from the shore of the Parambikulam Reservoir (created by damming the Parambikulam River) up the steep mountainside all the way to the top. Sheikalmudi is the crown on that mountain’s head, manicured tea planted after cutting the rain forest, more than a century ago by British colonial planters. Where the tea ends, starts the rain forest of the Western Ghats. Anamallais is the second rainiest place on the planet. In the early part of the century it used to get more than three-hundred centimeters of rain annually and consequently it rained almost six months of the year. Even when I joined in 1983, we frequently saw spells of more than a week at a stretch, when it rained continuously day and night without any easing of the volume of water. I was horrified the first time I saw this. I was used to rain in Hyderabad, where we get about thirty centimeters annually. And to the rain in Guyana, where because of the Trade Winds which brought the rain, it rained on most days in the evenings for a little while and then cleared up.
Now here was rain and more rain and more rain. Yet in all this rain, we went to work at 6.00 am every morning. Heavy canvas raincoat, waterproof jungle hat, shorts, stockings and wellingtons. We rode our motorcycles down treacherous hill pathways, slippery in the rain and covered with fog as sometimes a cloud decided to rest on its journey across the sky. It was very cold because we were between 3500 to 4000 feet high and so in the first ten minutes, you lost all feeling in your legs, below your knees.
Walls of the bungalow would have mildew growing on them in damp patches. Small leaks would develop in the roof and their yield would be received in sundry pots and pans placed under them. This would create its own music. Little frogs would emerge from every crevice and would hop all around the house. In the night, they would find some resting place and add their voices to the night chorus of frogs and insects in the garden, that would rise and fall like an animal breathing. But sometimes the rain would be so heavy that all you could hear was the rain on the galvanized iron sheet roof. This sound would drown out every other sound. Within the first week of the beginning of the monsoon, all telephone lines would be down. Power supply would become extremely erratic. And more often than not, landslides would block roads. So being cut off from everyone for several days was a common phenomenon. When there came the occasional storm – every year we used to have at least two or three – all these problems would get magnified.
Candle light dinners with a roaring fire in the fireplace were the fringe benefit of this weather. That and in my case, a lot of chess by the fire. The year I got married, 1985, there was a storm in which twelve-hundred trees fell on my estate alone, taking down with them all power and telephone lines. There were two major landslides and we were cut off from the world for a total of fifteen days. It rained almost continuously for this period and my poor wife had a wet introduction to the new life ahead of her. But typical for us both, we enjoyed this time, playing chess by the fireside. She started by not knowing chess at all and I taught her the game. By the end of our enforced seclusion she was beating me. Now take it as her learning ability or the quality of my game, but being rained-in has its benefits.
I have always looked for challenges. Anything that comes easily does not excite me. My learning, that it is the extraordinary goal that inspires extraordinary effort is very personal to me. In the plantation industry I was constantly focused on setting new records. And over the years I was able to do this in all aspects of tea and rubber planting. I set the record in yield per hectare, in work tasks in various cultivation activities, and in the price of the manufactured product. I reclaimed swamp land and planted cardamom and set up bee hives and produced cardamom flavored honey. I reclaimed illegally cultivated land bordering our tea and planted tea in it adding over 50 hectares of land to the estate. I planted vanilla under rubber and successfully pollinated and harvested the vanilla bean; to my knowledge the first time this had been done in South India. When I say, ‘I’, I mean my team. I had one of the best in the world, each of them close friends who worked with me with total devotion and dedication and who I was very proud to call my own. I trained several of them, when they came to me as probationers and while not all were equally happy during the training, as I am a hard task master, every one of them was thankful for what they received and have remained lifelong friends.
1983-86 were boom years for tea in South India. Anything that was produced would sell. The biggest buyers were the Russians who bought on the rupee trade agreements between the governments of both countries. Anything that could be manufactured in South India was bought by the Russians. Sadly, quality went out the window. Some people, including myself, were able to see the writing on the wall and tried to get manufacturers to focus on quality and to get out of the commodity market and instead create brand. That, however, meant investing in brand building and hard work in maintaining quality standards. Since people were making money, nobody was interested in listening to anything that meant more work or investment. Eventually, the inevitable happened. Russia collapsed and so did their buying trend and it almost took the South Indian tea industry down with it. Some companies shut down. Others were more fortunate. But the whole industry faced some very hard times.
Interestingly, success seems to breed fear of failure. This is a paradox, since success should really build confidence. It does that too, but what seems to happen over the years is that we become progressively more afraid of losing what we have created and our ability to take risks decreases. This to me explains why entrepreneurs who have built large organizations are so afraid to allow others to take the same kind of risks that they took when they were alone and creating the company. Somehow, as they succeed, people who build organizations seem to forget the real lessons of their experience:
- That it was speed of reaction and the ability to take risks that gave them the competitive advantage.
- That it was the willingness to put themselves on the line, which built their credibility.
- That it was staying in touch with customers that helped them anticipate trends.
This fear of taking risk seems to extend even more to their own children, a phenomenon that we see in many family owned companies where the old, often senile, patriarch rules supreme and holds the strings of power. That is also why such organizations finally break-up, usually with a lot of rancor, as the rebellion against authority comes to a head and the son has no alternative but to break away. This fear of failure has many respectable names: Consolidation of gains, Stability, Creating Permanence and so on.
What is forgotten is that life is about change and positive change is growth. That growth is not looking inwards with a satisfied glow at what exists, but always to seek what might be. And that all growth is essentially characterized by a lack of stability, living with impermanence and spending what you have, to fuel what you aspire to create. This is forgotten, not by chance or accident. It is forgotten deliberately, albeit sometimes unconsciously. And it is done to deal with the fear of failure if one continues to take risk.
So, what is the alternative?
In my view, the alternative is to practice change even when there is no need for it.
Some organizations create think-tanks whose job is to conceptualize hypothetical threat situations and suggest solutions. One can use this or any other method, but it is a very good idea to spend some time and energy in anticipating the future and preparing for it. I personally make it a point to do this kind of reflective observation every so often. The important thing is to make this an ongoing process, no matter how you do it. Anticipating change is the first step to creating game changers that will put you in the driving seat. That is the only guarantee of permanence in a world where permanence is against nature. Any other route in my view only guarantees stagnation of ideas, sanctification of monumental stupidity, and calcification of the mind.
The single biggest and most critical requirement of success in my view is the desire to be the best. No matter what you may do – if you want to succeed, you need to be passionate about what you do and want to be the best at it. This is something that I have been aware of in myself all my life. I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did. Read the most, get the best results at school, train my dog so that it would win in tracking and show championships, school my horse so that he would win in dressage competitions every time, climb the biggest mountain I could find, do what nobody had done before, go where nobody had gone before me. Always trying to excel in whatever I put my hand to. I never saw any thrill in simply doing more of the same. I always wanted to do something new. And that’s a very cool way to live.
It is not that I succeeded on every occasion. But I made a serious effort every time. And when I failed, I used the other technique that I had learnt early in life; to analyze failure, face the brutal reality, and acknowledge ownership. No justification of mistakes. No blaming others. Take the responsibility for my own actions. See what went wrong and why. See what I need to do to ensure that this particular mistake never happens again. The pin and hole principle in engineering; fool proofing the system so that it becomes impossible to make a mistake. Not leaving the issue to individual discretion but creating a system to ensure that the correct procedure is followed every time. These are two principles that I have always tried to follow in my life: try to be the best and own up to mistakes.
A third principle that I have always tried to follow is to actively seek feedback. And then to listen to it without defensiveness. No justification or argument with the person giving the feedback, always remembering that my intention is inside my heart. What we intended to convey is less important than what we did convey. What the other person sees is the action, not the intention. And if the action did not convey the intention, then the action failed and must change, because for us all, perception is reality.
Being passionate about what you do is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to be the best in their work. For me, this has never been a matter of choice but something that I have always held as inevitable. If I do something, then it must be the best that I can possibly do. Nothing less. I discovered that if I am in a profession or job where I can’t really find it in myself to be passionate about it, then I need to change the job. And I did. Happiness is not doing less. It is to do the most that we can do. To maximize contribution. And that can only come through loving what you do. I am deliberately using a term which is not often used in a work context, love. People who don’t love their work are stressed. People who love their work automatically get a sense of meaning from it and believe it is worthwhile. The more they do, the happier they are. They get stressed not with work, but with not having enough of it.
Just to close the point, a working person spends roughly thirty to thirty-five years doing what we call work. If we take a lifespan of seventy years and subtract the years spent in childhood and education, work life is almost seventy percent of a person’s lifespan. To spend this doing something that does not give fulfillment, satisfaction and a sense of achievement, but is something that is routine, boring and even unpleasant, is a very stupid way to live your life. Unfortunately, that is how many people do lead their lives. In dead end jobs with no value addition to themselves or to the organizations they work for. That is why work produces stress.
Berty Suares, my dearest friend
Life in the Anamallais passed like a dream. Berty Suares was the Assistant Manager on the neighboring estate, Malakiparai. And Sandy (Sundeep Singh) was on Uralikal. Both dear friends. They would come over to my place and we would spend Sunday picnicking on the bank of the Aliyar River where on a bend in the river that passed through our cardamom plantation, I had built a natural swimming pool. I deepened the stream bed and deposited the sand from there on the near bank, thereby creating a very neat ‘beach.’ Sitting on this beach under the deep shade of the trees after a swim in the pool was a heavenly experience. Add to it, eating cardamom flavored honey straight from the comb, taken from the many hives that I had set up in the cardamom fields for pollination. The flavor comes from the pollen of the flowers which the bees take to make the honey. Depending on where you set up your hives or where the bees go to find pollen, honey can have as many flavors as there are flowers. While we lazed about at noon, our lunch would be brought down to us and we would all eat together. The joys of being a planter in the days when we had people who knew how to enjoy that life.
If you walked down the river for a couple of kilometers you would come to the Parambikulam Dam backwaters into which this river flowed. I had built another pool there at the bottom of a waterfall, thanks to a stream that flowed through Murugalli Estate. We used to keep a boat in the dam to go fishing on the lake. There was a thickly wooded island in the lake about half a kilometer from the shore on which one could go and spend the whole day, swimming and lazing in the shade; a very welcome occupation, free from all stress. The only sounds that you would hear would be the wailing call of the Rufus Backed Hawk Eagle and the Fishing Eagle. In the evenings, Jungle Fowl called the hour. If you stayed beyond sunset, the only danger was that you could encounter bison (Gaur) as you walked home. That encounter was not something to look forward to as I discovered one day. Mercifully, I was walking softly and the wind was in my face, so the Gaur was as startled as I was. He snorted, spun on his heel, and vanished, crashing through the undergrowth. I was very fortunate.
The more time I spent with myself, the clearer it became that it is important to be ‘friends’ with yourself. The more you are self-aware and comfortable internally, the more you can enjoy the world outside. When you are not aware of what is happening to you inside or are unhappy with decisions you have taken, or with your own internal processes, the unhappier you are likely to be with your surroundings. The normal tendency is to blame the outer world, but if one looks within, it is possible to find the solution. One rider however, that you will find only if you seek and only if you have the courage to recognize what you see. That is where sometimes the matter remains unresolved. Not because there is no solution. But because we are unwilling to accept the solution or to implement it.
Time for another dip, then climb into the hammock and gently swing in the breeze that comes blowing over the water. Those were the days……………………
The biggest challenge of parenting is to accept that we are facing a world that is very different from the one we grew up in. This is true irrespective of which country you live in with the additional complexity of a rapid destruction of walls between cultures. The truth is that your solutions don’t work today and your children know this better than anyone else. Yet you still have the challenge of inspiring, supporting and teaching them. Your challenge is to prepare them for a world that you know nothing about. This can be seen as positive or negative depending on your point of view, but one thing is certain and that is, it will not leave you untouched.
The major Global Challenges that we face are three:
Thanks mainly to the internet and to global TV channels we are in an information overload phase. We don’t suffer from lack of information but from a surfeit of it – easily available at the click of a mouse. What is missing is the ability to discern, to sift, to pick the nuggets. What is missing is the ability to know what to do with what we read or see. What is missing is the ability to connect the dots to complete the picture. What is missing is the ability to recognize the reality and to put things in perspective so that we can differentiate between real information and propaganda. What is missing is the ability to respond positively and powerfully to ensure that the dissenting voice is also heard in the cacophony of the dominant discourse.
Easy information exchange has also lowered and, in many cases, wiped out the entry barriers into technologies and business areas. This opens new opportunities for entrepreneurs provided they know how to use them. It also wipes out the competitive advantage of the niche, when that is exposed to attention from other aspirants. It is a challenge for parents to guide their children in ways that enable them not only to make sense of what they see and read but to leverage it for themselves and others.
The information exchange also has a darker side with every evil that happens in the world getting instant limelight. The conscious self is bombarded daily with images which at one time would have sent us into depression, but which leave us untouched and unmoved today. This desensitization of the heart, the deadening of compassion, making the horrific, mundane, is the result of constant exposure to cruelty, oppression and bloodshed. Like the nurse in the operating theatre or the butcher in the abattoir, the sight of another’s suffering leaves us untouched. Our classical scholars used to be very concerned about exposing oneself to things that harden the heart. Imam Al-Ghazali used to say that one should not mention death while eating because if the heart is not deadened then you will not be able to eat. And if you are able to eat then it will become evident to everyone that your heart is dead. I don’t think we bother with such niceties anymore because the condition of our hearts is apparently not of any consequence to us.
The challenge that parents have is to guide children such that their hearts don’t harden and they have the compassion to help those in need. Hidden in this is also the real danger of radicalization of youth and their falling into the trap of those who seek to recruit them for cannon fodder. It is our challenge to help them to retain perspective, show them how they can positively contribute and stay away from all extremist positions. But to do all that we need to check what state our own hearts are in for only who can see, can guide the blind.
The second challenge we face is that of technology. Like rain, it is a part of our lives. You either get wet or you learn to use an umbrella. The smart phone, the computer, social networking and the ever-present Google. Google Maps automatically gives me driving directions to the masjid on Fridays whether or not I ask for them. It tells me if a flight that I am booked on, is late or not. It even tells me when I need to leave for the airport, even when I have not asked for this information or informed it about my present location. It knows without being told.
Technology takes away the drudgery and monotony. It adds value and makes life easy. But at the same time, it increases distraction, creates a false sense of satisfaction and speed. People feel satisfied with posting likes on Facebook and making favorites on Twitter as if they actually accomplished something. They forget that a million likes don’t put a piece of bread into the mouth of the starving child or save the life of one who is in danger. Instant gratification – the most dominant sign of an immature intellect – is one of the legacies of technology, albeit unintentional. We forget that if you want results you have to work very hard at the right things; not merely click a mouse or tap a touch screen. This results in unjustified frustration and the millennial personality is born. People who are literally disinterested in the future. What can you hope for with respect to creating a legacy from those whose main interest is the next sensation?
Speed of response that technology enables is both a competitive advantage and a threat. Our own response to events has to be hugely faster than our parents’, needed to be because every event is instantly global news. The repercussions of the thoughtless word are serious and in some cases, severe. But what remains constant is that artificial intelligence is not the same as natural and technology doesn’t replace wisdom. We still need the human intellect to interpret the event and color the picture to see the whole scene.
As I mentioned, the influence of other cultures is so invasive and powerful that merely trying to guard against it by prohibiting TV is futile. Children are exposed to other cultures all through their day. What needs to be done is to demonstrate to them the value of your culture in such a way as to enable them to take pride in it, while still respecting other cultures. This is essential because the usual approach of running down everything else creates walls and doesn’t promote cross cultural understanding. How to learn without becoming judgmental while retaining our own sense of right and wrong? This is a complex issue and something that needs to be learnt before one can teach it. The most critical part of this is to retain an open mind while being clear about the boundaries. One must be confident without becoming bigoted. This is critical to presenting your culture because you can’t present an alternate perspective without understanding and respecting the perspective of your partner.
The modern world has also created myriad new career options which bring with them new dilemmas and questions. In short, your life history doesn’t work anymore. Our challenge is to prepare them for a world that we know nothing about. But you signed up for that job when you had a child.
So what to do? Solution: Win the RACE. What race? RACE is my acronym for what you need to do to deal with the challenge of raising children you can be proud of. RACE stands for Read, Anticipate, Create and Execute.
Reading has become redundant and this is the root cause of most of our problems. Not reading disconnects us from our own history, our culture, religion and from the collective learning and wisdom of the human race. Reading enables us to know what is happening, to put it in perspective and to anticipate problems and opportunities – two names for the same thing. Ask yourself how many books you read every month. Ignorance is not bliss. It is ugly and shameful. Start reading. Read and encourage your children to read. Read and analyze and discuss and debate. See what questions they ask. The questions are much more important than answers. Let powerful questions arise in the mind and answer them yourself or find others who can answer them.
Cultivate the company of those who read and who have intelligent conversations – not backbiting and slander disguised as social talk. Cultivate the company of scholars of all kinds of knowledge. Go to them and take your children with you. Don’t worry if your children tell you that they can’t understand anything that is being said. Consider it a sign of sickness. That is why you took them there, to stretch their minds and to expose them to the expanse of knowledge. What you hear today and don’t understand gets stored in the memory and comes to your aid years later at unexpected moments. You need to change your habits and your social life. You must do first what you want your children to do. Make no mistake. To give you must first have.
Learn to read the signs both in your children and in the environment and prepare for them by being proactive. Combative and harsh attitudes usually get negative results. You need to be able to reason and convince, not force. To reason and convince you need to have knowledge and be convinced yourself. Brings us back to reading. Monitor your conversations. Monitor your company. Who do you meet with your children? Who are your children exposed to? What are they likely to learn from them? Make sure you keep the right company and expose your children to the right company. Most children today spend time with their own age groups. The question is, what can a ten-year-old teach another ten-year-old? Children need the company of wise and knowledgeable elders to learn life skills. Being an elder is not a factor of age but of knowledge and wisdom. Being old is different from being an elder.
Now that you have an idea of the challenges ahead and you have anticipated how some of them are likely to touch you and your children, create solutions. Teach tools because your answers don’t work anymore. Teach tools because they are timeless and can be applied to all kinds of problems. Create opportunities for them to practice what you teach them. Just as an example, give them decent pocket money and teach them budgeting and balancing their accounts. Then ask them to present those accounts to you every month and earn a bonus if they can show you what they spent and what they invested. Show them that the difference between spending and investing is the return. Investments yield returns, spending is only expense. When they learn this, they are on the way to earning their own living. This is not a factor of how old they are. It is a factor of what you have taught them. One final word; when you are checking their accounts. See what they invested in charity. For charity is an investment with the best return.
Finally execute, implement, because only results can be banked, as the saying goes. You must create a schedule to impart these skills and knowledge to your children. Parenting is a contact sport. You can’t outsource it, no matter how competent the care taker. Definitely, you can’t outsource parenting to an iPad or smart phone. The world was a better place when we had smart people and stupid phones.
Remember that children listen with their eyes. If you don’t read, the child will not read. And if he reads because his teacher inspires him to do so, soon he will know more than you and that is shameful. Remember you signed up to raise your children the day you decided to have them. Whatever you’ve done until now, it is time to take stock and ask yourself what you need to change. It is eye opening if you ask your children what they learned from you. It is simply not enough to feed, clothe and gadgetize your children and then leave them to their own devices except to refill their bellies or accounts. You must get serious with their upbringing.
Get serious. We only live once. Let us live it right.’