America first time

If there is one thing that I strongly advocate, it is networking. Actually, two things. Networking and having one or more mentors. But it is essential to understand what this means and how to get the maximum benefit from it. Networking, contrary to common belief, is not about name dropping, ‘taking advantage’ of someone’s position or power, social climbing and all the highly stinky things that some people do. Those are excellent ways of ensuring that you get a reputation for being someone to avoid at all costs, the principal cost being to yourself. Networking, believe it or not, is about others, more than about yourself. Benefits from networking follow the same principal and benefits from everything in life – return is directly proportionate to investment. Stop thinking, ‘What can I get out of it?’ And start thinking, ‘What can I contribute?’ Because what you get out of it depends on what you contribute to it. If you want a higher return, increase your contribution. It is, really as simple as that.

Another very valuable asset for aspiring leaders in any position is to have a mentor or mentors. I say mentors because you may need advice and guidance in different areas, which one person may not be able to provide. One of my mentors was Manab Bose who was head of HR in GE at the time. One of the best things that Manab did for me was to invite me to attend a lecture over three days by Prof. Dennis Encarnation, Head of the Center for Business and Government, now housed in the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University which was being offered to GE leaders in Singapore. Manab said to me, ‘We can’t pay you a fee for this but will take care of the logistics if you would like to attend. It is a lecture on the future of global business.’ I jumped at the opportunity – who cared about a fee? To get the opportunity to listen to a man like that was worth money. I was delighted and that lecture is one of the high-water points of my life.

Dennis Encarnation was a man with huge energy. He had eight flip chart boards at the front of the room on which he wrote with a thick chisel marker which he held in a stabbing grip so that he was effectively writing with a clenched fist. He didn’t use any other equipment at all. For three days, six to seven hours per day, he literally ran across the room from one chart to another, speaking, writing, and flipping charts. On the first day he spoke about America and American business. On the second day he spoke about Europe and on the last day about Asia. I sat there mesmerized both with his energy and teaching style as well as his grasp of world business and politics and his ability to condense it and explain it so clearly and simply. That was one of the greatest learning experiences in my life, thanks to GE. GE believed in developing all its partners and offered courses and learning opportunities freely in the belief that what goes around comes around and they stand to benefit from these investments. People like Pratik, Carla, Bonnie, and Manab espoused these beliefs and practiced them, and the organization supported them and their decisions. Over the years and decades, I have seen what a farsighted and powerful philosophy this is. Only contribution yields result.

All these experiences convinced me that what I needed to create an edge was to get some hands-on work experience in America. I applied for a job in America and as soon as we got the visa, my wife and I packed our bags once more and left. We gave away all our possessions to various friends; our chief ‘sacrifice’ being our books.

America by which I mean the United States – because Canada and Mexico are also America – is another world. The biggest mistake that most people who move from English speaking countries to live and work in the United States is to imagine that because they can speak English, they understand the culture.  Nothing could be further from the truth. It is not only about the accent and the sometimes strange use of some words, but much more about attitudes. In my experience the US is as close to being a meritocracy as you can get. If you can deliver, people don’t care about anything else. If you can deliver quality, any discrimination that you may face to begin with, disappears. What I like the best about America and the American people is that what you see is what you get. There is no hypocrisy or pretense. This is hugely different from the UK, France, the Middle East, or India. People here are direct to the point of appearing rude, but you realize that it is not rudeness but just unpretentious communication. To illustrate what I mean, let me tell you a true story. I was teaching a leadership course at IIT-Madras in 2000. As part of the course, in the evenings we used to invite leaders in different fields to speak to the students. One such person was Vijay Amritraj, the Wimbledon Tennis player. He said, ‘The reason Indians have never won at Wimbledon is because we were a British colony for over a century.’ We were surprised, to say the least. He continued, ‘You see, the British taught us how to lose gracefully. So, when you lose a tennis match to a British player, he will come over to the net, shake your hand and say, ‘Too bad Mate. Better luck next time.’ You leave there your ego intact with ointment on its bruises.’ If on the other hand you lose to an American, he will come to the net and say, ‘You lost!! Hehehe!!’ No, ‘Too bad, better luck.’ He will rub your nose in it, and you will hear him cackling all the way out of the stadium. Not polite. Not sporting. Direct. Rude. But the truth. The result is that you feel so bad that you swear to yourself that you will do whatever it takes to never face that situation again. We all laughed but I couldn’t shake off the thought that what he said was so true. That is the America I encountered. Took me a little time to get used to the directness, as I come from a culture where being direct equates to being rude and that is definitely not acceptable. But I learnt to be direct without being rude, which is the real aim anyway.

I applied to AMA International, the largest training company in the world, to join their team of trainers to teach AMA courses all over the United States. If I got this job, it would mean that I would get to travel all over the US as well as another income stream. A week later, I got a call from their New York office asking me to meet Cindy Sherwood on a Monday morning. I took the train from Springfield MA and arrived in New York on Sunday evening and checked into a hotel in Times Square and went for a walk. New York is New York and has a peculiar vibrancy that you don’t see in any big city in the world. In one stroll people tried to sell me the secret of success in life, take my photograph, invite me to things unmentionable, and suggested alternative ways of life. I declined all these kind invitations and continued my walk to try to take in the atmosphere. Next morning, I appeared for the interview. Cindy Sherwood was a tall, blonde lady with a strong grip who greeted me, took me into a training room with white boards on all the walls and said to me, ‘Yawar, I have about ten minutes work in my office next door. I am going to leave you here. When I return, I want you to teach me something.’ And she left. I was astonished. This was the most uncharacteristic interview that I had ever attended. No questions about me or my education and experience. Just, ‘Teach me something.’ Then I thought to myself, ‘Well that is fair enough. After all, if she saw my CV she knows enough about me anyway. If I hadn’t passed that test, I wouldn’t have been invited. So, no point in asking me what she already knew. And since this is a hands-on, action-oriented job, she wants to see what I can do. That is reasonable. It is like asking a pilot, ‘Fly me somewhere.’

The big question was what would I teach her? I decided to talk about a model of leadership that I was working on at that time which consisted of five competencies. I drew the model on a whiteboard and waited for Cindy to show up. True to her words, exactly nine minutes later she walked in and said, ‘Right, here I am. Teach me.’

I started talking. And when I did, I got into my flow. It was my model. I believed in it. I had tested it and knew it worked. Here was a client and I needed to convince her. I proceeded to do that. As I was on the second of five competencies Cindy rasied her hand. I stopped and asked her, ‘Yes, do you have a question, Cindy?’

She said, ‘No question. I just want to tell you that you are hired. But I want to listen to your whole theory so please continue. I just don’t want you to work under pressure.’ As I told you it was a very unusual interview.

Later that week we were invited to an orientation course at AMA International at which there were six of us. Cindy Sherwood told us that they had fourteen hundred applications that year and we six had been chosen. That confirmed for me what I knew all along. America is truly a meritocracy. If you could deliver you would get work. All the time I lived in the US, I worked regularly for AMA and travelled all over the US. When they learnt that I had skills in course design I was invited to be on their course design team as well and helped design several courses. They got so comfortable with me and my results that contrary to their norm of having an AMA observer in each course, in my courses there would be nobody at all. In some cases, a local person would welcome the participants and then leave. In others I would do everything from beginning to end. AMA was a very result driven organization and as long as the results were good, they gave me regular work.

Another thing I did was to register with a local community college where I lived called Asnuntuck Community College, Enfield, CT. I used to teach Continuing Education courses there to adults from all walks of life. Police officers, correctional services officers, retail managers, teachers, construction people, truck drivers and so on. That gave me a great window into American society. Thanks to Asnuntuck, I was invited to get myself certified as a member of the Continuing Education Faculty of the Connecticut Central State University, New Britain, which meant that I would be invited to teach courses for their Continuing Education Program. That was another line of work, and I welcomed it. Additionally, I got myself accredited as a Lead Assessor for P-CMM (People Capability Maturity Model) from Carnegie Melon University. P-CMM is an organizational maturity framework that focuses on continuously improving the management and development of the human assets (that is a horrible way of saying ‘people’) of an organization on a graduated framework of levels from 1 – 5. This model enables organizations to plan, execute, and measure their training effectiveness. I couldn’t afford to take the time off to get into a full-time graduate program but hands-on experience combined with skill training and certifications were very doable and beneficial.

One big learning for me was the benefit of focus. I made a rule that I wouldn’t do any work other than what I had come to do. Even when I had no work and people kept suggesting that I should work at a 7-11 or a gas station or as a floor assistant in a mall, I refused. I said to them, ‘I had a vibrant business in India. I didn’t leave it to come here to pump gas. If I can’t make this succeed, I will go back to India. But I am going to give it my best shot before I decide to leave.’ It was not easy. Many people implied that I was just lazy and was making excuses about not working at gas stations. But it was good training for me in staying focused. In my free time, I met people, did a lot of reading, designed courses, prepared material, and taught whoever was willing to sit still for a few minutes. I needed hands-on experience of teaching, and I would do whatever it took to get it. I was so focused that though I love wildlife and had plenty of time, I didn’t go to any national park. No holidays, no weekends, not even a visit to a shopping mall. From 1997 to 2000, I went to one movie and that too because I got dragged to it. And sure enough, when I finished paying my dues, work started to come in.

I traveled all over the US to teach AMA courses. I taught courses in Minneapolis for Andersen Corporate University, thanks to the introduction of another friend from GE. I taught courses for the Connecticut Central State University in New Britain and in Hartford, CT mostly for government employees from various departments. I taught courses for GE in different places, and I used to teach every week at Asnuntuck Community College which was close to home. All this was wonderful experience in American living, culture, and values. Arising from this learning and my own Indian origin, I created a course called ‘At Home in America’ focused at helping Indians who had recently come to America, find their feet in the American corporate environment. I taught that course in Silicon Valley in several companies and then created an ‘opposite’ course for Americans going to India to work in or head the Indian operations of their companies. Cross cultural understanding is critical to corporate relations and productivity.

The important thing to do is to take the time to really look at and question the beliefs that lie behind our own attitudes because they are the key to the whole question of understanding another culture. What should you do?

Ask, ‘How do I speak to myself about those who are different from me? What does my internal language reflect?’ Remember, not everything is spoken aloud. The most powerful messages are heard only by you because it is what you say to yourself. It is critical to reflect on this because our internal talk guides our attitude and actions. As we think, so we speak, so we act and so we get responses. Only we can change this cycle and make it a journey of discovery and friendship. People are shocked when they reflect and realize what they have been saying to themselves. And even more so when they realize that this sets in motion a spiral that is either negative or positive. Power lies in accepting that we decide what we want it to be. The solution to this is knowledge. Ask, ‘What effort do I make to learn about others?’ Remember that learning about human beings is only done by experience. Not on TV or social media but by meeting the walking, talking, breathing, warm body called _______ fill in the blank. Do that respectfully, sensitively, in a spirit of enquiry. For that, learn something about their culture, taboos, preferences, and beliefs, non-judgmentally. Judging builds walls. Walls keep people apart. Bridges draw us closer. We must be bridge builders, if we want to leave behind a world defined by love. The willingness to transcend boundaries, share uniqueness, without criticism and discrimination must be taught young, but can be learnt at any stage in life. Only one requirement…. are you willing to learn?

Change your perspective and you will see another world. One that was always there, but which you perhaps couldn’t see because of where you were standing. So, ask, ‘How do I define others?’ We are raised bipolar. Everyone like us is good. Everyone unlike us is bad. We learn derogatory names for them. We learn to fear them, hate them, and to see ourselves as superior and them as inferior. This ‘othering’ is a default setting in all cultures. Only the identity of the ‘other’ differs. But there is always an ‘other’. To change this perspective, we must move from Right and Wrong to Different. Because not everything is right or wrong. Many things are just different. All prejudice is based on subjective perceptions of right and wrong. All stereotyping is based on prejudice. To cure ourselves of the cancer of prejudice, we must change our perspective.

Building bridges is about focusing on commonalities, not differences. It is about inviting. Not forcing. It is also not about compromising our principles to become ‘acceptable’ to others.  In this life you can be one of two things. You can be a wall builder or a bridge builder. I am a bridge builder. That is because walls keep people apart while bridges give them a way to meet.

Building bridges is not about bringing someone from one side of the canyon to the other. But to create a way where they can visit the world on the other side. Sometimes the first meetings happen on the bridge itself. That is the benefit of a bridge. You can meet on it, suspended high about the abyss, but safe from falling.  

That is what I am, a bridge builder.

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