Alvin Toffler, the author of ‘Future Shock’ said something very interesting. He said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” I want to begin with this quote as I consider it perhaps the most important for us to reflect on. I would disagree with only one thing in this quote; I wouldn’t say, ‘The illiterate of the 21st century’; I would say, ‘The illiterate of any time are those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.’
I say, ‘Pain is inevitable. Learning from it is optional. Repetition is the price of not learning.’
Learning and even more relearning, is a key survival skill as well as the single most important skill that any person can learn and continue to remain adept in, if he wants to be and remain successful throughout his life. I will tell you in a minute why I say that relearning is even more important. But first something about learning.
Learning is not exclusive to humans. Every living
thing learns. Plants learn, animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, all
learn. And they use that learning to change their behavior, techniques to hunt
prey or evade predators, get access to the best pastures, times to flower, fruit,
procreate and so on. All adaptation is a result of species learning.
Learning is the result of a fundamental quality and
that is curiosity. Sadly, that is almost the first thing that our traditional so-called
education destroys. The second is imagination. Both are critical to learning
but our schooling is not concerned about learning. Only about memorizing and regurgitating.
Anyway, that is another matter. To return to curiosity, we learn when we
actively choose to be curious. To be curious is to accept that we don’t know. Curiosity
is a quality. It is not content specific. A curious person is curious about
everything and so is constantly learning. Curiosity is about asking questions.
To ask why and how, even more than what. I recall an incident that happened
with me in 1983 which taught me a very big lesson about the importance and
value of curiosity.
I had just joined tea planting in South India as an Assistant Manager in Sheikalmudi Estate in the Anamallais, when my uncle Hasanuddin Ahmed and my aunt, Husnara Aunty decided to visit me. I was delighted both to have someone from my family visit me and also because they were both very dear to me. After they arrived and we’d had a cup of tea, served very stylishly by my butler, Bastian, we went for a short walk down the path leading out from the bungalow. The path, like all paths in tea was lined with tea bushes. As we walked along, Hasan uncle asked me to explain the tea cultivation and manufacturing process. I was very happy to show off my new-found knowledge and gave him a quick account of it all, from plucking to final packing. He listened attentively and then plucked two or three tea shoots and asked me, “If you simply boil these, what happens?” I was stumped. I had no idea. I had never done such a thing.
What struck me like a thump on the head was that this simple question had never occurred to me. “What happens if you simply boil green tea leaves?” I was living in the middle of tea fields and didn’t know the answer to his simple question. The reason was not lack of intelligence or opportunity to learn. It was simply a lack of curiosity. I lay that at the feet of schooling which tells us just to accept whatever we are told and never to ask anything outside of that boundary. I am sure my teachers had never boiled green tea leaves to see what happens to them or what the brew would taste like. Naturally there would be many who would scoff at the ‘stupid’ question. “Why would you even want to do such a thing?” they would ask. None of them would understand that it had nothing to do with boiling tea leaves but with asking questions outside the boundary of the known. Needless to say, I picked a few shoots, boiled them and discovered that they tasted like boiled green leaves and not like tea. But that is not the point. The point is that I learned the value of curiosity and that helped me throughout my life ever since. One example of that was that when I went to rubber planting and manufacture in 1991, I saw that processed rubber was hung to dry in large sheds and they relied on cross ventilation to do the job. That was erratic to say the least and any delay in drying resulted in fungus formation on the rubber sheets which reduced their quality and price.
So, I asked a question. What happens if we install
withering fans from a tea factory in a rubber drying shed? Nobody had an
answer. It had never been done though many of the major rubber planting companies
also had tea estates and used those fans in the tea estates, but nobody had thought
of using them in rubber. That didn’t mean that I was a genius. It just meant
that I had asked a question which anyone could have asked but didn’t. We promptly
ordered a couple of old fans and installed them and loed and beheld that they
changed the way rubber sheets were dried. I am not sure who else did this in
their factories but if they want to know where the idea came from, it was New
Ambadi Estate, when I was the Manager in 1991-93. Learning comes from curiosity
and so curiosity should be strongly inculcated and supported. We must create an
atmosphere of asking questions and every question, no matter how outlandish or
stupid it may sound, should be allowed, respected and valued and the questioner
must be encouraged to find its answer.
Which brings me to the question of relearning.
We humans are not unique in learning. What makes
us unique is what we do with learning and that is to take learning from one area,
one context, one situation, one part of life and apply it to a completely different
time, place and situation. What enables us to do that is conceptualization. Conceptualization
is perhaps the absolute essence of learning to the extent that I am prepared to
say that the one who doesn’t conceptualize has not learnt. No matter how much
experience (happenings) he has, he learns only when and if he conceptualizes.
That is why the old adage, “Experience is not what happens to you but what you
do with what happens to you.” What you do, refers to conceptualization. In my
practice as an Executive Coach and Mentor, this is what I focus on. I ask one
simple question: ‘So what?’ Meaning, ‘So what did you learn?’ Sometimes
I see shock on the face of my clients when after listening to them pouring out
their hearts about their experiences, they hear me ask, ‘So what?’ It even
sounds rude. I know that and I use it for its shock value. People don’t think until
you shock them. So, I ask, ‘So what?’ and then I ask, ‘So what did you learn?’ Usually,
the answer is, ‘Nothing. I am so busy reveling in my own misery, anger, grief
or even happiness that I learnt nothing.’ And that is the problem. I don’t learn
because I don’t conceptualize and so I gain nothing from that experience in my
Why does this happen? It happens because learning is often painful. To learn we need to distance ourselves from the emotional aspects of the experience and view it objectively and extract lessons, some of them, very painful to accept. However, these are often the most valuable. We don’t like to accept them because to do so, we need to accept that we were wrong. But all change begins with accepting the need to change, which is to say, ‘I was wrong.’ Why else would you change? That is the third quality that we need to learn; humility. When one is humble one feels the pain of accepting his mistake but is saved from the consequences of that mistake which are always far more serious and painful.
There is an old teaching story about a learned professor who decided that he needed to do something about his spiritual development. So, he went to a Sufi Master and requested him to accept him as his student. The Master nodded accent and then took up an empty pot and went to the well in his yard. The new student accompanied him. At the well, the Master put the pot on the wall of the well and drew water from the well and poured it into the pot. The pot filled up quickly but the Master kept drawing water and pouring it into the pot. Seeing this the professor was at first surprised, then irritated and then exasperated. Almost in desperation, he blurted out, “That pot is full. It can’t take in anymore! Can’t you see that?” The Master smiled at him, picked up the pot and as he walked back into the house, said, “And that is your case.” The professor realized that what he needed to do was to empty his mind of what he knew, scale down his ego about being a professor and approach the Master as a humble student.
The three critical qualities for learning are
therefore, curiosity, conceptualization and humility.
The last one is the willingness to get out of our comfort zone. That is perhaps the most difficult one and that is the reason why even people who have been doing something one way and realize that there is a better way, never try the new way because they are too comfortable in the old way and don’t want to take the pain of the new way. Ask anyone who is trying to improve his drive, in golf or learning public speaking or change the way he or she reacts to irritation. Anyone who has tried to re-train people will swear that training someone who doesn’t know is far easier than re-training someone who knew that tool or trade but did it differently. This is very visible also in the case of speech accents. People who learn a language for the first time, do it correctly and more easily and quickly than those who learned to speak in a particular way and then want to change the way they speak and pronounce words.
The problem is that when we try to learn anything new, our efficiency goes down. Whether it is a new language or a new phone; learning to use it means that for a while you are going to be less efficient. That is painful. When I switched from a Blackberry to a Nokia touchscreen phone, it was misery until I got used to the touchscreen. I used to type on a Blackberry with one thumb. On a touchscreen, it played havoc with my typing for many days. I hated it but had no alternative because Blackberries had become defunct. As they say the rest is history. That is the learning curve. Mentally therefore, if you wish to relearn, focus on two things: remember that it will be painful and that the result will be brilliant. That will help you to get through the area of pain and start benefiting from the new way. That is perseverance. The ability to see what the change will get you while you are going through the pain of learning.
Final recap: Curiosity, Conceptualization, Humility and Perseverance. These are the four key ingredients for the most important skill that we need to have and keep intact and practice all our lives; the ability to learn continuously.
I am going on a long journey and want to remind
myself and you of the three critical lessons that I learnt from my life. I call
them my Three Fundamental Laws. I hope they will help you as they helped me all
No. 1: Be Number One
Not Number Two. Number One. I can’t do better than to quote the best speech that I have ever heard in this context; “What it takes to be Number One”, by Vince Lombardi of Green Bay Packers. I quote selectively from his speech, “Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all of the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing. And in truth, I’ve never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn’t appreciate the grind, the discipline. I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour — his greatest fulfillment to all he holds dear — is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.” – Coach Vincent T. Lombardi
Being Number One starts with the desire to be Number One. A burning passion that will not be quelled. It is
not liking, it is not an interest, it is not a preference. It is total and
complete passion. The single biggest and most critical
requirement of success 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 all my life.
I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did.
This comes from an underlying drive. To be the best.
To stand out. Never to blend in. To create standards that others can aspire to.
This is what has always driven me. It is something that comes from inside you. It
has nothing to do with anyone else, human or circumstance, driving you from outside.
This is the fire in the belly that people talk about. I have been conscious of
this from my earliest childhood. I always wanted to do what nobody else would
is what passion is all about.
people say, “We must teach our children how to fail.” I say that is the most stupid
statement ever made. Or, since so much of stupidity is spoken today, that is
one of the most stupid statements ever made. Teach them how to fail? Who would want
to teach his child how to fail? Teach them how not to fail. Teach them what to
do with failure, if they fail despite their best effort. Teach them to treat
failure like a college year. Take ownership for their failure instead of
blaming others, face the brutal facts instead of being in denial, recognize what
caused them to fail and chart out a new strategy of success, instead of falling
into depression. That is what you teach. Not ‘how to fail’, for God’s sake!! Get
is mediocrity that one must fear. Not failure. Failure is a kick in the
backside. Eminently beneficial and most necessary from time to time even for
the best of us. Nothing beats a kick in the backside to wake you up. There is
an Arab saying, ‘The blow that doesn’t break your back only makes you stronger.’
The failure that doesn’t annihilate you (I have yet to see one that does), only
makes you stronger and wiser. But what we must fear, what must terrify us, is
mediocrity. That is because it masquerades as success. It is insidious, it is
tempting, it is seductive. It tells you to believe that good enough is good
enough; even when you know that good enough is never good enough. You learn
this lesson most effectively in the wild places on this earth.
you ever seen a Langur sentinel? Or a Bar-headed Goose sentinel? All around it
are feasting, there is no sign of danger, but the sentinel never relaxes. It doesn’t
feed even though it is starving. It doesn’t feed when others are eating up all the
food. It knows that it is precisely when everything seems completely safe, that
the greatest danger lurks. When there is no sign of approaching danger, it only
means that the leopard’s camouflage is particularly effective and so the
sentinel must peel his eyes even more and be even more wary of danger. In the
wild you learn fast because the price of failure to learn is death. In our
offices, homes, schools, parliaments, governments and industry, we are lulled
into complacency. Since we don’t face physical death, we relax. We are surrounded
by those who will sympathize with us and tell us that we must have time to
relax, to ‘enjoy’ life, to be ‘free from stress’. And we believe them. The
result is mediocrity. I repeat myself, ‘Fear mediocrity because it pretends to
be excellence.’ It isn’t. It is the worst failure because it will keep you
sedated, intoxicated and comfortable until the end when you realize what you
have done with your life but then it will be too late to change. For the
passionate person, his passion is fun, relaxation and enjoyment. It excites him
so he is never stressed because of it. The passionate person doesn’t have a
bumper sticker saying, ‘I would rather be golfing.’ Passionate people would
never rather be doing anything other than their passion. They love what they do,
and they love doing it.
the ‘Parable of the Boiled Frog’.
a frog and put it into a pot of hot water. What will it do? It will leap out.
But take the same frog and put it into a pot of water at room temperature. Then
when the frog has settled down, light a fire under the pot and gently heat the
pot. As the water gets gradually hotter, the frog gets used to it. Frogs are
cold blooded animals. So, as the water gets hotter, the frog’s muscles relax,
it gets somnolent and flaccid. Until the time comes when the water is now
dangerously hot. The frog realizes that it is cooking, but by then its ability
to react is finished. Though it knows that it is doomed, it can’t do anything to
avert the doom. What killed the frog? Complacency, mediocrity, ‘good enough’. Beware
of mediocrity. Don’t listen to those who try to comfort you. Seek out those who
will tell you (if you don’t already know) the stark, hard and painful facts about
what you said or did or what you didn’t that led to your failure. They are your
friends. Your real friends. The pain you will feel, listening to them is the pain
you feel in the gym pumping iron. But you still do it because you know that it is
making you stronger. Appreciate such people. Don’t argue with them. Don’t justify
your words or actions. Shut up and listen to them. Take in what they said and
change yourself. One day you will bless them. If not, one day you will curse yourself.
The choice is yours.
No. 2: Be Focused
Once again back to nature. See how an eagle hunts. See how a lioness locks onto her quarry in a huge herd of galloping Wildebeest. See how a leopard stalks his prey. One thing you will see in all of them is the ability to ignore fluff. An eagle that tries to catch two rabbits will lose both. The lioness doesn’t get distracted by the fact that there are many others like the one she locked on, just as juicy and tasty. But she ignores them all and focuses on the one she picked. She does that because she knows that if she loses that focus, she will lose her quarry and everything else also. She knows this because she learned that lesson in a very hard school. Only one in seven or eight of a lion’s hunts is successful. The rest of the time, she starves. Nothing like starvation to teach life lessons, to lions and humans.
Focus is the art of ignoring fluff. However, you
can’t have focus unless you know what you want. The lion focuses on the prey
which he first selects. The goal is clear and so he can focus. That is why you must
first clarify your goal. Write it out in one line. If it can’t be written in
one line, it is not clear. It must be written in one line and in language that
a ten-year-old can understand without explanation. That is the test of clarity.
Having written it, one more test to see if it is the right goal. And that is to
ask yourself, ‘What happens to me when I read my goal statement?’ Do you get
tears in your eyes? Does your heartbeat increase? Do you start breathing faster?
Remember, what can’t make you cry, can’t make you work. Your goal should be so
clear and so dear to you that you should taste it in your mouth, you should breathe
its fragrance, you should hear its call, you should dream its fulfillment and
you should consider anything at all that you do to achieve it, a privilege and
honor. Forget, delete, remove and eliminate the word ‘sacrifice’ from your
vocabulary. There is no such thing. Sacrifice is what happens when the chicken
dies for you to have Tandoori Chicken. Everything else has a return. The
clearer the return on your investment is to you, the happier you will be,
making that investment. So, replace sacrifice with investment. And then invest
in yourself. Invest in your goal.
Focus also means making choices, sometimes very painfully.
When I started my training and consulting business in Bangalore in 1994, there
were two major choices before me. I could be in training and/or recruitment
(called rather appropriately, head-hunting). I could have been in both. Many
people advised me to do that, because recruitment was highly lucrative. But I
chose not to be in both. I chose training and in that, I chose leadership development.
The result was that I was seen as a highly trusted
‘friend’ and not a potential head-hunter. And I earned a name as an expert in
Leadership Development Training. So, whereas all recruitment consultants had a tough
time meeting CEOs and decision makers, I was invited to meet them, often to be
consulted on matters of their personal development. I became a defacto coach to
many promoters and CEOs for which I never charged a fee, but which paid off in
many other ways. More than anything else and most valuable was the fact that I was
seen as their mentor and got an insider’s view on entrepreneurial dilemmas and decision
making. Decades later that resulted in my books, ‘The Business of Family Business’ and ‘An Entrepreneur’s Diary’. This happened because I announced
openly that I was not in recruitment and even on the rare occasion that I
recommended a friend to another friend in another company, I never charged a
fee, which they would otherwise have paid to a recruitment consultant. That is
how I got a reputation that I was trustworthy and whereas head-hunters wouldn’t
be allowed past the reception area, I had total access to anyone I wanted.
Another thing that helped me to build a reputation
of trustworthiness was my commitment to integrity. For one thing I never used
copyrighted material without license. This was and continues to be a major problem
in India where people simply photocopy and use psychometric and other
instruments to avoid paying for them. Since they do it internally in their organizations
and with the collusion of whichever consultant is working for them, they get
away. I refused to do this, ever. One serious test of my commitment was when in
my early days, when I was struggling for business and needed the money, the HR
head of a major IT company invited me to design and conduct a leadership
training program for a very large number of their junior and middle managers. This
course included administering the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to the
participants and helping them see how their preference affected their behavior
at work and elsewhere. GE had sent me for this certification to Otto Kroeger Associates,
in Fairfax, VA in 1995 and I was, at that time one of the very few Indian consultants
with this certification. The publishers of the instrument would sell the instrument
only to a registered analyst and so any client who wanted to use the instrument
had to go through a certified analyst. I was delighted as this job meant that I
would get some sorely needed cash as well as the fact that this assignment with
this major IT company would add value to my CV. I created the design and submitted
it to the Training Manager. She was very happy to see it. We had a very
positive discussion and the training dates were finalized. I was very poor and
hungry at the time. I desperately needed this business and was delighted and
most thankful that I had landed this contract.
Then two days before the course was due to be run,
she called me and said, ‘Yawar, could you please come and meet us?’ I agreed but
asked if there was any problem. This kind of call, so close to the training
program date usually means that there is some hitch. She said to me, ‘No,
nothing. Just a small matter which I hope we can sort out. It means no loss to
you and a saving for us.’ That sounded good and fair enough. So, I went to her
office the next morning. She said to me, ‘You know, this MBTI, if we buy the
instrument legally, it is very costly. So, why don’t you photocopy and use it
instead. It will save us money and you will not lose anything.’ I was shocked
more so because this company used to make a lot of noise about how committed to
integrity and honesty they were. But here was their Head of Training telling me
to cheat. She took my silence to be acquiescence and said, ‘Well, I am glad
that is settled. We can go ahead with the training. I will have all the
material photocopied and ready.’
I said to her, ‘I am sorry, the matter is not
settled. I don’t photocopy copyrighted material.’ She said, ‘This is a big
assignment for you, no? If you don’t do this, you will lose this business and
perhaps never work with us again. In any case everyone does it here. I don’t
know why you are making such an issue of it.’
I said, ‘Everyone is not my teacher. My integrity
is not for sale. I don’t steal. Photocopying copyrighted material is stealing.
Whether I get the business or not is immaterial. If I can’t do business
honestly, I prefer not to do business.’
‘Is that your final answer?’
‘Yes’, I said. ‘That is my final answer.’
She said, ‘I am sorry, then we can’t work with
you.’ And I went home, having lost one of the biggest assignments that I had
had at the time. But very happy about it.
Several decades later, the head of training of another
company told me, ‘I was talking to Mr. Ojha, who is the head of the company
that sells the MBTI instrument in India and mentioned to him that you are doing
it for us. I asked him if he needed your license number, which they normally ask
for before selling the instrument. He said to me, ‘Yawar Baig is a brand. We
don’t need anything if he is doing this for you. We know him and we know the
stand he takes on respecting copyright.’ That for me was a ‘payment beyond
price’. The price I paid for it all those years ago was a pittance compared
with the value of this unsolicited feedback from a client. All the result of focus.
In this case, the focus on what and even more on how. Believe me, dishonesty is
its own curse and punishment. Integrity is an absolute value. There are no
shades of it. You either have it or you don’t and if you don’t then nothing
else can compensate for it. Just as if you do, it adds brand value and inspires
client respect and loyalty.
No. 3: Quality
The last thing but by no means the least, is quality.
Doing something well, once can be an accident. A fortunate one but still an
accident. To do it well over and over is the meaning of quality. Expertise is
repeatability. That happens with thoughtful practice. Not just practice. But thoughtful
practice. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Thoughtful practice
makes perfect. Think about what you are doing. Ask yourself why you are doing
it. Ask if there is a better way to do it. Don’t change the goal. That is the Core.
Unchangeable. Everything else is changeable and can and should be changed in order
to achieve the goal. Nothing must come in the way of achieving the goal. Not
tradition, not habit, not convenience, not expense, or trouble, or backbreaking
effort. Everything that is necessary to do to achieve the goal must be done. That
will happen only if you question why you are doing what you are doing and do it
thoughtfully. Not mechanically as a matter of habit. But consciously, thoughtfully
and deliberately. Not once, but over and over again.
There is an associated virtue with focus and quality
and that is discipline. Discipline is to do what needs to be done. Not only
what you like to do. Everyone must suffer two kinds of pain. The pain of
discipline or the pain of regret. It is our choice. When I started my
consulting practice in Bangalore in 1994, I realized that I was getting fat
thanks to my mostly sedentary work. I had left ten years in tea planting where
I walked at least ten to twelve kilometers every day. There was no chance of
doing that in Bangalore. So, I joined a gym. This was at a time when sometimes
I didn’t have money to pay my house rent until two days before the rent was due.
I had no savings, no extra cash. Yet I decided that physical fitness was important
enough to invest in the gym fee. Then came the other problem, time. On most
days, by the time I finished work, it would be past 6 pm. And by the time I got
home it would be dinner time. I changed dinner time. I said to myself that I would
eat dinner only after I finished my session in the gym. There were days when I
ate dinner at 11 pm, because that is when my gym session finished. But the
result was that I remained fit and had the energy to do my work very
satisfactorily. As I said, nothing is free. We are free to choose, but every
choice has a price.
I was very fortunate to be involved from its
inception, with GE’s 6 Sigma Quality effort which Jack Welch started in 1994. I
know that much water has flowed under the bridge and 6 Sigma is no longer the
buzzword in GE or elsewhere. But I am not selling 6 Sigma here. What I want to
share with you is what that taught me about quality. I learned that there are
two critical things that are intrinsic to any quality initiative. Measurement
and documentation. Without these two you can’t have quality. It is that simple.
In my business I defined my quality standard as
delivering on three parameters:
To be true to ourselves and serve our clients with
total uncompromising integrity, in all respects.
To constantly seek increase in our knowledge and
share it with all our constituents in the belief that knowledge increases with
To hold ourselves to the value that a client must
be responded to within 24 hours. (My internal measure for that was 8 hours, not
I have never regretted this. What this resulted in
was systematic measured professional development for myself, which I invested
time and money in, every year. I augmented that with writing a professional
journal which eventually yielded books on various topics. As on date, I have written
thirty-nine books (of which three are audio books) on a wide variety of topics,
which reflect my own varied interests in life. I believe I am among a very
small brotherhood of professionals who have written so many books on so many different
subjects. I have two podcasts which have a global footprint with downloads in
almost every country in the world except Greenland. This is the result of
As for measurement, as I mentioned I schedule a training
course or certification or some learning experience for myself, every year.
This involves expenditure of time, money and effort but one result of this is
that on the rare occasion when anyone says to me, ‘Your fee is more than that
of others. Can you reduce your fee?’ I say to them, ‘Here is what my personal
development log looks like over the past five years. Why don’t you look at the
log of whoever you are comparing me with?’ I never reduced my fee and I never
lost a client. People are willing to pay if you can show them value. But you
can’t show value if you don’t measure it and document the results.
The final point is the importance of speed of
response. Speed is a competitive advantage and I have always been conscious of
it and responded to clients, friends, associates, everyone, usually faster than
anyone else. I never ever needed reminders. I never fail to return a call. I am
never ever late for an appointment. These may seem like small things. But so is
taking a breath. Try doing without it.
To sum up, Passion, Focus and Quality. And in Quality,
Measurement and Documentation. These are the secrets of success. This is my
legacy to you. May you be blessed in it as I am.
Design determines results. A train will never fly no matter how
powerful the engine may be, because it is not designed to fly. A microlight
aircraft flies with an engine smaller than that of most motorcycles.
The problem with our schooling today is not that it has failed but that it’s successful. It does what it’s designed to do…create mediocrity and conformity so that we have more and more compliant plodders who will never rock the boat, never question and God forbid, never rebel against authority. It delivers very effectively what it was designed to deliver – obedient morons. Or to put it more charitably obedient servants for industrialists and the State. That is exactly what our education system does very well. We on the other hand want it to create children who will question, be creative, challenge the status quo, invent new ways to achieve results and generally buck the system positively. That is like expecting a train to fly by revving the engine. Our system is designed to create followers, not leaders. It is designed to create compliance not questioners. That is why we reward obedience and label questioning as disobedience and punish it. For the average teacher the ‘troublesome’ child is the one who asks too many questions in class. But it is only questioning which opens doors to new vistas and finds solutions to problems which we don’t even recognize yet.
We all agree that the pace of change is such that quite literally
we don’t have a clue about what the world will look like five years down the
road. The only thing we can be sure of, is that it will look very different. We
also agree that the two critical ingredients to success in that world are imagination
and divergent thinking of which creativity is the result. Yet we have an
education system that destroys these things very effectively, ruthlessly and
quickly. If you doubt me ask yourself how many times you have heard the
statement, ‘Forget that. You can’t get a job doing that.’ And you are right. He
can’t get a job doing that. But perhaps he can create jobs for thousands if you
leave him alone with his dreams and not destroy his creativity and divergence. Or
maybe he will not even create jobs but will be a happy human being living his
life to fulfilment. Now what’s so bad about that? But that terrifies the
daylights out of you and so you force him to comply until he succumbs – another
one bites the dust.
If you want your child to be a leader with a
chance to do something valuable, to leave a legacy of honor, to change society,
to alleviate suffering, help the oppressed, stand up against injustice and be a
credit to you, then formal schooling is the first thing you should save him/her
Our education system doesn’t need change. It needs a decent
burial. Then we need to put in place a system which is focused on developing
the natural talents of the child, enabling him/her to leverage them to their
greatest benefit and then help them to apply the learning. No
matter how much you tweak a railway engine it will never fly. If you want flight,
there’s nothing in the design of a railway engine that you can learn from. You
need to forget railway engines and learn how to design something that’s the
opposite of a railway engine. And that’s our problem…we’re trying to create a
flying school using engine drivers. It’s not about fancy infrastructure and air-conditioned
classrooms but about opening minds, re-learning how to teach, writing new books
and encouraging questioning, tangential thinking and unbridled imagination.
As a friend of mine who is a teacher put it, ‘We are churning out robots who can
neither think for themselves, nor do we equip them to deal with life’s
challenges, which is why there is such a high percentage of emotional and
physical burn-out at an age when they should be at their creative peak!’
The big problem in schools is that the whole atmosphere is soul
destroying. Homes are not much different. So, most children don’t look up to
either their parents or teachers. And the fault is not theirs. Most parents and
teachers are only fit to be quietly pushed under the bed when you have polite
company. Generally, parents today seem to believe that upbringing of children
consists of satisfying their physical needs alone. So, there is no focus on
developing their minds, fulfilling their spiritual needs or teaching them
manners and social skills. We program our children to fail when they are faced
with life’s challenges and those that still succeed do so despite us, not
because of us.
When I am invited to speak to parent-teacher bodies in schools I
usually start all such talks by giving them a task and asking one question:
think of your role model (someone you know or knew personally)
how many of you is it a parent or a teacher?
I have never had more than 5% of the audience which had as their
role models, parents or teachers. That means that 95% of the population doesn’t
look up to parents or teachers – though they are the two roles which have the maximum
face time with children.
Then I ask them another question: “What do you think your children
would say if they were in this room instead of you? Would they be thinking of
you?” The biggest problem today is a total starvation of role models. And that
is the biggest challenge of education.
Today we have confused education with literacy and knowledge with
information and stuff the children’s minds with disconnected data which makes
no sense and then test them on recall at a specific time and we call that
process of regurgitation – exams. That has given birth to the industry of
Examination Factories who exist only to teach children how to ‘crack’ exams.
Learning is the last item on their agenda, if it is even there at all. All that
the child is taught is to cram select information on the basis of questions
that have been asked for that exam in the past and the Exam Factory’s analysis
of what is likely to be asked in the exam that the child will take. Once he
does that successfully his photograph is used as the bait to draw other
aspiring fish into the trap of mediocrity. The champ in our system is that poor
beast who can stuff himself with random information which he has no clue how to
use and faithfully regurgitate it on call. If the poor child recalls that same
piece of useless information (E.g. When was the Magna Carta written?) five
minutes after the bell, he would have failed the exam. To know the place of
birth of Shakespeare is essential to pass our exams – not to write creatively
in English. No wonder that many of our successful ‘scholars’ can hardly carry
on an intelligent conversation for ten minutes or write a powerful letter to
the editor in the papers. Did you ever wonder why all letters to editors are
written by old codgers with nothing to do – not by school children whose future
is being squandered by adults who couldn’t care less?
Our children spend on an average 15 years in what is called
Primary, Secondary and High School and come out of there, completely unable to
do anything useful, worthwhile or important in life. The only job they can get
with 15 years of schooling is to wait tables for which also they have to be
trained onsite. They can’t even do anything their education was supposed to
teach them. How many school graduates do you know who wrote a book for example?
After all they all learnt languages and passed papers in them for 15 years. And
yet that is not enough for them to use that language creatively to express
their thoughts. But we find nothing wrong with this. Their parents amazingly
don’t think this to be odd at all even though they spent a fortune, which many
could ill afford, on this thing they called ‘education’. I won’t even talk
about how we squander science, math and humanities. Our society is the most
powerful witness to that.
In this whole process I can’t possibly under-emphasize the importance of wise adults in the lives of children that the children can look up to. But where are we going to find them? We don’t need huge numbers of them (not that it would hurt) but we need at least one or two in the life of each child. The problems of drugs, rave parties, teenage pregnancies, alcohol (also a drug though we don’t like to call it that) and so on are really symptoms of the sickness of our society. That these are to be found in our schools is a sign of how deep that sickness has reached. We are very, very sick. We need surgery – not pills. And certainly not placebos.
As Jiddu Krishnamurthi said, ‘ It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. ‘
Problem definition is always easy. Solving it takes a lot of time,
pain and investment. And that is usually another story. But somewhere there is a
spark, alive and waiting for the chance to flame into a conflagration that has
the power to light up the world.
Are you the one to find, protect, nurture and guide it to the final stage when it shines?
Sometimes people ask me for the secret of
success. We live in a world of fantasy where people want magic formulae for
everything. Let me tell you the good news. It is not a secret, but it is a
magic formula. Focus + Investment + Consistency. Works every time.
I have given it the acronym, FIKR – K from the phonetic pronunciation of Consistency (Konsistency). As for the R – well, we’ll get to it. Just remember FIKR.
One of the most famous cases of FIKR in action is that of Dashrath Manjhi, a poor villager in Bihar, who literally carved a road out of a mountain. When his wife died tragically, because he was unable to get her to a hospital in time thanks to the fact that he had to go around a mountain to get to the main road, he decided to cut the mountain and build a road. He carved a path 110 meters long, and 9.1 meters wide to form a road through the rocks in Gehlour Hill so that nobody else would need to suffer the same fate as his wife and he had to. It took him, working with a chisel and hammer, 22 years. He did this without surveying equipment or experience, drone photographs or any technology, explosives or heavy equipment. You can read more about him here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dashrath_Manjhi
What was his secret? Focus + Investment + Consistency. Works every time.
In 1983, I had just returned from Guyana and
joined the tea planting industry in the Anamallais. On my first annual
vacation, I attended a two-week residential, experiential learning workshop on
Applied Behavioural Science by the Indian Society of Applied Behavioural
Science (ISABS), in Jaipur. I found it very beneficial and was impressed by the
potential to help people that lay in this line of work. I was particularly
impressed by Mr. Aroon Joshi whose facilitation enabled me not only to
understand myself better but to resolve some issues which had been bothering
me. Aroon has been my dear friend and mentor ever since. The long and short of
this was that I decided that I would make training, my profession. I was a tea
planter. And I wanted to make a career in training. Sounds crazy. It was. How
did I do it? That’s what I want to share with you. I hope you will be able to
benefit from the lessons I learnt in my life.
Before I go into the how, let me tell you what
I did since then, so that you have a complete picture in your mind. From the
time you saw a young tea planter, sitting on the floor in an ISABS Lab (that is
how it worked), agonizing over his work relationships, you would have seen him
single-mindedly focused on learning how to train, to taking some very hard
decisions and risks which would have left many, freaked out. You would have
seen him speak to his first client and stake his reputation in his pitch. You
would have seen him succeed and fail but succeed more and never fail at the
same thing twice. In short, you would have seen him learning. Learning all the
time. Enjoying learning, which enabled him to take ever higher risks. You would
have seen him challenging himself and doing things which most people in any
line of work, never do i.e. write thirty-six books. Today, I have trained over
200,000 people on three continents from practically every nationality, race and
walk of life.
From where I started in training, I specialized
in leadership development. That is what excited me. To see people come in,
looking like something off the clothesline and walk out, straight and tall with
a glint in their eye and to know that I’d had something to do with that. Over
the years, now almost 40, several times I have had people come up to me in an
airport or in a restaurant and say, “I don’t know if you remember me (I almost
never do) but I attended your workshop and it changed my life.” I consider
myself fortunate that this has happened to me more than once, because even once
is enough for a lifetime, to know that you made a difference to someone.
In leadership development, I super-specialized
in family business consulting (wrote, The Business of Family Business) and
entrepreneurship development (wrote, An Entrepreneur’s Dairy) and then started
a podcast called, “Leadership is a Personal Choice”, (wrote another book by
that name) which has a global footprint, from China to the Americas with Asia,
Europe (except Greenland) and Africa in between. Maybe there is nobody
listening to my podcast in Greenland because Trump wants to buy it and they’re
all holding their breath.
How did this happen? Focus + Investment + Consistency. Works every time.
To return to 1983, I made my way back to the
Anamallais from Jaipur, taking the Pink City Express to Delhi and then the
Rajdhani Express to Chennai. Then the Nilgiri Express to Coimbatore and the bus
ride to Valpari, up the Aliyar Ghat’s forty hairpin bends. Tamilnadu Transport
Corporation bus. Nothing fancy. The big task in it being to ensure that you get
a window seat but stay upwind of anyone with motion sickness. That last one
being a matter of luck, more than anything else. All through that journey and
every waking moment thereafter, my single thought was, ‘How can I become a
The first thing that I did was to write on a
large sheet of paper, with a thick marker, “In the next five years,
I want to be a globally recognized leadership trainer.” Hindsight tells me that I was a bit off as regards the time but made good the
rest of it. The timeline was very useful because it helped me to keep focused
and gave me a sense of urgency. A goal without a timeline is a wish. Timelines
are critical to success.
The big problem was (and still is, to this day)
that there was no formal course or degree that I could take. Especially as
training is about the most hands-on thing that there is, learning to train meant
that you needed some unsuspecting souls to practice on. My being in tea
planting instead of in HR (used to be called Industrial Relations in those
days) didn’t help. So, I did two things. I read every book on training that I
could lay my hands on and I practiced on my workers and staff. Not in formal
classes because I didn’t have the opportunity to do that, but every day at
work. The way that happened was that I would apply something that I had learnt,
unknown to them, then I would watch for reactions, mine and theirs and record
them. That was my feedback loop on what worked and what didn’t. I had (still
do) a very good memory and I augmented that with taking notes as soon as I was
able to. I used to carry a small notebook in my shirt pocket and would write
down key words. To this day I can tell you that the pocket notebook is the
fastest way to record and access any information and outperforms every gadget
you can imagine.
I took every psychometric test that I could and
then wrote an analysis of the report compared to my own understanding of
myself. That helped me to understand psychometric testing very well. I am one
of those who believe that it is a tool and not a secret weapon which enables
the interviewer to look deep into the interviewee’s soul without his knowledge.
All these notes resulted in a couple more books. Notes are an amazingly
powerful aid to self-development. They enable you to reflect objectively on
what had happened and see what options you had at the time, which you used or
didn’t and decide how to behave in the future. Reflection needs a cool head,
free from the pressure of emotions that is usual in the heat of the moment. For
most of us, after the incident, we forget details and so when we have time to
think about it all, we don’t have data. Keeping notes helps to recall the data
so that our conceptual take on what happened and what to do later, is much
sounder and more accurate.
Another thing I did was to enroll in ISABS’s
Professional Development Program, which is a four-year distance learning
program in Applied Behavioral Science, in which you learn how to facilitate
group learning, while learning about yourself. It is a very rigorous course and
I had some of the best teachers in the course of it. Udai Pareek, Somnath
Chattopadhyay, Aroon Joshi. I also learned from Pulin Garg and Gourango
Chattopadhyay. Very rewarding. That culminated in me being inducted into ISABS
as a Professional Member. While I was doing all this, I was in a full-time job
managing a tea estate (for 7 years) and a rubber estate (for 3 years), in which
I was fully accountable for business results without any allowances for my
self-inflicted learning goals. For those who may not know what ‘managing a tea
estate’ means; an average tea estate in the Anamallais has an area of 400
hectares (multiply by 2.47 for acres), a labor force of about 800, a tea
factory, supervisors and staff totaling to about 20 and 2 or 3 Assistant
Managers. Sometimes also a resident doctor for the estate hospital. All these
were the responsibility of the Manager. The workers and Staff were all
unionized and sometimes, highly militant. Since the estates were in Tamilnadu,
and I am from Hyderabad, I needed to learn a totally new language, Tamil which
I did to a level of expertise of a native speaker. I won’t go into a Manager’s
daily routine because that is not in the scope of this article. But this should
suffice to give you an idea that there was not a moment to spare as far as I
The next challenge was to get hands-on
experience in training. For this I will be eternally grateful to my wonderful
friends who allowed me to be a fly-on-the-wall in their training sessions.
However, what that meant was that I would get a letter telling me that
so-and-so was going to be doing a training session from this date to that, in
this city or the other. I lived, as I mentioned, in the Anamallais in
Tamilnadu. The train station was in Coimbatore, which was a
four-and-a-half-hour bus ride from where I lived, down the forty-hairpin bends
of the Aliyar Ghat. Then the train journey, third class (a plank for a bed) to
the city that I was going to. Usually those journeys meant anything from 24-36
hours or more. In that city, I would stay in the cheapest hotel that I could
find, in some cases, the stuff of nightmares. The room the size of a closet,
bathroom shared between several rooms and mosquitoes galore. Food off street
vendors or small cafeterias and no pay. The trainer who invited me to attend
his/her class was already doing me a favor. To expect him/her or their client
to pay me was out of the question. I would arrive before anyone else. Sit
quietly in the back of the room and take notes. Be the gofer-boy for the
trainer. And at the end of the day, I would have a debrief session with the
trainer where I would share my notes, ask questions, explore alternative ways
of teaching or handling exercises and games or fielding questions. After the
session, back to the station to retrace my steps back home. From 1983-93, I did
this in all my vacation time. I negotiated an additional fifteen days
leave-without-pay from my company. Those added to my annual vacation of
thirty-five days, I spent in learning how to train. In that entire period, I
didn’t take a single day’s vacation. All my money was spent on books or travel
cost by the cheapest means, to attend training courses. The question of comfort
in travel, proper food, decent hotels and so on, didn’t even arise. All that I
cared about was learning, using whatever resources I had. To give you an idea
of what that was, my salary in that period went from Rs. 850 – 1100 by
increments to a final princely sum of Rs. 5000 per month at the end of ten
years of service. This was my investment in myself. No return to show for it
and no certainty that there would ever be a return.
During this period, in 1985, I got married. My
wife was (and is) my greatest support. What my obsession with learning meant
for her was that whereas all her friends in the tea gardens had TVs and VCRs in
their homes, we didn’t. Not that we had anything against movies. We had no
spare cash. Every year, she would head home to her parents, and I would be off
to this or that training class. Every year for ten years. In 1984, my dear
friend Pratik Roy suggested that I should get an MBA. He told me, ‘Do an MBA
and do it from IIMA (Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad) because it is
not so much what you will learn but the name on your CV will open doors.’ I
agreed. But there were two problems to overcome. The regular MBA program (PGP)
was a full-time, two-year course, which I simply couldn’t afford to attend,
because living for two years without a job was out of the question. So, I
looked for something that would give me the same in a shorter time. IIMA
fortunately had another course called the MEP which was an Executive MBA,
designed for business owners and management executives with at least
five-years’ experience. It was a very high-pressure course, seven-days-a-week,
no holidays, in which they covered the entire two-year syllabus of the regular
MBA. It was taught by the same professors, used the same case studies, but had
insane hours. The only thing it didn’t have was the project which was
substituted by the work-experience requirement.
Professors Labdhi Bhandari taught us Marketing;
Pulin Garg and Indira Pareek, OB; Viswanathan Raghunathan, Finance; Bala
(Balasubramaniam), Business Strategy. And others, equally good; each of them a
privilege to study under. We had the best and their teaching, lives on in our
minds and work.
The MEP is perhaps one of the best courses of
its type because it gives you everything that an MBA gives you in a much
shorter time. The high-pressure environment meant that only those who were
serious stuck with it which was also for the good. It is very exhilarating to
study with other obsessive-compulsives. We would study sixteen to eighteen
hours a day, every day. We would drink tea and eat Maggi noodles from a street
vendor at the gate of the Institute. He ran an all-night operation as he had a
dedicated clientele in us. That high-octane tea kept us awake and we argued
cases, analyzed our assessments and shot each other’s arguments to pieces; all
adding to our learning. We would have surprise tests in class and the dreaded
CPs (Class Presentations) where our group would make a presentation on the case
that the whole class was studying which the rest of the class took great
pleasure in taking apart. If you came out alive after a CP, believe me, it
means you had something worthwhile to show. Living to see the light of day
after all those brainy types had had a go at you, left you feeling really
elated. Didn’t happen often but it did sometimes.
My second problem was money. The course cost
Rs. 30,000. My salary was Rs. 850 per month. My savings were zero. I was going
to get married and had saved up a little bit for that – I paid for my own
marriage – so couldn’t spend it on anything else. I was in a fix. But as the
saying is, ‘Where there is a will etc….’ I applied to my company for a loan to
attend this course. I told them that I would be better qualified to serve them
after the course and that I hoped that they would support my effort to educate
myself. Apparently, they were partially convinced, so they replied to say that
they would loan me half the amount, and that I would have to sign a bond to
work for the company for three years after returning from the course. Also,
that they would deduct my annual vacation of thirty-five days from the duration
of my absence and treat the rest of it as leave without pay. So, in effect,
that was added to my cost and I was still 50% short for the fees. To raise that
I sold my car. I had a Hindustan Ambassador (Indianized Morris Oxford), the
workhorse of India and one of two cars on Indian roads at the time, the other
one being Premier Padmini (Indianized Fiat). That was a big blow because I had
no idea when I would be able to afford another car. But the fee was paid, and I
was accepted for the course. The course started in April 1985, but I had
another matter to settle before that; my marriage. I was the Site Manager for
Mayura Factory construction in the Anamallais. Mayura was to be the largest tea
factory in South India and it was almost complete.
I took one week off and went to Hyderabad, got
married on March 21st and returned on the sixth day with my wife,
Samina. All that is another story but the long and short of it, relevant to
this story is that the IIMA – Executive MBA (MEP) began in April. That was
perhaps one of the toughest decisions my wife and I ever took. To separate so
soon after our marriage. But we did it. Her parents were in the UK at the time,
so she went off there. And I went to Ahmedabad for the course. What that meant
was that even though we got one week off in the middle of the program, I would still
not be able to meet my newly wedded wife, because she was in the UK. That was a
strange week indeed. Everyone else left for their break. I had nowhere to go,
or rather, no desire to go anywhere. So, I stayed on at the IIMA all through
the week, alone. The point of all this is to show that if you want something
badly enough then you need to take tough decisions. In my case, I lost pay,
took a loan, sold my car, left my wife soon after we got married, all to get
the Executive MBA which I considered very important. My wife supported me in
this and took everything in her stride, including living a very frugal life for
over a decade. After the course, we got back to Anamallais and I worked not for
three years but until 1993. Eventually in 1993, I decided that I needed to take
the final test of the pudding; starting up my own company.
I have talked about three things: Focus +
Investment + Consistency. I did all of them. But there is a final one: Risk.
Without taking risk, you can never know if what you did would really work.
Risk, to a startup is like the first solo flight to a new pilot. That is when
all his training shows up. There is no shortcut to this. Risk must be taken and
so I started Yawar Baig & Associates in Bangalore in 1994. That sounds simpler
than it was. It was simple enough to start a proprietorship company. The trick
was to get business. My problem was that all my experience was as a hands-on
operations man in manufacturing and large-scale agriculture and I was
attempting to enter the domain of leadership training. I had no contacts in
‘Learning & Development’ or in ‘Human Resource Management’. And most of
all, I had no track record of training. But I had a lot of energy and I wasn’t
going to let what I didn’t have, prevent me from doing what I had set my heart
on i.e. become a globally recognized leadership trainer. I hit the road. I made
a list of all the MNCs (multinational companies) in Bangalore and started
calling their heads. I would call the CEO or the Head of HR. I discovered that
calling the CEO was a better deal than the HR Head. An operations man (there
were no women CEOs at that time in Bangalore) was more likely to understand me
than an HR person. Also, CEOs make decisions and don’t need to ask anyone else
before deciding. There was a risk involved in that if the CEO said, ‘No’, then
there was nobody else to go to. But then I reckoned that was better than going
from one person to another until you got to a CEO who may still say, ‘No.’ The
key was to get him to say, ‘Yes’, and not ‘No’.
I prepared my pitch, rehearsed it a million
times and called. This was the Australian head of the IT operation for ANZ
bank. I got his direct number from another friend who worked in that company
along with the warning that he had a very short fuse. I called and he answered
immediately and that’s when I discovered that there was a hole in my research;
I had never heard an Australian accent before. This was 1994. I had no PC.
There was no Google Search for Australian accents. In fact, there was no Google
and wouldn’t be for another four years. I didn’t know any Australians and by
the time I guessed what he was saying, he almost hung up. Mercifully, he said,
‘Hello! Are you there?’ I said, ‘Yes Sir. I am.’ And then I launched into my
pitch (little did I know that later, I would be teaching people how to do
‘Elevator Speeches’) and asked him for an appointment. He said, ‘Will five
minutes do?’ I replied, ‘Yes Sir. Thank you. See you tomorrow.’ Later I
wondered if he was trying to insult me or challenge me or what the meaning of,
‘Will five minutes do?’ was. I went the next day, suit and tie, well in advance
of the time. He greeted me and we started talking. He wanted training for his
entry level engineers on human skills to lead IT Project Teams. After my pitch
which took exactly four minutes, I said to him, ‘Thank you for your time Sir. I
am finished.’ He said, ‘Na! Let’s talk about what I want you to do.’ That
meeting went on for forty-five minutes
He said to me, ‘I want you to work with another
consultant who is working with us’, and called in Julius Aib, who was to become
one of my dearest friends and Aikido Sensei. Julius would teach the Project
Management side of the course on “Project Manager Workbench” (PMW) and I would
teach the human skills to lead teams. I designed a course called, ‘Critical
Human Skills for Project Leadership’ and Julius and I taught it in that company
for three years. Regular work is a lifeline for a startup consulting firm and
that is how I got it. This course became very popular and I taught it in GE,
IBM, Motorola, Wartsila (in Saudi Arabia), Andersen Corporation in the US and
in many other firms.
The second meeting which stands out was with a
French IT firm which had an Indian American CEO. A friend of mine got me a
meeting with him. He was looking for a specific solution; and that was, how to
get his direct reports to speak up in his meetings. He said to me, ‘They always
agree with me. They never disagree. Then they don’t do what they agreed to do.
That freaks me out.’ I realized what the issue was. He was an Indian by
descent, but he was American through and through. He was born and raised in the
US and had never worked in India. Now he was heading an Indian team and for his
bad luck, he looked Indian. I say bad luck because if he had been white, they
would have treated him differently and made allowances for his foreignness. But
because he looked Indian, they treated him as an Indian, including speaking to
each other in their local languages, none of which he understood. Clearly all
this was hassling him and telling on the productivity of his team and on
everyone’s happiness. He asked me if I had a solution.
‘Yes, I do, but I want to observe one of your
meetings first before I tell you what I would like to do to solve your
problem.’ He agreed. The meeting was an eyeopener and confirmed my diagnosis of
what was happening. It went like this:
They were discussing an issue related to
finance. The CEO described the issue (strong American accent) and then asked
for the opinions of his team. They were all Vice Presidents of different
functions. The first to speak was the VP Finance. As soon as he made his point,
the CEO, slapped his hand on the table and said, ‘That’s a fantastic idea.
Anyone else?’ There was dead silence. Nobody spoke a word. Deadpan expressions
on the face, avoiding any direct eye contact with the CEO. He asked for other
ideas a couple of times more; his face started to get red and he looked like he
would rise like a ballistic missile and disappear through the ceiling. I
decided to intervene and said, ‘Why don’t we take a break and have some
coffee?’ Everyone started breathing again and stood up. The CEO realized that
this was a deliberate tactic on my part and cooperated and said, ‘That is a
good idea. Let’s take a break.’ As we left the room, I took him aside into an
empty office. As soon as the door shut, he burst out, ‘See what I told you?
This is what they do all the time. They clam up. Nobody gives any ideas. And
these are all VPs and supposed to be bright people.’
I said to him, ‘Did you realize what happened
there? What you did?’
He looked injured and angry, ‘What did I do? I
only appreciated the man. What’s wrong with that? In America they would have
come up with a hundred ideas after that affirmation.’
‘You are right, but this is not America and
they are not American. This is India and in our culture the cost of ‘failure’
is very high. Nobody wants to be wrong. And definitely not in public. When you
slapped your hand on the table and said, ‘Fantastic idea’, that set the
standard. ‘Fantastic’ in our culture is the ultimate. It is not a simple word
as in the American culture. In India, fantastic means, FANTASTIC. And when you
say that with a slap of your palm on the table, it is sealed. You are in effect
saying to them, ‘Here is the best possible idea that there can be. I challenge
you to come up with a better one.’ Nobody then wants to take the risk to say
something only to possibly have it discarded. Losing face is a very big thing
in our culture.’
He listened in silence. Then he asked me, ‘What
do you want to do about this?’
‘I will design a workshop on cross-cultural
communication, and we will do it as an offsite for two days for your team.’
‘What will it cost?’
‘5000 per day plus my costs.’
‘How do I know it will work?’
‘You don’t. So, let me suggest a deal. How
about you pay me only if it works. But if it works, then not only will you pay
me, but I want you to call your friends and tell them about it and ask them to
give me appointments to meet them.’
He looked at me with a quizzical look in his
eye and said, ‘I like your spirit. It’s a deal.’
As they say, the rest is history. He was true
to his word. Not only did he pay me, but he called other CEOs and I got
appointments with almost every CEO there was. After all I had one of their own
rooting for me.
You can read all this and more in my book, ‘An
Excitement is danger that anticipates a happy
ending. That is the joy of risk taking, without which there can be no success.
Focus + Investment + Consistency and
is the bottom line. To continue to do that, not once, not twice, but all your
life. That is what entrepreneurship is all about.
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, creating the company. Somehow, as they succeed, people who build organizations seem to forget the real lessons of their experience.