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:
That it was speed of reaction and the ability to take risks that gave them the competitive advantage.
2. That it was the willingness to put themselves on the line, which built their credibility.
3. That it was staying in touch with customers that helped them anticipate trends.
This 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, Respecting elders or tradition,
Creating Permanence and so on.
What is forgotten is that life is about
change and positive change is growth. That growth is not looking 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
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. Anglo American which owns 85% of De Beers Group, the premier diamond company in the world has an entire department, headed by one of the most brilliant men that I have ever met, Clem Sunter to do Scenario Planning. I had the honor of being a co-speaker with him at a WMO Conference in Pretoria. Clem Sunter and his team conceptualize both opportunity and threat scenarios to enable Anglo American to prepare for them well in advance. I strongly recommend that you read Clem Sunter and Chantell Illbury’s book, “The Mind of a Fox”, to understand what Scenario Planning is and how critical to survival and development it is for individuals, companies, people and countries. 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 only guarantees stagnation of ideas, sanctification of monumental stupidity, and calcification of the mind.
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. 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.
That is what passion is all about. Let
me try to describe passion by starting with what it is not. Passion is not
‘interest’ or ‘liking’. It is obsession. Single minded obsession about the
thing that you are passionate about which enables you to invest your best in
the pursuit of your goal. It is not about major investment. It is not about
significant investment. It is about total investment. All your time, all your
energy, all your money, all your thought, feeling, emotion, effort, sweat and
tears; everything. People who are passionate live, think, feel, sleep, dream, wake
and work to achieve their passion. And nothing else. The issue of ‘nothing else’
is very important. This is a checklist for those who want to test and see if
they are passionate about whatever they think they are passionate about. See how
many of these things you can tick off in your life. If you miss even one, then to
that extent you are not passionate. You may be interested. Even very
interested, but you are not passionate. Believe me, that is often the line
between success and failure. It is your choice and you are responsible. Nobody
To be passionate is not to have a Plan
B. Plan B is your insurance, it is your safety net, it is your fall back.
Passionate people don’t need it because they don’t intend to fail. They have
total commitment. See this clip of the lioness attacking the zebra. That is
total commitment. She has no Plan B. She doesn’t let go even when the zebra
somersaults and lands on top of her. A zebra that size is at least 200
kilograms. Imagine that landing on you and yet you don’t let go. That is
passion and when you work with that kind of passion, there is only one result.
Success. So, no Plan B. I have worked like this all my life and today at age
63, I don’t have a single regret about living this way. As a matter of fact, I am
in the process of starting a new phase in my life being a mentor to anyone demented
enough to want me as a mentor. That’s my payback to those who invested their
time and effort in me. Many have passed away, but they would be happy to know
that I am carrying their contribution forward. They wouldn’t want it any other
way. When people ask me why I don’t have a Plan B, I say to them, ‘Because I
don’t plan to fail.’ That is not an arrogant statement. I say that because I am
totally committed to what I do and have total faith in the help of Allahﷻ. He never let me down and I am content and
If you need to be woken up in the
morning; even if you need an alarm clock to wake up, you are not passionate. If
you need to be reminded, you are not passionate. If you need material rewards,
the praise of others, designations and titles, medals and awards; if you need
anything external, you are not passionate. If you are satisfied with your
output, you are not passionate.
Passion is its own payment, its own
reward. This is essential to understand and experience because otherwise you
can’t sustain passion. Ask where you are likely to find Usain Bolt on the
morning after he received the Olympic Gold Medal. The answer is, ‘On the
track.’ Jane Goodall was passionate about chimpanzees. She studied them, worked
with them, lived among them and died among them. That is passion. Passion is to
have what I call Positive Dissatisfaction or Positive Stress. This is not the
stress that comes from the conflict of goals, emotions, fears and desires. This
is the excitement of always trying to do better than you did before. Not
because someone is pushing you. Not because someone is watching you or
monitoring your actions. If you are passionate and work with passion, you will
find yourself surrounded with satisfied people. That will be your biggest challenge.
The biggest danger. The biggest incentive to relax and become complacent. You
will not be walking through disapproval but through huge approval and appreciation.
People will praise you and extol your virtues and applaud your output. They will
tell you that they never saw or experienced anything as good as what you did.
They will tell you that you changed their lives, their work, their belief in
themselves. They will tell you that they never met anyone like you and that you
are the best. The passionate person appreciates all that and is grateful, but
he will never become complacent. He will never be satisfied and say, ‘I have
arrived.’ For the passionate person, the journey is the destination; the race
is the winning. Not some finish line. Passion is its own reward. Passionate
people take joy from the effort. They do because they are. They are because
they do. They do because they are trying to see what the best that they can do
is. And nobody ever knows the best that they can do.
Having said all that, it is not that I
succeeded in every endeavor. But I made a serious effort every time. And when I
failed, I used the technique that I learnt early in life; to objectively 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
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 I
intended to convey was less important than what I 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. 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. 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. That is why work produces
stress. 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.
The strange thing in life is that
organizations want people to enjoy work, to give their best, and to maximize
effort and productivity. But the messages they give are negative. Let me give
you an example. Many organizations have a ritual called TGIF: Thank God it is
Friday. This is a small party at the end of the workday on Friday where all
employees gather and have some eats and some fun together celebrating the fact
that, yet another week of work is behind them. I first heard of this custom which
was imported into India with IT companies that set up shop in Bangalore. We
Indians are the world’s greatest mindless imitators. Promptly, many Indian
companies picked up this practice and even went to the extent of advertising it
as a perk in their recruitment spiels.
I was speaking to a friend of mine who
was the promoter of one of the early IT companies in Bangalore that had this
I asked him, “Do you really want people
to be saying ‘Thank God it is Friday?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
I said to him, “To me, if someone who
works for me says that he is glad the work week is over, it is a danger signal.
It means that the work the person is doing is not meaningful or enjoyable and
that somehow, they got through it and now that it is over, they are happy to go
home for the weekend. If I had to have a party, I would rather have one on
Monday morning called TGIM. And I would work very hard to create an environment
where people would actually love to go to work.”
“You are a real spoilsport,” said my
friend, jokingly. “You know, I never thought of it that way!!”
Take another case. You have a salesperson
who is magical. She or he is an inspired salesperson. They can sell the
Buckingham Palace to the Queen and many times they do. They work very hard and
exceed all targets. So, at the end of the year, you give them a reward. You
send them on a two week, all expenses paid vacation to the Bahamas. Most
organizations do the equivalent of this. Now let us analyze what you have done.
You achieved two things: Firstly, you
were successful in getting your best salesperson off the street for two weeks
and that will show up in your first quarter results. Secondly and even more
importantly you gave a strong subconscious message, that you believe that work
is actually unpleasant. But since this person managed to hang in there and do
it well for twelve months, you are now paying for them to do what they really
want to do and enjoy doing; roasting on the beach in the Bahamas. So, I say,
give them the money and let them do whatever they want with it but don’t take
them off doing what they love to do.
Consider the alternative. Passionate people
who love what they do, enjoy every minute of it, find it fulfilling and would
pay you to do it if they had to. What kind of results do you think you can get
if you create workplaces and work that can give this to those who perform it?
And before you accuse me of fantasying, let me give you an example. All
missionaries work like this. Many spend their own money and endure a lot of
hardship, to do the work they do because the rewards of their work are clear to
them. The challenge is to create this sense of meaning in work.
Just to close the point I am making here;
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
education that 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.
It is essential for one to take stock
from time to time to see if they are achieving what they set out to achieve.
Which brings me to the final question: what is a good goal?
A good goal in my view has two
It is big enough to make it worth your while to work for.
It is big enough to scare you.
A goal that is not scary will not
generate the energy that we need to achieve it. It is in the nature of
extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort. Nobody rises to low
expectations. People rise to high expectations. In my life, whenever I have
experienced meaninglessness, low energy, and passivity, it has always been
because the work was too easy, the goal not big enough. My antidote to
tiredness, lack of focus and attention and stress in life is to create a big,
scary goal. When you are walking in a forest and you come around a bend and see
a tiger sitting in the middle of the road, adrenaline pumps into your blood.
You are all attention. You turn around and run like hell. You are not bored,
inattentive, or tired. Instantly, you have all the energy and focus that you
need, and you passionately try to get away from the tiger. For all you know,
the tiger is probably still sitting where he was, having a good laugh at your
expense. But you are not waiting to find out. That is the key. Create the
tigers that will make you run.
It’s true that tigers
are also cats. But the resemblance ends there.
Have you ever been in the shower
in a 5-star hotel, nice and wet all over and you reach for the shampoo bottle,
only to find that there are three? That is not because you are drunk and are
seeing triple but because you are faced with three identical bottles but with
totally different contents. What is in the bottles is not a mystery of course.
It has been helpfully printed on the label. However, the label was designed by
a 20-something design engineer sitting in a sweatshop in India or Bangladesh,
who has never seen the inside of a 5-star hotel shower and won’t until he gets
old enough to need glasses to read and the money to pay for the hotel. Then he
will realize what he did all his life when he is forced to play Russian
Roulette with the shampoo, body lotion (complicated way to say ‘soap’) and
conditioner. If you think this is funny, put conditioner on your head instead
of shampoo and you will think that is even funnier. That is perhaps the reason
why I had to decline a haircut recently which was for Rs. 350 on the plea that
I refuse to pay more than Re. 1 per hair, aforementioned number being an
optimistic hair-count of my head. The refusal of hair to adhere to my scalp may
be ascribed to the times that I used conditioner instead of shampoo. No
self-respecting hair can stand such treatment and so they decide to part
company with me forever.
“What’s the big deal?” you ask
me. “Why can’t you read the label?”
“I need glasses to read but I
don’t need glasses to shower. So, I don’t wear glasses in the shower, which is
where I need glasses to read the labels on the bottles.”
What is the solution?
Take all shower bottle label
designers to a 5-star hotel, blindfold them, strip them naked and shove them
into the shower.
Why blindfold them?
How else will they understand how
it feels to hold the bottle in your hand and not know what is in it?
Customer Satisfaction and
Customer Delight can be condensed into one phrase and that is, “See with their eyes.” The keyword being ‘Their’.
As they say, ‘When you gotta go
you gotta go.’ But then the question arises, where does he go? And what’s more,
what if he had to do more than just irrigate the tracks? And even more
critical, what if the ‘Motorman’ was a ‘Motorwoman’. Incidentally for those who
may think that I am being facetious, let me assure you that I have seldom been
more serious in my life. This, lack of facilities to do it decently and in
private, is a major problem with Traffic Police Constables also, especially
women Constables. Maybe the fact that we don’t have a distinct word for a
woman police constable is an indicator of our blindness to their
To return to our ‘Motorman’ video
and the lessons from it, the reason the man has to do what he did is because
the designer of the engine driver’s cab, never drove an engine in his life. If
you think I am exaggerating, let me tell you another story.
In 2000 I was invited to teach a
series of leadership courses, which we called From Managing to Leading, for the
design team of one of the two major truck manufacturers in India. There were
totally two hundred engineers who would take this 3-day residential course at
their training facility. They were all graduates from the IITs (Indian
Institutes of Technology) with a sprinkling from REC’s (Regional Engineering
College); some of the most highly qualified engineers in the country. The IITs
have an entrance test about which someone asked one of the professors of MIT
what he would do if he had to write that test. He said, ‘I would leave, in tears.’
In short these were very smart people with arrogance to match. I asked for a
meeting with the Head of the Division, the Head of HR and a cross section of
the design engineers to understand their issues so that I could design a
program that suited their special needs. This is how that went:
Me: “Many thanks for agreeing to
meet me. I am hoping to understand from you, what you see as the special
leadership challenges that you face and what you see as being the key
deliverables for this course. So, let me begin with a question to all and each
of you; Do you have a heavy license (license to drive a truck)?”
They: Thinking: Total silence.
Odd looks. “Looks like we made a mistake. This guy looks like he’s flipped it.
Heavy license? Why on earth would we, IIT grads, have a heavy license? Do we
look like truck drivers to him?” But then this is India and he is older than we
are, so we can’t just tell him that he is crazy. So, we remain silent.
Me: “Hmm! Does this mean that you
don’t have a truck driving license? Nobody has one?”
Me: “You mean that you design
these trucks but none of you has ever driven what you designed?”
They: Thinking: “Now this is
getting uncomfortable. How do we answer this?”
Me: Thinking: “Expressive
“Okay, let me ask you another
question; How many of you sat with the driver in one of your trucks as he drove
from Chandigarh to Chennai?”
Eyes roll, silence is now so
heavy that it is oppressive.
Me: “Okay, Chandigarh to Chennai
is long, though your trucks are being driven on that route. But let me make it
simpler; has anyone sat with the driver as he drove from Chennai to Bangalore?”
Eyes roll again. More silence.
Me: Now I am twisting the knife: “So,
you are telling me that you design trucks that you have never driven or ridden
They: Sheepishly: “Yes.”
Me: “Let me ask you another
question: Who makes the buying decision in the case of a truck?”
They: “The owner of the trucking
Me: “Right and wrong. The owner
‘decides’ but he is totally influenced by his drivers. If the drivers like a
certain brand of truck, the owner will always buy that brand unless there is a
huge price difference between that brand and its competitor. No owner wants
unhappy drivers who are constantly complaining about the truck which results in
slower turnaround time, directly translating to lower profits. The owner wants
the best, most efficient transport and his driver decides. Who is that driver?
He is the one whose reality you have not even tried to understand. You were
looking at me like I was crazy when I asked if you had a heavy license. What do
you say now?”
Sadly, this inability to see with their eyes is widespread and is the real reason behind bad design and
Try an experiment. Walk down a
street that you usually walk down. Notice how it looks and try to remember the
details. When you get to the end of the street or if it is a long street, then
when you have walked a few hundred meters, turn around and look up the street
you just walked down. How does it look? Does it look like it had been a few
minutes ago when you walked down it? Or does it look different? This is a good
way to understand how perspective is a factor of position. What you see depends
on where you look at it from. The same principle holds in life. One of my
friends, a senior police officer was talking to me about human trafficking,
which is a very big issue in India. She talked about how her subordinate
officers seemed to have become calloused about it. She asked me for ideas about
how she could get them inspired to solve human trafficking cases and bring the
perpetrators of urban slavery to book. I told her, “Ask them to give the victim
a name. The name of their daughter.” Simple as it sounds, it worked. Things
change complexion when we put ourselves in the shoes of the ‘other’. The other
is no longer a stranger to be ignored at best or at worst, maligned and hated.
We see the other, and in him, we
This is the origin of the Golden
Rule: “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” Or as someone else
put it: “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you.” Or as yet
someone else put it: “People may forget what you did but they will never forget
how you made them feel.”
Before I end, let me assure you
that this is not about business or winning customers. The biggest lesson I learnt
in this context was one week after I got married. I married when I was thirty
and had been living alone since I was eighteen. We got married in Hyderabad and
left the next day for the Anamallais (where I was an Assistant Manager in the
tea gardens) we arrived in Madras at my aunt’s place. Jahanara Aunty and Mohammed
Uncle were absolute gems whose hospitality was legendary and recalled to this
day by everyone who was fortunate enough to enjoy it. Two
days later we boarded the train for Coimbatore from where we drove up the
Aliyar Ghat of forty hairpin bends. Samina was violently sick all the way up
the Ghat. Being prone to motion sickness anyway, the Ghat road was not doing
her any good at all. I was very concerned because this Ghat road was a given if
we lived in the Anamallais and with Samina being so sick on it, it didn’t seem
to portend well for us. The prospect of a repeat performance every time we
traveled was definitely not something to look forward to. But as it happened
after a couple of trips Samina got over her motion sickness altogether. Maybe
the Ghat road shocked it out of her system.
a tradition that estate workers welcomed the Assistant Manager when he returned
with his wife. But it was not something that happened always. The workers
decided who they wanted to welcome and who they didn’t. In our case as our car
rounded the bend off the Sholayar Dam and came towards ‘Black Bridge,’ we were
stopped and requested to alight. Samina and I came out of the car, glad for the
chance to stretch our legs. The road was lined with girls who sang a welcome
song and showered us with flower petals as we walked through this guard of
honor. We were taken to a pavilion which I realized had been made by tying the
best sarees of the women to the poles and decorated with lots of flowers. Tea
garden workers can be the most loving people in the world and if you were good
to them, they appreciated it and reciprocated. I saw many examples of that in
my decade long career. We were garlanded and sat at a table on the two grandest
chairs that they could find. Then we were served tea and biscuits and sweets.
It was then that a depressed fly decided to end its meaningless life in my
wife’s teacup. But Samina, being the perfect lady that she is, merely fished the
fly out and drank the tea without batting an eyelid. An amazing performance
which saved us from a lot of embarrassment.
speeches were made, and the women danced and sang a song in our honor in which
we were mentioned repeatedly in sometimes a humorous way and sometimes with
great respect. The amazing thing was that this song was made up then and there
and they sang about various habits of mine, including singing while I rode my
motorcycle. People observe you and remember and respond to you the way they perceive
you. People listen with their eyes. They don’t care what you say, until they
see what you do. I have seen this in my life more times than I can possibly recall.
All the more reason to ensure that whatever it was, remained good and
the end of all this song and dance there were some speeches by the local union
leaders and one supervisor and then I was asked to speak. It was permitted for
the manager to speak in English and the speech would be translated. But I had
learnt Tamil for occasions such as these and spoke it well, much to everyone’s
delight. When I had finished and thanked them for all their trouble and
expressed our gratitude for the honor that we had been granted, they gave my
wife a gold ring as their gift as a mark of their love and honor for me. I was
floored. These were poor people who had collected money for this, something
which was not expected of them at all. What could I say? As I mentioned
earlier, Managers and workers in the plantations form bonds that are more like
family than anything else.
story was the background for the lesson I mentioned earlier. A lesson in seeing
with ‘their’ eyes. It was about a week later when one day I was saying something
to my wife about my car and so on when she stopped me and said, ‘If you keep talking
about everything as my-this and my-that, how will I ever feel that I share it
with you?’ I was flabbergasted. I didn’t realize the effect of my perfectly
innocuous speech on my wife. I had lived alone since I was eighteen and was
used to thinking of everything as being mine. Sharing didn’t come into it as I’d
had nobody to share with. But now I did. I realized that I needed to change my
outlook. I needed to see with her eyes. Today, thirty-four years later, I am
very happy that I learnt that lesson.
Whenever I speak of
customer service, I am reminded of how some people from north India, from the
Hindi speaking belt of UP and MP pronounce it. They say, ‘Kasht-mar service’.
Now ‘Kasht’ in Hindi means ‘difficulty’. And ‘Mar’ means to die. So, the literal
translation of ‘Kasht-Mar’ would be (Kasht-say-mar) meaning ‘die slowly with
difficulty’. Not a very nice thing to say but that is what some people in the
business of providing service seem to be saying to their customers (Kashtmars).
Customer service is about customers, not about the content, technology or industry in which those customers operate. This is a very important thing to understand and accept if one is not to fall into the trap of feeling that somehow our own industry is so unique that the lessons learnt in the airline, hotel, BPO, IT or hospital businesses are not applicable to us. If we deal with people, lessons learnt in any industry that have to do with people, apply to us and we would be very foolish to ignore them. Customers and people think holistically. When we experience bad service on board a plane, we compare it quite happily (albeit sometimes unconsciously) to the overall service standard that we are used to in our own environment and feel proportionately bad about it. If we come from a country like Singapore where the quality of service is generally very superior, we will tend to feel highly dissatisfied with bad service. But someone who comes from another country where service standards are generally pretty low, they may find the same service to be acceptable because their expectations are so low to begin with. When experiencing on-board in-flight service, we don’t compare it only to our experience on other airlines. Even people who are flying for the first time feel dissatisfied with poor service. So, lessons are transferable.
Great customer service is a
combination of two things: a genuine desire to serve and some key things to do
(tools). Let us look at each of them.
Attitude: Whenever I think of an attitude
of great customer service I remember when I first went to Singapore in 1994. I
was there to teach a course in teaming skills at GE Asia. I reached my hotel by
about midday and having had lunch and rested, decided to go out in the evening
to see the city. I came out of the hotel and stood at the curbside waiting for
a cab. One came along in less than 2 minutes and then it happened. The driver
pulled up, got out of the car, trotted (he didn’t walk, he trotted) around the
back to where I was, opened the rear passenger door and ushered me into the cab
with a flourish. I realized that I was in the presence of something special and
silently got in.
The interior was spotlessly clean
and smelled of some pleasant mild perfume. I sat waiting for the next act of
the play. And there it was. He said to me as I was sitting in the cab, ‘That is
today’s newspaper for you Sir and some water if you’re thirsty. I hope you are
comfortable.’ I said that I was and thanked him. He shut the door respectfully,
trotted (once again he didn’t walk) back to his seat and said, looking at me in
the rearview mirror, ‘Where can I take you Sir?’ I replied, ‘I don’t want to go
anywhere. I want to just sit here so that I can enjoy the experience of being
in your car.’
I still remember this incident so
many years later as if it happened yesterday. The point is that he was an
ordinary taxi driver who had never gone to a single training class in customer
service. He was in a business where customers commonly have the least
expectation of service and are only interested in not being deceived to pay
more than their due. His customer is with him for probably the shortest time of
any service; just the few minutes it takes to drive to the customer’s
destination. And typically, he would probably never see that customer again.
Yet here was a man going out of his way to be nice to his customers and to give
them an experience to remember. Why?
The only answer I have is,
because for him service was about who he was. Not about who the customer was.
Neither I nor anyone I know would expect, much less demand a taxi driver to get
out and open the door for them or keep clean drinking water (in a sealed
bottle) and the day’s papers in the car or to keep the car in an absolutely
pristine state. After all we are used to shabby taxis and as long as it is not
horribly dirty, we don’t give it a second thought.
He did what he did because he saw
his service as defining him, not because he thought the customer cared about it
or wanted it or demanded it or would pay for it. It was his own pride in his
work and his desire to serve.
Let me give you another example.
In 1997, I lived in Bangalore and wanted to buy a Maruti 800 car. I called a
number which I thought was the number of the agency which financed Maruti purchases.
A lady answered, and the conversation went like this:
‘Good morning, this is Citibank
Car Finance. How can I help you?’
‘Good morning. I am looking to
buy a Maruti 800 car and want to know if you finance it.’
‘I am sorry Sir, we finance only
Opel Astra (four times the price), but if you hang on a minute, I will get you
the number of the company which does Maruti.’
Once again, I knew I was in the
presence of someone with that key attitude – the desire to win customers. So, I
waited. She came back online in less than one minute.
‘Here’s the number Sir. And if
you change your mind and decide to buy an Opel Astra, please do give us a
She knew perfectly well that I
was not an Opel Astra customer, but she still said that so that I would not
feel bad about not being able to afford an expensive car.
Once again, the power of
The first thing I would ask
anyone who has to deal with any customer in any kind of business at all is, ‘Do
you really want to do this job? And if you want to do it, how much do you want
to do it?’
# 1. Is it an, ‘Ah! Here comes another one’, kind
# 2. Or is it a, ‘Well, since I am here, I may as
well get it over with.’
# 3. Or is it, ‘Another fantastic day for me to
give some customers service they have never seen before. I love the look on their
faces as if they can’t believe their own eyes and ears.’
Which one applies to you? It’s
really as simple as that.
Now how about if you are not the
# 3 kind of person?
have two choices; change your job or change yourself.
Changing your job may neither be
feasible nor is it easy to find a job where you don’t have to deal with people.
There are such jobs, like feeding crocodiles in a zoo, but not so many fall
vacant unless the feeder slips into the pool. Like it or not you are going to
have to deal with people. So, what should you do?
is what you should do:
Stand before a mirror and tell
yourself, this is the BEST job that I could possibly be doing because I have an
opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. Now what is more worthwhile
than that? Convince yourself and then go to work.
I was in the airport in Hyderabad
and wanted to use the washroom. I entered the room and found that the toilets
were being cleaned. The man doing the job saw me and said to me, ‘Please give
me a minute Sir.’
Then he not only cleaned the
toilet, but he sprayed air freshener and then took some tissue and dried the
toilet seat. Did that make a difference in my life? You can bet it did and I
ensured that I gave him the biggest tip he would have received in a while. Though
going by his attitude and quality of service it would take a shamelessly stingy
person to pass him by without emptying their pockets into his hands. Once
again, I don’t think that man ever saw the inside of a Customer Service
Let me give you my final example.
It was 1995. I was teaching a 3-day leadership course for a major IT
multinational. The course was in Bombay. This was before the name of the city
was changed to Mumbai. It was July. Not the best time to go to Bombay unless
you love flooded roads and incredible traffic jams. But when you are lean, mean
and hungry, you do what you need to do. I was and I did. I flew Indian Airlines
(before its name was changed to Air India) and because if you wanted to fly that
is what you flew. There were no other domestic airlines. I landed in Bombay under
threatening skies. A cab driver came to pick me up from the airport and we drove
to my hotel which was not too far away. As I got out of the car, he asked me, “When
do I need to pick you up to bring you back to the airport Sir?” I told him, “At
5.30 pm on Day 3.” He thanked me and left. I checked in to the hotel. That
night the skies made good their threat and how? It rained non-stop for the
three days that I was there. The whole city was flooded and there was knee-deep
water in the streets and traffic was one massive gridlock. It appeared that all
those stuck in the traffic jams would spend the rest of their lives in their
On Day 3, as I walked through the
hotel reception to my class, I requested them to keep my room as it didn’t look
like I would be able to go anywhere that day. I finished my day and as I came
to the reception, on the way to my room, who do I see there? The cab driver. He
was standing there with a rolled-up umbrella in his hand, totally soaked from
head to toe. I was astonished. I said to him, “How are you here? In this rain? You
are soaked? Why didn’t you use the umbrella?”
He said to me, “Sir, I came to
take you to the airport. The umbrella is for you Sir. Please come, let us go.”
“How can we drive? The street is flooded
and there is a traffic jam all around!”
“I know the back roads Sir. Don’t
worry. I will get you to the airport. But I have a request. I must apologize to
you Sir. I couldn’t bring my car for you because it has a petrol engine and can’t
go in water as deep as this. So, I borrowed a diesel pickup van from my friend.
If you don’t mind sitting in the van, I will get you to the airport in time for
I couldn’t believe my ears. My
judgement told me to stay put. I had the hotel room. I was not in a hurry to
get home. I wasn’t even sure if Indian Airlines was flying on schedule. But
there was no way that I was going to refuse to go after this man had gone to
all the trouble on my behalf. I picked up my bag and got into the cab of the pickup
and we drove through the flood waters, with a bow wave before us. It was like being
in a boat. When we got to the airport, I tried to give him Rs. 100 as a tip. He
refused. “It is my duty Sir,” he said. You don’t need to pay me anything. I told
him that I was not paying him out of a sense of duty but as a small gesture of
my vast appreciation for his effort. He still refused. I had to use all my
skills of persuasion for him to eventually accept this token of my appreciation.
He left with a smile on his face. Indian Airlines cancelled the flight and
since there was no way to return to the hotel, I spent that night on the floor
of Bombay airport, warm in the glow of my experience of absolutely heroic customer
service, once again from someone who had never heard of a Customer Service
Course. Indian Airlines on the other hand gave me many examples of staff who
had attended many such courses, with no appreciable effect. It is not about the
course. It is about the person.
stand before your mirror and tell yourself, ‘I want to make a difference in
someone’s life today.’
To help you to focus on customer
service, here is a tool you may like to use.
Listen, Empathize, Accept Responsibility, Do Something
Listen: The first thing is to listen to
the customer. Listen to what they are saying and to how they are saying it.
Sometimes it is not the words of the customer but their tone of voice or body
language which gives the one who listens well, the real message. In GE there is
a process called Voice of Customer (VOC) which is part of the Six Sigma Quality
Initiative where customers are regularly invited to come in and talk about how
they experience GE’s service. The focus in this meeting is not on giving
explanations or making excuses. Just on listening carefully to what the customer
has to say about his experience. This conversation then becomes the basis for addressing
pain areas and enhancing the level of service.
Empathize: The second is to put yourself in
the customer’s shoes. How would you feel if someone did to you what you or
someone in your company did to your customer? The reason it was done is
immaterial. That they had to suffer is what the customer is conscious of.
I was in San Francisco at the
Marriot, having arrived there by a late-night flight at midnight, having flown across
the country from Hartford, CT. I was teaching a 3-day course for AMA
International starting at 8.00 am the next morning. I had asked for a
non-smoking room as I am allergic to cigarette smoke. When I went up to the
room almost at 1.00 am, I found it reeking of cigarette smoke. I complained but
the person at the front desk told me that they did not have any other room. I
was furious but there was nothing I could do so I slept as best I could. Next
morning, I had to leave early for work. When I returned, I was met at the lobby
by the hotel manager who took me up to another room, this one smelling sweet
and asked if I liked it. I said that I did. She then asked if she could have my
luggage moved there. I agreed.
Then (only then) did she say to
me, ‘Sir, I apologize for the problem you had last night. We had booked a non-smoking
room for you but unfortunately it seems that the guest had someone else in the
room who smoked and so the room smelled of cigarettes. We did not realize this
until too late and there was no other non-smoking room available last night. I
blocked the first room that fell vacant this morning and here it is. My
apologies once again.’
The beauty of this response was
that she first solved my problem and then (only then) gave me the explanation
for what had happened. It was clear that they were empathetic about my problem.
They did not try to brush it aside or pretend that it was not really a problem,
nor did they try to justify or explain it. They addressed it and solved it and
then explained why it had happened, once the problem had been solved.
third thing is to accept the fact that the problem of the customer is really
your problem. This is something that we don’t see too quickly and act as if the
problem has nothing to do with us. It is our problem because it is causing our
customer to be dissatisfied. And a dissatisfied customer is very much our
problem. Own your responsibility and don’t send the customer to someone else.
This is one of the biggest aggravations that customers face; being shunted from
person to person and having to repeat their story over and over. I am sure
every single one of us has faced this, especially where there is an automated
response system. Press this button or that and listen to free music while you
wait. And every once in a while, a disembodied voice tells you, “Your call is
important to us. Please wait awhile for our Customer Service Representative to
attend to you.” You want to say, “If my call is really important to you, talk to
me.” But you know that nobody is listening, and nobody cares.
There is almost a reflex tendency
in most people to give explanations for failed service. We go off into telling people
why they are suffering. Believe me, they don’t want to know why they are
suffering. They want their suffering to stop. And they want you to make amends.
If you don’t do this and tell them all the reasons why they must suffer, it only
makes them angrier and more frustrated. So, accept responsibility. It is your problem,
because the customer is your customer. It is really as simple as that.
take action. You take action. Don’t tell the customer what to do. You go
do it. And then let them know what you are doing and how it is going to solve their
problem. Reporting periodically is essential for customer satisfaction. Don’t just
disappear over the horizon. Tell them what you are doing to help them. People
don’t like to be left in the dark. So, tell them.
is a known fact that in most cases it is the same things that tend to go wrong
again and again. Identify the three or four major things that tend to go wrong
most often and have preset responses for them. In order to do this, it is
essential to document what happens in your customer interactions so that you
can correctly identify what goes wrong most often. Preset responses take away
the stress from the interactions and ensure the fastest recovery from failure.
Research shows that customers who had a problem that was solved well are more
satisfied than those who did not have a problem at all.
I have always maintained that the
quality of customer service depends on what you define as the boundaries of your
customer interaction. When does someone become your customer? When does the customer
interaction start? When does it end? Does it start when someone calls your office
or drives past it or sees your delivery van or website or billboard? Does it
start when someone buys your product or service? Where and when does it end? Does
it end when the person picks up the package or buys the ticket or the service
is delivered to him in some way? Or do you also include their use of your
product or service in your definition? I am not going into a detailed
discussion of all these, but I want to flag them for you. The quality of your
service will depend on your definition.
In Disney, they have a Vice
President for parking lots. Now that may sound strange, but it has to do with
Disney’s philosophy that to give you a great experience at Disney Land from the
time you enter their parking lot to the time you leave, safely on your way home,
is their responsibility. This is how it works. When you drive into Disney’s
city block size parking lots, you leave your car and get into a shuttle bus to go
to the entrance. As you get on the bus, you hear this announcement. “Ladies and
gentlemen, boys and girls; welcome to Disney. You are parked in Goofy 1.” You
will hear this announcement thrice during your trip to the entrance. Once when
you get on, once midway in your journey and once just before you get off.
What is unique about this announcement?
It addresses the main customers
of Disney, your children. It repeats thrice which is the best way to ensure
that people notice what you are saying to them. And it uses Disney characters
to name parking lots.
You buy your tickets; you go in and
you have a great day. You take all the rides and watch the sights and eat and walk
around and take lots of photos. It is now late evening and you return to the shuttle
bus station and wonder which bus to take. “Where did I park my car?” That is
when one of the little ones pipes up, “Goofy 1.” Children recall the Disney characters
that they are so familiar with. The wisdom of the announcement.
When you reach your car, you discover
that you had left your lights on. Entirely understandable, as you arrived that
morning with a car full of excited little ones, all screaming about what they
want to do in Disney. Now, you have a whole lot of tired and sleepy little ones
and your car is dead. But as you stand there, contemplating the futility of
life, you will notice a PRE-PRINTED sticky note on your diver’s side window
glass. The note reads, “We came by and saw that you left your lights on. If your
battery is dead and you need a jumpstart, please call this number.” Imagine
your state. It is that moment which decides what you think of Disney’s service.
Not all the rides or sights or food. But their proactivity in dealing with a
problem that was not even their own. But then, they consider it theirs, because
you are their customer. And you are their customer, not only when you entered the
park but until you have gone safely home. This is so important to them, that
parking lots is an entire business vertical. That is what makes service great.
It is how you define the boundaries of responsibility.
To be able to give service to your
customers that you become the Gold Standard in their perception against which
they judge every other service provider, you need to monitor your ‘Moments of
Truth.’ I want to share with you one of
my favorite stories and the origin of the term, ‘Moment of Truth’. I quote from
“Jan Carlzon (born June 25,
1941) is a Swedish businessman. He is most noted for being Chief
Executive Officer of SAS Group from 1981–1994 At the time Jan
Carlzon took over the helm of SAS, the company was facing large financial
difficulties and losing $17 million per annum and had an international
reputation for always being late. A 1981 survey showed that SAS was ranked no.
14 of 17 airlines in Europe when it came to punctuality. Furthermore, the
company had a reputation for being a very centralized organization, where
decisions were hard to come by to the detriment of customers, shareholders, and
staff. He revolutionized the airline industry through an unrelenting focus on
customer service quality. Within one year of taking over, SAS had become the
most punctual airline in Europe and had started an ongoing training program
called Putting People First developed by Claus Møller of Time
Manager International (‘TMI’). The program was focused on delegating
responsibility away from management and allowing customer-facing staff to make
decisions to resolve any issues on the spot. Jan Carlzon said at the time:
“Problems are solved on the spot, as soon as they arise. No front-line
employee has to wait for a supervisor’s permission.” These changes
soon impacted the bottom-line as well and the company made a profit of $54
million in 1982.”
Ian Carlzon coined the phrase, ‘Moment
of Truth’, in relation to Customer Service and defined it as: that
moment when a customer or a potential customer comes into contact with any
aspect of your operation and has an opportunity to form an opinion.
This is a very clear definition
and shows how everyone in the organization is responsible for customer service.
It also underlines two things: that frontline staff must be empowered to take
decisions without fear to ensure that customers are satisfied and that means that
the system must not punish a wrong decision by a frontline staff, as long as it
was taken with the intention of satisfying a customer.
If you punish employees for taking
decisions, which in their opinion were right, then they will stop deciding and
send the customer from one person to another, which is what we see in most cases.
Empowerment means that the employee knows that as long as they take a decision
in the interest of pleasing a customer, the organization will stand behind them
and will support the decision, even if it was wrong and cost the company some
expense. This doesn’t mean that your manager will not sit with you to
understand why you did what you did and explore what else you could have done.
But he/she will not reprimand you. Instead you will be praised and officially
appreciated for keeping the customer first. Every employee must know this and must
act with this confidence. Otherwise frontline employees will cover their backs
and the customer will be given the royal merry-go-round ride.
To be able to monitor and control
Moments of Truth you must know where they occur, and you must be able to record
and measure them. If you know what that point of contact is and can control the
interaction such that the customer’s experience is positive, then you have a
winning operation. If you either don’t know what your Moments of Truth are or
where they occur or have no control over them, then you have a losing
operation. It is as simple as that. However, knowing Moments of Truth and
controlling them is a matter of rigorous measurement and documentation which
most organizations are unwilling to do and so they blunder along and create
dissatisfied customers and lose business and, in some cases, quite understandably,
go under. The most significant fact is that most Moments of Truth happen at the
periphery of the operation in places which are manned by the most junior, least
qualified and mostly ignored members of staff. They decide your fate. It is
your security guard, your receptionist, sales representative, bus driver, telephone
operator, webmaster, helpdesk, the state of your waiting areas, washrooms and
cafeteria, the person who delivers your product to the customer and many such
people, who give your customer or potential customer a taste of your customer
service. In many cases, these people may not even be on your official roles and
may be contract employees because you have outsourced these activities. Yet,
they are your face. The customer sees them as your representatives and their
interaction with the customer, decides your fate. The customer doesn’t ask the
frontline employee he is dealing with whether he is a direct employee or an
outsourced contractor. He doesn’t ask, he doesn’t care. So, pay close attention
to them, train them, value them, appreciate them, make them team members in spirit,
even if not in letter. If not, you, not they, will pay the price.
Great customer service is about
concern. It is about being genuinely concerned for the customer. It is about
pride in your own operation and your own identity; wanting to be the best. It
is about wanting to add value to people’s lives; about seeing value in serving.
It is about being a shrewd businessperson; recognizing who pays you and
ensuring that he/she is not just happy to do so but simply delighted that you
are there to serve them. Great customer service is the only guarantee for survival
and growth and the only insurance and hedge against bad times.
Customers don’t remember what you did. They remember how you made them feel. That is the key.
‘If you want to see
what someone values, see what they measure.’
Mikel Harry, Motorola, 6
Many years ago, in the 1970’s I remember seeing a Russian tractor. India used to have a bilateral trade agreement with the USSR by which we bought all kinds of goods from Russia and paid for them in Indian Rupees, whereby we were able to conserve our meagre foreign exchange. You can read more about that agreement here http://www.commonlii.org/in/other/treaties/INTSer/1953/16.html
Russia bought tea from us; huge quantities of rather poor-quality teas and supplied us with manufactured goods. This tractor was one such, representing perhaps ten years supply of the morning cuppa to a Russian farmer. What amazed me was its size. It was massive. Not merely big or huge, but massive. Later someone told me that these tractors were failures and people went back to buying the smaller and lighter, Massey-Ferguson tractors, even though they came from a place which was ideologically inferior to the Great Socialist Republic.
knew the answer but asked him why Massey-Ferguson tractors were considered
superior and why the Russian tractor had failed. And sure enough he said, ‘We
use tractors to plough in rice fields. A heavy tractor sinks into the soil and
even if it has the power to get out, it churns up the soil so much that it
spoils everything. Sometimes it gets stuck so badly that we have to yoke
bullocks to it to haul it out. Why buy a tractor if you still need bullocks?’
did some research into why Russian tractors were so heavy. Massive blocks of
steel. The answer I got was that Russian factories measured output by the
amount of steel consumed. If you were a factory manager and had to show high production
figures, you had to show that you were consuming a high tonnage of steel. There
are two ways to do that. Make lots of lighter tractors or fewer but much
heavier ones. Which is easier? You guessed it. And there you have, massive
tractors, that make the Production Reports look good. How do they work in the
field? Depends on the field. Maybe they worked fine in the Russian steppe,
ploughing to grow wheat or corn. But in India, in rice fields they failed. To
this day in some villages you can see a massive steel tractor gently rusting,
testimony to an age of mindless industrialization where progress was measured
You get what you
measure… so let us ask, “How do we measure human worth?”
we live in a world where dignity has quite wrongfully been linked to material
wealth. No matter how learned a man or woman may be, or how kind or truthful or
trustworthy, if they are not wealthy, they are treated with disdain. Net worth
has only one meaning. And I can’t think of a more dishonorable meaning; to
equate a person to the amount of money in his pocket. HNI; what if it meant
Person with the best character? Instead of Person with the most money, no
matter how he earned it and no matter what his character is like. Not to say
that all rich people are evil. They aren’t. I am talking about what we measure
which shows what we truly value. If we measured character, truthfulness,
kindness, compassion, courage, dignity, concern for the underprivileged, the
weak, elderly, poor, sick; then that is how we would define ourselves. High
Networth Individual would mean the kindest, most truthful, most compassionate,
most courageous person in that society. We wouldn’t glorify ostentation, waste,
self-centered consumption, cruelty, oppression. We would call Aristotle, ‘The
Great’, instead of Alexander, whose only claim to fame was that he left
Macedonia to rape, plunder and loot his way across a million square miles of
others’ homes and societies. Who we glorify and celebrate, tells a much bigger
story about who we are than about who they were.
what would the implications of living in such a society be on people’s
happiness and self-worth; real self-worth, not pretentions to it. I believe
this is something to think about.
we applied today’s standard of HNI – High Networth Individual, how would people
like Hillel and Shammai, Al Ghazali, Al Biruni, Ibn Sinna, Abu Hanifa, Ahmad
bin Hanbal, Jalauddin Rumi and so many sages and scholars of so many
traditions, look? How would you judge the Networth of Aristotle, Epictetus,
Plato, or even the prophets like Moses, Abraham, and perhaps most of all Jesus (Peace
be on them all) – about whom Muhammad (Peace be on him) said, “The sky was
his roof and the earth his bed.” Today he would probably be in a homeless
shelter after having been arrested from a park bench or pavement and taken
there by the police.
if we applied an ethical and moral standard to decide who was an HNI and who
wasn’t, how would Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, the various Middle
Eastern Potentates, and the many billionaires in different countries, look?
Especially if you consider the fact that the poorest countries in the world
today seem to have the highest number of billionaires. Many of them living in
high-rise palaces with their feet grounded in the misery and squalor of the
daily lives of the poor. Not ashamed, not troubled, not even giving it a second
thought as they go about trying to outdo each other in vulgar display of
wealth; not by competing in charity but in wastage and excess.
Rabbi Elazar said: The reward for charity is paid from Heaven only in accordance with the kindness and generosity included therein and in accordance with the effort and the consideration that went into the giving. It is not merely in accordance with the sum of money, as it is stated: “Sow to yourselves according to charity and reap according to kindness.
is very particular about preserving the dignity of the receiver so that he
doesn’t feel demeaned because he needs to accept charity. Islam says that the
one who receives, honors the one who gives because by giving the giver is
receiving reward from Allahﷻ
whereas the one receiving is only getting something material from another human
being. So, the giver gives and thanks the receiver for accepting it.
you want to know what someone values, see what they measure.’
is a wonderful story about the Regent of the Moghal Emperor Akbar, who came to
the throne at the age of ten and had a Regent who ruled in his name until he
came of age and who was his mentor, teaching him how to be King. His name was
Abdur Raheem and his title was Khan-e-Khanaan (The Khan of Khans – Chief of
Chiefs). He was a very learned man, a polymath, a scholar of Islam and known
for his great wisdom and sagacity.
day Abdur Raheem Khan-e-Khanaan was traveling from Delhi, the capital, to Agra.
Needless to say, he was preceded by his massive entourage and surrounded by his
escorting troops and personal bodyguard. On the way he saw a man standing at
the edge of the road with a glass bottle in his hand in which were a few drops
of water. The man would tilt the bottle until the few drops of water were at
the lip of the bottle, in danger of falling out, and would then straighten the
bottle so that they didn’t fall out. This he kept doing over and over. Abdur
Raheem ordered his carriage to stop and ordered his treasurer to give the man a
bag of gold coins. This was done.
evening, when he was in camp and his Durbar had been set up and he was
receiving petitions, his treasurer asked him, “Your Grace, why did you
give that man a bag of gold coins? Who was that man?”
Raheem Khan-e-Khanaan said, “I am surprised you are asking this question.
Didn’t you see what the man was saying?”
treasurer said, “Your Grace, all I saw was that the man was tilting the
bottle until the water in it almost flowed out, but he would save it at the
last moment and didn’t allow it to fall out. But what does that mean?”
Raheem said, “It means that the man was saying, “I have lost
everything except two drops of honor. And now even that is about to go.”
If he had come and begged me for charity, it would be at the expense of his
honor. So, I ordered you to give him the gold so that his honor is preserved,
and nobody knows that he received charity.
as we speak there is a raging debate about the abrogation of Article 370 in
Kashmir. On one side are those who claim that this is good for the people of
Kashmir who will now be able to sell their land and become wealthy. They say
that this will bring in much needed new business and tourism and thereby jobs
and boost the economy. Even those who normally walk the high talk of ethics and
morals supported the bill in Parliament on the plea that it was ‘good for the
people of Kashmir’. On the other side are those arguing that you can’t take
unilateral action without consulting the people, on the plea that it is good
for them? Why were the people themselves, whose welfare seems to be everyone’s
concern, not taken into confidence before taking the action of abrogating a
Sovereign Guarantee enshrined in nothing less than the Indian Constitution?
What is a Sovereign Guarantee? It is a guarantee given by the Nation. Not by the government in power at the time. But by the Nation, to fulfill whatever it was that was guaranteed. No matter if the government that gave the guarantee changes. The guarantee would still be valid and sacrosanct. Especially where it is enshrined in the Constitution, it is inviolate and inviolable. However, it looks like today we seem to have changed the meaning of Sovereign Guarantee. Does this mean that a Sovereign Guarantee can never be changed? No, it doesn’t. It means that it can’t be changed unilaterally. If the two parties in the guarantee mutually agree to change it, then it can be changed honorably. But both parties must be involved in the re-negotiation and must come to a new agreement. For one party to unilaterally change a Sovereign Guarantee is not honorable. Do we even know what honorable means today? After all, today our highest criterion for decision making seems to be political expediency.
am not against economic development. I am against giving it precedence over
honor, truthfulness and integrity. After all, if we do that, then what’s wrong
with drug dealing, stealing, bribing, human trafficking and a plethora of ways
to make money? It is only truthfulness, the sense of right and wrong, virtue
and sin that is the demarcating line between what is honorable and what is not.
Al Capone was an entrepreneur, wasn’t he? So is Bill Gates. Is there a
difference? Who would you like to be? If I break my word once, then what value
does my promise have in the future? It takes a lifetime to build trust but to
destroy it, all it takes is one instant. Take an expensive crystal vase and
drop it on a stone floor. As it shatters into a thousand pieces, you will
perhaps understand what I mean by keeping and breaking promises. Can it be put
back if you are able to collect all the pieces? Perhaps it can. But it will
never be the same. You will always be able to see the fault lines. Another
simple way to understand this is to ask yourself this question, “Who would I
rather deal with? A person who keeps his word or one who is liable to betray it
if it suits him?” A Sovereign Guarantee is not about the matter that you are
guaranteeing. It is about us as a Nation. It tells the world who we are. Or
more accurately about how we choose to define ourselves. The world merely
Mikel Harry said, ‘If you want to see what people value, see what they
measure.’ Let us ask ourselves, what do we measure? Not just pay lip service
to. But measure because we value it.
It was 1980. I was working in Guyana, in a small mining town on the River Berbice, called Kwakwani. I had saved up money to take my first holiday and planned to go to London. As I was going to pass through the United States, I thought it would be a good idea if I could stop by and visit some friends and see New York. But there was one problem. I applied for a visitor’s visa to the US but was refused. The Immigration Officer thought that as I was young, single, and unattached, I would stay on in the US illegally. So, sadly, I only transited in New York and went on to London. In 1982, when I decided to return to India though I would need to transit through New York and was dying to see the city, I did not even plan to apply for a visitor’s visa as I was sure I would be refused again for the same reason.
However, one weekend a few months before I was due
to leave, I went to visit my good friend Rev. Thurston Riehl who was the Vicar
of Christchurch Vicarage, the Anglican Church in Georgetown. He lived in a
lovely wooden bungalow in the Church compound with his wife Clarissa Riehl, who
was the Public Prosecutor in the High Court. Father Riehl told me that he had
invited a few people over that evening and one of them was the Deputy Consul
General of the United States, a man named Dennis Goodman. Father Riehl said
that he would recommend my case to Goodman to see if it would help. I agreed.
That evening when the introductions had been done, Father Riehl said, “Yawar is
going back to India and wants to see New York. He had applied for a visa in
1980 but was refused. Do you think there is a chance that he can get a visa
Goodman turned to me and asked, “What is the guarantee that you will not stay on illegally if we give you a visa. Please don’t be offended. This is a very common thing and something that the visa officer will need to be convinced about.”
“I give you my word that I will not stay on
illegally. More than that, I can’t do.” I said. Dennis Goodman simply looked at
me in silence and then said, “Please come and see me the next time you are in
So promptly the following week I went to the US
Consulate to see Mr. Goodman. Those were the days before the security
nightmares that you have to face today, and I was conducted straight away to
his office. He gave me an application form, and after I had filled it in, he
accompanied me to the Visa Section next door. There he asked me to wait at the
window and went behind the counter. The window had a glass panel and a mike
into which you had to speak.
As Dennis Goodman walked into the office, the lady
at the counter turned to talk to him and forgot to switch off her mike. So, I
was unwittingly privy to their conversation.
Goodman: “Can you please give him a visitor’s
visa? He is going back home and wants to see New York.”
“Hi Dennis, give me a second.” The lady checked
her records and said, “Did he tell you that his brother is already there? This
guy is not leaving once he lands in New York, believe me.”
Goodman: “He gave me his word that he will leave.”
“His word?? What on earth is that?? Don’t tell me
you believe him!!”
Goodman: “As a matter of fact, I do. So please
give him the visa. I will guarantee that he will not stay illegally.”
“Okay Sir, it’s your neck!!”
Then she turned back to the window where I was and
said to me, “Please come in the evening and collect your passport.” I thanked
her and left. Neither of them was aware that I’d heard their entire
I landed in America, stars in my eyes. I was given
a stay permit for three weeks. I was however not prepared for the reception
that I got. After the initial welcome, all my friends got after me to find a
job. I tried to tell them that I had not come to stay and that I was only
visiting on my way back to India. The conversations all went something like
“I have a friend who runs a restaurant and is
looking for help. You can start waiting at tables and then see where it takes
you. Nothing to worry. We all start the same way in this country but see where
we are today. Here they pay you by the hour. No way you can get that in India.”
“I haven’t come to stay. I am going back home. I
got my visa on the promise that I wouldn’t stay in America illegally. So, I am
not going to.”
Looks of incredulity. Where is this guy from? I
mean which planet? Promise? What is he talking about anyway? Let me ask.
“I promised the Consul General in Guyana that I
wouldn’t overstay my visa and wouldn’t remain in the US illegally.”
“Yeah! Tell me about it! We all did that. So, what
happened? Everyone knows, we are not doing anything illegal. We are just
hustling for a living. So, can you. Who cares?”
“Staying without a visa is illegal. Who cares? I
“You are just plain lazy. You don’t want to work
hard. Do you have a job in India? What will you do there? You will starve. Look
at so-and-so, see how he made a success. Started pumping gas. Now he owns the
gas station. So can you if you only work hard.”
“In India I will have to work harder. It is not
about hard work. It is about keeping my word. I promised Dennis Goodman that I
would not stay back. (I tell the whole story again). He told the consular
officer to give me a visa on his guarantee. How can I go back on my word?”
“Dennis Goodman is not watching you. He doesn’t
“Yes, you are right. He is not watching me. Dennis
Goodman doesn’t know. But I do.”
End of conversation. Nobody is convinced. Nobody
shows me any respect for standing by my principles. But it doesn’t matter to
me, because I couldn’t have done anything else. I don’t budge, because my word
is my bond. And I gave my word.
When I reached England, enroute to India, the first thing I did was to buy a postcard of Big Ben, stuck some nice British stamps on it and mailed it to Goodman saying, “This is proof that I have left the US as I had promised.” I never heard from him and don’t even know if he got the card. Postal services to Guyana were rather shaky at the time, but if he is still around and reads this, I want him to know that I remember his kindness and appreciated his belief in me. And I want him to know that I kept my word and did what I’d said I would. Maybe he can show this to the lady who’d said to him, “It’s your neck.” His neck was safe.
The world is round and what goes around, comes around. Today almost forty years later, I have been lecturing American diplomats at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and have lived and worked in America and traveled there many times. Every time I do, I think of Dennis. Very interestingly also, a dear friend, who heard this story, found Dennis on the net. I am hoping it is him and that I will be able to contact him, so that the story can have a proper end. Shows how the world is both a small and a big place.