Success is the biggest danger

Success is the biggest danger

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:

  1. 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 alternative?                                          

In my view, the alternative is to practice change even when there is no need for it.

Some organizations create think-tanks whose job is to conceptualize hypothetical threat situations and suggest solutions. 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 else.

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 thrilled. 

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 mistakes.

A third principle that I have always tried to follow is to actively seek feedback. And then to listen to it without defensiveness. No justification or argument with the person giving the feedback, always remembering that my intention is inside my heart. What 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 TGIF custom.

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 essential ingredients:

  1. It is big enough to make it worth your while to work for.
  2. 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.

See with ‘THEIR’ eyes

See with ‘THEIR’ eyes

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’.

Let me give you another example. A good friend sent me this video: Titled Mumbai Motorman, peeing in front of local train. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5lt4avsHsM

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 needs.

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?”

They: “Yes.”

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?”

“No.”

Me: Thinking: “Expressive lot!!” 

“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.

They: “Nobody.”

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.

They: “No.”

Me: Now I am twisting the knife: “So, you are telling me that you design trucks that you have never driven or ridden in?”

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 company.”

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 bad service.

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 see ourselves.

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.”

See with ‘their’ eyes

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.

It was 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.  

Then 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 honorable.

At 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.

That 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.

Customer Service? Who is she?

This is why it happens

 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 call.’

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 attitude.

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 of thing?

# 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?

You 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?

Here 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 Training class.

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 cars.

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 your flight.”

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.

So, 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.

LEAD: 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.

Accept responsibility: The 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.

Do something: Finally, 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.

Pre-empt problems: It 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 Wikipedia:

“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. 

Conclusion

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.

What’s your Worth?

What’s your Worth?

‘If you want to see what someone values, see what they measure.’

Mikel Harry, Motorola, 6 Sigma Quality

What does being human mean?

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.

I 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?’ Why indeed!

I 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 by weight.

You get what you measure… so let us ask, “How do we measure human worth?”

Today 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.

Ask, 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.

If 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.

Conversely 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.

Islam 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.

‘If you want to know what someone values, see what they measure.’

There 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.

One 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.

That 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?”

Abdur Raheem Khan-e-Khanaan said, “I am surprised you are asking this question. Didn’t you see what the man was saying?”

The 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?”

Abdur 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.

Today 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.

I 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 agrees.

As 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 this time?”

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 Georgetown.”

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 conversation.

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 this:

“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.

“What promise?”

“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 care.”

“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 even know.”

“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.

Try

Try

Judgement

by Anonymous

Before God’s footstool to confess 
A poor soul knelt, and bowed his head; 
“I failed,” he cried. The Master said, 
“Thou didst thy best—that is success!”

My house and my free flying Macaw in Guyana, 1980


It was December 1980. I was sitting on the veranda of my house in Guyana. It was about 9.00 pm, dark, balmy evening in the tropics. As usual on most days in this season, it had rained in the day and stopped. The air was heavy with moisture but the breeze, cool. Before me was the orange orchard of the Staff Hill, bounded on the far side by the forest. The rain-forest of Guyana. The evening had signed off to the night by the booming calls of the Howler monkeys who also announced the beginning of the new day. Scarlet Macaws flew to their roosts, talking to each other. I also heard the chatter of the Sakiwinki (Common Squirrel Monkey) families settling into their resting places. The forest was now relatively quiet, except for the singing of the Cicadas, whose song rose and fell in waves like those of the ocean. Sometimes they would fall totally silent, only to start again in the middle of my deep breath of relief, to remind me that the only way to live with Cicadas, as with some kinds of people was to get used to them. The forest is never totally silent because the forest is a living being. It has living beings in it, but it is itself a living unit which breathes, sings, groans and talks to those who know how to listen. The forest has its own language, which you need to learn, if you want to enjoy being in the forest. Otherwise the forest can be an alien, ominous, even threatening presence to those who don’t understand it.

I spent my whole life from the school days, to this, in forests. Not that I lived inside them but I lived near them and where I didn’t have forests near me, like now when I live in a huge, concrete labyrinth called a city; I make the effort to go to the forest at least once every quarter, simply to breathe. Otherwise I feel suffocated and start dying slowly, inside. The forest rejuvenates me, gives me new life, energizes me and enables me to go on for a while longer. So, that night I simply sat on my veranda and was one with the forest.

But where does the poem I began with, come into this story? You ask.

That night, I had finished a very long and protracted negotiation with the union, a marathon session over 72 hours, practically non-stop. But still at the end, we were waiting to see what the union would do. Accept or not. That is when I recalled this poem, which my very wise and dear friend and boss, Nick Adams had mentioned once. You will not be asked, ‘What happened?’ You will be asked, ‘What did you do?’ As someone said, ‘You don’t lose the race when you fall. You lose the race when you fail to rise.’ As long as you rise and keep running, you are in the race. But if you remain down, then you are out of the race. Who decides whether you rise or not?

We are brought up wrong. In many more ways than one. Let me give you an example. Someone told me a very tragic story about a highly successful Indian businessman in the US, who one day, shot himself, his wife and two children, obviously not in that order. When the case was analyzed, it turned out that he had fallen on hard times and though he had property which he could sell to settle his debts, he would have been reduced to penury and would have had to start all over again. He chose instead to end it all and killed his whole family as well. Someone commented on this story and said, “The problem is that he was taught how to deal with success, not with failure. We must learn how to deal with failure.” That may sound a bit like loser-talk; learn how to deal with failure? Think about it while I tell you another story.

This is about Thomas Edison, the great inventor and founder of General Electric. The story goes that one night Edison’s famous laboratory caught fire. It was housed in a separate building and before anyone was alerted and could do anything, the whole building and everything inside was a huge conflagration. Edison’s son, Thomas Alva Jr. said, “I was very anxious about my Dad and rushed to see where he was. This was his entire life’s work going up in flames and I was afraid that he would perhaps do something drastic at this tragedy. When I found him, he was standing with his hands folded behind his back, watching the fire. He saw me and said, “Go call your Mom. She is not going to see such a magnificent fire in a hurry.” Thomas Alva says, “I couldn’t help myself but ask him, “But Dad, that is your entire life’s work!” Thomas Edison replied, “Tell me, how many people have the chance to have all their mistakes erased at once? Now go and call your Mother.”

I said that we are brought up wrong because we are conditioned to seek outcomes and to not only feel sad, glad, bad, mad based on them but to judge ourselves on the basis of results. Now, don’t get me wrong. Especially those who know me and know how focused on results I myself, am. I am not against focusing on results, but on focusing on them to the exclusion of everything else. I submit that if you focus on the result alone, that can be detrimental to the result itself and so it is a self-defeating exercise.

What must I focus on, if not on the result? You ask.

Focus on the process. Focus on the way. Enjoy the effort. Monitor what you are doing and how you are doing it. Put metrics on the effort and as I said, enjoy it. The reality of life is that there are no final results. Every result is like a rest spot in a marathon. You can stop for a bit, while the rules of the game get changed. Then you run again. Not in the marathon; in life. The truth is that most of our life, we are going to be engaged in the process. Most of our time, all our effort and resources are going to be engaged on the way to get to our destination. If we don’t enjoy that, then we are going to be very miserable. But if we enjoy the journey, then we will live a very happy life. As for the destination, well, the right road will get you there, but only if you keep walking. So, Johnny Walker, keep walking.

In Guyana I lived in a small mining town called Kwakwani, which clung to the bank of the Berbice River, with the ever-present forest threatening to engulf it in an unwary moment. We generated our own electricity using a generator that had a huge flywheel to take care of providing energy for the engine after it delivers the power stroke. Look it up if you are interested in the role of the flywheel in power generation. My point however is different. The flywheel, for those who have never seen one, is a huge wheel with spokes. The one in Kwakwani had a diameter of 30 feet and was made of cast iron. It was a massive piece of machinery. We never allowed the engine to stop but on the annual maintenance day, when the engine had to be stopped for a few hours, the sight of the restarting was very amazing and instructive. To get the flywheel to start turning, it took a huge effort because it was so heavy. After applying all the effort, it would turn just slightly. Sometimes it would simply settle back in place, a heartbreaking thing to see for those who had bust a gut to get it to move. But you never gave up because you knew one thing and that was, that once it started turning, it would go on turning literally forever. If those trying to get the flywheel to move, focus on results, they will lose heart, because for the longest while there are no results, despite all your effort. But if they focus on the process, see if they are pushing hard enough, do whatever it takes to keep pushing, then the result is inevitable and then all they need to do is to stand by and watch it happen.

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

My most inspirational creatures in the wild are small birds. Birds which are so small that when they perch on a blade of grass, it doesn’t bend with their weight. These birds, their eggs and young, are prey and food for everything that eats meat. And they can’t do anything to defend themselves or to protect their young. Yet they thrive. How do they do that? They do it by focusing on the process.

The Bulbul, my teacher

Here is my conversation with one of them, who perched on a little twig right before me and my camera in Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka, with a neatly tied blade of grass in her beak. “How do you do it?” I asked.

“I am a bird. It is my job to build a nest and raise young. I do that job to the best of my ability. If in the process, my nest is destroyed, I simply start building again. If I build the nest and lay eggs but before they can hatch a tree snake, a rat, a monitor lizard or anything else finds my nest, then I escape and let the predator eat the eggs. I can’t help it. I can’t protect them. But once the predator has left, I build another nest and I lay some more eggs and I incubate them. It is heartbreaking when predators find my nest with my young in it. Once again, I must leave and watch my babies being eaten before my eyes. But then what do I do? I build another nest. I lay some more eggs and I raise some more babies. That is why in the end, I survive and my tribe increases.”

I am in my nest but you can’t see me

I ask you, ‘Have you ever seen a depressed Bulbul?’ I haven’t. They have no time for depression. They never give up. They know what they are supposed to do. They do it until they succeed. No matter how many times they fail in the process. No matter how long it takes. They keep at it until they succeed. And in the end, they always succeed.

I asked, “Is my job done?”

He answered, “If you are alive, it’s not.”

Leadership is a Personal Choice – Podcast

Leadership is a Personal Choice – Podcast

#LeadershipisaPersonalChoice

This is my legacy to those who wish to take it

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/leadership-is-a-personal-choice/id1473306732?i=1000445726516

This is a new initiative that I started this week. Leadership is a Personal Choice. It will be available on Google Podcasts (Android) also. Please listen to the introduction first which tells you what this is all about and what I am trying to persuade you to do. Then listen to the first episode, Differentiate. This and more to come, are the essence and extract of my own experience as a Leadership Development expert, gained over 35 years, on 3 continents, working with people of multiple races, religions, communities and nationalities.

This is my tribute to all those who contributed to my growth, all those who taught me life lessons and gave me opportunities to prove myself. All those who challenged me, stood by me, refused to accept anything but the best and who appreciated what I did. What I do today is because of what they did for me. Some of them have passed on. Others are still in my life and I thank Allahﷻ for both. They are too many for me to name and some wouldn’t like to be named. But I salute every one of them and they live in my heart.

I want to share this with you free and I hope you will benefit. Some people told me that I am giving away my capital (because for a Leadership Consultant ideas are billable capital). I said that I would rather give it away than take it to my grave. I don’t know anyone on the other side who needs this.

So, please listen and enjoy this. And if you like it, please share with others and please let us know. All the very best to you.