I started my consulting and training business as a full-time activity in 1994 in Bangalore and in a period of three years, I had almost every one of the major multinationals in India as my clients. I became known for my work and as one of my clients said to me, ‘Yawar, you are a brand.’ I worked hard to maintain my brand, so it was good to get this affirmation. What I realized, however, was that I needed Western (read American) work experience to create an edge over my competition. The entry of multinational companies in India created a rash of ‘trainers. I was one of them. That was not good enough for me. I always believed that the way to work is to become the logical choice for your client. Differentiate so that when a potential client needs what you do, he has no alternative. Over-deliver on quality so that you can charge a premium which people will not only be happy to pay but will quote your name as their hallmark and say, ‘We have Yawar Baig consulting for us.’ That means a lot of hard work, being ruthless with yourself, holding yourself to a standard that no client will ever ask for, and remembering that nobody ever knows the best that they can do. So, to keep trying to excel your results. You don’t produce quality because it is about you. Not about anyone else. It is your face, your signature. I have held myself to this standard all my life and don’t regret a single second of it. I would not have it any other way.
My breakthrough was when I was invited by my dear friend Pratik Roy who was Head of Training at GE India to teach some modules of the GE – LC (Leadership Course, which was later renamed LE, Leadership Essentials) in 1996 in Goa. I was delighted. To be invited to teach a GE Crotonville course was a great opportunity and thus began my association with Crotonville, which I cherish. In addition to people from GE India, the course had participants from GE operations in China, Korea, and Singapore. At the end of the course, the Chinese participants came to me and said, “We have given you a title, in Mandarin which means ‘Wise Person’.” They told me that this was a Chinese custom to honor a teacher. I was greatly honored and deeply appreciated this gesture.
Carla Fisher, who was the anchor for the course, suggested that I get qualified in the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) and offered to sponsor me. When I got qualified, Carla very generously gave me a lovely set of OHP slides that she made, to teach the MBTI. I still have them after all these years.
During this course a critical incident happened for me which was a marker in my career as an entrepreneur.
The key person in this incident was Bonnie McIvor. Bonnie was Head of Training for Asia and had flown in from Hong Kong for this course. As I mentioned, I had just launched my career as an independent trainer/leadership consultant (at that time it was 99% hope). Getting this chance to teach a GE Crotonville course was a great opportunity and a test which I was very anxious to do well. Bonnie was auditing the course. About midway into the course, she asked for a meeting with me. I was terrified because I thought I had done something wrong. Why else would the GE head of training want to meet me in the middle of a training course?
Anyway, we met over coffee, and she said to me, “I have two questions to ask you. One, would you like to go to Crotonville to audit the NMDC (New Manager’s Development Course) and get certified to teach it globally?” The NMDC is a GE Global course targeted at first-time managers. More about it later, but it is a very prestigious course that people consider a feather in the cap and an essential career requirement to attend. I was being invited to be certified to teach that course after auditing it.
I replied, “Would I like to go to heaven when I die?” She laughed and said, “Okay that is settled. I will put that in motion. Second question, would you like to work for GE?” To say that I was shocked would be an understatement. Not in my wildest dream would I have imagined that I would be offered a job with GE by the Head of Training.
But I was not sure about whether to accept this offer or not. Not because (apology to Shakespeare) I loved the idea of working for GE less but because I loved the idea of being an entrepreneur, more. I was a very hungry entrepreneur at that time, but I was my own boss with the independence to starve to death if I wished without writing an application letter and waiting for permission from anyone else. So, I hesitated and remained silent. Bonnie saw this right away and said, “Let’s do this. If you like, allow me to interview you for GE. I will do a real interview as I would for anyone who had applied for a job in training. You have not applied. I am suggesting this after seeing you work here. So that’s a positive for you. Let me do the interview and then we can decide.” I agreed. After all, what did I have to lose? And being interviewed by a GE leader is a feather in the cap anyway.
We did the interview the next day. Bonnie insisted that was necessary for both of us to make it real. I was very nervous. At the end of about 90 minutes, Bonnie said to me, “Okay Yawar. As far as I am concerned you are hired. If you accept, I will send you the formal offer letter and you are in. What do you say?” I asked for some time to think, and we agreed to meet after class that evening for some more coffee.
At that meeting I said to her, “Bonnie, I am most grateful to you for interviewing me and even more for selecting me and offering me a job in GE. But I must respectfully decline.” She asked me why?
I said to her, “I have just started out as an entrepreneur and want to give it a real try. I am hungry and struggling. I need the money very badly. I have no contacts or network. I literally don’t know if I will have money to pay my rent next month. But I love it. I love the independence. I love meeting so many different people, companies, and the different challenges. I love the learning which can only come thanks to the diversity of experience that my independence gives me. In GE, I will only teach Crotonville courses in or outside Crotonville. I will only meet GE people, listen to GE leaders, talk GE jargon, and be surrounded by GE. I love GE people and live by GE values and speak GE language to the extent that when I am running a GE training course people ask me which GE business I am from. But there is nothing new that will happen to me in GE. While being independent, I find excitement, newness, challenges, risk, and literally danger and I love it.”
Every time I think of my journey of entrepreneurship, I realize that I didn’t become an entrepreneur when I launched my company in 1994, but when I answered Bonnie McIvor’s question about why I was not accepting her brilliant offer of a job in GE. That was the critical incident which decided my destiny. And I thank Bonnie for being the catalyst who made it happen. If she had not interviewed me and made the alternative – going back to work for a corporate entity and in this case, one of the biggest and best in the world at the time – so real, I would not have been able to get the clarity I did get, about the value of entrepreneurship. And I would not have been able to make such a clear choice. It is choices which make or break our careers and lives. Until we make the choice nothing happens. But when we choose, one door opens and another one shuts. For me the door to building a global practice, traveling all over the world and friendships with people from diverse backgrounds, races, cultures, and nationalities, opened with that interview.
Bonnie looked at me and said, “You didn’t disappoint me. If you had accepted my offer, I would have been delighted but disappointed. I expected to hear from you what you said but was afraid that maybe the glamour of a GE job, especially at this stage of your life, would tempt you. I am very glad it didn’t. I think you will be hugely successful as a leadership consultant. I wish you all the very best and see you in Crotonville for the NMDC audit.”
I did the audit and joined GE’s Global Leadership Development Team at Crotonville as an external consultant, not a GE employee. In the 90’s GE had one of the best teams of leadership trainers and a culture that supported leadership education totally, from the Chairman, Jack Welch downwards. To be a member of that team meant exposure to GE’s global culture and uncompromising quality standards and as a result benefit from the ‘Brand’ of being a GE Crotonville trainer. The really valuable things in life can’t be bought. They must be earned. This was one of those. I am very conscious of and grateful for the series of circumstances that enabled me to get there, and Pratik Roy, Bonnie McIvor and Carla Fisher were instrumental in opening that door for me. To all of them, I acknowledge my debt of gratitude.
I remained in contact with Bonnie for many years and did a lot of work for her in India and Singapore. She later moved to Unilever as their head of training in the UK and on one of our trips to London, my wife and I had lunch with her in Blackburn where her office was located. Years passed and somehow, I lost touch with Bonnie. In 2019 when we moved to America, I tried to find Bonnie McIvor once again only to learn that she had passed away. She was a wonderful human being, and it was my pleasure and privilege to call her my friend.
And so, in January 1997, I went to Otto Kroeger Associates in Fairfax, Virginia to qualify as an MBTI Trainer. After that I went to Crotonville to be certified in the NMDC and was admitted to Crotonville’s Faculty of Global Trainers certified to teach NMDC, LC/LE and CELC (Corporate Entry Leadership Course), worldwide and co-taught an NMDC in Atlanta (Peach Tree Resort) with Carla and six other trainers. GE India also took two of my courses, ‘Managers as Leaders’ and ‘PDC (Professional Development Course)’ and ran them for many years as Best Practice Courses in several GE companies. I am, to the best of my knowledge, the only Indian ‘outsider’ to be certified as a Crotonville Trainer. I have always maintained that success doesn’t only come from opportunities that happen to come your way; it also comes from opportunities which you create for yourself. And that has a whole lot to do with the determination to do what it takes, putting in the time and effort and making investments in yourself. I don’t like the word ‘sacrifice’ when applied to self-development. I prefer ‘investment’ because it is closer to the truth and is sustainable. Sacrifice is what the Tandoori chicken does for you. Sacrifice is net loss and has an end. Investment on the other hand has a return that continues forever and encourages further investment. Looking at life decisions as investments empowers change.
When Carla suggested that I get certified in MBTI and that GE would pay all costs but would not pay me a fee, I agreed immediately. It was not an easy decision. In 1994 I had just started my consulting business with Rs. 3000 in my pocket. So, to leave and go off on a jaunt for four weeks meant no income for that period. But I knew that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I was being invited at GE’s expense to get a qualification that would benefit me as a trainer, whether I worked in GE or not. In addition I was being offered the opportunity to audit and be certified to teach a course (NMDC) which was a Core Course in GE and a required qualification for all GE Managers. I was being invited to be on the faculty of a corporate university that GE employees (and others who know) consider a privilege to study at. I agreed because for me it was not only free learning and accreditation but something which was absolutely unique which I couldn’t get even if I paid for it. How could I refuse? Carla was offering me a lifetime opportunity and I decided in an instant. A decision I have never regretted.
GE Crotonville is GE’s Corporate University with an annual budget of over $ 1 billion and is perhaps the most prestigious corporate training university in America and is not open to the public. You can’t apply for admission to it. Certainly not to its faculty. But here I had been offered the opportunity to be on their faculty provided I was prepared to invest my time in being trained and certified. GE applied for my visa and made all my travel arrangements. I would travel to Washington to be certified in MBTI at Otto Kroeger Associates in Fairfax, Virginia, then to New York to attend the NMDC at Crotonville and get certified to teach it; then to Atlanta to teach my first NMDC at the Peach Tree Resorts. The trip would be my first to America for work. I had been there before as a tourist but had never worked there. I prepared for the trip to ensure that I made the most of it. Once I was there, I took extensive notes of my experience and what I learnt, all of which proved very useful in my later move to the US to live there as well as for teaching both entrepreneurship and cross-cultural understanding. I had my eyes wide open and was very keen to learn as much as I could, and I did.
So late one night in December, I took a Delta flight from Delhi to Washington to go on to Otto Kroeger Associates in Fairfax. At Dulles, I rented a car from Avis and drove to the hotel I was booked into for the night. I was using my International Driver’s License as I didn’t have an American license. This was also my first time driving on the right side of the road which in India is the ‘wrong’ side. As we say, ‘Left is right, and right is wrong.’ I managed to drive alright and felt very proud that I could find the hotel using a map. Long time still for our GPS navigators to arrive on the scene. Next morning was beautiful – bright and sunny. In my enthusiasm to breathe fresh air, I went down to the lobby and stepped out into the parking lot and to my intense surprise and consternation both my feet left the ground, and I slammed down on the tarmac like a ton of bricks. That was ‘black ice’, and I had my first experience of it. Black ice happens when there is light rain followed by a freeze. The water turns to ice, and it is transparent like glass, and you can see the black tarmac through it. Looks like everything is fine until you put your foot on it and slide out of control. Can also happen when you drive and hit a patch of black ice on the road, which can be lethal. Mercifully, for me, the surprise of it was such that I simply fell in a heap and didn’t try to break my fall by stretching out my arm, which is how most arm fractures happen. So apart from a bruised ego, I was intact and learnt a very useful lesson about the American winter – it is lovely and bright and potentially lethal. Unlike Britain where it is dull and grey and looks nasty.
Later that morning I drove to Fairfax, VA to Otto Kroeger for the week-long certification program for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It was a great course, very well taught and I made some lovely friends. One was a gentleman who worked for the City Council of Greensboro, North Carolina. I asked him what there was in his city, and he told me, ‘Lots of Christians.’ We both had a big laugh and became good friends over the week in Otto Kroeger. He invited me to visit him, and I drove down and stayed with him and his wife overnight. The drive is about 5 hours, and the road takes a winding path along the mountaintops of the Blue Ridge Mountains east of the Shenandoah River.
Staying in an American home was a new experience. Out of the conversation we had what stays with me is something that is so distinctive of our different cultures – Indian and American. We were at the table having dinner when their eighteen-year-old daughter came in. She was with some friends, and they were all planning to sleep over in the basement. After some pleasantries she left. Her father said to me, ‘We are worried about her.’
‘Worried, why?’ I asked.
‘She is eighteen but not showing any signs of leaving home,’ he said. His wife nodded in agreement.
I had to grab my jaw to stop it from hitting the floor. A father and mother worried that their eighteen-year-old daughter was still home? In my country they would have had a joint heart attack if their eighteen-year-old daughter even mentioned wanting to leave home. Such are the issues of cross-cultural differences and the reason it is so important to learn about other cultures in a non-judgmental way. Later I was to design and teach a very successful course on cross cultural understanding for Americans working with Indians in India or America and this story was a great illustration of the differences. In hindsight I reflect that someone must have been listening at that time because 3 years later were born the Millennials who never want to leave home.
On my return from Greensboro, I took a Delta flight from Washington to New York to attend the NMDC course. As I stood by the luggage carousel at JFK waiting for my bags my education began. My bag, a soft top suitcase, came along and I noticed that the zipper pocket on the top lid was open. I thought that was strange, so I put my hand inside and it went all the way inside the bag. Someone had slit the bag after opening the zipper and tried to get into the bag. I took the bag to the Delta Damaged Luggage counter and registered a complaint. I explained to them that I was going to Crotonville and then to Atlanta and since my bag was badly damaged, I couldn’t travel with it and needed a new bag. Whoever slit the bag had also slit a suit hanger which was on the inside lid and my new business suit jacket was badly damaged. So, I also needed to have that replaced. The Delta people registered my complaint and promised to deal with it the next day. They gave me a number to call to check on updates. All good so far.
I went through to the waiting area and found a chauffeur with a placard with my name. I was delightfully surprised that this was happening in America and New York of all places. I was to learn that this was standard for GE, a part of their core values of how to treat people of knowledge. The chauffeur took my luggage out to the waiting limousine, and we headed for White Plains where Crotonville is located. A couple of hours later as we neared Crotonville, he called the Front Desk on his car phone and when we pulled up to the porch, a young lady was waiting for me at the foot of the stairs leading to the Reception. Registration took all of two minutes. Then she ushered me to my room and said to me, ‘Mr. Baig, the telephone is an international line for your use. Please feel free to call anywhere in the world. The refrigerator has drinks and snacks with our complements. Please make yourself at home.’ Free international phone? Guess how many calls I made! One, to tell my wife that I had arrived safely. Lesson in trusting people.
The room was huge. My discovery about America; everything is king size; portions of food, hotel rooms, roads, cars. Everything except airline seats. Next morning after breakfast the course started. Carla was my contact and was in charge of me. She would escort me to class and then to the dining hall for lunch and then back to class and back to the hotel. After the first day I said to her, ‘Carla you need not take the trouble to walk me everywhere. I am sure I can find my way and you have better things to do.’ She said to me, ‘Yawar, it is a pleasure but even if it wasn’t, I would still have to do it because in GE we value people of knowledge. It is one of our Core Values.’ Talk about the power of living values. My entire Crotonville experience was a demonstration that GE people lived their values without exception.
In America and especially in American institutions, eating Halaal is always an issue. So also, in Crotonville. Carla took me to the dining room and told me that it had recently been refurbished at a cost of $2 million. It was magnificent. Why do you need a magnificent dining hall in a training college? That was once again GE living its values. Quality is what your customer experiences, not what you have written in your ‘Quality Statement.’ In this case the ‘customers’ were GE managers who came to Crotonville for different courses, who were expected to implement quality processes in their businesses across the world. What better way to learn than by experiencing quality in every aspect of life in Crotonville? We walked into the dining room and were ushered to a table by the Maître and then went to the very elaborate buffet to get our food. To my dismay I found that there was nothing that I could eat. Everything either had pork in it or was not Halaal and so I simply picked up a small tub of yogurt and another of ice cream and returned to the table. Carla was aghast and after I explained my predicament to her, she called the Maître and asked if they could make a purely vegetarian tossed salad for me with a vinaigrette dressing. That sounded safe enough. After all, I told myself, elephants do pretty well on a purely vegetarian diet and so should I. In due course the salad came, and I picked up my fork to fill the vast emptiness inside me but as I was about to start eating Carla held my wrist and said, ‘Wait a minute.’ Then she called the Maître and asked him, ‘Are those rashers of bacon on the salad?’ The man was surprised at the question, ‘Of course Madam. That is only garnishing. There’s no meat in the salad. It is purely vegetarian.’ So that was the end of my lunch. Later they fixed this and created a menu especially for me.
Next day Jack Welch was expected to address the NMDC class. GE takes its training very seriously and senior management all the way to the Chairman himself participate wholeheartedly in it. That is why GE is perhaps the only company in my more than forty years of training experience where every course starts absolutely on time and there are no absentees. That day, at about 10 AM we heard the heavy thump of helicopter rotors and a twin rotor helicopter landed on the helipad and a limousine went to pick up the Chairman, Mr. Welch. He came into the classroom complex carrying his briefcase in one hand and his coat in another. He hung up his coat and then knocked on the door to be permitted to enter the class. All this was very new to me, coming from my Indian cultural heritage where the chairman of even a small company would never carry his own bag or come unescorted to a class. That is if he came to any class at all. But GE and America are different, as I discovered. No fuss seemed to be the rule. But that didn’t mean that there was any laxity in standards or seriousness. I asked Carla where Mr. Welch stayed when he visited Crotonville. Was there a Chairman’s guest house or a Chairman’s Suite in the hotel? She sounded surprised and said, ‘He stays in the same hotel where you are staying in any room that is available. All our rooms are Chairman standard,’ she smiled.
The NMDC is an intense, five-day course. Usually the class size is large, sometimes over a hundred, drawing from all the GE businesses. There are two very interesting features in this course. The large group is divided into teams which work together for the duration of the course. These teams are given a project on which all of them work. On the last day, they make presentations about their recommendations to a group of senior managers who come in especially to listen to these presentations. As I mentioned, GE takes training very seriously and they have the results to show for it. The second feature of the NMDC is that throughout the week, delegates from each GE business in the course, make presentations about their business to the large group, thereby enabling sharing of information and bonding at the group level. This is a very valuable exercise and results in creating cross-business and cross-country networks, which is one of the objectives of the NMDC. The atmosphere of the whole course is informal and friendly but also very serious and results oriented. One team learnt this lesson the hard way during the course I was team-teaching in Atlanta. The project presentation they made was very superficial and it was obvious that they had not really put in much effort. As they were making the presentation and were about halfway through it, one of the three senior managers listening to their presentation stopped them in mid-sentence and said, ‘I suggest you go back and work on this thing. We don’t want to waste our time listening to this. Please remember that just because we don’t wear business suits to work, it doesn’t mean that we are not serious.’ It was harsh but the lesson was well learnt.
While all this was going on at Crotonville, I was awaiting Delta’s call about my bag. As the days passed, I was getting more and more anxious because I had to fly to Atlanta and didn’t want to do that with a bag bound together with duct tape. But they didn’t call and were very unresponsive when I called, which given my schedule was tough to do during working hours. No mobile phones those days and getting to my room to call Delta and struggle through the ‘press this number, press that number’ routine to eventually get to someone who was trying to palm me off to someone else, was distinctly unpleasant and very aggravating. I called them every day with the same result. Eventually came the day that I was to leave for Atlanta and so I taped up my bag and went to the airport. At the check-in counter I spoke to the supervisor who said to me, ‘I am sorry we couldn’t do anything here, but don’t worry, Atlanta is our hub. They will take care of this there.’
I believed her. When I landed in Atlanta, I went to the baggage reclaim counter and showed them my acknowledgement form and told the person at the desk, ‘Your people in New York said that you would take care of this here.’
To my astonishment, the man said, ‘I am sorry, they made a mistake. They should have taken care of this in New York itself. We can’t do anything here. You will have to talk to them when you get back to New York on your way back to India.’
I’d had enough. I said to him, ‘Mister, take a good look at me. What do you see? You see an Indian guy. Why is that important? Because we invented stonewalling which is what you are trying to do to me here. I can give you a three-day course on how to stonewall effectively. So don’t even try it with me. If you don’t give me a replacement bag immediately, I am going to sit here in the middle of this hall and tell the world about you and your treatment of poor unsuspecting passengers, until you do. Your choice.’
I guess the guy had never seen anything like this. He immediately went on the defensive. ‘I am sorry Sir. Please wait a minute.’
He rushed into a room behind his counter and brought out a brand new American Tourister hard top bag and asked me, ‘Sir, will this do?’
I said, ‘Yes it will. Thank you very much.’
‘I will have to keep your old bag here Sir,’ he said.
‘You are most welcome. Now what about my suit?’ I asked.
‘Do you have a receipt for it Sir?’ he asked me.
‘Do you have a receipt for the suit you are wearing?’ I asked him. ‘You should be very suspicious if I did have a receipt. How many people do you know who carry the receipts for their clothes with them? I bought the suit in London and in US dollars it cost me the equivalent of $250. Take my word for it or not. Your choice.’
The guy was doing quite well making his own choices, so I let him have another choice to make. And he made it. He made out a cheque to the amount and repeated his line, ‘I will have to keep the suit Sir.’ And I repeated mine, ‘You are most welcome. What will I do with a ripped suit anyway?’
When I returned from this trip I did a lot of work for GE, all over the country. GE had trained and certified me and were determined to get their return. That suited me just fine and I worked 25 days a month for months on end. It was at this time that I was invited by GE Medical Systems to design a course that would fit between the LC and the NMDC and I designed a course which we called PDC (Professional Development Course) which was so successful that not only did I train several hundred GE staff, but the course was also taught as a Best Practice Course all over GE India. We used to do this course as an offsite in a lovely resort outside Bangalore called Green Valley and became a permanent fixture there month after month.
In addition to working for GE, I did a lot of work for Motorola, IBM, Microsoft, AT&T, and others, all of which did a lot of good to build my client base. Once the ball started rolling, I started getting more and more business. I kept my focus on quality as my signature which resulted in the best kind of publicity – customer referrals. It is a matter of pride for me that I have never advertised my work. All my new clients are referrals by old clients or invitations to teach by people who I had taught at GE, Motorola and so on.
I kept my focus on documenting all my work and learning, which some years later became the foundation for several books. I believe that for consultants the two things which are most important are demonstrable self-development and articles and books. If you can demonstrate that you pay and work for your own development and if you publish regularly, it is a competitive advantage, and you stand out from your competition. The joy of entrepreneurship is that it puts your development in your own hands.