I am going on a long journey and want to remind myself and you of the three critical lessons that I learnt from my life. I call them my Three Fundamental Laws. I hope they will help you as they helped me all my life.
No. 1: Be Number One
Not Number Two. Number One. I can’t do better than to quote the best speech that I have ever heard in this context; “What it takes to be Number One”, by Vince Lombardi of Green Bay Packers. I quote selectively from his speech, “Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all of the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing. And in truth, I’ve never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn’t appreciate the grind, the discipline. I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour — his greatest fulfillment to all he holds dear — is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.” – Coach Vincent T. Lombardi
Being Number One starts with the desire to be Number One. A burning passion that will not be quelled. It is not liking, it is not an interest, it is not a preference. It is total and complete passion. The single biggest and most critical requirement of success is the desire to be the best. No matter what you may do – if you want to succeed, you need to be passionate about what you do and want to be the best at it. This is something that I have been aware of all my life. I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did.
This comes from an underlying drive. To be the best. To stand out. Never to blend in. To create standards that others can aspire to. This is what has always driven me. It is something that comes from inside you. It has nothing to do with anyone else, human or circumstance, driving you from outside. This is the fire in the belly that people talk about. I have been conscious of this from my earliest childhood. I always wanted to do what nobody else would do. That is what passion is all about.
Sometimes people say, “We must teach our children how to fail.” I say that is the most stupid statement ever made. Or, since so much of stupidity is spoken today, that is one of the most stupid statements ever made. Teach them how to fail? Who would want to teach his child how to fail? Teach them how not to fail. Teach them what to do with failure, if they fail despite their best effort. Teach them to treat failure like a college year. Take ownership for their failure instead of blaming others, face the brutal facts instead of being in denial, recognize what caused them to fail and chart out a new strategy of success, instead of falling into depression. That is what you teach. Not ‘how to fail’, for God’s sake!! Get real.
It is mediocrity that one must fear. Not failure. Failure is a kick in the backside. Eminently beneficial and most necessary from time to time even for the best of us. Nothing beats a kick in the backside to wake you up. There is an Arab saying, ‘The blow that doesn’t break your back only makes you stronger.’ The failure that doesn’t annihilate you (I have yet to see one that does), only makes you stronger and wiser. But what we must fear, what must terrify us, is mediocrity. That is because it masquerades as success. It is insidious, it is tempting, it is seductive. It tells you to believe that good enough is good enough; even when you know that good enough is never good enough. You learn this lesson most effectively in the wild places on this earth.
Have you ever seen a Langur sentinel? Or a Bar-headed Goose sentinel? All around it are feasting, there is no sign of danger, but the sentinel never relaxes. It doesn’t feed even though it is starving. It doesn’t feed when others are eating up all the food. It knows that it is precisely when everything seems completely safe, that the greatest danger lurks. When there is no sign of approaching danger, it only means that the leopard’s camouflage is particularly effective and so the sentinel must peel his eyes even more and be even more wary of danger. In the wild you learn fast because the price of failure to learn is death. In our offices, homes, schools, parliaments, governments and industry, we are lulled into complacency. Since we don’t face physical death, we relax. We are surrounded by those who will sympathize with us and tell us that we must have time to relax, to ‘enjoy’ life, to be ‘free from stress’. And we believe them. The result is mediocrity. I repeat myself, ‘Fear mediocrity because it pretends to be excellence.’ It isn’t. It is the worst failure because it will keep you sedated, intoxicated and comfortable until the end when you realize what you have done with your life but then it will be too late to change. For the passionate person, his passion is fun, relaxation and enjoyment. It excites him so he is never stressed because of it. The passionate person doesn’t have a bumper sticker saying, ‘I would rather be golfing.’ Passionate people would never rather be doing anything other than their passion. They love what they do, and they love doing it.
Remember the ‘Parable of the Boiled Frog’.
Take a frog and put it into a pot of hot water. What will it do? It will leap out. But take the same frog and put it into a pot of water at room temperature. Then when the frog has settled down, light a fire under the pot and gently heat the pot. As the water gets gradually hotter, the frog gets used to it. Frogs are cold blooded animals. So, as the water gets hotter, the frog’s muscles relax, it gets somnolent and flaccid. Until the time comes when the water is now dangerously hot. The frog realizes that it is cooking, but by then its ability to react is finished. Though it knows that it is doomed, it can’t do anything to avert the doom. What killed the frog? Complacency, mediocrity, ‘good enough’. Beware of mediocrity. Don’t listen to those who try to comfort you. Seek out those who will tell you (if you don’t already know) the stark, hard and painful facts about what you said or did or what you didn’t that led to your failure. They are your friends. Your real friends. The pain you will feel, listening to them is the pain you feel in the gym pumping iron. But you still do it because you know that it is making you stronger. Appreciate such people. Don’t argue with them. Don’t justify your words or actions. Shut up and listen to them. Take in what they said and change yourself. One day you will bless them. If not, one day you will curse yourself. The choice is yours.
No. 2: Be Focused
Once again back to nature. See how an eagle hunts. See how a lioness locks onto her quarry in a huge herd of galloping Wildebeest. See how a leopard stalks his prey. One thing you will see in all of them is the ability to ignore fluff. An eagle that tries to catch two rabbits will lose both. The lioness doesn’t get distracted by the fact that there are many others like the one she locked on, just as juicy and tasty. But she ignores them all and focuses on the one she picked. She does that because she knows that if she loses that focus, she will lose her quarry and everything else also. She knows this because she learned that lesson in a very hard school. Only one in seven or eight of a lion’s hunts in successful. The rest of the time, she starves. Nothing like starvation to teach life lessons, to lions and humans.
Focus is the art of ignoring fluff. However, you can’t have focus unless you know what you want. The lion focuses on the prey which he first selects. The goal is clear and so he can focus. That is why you must first clarify your goal. Write it out in one line. If it can’t be written in one line, it is not clear. It must be written in one line and in language that a ten-year-old can understand without explanation. That is the test of clarity. Having written it, one more test to see if it is the right goal. And that is to ask yourself, ‘What happens to me when I read my goal statement?’ Do you get tears in your eyes? Does your heartbeat increase? Do you start breathing faster? Remember, what can’t make you cry, can’t make you work. Your goal should be so clear and so dear to you that you should taste it in your mouth, you should breathe its fragrance, you should hear its call, you should dream its fulfillment and you should consider anything at all that you do to achieve it, a privilege and honor. Forget, delete, remove and eliminate the word ‘sacrifice’ from your vocabulary. There is no such thing. Sacrifice is what happens when the chicken dies for you to have Tandoori Chicken. Everything else has a return. The clearer the return on your investment is to you, the happier you will be, making that investment. So, replace sacrifice with investment. And then invest in yourself. Invest in your goal.
Focus also means making choices, sometimes very painfully. When I started my training and consulting business in Bangalore in 1994, there were two major choices before me. I could be in training and/or recruitment (called rather appropriately, head-hunting). I could have been in both. Many people advised me to do that, because recruitment was highly lucrative. But I chose not to be in both. I chose training and in that, I chose leadership development.
The result was that I was seen as a highly trusted ‘friend’ and not a potential head-hunter. And I earned a name as an expert in Leadership Development Training. So, whereas all recruitment consultants had a tough time meeting CEOs and decision makers, I was invited to meet them, often to be consulted on matters of their personal development. I became a defacto coach to many promoters and CEOs for which I never charged a fee, but which paid off in many other ways. More than anything else and most valuable was the fact that I was seen as their mentor and got an insider’s view on entrepreneurial dilemmas and decision making. Decades later that resulted in my books, ‘The Business of Family Business’ and ‘An Entrepreneur’s Diary’. This happened because I announced openly that I was not in recruitment and even on the rare occasion that I recommended a friend to another friend in another company, I never charged a fee, which they would otherwise have paid to a recruitment consultant. That is how I got a reputation that I was trustworthy and whereas head-hunters wouldn’t be allowed past the reception area, I had total access to anyone I wanted.
Another thing that helped me to build a reputation of trustworthiness was my commitment to integrity. For one thing I never used copyrighted material without license. This was and continues to be a major problem in India where people simply photocopy and use psychometric and other instruments to avoid paying for them. Since they do it internally in their organizations and with the collusion of whichever consultant is working for them, they get away. I refused to do this, ever. One serious test of my commitment was when in my early days, when I was struggling for business and needed the money, the HR head of a major IT company invited me to design and conduct a leadership training program for a very large number of their junior and middle managers. This course included administering the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to the participants and helping them see how their preference affected their behavior at work and elsewhere. GE had sent me for this certification to Otto Kroeger Associates, in Fairfax, VA in 1995 and I was, at that time one of the very few Indian consultants with this certification. The publishers of the instrument would sell the instrument only to a registered analyst and so any client who wanted to use the instrument had to go through a certified analyst. I was delighted as this job meant that I would get some sorely needed cash as well as the fact that this assignment with this major IT company would add value to my CV. I created the design and submitted it to the Training Manager. She was very happy to see it. We had a very positive discussion and the training dates were finalized. I was very poor and hungry at the time. I desperately needed this business and was delighted and most thankful that I had landed this contract.
Then two days before the course was due to be run, she called me and said, ‘Yawar, could you please come and meet us?’ I agreed but asked if there was any problem. This kind of call, so close to the training program date usually means that there is some hitch. She said to me, ‘No, nothing. Just a small matter which I hope we can sort out. It means no loss to you and a saving for us.’ That sounded good and fair enough. So, I went to her office the next morning. She said to me, ‘You know, this MBTI, if we buy the instrument legally, it is very costly. So, why don’t you photocopy and use it instead. It will save us money and you will not lose anything.’ I was shocked more so because this company used to make a lot of noise about how committed to integrity and honesty they were. But here was their Head of Training telling me to cheat. She took my silence to be acquiescence and said, ‘Well, I am glad that is settled. We can go ahead with the training. I will have all the material photocopied and ready.’
I said to her, ‘I am sorry, the matter is not settled. I don’t photocopy copyrighted material.’ She said, ‘This is a big assignment for you, no? If you don’t do this, you will lose this business and perhaps never work with us again. In any case everyone does it here. I don’t know why you are making such an issue of it.’
I said, ‘Everyone is not my teacher. My integrity is not for sale. I don’t steal. Photocopying copyrighted material is stealing. Whether I get the business or not is immaterial. If I can’t do business honestly, I prefer not to do business.’
‘Is that your final answer?’
‘Yes’, I said. ‘That is my final answer.’
She said, ‘I am sorry, then we can’t work with you.’ And I went home, having lost one of the biggest assignments that I had had at the time. But very happy about it.
Several decades later, the head of training of another company told me, ‘I was talking to Mr. Ojha, who is the head of the company that sells the MBTI instrument in India and mentioned to him that you are doing it for us. I asked him if he needed your license number, which they normally ask for before selling the instrument. He said to me, ‘Yawar Baig is a brand. We don’t need anything if he is doing this for you. We know him and we know the stand he takes on respecting copyright.’ That for me was a ‘payment beyond price’. The price I paid for it all those years ago was a pittance compared with the value of this unsolicited feedback from a client. All the result of focus. In this case, the focus on what and even more on how. Believe me, dishonesty is its own curse and punishment. Integrity is an absolute value. There are no shades of it. You either have it or you don’t and if you don’t then nothing else can compensate for it. Just as if you do, it adds brand value and inspires client respect and loyalty.
No. 3: Quality
The last thing but by no means the least, is quality. Doing something well, once can be an accident. A fortunate one but still an accident. To do it well over and over is the meaning of quality. Expertise is repeatability. That happens with thoughtful practice. Not just practice. But thoughtful practice. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Thoughtful practice makes perfect. Think about what you are doing. Ask yourself why you are doing it. Ask if there is a better way to do it. Don’t change the goal. That is the Core. Unchangeable. Everything else is changeable and can and should be changed in order to achieve the goal. Nothing must come in the way of achieving the goal. Not tradition, not habit, not convenience, not expense, or trouble, or backbreaking effort. Everything that is necessary to do to achieve the goal must be done. That will happen only if you question why you are doing what you are doing and do it thoughtfully. Not mechanically as a matter of habit. But consciously, thoughtfully and deliberately. Not once, but over and over again.
There is an associated virtue with focus and quality and that is discipline. Discipline is to do what needs to be done. Not only what you like to do. Everyone must suffer two kinds of pain. The pain of discipline or the pain of regret. It is our choice. When I started my consulting practice in Bangalore in 1994, I realized that I was getting fat thanks to my mostly sedentary work. I had left ten years in tea planting where I walked at least ten to twelve kilometers every day. There was no chance of doing that in Bangalore. So, I joined a gym. This was at a time when sometimes I didn’t have money to pay my house rent until two days before the rent was due. I had no savings, no extra cash. Yet I decided that physical fitness was important enough to invest in the gym fee. Then came the other problem, time. On most days, by the time I finished work, it would be past 6 pm. And by the time I got home it would be dinner time. I changed dinner time. I said to myself that I would eat dinner only after I finished my session in the gym. There were days when I ate dinner at 11 pm, because that is when my gym session finished. But the result was that I remained fit and had the energy to do my work very satisfactorily. As I said, nothing is free. We are free to choose, but every choice has a price.
I was very fortunate to be involved from its inception, with GE’s 6 Sigma Quality effort which Jack Welch started in 1994. I know that much water has flowed under the bridge and 6 Sigma is no longer the buzzword in GE or elsewhere. But I am not selling 6 Sigma here. What I want to share with you is what that taught me about quality. I learned that there are two critical things that are intrinsic to any quality initiative. Measurement and documentation. Without these two you can’t have quality. It is that simple.
In my business I defined my quality standard as delivering on three parameters:
- To be true to ourselves and serve our clients with total uncompromising integrity, in all respects.
- To constantly seek increase in our knowledge and share it with all our constituents in the belief that knowledge increases with sharing.
- To hold ourselves to the value that a client must be responded to within 24 hours. (My internal measure for that was 8 hours, not 24)
I have never regretted this. What this resulted in was systematic measured professional development for myself, which I invested time and money in, every year. I augmented that with writing a professional journal which eventually yielded books on various topics. As on date, I have written thirty-nine books (of which three are audio books) on a wide variety of topics, which reflect my own varied interests in life. I believe I am among a very small brotherhood of professionals who have written so many books on so many different subjects. I have two podcasts which have a global footprint with downloads in almost every country in the world except Greenland. This is the result of documentation.
As for measurement, as I mentioned I schedule a training course or certification or some learning experience for myself, every year. This involves expenditure of time, money and effort but one result of this is that on the rare occasion when anyone says to me, ‘Your fee is more than that of others. Can you reduce your fee?’ I say to them, ‘Here is what my personal development log looks like over the past five years. Why don’t you look at the log of whoever you are comparing me with?’ I never reduced my fee and I never lost a client. People are willing to pay if you can show them value. But you can’t show value if you don’t measure it and document the results.
The final point is the importance of speed of response. Speed is a competitive advantage and I have always been conscious of it and responded to clients, friends, associates, everyone, usually faster than anyone else. I never ever needed reminders. I never fail to return a call. I am never ever late for an appointment. These may seem like small things. But so is taking a breath. Try doing without it.
To sum up, Passion, Focus and Quality. And in Quality, Measurement and Documentation. These are the secrets of success. This is my legacy to you. May you be blessed in it as I am.