From 1983 onward I worked single-mindedly for the day when I would strike out on my own. I spent every penny I had on books. I didn’t take a single holiday from 1983-1993 and used all my annual vacation to learn how to train. In addition, when I returned from IIMA with my Executive MBA, I negotiated an additional fifteen days leave without pay to spend in learning and trying to develop a training business. In addition to spending every spare moment reading and writing about leadership development, documenting my own experience, and talking to anyone who I thought could add value to my thought process, I spend my annual vacation and leave without pay, totally fifty days a year, exclusively in gaining experience as a trainer and consultant. I did this for eleven years without a break.
I used every opportunity to practice. I would train anyone I could lay my hands on in my regular job. I wrote a training manual for tea plantation managers; the first book of its kind, ever written in the industry. When I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, ‘Outliers’ many years later and read what he says about the ten-thousand-hour rule, I agreed with him entirely. To become good at something you must work hard. Work smart, but also work hard. The hours must be there. There are no shortcuts. I put in my time and today I have more than forty-thousand hours to my credit.
One very important lesson is the importance of family support in pursuing a career. When I say that I didn’t take a holiday for eleven years, it means that my wife also didn’t take a holiday. Since I started this journey in 1983, two years before we got married and went off to the Indian Institute of Management Ahmadabad less than a year after we got married in 1985, it meant that for the first eleven or twelve years of our marriage, we never took a holiday together. Or more correctly, never took a holiday. My wife would go to visit her parents while I was in this or that city working with this or that consultant. The fact that every spare bit of cash was spent on books and learning meant that we didn’t have the luxuries that our friends had. We didn’t have a TV or VCP in a place (tea gardens) where everyone else did. Not only did my wife never complain, but she also supported my plans every inch of the way.
In 1993, I decided to resign from the plantations. I got a job in a steel rolling mill in Bangalore as Personnel Manager. I needed to be in a city and in mainstream business and this was the ticket; or so I thought. The title of Human Resource Manager had not been invented yet. People were people, with families to support, personal challenges, anxieties, and emotions that sometimes spilled out loudly. People to be met, understood, sometimes borne like a headache, at others, transformed into friends. Not disembodied ‘Human Resources’ to be manipulated for the benefit of the powers that be and the career advancement of the HR Manager. We packed our bags and left the plantations and moved to Bangalore. My wife is a huge source of comfort and support to me without which I would never have been able to achieve any of this. Without complaint she got on with packing our bags while I handed over the estate to the management and arranged the other logistics. We drove to Bangalore while our baggage and some furniture came in a truck. Our dog Bonnie, a lady Doberman who was more human than most humans, traveled in the truck. We rented a house near the old airport and discovered mosquitoes. Clouds of them would emerge at sunset and if you didn’t have every window and door shut tight, you wouldn’t be able to sleep that night. If you were outdoors, you learnt to speak with your lips firmly together, from the side of your mouth like a Mafioso announcing the arrival of the goods. Otherwise, you would be faced with the dilemma of whether mosquitos are Halaal to eat or not. As the saying goes, ‘If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.’ I learnt the truth of that.
I realized very quickly that I was in the wrong company because of the many ethical and value conflicts I saw between what I believed in and what the owners of this business practiced. At that time, my dear friend Pratik Roy, the one who advised me to do the Executive MBA, came to my aid and invited me to interview for a job in the company that he was working in. I went to Mumbai for the interview. Pratik picked me up from the airport in Mumbai and took me home. I stayed with him.
Next morning, he came into my room and said, ‘Where is your shirt?’
I asked, ‘Why do you want my shirt?’
‘He said, ‘Just give it to me.’
I did and he ironed it. Then when I started to put on my tie, he realized that I was rusty because I had not worn one in more than fifteen years. So, he took charge of the tie and said, ‘Just stand still.’ And he tied the tie for me. Then he took me to his office where I was to be interviewed by the Managing Director of his company. I have some friends who I simply can’t describe. Pratik is one of them. What is in their hearts? How are their hearts so big? I can only thank Allah that I have had the privilege of knowing such people. They have enriched my life.
The interview went well, and I landed the job which was based in Delhi. So once again, in less than a year, we packed our bags and moved to Delhi. This time Bonnie traveled by plane, in a dog container in the luggage hold. I had to tell the captain to keep the hold pressurized and heated so that Bonnie didn’t freeze to death.
In all these moves, we gave away most of our possessions from our previous location because transporting them was simply too expensive. Great learning for us in facing attachment to possessions and in making new beginnings. Starting from my first move from Hyderabad to Guyana in 1979 where the airline managed to lose all my worldly possessions, to my return to India in 1983 with just two suitcases. Then moving from the tea gardens to Bangalore in 1993, then to Delhi, and back to Bangalore in 1994. Then to the US in 1997 and return to India in 2000, and now back to the US in 2019, transition and giving up something to get something else, has been a constant part of our lives. All these transitions were done deliberately considering what we were losing and what we would gain. I am most grateful that it has all been a hugely enriching process in many ways. Most of all mentally and spiritually.
We landed in Delhi in 1993 and moved into a house in NOIDA. My workplace was in South Delhi in a posh office complex but with its internal walls festooned with crimson betel juice spat on the walls by the people who worked there. In a desperate attempt to prevent people from spitting, the building owners had put tiles with pictures of Hindu gods in all the corners of the staircases. But to no avail – people just spat around the pictures. I don’t know what it is with North Indians and spitting but the impact of beginning your workday looking at betel juice spit is not pleasant and not recommended for great productivity.
After all this effort, the job in Delhi didn’t last too long. The person who I was supposed to replace in six months had no desire to be replaced and was a far better politician than I could ever hope to be, even if I had been interested. I have always had a marked reluctance to play politics, which in terms of corporate careers is a deficiency. Sadly, political skills are important, but I have never been interested in playing those games. I stuck on and did my best to learn and prove to the Managing Director that I was worth my keep. This was a family business and there were wheels within wheels and some people had influence based on things other than professional competence. This experience was one of my important learnings about the internal working of family businesses and how unwritten rules are more powerful than official policy. Painful but very valuable learning.
At the end of a year, it was clear to me that either I would have to fall in line and play the political games that my boss and others were playing, or I needed to look for another job. That is when I decided that it was time to strike out on my own. I met the MD and spoke to him very clearly and directly and to give him his due, he listened to me and even agreed with my assessment of what was going on but expressed his helplessness to change things. To say that I didn’t understand him is an understatement, but it has always been a principle of mine not to throw good after bad. So, I gave him my resignation and we parted cordially.
My wife and I discussed my plan to start my own consulting business in Bangalore as that was the center of most business activity involving multinational companies which had recently started activity in India. I told her, ‘But we won’t have the big house and car and whatnot that we have here, at least to start with and I don’t know for how long.’ She said to me, ‘I didn’t marry you for the house or the car.’ It was as simple as that.
I always think to myself, ‘What if I’d decided to leave many years earlier than I actually did?’ But then, I wouldn’t have had the additional organizational experience which I now had, and which has proved so valuable in the long run – both the positive and negative aspects of it. So, I guess there is a ‘right’ time for everything, no matter how much of a hurry you may be in. There is a risk. There is always risk. That is what makes it interesting and exciting; but that risk must be taken. It was my call and I decided to take it. I had no job, no business, no income, and we were planning to go to Bangalore to set up shop where we had nobody. Yet I was very happy because I had taken a decision and my life was not in limbo, going nowhere. I was in the sea; the shore was far away but I could swim and there was a shore to swim towards.
Once again, we packed house and home. Or to put it more accurately, my wife packed house and home. My wife has infinite patience and I have very little, and I discovered that in stressful times, it is best to stay out of each other’s way. Eventually our baggage got sent off by truck from Delhi to Bangalore and we decided to take Bonnie and go by train. If you take a First Class Coupe, you get the whole compartment to yourself and that’s what we did. Long journeys are not easy on animals, especially Indian train journeys because of the dearth of places for them to relieve themselves. But Bonnie had great patience and self-control and with my taking her out at every long stop to the end of the paved platform to do her business, our carriage remained clean through our 2-day journey.
We had found an apartment in a very lovely, quiet residential area called Jayamahal Extension near the Cantonment Station. It was a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor with a coconut tree growing outside the balcony such that we were at the level of the fronds. One of my chief delights was to sit on the balcony and have my first cup of tea in the morning, listening to the breeze in the coconut fronds. Soon enough we discovered that the location of the balcony and the coconut tree were a mixed blessing. One day when we returned home and entered the apartment, we saw that we had an unwanted visitor. We found a large monkey (Rhesus Macaque) sitting on our dining table. Seeing us, he ambled off – not alarmed in the least – and climbed onto the coconut tree from our balcony and descended to the ground. Upon further examination, we discovered to our utter amazement that he had opened the fridge in the kitchen, picked out eggs from the rack in the door, bitten off their tops and sucked the insides and put them back inside. We found a whole lot of empty eggs in the fridge. Not having found anything interesting or perhaps being disturbed by us, he came out and sat on the dining table to make his next plan. Talk about urbanization of wildlife.
We lived in Bangalore for three years and those were perhaps among the most valuable years for me in terms of learning. The biggest lesson I learnt was the importance and value of discipline and structure. Just getting up every morning, getting dressed for work and working according to a written plan, no matter what happened. Why get dressed when you are working from home and don’t need to meet any clients? For the same reason you make your bed every morning as soon as you get up. It is one task accomplished, gives you a sense of satisfaction and at the end of the day when you return you come home to a neatly made bed, which has a very positive effect on your morale. Likewise for dressing for work. It indicates a sense of purpose, a seriousness for your work and respect for your effort. I can assure you that there is a qualitative difference between the work of someone who dresses for his work and someone who does it in his nightclothes. It has nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with attitude.
I had a schedule which I followed religiously. It started with a daily list of client calls. The success of a business depends on your ability to sell your products or services and that has a direct correlation with the number of people you present it to. There is no mystery about how to achieve success in business. Those who spend the longest time on the street sell the most. Another part of my routine was spending an hour in the gym. I would always do that hour in the gym, sometimes late at night, but I would do it.
Something I did and continue to do to this day is to document my work. I write down everything. My thoughts, apprehensions, hopes, events, what I did and why, what other options I had and why I chose the one that I did. I documented assignments, design, meetings with key players, feedback, what went well and why and what didn’t go well and why. I am a great believer in passion about what you do. I was and continue to be totally passionate about my work. I love what I do, and I would not rather be doing anything else, including golfing or fishing, as the bumper stickers tell you.
Another thing is that I have always had an abundance mentality and happily share my thoughts, ideas, even intellectual resources with anyone who asks, including my potential competitors. Some of them, now good friends, have asked me why I give away my ‘capital’. I do it for two reasons. Nobody owns thought and knowledge. You get it from someone or somewhere, you add to it and use it and bless those who shared with you. Secondly, the only way to grow knowledge is to share it. The more you share, the more returns to you value added. Hoard it and it shrivels, and you take it to your grave.
Writing also helps to clarify whatever you are writing about. Write, read, re-write, re-read until you are satisfied. Writing helps to structure thought, which helps to communicate clearly. Effective speaking is the result of clear structured thinking, which writing helps to form. I recommend writing to everyone no matter what you do. Thought clarity is a competitive advantage.
Finally, something which I apply in photography, ruthless culling of sub-standard photos. That in business means owning up to your mistakes. A good businessman/woman is someone who recognizes their own bad decisions. We all make them. The best thing you can do is to accept them and think of what to do to change their effect. Sometimes it means to leave that business. Other times it may not be so drastic. But without the courage to own up to your mistakes you will fail.
Life was hard. I traveled sometimes 25 days in the month. Lived out of a suitcase. Cash was hard to come by. Some ‘exciting’ moments with rent day approaching and not enough money to pay it. But in the end, it all worked out and I never defaulted on any payment. Made great friends. Learned huge lessons. My documentation became a book. Then other books. Network expanded. And as they say, the rest is history.