If there is one part of my life and one decision that I am happiest about, it was my decision to become a leadership trainer. That developed later into other areas of executive coaching and mentoring, entrepreneurship development and family business consulting, and three books, but it started with leadership training.
As I mentioned earlier, in 1983, I attended a two-week training course in Jaipur at the Taj Amer hotel, organized by the Indian Society for Applied Behavioral Science (ISABS). I was working with some personal issues of motivation and career direction which thanks to the facilitation and guidance of Mr. Aroon Joshi in the course, all got resolved and I left there hugely energized and with a dream in my heart – that I wanted to do what I had experienced Mr. Joshi doing. I decided that I would make it my life’s career to train people in leadership development and that one day I would become the best and most powerful leadership trainer that the world would ever have seen. I wrote this goal down as that is the first step to realizing it. And then I started working on it.
A word about writing a life goal for yourself: Only you need to see it. Only you need to be inspired by it. So, write something that is big enough to inspire. “I want to become a leadership trainer.” Ugh! Big deal. Who cares?
“I want to become Mickey Mouse.” Now that is something. A name that instantly conjures up an image of a face and makes you smile. That is worth working for.
So, in 1983, I wrote “I want to become the best and most powerful leadership trainer the world has ever seen.”
Did that happen? I don’t know. Ask those who have worked with me, attended my workshops, coaching sessions, or read my books. But is it something that I continue to work at, more than 30 years after writing that statement? YES. And it is something that I will and can legitimately continue to do all my life. Not because I never succeed at it, but because the mark of a great life goal is that it continues to motivate you without discouraging you.
I had just joined planting, had no money, and even less time. I was in a job that started at 6:00 AM and ended at 6:00 PM except that I was supposed to be on call twenty-four hours, seven days a week. This was before we had heard the term 24×7, but we worked 24×7. As for the money, I started in 1982 at a salary of ₹850 per month which went to the grand total of ₹1100 the next year because I did so well that I was given a special increment. To put this in perspective, the Rupee to Dollar conversion rate at the time was approximately 10 rupees for every dollar, which meant I made $90 per month in 1982 and $110 the following year. Just for the record, in 1982, USD to INR was 1:9.46 and the next year it went to 1:10.1. Money lasted longer in those days. I remember the feeling of enormous wealth one day when coming out of the State Bank of India in Valparai, I looked at my updated passbook and found all of ₹500 ($50) in my account. Be that as it may, ₹1100 was still not bags of gold and so traveling to learn meant that traveling for any other reason was not possible.
The challenge I had was interesting. What I wanted to learn was not available anywhere as a course, so even if I learnt it, I would not have a degree to show anyone or get a job on its basis. I was physically located on a hilltop in a tea garden whereas whoever I needed to learn from was at least two days away. I had to take a bus from Sheikalmudi to Valparai. Another to Coimbatore. Then a train which could be anything from an overnight journey to two days, to whichever city I needed to be in to learn from whoever had agreed to teach me. Then the same two-day trek back. All this had to come out of my annual vacation of 35 days per year.
Then the cost of travel. In India in those days, if you traveled 3rd class and stayed in dingy hotels and ate little, money went a long way. And so, I learned. I would sit quietly in the back of the class and be the ‘go-for’ boy for the trainer. I would clean the black board and get water for the trainer or take his or her notes while they spoke to the class. Those were the days in India of black boards and flip charts. Nobody had heard of white boards and markers and whatever sat on your lap could not be typed upon. LCD was something that came in cheap Japanese watches and projectors were things in cinema halls. The TV was something that most people (including myself) had not seen and certainly did not have in their homes. And the internet? Well, who is that??
At the time, CEOs weren’t talking about leadership training in India. Indeed, training was not a remunerative activity at all. What little was done was done internally and was almost entirely technical training in how to work some machine or the other. When you spoke to CEOs about people development, they looked at you as if you were some sort of spaced out sky-rider. CEOs did not take such things seriously. CEOs looked at the word ‘leader’ with suspicion because to them a ‘leader’ in the company was a union leader and they certainly did not want those. It was quite common to go to an Indian company to speak to its CEO who would say, “What do you mean by leadership training? I do not want leaders. I want people to do what they are told. Leaders create trouble.” It took a lot of convincing to get the CEO even to try one course, free. That leadership development was the secret to greater productivity, employee satisfaction, career advancement, and employee retention was something that they never considered. Employee retention was not an issue at all. It was a buyer’s market. People had limited choices for employment and if you were lucky enough to get a job, you stayed in it until you retired or died, whichever happened first. Happiness in the job was an oxymoron, so to speak. It just didn’t matter. You did your job to feed your family, not to be happy. Even if you were not happy in it, you still stuck to it, because your family had to eat. Employers were of the view that by giving you a salary they were doing you a major favor and what you did in return for that salary was to be expected and not necessarily appreciated publicly.
Many gave you a brown envelope quietly with your bonus money in it. Not to be mentioned to anyone else, please. Others did not even do that. And if you didn’t like the situation, you were free to leave and seek your luck elsewhere – but there was not much elsewhere to look. It was in this environment that I decided to embark on a career to teach leadership to people who didn’t know what it was and so didn’t care to learn and to get others (their employers) who didn’t want to pay, to support it. The big question for me was, ‘How does one do leadership training and how does one make it into a life supporting activity?’
It was the large scale entry of the multi-nationals, especially in the IT sector, in the 90’s that changed this scenario and training became a regular initiative that was programmed into the year and which was seen as ongoing learning. In twenty years, the Indian corporate world has come a long way to the situation where today the most challenging, argumentative, and sophisticated audience that you can ever hope for is an Indian audience. Not only are they likely to be the most educated, but also the most traveled, most likely to ask tough questions, and the most likely to need some very solid evidence to convince them to do what you want them to do. In my own view that makes an Indian audience the most rewarding to teach. Like mountain climbing, satisfaction is directly proportional to difficulty. And that, with an Indian audience today, is almost a certainty.
It took me another eleven years before I took the step forward to become a full-time trainer, but I never had any doubt that this was what I wanted to do. From 1983-1994, I worked at gaining experience and qualifications in management consulting and leadership training.
To begin with, I enrolled in the ISABS Internship Program and at the end of four years was awarded ‘Professional Membership’ of the Society. This is effectively equal to a PhD in Applied Behavioral Science but since ISABS is not a university, they can’t award doctorates. Then again, I have never been too bothered about paper and believe in learning application skills. Simultaneously, I informally contracted with several friends who were trainers to attend their courses as an observer. This meant traveling to whichever city they were working in, staying there on my own and being their ‘go-for kid’ for the duration. In the evenings I would sit with them and ask questions about what they did and why. I would participate in design meetings mostly by keeping my mouth shut, but listening carefully, especially to the diagnostic rationale for whatever interventions were decided. I am most grateful to those friends and senior colleagues who allowed me into their lives to learn from them.
I don’t mean to boast but to drive home the point that if you want a mentor to do his best for you, you have to demonstrate to him that you are worth his while. And that means making no excuses, doing what it takes to demonstrate total commitment, and demonstrate your learning so that the mentor also feels satisfied with the teaching. For my part, I doubt if they could have found a more willing and attentive student. And they appreciated it. For a teacher, the biggest motivator is a student who is serious about learning and who is willing to make the effort to help himself. I made sure that I demonstrated my eagerness to learn and treated these sessions very seriously.
As I mentioned earlier, another issue was that of time as I was not only in a full-time job, but the job was in the Anamallai Hills and traveling anywhere meant adding four days to the itinerary. I used to get thirty-five days annual vacation and the train fare to my hometown as a travel allowance. For eleven years I used all of it to travel to various cities to learn how to train. Then when this was not enough, I negotiated with my company for an additional two weeks of unpaid leave to pursue my learning. I used all the spare cash I had (and there wasn’t much) to buy books.
In 1985, I got married. That was also the year in which color TVs came into the Indian market, thanks to the Commonwealth Games. In the plantations there was really no entertainment other than to watch movies on a VCP (video cassette player). Most of my friends bought color TVs on hire purchase and upgraded to VCRs (video cassette recorder). There would be parties to watch the latest tennis or cricket matches or to watch some favorite movie or the other. During this entire period, we did not own either a TV or a VCR. My wife has always been extremely supportive and has made personal sacrifices. In those days it meant that we never took a holiday together and that she did not have the means of entertainment that others had.
The year I got married my friend Pratik Roy gave me some advice when I spoke to him about my desire to be an independent consultant. He said to me that having an MBA was essential and that I must get it from one of the top-notch colleges in India because the ‘name’ counts. At that time, I neither had the time nor the money to do a regular two-year program, so I did what turned out to be better – the MEP.
IIM-A (Indian Institute of Management, Ahmadabad), the most famous and prestigious of India’s Business Schools ran a short-term Executive MBA for people with organizational experience, called the MEP. Sensibly, they gave people credit for their hands-on experience of managing businesses and plugged in the theoretical part in a highly intensive residential program. On Pratik’s suggestion, I applied for this program and was accepted. The problem was the fees and the time off from my job. The fee was ₹30,000. That may not sound like much today, but in 1985 for someone who was earning just over ₹1000, that was two and a half year’s salary. There was no way that I could afford this fee on my own. And there was still the issue of time off.
I asked my company if they would sponsor me to this program. They refused. I tried to convince them that if I acquired this education, I would be a far more productive employee and that would benefit the company above all else. They said that I was productive enough as it was and if I wanted to further my education that was my personal choice. Then I asked them if they would give me time off without pay. They agreed. I asked if they would give me a loan for the amount of the fee. They eventually agreed to loan me the amount at 8.5% interest provided I signed a bond to work for the company for three years after I returned. And so literally one month after I got married, I was off to Ahmadabad, by third class train from Coimbatore. My wife went off to stay with her parents in the UK. The lessons I learnt in this entire difficult incident were that when someone says they won’t do something it is not necessarily final. Some people test you by denying your request to see if you are persistent enough to succeed. Others deny you because they are afraid of what doors they may be opening by granting your request. Others deny you because they can’t see how they stand to benefit by agreeing. In all cases, the onus of proof is on you. And that is fair because it is after all your need.
Many times, people want to help you but need an acceptable way to do it. It is up to you to understand their world well enough to show them a way that will work for them. In my case, I believe my bosses were afraid that others would ask to be sent to various courses which they were afraid they could not afford and so the ‘best way’ was to refuse me. They gave me a loan because they could give that to anyone and knew that in any case nobody else was focused enough on learning to ask for a loan and leave without pay to go and study. They were right. Nobody in my company ever applied to study at their own cost. Some were sponsored and so they went. But nobody paid for it with his time and money. I am not complaining. I am delighted that my record still stands. I just want to underline that one must not give up trying just because one way fails.
The second lesson was that just because one door closes it does not mean that you cannot achieve something. It just means that you cannot achieve it in that particular way. There may be many other ways to reach the same goal. I could not get sponsorship or leave. So, I asked for leave without pay and a loan. The third lesson was that if you want something badly enough then you must be prepared to pay for it. And that if you do pay for it, you will get it. If you want it badly enough then the price will be worth it and you will be happy to have paid it, as it was in my case.
Although I can’t say that my education directly got me promotions, my attitude of being focused on self-development, reading, writing, and teaching earned me a lot of respect among my peers and superiors. It was due to this focus combined with producing superior results that I had the fastest career growth of anyone in that company. Interestingly, after I returned and they saw the results of my education my company sponsored two other colleagues of mine, all expenses paid for the same course. Unfortunately, nobody offered to reimburse my expenses and I was too proud to ask. I, however, do not regret it one bit because that education helped me, and I have capitalized on it many times over. It was well worth the money.
It underlines for me the reality that if one wants to develop himself then one must make the effort and spend the time, money, and energy himself. Our career is truly in our own hands. The sooner you realize that and invest in it, the bigger your advantage. The reality is that for every person who is development focused there are ten who are not. Start early. If one has the support of the environment, then that is a bonus. But to limit your education to what any organization can or will provide is to ensure that you do not get any education worth the name. Today, organizations are conscious of the value of education and are supportive and take the trouble to train people, but not everything you need to know to succeed can be taught in a two-day corporate course.
So, the maxim about investing in one’s own learning holds good. Some people today seem to equate education with corporate training. The two are poles apart. Corporate courses at best sensitize you to the need to learn and teach you a few skills. You still need to read, experience, write, reflect, and conceptualize to acquire any learning worth the name. It is good not to confuse one with the other.
The MEP was an excellent idea because it was a highly intensive course with more than sixteen hours of study per day, every day of the week. We would have group discussions on case studies until the early hours of the morning on most days and then needed to be in class at 9 AM. Some of these discussions would end up at the Maggi Noodles & Tea Stall at the gate of IIM-A. I don’t know if that guy is still there, but he was a classic example of an entrepreneur taking advantage of a market. Where else in the world would you be able to get hot noodles and tea at 2 AM? He saw that students needed something to eat at that hour, and were willing to pay for it, and so there he was. We would sit on rocks by the roadside and he would be there behind his stove mounted on a trolley, cheerfully dishing out noodles and tea, and if we were in the mood for conversation, then enlightening us with his opinion on everything under the moon. In India we see such small entrepreneurs everywhere, capitalizing on a need that may be restricted to a local area, but which is sufficient for them to make a living. As a result, we have all kinds of services at unimaginably low prices, the result of competition. All thanks to the individual entrepreneur identifying a need and making a living by filling that need.
We had some brilliant professors at the IIM-A, who are even today iconic names in their fields. Prof. K. Balakrishnan (Bala) for Business Strategy, Prof. Raghunathan for Finance, and Prof. Labdhi Bhandary for Marketing. Bhandary was the man who conceptualized the Nirma campaign and catapulted an unknown soap powder to become a major competitor of Unilever. I remember how he would sit on the desk in the class with one leg dangling, swinging like a pendulum throughout his class period. He taught more by asking incisive questions than by lecturing. He assumed that we had read the assignment and we made sure we had. He asked us questions which opened our minds to possibilities that we may not have thought of. Indeed, many times these questions took us by surprise. He taught us to look in unexpected places and to use creative ways to solve problems.
I remember in particular a case about a local breakfast cereal manufacturer in South India which we had discussed threadbare (or so we thought) where we were given information about the business and were asked to recommend some strategies to the owner. It was a well-run business with strong financials and we unanimously agreed that the owner now needed to go national and so we prepared all kinds of complex strategies for this. We analyzed his competition, identified sources of funds for him to run a national advertising campaign and to expand production. We worked out a distribution chain that he needed to create to ensure the fastest time to market, including a tie-up with a national logistics company to ensure on time delivery. We recommended what he should pay commissions to wholesalers and incentives to stockists. We showed how he would thereby have a strong all-India presence leading perhaps to entering the global market in the future.
We were very pleased with all the work that we had done and were only waiting to receive our well-deserved accolades with grace. We presented the case in class next morning. There were four groups and all of us said more or less the same thing with some minor differences in approach.
Prof. Labdhi Bhandary sat on his desk with his pendulum leg swinging in rhythmic motion and listened to all the presentations in silence. Then in his typical way he asked, ‘Hmm!! So?’
We looked blankly at each other and then I asked him, ‘Sir, I’m not sure we understand your question.’
‘So, what if his financials are strong? Did you think of suggesting that he should sell his business and capitalize his effort?’
We looked shocked. Here we had spent all night creating all these lovely strategies and our dear teacher was trashing all of them in one go.
He asked us, ‘What is the best time to sell a business? When it is doing well or when it is failing? Why didn’t you consider this option? I only want to know why you did not consider this option. Are you thinking of what is best for your client or your own pet theory?’
It was an incredibly sad day for me when a few years later I heard about the Indian Airlines plane crash in Ahmadabad in which Prof. Bhandary died. A great loss indeed. He had one of the most incisive minds I have ever encountered and was a great teacher. I honor his memory and what I learnt from him.
Entrepreneurs make active choices. When one sees a successful entrepreneur at his peak, one tends to forget all that he had to do to get there. Entrepreneurs make what others call ‘sacrifice’ but which the entrepreneur himself knows is an investment in his own learning and development. He knows that without this investment in time, effort, and money he will not be able to live his dream. This rigor of putting your money and energy where your mouth is, is critical to success. To maintain the long-term perspective which will enable you to continue to invest in your own development or in your dream it is essential to have a clear goal. Without clarity about your goal it is entirely likely that you will lose steam after a while. I was able to continue my investment over twelve years because I was so clear about what I wanted to eventually become as well as what I needed to do to get there. Which brings us back to the importance of writing a clear, inspiring life goal.
I believe that we have two kinds of goals; ‘Being goals’ and ‘Doing goals.’ Most people are good at stating their ‘Being’ goals; ‘I want to be this or that.’ But when it comes to ‘Doing’ goals, they are much less clear. The reality is that no matter what you want to be, there is always something that you must do in order to achieve that result. Unless you are clear about what that is and unless you are willing to make the effort, chances are that your dream will never see the light of day. This is the reason why only a handful of people can create and sustain a business even though many dream about becoming successful business owners. Dreaming is important, but what is more important is to wake up and work to make the dream come true. And when you work, remember that sweat is more effective than blood.
I have a saying to explain ‘Being and Doing Goals’.
To ‘Be’ you have to ‘Do’. To ‘Do’ you don’t have to ‘Be’.
Unless you ‘Do’ you will never ‘Be’.
When I returned from the IIM-A with my Executive MBA, I negotiated an additional fifteen days leave without pay to spend in learning and trying to develop a training business. I used to spend fifty days annually for ten years in training. 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 thirty-thousand hours to my credit.
One particularly important lesson is the importance of family support in pursuing a career. When I say that I did not take a holiday for twelve years, it means that my wife also didn’t take a holiday. She 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 did not have the luxuries that our friends had. We did not have TV or video players in a place (tea gardens) where everyone else did. Not only did my wife never complain, she supported my plans every inch of the way.
In conclusion let me say that while all this may sound like a lot of hardship, which it was – no vacation for 12 years, no spare cash for any luxuries, leaving my wife one month after getting married, and not able to meet or talk to for six months (no WhatsApp, internet, email and international telephone calls were what your nightmares were made of) is not something to be sneezed at. But the truth is, ‘We are free to choose, but every choice has a price tag. People don’t succeed not because they don’t want to succeed but because they don’t pay the price for success.’ I paid and it was hard. Very hard. In the middle of the MEP, they gave us a week off to meet our families. I had nowhere to go and no money to spend on the train fare. So, I asked for permission to stay on at the IIM-A. They agreed and I spent a week in solitary splendor contemplating my folly and being extremely grateful that I was stupid enough to take the decisions that I did. Today, thirty-five years later, I continue to be grateful that I did what I did when I did it. Plantation life was beautiful. But leadership training took me places, showed me the world, gave me a global outlook and network, and earned me a very nice living. When you pay, you get the return. Only when you pay, you get the return.