Published on 5-8-2012
The mission of this wonderful B-School is “to promote business success by empowering managers and young professionals with updated knowledge and decision-making skills.” It is laudable that the school aims to achieve this goal by working closely with industry partnerships. I offer my hearty congratulations to the graduating students, the parents, the faculty and the industry partners.
In the available half hour, I have just two messages that may be useful for the life and career of upcoming managers:
LIFE LESSONS FROM SPORTS
Like with any performing art, sport can be enjoyed without necessarily taking a technical or analytical approach to the enjoyment. Sport is a condensed version of life because it allows the questioning of whether a fact and an opinion are related. It permits you to debate the causal connection of an outcome.
The first lesson is about working to your internal ambitions rather than to external measures of accomplishment.
Who is to judge accomplishment and how? Is Michael Phelps the greatest sportsman because he has won the largest number of medals by far in Olympic history? If you want differing opinions on the subject each with an array of brilliant facts, read the International Herald Tribune of 3rd August, 2012.
Is Tendulkar greater than Bradman? If Rajdeep Sardesai were to conduct a panel discussion to choose ‘the best’ from among Sachin Tendulkar, Don Bradman, Ricky Ponting, Garfield Sobers, Brian Lara, Viv Richards, no stop there, because you will merely create the world’s longest, most vigorous and most inconclusive TV debate.
As you strive in your career for accomplishment, recognition and advancement, remember that there is no better yardstick than what you have set in your own mind. It is important for folks like you and me to take pride from our accomplishments rather than to expend mental energy to be one up on our peer.
The second lesson is about working to your full potential rather than to a hypothetical limit of managerial genius.
In sport, what are the limits of human endurance? Who knows?
In 1936, Brutus Hamilton, the coach of the Stanford University team and a most revered athletic coach, took it upon himself to record what he thought was the ultimate performances in track and field events. At that time the world record for the mile belonged to American Glenn Cunningham whose record was 4 min and 6.8 seconds. Hamilton stated in his report, The Ultimate of Human Effort, that the quickest mile ever possible was 4 min, 1.06 seconds. However on 6th May 1954, Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute barrier at the Iffley Road track in Oxford.
Roger Federer won the longest tennis match in Olympics history day before yesterday when he overcame young Argentinean player Juan Martin del Petro in 4 hours and 26 minutes. He won the third and last set 19-17.
But in 2010, John Isner took 11 hours and 5 minutes and all of five sets to beat Nicolas Mahut in five sets. The set score in the last set was 70-68!
Andrew Berry who teaches evolutionary biology at Harvard states the obvious fact that “no one will run a mile at the same speed as 100 meters because the laws of oxygen will not allow it. Human improvement must ultimately bow to the laws of biomechanics.”
Yet at the heart of human endeavour is what poet Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s heaven for?”
It all depends on your perception of your grasp. It is your grasp that you need to judge and strive to just exceed.
The third lesson is about you setting the balance lies between work and life.
Mark Inglis is a much decorated professional mountaineer from New Zealand. He is a double amputee. On 15th May 2006, after forty days of climbing, Mark Inglis was at the peak of Everest, the first double amputee to accomplish this. While ascending Everest, he and his party encountered David Sharp, a distressed British climber, but instead of helping Sharp, they continued their climb. Sharp died subsequently. Mark Inglis was criticised for the ethics of his decision. Was he right? Who knows?
In the ongoing London Olympics, Chinese diver Wu Minxia won her third Olympic Gold Medal. She is one of her sport’s shiniest stars, but part of that is due to the price paid by her personal life. Her father Wu Yuming said, “We accepted a long time ago that she does not belong entirely to us.” So she was not told of her mother’s breast cancer condition until she had won the medal, or even of her dear grandparents’ death over a year ago. Is this right or ethical? Does it diminish her accomplishment?
I do not know the answer.
But you should strive to set the balance in your own life so that you can be a happy person. Never leave the keys to your happiness lock in anyone else’s hand.
The fourth lesson is that luck matters.
Luck is best exemplified in sport and the debates abound about the role of luck. In April this year, writer and former English test cricketer Ed Smith made a presentation at the London School of Economics on “Luck: what it means and why it matters.” He has also written a book on the subject.
The modern history of luck perhaps began in 1859. Samuel Smiles wrote his best-selling book, Self Help, in that year. Since then there have been many exponents of the subject of self-improvement like Dale Carnegie, Robin Sharma, Tom Robbins, Stephen Covey, just to name a few. All of them have inspiringly and rightly advocated the development of a mindset that says, “My destiny is in my hands, and if I really want something badly, I can work hard to get it.”
Always remember that they are absolutely right. You can forget their message but only at your peril.
Now here is the catch. Concurrently also remember the opposite because that is also true: that you need a stroke of luck to get what you want. Sure, you have to do your very best but there is no assurance of success, whatever your definition of success may be.
The absence of the luck factor can deny you the rewards that you seek through your hard work and persistence. If that happens, just move on with your life. You would be wise to remember that the two opposite co-exist.
But what exactly is luck? Napoleon said that he wanted competent generals, but, more importantly, he wanted lucky generals. The word has the connotation of a built-in joy: it is derived from the German word, Gelucke, which connotes both luck and happiness. Admitting the existence of luck demands the acknowledgment that some things are beyond our control.
But it is important to recognise that there are two kinds of luck.
There is a luck which you prepared for and can claim to have earned. You can see a cause and effect relation between the effort and the result. I call this Good Luck. This is the kind of luck that Samuel Smiles and Dale Carnegie advocated.
In Indian philosophy, we invoke Good Luck by advocating the attitude of the karma yogi: do your best but do not expect the fruits of your effort.
There is another luck which I call Unearned Luck, a sheer random coincidence, that which is beyond your control. Winning the lottery is luck; our genes are luck; your parents are a matter of luck.
When Saina Nehwal reached the semi-finals at the London Olympics, it was her Good Luck. But when she won the losing semi-finalists’ match against Wang Xin, who folded up with an injured knee, it was her unearned luck.
One of my most emotional experiences at college was a conversation with an academically brilliant class mate when I was gloating about my election victory as the Vice President of the student body. He said to me, “What is the difference between you and me? You are lucky that you have a stable home. My father is a drunk and I have an emotionally disturbed home.” Yes, it was my unearned luck, and it was equally his unearned bad luck.
The discoverer of DNA was James Watson, who was in a three horse race with chemist Linus Pauling and biochemist Erwin Chargaff to be the first to make the discovery. Pauling and Chargaff were on the same boat after attending an international conference. But they did not like each other and never talked throughout the boat journey. Had they exchanged a few notes, Pauling would have discovered DNA. James Watson considered this as his Unearned Luck.
On 22nd August 1931, a young English lad, John Scott-Ellis, drove up a Berlin street in his new Fiat and knocked down a short man. As he apologised profusely, the short man said he was lucky, picked himself up and walked away. Some years later, John Scott-Ellis realized that he had knocked down Adolf Hitler. Had he killed him, the course of human history could have been different.
You should stretch as far as you can for the Good Luck, but acknowledge Unearned Luck when you get it as much as you should never despair about not getting Unearned Luck.
OBLIGATION MORE IMPORTANT THAN ENTITLEMENT
This subject has occupied my mind a great deal in recent months as I completed the manuscript of my forthcoming book, What the CEO Really Wants from You.
The management world is replete with articles and books on how to succeed, how to get to the corner office fast and how to be a great leader. But the literature is thinner on how to be a great subordinate, how to deserve before desiring, and about how to regard an understanding of what your boss needs as an integral part of your job. And if you have not been a great subordinate, you are not quite headed to towards the C-Suite or the corner office!
I have made so many errors of judgment throughout my career that it is an enduring surprise that I survived all of those. I must thank my subordinates, peers and bosses over the last forty five years for indulging me and by letting me learn lessons from my mistakes.
To end up as a boss, you first need to be a great subordinate.
You are young when you set out to build a career. You clearly remember your early days of company work as a professional manager—huge hope, burning ambition, energising anticipation and deep anxiety, all rolled into one. Then begin the lessons of experience—new roles, new bosses and unexpected challenges.
Early on, you begin to understand what output you are required to deliver: simple things like work timing, do’s and don’ts at work, how work gets done, what targets you are required to achieve, by when and how you should measure your performance. In due course you start to develop ideas about what you can expect from the organisation and your bosses. What are your entitlements, what training courses you can attend and what sort of career paths might you aspire for.
Your career develops with asymmetry
I conduct an exercise with the participants of training sessions on the subject of expectations. What does the boss owe you? What do you owe the boss? After compiling answers over several hundred candidates’ responses, I find that people list nine expectations from their boss but only four from themselves to their boss!
The nine things that managers feel that their boss owes them are: feedback, empowerment, coaching, transparency, recognition, opportunity, clear tasks, access and respect for personal time.
The four things that people feel they owe their boss are: 100 percent effort, loyalty, honesty and get-it-done results.
When your consciousness and focus in any relationship is driven by what the other person owes you rather than what you owe that person, then that is asymmetry; this means that more often than not, you are giving less than what you take out of the relationship. Such unbalanced expectations merit some thought because the asymmetry is the cause of strife and disappointment.
It is extremely important for any good subordinate to think about the boss’s needs as much as he or she would like the boss to think of his or her need. You live your life based on certain assumptions. You test these assumptions with each experience and with each passing day. One such assumption is that the company and your bosses owe you a good career. Another assumption is that all that you owe the bosses is good work and loyalty.
You need to learn the skills encompassed by what I have referred to as the 4As: Accomplishment, Affability, Advocacy and Authenticity. They are central to your ability to be an outstanding subordinate.
Accomplishment refers to the attribute of reliably delivering results. It has to be learned like all skills and practised periodically. It is the most important of the skills that any subordinate has to learn. Simple though it sounds, it is a great weakness among many managers. If execution skills were to be found as abundantly as they are expected, then there would not be so much research and management literature on the subject. There are some reasons why the Accomplishment attribute is not as richly found among managers as one might assume.
Affability is the attribute of developing agreeable relationships and getting things done in an appropriate manner. If you take these meanings too literally, the concept of an affable manager is an oxymoron. It might appear that no efficient and effective manager can qualify as an affable manager. By the nature of work, a manager has to overcome obstacles, which means to convince, cajole, coerce and, if needed, even crucify people into doing things and to coordinate all those actions into a targeted end-result.
That is why affability is a skill to be learnt, practised and perfected.
And yet all these, and more, constitute what is regarded as an affable manager.
Advocacy is the skill of envisioning new ideas and persuading others to debate those new ideas. In the early stages of one’s career, you are the recipient of instructions and the effects of power. You accept them by adapting. You realise that the boss expects you to exercise your leadership on the people who report to you and make sure that things get done. In the middle management phase, you find the need to influence people without their directly reporting to you. In the senior and leadership roles, you may exercise no control over the people you need to influence. This is the manner in which your skills of advocacy develop.
Authenticity is the perception others develop about you, especially subordinates, and about who they think you are. What is authenticity? It is being who you are. Your colleagues and peers see you as you are, not the way you would like to be seen. It is their perception of who you are and what you stand for that produces their followership. Followership is used here, not in a hierarchical sense, but in an egalitarian sense. It is the voluntary desire or inclination among followers to follow a person, emotionally and physically. Unauthentic people can get others to follow by asymmetry of power, by threat or by coercion. These are not likely to be long lasting.
These four attributes vary in relative importance at each stage of your career journey. There are four stages or discrete steps on your career journey.
Thank you very much for listening to my thoughts on this wonderful day for you. I dream about the exciting journey that awaits your generation.
Your generation will escort India into the middle income category, it may be the generation which can witness the abolition of abject poverty in India, and it will be the generation that will watch India retrieve her place among the comity of nations as distinctively as India used to occupy 250 years ago. What a lucky generation!
Enjoy the journey and overcome its challenges. That is what this institution has tried to inculcate in you.