Published on 19-8-17 Convocation speeches definitely require to inspire young graduating students; if possible, they should also instruct the young people in some way (s); if at all possible further, convocation speeches should induct some memorable stories.

Published on 19-8-17

Convocation speeches definitely require to inspire young graduating students; if possible, they should also instruct the young people in some way (s); if at all possible further, convocation speeches should induct some memorable stories.  I propose to narrate several real stories to induct, instruct and inspire this special batch of ITM graduates, 2017.

I should state my four messages upfront

  • Become and remain positively angry
  • Expect curious coincidences
  • Recognize unearned luck
  • Remember that success is a thief.

Become and remain positively angry

When India showcased the world’s second fastest supercomputer (at that time) PARAM 8000, at the Zurich Supercomputing Show in 1991, the Washington Post greeted the event with the headline, “Angry India Does It Again.”  Why again?

In 1965: green revolution……national response under duress of PL 480 cessation ………led by Shastri, Subramaniam, Swaminathan and Shivaraman

In 1971: white revolution …….operation flood led by Verghese Kurien.

In 1991: PARAM development after denial of Cray super computer technology after Pokhran.

In short, constructive anger is good.

In the British Museum, there hangs a painting by Benjamin West to mark the occasionIn August 1765 when the descendant of Emperor Aurangzeb signed and handed over a scroll to an Englishman called Robert Clive. Through this scroll, the Mughal Emperor handed over to East India Company the right to collect taxes in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.  These territories had been won by the British from NawabSirajudaulah, the Mughal satrap of those areas.

The painting shows Shah Alam, the descendant, sitting at a height with a genuflecting waist as he hands over the scroll to an imperious – looking and upright, standing Robert Clive.  The genuflection at the waist certainly suggests a position of weakness in the postures.

That painting was about a ruler genuflecting to a businessman, for that would be the correct description of Robert Clive.

Since 1947, the roles have been reversed.  Indian businessmen have regularly genuflected at the waist to the new czars of India – ministers, MPs and bureaucrats.  Why should they do so?

I have found my professional business career to be a perfectly honourable and satisfying one.  Through working for Unilever and Tata, I believe I have made small contributions to many national issues: creating jobs, improving the welfare of several families, paying taxes honestly, delivering good quality products to customers.  I am convinced that, in society, business is a force for good.

So my advice is based on my experience: do an honest piece of professional work, be proud of your contribution to society, don’t ever be arrogant – but don’t ever be subservient either.  Be positively angry and do the best of what you can to earn an honest profit and to serve society diligently.

Above all, remember that business is a force for good.  You can do good by doing good.

Expect curious coincidences

King Constantine I was ruling Greece in 1917.  He and his elder son had megalomaniacal visions of once more creating a great Hellenic/Greek Empire after two thousand years.  The European powers like Britain and France did not like King Constantine’s ideas.  They conspired to a plot to exile the King and his elder son.  In his place, they placed the second son, Prince Alexander, who showed every promise of being a puppet King.  King Alexander became King and controversially, he married a commoner.  On 2nd October, 1920, the King and his consort took a walk on the lawns of the imperial TATOI estate.  A monkey in the garden attacked the King’s German shepherd dog.  As the King tried to separate his dog and the monkey, a second monkey jumped down from a tree and bit the King.  The King’s wounds were cleaned, but not cauterised.  After some days, King Alexander died.

The exiled King Constantine I returned to Greece.  He started a war with Turkey and a quarter of a million people died in the war.If the monkey had not bitten King Alexander, may be there would have been no Greece-Turkey war!

On 22nd August 1931, an 18 year old Englishman by name of John Scott – Ellis, took his new FIAT car for a spin around Munich.  As he drove up LeidwigStrasse and turned right into BriennerStrasse, a pedestrian crossed the road.  He was knocked down on one knee. Scott-Ellis felt re-assured that he had not injured the pedestrian as the man picked himself up and walked away. Three years later, now 21, Scott-Ellis sat at the Residentz Theatre.  In the adjacent box, the same man sat, the one whom Scott-Ellis had knocked down. Within a few years, Scott-Ellis realized that the man he had knocked down was called Adolf Hitler! If the accident had killed the pedestrian, the history of the world might have been different.

Allow me to narrate how I joined HUL in 1967–by sheer coincidence.

Recognise unearned luck

We are trained to think that success in business must be derived from a single, shaping vision or mission statement that is relentlessly executed.  It is incorrect to imagine design when there was only adaptation and improvisation.  It is wrong to attribute every success to some deliberate plan.

The same hold true of an individual’s life.  We are too easily misled by biographies of great people who, after the fact claim to have meticulously planned their ascent.  The origins of success are much too subtle and complex.  Life does not follow a course and we change in many ways as we grow.

Good outcomes are dressed up as strategic strokes of genius; catastrophes are attributed to bad luck.  Admitting the existence of luck demands the acknowledgement that some things are beyond our control.  However the control-freak side of human nature never allows acceptance of such an uncomfortable state of affairs without a fight. Here are three examples.

  • In 2012, the Olympics were ongoing in London. All eyes were set on SainaNehwal who was playing great badminton.  On 4th August 2012, India’s star, Saina, competed with China’s Wang Xin for the bronze medal.  Left-handed Wang Xin was seeded no. 2 in the world and had all the psychological advantage to win.  Indeed Wang Xin worn the first game at 21-18.  In the last point of the first game, however, Wang Xin twisted her knee.  She received on-court treatment for the injury.At the beginning of the second game, Wang Xin winced and it became obvious that she was in great pain.  Soon Wang Xin had to concede the match and Saina became the first-ever Indian woman to win an Olympic medal in badminton.  With no discredit to Saina, I wonder whether or not it was a case of “unearned luck” for Saina.
  • I was posted to Jeddah in end 1990 as Chairman, Unilever Arabia. Due to Saddam Hussein’s designs on Kuwait, war clouds were gathering over the Arab peninsula.  Indeed on 12th Jan 1991, when I reported at London for my formal induction as Chairman, my boss, Chris Jemmett, welcomed me with the words, “Welcome, the war has begun.”  Everybody around me thought that I was unlucky to be posted at a time when the whole region was about to become war-ravaged.Within six weeks, US Marines and Saudi troops entered Kuwait City and engaged in what came to be known as the Battle of Medina Ridge.  Soon, Iraq and the parties accepted the UN Resolution and the war was over.  Massive government spending followed the cessation of the war.  The economy became buoyant.  This unexpected development certainly helped me to quickly establish Unilever’s Arabian business.  This too was a dramatic transformation of unearned bad luck into unearned good luck, thus making Unilever, myself and all my colleagues as the beneficiaries.
  • Your biggest decision in career and life is who you marry. Your second biggest decision in life and career is who you stayed married to!

Remember that success is a thief

A thief has three characteristics: first, he must not be seen as a thief; second, when he robs you, you don’t know you are being robbed; third, after you realise you have been robbed, you feel very foolish.

We spend our whole life chasing success on the assumption that success will bring happiness.  When you do get success, that success robs you of your happiness.

Charles Michael Schwab was born in 1862.  At age 35, he became President of US Steel, later Carnegie Steel.  He was big, rich and famous.  He built a 75-roomed private house, RIVERSIDE, for USD 7 million.  In the 1929 crash, he lost everything.  In 1939, Charles Michael Schwab dies with a debt of USD 300,000.

Howard Hopson was born in 1882.  By the early 1920, he put together a big clutch of electric and gas companies in NY, Ohio and Pennsylvania.  He then indulged in a number of dubious deals.  By 1940, he faced trial and finally died alone – in a Brooklyn sanatorium.

Work and career account for an asymmetric proportion of our life.  They account for about 40% of our physical life but account for 100% + of our emotional life.  Our work accomplishments, the position we reach and the success we achieve – all define who we are, how others perceive us and all the trappings that come with work.

Family and human relationships, on the other hand, account for a huge proportion of our sense of well-being and happiness.  Nobody who has friends fails to enjoy life.  Conversely, a person with few friends invariably suffers through his or her life.

As managers, our sense of fulfilment is shaped by our search for meaning through our work experiences and human relationships.  Studying at an institution can improve your IQ.  Your work experiences will help to improve your EQ.  But the crises in life will test your LQ (leadership quotient).

As you develop your career, you will realise that you are prone to some weaknesses.  Your “cocktail of weaknesses” is unique to yourself – short temper, arrogance, garrulousness, insensitivity etc.   Being aware of your “cocktail of weaknesses” is as important as playing to your strengths.  Smart people like us can be utterly stupid under certain circumstances.

In Mexico, the Aztecs ruled successfully during the 16th century.  They were much advanced in arts and sciences, but they were blind to a deeply religious belief that one day, their founding father would re-appear in a strange form.  When the rapacious Spanish conqueror, Hernan Cortes, appeared at their border in 1519, the Aztecs thought he was their returning founding God –Cortes was received with gifts and warmth right from the border of the country to the Aztec emperor, Montezuma.  On 13th, the August, 1519, the Aztecs surrendered and the Spanish ruled them for over 300 years.

As a democratic, capitalist nation, India is only 25 years old though, as a civilization, India is 5000 years old.  Between 2000 and today, the last 13-14 years, India’s real per capita income grew at 6% p.a.  Compare this 6% with 3.5% p.a. in the 1980-2000 period, 1.3% p.a. in the 1950-1980 period and under 1% between 1850 and 1950!

In short, India has had the fastest and best growth during this new millennium compared to the fifty milleniums that have preceded it – and in this millennium, we have had NDA as well as UPA, so it is not political.  We have youth, you people as India’s great asset.

Reminds me of what Shashi Kapoor told Amitabh Bachhan in film DEEWAR : mere paasmaahai!

Good luck and God speed.

Words: 1920