The former Tata Sons executive director, who is just out with his eighth book, doesn’t believe in hanging up his boots but simply finding new challenges to push himself
If you ask R Gopalakrishnan what he does now, post his retirement in 2015, the former executive director of Tata Sons will tell you — with alacrity — that he ‘wastes’ his time. It’s an acronym for writing; advising companies; speaking at various events; teaching at some business schools; and lots of exercise with tennis, golf and walking. “I wanted to put that on my card,” says Gopalakrishnan who, it turns out, has a quirky sense of humour. “But it was such an unfortunate combination of letters that my wife [Geeta, director, Tata Medical Centre] immediately shot it down. And she came up with the name Mindworks instead.”
It’s the company that manages Gopalakrishnan’s various commitments — from mentoring start-ups to speaking pro bono at various events — which, despite almost 50 years in the corporate world, still “energise” him. “Nobody should retire. You should re-fire,” he says, “and apply your energy to something else. After spending most of my life earning a living, I wanted to spend my later years doing things I enjoy, whether or not they generate an income.”
Gopalakrishnan has just published his eighth book. Crash: Lessons from the entry and exit of CEOs is an engaging take on the failures and foibles of top leaders told through 15 case studies of global and Indian companies. “Companies are obsessed with succession planning. But what they really should plan for, is the predecessor,” he says. “If the predecessor is still around, either as an advisor or a non-executive Board member, it becomes a problem for the successor.” Of the case studies included, in eight instances, the predecessor refuses to hand over the reins to the next person. Gopalakrishnan cites, among others, the example of the infamous spat between Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy and his designated successor Vishal Sikka, which led to Sikka exiting the company. “Performance is obviously an important metric for good leadership, but there is a second metric — what we call the softer side — that is just as important,” says Gopalakrishnan. “It’s about the CEO’s relationship with the Board, with investors, with the community and even with the government.”
One example glaringly absent from the book is the leadership crisis that played out before Gopalakrishnan’s eyes: Of Tata Sons’ Chairman Emeritus Ratan Tata locked in a very public battle with former Chairman Cyrus Mistry. “I will never write about that because I don’t believe I can be emotionally distanced from it,” Gopalakrishnan says.
He started writing books quite by accident. A publisher, who attended a talk of his on how leaders fail when intuition fails, convinced Gopalakrishnan to expand the idea into a book. “The presentation delivered a specific message — that when you become too analytical and fact-based, you depart from intuition. And intuition and rationality are not alternatives to each other; they’re part of the same straight line,” he says. “There comes a point in the road when rationality ends because you have no more data, and then you have to continue on that road with intuition. I’ve found that most important decisions in life are taken on intuition.”
Gopalakrishnan clearly has a feel for the softer side of things himself. Some years ago, he began tracing his family’s history through the generations. “It’s an episodic study, where I collected stories told to me by my grandfather, who had heard them from his grandfather,” he says. “There’s an inherent curiosity in every human being to know where s/he came from. When my father and other family elders were alive, I started interviewing them, asking them what they could remember of their childhood. I collected all these episodic histories, bought books on the Madras presidency, and started putting it together.” The documentation was supplemented by books like a three-volume study, dating back to 1911, of the communities of India (there were 3,000 at the time). “I wanted to capture how people felt when the first newspaper came out, or when the first post office was set up.
Once he’d written it all down, Gopalakrishnan realised that he’d taken his life much too seriously. “As though it was the beginning and end of mankind,” he says. “But actually, it’s just a comma in a much longer sentence. English-language grammar teaches you that placing the comma in a certain way can change the meaning of a sentence completely. In my case my father, who was not educated, left our village in Tamil Nadu and moved to Kolkata for a job, which then enabled me to get a good education and send my children abroad to study as well. My father’s life was a comma, with which he changed the trajectory of the whole sentence — the lives and fortunes of the subsequent generations. And we’re not special; this is true of every family. That’s what I wanted to convey.” When it comes to such reality checks and bare-knuckle lessons in humility, it’s clear that Gopalakrishnan is not ready for a full-stop himself, just yet.