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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Intelligence, Talent and Character

I have often contemplated on how connected –or not -are these three attributes of intelligence, talent and character.

A recent detailed story on Ritesh Agarwal had me mulling over this again. Ritesh, for those who may not have heard of him, is that perfect, prodigal son that every Indian parent yearns for. Born and raised in a small town in Orissa, he started coding software at eight. He was one of the young stars selected for the pre-collegiate Asian Science Camp. By 17 he had authored a best-selling book and had become the youngest CEO in India. By 19 he had gotten angel investment and today the company is valued at Rs 360 crore. In the meanwhile, he also got a prestigious scholarship.

But there’s another side to this story. Ritesh doesn’t seem unduly perturbed by what is ‘right’. So he ditched a partner when he got a bigger break. He promoted the company to angel investors, plumping up the actual figures. He had tie-ups with just 30 small hotels, he claimed 3000 because ‘it is done this way’. He lied about several things along the way. When the valuation grew, he dodged his partner to get him to sign away his shares.

As the story unfolded because of a nosey journalist, other lies have surfaced: He never got selected for the ASC. Neither did his book become a best seller.

The angel investors continue to believe in his ‘youth and passion’ maybe because of the money they have put in. But the question here is: Why do we often think intelligence or talent are synonymous with character?

This is typically what parents do when looking for a groom or companies do when looking for salespeople. Let a brilliant academic record come to them and parents often get totally mesmerised. Any character anomaly is condoned or wished away with ideas like, “He will change”. Not surprising that there are as many domestic violence cases amongst the educated as among the unlettered.

This is a familiar note even in the corporate space. Just the other day, a senior professional whom I met, agreed that if a fellow was bringing in good sales, many other fundamental things were ignored.

Now the other way round…

Why should I expect a talented cricketer to have the altruistic character of a Baba Amte? Just because someone is talented, why should he be expected to be the biggest, most powerful voice in every area? But that is typical of human expectation. We expect our stars to be passionate social crusaders and philanthropists besides performing as actors and sportsmen. This is an unfair –and unrealistic- expectation.

So how should one select an associate for any role and what is the weightage that should be given to these three attributes? Also, can any of these three attributes be developed later with training?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

If the Alphabet was Patented

Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla Motors was in the news some time back for announcing that his company is going to hand over the keys to hundreds of its patents so as to help the electric vehicle technology develop faster, globally.

This is reminiscent of Tim Berners-Lee who refused to patent the World Wide Web. Or before him, Linus.

And even before that Alexander Fleming who, when asked why he didn’t want to patent penicillin, asked, “Can you patent the sun?”

This note is in a way a continuation of one of my previous posts which revolves around using and controlling knowledge for personal wealth augmentation.

The debate around patents isn’t new. Patenting incentivises research, believes the pro-group. It prevents the development of knowledge that can help humanity at large, says the anti-group.

While we comprehend the patenting of newer, modern technologies in India, we stop agreeing with the concept when a western entity wants to patent say, turmeric. We believe that that is ridiculous because the benefits of turmeric have always been in the public knowledge domain. At this moment we could sit for a moment and think – what if those ‘vedic’ people had laws that helped binding their knowledge into arrangements whereby their future generations would be paid every time someone used a turmeric paste to heal a wound or cure a bad cough.

And as a colleague- a vociferous believer of a non-patented world argues- what of the alphabet you use to write this blog was patented? And you had to pay a fee every time you wrote? Or you paid every time you used numbers? It seems ludicrous when we think of paying for everything we use simply because when this was high technology or higher learning, no one thought of ‘owning’ this knowledge.

The concept of knowledge belonging to the world at large comes from older civilizations where society was above the individual. I recall reading the lines in the book, My Name is Red where it is said- to paraphrase loosely- the ancient cultures have left behind unmatched art because the artist was nameless and egoless. It was the art he created, mostly in the name of his God that made it so spiritual and pure. Individualism, a concept that was incubated in Western societies, he indicates, has lessened the sheen of the nameless beauty in art. The character says that art will no longer be as great if it is recognised by the name of the artist because it involves the individual ego.

There is enough material to read on older, tribal societies that yet follow ancient norms of living as a community above living as individual. The joys and benefits of that living are easy to understand. But of course, it is impossible for us living as we are today to imagine changing our surroundings on their head.

So is there a way to incorporate these ideas in our lives? A simple suggestion was made by a 92-year old Japanese doctor when he was asked the secret of his active and happy life. He said simply: Before the age of 60, work for yourself; after that work for society. The element of looking away from the self and focusing on the greater, common good is suggested one way or the other by all these wise men and civilizations. Maybe it’s time we bring in the element of community service in small ways in our lives. Ironically, this would serve a greater selfish end of probably locating happiness and peace.

Sunday, December 7, 2014


Who are you?

I posed this question to myself and tried to answer it. The response was something like this- female, Indian, Kashimiri, ex-corporate executive now an entrepreneur…..Other things like age and characteristics followed. I then did a dip stick survey. I asked a few people the question: Who are you? Explain to an alien.

Their responses were interesting. Some people halted at defining their professions if they had changed track or were on a sabbatical. Others fumbled over their religion if they had parents from different religions. But no one doubted themselves at the first descriptor: their gender.

Most of us live in a convenient space where people are neatly divided under two, completely separate genders. While we know the issues of belonging to our gender, we have never given a thought to how it must be to have our gender under a scanner.

This is something Dutee Chand, 18, has been dealing with. And has had the biggest shocks of her life connected to. This June, she won two gold medals at the Junior Athletics Championships. She was set to compete in the IAAF and Commonwealth Games when on July 12 her world began to crumble. The doctor at the Sports Authority of India called her, conducted some tests over three days and told her, without giving any explanation, that she couldn’t compete. She first thought she may not have cleared the drugs tests. But she knew she had never taken any drugs.

What she didn’t know is that she had a condition medically known as hyperandrogenism. Due to this, she produces more of testosterone, the ‘male’ hormone, than the average woman. So she was barred from competing as a woman.

It would feel strange if your gender identity was questioned, even more if you were not allowed to do your work due to it. Interestingly, in science there isn’t even one marker that conclusively separates male from female. Every woman produces male hormones, men produce female hormones. The gender as we recognise is a blend of many factors in many nuances. Let’s say, there’s no litmus test for defining a person’s gender. Most of us fall in the range where we ‘appear’ like men or women to everyone else. But in sports this is put under the scanner quite intrusively.

Does an unclear, gender-specific appearance of a person make us judge them beyond their work and behaviour?

Do leave behind your answer.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


It’s probably for the first time that I read a newspaper piece on how to close your business correctly and ‘gracefully’ as the headline proclaimed. The case being studied was that of one of Mumbai’s oldest mobile service providers which has one million customers.

The opinions of business owners, professors and industry executives converged on the following: 1) Being fair to all stakeholders- company management, promoters and employees. 2) Being fair to vendors and customers. 3) Transparent and honest communication with every one of the above 4) Placement of assets- both physical and human- in other companies.

So while it worries about its own reputation, does a company have to think of all this too? Why? That’s because, as one commentator says, lenders do not forget. How you close shop is indicative of how you manage and can adversely affect the fortunes of the other companies of the promoter or promoting group.

While all the above speak of the business side of the story, there is also the business of honour, the ‘right thing to do’. They suggest: Distribute the remaining funds among the stakeholders so no one feels cheated or short-changed. For the same reason, they say, give good reference letters to employees, absolving them of the responsibility for the shutdown.

The ‘right thing to do’ mostly means that stuff that won’t bring you down legally but you will think about it when you introspect.

I can remember over a decade back the debacle of ABCL, the Amitabh Bachchan-promoted entertainment company that became a basket case, taking down with it many people’s money and reputation. He was clearly safe legally and the company could have easily filed under BIFR and saved itself a lot of bother. But Mr. Bachchan felt that he was morally obliged to returning people’s money because he was the big reason they had invested. He went back to work- starting with KBC- and returned every paisa. So the story goes.

On the other side, around the same time, were innumerable cases where companies that weren’t doing well wanting to shut down. Promoters were forcing Voluntary Retirement Schemes down employees’ throats, making a joke of the purpose of the schemes. There were companies where employees agitated and cases may still be stuck in courts all over. Labour unions were fighting battles for them but I am not sure how many got resolved.

How to behave with grace when the chips are down always makes for an inspiring tale. And most often, it is led by character, not law.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Almost hundred years ago, Hungarian writer, Frigyes Karinthy, based his short story called Chains on what can today be recognised as the power of social networking. The story works on the premise that a person like you or me can be in touch with any other person among the 1.5 billion that inhabit this Earth through a chain of five people, each person using only his social contacts. This means I may be only four people away from Barack Obama or Roger Federer.

It’s an interesting thought though nobody has tried it out. And it is pertinent in this era of growing social networking. How far does social networking take you or work for you? Everyone has many more friends on Facebook than they’ve ever had in real life. Just a personal observation- albeit with no formal data to back up- is that people who are more reclusive in real life seem to have many more FB friends. If I only look around, the most effervescent and social extroverts I know have limited FB activity but some quiet mouse may have a surprising number of ‘friends’. So does such a platform give you a chance to build relationships which can have a long-lasting, positive effect? If I think back, I have made friends online but I have never tested those ‘friendships’ for anything so far.

Or let’s look offline. Social networks- be they school and college alumni organisations or professional ones- seem to have something for us to gain and share. We share experiences and some people seem to have the acumen to get business from such fora too. If nothing else, you always feel a sense of belonging, a context for your existence. It’s always encouraging to learn that there are others who may be interested in how you do a training session or what the hurdles in writing code or selling medicines in remote areas are. You also learn from other people and they get to know you.

But there’s a short side to it. Social networks can put a pressure on you to be like everybody else. Groups can lead to ‘groupism’. You may feel the obligation to conform.

Again, the white-collared workers, the managers and the executives, don’t seem to network to negotiate the best business as we see in say, taxi and factory unions or the village groups haggling for higher returns on their land the government wants to buy.

So is the kinship of this bracket only skin deep? Does it not perceive power in group strength? What do you think?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Thank You for Calling

Last week I called my credit card company. I had been charged for a late payment and I wanted to get that reversed. The gentleman who answered my call told me that I had been charged because my payment came in late. “But I dropped my cheque in before the due date!” I protested. His answer was nothing I expected.

His answer: “The payment should reach us by the due date, not your cheque. A bank takes three to four days to clear a cheque is something everybody knows. So you should have dropped your cheque in accordingly.” This was delivered in a condescending, soft tone after which he told me that he could do nothing about reversing the charges.

I reeled under this bolt of “customer service” for some time. After I recovered from it, I realised I had to understand two issues about the customer-seller relationship: 1) How much can/ should a seller expect a customer to know? 2) If the customer is at fault technically, who should pay for it?

1) How much should be expected of a customer in this case, for instance? Can a customer not confuse “due date” with last date for deposit of cheque rather than receipt of payment? We always tend to look at the story from our side. So a customer feels he has already “paid” when he drops off the cheque. I think a seller should take the trouble to understand this and issue the ‘due date’ accordingly. Holding a customer responsible like this, almost chiding him for being as stupid as to not know even this much about simple banking rules can only make him go away, not come to you. And can’t such a slip happen easily? Instead, just issue the due date four days earlier. To presume that your customer knows what is common knowledge to you, can be potentially dangerous. Doctors do this often. They presume you know when the pills should be had. I can recall a doctor I went to once saying that I should’ve known that if I felt nauseous, I could  have had a Domstal! It was my mistake- the patient’s mistake- to have not known it. Not his to have actually forgotten to write it.

2) The second part is trickier. In this case, how much does it cost to ignore this claimed error? And up to what point should a seller absorb the implied cost or loss? I had to tell this young man that I had been issuing cheques and dropping them off just the same way for over ten years that I held the card. Nobody had said this to me before him. He still did not feel the need to get politer. He only transferred me to Marketing.  The next gentleman calmed my ruffled feathers, quickly sorted the matter out and deleted the charges. He probably checked out that I had a clear history of payment for over a decade. He also probably knew I had, like any customer of my profile, another three or four cards in my wallet.

Letting a customer get the benefit of doubt and requesting him to issue the cheque a little earlier would have gone a long way, I think. His training should include this customer empathy. His training should include the learning that he has his job because customers pay their bills mostly on time. The polished pronunciation and accent is less important. Training should include teaching him not to make a conversation into an argument. His success lies in concluding the chat as quickly as possible, not proving to the customer that he is a fool.

Listening to a customer gives you the direction of progress. If he had listened to me then he would have heard that his bank had no drop box anywhere close to where I lived. If he had probed further, he would’ve heard that I now use another card more frequently because it allows me to make online payment transfers. But he wasn’t interested.

So end result: I use this card very rarely now. And I wasn’t surprised to learn that this big, international bank has had a tough run globally over the past few years with business slipping away. Maybe many others have been left disgruntled before me too.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Make a Left or Take a left?

My colleague, Charubala, who steers the language division of our little company, can talk endlessly on language. Her interest in observing how English is used by people of different generations, nationalities, backgrounds is very engaging. I will share a few nuggets with you here today.

One trend she observes in American users- people who like to simplify English and bring more logic to its confusing syntax, grammar and sentence structure- are the most forward in ‘verbing’. In our language programmes we encourage people to use verb forms of words to shorten sentences. The American users have taken it way forwards and made verbs of nouns that never existed when English for us meant British English. We all already know and often use ourselves, words like ‘access’ and ‘extract’ as verbs, even though they continue to shock classical users. So we now say, “I can access this data easily.” The classical use would be “I can have access to this data easily.” When I was in school I was taught that ‘extract’ could be a verb when talking of say, juice. You can extract juice from sugarcane but you couldn’t say that a poem is ‘extracted’ from a book. You had to say, “This poem is an extract from the book…” That’s obviously changed. Younger people may even be surprised to hear about such ‘primitive’ uses of words.

Some of the newer verbs she has been reading about are ‘helm’, ‘chagrin’, and strangely, ‘reverence’. So sentences from American publications and newsletters can read like “He helms this company.”/ “I was chagrined to hear about the delay.” / Today is reverenced as SuperBowl Day.

So then is there anything like wrong English? Languages undergo changes with changing social scenarios and shifting economic power. If the language is used alternately by an economic superpower, it is seen and recorded as a ‘change’ in the language. So we recognise American English as different from British English and then there’s Australian. The spelling too varies and an Indian language professional needs to know both the variants. But Americans can barely recognise British spelling and British users don’t enjoy American spelling. They like to use ‘programme’ and ‘colour’ and ‘manoeuvre’ among a myriad other words. Indian English, with its sheer growth and significance, has established itself in the literary world though business place English in India is largely American. But in India we tend to use a mix of British and American spelling, quite unknowingly. So most Indian users prefer ‘program’ but yet choose to use ‘neighbour’ instead of ‘neighbor’. We use ‘forward’ instead of the British ‘forwards’ but interestingly we use ‘backwards’ like the British do. So an Indian speaker will say, “Let’s take this discussion forward.” But he is most likely to say, “Let’s not move backwards.”

And amidst all this, how do we look at it if users of non-English speaking countries use English differently? Well, that certainly is counted as a mistake. Don’t you agree?