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Prabal Basu Roy @ 60 : Musings As I Enter The Golden Phase Of My Life

So here goes : from a stage in life I find myself in : an enviable mix of wisdom, discriminative perspective and youthful, fearless thinking at 60.

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I am simply overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection from my LinkedIn friends, connections and followers on this milestone as I turn 60. At last count 157 wishes….thank you all and, being mid week, will respond to each of you individually over the next few days.

As a measure of my gratefulness, I thought it might be useful – at least to my younger friends – if I share some of my innermost thoughts on some key learnings ( both professional and personal ) which I would follow if I could relive life one more time. Of course, these are my views as life unfolded for me so, apart from my daughters, it is not imperative for anyone to follow this perspective.

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So here goes : from a stage in life I find myself in : an enviable mix of wisdom, discriminative perspective and youthful, fearless thinking at 60.

1.      Life is lived forwards but understood backwards : Soren Kiekergaard ( 1813-1855)

This was the first slide at the Sloan Program at London Business School. And how right our professor was - to make us realize that as we go through life the benefit of age, hindsight and wisdom of someone else ( albeit with credible credentials ) is a very helpful, almost essential, ingredient for our own success. It is for this reason that our texts talk always about Guru and guidance for kings and emperors……of course, the term has been mutilated in today’s world and one must exercise immense circumspection before seeking sane, unmotivated advice.

It is a fact, though, that as I look back today at the many crises or decision points in my life, I realize that it is only now that I fully understand the implications of those moments lived in the past.

2.      When called upon to decide for others in life critical moments, take the decision keeping the best interests of the other person and not your own : Life will reward you ultimately

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Of course, this can be done only for very close relatives or friends. My Dad refused a massive  fortune inheritance as other coparceners were not part of the bequeathal. He chose to remain within his modest means as an army officer and my mother ( whose father had bequeathed the fortune) supported this decision fully. I gave up my corporate career at a time when in 1997,as Finance Director of a major MNC in Asia Pacific, I chose to airlift Dad from hospital in Indonesia and return back to India in a day's notice, with no job or house, for his treatment in India. A decision my wife supported fully : this got us 22 years more with him. Given the realities of corporate politics (especially for those who are brutally objective and straight forward) it did affect my career trajectory to a certain degree as I was the peak at a fairly young age….but the overall package of life, though trying, has been one of peace, fulfillment and happiness.

3.      True friends are rare....and only tested in an adversity by those who stand by you

Those who have experienced an upcycle and then a downcycle in fortunes will only realize the full import of this statement, and not if the cycles have been the other way around. From being "nothing" to "something" is a fulfilling journey with many “friends” in tow. However, if there is unfortunately a phase where from being a "somebody" life makes you a "nobody", then the true character of such “friends” becomes evident. And you will receive some key learnings of life ! Furthermore, if the roller coaster of fate continues and the "nobody" again becomes a "somebody", then just watch the fun. Amitabh Bachhan can perhaps best empathize with this !

Fortunately for me I have had the benefit of three such well wishers and friends who stood by me in my most difficult times in their own way. If I ever get to write a book I will seek their permission to mention their names as two are very famous and humble people who do not like publicity on such things.

4.      Teamwork is another hugely overrated and misused word in organizations. Encourage positive skepticism in teams for robust decision making.

Connotations of “Teamwork” is generally used to arrive at consensus to the dominant narrative, which, not having being debated from all angles, is often a sub optimal solution. It refers to a psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses dissent and appraisal of alternatives. JFK broke this practice and created a genuine framework for transparent decision making which resulted in the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 without an annihilation of the world.

Unfortunately, his legacy in management thinking is till today languishing in the realms of theoretical debate. And skilled, forthright people with the courage of conviction to “dare” going against the dominant narrative are singled out as “not being team players”. If you have such Western ideas in corporations or government in the Eastern world, steeped in a patriarchal/feudal management structure, you have had it…..and survival would require significant skills of influencing, tenacity and courage of conviction.

….As Rabindranath Tagore’s immortal ‘Ekla Chalo Re’ so brilliantly demonstrates.

By the way this applies in many western companies too !

And leaders who surround themselves with people who "always agree" will soon be surrounded by people who have nothing to say !

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5.      Find purpose…….…the means will follow

When Gandhiji rose against the white ticket collector in that train in South Africa as a young, spirited, non-white lawyer he did not know that he will make 300 million people rise with him in the next 30 years…..and end British imperialism across the world. I have found this to inspire me in some of the smaller battles I had to fight…and it works ! But only if the cause is not driven by purely selfish interests and is for the common good.

I had a debate with a Harvard professor, Don Sull, who had done a thesis and taught us a framework he had developed for ensuring success in achieving objectives. My debate, from an Eastern mindset, opposing the above proposition and postulating that one cannot “plan” for success is still remembered.

6.      Objectivity in making decisions : Ability to divorce people from issues

A core learning early in my career from my time as the CFO and BT Nominee in Wipro BT ( a 50-50 JV between Wipro and BT ) in 1995 from the likes of Mr. Premji …clarity and objectivity in decision making is compromised by the convoluted play of ego, relationships and self interests. Unless we inculcate the very difficult mindset of separating the people from the issues at hand, we will never be brutally objective and clear in making critical decisions on complex issues which need resolution.

Arjun was similarly coached by Lord Krishna when he was required to kill Bhishma Pitamah, and his confusion in doing so forms the basis of the immortal teachings of the Holy Gita.

However, in a social structure which equates sycophancy as a metaphor for loyalty, be prepared to face intense opposition when you take such principled positions often from the very people whose interests you are trying to serve by such actions perceived to be against, by definition, powerful interests.

Often the King is different from the Kingdom……but how many realize that if you do well for the common good ( the Kingdom) it will also be beneficial for the organisation and the stakeholders ( the King) in the medium term ? Understanding this alignment, and working towards making it happen, is critical to sustainable organizational success.

Confucius died a pauper in about 500BC because his revolutionary ideas to eliminate bloodshed and extreme violence as a state instrument did not suit the local Kings who sought his advice ………… is another matter that Confucianism got accepted 200 years after his death and, till today, is the dominant philosophy in most of the Far Eastern hemisphere.

7.      Avoid escalation and conflict, strive for de-escalation, engagement but be prepared for a fight for your conviction if it is for the common/ larger good

A true leader should always have a non adversarial approach to conflict resolution and, as both Confucius, and later Sun Tsu, preached, “war is to be avoided if objectives can be achieved thru alternative means”. Humility with firmness helps. A core leadership tenet I have followed later in life is to ensure that mere differences do not transform into disputes.

This I have found is especially useful in post merger integration of different cultures, turnaround situations, legal battles, hostile takeover bids, JV negotiations, Board disputes, etc, etc.

8.      Help and reach out to those in need in your circle ( large scale philanthropy is very different though ) without any expectations of any returns from him/her

Most well endowed people find this very difficult to do especially when it comes to extending even limited financial support in the context of their fortunes. In fact, the more people have, the more economical they become when it comes to supporting people in need … if it does not come with attendant recognition or some self interest. This is despite the fact that in such equations the “value” of the “grant” itself is hugely disproportionate when viewed through the lens of the two concerned participants.

There are extremely rare exceptions to this, and God bless their breed.

Believe me when I say this : if you can practice this ( and the key is without expectations of returns from him/her) help will come to you when you need it most from unexpected quarters. Divine restitution !

9.      Balance and hope : foremost amongst all the angelical qualities worth inculcating

The first helps throughout life in making proper, sustainable choices; whilst the other during crisis periods : both of which will be needed as we go thru life

10.  Develop and encourage intuitive capabilities

Easier said than done but totally possible. We all have powers of intuition within us….mostly dormant though. Meditation is key to activating it.

It completely cuts the clutter and allows you to “see” the “reality” of the situation, and not what you are being shown ! Eliminates the "dhrishyam" effect. The benefit of such capabilities as we go thru life is best understood with the lens of hindsight and perspective over time….especially for leaders.

Parting thoughts

It is natural to do some stock taking at such an important milestone in life. What have I got in life ? A loving, caring family, god like parents, two lovely daughters and lots of good wishes, a handful of substantive friends, well wishers, some wisdom and lots of perspective. Happiness and peace despite challenging situations has been a natural corollary though the windshield is still blurred ( Courtesy : Warren Buffet ).

* At a human level, life is not about getting the best bargain by exploiting human vulnerabilities. This is especially true in corporates. Leadership which builds trust cum competency based relationships must ensure that both sides are happy with the terms of engagement and neither side feels they got their best deal….else organizations run the risk of pushing highly trustworthy, committed and competent resources ( a rare combination) to competition.

* Don’t confuse intelligence with a bull market (or, in these times, liquidity) : Similarly, unless humility is your prime character trait, early successes can very often be attributed solely to competence but not the circumstances. This forms the basis of hubris which is a sure recipe for disaster later on.

* Discovering, and making peace with, one’s ignorance is a fulfilling journey to one’s core, and helps in breaking out from that room of our own making we all find ourselves trapped in as we go thru life

* And, always find opportunities to sharpen the axe as you go thru life because your skills is all that makes you valuable and sought after. And instead of being known only by the company you work for ( eg : Chairman Unilever ) try for the state in which the company is also known for your association with it ( Warren Buffet invests in Unilever ). In other words, be recognized beyond merely your professional calling card.

It is quite liberating!

....And finally

Abo shese tumi aaar ami

Only those who understand the nuances of the Bengali language will be able to appreciate the depth of the following lines : “Abo shese tumi aaar ami”. This only applies to those who are fortunate to have a loving, understanding and supportive spouse.

Loosely translated it means: At the end of it all, it is down to just you and me.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Prabal Basu Roy

Prabal Basu Roy

A Sloan Fellow from the London Business School, Director and Advisor to Chairmen of corporate boards, the author has formerly been a Group CFO in various companies.

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