A psychology professor enters a classroom and places a jar on the table, with some sand, pebbles, rocks and water alongside it. He asks his students to put all the contents into the jar. Every attempt made by the students ends unsuccessfully, with either pebbles or rocks being left behind. The professor then shows the students an alternate way. He first places all the rocks in the jar, then all the pebbles, and later empties the entire sand, which fits nicely in the crevices between the rocks and pebbles. Finally, without disturbing the setup, he manages to pour all the water into the jar. The underlying message in the tale is a reflection of our lives: where we often prioritise sand and water (insignificant things) and leave out the real big things (rocks or pebbles). It’s a mistake that Rajiv Vij chose not to make.
It was in 2006 that Vij quit his job as managing director (Asia, Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe) for Franklin Templeton Investments and embraced his true calling, what he refers to as making a ‘life shift’. The move gave Vij a shot at living the good life: reading a lot, writing, spending quality time with family and playing sports. To make a living, as against the 12-16 hours he spent each day at his previous job, Vij today spends six hours a day coaching corporate executives. He recently authored his maiden book, Discovering Your Sweet Spot — A Soul Searching Guide for Creating the Life You Really Want. In an interaction with Outlook Business, Vij throws light on what his new calling is all about.
What kind of people do you coach?
When I started off, there was no criteria. Whoever wanted to be coached, be it individuals or corporates, I would take them on board. But now, it’s 75% corporates, where the company engages me to coach their leaders, CXOs and senior management; 10% reach out on their own because they think they need guidance; while 15% comprise leaders from the social sector. That’s the pro bono work that I do. As far as their age group is concerned, it’s largely between 40 and 55. There’s a reason behind this: all these achievers say that it’s lonely at the top and they feel the need for an unbiased, neutral person to talk to. That is also the age when most of us go through a phase in life when we begin to contemplate on our limitations. At 20, you feel like you can conquer the world, at 30 you sort of feel good, but 40 is when you end up facing a whole lot of issues that you need to resolve. At this age, you start questioning yourself; you might be facing some stumbling blocks at work, you may have certain questions around the state of your relationship, your marriage may not be in as good shape as it used to be, you may have teenage kids who are difficult to handle, and so on. That’s when deeper conversations with someone you can open up to are very revealing, refreshing and offer an opportunity for change.
What is the nature of your mandate?
Firstly, my work is to put clients on a process of self-discovery. I am not a mentor or a guide offering them prescriptive solutions. I don’t have a formula that will make people good leaders. What I do is to make individuals come up with their own five-point formula that will help them become more effective leaders. It’s a journey of self-awareness. When you’re in a leadership position, you cannot distinguish between personal effectiveness and professional effectiveness. Who you are begins to come through very quickly — whether you are courageous, temperamental, insecure, perfectionist, whatever. Which is why I work with individuals from a holistic point of view. So I work on anything from leadership to managing boards, to finding one’s calling, emotional issues, temperament. I have a process to help people discover their own answers. It’s a rich conversation.
Could you give us examples and explain how you dealt with them?
Okay, let’s say that someone says, “I’m stressed out”. One reason for being stressed may be because you are a perfectionist — that’s what you have been rewarded for throughout your career. While it’s fine to perfect certain things, you can’t and don’t need to perfect everything. As I said, my conversations are meant to create self-awareness. So, typically, I’ll ask, “Hey, what’s happening? When do you get stressed? What do you get stressed about? Is it to do with people, is it self-created, or is it your fear or failure? Is it coming from your need to prove yourself or to be perfect?” Then I make the person aware of other options. So, I ask, “Is this the only way or is there another way you can function?” Very often, we all work as per our own belief systems. A part of the belief system may be true, while some of it you may simply rationalise and get stuck with. So you just accept it and try and deal with it. But then you need to think beyond that, think of a desired future. You need to imagine what a day when you are able to do everything and be effective, and yet not feel stressed out, will look like. I will urge the person to give shape to that day in the future. Knowing the contours of what’s going on, and what you want it to be like, and then start working on a personal plan, and doing something about it. And then, I take people through that execution — explain how the system worked, what was the problem, and so on.
Give us one tip on how to be more effective and less stressed at work.
One of the things that people find useful is figuring out, say, the three things that really matter to them. So, think about your most important life priorities in the coming 12 months. Typically, people spend only 25-30% of their time on these priorities. Then think about what you would ideally like it to be and what needs to change to make that happen, and work towards that. If you can make this shift, it will bring about a big change. You should look at life and work separately. To have a better life, you need to be able to spend lesser time at work. And to do better at work, you need to able to prioritise on important stuff. So, on the work side, if you get that right, you will free up time.
You can set priorities for a month, hopefully emanating from your annual priorities. It can be something like creating a digital game plan, for example. That’s the big thing to achieve in a year. For you as a journalist, it’s not that big a deal if you get one story more or less, but moving towards a digital plan could be a game-changer. The idea is not to rush anything but block time for everything that is important. When you think of your week, block time for things; each day, block time for the most important things. Nothing is then based on hope. Nothing is left to chance. Then you start to question other things on the list. Ask yourself, do we need to do this. If yes, then do I need to do this? Even if I need to do this, should I do this with the same frequency? Do I give it the same amount of time? Look at ways of reducing physical time. That will free up a lot of time.
But physical absence does not take away the stress, because you may be mentally occupied and stressed about situations all the time
Yes, there is also the emotional side; once you become very aware of it, you can work on it. My question usually is: do you know of anyone in your type of role who you think is far more at peace, less stressed? Sometimes you can’t think of anyone, but sometimes you do. Think about what is it that they do that you can pick up. In India, you always need a plan B. Even if someone needs to be picked up from the airport, you need a plan B, because suddenly the person you are meeting will fall sick, or the car will break down, or something else will happen. Half the time, your mind is busy with all that. Now, can you let go of all that? Can you create a structure to analyse all those things? It’s difficult to make those shifts because we are wired in a certain way.
Meditation, again, is a very effective tool to handle the emotional aspect. If you can create 15 minutes to reflect and connect with your deeper self, it will be helpful. It works for me but I don’t prescribe it to people. I just ask them what they think will work for them. It’s a very holistic approach. At the end of it, people find themselves in a different place from where they started. It’s like a refresher in some ways. We start looking at life in a different way.
Can you tell us about some more transformative stories?
I worked with a leader in Thailand who was a great performer but was temperamental. His first question was, “I am doing well and this is what has worked for me — push people, get things done. So, tell me, should I be Mr. Calm, or should I be effective?” I asked him, does it have to be either-or? For him, for quite some time, it was either-or. But I pushed him to think of people who were calm and effective; come up with a list of people who are like that. Then, suddenly, a whole bunch of ideas started to come up. It starts with some behavioural shifts — he started saying I’m not going to be upset even if my people push some shoddy stuff my way; it is a decision I am committing to, I am not going to get upset. He did that for a while but later came back and said, while I am not expressing my anger, I still am angry. Then we start working on the emotional aspects.
We get upset when there is a mismatch between expectations and reality. Are my expectations too high? Should they be high for everybody, all the time? Can you set up boundaries and then let people play the way they want to within those boundaries? So, the first step is to moderate your expectations. No point fighting the reality all the time; you have to accept it and that’s a skill. Whether pleasant or unpleasant; accept what life presents to you and let go.
I had another person from Pakistan, who said, “I am never where I am. I am wired this way, I want to change, but I can’t.” So we set a goal for him: always enjoying the moment, 24/7. The thing with these conversations is that every goal has an impact on so many other things. His engagement with work went up, he used to be restless but became more relaxed, his family life was better. Now when he is with the kids, he is with the kids.
There was this outstanding guy at work but he could not get along with people. He was extremely goal-driven and wouldn’t accept any compromises. One day, he told me, “I have been thinking about this lately. I think I am not a good human being. I don’t think I am a bad person but interactions with me are never pleasant. With my boss, I freak out if he is not transparent, I get angry if my subordinates don’t present things the way I want, and it’s the same story at home as well.” I asked him, “How much would you rate yourself as human being? He answered, “2/10”. “Where do you want to be?” His answer was, “7/10”. That was a big deal for him. As we worked through this, he felt liberated. Around the eighth session or so, he said, “I just hope I am not losing my edge. I am becoming Mr. Soft.” But he found his balance. The thing is, one size does not fit all. The two problems are exactly the same and yet different people dealt with them in different ways.