Secret Diary Of A CEO 2017

"Be persistent and build on the strength of your performance"

Secret Diary of Ravi Uppal

  • Sounding board My wife, Geeta
  • Bliss Spending time with my mother
  • Best friend My IIT classmate Balasubramanian, who went on to become president of World Bank for Asia Pacific
  • People who inspired me V Krishnamurthy, for his energy, discipline, leadership skills; Percy Barvenik, for his dedication and committment to work and futuristic thinking; Azim Premji, for being a giver - he calls himself a custodian of wealth, not a consumer of his wealth
  • Most important thing People & relationships
  • Beliefs Faith in oneself, focus on the job and execution, promise less deliver more, build teams
  • Turning points Admission in IIT, nomination to the managing board of ABB
  • Quest Eradicate poverty, misery, enable people for a better life
  • Most touching moment When a driver said, I have never sat on a chair, in a classroom, during a Volvo drivers programme
  • Greatest gratification Ability to give to others
  • Good life Mohammad Rafi, Jazz, Symphonies of Mozart, Red wine, Single Malt, bridge, squash, golf
  • Wish list Learn to play the piano


I had a typical middle-class upbringing, growing up in Delhi on a bureaucrat father’s limited income. In our kind of families, from the time you’re old enough to dress yourself, you are told that your passport to a good life is education. And that is what dictates your actions every day. I always wanted to do well in class, and figured out early that I had an aptitude for quant. So, I went to IIT. That is where the best in class end up going to the US, and that became the next goal. But, after I gained admission in Stanford, a close relative who was a professor in Berkeley had a tragic death and my worried parents shot down my plans of going to the West.

I was shattered. When you are young, you are always told that hard work will get you what you want. This was the first time I came across a situation where I worked for something but could not enjoy the fruit of my labour. It took some time before my mother’s regular lessons from the Bhagavad Gita dawned on me — it is your duty to do what you must, but you have no control on the outcome. When you look at the past, you have to be a fatalist and accept events for how they turn out but, going forward, you have to be a karmayogi, nevertheless.

IIM Ahmedabad was the next best option, so that’s where I went and then landed at BHEL through campus placement. That was 1975. I was privileged to get to work with V Krishnamurthy, who was a legend. He was the architect of BHEL; he set up Maruti; and he completely revamped the Steel Authority of India. He was one of the most outstanding managers, a great visionary and very good with implementation. He never raised his voice and never pushed us, except in very subtle ways. He would give us a job at 10 pm, and ask about the progress at 6 am. He taught us how to set the bar and how to keep raising it. For instance, he taught us how to build business and personnel in the system. I was 23-years-old and he was my role model. In fact, I was so smitten by Krishnamurthy that I wanted to join the IAS, after he became secretary for Ministry of Heavy Industries.

I was in a dilemma when the Libya offer arrived as I had already been selected for the IAS. The Libyan assignment was a joint venture between the governments of India and Libya to undertake electrification of the African nation. The money was good, so I swung in favour of Libya. That experience was both revealing and educating — how big contracts were negotiated, how project planning happens and so on.

I can’t forget my trip to Erlangen, Germany for an inspection. A serious-looking engineer from Siemens had come to pick me up from the airport — he was blond, big-built and German. We had to travel 100 km from the airport to get to the inspection site, but as soon as we got into the car, Josef Lubbens wanted me to go through the file he had carried along to bring me up to speed with what we were expected to do. I wanted to tell him, “Listen, buddy, it’s a nice drive, I want to look at the countryside…” But no, he was keen on utilising that 50-minute driving time to the fullest. I returned from that trip very impressed by the Germans. The level of growth and development that they have attained today, its all because of their attitude and discipline. They are so productivity-conscious, it’s unbelievable!

The real eye-opener, though, came two years later, when I moved to Europe: I was shocked and depressed by the huge gap in living standards. I had switched jobs to Siemens and was posted in Erlangen, Germany, and then later moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia.

It was the first time I was reporting to a foreign boss. In India, we work on similar thought processes, but in a multinational company, there are people around you who look at you through a different lens. Goal-setting was formal, the review process was formal, there was no personalised approach to the business. Right from the president, everyone had a role to play and they all had a target to achieve. It was all clinical, not much emotions involved. I was used to a more personalised, emotional work culture. Here we had our task cut out systematically: you do well, you perform, you were fine; if you didn’t do well, you were given one more chance and then, you go. It felt alien, but I was learning to cope.
In 1981, I joined ASEA for a long innings. I started at the ASEA headquarters in Vasteras— an industrial town 120 km west of Stockholm as technical coordinator of large projects before I moved to Qatar two years later as resident manager.

When I first went to Sweden, I had a culture shock. India and Sweden seemed like a study in contrast, culturally. The work ethic and outlook there was — and still is— totally different. Swedes are extremely disciplined: if Pers Danforse — my boss’s boss, and a great mentor — called for a meeting at 7.30, he would be there at 7.29; I could set my watch by him. Another trait that stumped me was that they were such good listeners. In India, I was used to people competing to speak and cutting each other off. In Sweden, everyone would listen patiently; there was a true intent to build consensus and much time was spent on planning.

Productivity levels were very high even though no one worked on weekends — they would simply switch off and turn to their pastimes. Everyone had a strong hobby, evidently because of generally higher living standards. There was no one sitting and watching television at home, like in India; they were out, mostly playing a sport, or doing their housekeeping chores, from fixing gadgets to plumbing and carpentry. I tried to absorb as much as I could, and be a part of it. I took to squash, and then did cross-country skiing.

ASEA had a system of appointing a buddy to help out newcomers. Magnus Kwarnmark was my buddy, who explained to me things that, for an Indian, seemed unfathomable — stopping your vehicle at unmanned signals, for instance. I adapted slowly to the Swedish way of life, ate their food, learnt their language and culture. Cultural openness is so very important when you live in an alien environment. You have to learn how you can take to their ways and still retain your identity.


It was perhaps my first big jolt in corporate life. I was looking after project execution for West Asia and my boss was quite happy with the way I was driving things. I told them, I wanted to move to Iraq, where ASEA had set up a base and a project head position had come up. His reply was humiliating— I wouldn’t be considered because Iraqis wouldn’t accept an Indian as a project head & ASEA representative; the customers would seek a Swede, or at least a European, for the post.

I was shocked, my self-esteem shaken. I was being rejected not because of my competence but for the colour of my skin. That moment, I felt I wasn’t a part of them; I was different. This was 1982; I thought the world had moved past racism. I was wrong.

Sometimes you go through very difficult emotional moments when it’s difficult to accept what is on offer. But you have to let go, have faith in yourself, and move on. I didn’t allow that setback to reflect on my work, for that was my only redemption. A couple of years later, I was given charge of Kuwait and Qatar.

Call it the circle of life, or the call of time. Several years later, when I joined as the head of global markets worldwide and became a member of the ABB executive committee in Zurich, the same guy who had been my boss in ASEA, Sweden, was reporting to me!

I was 38-years-old when I came to India after finishing my stint in West Asia and Sweden. I was head of corporate planning in India and the chairman, the late KN Shenoy was very supportive. He wanted someone young to come and takeover. Although he used to push me, he did not want me to go too fast — it was as if he had one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake pad at the same time. In the initial meetings, I used to stay quiet — you can’t speak when the others in the room were at least 15 years older than you. It was tricky, because I would usually be brimming with ideas. I did not know that one of Shenoy’s hidden agendas was to put a shark in the tank. And shake up everybody to perform.

Things began to get better for me after Zurich pushed my case and had me elevated as executive vice president in charge of a business segment, but it was quite some time before I could assert my views in meetings. But I persisted and focused on the performance of my business unit and that helped me get my word across eventually.

It was a lesson I had learnt bloody well earlier when I was denied the Iraq assignment. No matter what, you have to be persistent and build pressure on the strength of your performance and then the doors automatically open. They did, this time too!

I was first promoted to a line role; so I was the head of power transmission, and then given additional charge of Industrial Electronics and Systems. As head of Industrial Electronics, I used to frequently attend meetings on the topic, where I met Gerhard Schulmeyer, global head of Industrial Electronics and Systems; his next in command at the time was Indra Nooyi. In one of those meetings at Stanford, Connecticut, I asked Indra why the Indian team was not being invited to the annual strategic planning meeting for Industrial Electronics; she said that club was meant only for big contributors and, “Since you are not in the top 10, we can’t invite you, even though I know you have great ideas.” I returned from that trip knowing we had to earn our place at the meeting at the earliest. I came and told my team, “Guys, we are in the category of ‘others.’ We better not be in this category for too long.” We galvanised into action, and in less than two years, we received an invite, because of the sheer growth we were showing, although we were still some distance away from making it to the top 10. What a support Indra was at that time! But there was an important realisation: in global companies, unless you substantially contribute to the global kitty, you’ll remain irrelevant, and your voice won’t be heard however good your ideas may be. If you want to be heard, you got to show your matter.


Percy Barnevik called me from Hong Kong and said something totally unexpected. “Ravi, I am going to tell you something unholy, but you have to do this.” I was perplexed. “Volvo wants to set up operations in India and they want someone who understands the Swedish way. There was no one else I could think of but you.” I was working for Barnevik, who was considered a legend in ABB. What could I say if the super boss says go to another company? I was restrained in my response. “I have no clue about trucks and buses; I am an electricals person.” This was met by a quick response, “If you know a truck has four wheels, they’ll teach you the rest.” Matter closed. I was designated MD of Volvo India at 44.

In a couple of months, I found myself in Gothenburg, Volvo City. I was worried I was going into an industry I didn’t know much about, but that turned out to be an asset. When you work without the baggage of thoughts, you think fresh and you blend in the experience of other industries.

What a mind-boggling experience it was! We were introducing a concept such as a Volvo truck at a price 4x higher than rivals. Indians were used to antiquated trucks — it creaked a bit, broke down a bit, but it moved goods from point A to B, and that’s all that really mattered. And here I was, pushing some sophisticated foreign trucks with state-of-the-art technology and safety features that no one really cared for. Some people simply stopped taking my calls. “Are you nuts?” I was asked openly, even as I would say, “You don’t see the value.”

Right at the start, I had suggested to Volvo that we must introduce the medium range Asian truck, which will be more affordable, but they were clear they wanted to launch the best product globally. It was simply not the right product to begin with, but I went with the flow.

I thought the best way to cut the first deals would be through friends who could be persuaded to take that leap of faith. Transport Corporation of India had a fleet of some 5,000-odd trucks those days and as chairman, DP Agarwal could have changed our fortune with the nib of his pen. I went to his office, he offered me a nice cup of tea, I told him the type of trucks we had — very good features, guaranteed for 2 million km — and then he asked me the price. I told him what it was and he nearly fell off his chair. “Ravi, let’s not talk about these unrealistic things. We are in India, not in Europe. I know in Europe these kinds of things are very good, but not here.” This sort of rejection was something I was getting used to.

Volvo also had construction equipment — excavators, truck tippers and so on. I remember meeting Prabhakar Reddy, the construction operator in the mines of Kothagudem and Ramagundam areas of Andhra Pradesh, aiming to sell him 50 tipper trucks. I showed him the vehicle and told him to keep one for 15 days and try it out. He said it looked good but wasn’t happy at all with the air-conditioned driver’s cabin. “Are you crazy? The driver will switch on the air conditioning and go to sleep. He’ll burn my money.” I explained patiently, “Prabhakar, if the truck is not moving the air conditioning will automatically switch off.” He was relieved, but unconvinced. “I could buy three trucks for the price of one.” I had to switch to a short lesson in logic. “Three trucks will mean three drivers, higher running costs, and most of the time the trucks will be underutilised.” The maths probably did not add up for him, but he took a call to try it out, and then completely migrated to Volvo. Prabhakar Reddy inspired many other Reddy businessmen, and we were up and running.

The same story played out with buses. Everyone asked which Indian will pay so much for bus travel? This time, I said, “Are you mad? Indians want safety, they want to travel in comfort.” Volvo actually created a new category and the brand has become a generic name for luxury buses: “Are you travelling by plane, train, bus or Volvo?” But the conversion took quite some persistence. We took chief ministers on bus rides — Karunanidhi, Sheila Dixit, JH Patel… They all thought it was an idea ahead of its time. And I would insist, “If you don’t introduce it, it will always be before its time.” Somebody has to bell the cat— that was our marketing line. Once all of them came on board, there was no looking back.

We also started a training school to familiarise drivers with our buses and trucks. On his visit to the Bangalore plant, Jan Engstrom, president of Volvo buses, peeped into the classroom and wanted to speak with the drivers. He spoke in English, which I translated. I can never forget how one of the drivers stood up in tears and said this was the first time he had been enrolled in a class and been offered a chair to sit. He had never sat in a classroom in his life! That’s when I realised the real importance of our programme: the school gave respectability to drivers and taught them even basics such as personal hygiene. These men had pitiable lives — about a third of those who applied did not make the cut on medical grounds; they would either be short of hearing, visually impaired, acute diabetic or afflicted by AIDS. It occurred to me that I have never seen a driver in India wearing spectacles — they don’t even know what is correct vision or optimal hearing. But our driving programme had become such a big hit, all operators wanted their drivers trained at our 3-km driving track under the certification programme.

There was no way we could have grown the way we did unless we brought down the prices to more affordable levels, through localisation. It’s not easy to steer a highly accomplished, technologically-driven European company such as Volvo in that direction. I was told that we should be importing the entire bus body from Sweden. I explained that our survival was at stake, so they gave in to 30% localisation to begin with. Initially, the Swedes were highly suspicious of our vendors, and I had to pass through many gates to get a local vendor on board, but we accelerated quickly to 60%. That was because the minority who believed in the new paradigm were right at the top — Engstrom and the president of Volvo trucks, Karl Erik Trogen — both were wise men; they understood global change. Their backing helped me fight the conventional guys who thought these weird ideas of sourcing from a Third-World country would ruin the company.

Developing the local vendors proved to be a much bigger challenge than getting the nod for local sourcing. My purchase man, with several years of experience from Tata Motors, would say, “Let’s go with this guy. I have known him for 20 years and he is great”; the Swedes would say, “No. Get me his credentials, let’s visit them, get them audited…” The Europeans obviously had a very sophisticated system of ranking vendors on their quality standards, and we had to learn all of that in double quick time so as to not lose out on the market opportunity. But the team had so much energy, we were sprinting.


I was just beginning to enjoy the fruit of my labour at Volvo when I got a call from Jorgen Centerman of ABB. “How about coming home? Come back to ABB?” I replied, “I am quite happy in my new home”, to which he said, “You must be mistaken. Come over to Zurich and talk to us.” I went to his home in Zurich and Centerman said frankly, “ABB is going nowhere in India, we need you back. Here is the cheque book, make any investment, but we need the turnover doubled in three years.” In 2000, ABB India’s turnover was Rs 800 crore; Centerman wanted me to get it up to Rs 1,600 crore by 2003.

It was so difficult to convince Leif Johansson, Volvo’s CEO, that I wanted to move; after all, we were just emerging victorious after a long struggle. Meanwhile, I told Centerman that I would take on the responsibility for ABB India only if I were an empowered country head; I was so glad when he agreed and made an exception for India and China. ABB had different business segments, and each business segment had to report to its head in Zurich. I was very clear that it wouldn’t work; if I had to deliver, I couldn’t have the team report to someone in Zurich. There had to be accountability. I needed K Rajagopal, CFO; PC Rajiv, director HR; Harmeet Bawa, head of corporate communication and relations; and legendary business heads like Inder Sadhu, Amresh Dhawan and Biplab Majumdar as a team and all the plant heads united as a team; and that wouldn’t be possible if they were managed by Zurich.

Many years later, in 2009, I was returning from Switzerland when I was invited for a lunch by GE John Flannery, the country head of India. I flew down from Baroda and we met for lunch at the Rooftop restaurant at Taj, Mumbai. The global chiefs at GE wanted to know the mystery behind ABB’s fast growth during my time. There were distinguished guests for the lunch — John Rice, vice-chairman, GE and John Krenicky, head of energy at GE worldwide. I had only one advice — empower the country head to whom every vertical should report, and then watch the show. I told them that John Flannery should be made responsible for all projects in India, no one else. I was amazed at how seriously and swiftly they took my advice. Within 15 days, I got a thank you note from John Flannery saying he had been made the empowered country head! He became so successful that he was moved from India chairmanship to become the global head of the GE’s health business.

Truly, the business model that I was trying to champion had a lot of weight. The local people know the local reality. They are sufficiently exposed to the group, product development and policies; they can be the most effective people to represent a multinational locally.


When I came back to ABB, the executive committee of ABB brought me in because they only had Europeans in the leadership team at that time. They were all either French, German or Swedish. This was the first time they got an Asian face and a non-European perspective. They needed someone who knew the environment of the emerging world such as India, where you could do significant vendor development by local sourcing. But here, too, there were the conventional thinkers. Fortunately, I had the support of none other than Fred Kindley, the global CEO of ABB. He wanted to bring about some changes using global sourcing, and was looking for people to support his voice and effect new thinking.

It was a great feeling when the idea of global sourcing gathered momentum, and I found my views were counted. I was invited on the board of British Aerospace (BA). My uniform advice to all boards was to source from low-cost destinations such as India, and keep the home country the technology centre, because those places were expensive. BA did that too. It let UK remain the technology centre and sourced material from other countries, which allowed it to bring down the cost of everything from submarines and patrol boats to war planes and aeroplanes, improve the margins of the company and make it more competitive. I parroted exactly the same mantra when I was the chairman of the advisory board of Schindler, the elevators company, in India and Asia.

It was funny! On one hand, I was trying to make the Swedes take to the Indian way; back in India, we were trying to adopt global practices. I didn’t like what I saw on my first visit to the NGEF — a Karnataka government electrical company — there were large posters and stickers of various Hindu deities pasted on the walls. With so many workers of different faiths, I felt the workplace had to be neutral ground where no one felt uncomfortable and what bound the workers together was the work. We had a huge group discussion the same evening and the management of NGEF together with the union representative decided to remove all the posters. I was pleasantly surprised that none of the workers resisted the move.

I’m not sure if that was what gave me the courage to say no to Ayudha Pooja at the Volvo factory; instead, we decided to celebrate the day as ‘safety day’. The day would be used to showcase all the safety features introduced during the year, see how different shops fared on safety during the year, distribute awards for the shops with the best record, recognise individuals who contributed to the safety culture and so on. The change was not easy, but there was less resistance when I assured them that their half-day holiday and box of sweets remained unchanged. It was a lesson to me that to make profound changes, you should be able to communicate the benefits of the change convincingly to those affected. Dialogue makes a big difference. It was the same experience when we were introducing automation. I remember how fearful people were initially, but when we systematically introduced multi-skilling of people, they understood that their job would be secure, irrespective of automation. They could be moved from one function to another or from one location to another but their job was secure. That allowed us to move forward on productivity gains.

The most difficult bit was when I wanted to change productivity norms. I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that sick leave could be accumulated year after year. This was not a privilege, it was meant to meet your needs if you were down. If, God willing, you stayed well through the year, there was no need to carry it forward. But I encountered resistance from the employees when I announced this and also changed casual leave to emergency leave — because, really, there is nothing casual about business. But I encouraged people to avail their privilege leave. Strangely, people like to preserve their privilege leave and encash it, but I told them to take time out for the family because you can never get back the lost time. That’s something I learnt from my years in Europe — it’s important to take a break from work from time to time.


I could not believe the way we galloped: in five years, ABB India grew 10x — from Rs 800 crore to Rs 8,000 crore and the market cap grew from Rs 700 crore to Rs 42,000 crore. We tried so many new experiments. We made the offices cabin-less, an idea I picked up from Sweden. Anybody could walk up to anyone; I sat in the hall with everyone else. It was informal and the collective energy galvanised everyone into action.

I so vividy recall the day Shuvro Chakraborthy came to me, completely lost, saying he didn’t know what to do because there were very few takers for his products in India. He was running the process analytics business of Taylor Instrument, which was later acquired by ABB. I asked, “Shuvro, how much faith do you have in the promise of the business?” He said he could grow the business 3x in two years provided he could make some investments. Chakraborthy was extremely knowledgeable, very softspoken, I saw a spark in him and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get all the support you need.” He had a unit in Faridabad and we made an investment of Rs 10 crore and he was such a roaring success over the next two years. He signed on all the big clients — Engineers India, Reliance, GAIL. Ditto for Arvind Vasu; he made ABB India the biggest robotics supplier in the country.

It was a wonderful team again — K Rajagopal, P C Rajiv, Inder Sadhu, and so many more remarkable people. My 3S philosophy worked wonders — the spirit to win, systems to support, and speed. I recall telling the team that we had entered the digital age, in which there is no consolation prize for the runner-up — either you get it or lose it all.

When I became Asia-Pacific head for ABB Group, I was able to take several of these attributes with me. And later again as the head of global markets, where I had eight regional presidents reporting to me from 75 countries. That was such an interesting experience — to work with diverse nationalities, idiosyncrasies and value systems; you mature a lot, you start to live in a system where people have differences with you, but you still learn to work along accepting that you can’t make everyone think the way you are thinking. It was hard for many Americans and Europeans to accept that they had to report to an Asian. That was the true test of my leadership and I figured that rather than confrontation, it was best to say I am running along with you, and supporting them. And to give them full independence. Collaborative leadership works better than being hierarchical.

I knew from my Volvo experience, when you need to accomplish the impossible, you need to lead from the front and show it’s possible. ABB taught me, when people are doing their jobs, all you need to do is prompt them from behind... just encourage them. Let them do their job, and just watch from the corner of your eyes. Unsurprisingly, thanks to the team again, we saw growth in turnover from $2.8 billion in 2005 to $4.6 billion by 2007. But they achieved it, not me.

As I went on in my professional journey, I strongly held onto my convictions that the local managements are very effective and strong. When I was the head of the global markets, I conveyed my policy very clearly — we would agree on a target, after that it would be their game plan and how they achieved it. I would give them resources, money, but without any interference. I empowered people and trusted them.

I loved my job as head for global Markets at ABB. Children Neel and Nidhi were out of home and settled, Geeta stayed in Zurich, while I travelled all over the world. Germany, Switzerland, Singapore… visiting different places was a fulfilling experience. But I was most impressed with the Scandinavians: they are socio-democrats. Everything is equal — there’s not a very big difference between the salaries of the lowest and highest employees, and it’s monitored all the time. The thinking is that you may be doing different jobs but that does not mean your income levels should be vastly different, because we all have the same needs. That’s some very evolved thinking.


I had decided to come back home for the collective good of the family. My parents were ageing, and be it work or family, you can’t be thinking of yourself alone. Coincidentally, AM Naik, chairman, L&T approached me around the same time, so I took up the offer of joining the engineering conglomerate. Leveraging my experience to take an Indian icon to greater heights looked like a great move even professionally.

I was in start-up mode again, setting up the power business for L&T. What an experience the JP Power Plant installation was! We had a 51:49 joint venture with Mitsubishi for setting up the boiler and turbine package for the 1400 MW power plant. Everything was finalised. As per plan, on the first day on site, the Japanese came dressed in their uniforms, wearing safety glasses, helmets, gumboots… and then came our team: some workers were in casuals, chappals, loose shirts with a few buttons missing, no safety gear... The contrast was glaring. The Japanese team looked shocked. Nevertheless, they decided to go ahead with work and asked for the methodology to be followed, in black and white. Our supervisor was not used to this: “We have everything planned in our head.”

A blame game began. The super-skilled, highly methodical Japanese found the Indian way of working a bit casual. Our team, of course, felt the Japanese were being unnecessarily rigid and dogmatic. Ouch! The matter escalated and discussions went right up to the board of which I was the chairman. The Japanese just wouldn’t budge because that’s the way they work. Finally, our supervisor was convinced to chart out the methodology on paper. Work started, with much bickering from the Indian side. But it ended precisely on time, with absolutely no glitches. The supervisor came up to me and said, “Sir, the Japanese were right — once the plan was laid out so clearly, there was no room for error.”

As a civilisation, we have so much to learn from others. We are mathematical, analytical, willing to expend much emotion and energy, but we still have a long way to go in terms of resource planning.

The Jindal brothers were trying to take the next leap — transform the company on the lines of a multinational. It sounded exciting also because I could finally spend more time being in the city where life began, with the people who got me going and taught me the best way to lead life is to be not too exuberant when things are good, and not too depressed when things are low.
It was one gratifying moment when Sajjan Jindal, chairman of JSW Group said when I met him with Naveen Jindal, chairman of JSPL at Vijaynagar that when I was with ABB, his first, second and third choice was ABB, ABB and ABB. Can’t forget the day he called me saying the plant had shut down because of a cyclo-converter failure. It was 10 am on Saturday. I was in Switzerland. He did not know whom to call in at ABB Worldwide. I said, “Mr. Jindal, don’t worry, I’ll organise it.”  And we did. We could track down the guy in Finland who was the best guy to fix it and we sent him to India. That probably stuck.


When I was in ABB, we were the first in Bangalore to support Akshaya Patra’s two villages, way back in the ’90s. We had some 250 young boys and girls who were provided daily meals — those meals were the single biggest motivator for those young children to go to school.

When I returned to Bangalore, I saw Pushpa Rao serving girls who were orphaned, physically challenged and could not fend for themselves. I was overwhelmed. We adopted that shelter of 40 girls through our CSR group. Pushpa was such a thoughtful lady, she wanted the girls to do something constructive, so we assigned them jobs such as electric assemblies, electrical fittings. It empowered them, made them self-reliant — they were making something like Rs 2 lakh a month. That was my most fulfilling experience, apart from the driver’s training programme.

In Indian society, we need to be extremely benevolent and magnanimous because the percentage of have-nots is so much higher here, that the more we do, the less it is. So many illiterates, so much oppression, all because these underprivileged people don’t even know their rights. These experiences have made me realise we have a greater purpose in life than simply attending to business. One thing that remains close to my heart is to set up multi world-class skill centres for our youngsters and adults to acquire contemporary global levels. I don’t believe in charity but in enabling the weak and underprivileged to stand firm on their own feet. If I could do it, I would consider it as a major achievement of my life journey.

Embrace the change and keep innovating. The external environment is changing at a mind-boggling pace. For you to remain relevant, you must lead the change. Companies must adopt the right business model. If your business model is not right, you will disappear. Companies such as Fuji and Kodak vanished because they could not innovate. So, keep pushing the boundaries and get into areas that have core value in the new environment. For instance, IBM and even Dell were basically hardware producers. But now, most revenue comes not from hardware but services. They changed their business models and innovated. Even companies such as Motorola or Xerox, which had become the generic names for the businesses, became irrelevant when they stopped innovating and could not keep pace with the innovation of others. On the other hand, look at Apple. The Apple of the 1980s and '90s was a great success; then it disappeared and came back in 2006-07 with a new version of itself because it had re-discovered, re-innovated itself!

Nobody, not even the larger-than-life business legends, can achieve anything if they do not carry the team with them. People have complementary skills and you need everyone’s contribution to make a success. The guys who produce, the guys who design, the guys who deliver, distribute — they are all equally important. If any link is weak, the entire plan can collapse.

People must have an entrepreneurial attitude. They should go beyond the job and come up with ideas for new product lines, new services, new clients. Today, it is not enough to be just a good manager; you also have to be innovative and entrepreneurial so that you can come out with good ideas.

Flexibility is key. Any function that becomes rigid loses its sheen. We must have a way to energise the system all the time. Don’t let it get typecast. Many companies don’t have a dedicated R&D department. What they do is assemble teams of people to do R&D projects. They bring together the best people from diverse backgrounds— electronics, software, visual imaging, telephone knowledge, communication knowledge… — and make them innovate things. The Manhattan Project of 1942 under the leadership of Robert Oppenheimer brought in some of the best scientists — Edward  Teller, Enrico Fermi, Oppenheimer himself, Neils Bohr — to assemble something called a nuclear bomb. They were moved to Nevada and worked on the project for three years; once the project was over, the team was dismantled. Companies need to adopt the same approach. Instead of permanent R&D teams, companies must assemble teams drawing upon the best talent.

We are in an era of partnerships. As the world around gets more complex, nobody is capable to do everything in the best possible manner. Many big companies today are only assembling things, they don’t do things in-house. For instance, when I was with Volvo, I noticed they were not making gear boxes or axles; most of the hardware was outsourced to companies that were very good at that. Collaborating with others is crucial in today’s environment.

Companies that have the energy of younger people are more nimble, more energetic, and are most successful. I surround myself with youngsters in the 26-to-35-year age group because I feel my wisdom and experience and their energy is a good combination.

Communication is key. It is extremely important that you communicate your vision and targets with your team. You can’t give them piecemeal jobs; they wouldn’t know what to relate it to and if they don’t have the big picture, they may not get galvanised to do their best. But sit them all together and say, “We have to achieve so-and-so goal. How do we do it?” and they will all be excited and want to make sure they are all successful. Bring your employees on board by sharing your visions, targets and plans.

Create a balance between informality and formal systems within the organisation. You should be able to walk along the corridor, put your arm around the shoulder of a young employee and ask what can be done better. But if there is no formal system at all, employees will be confused as to what is expected of them.