- I owe my success to Hard work and good luck
- My best friend My wife, Sonali
- Sleepless nights Thinking about the planet
- Men whose advice I sought Too many to count
- What success means to you Being the best version of myself
- Most inspiring quote Be the change you wish to see in the world - Mahatma Gandhi
- Grateful for All that I have
- Best days of my life Now
- Most important decision Marrying Sonali
- My dream Making GAME successful
- Most relaxed when Playing with animals
I am probably the only person on this planet who took the IIT entrance thrice, despite passing it every time!
I got into IIT Madras the first time, after my class XI. I had my trunk packed and then got cold feet. I gingerly approached my father and told him that I didn’t feel like going. He said, what do you mean? I loved science but not necessarily engineering. By seventh standard, I had a sophisticated chemistry lab at home, had already built a microscope that could magnify things to a 1000x. I spent a worrying amount of time on the roof taking photographs of Saturn! My interest had come from my dad, one of the earliest and brightest scientists at Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), an extraordinarily bright mathematician and a Sanskrit scholar. He, like very few others, was indulgent of my decision to opt out of IIT after my first attempt. “Okay, there is always a next year,” he said.
The next year, after my 12th, I took the exam once again. I didn’t do so well this time. Then, I took the third attempt, got a fantastic rank and went for the field of my choice.
My formative years were spent in Chandigarh, where we moved to when I was in the third standard. I grew up in the shadow of a very talented sister, Malini, who is six and a half years older than me. She had many friends, always ranked first in class and won every prize. I was shy, mediocre in studies and terrible at sports. My mother, a homemaker, used to worry about me.
In class IV, I ranked 11th in a class of 33. Terrified, I didn’t return home that day and instead went home with the rickshaw-wallah who picked me and my friend up from school. My parents called the police and there was much hullabaloo, but I returned the next morning with Ram Lal. The poor man got an earful!
I can’t forget the incident, after all, I lived the first 47 years of my life as programmed by my mother. She had said, “Hard work leads to achievement, achievement leads to recognition and that’s what gives us happiness.” That said, there was a turning point in my life, after my primary school.
I fell sick and could not go to school for a year. That’s when I began reading in earnest and many of those days were spent at this fantastic public library called Tarlok Singh State Library. The books I picked were maybe five years ahead of me, and mostly on science. My school teacher, Mrs Malhotra, noticed this and said I would go on to do great things. It changed the way I looked at myself. Suddenly, I went from being this loser to being the star. After that, I topped my class consistently. So, Mrs Malhotra was the one who had the most influence in my life, other than mom and dad.
IIT was sobering though. I learnt I was bright enough, but my real asset was the will to succeed and the willingness to work devilishly hard. Curiously, if you look at your classmates 35 years later, those you thought would win the Nobel have ended up toiling away into obscurity and the ‘jokers’ took more risks and have ended up doing spectacularly interesting things, such as being entrepreneurs.
After engineering, I headed to Purdue University on scholarship to pursue a PhD. Had a change of heart, once again! I didn’t want a career in research. So, I did my Masters and took a job with a company that made diesel engines called Cummins. It was located in a small mid-western town called Columbus Indiana. My 16 years there was the best start that I could have got.
January 1987. It was orientation day for the new hires including me. J Irwin Miller talked about how he expected us to conduct ourselves. Founded by Miller, Cummins was one of the most value-driven companies in America. He was a real icon in business those days and was even considered as a presidential candidate. One of the things that he said that day was always do what’s right and not what’s convenient: “It won’t be obvious which is which, and it won’t be easy to follow through with it, but that is what we expect you to do.” It’s a learning I can rattle off even 35 years later, because it was drilled into us.
They believed that business is to benefit the community and not so much the shareholders. Cummins was founded to create employment for the youngsters of Southern Indiana. When the company began making engines and couldn’t sell any, they offered farmers a money-back policy. The buyers would use it for a season and return it for a full refund. So, the engines were essentially rented for free. But, no one minded.
A year after working there, I was restless and applied to Harvard Business School. They rejected my application.
But tenacity is my middle name. I marched into the admissions office, asking why I didn’t make it. The woman calmly said that there is nothing interesting about me, that I should have led a team or done something significant to demonstrate leadership. I decided to rectify that and went up to a senior person in Cummins, saying I want to manage something. He said, yeah sure! That will happen in a few years. Wait in line! I said, “No, I need to do it now!”
Out of sheer irritation, he said, look, there’s a small factory that makes fuel-pump components that we are closing down. Nobody wants that job and it’s been open for six months. You can take that if you want. I became a factory manager at 24.
Sheer horror unfolded. It was a plant that was destined for closure, so the workforce was very dispirited and angry. Instead of reassurance, they were given a guy with a funny accent and brown skin. On top of that, I was a first time manager.
I decided to follow my mother’s example. She would go behind the maid and say, “You haven’t swept in that corner… see, I can see the dust there.” The guys on the shop floor would sneak away into the toilet to hide and I would be there to chase them out! It must have been frustrating for them, people in their forties, being herded around by someone in the twenties.
After the first few months, there was a change. Normally, an engineer writes the programme and the operator runs the machine, after loading and unloading the parts or changing the tools. One day, I began to teach the operators how to code, how to make corrections, edits and modifications… it wasn’t rocket science. That small change made a big difference to their morale. One of them cried, a big American guy, saying he learnt more from me than anyone else. The engineers used to look down on the operators and I had broken that barrier.
Somehow, I instinctively knew that they had to feel empowered. On one occasion, I organised for the workers to go and visit other factories to see how things were done there. This had never been done before because you don’t ‘waste’ time and money sending operators on study tours. But, goodwill was generated and it came to my rescue when I hit a really rough patch very soon.
A major quality issue had cropped up. On the assembly line, one of the parts needed modification and I was the only one there. I ran to fix it, along with another guy, and set it right by drilling a hole into it. Those days, there was a union rule that engineers and management will not touch machines if an operator is not there. It was to secure the jobs of workers. If the engineers started running machines, then what happens to the operators? So the union leader filed a case against me. The next day, the shop floor guys came back. They unanimously said they would not support that grievance. It was a first in the history of the company.
Turning things around is not hard, because that’s what you’re taught to do — how you improve quality, productivity, take down costs and so on. The real task is how do you get people to want to do it? The important part is to get everybody working reasonably hard towards a common outcome; the rest is textbook stuff.
I wrote about this incident in an article titled “Cummins engine flexes its factories”, which was published in Harvard Business Review in 1990. At 27, I became the youngest ever writer in HBR. I flew straight into HBS. Normally, you get your recommendation from the most important person you know. Mine was written by Larry Platt, the head of the labour department, and that really got attention at Harvard.
1990, I was at HBS. Back then, it was a totally different place, with exactly three Indians — Jayant Sinha, Tarun Khanna and me — in a class of 900. We had a fantastic time and remain very close friends.
During summers, most students would intern at McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Unilever or wherever they hope to work eventually. I thought I would write about a question that had been bugging me. It came from my experience at the manufacturing unit; we had turned it around but the unit was closed down anyway, with production outsourced to suppliers. So, the question was — what should a company do by itself and excel at? And what should they outsource to a network of partners or suppliers?
After visiting six companies, such as John Deere and International Harvester, and working with their CEOs, I formulated my answer. I sold the research three times to three different companies and became the only one in my class to graduate with no student loan. When most students ended the course with a $60,000 debt, I sold my research for $20,000 a pop and it became another best-selling article in the Harvard Business Review!
I passed out as a Baker scholar, almost at the top of the class. Although I had my pick of companies including McKinsey, Microsoft and Goldman, I decided to go back to Cummins. The Cummins CEO wanted me to decide what to outsource and help the company get out of all the legacy businesses. At 29, I was working for the chief operating officer, driving this. It was very, very energising.
In 1996, I decided to come back to India for multiple reasons. One, India had started liberalising, and we were hearing interesting stories from the country. Two, both my parents had terminal illnesses and I wanted to be around. Three, I wasn’t meeting the right woman there!
How I met Sonali was unusual. One of my junior colleagues, Ajay Kumar, was traveling on a train and happened to chat with a very talkative lady. Her daughter was living in Japan and refusing to meet guys for marriage. Ajay talked about his 33-year-old boss who was finding it hard to make a match. That boss was me. They teamed up and introduced the two of us. Sonali and I didn’t decide immediately, but dated for ten years before marrying in 2010.
When Cummins realised I wanted to be back in India, they offered me a role, though the CEO did try to stop me from leaving the US. He said, “Look, you’re actually a high potential person; you don’t have to take this job.” I insisted and he said, “Well, your job is to close down a business venture with minimum amount of outgo and come back.”
The company was Tata Cummins, a joint venture Cummins had signed with Tata Motors. This was sealed when Henry Schacht was the chairman and CEO of Cummins Diesel, and he got along well with Ratan at Tata Motors. But after that, both went into other roles, and this JV was orphaned.
No one expected us to get the company back on track, so I didn’t ship my things from the US and instead put them in storage. Every month, I thought I would return within a few weeks.
Jamshedpur was not comforting. In fact, it was a shock. First, it was a very different city. Then, the environment was very hostile with partners who did not trust each other. There was no cash, and the engine plant that was designed to produce 250 engines a day was making one a day! On my first day there, I discovered there was no money to pay salaries and our power supply was disconnected because no one had paid the electricity bill. It was a mess and no one had faith that I — a 33-year-old, inexperienced guy who had just come from the US — could set it right.
Americans can often be very transactional, compared to Indians who are keen on building relationships. I respected that difference and began working on closer partnerships with Mr Rawal, Mr Arya and Mr Tel Prakash by having meals together, going to their houses or simply talking regularly. That was one part of rescuing this JV, the other was the agreement itself. It was exceedingly unfair. The deal was to split profit 50:50, shared equally between Cummins and Tata Motors, but losses would have to be entirely absorbed by the latter.
Cummins believed they were supplying the engine, so why take any hit if Tata’s trucks were not selling. By 1999, Tata Motor’s losses accumulated to Rs 4 billion and Ratan was willing to break the agreement. We renegotiated a fairer deal.
The third problem was a combination of bad strategy and poor execution. When the project started, the management decided that they didn’t need roadside mechanics to repair the engines. They believed the engine would be that reliable. Within a year of the launch, it became pretty obvious that that was not the case. The truck used to break down in the middle of nowhere and where would one go for full service? There were no parts. No mechanic had been trained to fix it, and so the driver would be stranded.
When I went for the TELCO (Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company, now Tata Motors) dealer meet, people physically attacked the general manager (sales). They had pawned their wives’ jewels to buy the trucks and they were stranded somewhere. There was anger, boiling anger.
Cummins had left the engineering to Tata Motors and they’d done a very poor job, initially. Normally you measure defects, defects per hundred vehicles. Here, we had hundreds of defects per vehicle. The damn thing had not been indigenised for Indian operating conditions. We acted immediately and put together teams to go after every defect.
There was a fantastic article written by Ray Stata of Analog Devices, which talked about the half-life of quality. The idea was to note all the quality problems and draw a line at half — or defects that contribute to half the problems — and work on those. I read this and said, “This is amazing! Let’s do it.” Our quality defect rates came down exponentially.
Then, a big part of the problem was the cost of the engine at Rs 450,000. Ratan said they couldn’t afford to pay more than Rs 120,000 — take it or leave it. But at that rate, we would lose money. Therefore, we began an intense cost-reduction effort. For every component, we put together a cost-reduction team. Within one year, we had brought it down to Rs 150,000 and kept going till we hit Rs 80,000. It made Tata Motors jealous, because they thought we were making obscene profits!
What was supposed to be closed was now roaring. In 1999, we were looking at capacity expansion. I was made the chairman of all of Cummins in India, including the listed entity. Finally, I gave up my storage space in the US.
Cummins was no walk in the park. I ended up with a legacy company, Kirloskar Cummins, which was established in 1962. Legacy companies have a lot of issues — complacent staffers for one. Within the first three months of joining, I sacked the entire senior team, two managing directors and all VPs except two — Chaubalad, Phadke — who seemed exceptional to me. My sweeping changes were foolishly hasty.
These changes were seen as this Tamilian guy coming to a Maharashtrian company and throwing out all the Maharashtrians. Those guys ran to Shiv Sena, and Balasaheb Thackeray was king during that time. I was sitting in my office in Kothrud, Pune, when a bunch of goons walked into my office, sat down and said that they would not tolerate this kind of thing. It was scary!
I went to Rahul (Bajaj). He was very helpful and advised that I meet Sharad Pawar. I did and he calmed everyone down. It was fine in the end, but I learnt that you have to manage the ecosystem. You need its support, or things can get ugly very fast. I took that lesson to Microsoft.
Within the company, I changed many things, like our genset business. Big generators were not selling then, so I started selling small generators. Every house, mall and telecom tower had a small one. We did something crazy too. We started buying engines from Simpson and Tata Motors and started assembling them into gensets. One day, the CEO came and we proudly showed it off. He asked us who gave us approval and we realised, “Oops, we had forgotten to ask.” Thankfully, it was selling well and so the CEO said, “Let’s make this a global business that you run from India!”
Then, I started an IT company because all my friends were doing that in California in 2000. It was called Cummins Infotech, but it didn’t really go anywhere for some time. It was a listed company. Still, I did things without asking headquarters! When they noticed it, they said it was losing money, so it couldn’t go on. I then went to Ravi Pandit of KPIT, which was weakening in those days. We merged the two badly performing companies saying, “We’ll make it a winner!” We also struck a deal saying we’ll start outsourcing Cummins work to KPIT Cummins and, for every dollar that we bring, we’ll get equity in the new entity. That’s how KPIT Cummins Infotech was born, and it became a spectacular success.
By 2004, India was contributing 20% to Cummins’ global profits. Very, very few companies did that. But that was possible only because we were very entrepreneurial and the company allowed us such freedom; no MNC manager can imagine that today. Tim Solso, who was the chairman and my boss, was a fantastic manager and mentor.
But, when I turned 40, I began getting restless. I had worked only in one company, while my friends in the Valley were building interesting enterprises. Here I was, wasting my life building diesel engines and generators, and dealing with troublesome unions!
In the midst of that funk, I got a call from a headhunter. He said it was for Microsoft. Back in 2003, I didn’t even do email. My secretary used to print them out and file them for me every day. So, I thought it was a joke. But the recruiter persuaded me to meet Bill Gates. In those days, he used to personally interview every senior hire. I thought that could be my only chance to meet Gates; so, why not?
Our meeting was at his office in Redmond. It was meant to last 20 minutes but went on for over an hour. What struck me most about Gates was his curiosity. He also wanted to know about the diesel-engine business, how it worked, emission standards, the trucks and so on. In the end, he said that my ignorance about tech was a good thing. I would rely on my common sense then.
At Microsoft, I was shocked at how small the company was in India. It was only $150 million and growing at 11%. I came from a diesel-engine business, which was growing 18% on a much larger base. My first task was to build a great team. You look at who’s who of the tech industry today — Neelam Dhawan, Rajan Anandan — more than a dozen tech company CEOs today were part of that eight-year journey of building Microsoft.
Things started going well and by 2008, we were growing at 35% CAGR. But obviously, so many bright guys working together wasn’t going to be easy. We would all fight like mad. Then, I remember going to (NR Narayana) Murthy one day and asking him how he had built such a great team. By then, Infosys was the largest customer for Microsoft India, and I used to manage multiple senior relationships — Murthy, Nandan (Nilekani), (Mohandas) Pai, Kris (Gopalakrishnan). Murthy and Nandan had become good friends and I would go to them for advice.
Murthy had great wisdom to offer. First of all, he said, a team has to be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. Only Murthy could dream up something like this! So, you should have people with different skills. At Infosys, Nandan was phenomenal with marketing and ideas, Phaneesh was the sales guy, Shibu (Shibulal) and Kris were the best in technology and delivery. Each different, but together, complete. So, harmony is not important. In fact, he said, the founding team of Infosys would disagree on a lot of things, but he had laid out some guiding principles. One rule was: Infosys must always come first, then the team and then you. And the other rule, you should disagree without becoming disagreeable. That’s how I stopped striving for harmony. In fact, I realised that harmony is not good. It meant you are not pushing the boundaries.
Those days were extraordinarily challenging for Microsoft even in terms of public perception. There was so much hostility; every business was trying to use open-source software and reduce its reliance on Microsoft. Governments across the world were investigating it for abuse of power and monopolistic practices. India was no exception.
In 2005, (Dayanidhi) Maran became the IT minister and he was very young. He was impatient to make a difference, and his first speech was centered on the growing digital divide. I knew we had to act immediately and went to meet Maran.
We invited Maran to Seattle. He agreed to come, but said, “I’m India’s IT Minister and I’m coming to your company, not to Washington. So what’s in it for me?” He wasn’t asking for a bribe. He wanted a better deal for the country, in low-cost Windows for India. I knew Microsoft had developed a low-cost version called the Starter Edition, but Microsoft didn’t want to bring it to the market.
I went to Seattle and sat with my friend Will Poole, who was the head of Windows, and asked him if the low-cost version could be made available to India. I returned and told Maran, yes. My boss in the US exploded in anger, asking who authorised me to do this. He said, the company wouldn’t do it. I went to Bill, saying it was crucial for our relationship with the Indian government. He finally agreed but, he said, let’s limit its features.
That’s how Starter Edition was born and it had an Indian flag. It was a huge win. My strategy of asking for forgiveness instead of permission helped, as always! In 2008, when Nicholas Negroponte at MIT Media Lab wanted to give one laptop to every child at $100, bringing down the cost by attaching Linux, the Starter Edition saved the day for Microsoft.
Another incident I can’t forget is when Bill came to India. Maran knew he was coming. We were going to do a big announcement in Delhi but after day two, Bill was going to go to Tamil Nadu as a representative of his foundation. It was to launch a project when Jayalalithaa was the chief minister. Maran was furious. He threatened to open an IBM open-source centre the day Gates came to Chennai! The headlines would then be open source and IBM, not Microsoft! Sweat, sweat, sweat, sweat!
Gates Foundation had done a lot of work on HIV and also on education with the government of Tamil Nadu, so Bill was categorical that he would meet the chief minister. I was caught in between.
In the twelfth hour, we found a way out. After Bill meets Jayalalitha, that evening, he would go to Karunanidhi’s home for a cup of tea! Silly, but that was the face saver.
When I finally left Microsoft, I left with two pieces of paper. One was a $1 bill signed by Bill Gates. So the rite of passage in Microsoft is when you argue with Bill and Steve, and can hold your own. That’s when you win respect.
Once Bill had come to India and we boarded his plane for Chennai, at around 11.30 pm. Melinda was also there, and Bill began grilling me intensely. He was curious and it was his way of testing if you know your stuff. We got into an argument that night — about something that wasn’t particularly consequential. I was tired too and irritable, and thought why should I back off? Bill’s wrong. I was unrelenting, and after half an hour, he gave in. He said, you are right! Melinda turned to him and handed him a dollar. He signed, “I was wrong — Bill Gates” on that and gave it to me. It was a little humour on his part but it’s something I treasure… the framed bill, that’s my retirement plan! I’m going to auction it, if I ever need to!
Overall, those eight years at Microsoft were spectacular. But, by 2010, I was bored silly. I decided I had to move on and did not want to be an employee again. There comes a time when you are not enjoying what you do, but you don’t know what else to do. Usually, people stick around but I walked out, without much of a plan.
I had lunch with Mr Murthy one day and asked him for advice. He asked me to join the board of Infosys and, in April 2011, I did. I was already on the board of Volvo, and I had also started writing my first book Conquering the Chaos.
By that time, Will Poole had started Unitus Ventures and he persuaded me to join him. That’s one of the most active impact investors in India today. He asked me to start Social Venture Partners in Bengaluru. I did, and today it’s a thriving organisation across seven cities with 250 partners.
Thus, a picture of the perfect life began to emerge for me, which had board responsibilities, writing, teaching and philanthropy.
In 2015, Raghuram Rajan called me out of the blue and asked if I could become the chairman of Bank of Baroda. I said, “Wow! Once again, I’m the least qualified for the job, I am not a banker. I don’t understand public sector, what will I do?” But I couldn’t do worse than anybody else, considering the state of public sector banks! That’s what Raghu told me. He was a friend and Jayant was Minister of State. It seemed like a risk worth taking.
Those were three fantastic years working on the turnaround of BoB.
In the very first month — September 2015 — in my apartment, over coffee, we outlined our idea of success in three years. Number one, we would have cleaned up the balance sheet and recapitalised. Two, we would get it to industry-leading growth. Three, double-digit return on equity. And four, and very important, we should be a leader in fintech.
When I decided to leave in August last year, we had done it all. The bank’s growth was an industry-leading 18% for the previous few quarters.
Here too, we realised we needed the right staff to make it possible. But we simply didn’t have the right talent. Too many of the GMs had retired, and a lot of the wisdom and experience had walked out. So I decided to run a risky experiment with the support of the board.
We identified 2,500 high-potential young people from a staff of 54,000. That was about 5% and included all ranks, right from the probationary officer to the GM. We brought in professionals to do the assessment and conduct a one-year leadership acceleration programme. So, we had McKinsey for the senior people, Aon Hewitt, Deloitte and Knollscape.
Half way through this training, it struck us. Only 20% of the group actually had leadership skills — 20% of 5% is 1%. The good news was that we knew who the 1% was. But, it was a hierarchical organisation, so we gave them roles shadowing senior persons; but they were the real doers.
The performance of the bank surged in year three. A lot of this came from my fundamental learning of identifying talent early and not being afraid of systematically giving them challenges that they were not yet ready for. That’s how you develop the best.
It’s something I learnt from Harold Steigerwalt at Cummins. I learnt that you don’t spot talent and wait for them to be ready for a position. He taught me that you get them ready by dropping them in the deep end. They learn to swim. That’s how I learnt, always being thrown into situations I wasn’t ready for.
That’s also something I started doing when I assumed leadership roles — spot talent early, and bet on them. In Cummins, one day, a young man wandered into my office — Rampraveen Swaminathan, a 21-year-old from Tata Motors. I liked him, so I hired him. He was very bright and mature beyond his years. When we started two new businesses — one, the small genset project and the other, power solutions, I made him the CEO, in a hierarchical 50-year-old organisation. Then, before I left Cummins, I made him the head of the whole power generation business, which was more than half the business we did. He did so well that he was sent to the US and became the head of a large part of the global business. Then, at an obscenely young age, probably 31 or something, he became the CEO of International Paper APPM. In July 2019, he became the CEO of Mahindra Logistics.
In 2018, I began to wind down all my corporate engagements to focus on two things. One is our non-profit called GAME, where our idea is to help 10 million Indians become entrepreneurs and create 50 million jobs by 2030. The other is my role as UNICEF’s Special Representative for Youth and Innovation.
I love my freedom. And the control I have over my time. I think the most useful and the most joyous work is what I am doing now, helping young people become better citizens and successful entrepreneurs. My deepest conviction is that I’m going to do my most important work now. I don’t believe my prime was some time in the past.
I gave a talk the other day in Mumbai and Delhi. I said, look, if you’re below 50, rejoice, because there’s never been a better time to be alive. There’re just so many opportunities. If you’re over 50, like me, then this is what you have been preparing for your whole life. Muster everything — what you’ve learnt, all the networks and relationships you’ve built, the little financial nest-egg that you have put together, the reputation you have — and take the leap.
When I look back, what has made a huge difference in my life is that I have had amazing people as mentors. Like Newton said, if you can see farther than others, it’s because you stood on the shoulders of giants. Harold, my first manager, was the first effective mentor I had. He gave me tough feedback and extraordinary opportunities.
Within Microsoft, there were Will Poole and Craign Mundie. Will Poole is partly the reason I got interested in social impact. He got Windows to fund ‘Shiksha’, the largest digital literacy programme that has benefited 40 million kids.
Craig was the CTO of Microsoft and one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met. I don’t know many people with the same breadth of knowledge and the ability to go deep, and connect so many disparate dots. When I joined Microsoft, one of the things I missed having around was wisdom. So, with Craig, I created an advisory board with (Ashok) Ganguly as the chair and other stalwarts such as CK Prahalad, Ramadorai, (Narayanan) Vaghul, Arun Maira, Vijay Kelkar and Naresh Chandra. I told Craig that the reason these eminent people are onboard is because they think they’ll learn something from Microsoft, and there’s nothing I can teach, so you have to attend every meeting. He agreed and used to fly over from Seattle.
In those days, Microsoft didn’t do phones. And CK was the one who articulated this. He said, the paradigm is changing. We are moving from a computing-led to a communications-led paradigm, so Microsoft has to start shifting focus. The company never did though.
Personally, CK was enormously influential in my life. I met CK in 2002 when he used to run executive coaching classes along with KV Kamath. In 2001, CK and I had written in the same issue of HBR. And I used to like telling him, that’s the only reason I didn’t win the McKinsey prize! He had great ideas and an extraordinary power of communication, but above all that, he was a phenomenal manager and mentor. He would make himself available 24/7.
I will always remember one incident. In 2010, I needed a reference letter from him. I called him and said, CK, I need this. He agreed. And then, I never heard back. I got really worked up and upset because there was a deadline. I wrote another mail to CK. Deepa called and said, my father is in ICU, but he’s got your mail and don’t worry, I’ll get it done. And he did. He died 24 hours later on a ventilator. I cried. Later on, all of us compared notes and he did this for so many. That’s a mentor. No boundaries. I was very lucky.
As for life, I could not have evolved into a better person without Sonali. She is a thinker, a pure soul, with a very good sense of what is right and wrong. Many people have large greys. There are things that are obviously black and obviously white, but what makes the difference is what you define as grey. Her grey area is very narrow. It may make you rigid but she has helped me refine my moral sense. As a leader, she is visceral and leads from the front. If there is a machine tool show, she’ll be there every day, dawn to dusk, for the whole week!
I recall, once, there was a problem at the TVS factory. The equipment was not functioning and everyone was tense because, at a motorcycle factory, when you’re down for a minute, you lose 10 bikes. Her team began to work day and night to make up for it, and she used to get up at 4.30 am, bake cookies, drive to Hosur and be with them. That’s her, a commander on the field.
Sonali is more like my dad. He was the gold standard of how to conduct yourself. He got a very bad form of Parkinson’s disease. Two months before he died, he had Dr Kalam, who was then the President, visiting him. My father hadn’t talked for days. Dr Kalam sat next to him, shared the silence and then asked him, what is e^i*π? My father replied minus one! And that was the end of that conversation.
He suffered for eight years but not once did I hear him complain. Two days before he died, the nurse had come into the room and he asked her if she had eaten. That was the only thing he asked. As a human being, he was just a superlative man.
In his last days, my father told me something fundamental. He said: “Your biggest strength is your ability to connect with people, don’t think it’s your intellect.” My story has largely been about that — connecting deeply with people and forging meaningful relationships. That’s my story. That’s all the story.