Secret Diary of Ravi Uppal, former MD & group CEO, JSPL | Biography Part-1 | Outlook Business
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Photograph Vishal Koul

Secret Diary Of A CEO 2017

"Be persistent and build on the strength of your performance"
Secret Diary of Ravi Uppal Part-1

N Mahalakshmi

Ravi Uppal, former MD & group CEO, JSPL

personal information of Ravi UppalI 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. 

v krishnamurthyI 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.

the younger Ravi UppalI 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. 

Ravi Uppal sounding boardIn 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.

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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. 

Scaling ne heights in foreign land

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.

This is the first of a three-part series. You can read part two here and part three here.

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