Secret Diary of an Entrepreneur / CEO-2018

"Setbacks set you back as much as you let them"

Secret Diary of R Gopalakrishnan — Part 3

Soumik Kar

I returned to India to head Brooke Bond Lipton, and later went on to become the vice-chairman of HLL. If you’ve spent 31 years in a company, you want to keep climbing higher. To say that I didn’t want the top job would be less than honest. But, Keki Dadiseth became the chairman. Until then, I had never missed a promotion in my life.

But, in life, there are setbacks. And setbacks set you back as much as you let them. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure or that the other guy is better than you. So I decided that I’m not going to be waiting around for the next nine years. I wanted to keep growing and feared that waiting for a second chance, when I was already 51, was not a good idea. I explained my reasons to Unilever, and didn’t resign in a huff. I left after a good two years because it was also the time that Brooke Bond Lipton was being merged with Hindustan Lever. 

I told the management I’ll stay till it’s all done and won’t even search for another alternative. After the merger was complete, I went to London where I was given a warm farewell. I hold very fond memories of Unilever and still attend their retired directors’ meetings. I’m very pleased to see that so many of my fellow companions have come up — Shivakumar, Suresh Narayanan, and Sanjiv Mehta. I can’t say I nannied all of them as they are all great leaders in their own right.

As my innings at HLL drew to a close, the head of a consulting company rang me up and said, “We have a client who is looking for people like you. I don’t know if you’re looking for a change. If you’re not, end of conversation. If you are, I can connect you.”

That’s how I ended up meeting Ratan Tata who wanted proven chief executives, and not specialists. I quite liked the diversity that I would be exposed to and became the first director to join the Tata Son’s board directly in 1998.

Tata group is a rare entity to have been around 150 years. It has produced some great leaders and I was humbled to sit at the same lunch table where the likes of Nani Palkhivala, Soonawala, JRD, and AD Shroff dined. The same room in Bombay House had seen the likes of Ghulam Muhammad, a director of Tatas who went on to become the first finance minister of Pakistan; John Mathai, again a director who became India’s Railway Minister. You had so much diversity, talent and people with widely differing opinions running the place together. In some sense, the group is truly a microcosm of India.

I came in with 31 years, from an Anglo-Saxon environment where everything was rule and process-based, with zero tolerance for ambiguity. In Tatas, just like in running a country, you had to leave space for ambiguity to play out. It took me couple of years to understand that. Ratan Tata, Soonawala and Jamshed Irani guided me during my tenure at Bombay House.

The conglomerate was reflective of the Indian ethos, which is that you have to take the circumstance into account. I remember at Levers a long-serving employee was fired because he had claimed first-class train fare from Madurai to Trichy but travelled a class lower. It was in 1962-63, the fare amount was Rs.8, but HLL sacked him stating that it doesn’t matter whether it is Rs.8 or Rs.800.

In Tatas, I came across a similar episode wherein an employee had inflated a medical expense statement by adding extra zeros. It came up during an audit but the management took a view that the woman employee concerned had done so because she was facing a financial crisis, was unmarried and had to take care of an ailing mother. The management stopped her increment for two years, but retained her. It is not about right or wrong, but what is right in the context of things.

I know that within Levers itself things have changed and that the company is adapting. Sometime in 1978-79, an expatriate was sent as a director to India. He arrived with a woman and checked into The Taj. Later, it was found that the woman was not his wife but spouse-in-waiting as he was in the midst of a divorce. The company took the view that this was against its principles. The person was put on a plane and sent back home stating that the company would incur expenses only if it was his wife. Nearly 25 years later, a chairman at Unilever, who could not divorce his wife because of religious reason, got a lady, who was his de-facto wife — not de jure — on a business visit. This time, the company paid for the hotel charges for the couple. So, in 20 years, the company had to embrace the changing times.

Tata is like a federation of states. There is a central subject and then there are concurrent state subjects. In Unilever or any MNC, there is only one ‘Brahma Mantra’. You have be good at chanting it or otherwise you are out.

Though a proven manager at Unilever, I was reminded of my Jalandhar experience. Therefore, I spent a lot of time at the Tatas trying to build relationships, rather than trying to prove myself. But working with Ratan Tata was a complete revelation.

Ratan Tata, in my view, is an exemplar of right-brain orientation. Certainly, his training as an architect must have helped. For example, 15-20 years earlier, solar and wind were not the buzzwords. But, because of his extensive travel, he always had a very great interest in technology. He was the first to talk about solar or converting agricultural waste into fuel to generate electricity. 

He spoke about nanotechnology, which I, with my background, ought to have known. He asked why we weren’t looking at that as a possible solution. It all came to fruition when, during a visit to TCS’ Tata Research and Development Centre in Pune, he was shown a water filter developed with locally available materials, stones and mud. Developed as part of the company’s CSR activity, it removed 85% of the bacteria. I felt it was a damn good innovation, but Ratan Tata said but you can’t say, “I am giving you 15% pure bacteria.” “How can you commercialise this technology? You will have to remove 99.9% or whatever the world standards of EPA are.” That prompted the team to look at nanotechnology for a solution. 

That is how ‘Swach’ was born.

Similarly, without judging the commercial success, Nano was an outcome of thinking differently: why can’t I make a car out of scooter parts? Though the car was not made out of them, it goes to show how Tata thought differently.

His humane side became evident after the terrorist attack at The Taj. When he went to the hospital to see the injured, the people in charge told him: “Sir, we are taking care of their medical needs, and we have also given scholarships to their children. Please tell us if you have any more suggestions.” He replied, “You guys have done a lot, thank you. But I am wondering what more we can do for them?”

Besides Tata, the other person that I hold in high esteem is Ishaat Hussain, who has been my sounding board. I first met him at an award event when I was the managing director of Brooke Bond and he was the finance director at Tata Steel. He struck me as a very warm and genial person. When I joined the Tatas, I saw in him a leader who could be firm and decisive without being harsh. He had the ability to disagree without coming across as disagreeable, which is a rare quality for a leader. He was always someone with whom I could express my ideas and views. One great piece of advice from him was “don’t jump into things where your help isn’t sought!”

Though I enjoyed my days at Tatas, I kept thinking “what’s next?” Not many of us prepare ourselves for retirement. The day comes and we don’t know what to do with ourselves. I was clear that, post-retirement, I won’t be sitting on multiple company boards and running around attending meetings. 

I found my calling in writing, speaking and teaching. I believe a lot of managers with a rich and varied experience are doing a great disservice by taking all their learning to the grave. The Case of the Bonsai Manager was the first book I wrote. Now, I’m at the cusp of my eighth book, Crash — the lessons from the rise and exit of CEOs.

I believe management is a performance art. We all need to keep it alive. 

Then, there was my father’s advice: “If you have any intention of pursuing something, do it while your brain is active.” My grandfather had handed over a lot of religious literature to my father to read but he had decided that he would do so only after retirement. He told me that, after calling it quits, every single time that he tried to read the book, he would fall asleep!

Hence, in life, we must know when to take the foot off the pedal. A fulfilling life is not just about professional glory but also one of personal emancipation.

This is part 3 of a three-part series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.


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