How to face a fork in the road and take the right turn

In this volatile and uncertain world, everyone could do with an easy-to-access counsel on tackling career dilemmas, and Shiv Shivakumar has authored just the thing 

Young professionals today have to live and deal with FOMO, in a VUCA world. Speed and stress management are key in this reality, which has patience only for abbreviations. Therefore, it would help to have a guide to make quick decisions, especially when faced with a career dilemma. That’s why Shiv Shivakumar’s recently published book, Right Choice: Resolving 10 Career Dilemmas for Extraordinary Success, is timely.

One of India Inc’s longest-serving CEOs shares wisdom he has gathered from 24 business leaders among them are CEOs, people gurus, entrepreneurs and women achievers. It delves into various questions — such as on money being a deciding factor in career, on choosing to do higher studies, on living separately as couples to make jobs work, on taking sabbaticals, and on becoming an entrepreneur. In a conversation with Outlook Business, the group executive president-corporate strategy, at Aditya Birla Group, talks about measuring intangible costs, the false glamour that surrounds the CEO position and the perils of instant gratification. Excerpts:   

Why 10 career dilemmas, for your book?

Shivakumar: I thought of writing about Nokia, PepsiCo, Hindustan Lever, and different management styles and cultures. But somehow my heart was not in it. There was not anything unique about it. Then, about two years ago, I was discussing this with my wife and we realised that one of the biggest challenges for people in a fast-changing world is to manage their career. Earlier, we joined a company and expected to retire from it, but not anymore. The average tenure of a CEO is four years in India and four-and-a-half for Fortune 500 companies. The average CMO tenure is two years in America. So that’s how it started. Originally, I wanted to include 15 dilemmas and talk to around 200 people for it, but we whittled that list down to 10 dilemmas and 24 people.

I picked people who have lived through these dilemmas at various stages in their lives and are honest enough to speak about it, and also picked some headhunters so that they could give some advice. The confusion starts from deciding on whether to go to a business school at all. A person has to pay Rs 500,000 for an MBA but get jobs that pay only Rs 15,000, so then the dilemma is if it is worth it. When you start a career, you're hung up on money, may be because of the extensive media coverage on the salaries offered during placements at the business schools or on the highest paid executives. Our focus seems to be on money as opposed to learning, capability and work culture. I have rarely seen an article that focuses on the latter three. Then comes choosing a B-school; there are 5,000 of them in India. The fee at the best IIM is Rs 2.7 million to Rs 2.8 million and, at the No. 20 IIM, is about Rs 1.2 to Rs 1.5 million. So should they go to an IIM or an institution abroad that is expensive?

Once in college, young students fall in love and get engaged, but they may end up living in different cities. Now the confusion is about living apart or one of them choosing a sabbatical. These days a lot of men too are taking a sabbatical to figure out their future course. Some wonder if they should switch industries or stay in theirs; others wonder if they should go back to the company where they had built a reputation or join a board. And then, of course, the final dilemma is about being a CEO.

When we look at all the 10 questions, the first is about switching jobs for money. But how much do non-monetary, intangible factors matter?

Shivakumar: People don't look at their careers from a long-term perspective. They think it's a sprint and, this is what I write in my first chapter, that a career is lived forwards but understood backwards. That is why I have experienced people speak about what to do when you are faced with a fork in the road. Money is an easy variable, because it's tangible. But a choice that you make for money can have an impact on your health, family, emotional anchors and on your CV, but these are not things people factor in. Everybody thinks that money will bring happiness, but that's not true. Money can ensure that you don't have sorrow in your life, but it cannot guarantee happiness. My submission to everybody is that, if you're good, money will follow you. You don't need to worry. Also, if you have money, it doesn't mean you're good. The other thing that drives people is instant gratification. People want holidays, a car and the fast life. A slow career journey to them is troubling.

Is there a way to think about these intangibles? For example, let's say you want to go and get a better MBA, which costs money, but there are intangible benefits of having a alumni network, and adding value to the CV. How do you evaluate these? Can we make these decisions simpler?

Shivakumar: In each case, depending on the dilemma, I argue that there are some factors you need to take into consideration. For example, if you're doing an MBA from an Ivy League college, it will cost you about $130,000. The payback is after three to four years. Now the visa restrictions are getting tighter and you won't get a job. You have to weigh that against continuing in your current job, build the skills, and not take a loan. Would that be a better option? I argue that being good at your job is more important than having a degree. Similarly, when you live apart, what's the impact on kids? Vivek Gambhir talks about that. What's the impact on your relationship with your spouse? For example, Priyanka Vijayakumar worked for me for two years in ABG. She used to travel to another city on Friday evening to be with her husband and return on a Monday morning and she said, on Saturdays, they were fully occupied with bank work and other things that required the presence of both of them. For one and a half years, they rejected every social engagement because they just wanted to be together. She said that she would not do it again. You realise the cost of it only after you've experienced it. It's amazing that she's so candid, and so honest. Finally, it is a choice each person has to make. In each chapter, I lay out a situation, and interview a concerned person. Each chapter gives five takeaways for each dilemma.

In corporate life, there are few positions at the top. So, many become entrepreneurs thinking that they can do better and can grow more with their own ventures. How do you evaluate this choice, of staying in the corporate race or of heading out on your own?

Shivakumar: That's true and people profiled in the book for this are outstanding examples. Meena Ganesh had a successful career in Microsoft, but she left to start Portea and now she's doing very well. Then you have Hari Bhaskar Menon, a serial entrepreneur; Harish Devarajan who quit Hindustan Lever and became a leadership coach; and Sujata Duvvuri who studied in University of Michigan but she said she wanted to start a family and then figure her career out. She didn’t go for a job but she developed a cereal formula and made that into a business for healthy food. So, people do drop out because they're frustrated at work. They believe that they're not progressing at the speed they want to or they think that they can make it on their own. And the lesson here is that it's not easy. The few successes are the ones everybody talks about, but the number and reasons for failures are many.

What are the dilemmas CEOs face? Every management trainee’s dream is to occupy that throne one day. People even quit larger companies to move to a smaller company for a CEO role. Is that wise?

Shivakumar: The CEO’s job may look easy from the outside, like it is only about ordering around a few people. But that's not true at all. In reality, a CEO has to work harder than everybody else. Success depends on the kind of company you are working for and the situations you are placed into, it is just not about your capabilities. For example, if you are in a turnaround situation, you must act differently from how you would in a growth or a restructuring situation. If you are a CEO of a company in India, and that company does not matter to the parent company, then you have to look at it differently. In August 2020, I asked 20 CEOs, what's their biggest dilemma in a normal year? For some it was about balancing the top-line and bottom line, for some it was about brands they need to invest in, and for some it was about building an ecosystem and influencing government policy. I listed all 20 down, and proved that context is what is important and that you cannot have one formula for a CEO.

Next, when you join, you need to be clear about the tenure you're looking at. By and large, you should think of three to five years because the job is lonely and stressful. Therefore, you must be prepared mentally and plan your next move accordingly. For example, when I joined Nokia, I thought I'll do five years, but I went on for 10 years. When I joined PepsiCo, I thought I'll do four to five years and I did exactly that.

CEOs must also focus on earning respect at the professional level and not on building their personal brand.

Also, there is give and take. If you're too busy running your own company and don't have time for others, others won’t find time for you. You have to be part of industry bodies and contribute your time so that people spare time for you too. Then, what is your relationship with a boss? Every CEO has a boss, whether it's a board or someone else. What is to be done when you disagree on an issue and what do you write once you have come to an agreement? I write about these based on my personal experience.

But how do you decide whether to even take the CEO's job or not?

Shivakumar:  There is a lot of sacrifice involved in the role. It looks glamorous from the outside but do you have the stomach for 24/7 scrutiny and criticism, especially if you're with a listed company? It is a tough choice. A lot of people want to be a young CEO, but if you make it to that position in your early 40s, what would you do for the next 15-20 years? That's not a question people spend too much time on. They get too excited. I give the example of a person from a consulting firm who went to become a CEO in an insulator industry, which is a dying industry, because he wanted the CEO tag. Today, nobody wants him. These are career cul-de-sacs, you have to be careful.

You have made an interesting point about taking inputs from subordinates and the board, as a CEO. It is important to listen to them to know the ground reality and to understand the legacy of the company. But, sometimes your gut feeling or your strategy may fly in the face of what both are telling you. How do you take a balanced stand then?

Shivakumar: One of the things I advocate is what I call micro sensing. Talk to a lot of people in the frontline and in your ecosystem. For example, before I joined Nokia, I must have talked to 300 people. Before I joined PepsiCo, I talked to about 150 people. I went and met every single person in the sector, or people who had been in the sector. For example, when I joined PepsiCo, I went and met Vinita Bali who, at one point of time, was with the Coke. I went to meet P M Sinha and Ramesh Chauhan who were competitors. I met all of them to get a sense because, many a time, we don't realise a competitor has a better view of us than we have of ourselves. He's able to see your weaknesses much better. I advocate that you need to get to micro sensing and not micromanaging. When you talk to a number of people, you get a sense of what's going on and then you can feed that back to your team. Then, you can never expect a 100% agreement. What I shoot for is 60% agreement, but 100% commitment.

So, success lies in your power to persuade people around you?

Shivakumar: Absolutely yes, it is. I think there are times you need to use logic and there are times you need to use magic.