Category Archives: Creativity

Have you found your niche?

“Charles, you care for nothing but shooting dogs and rats; you will be a disgrace to not only yourself but to your family too.” This was a father’s prophecy about his son. The father wanted his son to be a doctor like him. Charles entered Edinburgh University for medicine at his father’s behest, found it unattractive, later joined Cambridge, and earned an undistinguished bachelor’s degree in theology. He had no firm idea what to do. Charles was an aimless youth at 22. He wanted to do something different. He loved flora and fauna but did not know whether that love could be transformed into a livelihood.

Captain Fitzroy on his ship HMS Beagle was looking out for a naturalist. Charles asked for his father’s permission. His father refused but with a caveat, “If you can find any man of common sense who advises you to go on the discovery, I shall give my consent.” Neither the father, nor the captain were ready to grant permission to Charles.

There are two approaches of developing one’s career, the conventional approach and the niche-based approach.

  1. The conventional way of selecting a profession for self or for others is primarily decided by the demand for that profession, coupled with tangibles like salary and perks. No wonder Medicine, Engineering and MBAs among others make the cut.
  2. A niche-driven approach on the other hand is decided by differentiating oneself from the crowd by focussing on a niche . It is defined as a comfortable or a suitable position in life or employment. Alternatively, it also means a shallow recess especially in a wall to display something of value – a statue or other ornament. (please refer the image). Let us see what happened to Charles, the aimless youth discussed earlier?

When Charles approached Captain Fitzroy, the physiognomist in Captain Fitzroy said, “I doubt anyone having a nose like yours can possess sufficient energy and determination for the long voyage.”

His uncle drove thirty miles to convince Charles’ father to grant him permission to undertake the assignment on HMS Beagle as a naturalist.

The Beagle Voyage which included the circumnavigation of globe would be the making of the 22 year-old Darwin. Five years of physical hardship of mental rigour imprisoned within the ship’s walls, offset by the wide-open opportunities in the Brazilian jungles and the Andes Mountains, were to Darwin an eye opener in finding his muse. It took him 22 years to publish his theory of Evolution by Natural Selection in The Origin of Species.

Is it necessary to be a school or a college topper or those in the top percentile rankings to find one’s niche? Quite often the converse is true as ‘brilliant’ students have the best choices in selecting the conventional options in career and institution.

What can happen when one selects a career in a conventional way but is at the bottom of a pyramid in a specific career stream? Getting a job may look easy but one may be competing with a very large number of aspirants. For example: Rakesh had scored 100/100 in Sanskrit in SSLC. Having felt he had a flair for Sanskrit he decided to pursue his college education in that direction. He completed his BA in Sanskrit from Ruia College in Mumbai.

At this juncture he had two choices in further studies – to continue his studies in Sanskrit or look out for a qualification which is marketable in the job market. He decided to pursue a MBA in Finance instead. After spending around Rs. 8 lakhs in fees itself what can be the likely scenario when he passes out two years later?

For a person who wishes to do a M. Tech in Structural Engineering, a minimum qualification of B.E Civil is necessary. Likewise for a M.S. in surgery, a basic qualification of MBBS is mandatory. So, when a person pursues a MBA in Finance with Sanskrit as graduation the basic competency level expected of the student is that of Class 12th, as a MBA is agnostic to one’s field of graduation.

Conventional wisdom says that one has a wide range of job opportunities after doing a MBA. The opportunities are large but so is the competition. Annually about 360,000 students graduate from 4000 B-Schools of which 61% are unemployable due to skill gaps and low work experience.

Keeping those depressing numbers aside, can Rakesh compete with students from Premier Institutes or those with Engineering and Commerce backgrounds? It is not impossible, but it is a Herculean task.

What would happen if he were to pursue Sanskrit for his PG? In the absence of clear data let us assume that the number of students opting for Sanskrit may be 1% of MBA students that is around 3600. For Rakesh it would have been much easier to be in the 95th percentile after his MA and in the 99th percentile with a Ph.D. A lot of research happens in Sanskrit in US and German universities. By differentiating himself and finding a niche, Rakesh could have had a sense of purpose too.

From a financial perspective too, the cost of pursuing a MA in Sanskrit would have been at less than 10% the cost of a MBA. In case of a Ph.D. he could have explored UGC fellowships or opportunities in US or German universities where considerable research in Sanskrit is possible.

An example of a niche-based career is of my friend, Christopher Jayakaran who passed PUC, third class in 1962. With hardly any worthwhile career options, his father’s friend suggested him to take up a course in Geology. He completed his M.Sc in Geology at Presidency College in Madras by topping in the University. He worked for an NGO called ‘Action for Food Production’ for 7 years and for more than 25 years in different countries in Africa which include Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Sierra Leone etc. He is an eminent Hydrogeologist and a Paleontologist. His Tamil book In Search of Ancestors which is on evolution of man based on fossil evidence has run into six editions.

Why are people in general wary of pursuing niche fields?

  1. Obsession for Security: Education is normally pursued in order to get a job. The market demand is thought of. In the post-covid world there is no security either in a job or in one’s qualifications per se.
  2. Managerial Aspirations: Indians in general prefer to have a managerial title early in their career sacrificing expertise in a specific domain.

How to find your niche?

Around 30 years back, I came across an excellent concept in finding ones niche, based on cybernetic principles which was on identifying one’s core competency and focusing on a specific niche where the strength can be leveraged to maximum extent.

Werner Brandes was a German MBA Graduate who was working in a consulting firm but did not have career growth in spite of working hard in that organization for more than 10 years. He was unable to get good offers elsewhere. He was a mediocre student throughout his academic life and passed out from a tier-3 B-school.

The conventional wisdom of competing with others was not giving any results (like the example of Rakesh discussed above). His work profile was mapped for 15 different competencies. Werner was below average in all save one, which was on Industry Setup in rural areas. When Werner was pointed out that this was his niche. He asked, “How can I get a job with such a small niche?” He was advised to start his own consulting in this field and as he was in the top 5% of this ultra-specialized area of business consulting, slowly he was perceived as an expert in this field. Business started growing. Being a sunrise sector wherever the data was not available, his customers helped him in providing the necessary details.

Fascinated by this counterintuitive concept, I launched a program called Strategy for Quantum Growth. After 4-5 programs I had to withdraw as most of the participants did not want a long-term strategy but a new job which paid them 3-5K more.

One crucial difference between the conventional and the niche-based strategy is the type of growth. In case of the former it is logarithmic growth – where it is easier to get a good well-paying job immediately after graduation but after a few years the growth may taper off. In case of niche areas there is a considerable struggle initially but after a few years when the market perceives you as specialist, the growth becomes truly phenomenal and is termed as exponential growth. ( Please refer the graphs below) You are considered as a pioneer and get a first-mover advantage.

Log_Growthexponential-growth

Conventional Approach                                                         Niche-Based Approach

Whether in business, profession or a job; there are some who go on competing  against  a vast majority in a commoditized market as if running on a treadmill and getting exhausted. On the contrary, the likes of  Christopher, Werner Brandes or Charles Darwin though not brilliant in their school days in the conventional sense were able to find their niche. Have you found yours?

Two roads diverged in a wood and I…and  I took the one less travelled by and that has made all the difference. – Robert Frost.

Inspiring Leadership

My first interaction with Deepak Parab, the CEO of Metrohm India Private Limited (a leading company in Analytical Instruments and Solutions) happened around two years ago when he called me from his Chennai HQ and said that he would like me to conduct a ‘Managerial Effectiveness’ program for his pan-India team of service managers. “Rajan, I shall ask my National Service Manager, Vinod Salunkhe to get in touch with you to discuss the further modalities.” The call hardly lasted five minutes; a client taking a quick decision in finalizing a 2-day training program was a rarity in my training career of 25 years. I could not help recollecting a MNC client who took approximately six months with more than a dozen meetings to finalize a 1-hour keynote address. (See my earlier blog titled ‘A Tale of Two Key Note Addresses’ – https://rajanparulekar.in/2018/03/29/a-tale-of-two-key-note-addresses/ )

More than the ability to take the right decisions, the leadership traits I admired in Deepak were:

  1. Focus on results: After he took over as CEO and Managing Director, Metrohm India has progressed very well under him and results have been great. They have been able to capture and maintain major market share for their products and increase the turnover and profitability multi-fold. Today, Metrohm India owns all its offices across India and these were bought in the last ten years.
  2. Retaining Talent: His core team of 30 senior managers including the COO, Branch Managers, Service Managers, Application Laboratory Manager and Product Managers are with the company for the last 20 years. The core team has remained the same for the past two decades.
  3. Creating Value through Service: Peter Drucker said that the purpose of business is to attract and retain a customer, which can be restated by the formulae below:

a. Vc > Vp where Vc is the value perceived by the customer and Vp is the value inside   your product or service. You get a customer only when the perceived value is more (short and/or long term) than what the customer pays for.

b. Vc = (Q+U+S)/P where Q is the Quality, U the Utility, S the Service and P is the price. Remember that QUS is not what the salesman claims but what the customer perceives. The four ways to increase the perceived value is either to increase the QUS or to reduce the P. Quite often desperate salespeople reduce price to create value which in turn affects profitability.

Deepak took a different approach to create value. To command a premium, he focussed on the numerator (QUS) rather than the denominator (P). Service was given prominence vis-à-vis sales. In a team of 135 executives for each sales person there are 3 service executives. Normally one service engineer is deployed for 100 instruments, with an equal share of warranty and AMC (annual maintenance contract). Today Metrohm India has 12 Offices and 12 Home Offices from where Service is provided. The home office concept for service was used to extend the reach. For example for clients in Goa, service engineers used to travel every week from Mumbai to Goa. With 250 instruments, 2 service engineers were deputed to Goa, which created value in the following ways:

  • The travel fatigue for service engineers was considerably reduced.
  • Improved work-life balance for the Service Engineers who were back to their home in the evening.
  • Cost of resident engineers was lower than with the travel and related costs.
  • Delighted Customers due to an improved response time and a lower down-time. Customer confidence in Metrohm also increased due to the now closer proximity of the Service Engineer.

Having created value for the customer in terms of QUS, Metrohm was now able to command a premium vis-à-vis the competition. There is a general tendency for companies to club sales and service to control costs, especially in the case of executives operating from home offices. However, Deepak resisted this temptation, as with dual responsibilities, executives tend to focus more on sales and ignore service. Now, dedicated service engineers in turn enhanced the perceived value!

  1. Delegation with empowerment: Ganesha Chaturthi is a major festival in Maharashtra. Deepak belongs to a small village called Hiwale in Sindhudurg District from the Konkan region. For this important festival, Deepak used to take leave for 10 days every year. However as a CEO designate, when he applied for leave now, his boss questioned the logic, considering his elevation to the new role with additional responsibilities. The major concern apart from the leave, was in Deepak being incommunicado due to poor network connectivity at his village. Deepak’s thought process was quite clear. He said, “I shall prepare my team in such a way that my help is not needed in those 10 days.” His communication to his team members went on the following lines:

– “Please take decisions. I am not going to blame you for the consequences, if found negative in posterity.”

– “Please think of the worst–case scenario. The company is not going to sink from any such decisions.”

– “All of you can learn from your mistakes and a wrong decision and its consequence can be termed as the cost of learning.”

– “If in spite of all the above, you still need my advice, please drop me a SMS. In case I go to the village market (which has a better connectivity), I shall respond.”

The discounts and pricing are controlled by the respective Managers and all are empowered to take decisions. As a normal practice at Metrohm India the senior management team does not have any extra power to give additional discounts.

5. Genuine Concern for Employees: Even though a nationwide lockdown was announced on 24 March 2020, Deepak took the call on 20th March to shut down the company’s offices across the country. Most of his team members who were at different locations then, had enough time to go back home.(Contrast this with the 4 hour time frame given by the PM which affected not only the general populace but also the millions of migrant workers!) He announced categorically that there would be no salary deduction, nor would anyone be forced to go on leave. The salary for the full month of March which normally gets paid on the last day of the month was credited on 24th

6.Creative Problem Solving: Every year the company used to invite its Pan-India sales and service team in May to the Chennai HQ for training. The month-long exercise for a team of 130 executives used to cost around ₹ 70-80 lakhs; the quarterly reviews used to be around ₹ 5-6 lakhs each. During the lockdown, the time was used for online trainings and reviews thereby saving a big cost for the organisation, while at the same time keeping the employees engaged. They also ensured that all employees are engaged and connecting with the customers, so that they feel like they are doing their routine work and no health issues crop up due to no work. In the earlier phases of lockdown, the instruments which needed attention were diagnosed remotely, thereby reducing the down time. For the Pharmaceutical industry which is a major customer (as well as the sector doing well during the pandemic), Metrohm’s service support was crucial. In a few cases, even the installation was carried out with the help of the customer along with support via a video call by the Service Engineer. Digital Platforms have been used by the organisation extensively to connect its employees and customers.

7. Effective Decision Making: Be it a minor decision of a trainer selection or major ones like shutdown or salary disbursals, an effective leader does not shy away from taking decisions.

8. Strong Ethics: Deepak shared that a strong sense of ethics and moral values are a sine qua non for effective leadership. Deepak spent his childhood in the IIT Bombay campus. His father, Raghunath Parab was a governing member of the Co-Operative Society and was entrusted the job of supervising the IIT Staff Canteen operated by the IIT Staff Co-Operative Society. As a principle, his father did not prefer his children to visit the canteen; lest it be perceived that they were availing food free. Some years down the line, when Deepak entered the canteen and when his father admonished him, he told him, “Dad, now I am working as a Technical Assistant in the Department of Chemistry and I have come here as an employee and not as your son.” Caesar’s wife must indeed be above suspicion.

Since 1982, Metrohm AG, with HQ in Switzerland is a full subsidiary of Metrohm Foundation, as the only shareholder. With neither a specific owner nor any other shareholders, part of its profits are earmarked towards charity and R&D. Being a zero-debt company, the obsessive pressure for quarterly results is absent.

rajan@paraadigm-info.com, http://www.paradigm-info.com

 

Virtues of Boredom

How do you conclude whether you have liked a training program or not? The trainer may be highly knowledgeable but if he is not able to engage the audience; the feedback is considered to be negative confirming you have not liked the training program.  The different techniques trainers employ to engage the audience include ice breakers, fun session, individual and group activities , case studies, role plays,  exercises etc. Particularly during the post-lunch or the graveyard session, the relevance of  activities becomes very critical. With a sense of humour coupled with interesting videos, all the stakeholders viz. the participants, the HR manager and the trainer feel happy. Such programs are relevant for topics like sales, negotiation, team building, communication etc. for conceptual understanding and are called as pragmatic programs.

Imagine a training program where there is absolutely no  audience engagement; be it the ice breakers, videos, or group activities. To add insult to the injury, the trainer talks in a drab monotonous tone; session after session. He will ask you to watch your breath and after a few days to watch sensations on your body. Your constant companion during the sessions may be boredom. And if this is not sufficient, the trainer does not even bother to take a feedback at the program conclusion.  Let us call such programs as the reflective type. Would there be any takers for such type of programs vis-à-vis the pragmatic programs discussed earlier?

I have been conducting the conventional pragmatic programs on Sales, Negotiation, Emotional Intelligence etc. for corporate clients since 1995. However the program which contributed immensely to my personal growth was Vipassana, a ten-day course in noble silence, a program of the reflective type. The essential difference between pragmatic and the reflective type is the way boredom is perceived. In case of the former, boredom is treated as a ‘bad’ or as an unwanted emotion and has to be done away with at all costs. In case of the latter (like sensitivity training ) it is treated as a valuable emotion in knowing oneself.

If you watch your mind, you will observe three types of thoughts which are:

  1. Pleasant Thoughts: These include the positive thoughts indicating happiness, success, achievement, pleasant memories etc.
  2. Painful Thoughts: These include undesirable situations like losing a job or an order leading to anxiety, anger, uncertainty etc.
  3. Neutral Thoughts: Beyond the pleasant and painful thoughts, the majority of thoughts are neutral which do not produce any emotions boredom being the major one. Human beings are programmed to chase the pleasant thoughts, run away from the painful thoughts and ignore the neutral thoughts. It is estimated that hardly 10% of the thoughts belong to the pleasant and the painful category and the balance 90% to the last category.

So the moment a feeling of boredom arises,  people generally start looking at WhatsApp,  switch the TV channel, hardly realizing that it is akin to running on a treadmill either chasing a pleasant thought or running away from a painful one and in turn getting exhausted being at the same place.

Like any other positive emotion like happiness, joy, contentment or the ‘negative’ emotions like anger, fear, jealousy; boredom has its own validity. It can make you reinvent yourself, look within and also become creative. Doris Lessing an eminent writer and Nobel Winner in Literature says, ”If you really want to do something fundamental in life; you should embrace solitude and boredom to such an extent that they engulf you.” Pablo Picasso, the great sculptor and painter says, “without solitude no great work is possible.” Beyond developing creativity, utter boredom can also lead a person to self-actualization. (Refer to the Award winning speech by the writer titled The Purpose of Life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amF_V_FaSuA )

Those of you who have watched serials like Buniyad, Hum Log, Ramayan Or Yeh Jo Hai Jindagi in the late 80s will realize that the serials were not exceptional per se. Apart from a reasonably good content, one of the major reasons for their popularity was the audience’s threshold to boredom was much higher then( Doordarshan being the only choice) vis-à-vis the current times. Would you agree that with  1000+ TV  channels clubbed with internet related options like youtube, Netflix, Amazon prime etc. our threshold to boredom has come down significantly?

Can boredom help us to be more creative? While watching a Hindi movie on Netflix or Amazon prime, the moment a song sequence appears; there is a tendency to fast-forward due to our antipathy to boredom. How to deal with such a boring situation?

Think of a Hindi movie song  where the hero is carrying the corpulent heroine in his lap or on his  back and ponder over  the possibility  that the shot might have taken at least 10-15 retakes including a full day of shooting. Just visualize the fatigue and exhaustion the hero might have undergone! On similar lines when they were rolling down the hill or drenching in the rains think of the likely spinal injuries or the possibility of catching a flu.

When the hero is running around trees or performing weird postures ( a la Govinda and Karishma )in a group  of 100 extras dancing to the tune of the choreographer; simply mute the audio; you will start enjoying the scene in a hilarious way. You may also develop compassion for the hero and the heroine and realize what Buddha meant by his first noble truth that life is suffering.

Anyone while dating has undertaken such exercises to coax and cajole his sweetheart in real life?  And then you start looking at the song sequence symbolizing  the utter meaninglessness of  life as conveyed in a play called Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.

It is a tragicomedy that focuses on the meaninglessness of life. It centres around two tramps waiting for someone called Godot. We are not told who or what Godot is – a man or a God who will solve all their problems; a change in their circumstances; or death. The tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, do not know who Godot is either. They meet each day near a tree and wait, experiencing cold, hunger and pain. They try to distract themselves from the endless wait by arguing over trivial things; sleeping; chatting with the only two passersby – Lucky and Pozzo.  Each night, a boy arrives to tell them that Godot will again not be coming that day but will surely come the next day.

In the end, the reader or spectator suspects that Godot represents the emptiness that the writer sees at the centre of human existence. Like the tramps, we go through life, waiting for we don’t know what. We pass the time in work and other activities; and we continue to wait; for Godot.

When we fast-forward a song sequence; we are trying to avoid boredom (like Vladimir and Estragon) hoping to complete the movie faster in spite of the predictable climax of the hero and heroine getting married against all odds and living happily ever after! (which may be a myth after all!) Instead, why not embrace boredom and start enjoying the inane song? Boredom may also lead you from the temporal to the eternal aspects of life and you start enjoying the present moment! The pragmatic programs may help you earn a living, the reflective ones- the so called boring ones may help you realize who you are! Both of them have their own validity.

P.S. If you find this blog article boring, please rest assured it has served its purpose!

The Unknown Tendulkar

He was neither a cricketing genius nor a renowned Marathi playwright.

He was born in 1909 in a poor family of a primary school teacher in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. After completing his B.A. at Elphinstone College, he went to Cambridge on a scholarship to pursue astronomy. Drawing inspiration from Gandhi and his Dandi Yatra, he dropped out of Cambridge, returned to India and joined the freedom movement.

On Pandit Nehru’s advice, he devoted 10 years of his life for the sugarcane farmers in Uttar Pradesh. To earn his living, he started writing for newspapers. In his second attempt of further studies, he went to Gottingen University in Germany to study Aerospace Engineering. Nazis suspected his Communist antecedents and put him behind bars for a month. Then he moved to Paris. His fascination with Communism took him to Russia. For two and half years he studied photography in Russia. He survived on photography and writing for newspapers and magazines like Pravda, Izvestia and Kastyor. On his father’s death, he returned to India and was in and out of jail during the freedom movement for 20 months. Due to financial challenges, he approached Mahatma Gandhi and sought his permission in writing Gandhi’s biography. With 12 long years, moving across the country and in his impeccable English, he  completed the  8-Volume Biography: Mahatma – The Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The first volume covers his life from 1869 to 1920 and the last one from 1947 to 1948. First published in 1951, it had the foreword of Pandit Nehru who on this magnum opus of around 4000 pages said, “It brings together more facts and data about Gandhi than any book that I know. I consider these books to be of great value as a record  of the life of a man not only supreme in his generation, but also a period of India’s history which has intrinsic importance of its own.”

Apart from the above, some of his other books include 30 months in Russia, and  Gandhi in Champaran.   Once the director of Sahitya Academy wrote to him asking for his detailed resume. This person who had around 5000 pages to his authorship, did not have even 2 pages on himself. His response was: Deenanath Gopal Tendulkar, Born: 9th October 1909 at Ratnagiri, Education: BA ( Hons)

The biography brought international fame to  DG but he still remained the simple soul as he was, all along his life, in his half-sleeved khadi shirt, a khaki half pant, Kolhapuri chappals  a Shabnam on his shoulders, sauntering  at old book shops in flora fountain and other antique shops.

A group of people came to invite him as a Key- Note speaker for an important event. After entertaining them, he said,” I generally do not like to mix with people, I do not like to go on stage, and I do not like to be photographed or want my name appearing in the newspapers.” The organizers were taken aback. One of the visitors said, “we shall go back and tell our chief and then call you over phone.” He said,” My bungalow is named as Ekaant ( Solitude ) I do not even have a telephone.”

 

Journalist MJ Akbar narrates an incident quoting H Y Sharada Prasad, the media advisor to Indira Gandhi. DG was awarded Padma Bhushan during Rajendra Prasad’s tenure. He sent a telegram to the President saying he would prefer to have a watch instead of a piece of paper from the government. Needless to say, he received both.

Deenanath Gopal Tendulkar (1909 -1972) a great writer, a pioneer in documentary film making, a renowned international photographer, who incidentally never had his own photograph in his lifetime, whom Pandit Nehru used to invite him over dinner, Mahatma Gandhi used to do the proof reading for his writing, today is an unknown Tendulkar.