Everyone has stories about the highest and lowest moments of their professional lives. An entrepreneur faces highs that are incredibly ‘high’ and lows which are incredibly ‘low’ everyday, often taking him or her into emotional territories never experienced before. If you have not yet felt this, trust me, you will feel it soon.
The fact is, you are working very very hard to fulfill your vision by building and selling products which are close to your heart. You can repeat the same pitch 100 times a day and not get tired. Yet, despite all your enthusiasm, energy, attitude and willingness to serve each stakeholder, you get hit from all sides: landlords, customers, vendors, prospects, and team members.
An entrepreneurs challenge is to stay focused on the goal in the midst of all this ‘distraction’. Problems will not stop, they will only escalate. Either you learn how to juggle them or your drown in the constant stream of failures that come you way. The choice is yours and yours only.
I love learning. I cannot imagine how life would be if I did not learn something new everyday. There is so much to learn from the people who surround us everyday, customers, partners, team members, family, the list never ends. The day I stop learning, is the day I die.
If I distill my two engineering degrees and one management degree down to the one key lesson from each degree, it comes down to this basic difference:
- The Engineering degrees taught me how to take a complex problem and move towards its logical conclusion using a series of well defined steps. An engineering problem can be attacked by breaking it into smaller chunks and solving each ‘independently’. If you define the problem well and follow the steps accurately, you are reasonably sure to reach the correct answer.
- The Management degree taught me how to look at a complex problem and fit it into a pre-defined framework. The framework can help identify linkages among the various sub-components of the problem and provide a path towards a few possible solutions. At the end however, you may not have one single answer, rather an array of solutions. The final step is to convert this array of solutions into one or two possible actions, using some level of managerial intuition and judgement.
Given this fundamental difference, it is important to recognize the importance of ‘last mile’ judgement and intuition in a management decision making scenario. If an organizational leader can hone his judgement skills, it would give him a great boost in the ability to achieve successful outcomes from seemingly uncertain scenarios.
It is also important to note that very few people can make judgement decisions well from the get go. For the rest of us, we should put in specific routines in place to hone our judgement skills. For example, one can practice predicting the price of oil or the currency every week using a set of ‘rules’. We can define those rules for ourselves, but just the act of predicting an uncertain outcome based on a set of rules should help sharpen our judgement decision making skills.
Sachin Tendulkar scored his hundredth 100 yesterday, a milestone that no other cricketer will probably achieve in his lifetime. It is easy to get lost in the excitement of the moment and forget that his most recent milestone is a crowning feather on his 99 previous centuries in international cricket. Those 99 hundreds were, in my opinion, even more inspiring than this hundredth ton.
To me, Sachin has been an idol all life long. Like most other cricket fans, I feel extremely fortunate to have lived in the same day and age as Sachin. Such role models are rare and each of us in the current generation should feel grateful to have seen a living legend. I remember growing up watching sportsmen like Sachin Tendulkar, Michael Jordan, and Michael Schumacher excel in their individual arenas. Each of the three have had a profound impact on my youth, however one of them stands out way above the rest. Jordan and Schumacher had much shorter careers as compared to Sachin, who to the surprise to many, has continued to excel even after 22 great years in the game. Cricket is a physically and mentally taxing game and he has always made it look easy. Sachin continues to break all records with a remarkable humility that can only be fueled by an innate pool of motivation that he draws from.
Sachin has taught me how to lead by action rather than words. He has taught me that a human being’s never say die spirit can help him achieve remarkable things in life. He has taught me that life will throw you into tough situations but the only way to get through unscathed is to have your eyes firmly set on your higher goals and doing what do you need to do today to work towards those goals. One of my favorite pieces of writing is Clayton Christensen’s “How will you measure your life?“. The article talks about the fact that it is much easier to stick to your principles 100% of the time rather than 98% of the time. Its easier to ‘never compromise’ than it is to ‘compromise just this one time’. Sachin personifies this learning for me. He had numerous opportunities to cut corners, make dubious/questionable choices, or in general do something against his principles. However, he always chose to do the right thing.
People define leadership in many different ways. There have been some great leaders in Indian cricket such as Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble. However, if you had to pick one, it would be an easy choice. I find it remarkable that even at this late stage of his long career, Sachin runs every run like he is sixteen years old. The hunger to score that one extra run gives us a peek into his inner source of motivation. Sachin has crossed every milestone there is but when he is running that single run, he is doing so for his team. The only thing in his mind at that moment is what is best for the team. That hunger to succeed is the definition of leadership for me. That hunger inspires the 10 other men in the team to play each game like its their last game of their lives.
I have learned over the years that one can increase their success probability at job interviews by focusing on a few critical elements. One such thing to focus on is what I call your “x-factor”.
Before walking into the interview room, think about what is it about you that is so compelling or differentiated from other candidates. Each one of us has an “x-factor” which sets us apart and makes us unique. For example, lets say you are a very passionate person. You get charged up quite easily and are able to inspire others around you with your passion. Recognizing and then highlighting this trait during your interview can greatly increase your success chances.
I recommend you work hard to anticipate what the interviewer is looking for. Once you have figured that out, do some special/out of the ordinary analysis or think of a few recommendations which you can highlight in your interview. Make sure these recommendations appear ‘unsolicited’, so that the interviewer feels you have done your homework and are proactively thinking of solutions to the company’s problems. For example, if your strong point is your analytical skills, then think of the interviewers business problems and analyze that problem using your analytical toolkit. Present your recommendation in the interview, even if you are not asked for it. This approach is bound to help showcase how proactive you are.
Michael Arrington talked about how Facebook should allow users to “reset” their social network to shed some of the fat that collects over time in your social network circles. This resonates with my “Facebook fatigue” that I talked about earlier. More and more people these days are complaining about the low signal to noise ratio on their Facebook walls, and this is a dangerous path for Facebook to go down.
What most people are not realizing is that this issue has an even larger impact when it comes to our professional network on LinkedIn. Over time, we relax our constraints and tend to approve connection requests on LinkedIn from people who we know very little. These may be people who we exchanged a simple “hello” with and went on to connect with them later on LinkedIn. Before we know it, our network has grown to over 500 people.
It is difficult to imagine how most of us can have a high quality professional relationship with over 500 people. It just doesn’t seem physically possible. LinkedIn does a very good job of trying to prevent you from adding people who you do not know well, but the software algorithm can only go so far in dissuading people from expanding their networks.
I seem to have fallen prey to this as well as my LinkedIn network has grown fast over the past year (mostly due to new connections at ISB). But its high time I tighten up and take control of who I decide to approve. For those of you new to LinkedIn or Facebook, I highly advise you to take it slow and only build your networks slow and steady. Do not rush in, having 500 friends or connections is not an achievement. Do not dilute your network, as very soon, you will drown in the amount of noise it creates for you.
I love playing poker. The game never ceases to amaze me. I learn something new every game I play, no matter if I win or lose. In the last 7 odd years I have been playing poker, I have played with many kinds of players. Some who are ultra conservative and find it difficult to part with even the smallest of amounts, while others who are aggressive and do not fear losing it all in one shot. Most people I have met lie in between these extremes, as expected.
Poker teaches me patience. It rewards me for waiting 20 hands patiently for that one killer hand where I can sweep the table. Every hand I lose, I can almost always diagnose my failure down to some form of impatience. It consistently punishes me for wavering from my *ideal* strategy and losing track of my fundamentals. It consistently punishes me for being aggressive when defense is needed and being defensive when aggression is needed. Poker teaches me that I should strive to maximize my gains and minimize my losses. There are days when I hit a streak of bad cards or my opponents get *lucky* with great cards at my expense. Poker teaches me the virtue of holding back my currency when I know my hand is only second best, at best.
Poker teaches me that one needs to constantly reinvest himself to stay competitive. One has to change strategy if the situation warrants that. Again, it punishes me for being rigid about my playing style if the situation warrants a slight shift in strategy.
You know them. You have seem them around in your workplace or social circles. They represent a breed of people who are always late to any event, class, or social meetup. I admire them for the consistency with which they show up late. What’s even more impressive, they are very consistent in the amount of time they are late by.
In my class at ISB, I have identified several such people. For example, there is this guy who shows up exactly 5 minutes late to every class. That kinda consistency freaks me out, no really it does. I would like to sit him down one day and ask him:
What gives you the power to be so dedicated in being exactly 5 minutes late to every class?”
I wonder what he will say. Perhaps he will tell me:
“I am disciplined in everything I do. If I break the rule, it upsets me and that is not good”.
Keeping aside the sarcasm, this kinda behaviour disgusts me. It makes my stomach turn inside out. People need to learn to respect the timeline being mandated to them. Professors at ISB make it very clear that they do not tolerate tardiness, yet, it unfortunately falls on deaf ears.
A very important reason one goes to b-school is to expand their network, meet diverse and interesting people, and learn personal and professional best practices from the diverse set of people. Right?
I want to believe the above view is represented by a large percentage of MBA students, but sadly, I am observing the complete opposite. MBA students, some very smart ones, are rarely pro-active in working with *random* group of people, or taking up assignments/projects/competitions with a group of people they have not met before.
Instead, most people just flock to others who they know well and have worked with before. In some ridiculous cases, I have seen students request re-shuffling the entire set of class study groups just so they get to work with the 2-3 students who they are comfortable with.
I wish this was not the case. Folks need to realize that uncertainty, ambiguity, and diversity all go hand in hand. One can gain A LOT from working outside the comfort zone and trying to work with people who are different and I daresay, *hard* to work with.
These two seemingly mundane words wield tremendous power. Think about the following exchange between two MBA’s evaluating a healthcare business plan and a team of entrepreneurs:
- Person 1: This looks like a good team because the individuals have a lot of industry experience. We should score them high on experience.
- Person 2: They have lots of experience, so what?
Think about what just happened. By asking a simple “So what?”, person 2 has just made person 1 think much deeper as to what he/she feels is good about the team’s experience. Is the team’s experience relevant to this particular business idea? If you had to pick just one aspect about the team, would you pick their experience over other factors like motivation, team dynamics, network, etc?
Just these two powerful words can make us question unsubstantiated assumptions, tall claims, and any such construct which can lead us down the wrong path. Asking such “So what” questions is a trait I have recently observed in many good professors at ISB as well as some of the most successful people I have met in my life.
Here is a simple task each of us can execute today which is guaranteed to help us with our own plans:
- List the top 3 activities you are doing today in your professional life (for example: taking a certain course, participating in a competition, working on a certain project)
- For each activity, ask yourself “So what?” and jot down the thoughts that come in your head
I guarantee you, this little exercise will make you think in ways you never thought of before.