Thursday, August 21, 2008

Legends and the premium on longevity

I have long been fascinated by veterans that I have either seen on TV or have met in my life. I used to have this old theory that these people are not necessarily the best people, in tune with the changing times etc - not all, but a few of them. I also used to feel that many of them have been with one organization and may not have necessarily seen the world in other places.

My thoughts on these things have changed over the years as I have myself changed organizations, cities and roles in my 7-year career. And I am now convinced that there is a tremendous amount of premium on durable people, and folks who can last it out – like the ones I have mentioned above. Read on to understand the theory of my case, so to speak!

I personally know of people in industries such as banking, automobile & manufacturing in general, and consulting, who have spent their entire lives in one organization. All of them share a common theme - they now hold/have held extremely senior positions in their respective industries, and are known by their first name by the newest entrants into these industries. These are people who have built such a long innings in their careers in one firm -by the sheer dint of their merit, hard word, sweat, blood and toil.

Yes, there are the biased views that these senior people did not necessarily have the multitude of opportunities that we youngsters are perennially faced with today. But, what these veterans managed to achieve in their environment was truly legendary -. they did not have the various opportunities of today, during their time; yet, they used their careers in building some very core capabilities and skills that make them the legends that they are today. This is so unlike the numerous fly-by-night, short-term, job-hopping careers that many of us in the current generation are possibly guilty of.

These veterans command respect not merely by the titles/designations they hold, or the positions they currently hold/have held in the past. If anything, they command respect for what they are, for what they know, for what they have contributed, not to mention, for their personal credibility. I personally know of one of the senior most banking executives in India, whose word was law in commercial banking i.e. if he refuses a term loan to a company, most executives in many other banks would refuse loans to that company (despite their individual due diligence teams) - such is the credibility of this banking legend that I am talking about. Amazing man! This banking giant is now retired, but enjoys so much credibility that people in his industry still recall his contribution over a 3.5-decade career, as one of the legendary performances seen in Indian banking history.

Similarly, I know of a legend in consulting - in fact my first, big boss - who can literally pick up the phone and speak to the who's who of corporate India today. But the man never misuses his position, is an extremely down-to-earth individual, has his head firmly on his shoulders, and is a person in front of whom, I stand speechless - not because I am scared of him or anything, but purely because I am amazed and inspired at how one individual can achieve so much in a span of 30 very hard-working years. I remember how stunned I was, when he recalled my name and spoke to me for 5 full minutes at Bangalore airport, a year ago, when we crossed each other on our way to our different flights. I mean, a man who consults with people who decide things in corporate India, actually remembered me – possibly, the youngest consultant/trainee he had ever encountered in his life & to remember me by my first name! Stupendous!

At the end of it all, I have decided that it pays to stick it out in the middle, despite the challenges, despite the limitations imposed at various points in time. What is durable is vision, the sense of looking at times to come, the ability to see the larger picture, and to guts it out in the middle. Whether there are bouncers, yorkers, seam-up, spin or full tosses, it takes a combination of all these (if not more), to achieve personal credibility in an industry and be called as the last word in your area of specialisation. Infact, it makes me feel very proud that we have such people in our midst; people, who have proved to me what it means to build an innings and last it out.

The other common thing with all these 3 legendary people is that they are exceptionally committed, sincere and hard working people, who have risen the ranks from being a nobody. All of them were not born with a silver spoon and grew in their careers (and in the eyes of people who know them), by the sheer dint of their individual performance and capabilities. It is actually quite spectacular that they were able to tide over such tough market conditions such as the license raj of the 1980s, adapting well to the changing dynamics of liberalization in India, after 1991 etc. For e.g., these are people who are any day more comfortable making calculations in their native language; or any day more comfortable in writing out a business plan on paper and thinking through the various steps; any day, more comfortable in building systems and processes using good, old-fashioned manuals/process documents etc. That is because their fundamentals were strong and their learning curve was steep. But, they adapted to information technology; to jazzy presentations; to videoconferencing; to conference calls; to jet-setting lives etc. And given a choice, all 3 of them, prefer their simple lives, outside the premises of their respective offices.

And the one final thing in common amongst these 3 veterans is the variety of hats that they donned within the same organization in their careers. They joined at the junior-most levels in their firms and joined with absolutely no backgrounds suited to those industries back in the 60s and 70s. They learnt the very hard way -people may have been there to teach them, but these people had to grind it out. And it was harder than we think it is - no free market economy, highly regulated markets etc. For e.g., I know of one such case, where importing a computer needed permissions from at least a handful of ministries, not to mention the steep customs duty involved. Interestingly, today, all these legends know so much about their industry, that they are called to campuses and internal training centres in their firms, to deliver lectures about their industry at large - not just specific to their company! Of course, all these people worked/are working in gigantic firms within their industry, which in itself, gave them the room to navigate across different roles, functions, departments, locations and types of work.

I am also convinced that their humility and acceptance of the fact that they did not know anything about their industry when they first started, helped them in shaping their careers i.e. learning at every step of their career, in whatever position they may have held, be it a specialist position or a general management position.

Amazing folks, and people who are truly inspirational! After having changed a few jobs in my life, I am more than convinced that its better to don different hats in one large organization and build that personal credibility over the long-term. Not that this is not achievable in a start-up or in a smaller firm - but just that, the certificate of credibility is a bit more over-powering when such a background is built in some of the better known firms.

Hats off to these 3 people I know - the automobile genius, the consulting magician and the banking legend that I have talked about here. They have made me realise the value of durability in its very essence. And having seen it, I can easily say, that it is worth being known as a credible, honest, sincere and good human being. That's the bottom line, rather than flashy designations and quick money.