Thursday, October 15, 2015

The beauty of learning about the Bengali life

I have been lucky to meet, befriend and get to know a bit about the Bengali way of life. Over time, I have made some truly fascinating friends from the great city of Kolkata (prefer calling it Calcutta). Though I have had Bengali friends since school, it was only when I left home for my MBA and later in my working life that I got to know a lot about Bengalis. They are one of the most interesting creed of people that I have ever known. 

My first taste of Bengal was back in school at the famous K.C.Das restaurant in Bangalore. I still remember the few evenings when my dad used to bring back a pot full of rasagolla (I later on learnt that it is roshogolla!). Gradually, I picked up the other wonderful savouries that the Bengali had to offer, for desserts - mishti dohi being an all-time favourite. But, my interesting association with Bengalis went far beyond food. I got to meet some really interesting people from that part of the country.

The one thing that has stood out for me, always, is the sheer amount of time that Bengalis seem to have in their lives. I have never understood it, but, they just seem to have that much more time for everything in life. Time to study more. Time to discuss a topic more. Time to admire the charm of nature, a bit more. Time to immerse oneself into the depths of a subject. Time to remember the famous verses of a Tagore. Time to watch the timeless classics of Satyajit Ray, starting with Pather Panchali. Time to start talking about a subject in the evening and still talk about it well after dinner. It’s amazing, how they just seem to have that extra bit of time, compared to others. Maybe, I am biased, but that really has been my standout experience in all of my interactions with them.

The other unique thing about every Bengali that I have befriended, is their eyebrow. It is thick, period. And, all of them, without exception have thick eyebrows. Is it because of the amount of fish they eat? Or, is it because of anything else that they do, which others don't? The size of their eyebrows becomes even most pronounced when a brow is raised, or if there is a quizzical look, or if enter into a debate with you. That's the first thing that I observe about their facade.

Talking of facades, their women are so good-looking. Be it at C.R. Park in Delhi, or Park Street in Calcutta, or the Bengali community in my lovely city Bangalore, all the women that I have ever befriended just look stunning. Added to that is their intellectual horsepower, which makes it an even more engaging proposition. I think, that really seals the issue of the Bengali charm - the sheer combination of intellect combined with beauty. Over time, I have reached the conclusion that the Bengali woman knows that she is very, very good-looking and hence perhaps goes out of her way to look good.  

There are other things about the Bengali life that I have loved. The interiors of their houses are so tastefully done. There is always place for a classy gramophone, or a violin, or a guitar, or sitar. Most of them will ensure that there is some form of a library, or at least a bookcase to store/showcase some of the choicest books written in the history of mankind. Not to mention, the Bengali choice of colours - quite breathtakingly unique. There is always a brush of one colour interspersed with the other. For example, the sofa may be brown or purple, while the gramophone sitting alongside it will be shining golden with a Tagore record player soothing an audience on any given evening. 

Tagore reminds me of the other thing that I truly cherish about Bengalis, their interest and choice of music. It is quite amazing how they manage to learn that much about music of different kinds and also manage to build a collection based on their individual tastes. After all, it was the Bengali community that gave us a timeless legend called Kishore Kumar, who I am a very, very big fan of. A talent like no other, and a man who has a song for me, raised in the south of India, for every mood and occasion or situation of life. Genius!

Of course, in all my interactions with my wonderful Bengali friends, I have hardly heard them mention about a certain Sourav Ganguly or about the closely related priceless jewel, the Eden Gardens. That pride with them is a given, though, not all of them have talked to me about it. I experienced the sheer passion for these two truly iconic symbols of Bengal in 2008, when I visited Calcutta for the first time. The acres and acres of the cricketing maidans and the quality and competitiveness of club cricket there was an eye-opener. I had only heard about English county cricket, or at best, Mumbai league cricket being that competitive. But, I saw true passion for sport on the maidans of Calcutta. Those places are so well-maintained too. And for a person like me, having grown up in the south of India where information technology rules, I found it fascinating to see a universal adulation of that great ex-cricket captain of India and sport overall. He really is the prized sporting possession of Calcutta, and indeed, all of Bengal. It is understandable why. That man showed the entire country what it means to be aggressive - a trait that you generally would not associate with most Bengalis. 

Few things in Calcutta are as iconic as their famous yellow Ambassador taxis. It was an experience of a life for me to travel nearly 30 kilometers in one of those iconic vehicles during my trip to Calcutta in 2008. The vehicle has its own speed of movement, the drivers seem to enjoy owning one of Calcutta's pride, and there is always music playing in these vehicles. The driver can also be an engaging conversationalist. And the minute he realises that you are not local, he will start showing you Calcutta's famous landmarks. You needn't be a formal tourist to see that city. A normal taxi ride will do.

All in all, I have loved the Bengalis. Their celebration of the Durga Puja is a celebration like no other. But, my only grouse is, Bengalis don't easily seem to understand vegetarian, except a few. I was lucky with vegetarian food just once when two absolutely lovely Bengali girls from work, were kind enough to host me and made specific vegetarian food for me. However, I did not find vegetarian food easily when I visited Calcutta. Thank god, I knew about mishti dohi and roshogolla, before I landed there!

To all the lovely Bengali friends that I have, I just want to say one thing. Your culture and way of life has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. And I just love spending the time I did with you. As much as I like learning about new things and meeting new people, the charm of an evening spent with a Bengali friend is something to treasure. Like I said earlier, their taste, intellect and ability to hold a conversation, not to mention their good looks (not that it’s essential, but helps), has provided some terrific memories of terrific conversations. I can now say that I do know a few things more than roshogolla and mishti dohi...!

Friday, October 09, 2015

Professionals need to be good at professional networking

One of the most significant things that I have seen grow and quite literally go through the roof in the last few years, is the power of networking. It has grown manifold from its primitive form of casual conversations or its variants in the initial part of my career, to newer dimensions that were unthinkable earlier. 

People call networking different things or use different places to network such as coffee corners, Friday evening meet-ups, after hour parties, like-minded clubs, golf courses, alumni groups, or online (think LinkedIn). Networking is almost expected these days. But, the crux of networking is to put your name out there and be known for what you are and what you are good at. It’s a massive opportunity to build one's own brand and unique identity. 

The form of networking that is prevalent these days is well-suited to a human form of what I studied about products and services in MBA under the chapter 'branding' during my marketing class. Specifically, brand recall. If you are known by the people who matter, and have your name out there at the right place with the right people, the chances are that you will get your opportunities at the right time.

Nowadays, professionally selling oneself in a social setting seems to be a very powerful thing to engage in. The art of holding a drink correctly in the right hand, or using the semi-formal set up of being dressed in a coat without a tie and having casual conversations with the right people in a social setting, or talking about cricket and other things with people who matter, are way too common. I even know a person who does not drink or smoke, but goes to every major pub in India and meets people from all walks of life and discusses music with them. He is reasonably well-known and some of us were lucky to get free entries into some of the pubs he visited - completely due to his goodwill and grandstanding network with the pub owners! Now, this has nothing to do with professional networking, but, those are the kinds of newer dimensions of networking that I was referring to earlier.

Not to forget, all the time professional networkers are searching for the opportune time to present themselves and their skills. It does not come naturally to many people, but I have seen the attempt to be noticed in many a setting and it is amazing how many people try to be natural about it. Nothing wrong with that. But, I have always believed that one needs to be fundamentally good at something and have the ability to add value. That is the core. Networking has magnified the impact of getting dream roles by perfecting the art of casual conversation interspersed with serious professional interests. 

I actually even attended a session by the famous Indian entrepreneur-cum-socialite, Suhel Seth, as a part of a book launch a few years ago. After he launched the book, he only talked about how networking has helped him grow in his career. Agreed, he said that he had always been a brilliant debater since his school days, but those core skills along with his networking skills enabled him to make a name for himself in the Indian media.

One of the most simplistic forms of networking that I experienced a few years back, was when we had to take a good 3 months before deciding to hire somebody in our team. Following his interview (during those 3 months), that prospective candidate sent us emails which had industry reports that had content relevant to our work. Further, he also emailed us some specific market intelligence from publicly available sources and contextualised them a bit, for us (based on his judgment of the role, from his interview experience). That was a sure form of networking, long before he got the job. Of course, he got the job not only because he cleared the interviews, but very clearly, somebody somewhere noticed him even after the interviews. That is brand recall for sure (even though we were looking at other candidates).

Not for a moment am I suggesting that networking is a sure shot way of reaching great heights in a career. Absolutely not. One has to be good at something and deliver, nurture and grow the value of those primary skills in order for employers to continue to be bullish about one's credentials. To that extent, networking, without an inherent core, is never good enough. People will be found out, as networking can only get people a foot in the door. As I have heard in interviews with iconic cricketers', talent can only get you through for the first couple of years. After that, it is purely performance and hard work. It does appear that this logic is true for professional networking too i.e. without being good at something, and getting through via networking is a short-term solution in career management. It is advisable to become good at something or identify what one is naturally good at, and then go about networking with that core identity/skill.

Of course, being good at something and not letting people know about it i.e. without networking, seems to be incomplete, or even inadequate at times. We do live in a competitive world, after all.

Lastly, I am convinced that networking as a skill needs to be taught in leading business schools of the world, because, when graduates enter the business world and start scaling the corporate ladder, this is a skill that they end up having to learn on the job. Why not pre-empt it and teach them those real-world, necessary skills? But, never forget to teach them the core i.e. make them good at their areas of expertise - be it finance, operations, marketing, supply chain or strategy or any other stream of academic endeavour in a business environment (which is what I am exposed to). 

I wonder how I will view professional networking at the end of my career (still some years away!). Should be interesting to see how this skill evolves, in times to come.