Tuesday, November 16, 2010

When the penny drops: Learning what's not taught

Dear Readers,
This review appeared in the November, 2010 edition of the Journal of the Bombay Chartered Accountants Society. I have pasted the review below.
Best regards,

Title: When the Penny Drops: Learning what’s not taught
Author: R Gopalakrishnan
Publication: Penguin-Portfolio
Price: Rs 399 (Hard cover)

The ‘Foreword’, penned by Arun Maira, member Planning Commission is as riveting as the book itself. Arun Maira begins by saying: “A common joke about consultants is that they borrow a client’s watch to tell the client the time.”
He goes on to add: But, the main reason why consultants are hired is that we need insights into ourselves and this can be explained to us by good teachers and clever consultants.

This is exactly what R Gopalakrishnan’s book: When the penny drops: Learning what’s not taught, aims to do. It is often difficult for us to hear the penny drop (i.e.: to get an insight into ourselves). Yet, if we read this book with an open mind and are prepared to humbly listen - perhaps even to our own voices and the implied voices of others, and reflect upon the same, we have more than a fair chance of realizing our own bonsai traps (inherent behavioral weakness that show up in the way we conduct ourselves). Climbing out of our bonsai traps will help us be better managers, better leaders and even better human beings.

In every individual there is as much evidence of boosters such as ambition, self-confidence, hard work and sheer grit, as there are bonsai traps, such as arrogance, eccentricity, volatility and jealousy. Yes, we all have our dark side. For instance, a universal trap which most managers fall into is: I am better than my competent peers! Managing our negative impulses is vital for success. Unfortunately, this is not taught to us. It comes from experience, that of our own and the experience of others.

Self help books can be monotonous, but not if you are reading real life stories and imbibing from the experience of others. R Gopalakrishnan, who as we all know is currently the executive director at Tata Sons. This book is sprinkled with real life anecdotes, emanating from either the author’s own rich experience of over forty decades in the highest echelons of corporate life or borrowed from experiences of others. As the author states: “Reading about the learning experiences of others and listening to their stories accelerates learning.”

The author’s association with the Tata Management Training Centre which undertook collaborative research with the Center for Creative Leadership, North Carolina, helped him develop the book’s framework. It is arranged in four sections. The first section describes Ram’s career and explains the book’s framework through his career. I must say, this section really sets the tone of the book. The next three sections delve deep into the three worlds of the manager: the inner world; the world of relationships and the world of getting things done.

Let me, in this review; briefly touch upon the three worlds of the manager.
The inner world: The inner world comprises of the ‘physical self’, the ‘psychological self’ and the ‘ethical or spiritual self’. We get guidance on all three aspects. Treat your body as if it were your only car, don’t ignore the need for physical fitness or adequate sleep, cautions the author. As regards the ‘psychological self’, the author teaches us various lessons. The three common hazards in a career are: coping with unfairness; earning a living without enjoyment, not finding the time to let go.

At times dealing with unfairness may mean quitting an organization and finding another job. At this juncture, it is important not to burn your bridges. Two people can walk out of a job owing to unfairness, yet one may carry the burden along with him to his next job, whereas another one could walk out on cordial terms and find joy and satisfaction in his next job. Follow your passion is another important point that comes across in this book. And lastly, we do need to develop our inner child. Do you take your annual vacation? Well, if you don’t, it is high time you began to plan, right NOW!

Lastly, the ‘ethical or spiritual self’ has been analyzed. R. Gopalakrishnan explains the very purpose of a career: “It is to utilize your potential fully.” This applies irrespective of whether you are a chairperson or an assistant. This alone can lead to self-esteem and job satisfaction.
It is important to do the right thing, to walk the talk and perhaps most important of all, to lead as we ourselves would like to be led.

The world of relationships: Communication is the key to survival itself. This book deals with ‘Connecting’ – saying what me mean and ‘Misconnecting’ - saying what we don’t mean. In this scenario, the other person gets a message that we haven’t meant to send out. While we may have a fair idea of the concept of connecting, especially when it comes to pointing a problem, where it is better to offer a solution as well, rather than harp on the problem alone; it is the entire concept of ‘misconnecting’ that caught my attention. The author refers to the ‘Seven deadly habits’ drawn up by Prof Sydney Finkelstein of Tuck Business School, which include among others, portraying an attitude of “I know it all”, just relying on past experience thus shutting out of one’s mind the very idea of new solutions and new possibilities. As we progress in our career, we will have to deal with unknown problems which will not have any known solutions. Connecting rightly and not Misconnecting will play a crucial role.

The world of getting things done: The world comprises of thinkers and doers. Not many of us can be a perfect balance of both. In this era of slick power point presentations, it is common to mistake articulation for action. The author refers to the thinkers as ‘architects’ and the doers as ‘engineers’. While both capabilities are important, perhaps in the early stages of one’s career it is important to be able to execute well or in other words be a good engineer, at a later stage, the role of an architect – the visionary may become more important.

The book ends with real life illustrations from the life of no other than J.R.D. Tata – a true transformer. Transformers are leaders who do what is right; surround themselves with talent; have inspiring aims; patch up differences’ empathize with people and lead with affection.

The book is a good easy read, even as I revisited a few chapters, for better learning. While I was aware of a few of my own ‘bonsai traps’, I did have a few ‘Ah-ha’ moments while reading this book and I know I will spend this weekend reflecting and understanding how best to walk out of my bonsai traps.

1 comment:

Geetha said...

As always, a great review, Lubna!

I like what Mr. Gopalakrishnan had said in an interview about Learning:

"Some learn only when they are out of their comfort zone, some learn best by observation, they don't need to be doing to learn. But they have to be in an environment where they know what the learning objectives are and what the challenges are going to be."

"...We lead our lives like a guy who walks through a rose garden but doesn't look at the roses. This is just saying, stop, see the roses, smell them, feel them and go back with the memory."

Thanks and regards,