Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Professional

Another great book, by Subroto Bagchi, simply called The Professional. This book, now on stands and available for purchase online, has been published by Penguin (Portfolio). Priced at Rs 399, it is an invaluable tool, which guides you to reach an answer on: Who is a Professional?

While the review below, will appear in the forthcoming journal of the Bombay Chartered Accountant's Society (BCAS), I thought I should share the book review with other readers, who are not members of the BCAS. Also do hop across to the author's blog and participate in lively discussions.

Book Review:

The Satyam episode led to some uncomfortable situations for us CA-professionals. The general public did tend to paint us all with the same brush. It may have led to some uncomfortable encounters at networking events when people came up to us during the tea-break and questioned us about “our profession”. Hopefully we will never have to face such a scenario again.

This incident brought to the forefront the moot question. Does having a professional qualification (say: the much coveted CA tag), make one a professional?

The answer is no. Anyone can with the right amount of hard work (and luck, as most of us CAs would like to add) can acquire a professional degree. However, it is the ability to stay true to ourselves and our vocation that makes us a true professional.

Subroto Bagchi, Gardener and Vice-Chairperson to the Board, MindTree Limited in his latest book “The Professional” answers this important question: What does it take to be considered a true professional in any field?

“The Professional” comprises of seven distinct parts and the author does tell us to read each part sequentially in the order it is presented in the book, so as to get the maximum benefit from it. Each part comprises of short narratives drawn from real-life – both positive and negative examples – covering various professions and work-life scenarios. These narratives comprise of situations which you and I have encountered/witnessed or are most likely to encounter or witness as we move up in our professional careers.

Part 1, explains the concept of integrity and how and why it is the key stone of professionalism. In fact, during the course of writing this book, Subroto Bagchi reached out to a group of people whom he admired for their professionalism and asked them to share the qualities of a professional. Integrity was a quality that topped. Little wonder then, that Integrity is also the key stone of this book.

In Part 2, we move on to read about self-awareness and learn some valuable lessons, which include the power to say NO, which can be daunting when we have not yet risen in our career and the need to be generous, gracious and courteous to others when we are at the pinnacle of our professional career. Part 3 deals with basic qualities that makes one a well rounded professional. Subroto Bagchi calls the first three parts, the foundational pillars.

As people become more experienced they have to deal with a larger volume of work, responsibilities and complexity. Yes, Part 4 and 5 provides us tools to cope with this. Integrity also makes good business sense and Subroto Bagchi describes this with ample illustrations, those of his own and those which he witnessed. The Abilene Paradox, where people agree to do strange things, when they suppress their own voice and simply go along with what everyone else is saying has been well described in the back drop of the Satyam episode. Yes, the voice of dissent plays a very important role and this is not the same as unconstructive criticism or plain whining.
All of us increasingly have to operate in global market-place. Part 6 guides us on how best to do so. Based on his experiences, Subroto Bagchi touches upon important facets of: Inclusion and Gender, Cross Cultural Sensitivity, Governance, Intellectual Property and Sustainability. Towards the end of the book is a chapter titled ‘The Unprofessional,’ with a list of ten markers of unprofessional conduct, such as: Missing a deadline, Non-escalation of issues on time, Non-disclosure, Not respecting privacy of information, Not respecting ‘need to know’, Plagiarism, Passing on the blame, Overstating qualifications and experience, Mindless job-hopping and Unsuitable appearance.
There is no beginning or end in being a professional it is a life-long learning curve. Yet, this book provides a handy, well illustrated, tool-kit to be a better professional. Ultimately Professionalism boils down to individual choice, and indeed it is for you and me to continue on the path towards becoming a better professional.

A paragraph in the book aptly states this: “A doctor becomes part of an insurance fraud. A policeman colludes with a criminal. A lawyer bribes a judge. In each instance, the professional breach is justified as the price to be paid to be part of a system. The truth is, it is an individual choice”.

Subroto Bagchi in his book adds: “… Society on the while may not always put a premium on the practice of professional values and hence most people do not incorporate it into their lives. But practicing professional values is about who you are and what you want to be known as – a professional or merely professionally qualified. And, in the end, even the most corrupt society hails the ones that choose to be different.”

This itself, gives me hope. Amen.

PS: There is also a message by Subroto Bagchi for the members of the Bombay Chartered Accountant's Society. Do look up the BCAS Journal for this message..

Source of Photographs: Photograph of the book downloaded from the author's website
The sunrise is a photograph I shot, some years ago, at Tata Plantations, Coorg, India.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Happy Hour is 9 to 5

Dear Readers,
This book sure caught my attention. Moreso, an online version is available for free reading, even though it is best to download the book. Happy Reading.
Once again, I have reviewed it for the Bombay Chartered Accountants' Society's Journal and it appeared in the September issue.

It was a snippet in Corporate Dossier (Management feature section of The Economic Times) dated July 3, that attracted my attention and drew me to the book: Happy Hour is 9 to 5”. Well, work hours for most of us tend to stretch longer, all the more reason for reading this book. We may be conversant with e-filing of returns, this book is an e-book, available for download in pdf, you can order it or if it makes you happy (even as it may not make the author richer in monetary terms) you can read it online for free @

As soon as you click on the above url, you will come to face to face with quotes from a diverse range of famous personalities, all of whom agree that happiness at work is a necessity. Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple even goes on to say: “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle."

Alexander Kjerulf, the Danish author who calls himself the Chief Happiness explains: This book is about happiness at work. About loving your job - or finding one you can love. Because today, happiness at work is no longer a luxury - it's essential. People are discovering, that when they love their jobs, they are more productive, creative and motivated. They're also happier in life. Similarly, happy companies find they are more efficient, innovative and make more money than their unhappy competitors. Danes, Alexander Kjerulf explains actually have a word to define the concept of happiness at work. Arbejde means work and glæde means happiness, so arbejdsglæde literally translates into work-happiness. No wonder, he is the perfect author for this book.

That said, let us dive into the book-rather the free online version which I read, even though I realize it is better to download the pdf version and keep it for posterity.

The beginning itself is interesting. Imagine yourself early on a Monday morning. Picture yourself as you turn off the alarm clock, and lie in bed for a moment before getting up. Your bed is comfortable and warm and you really want to enjoy that feeling just a little bit longer, but just thinking about the workweek ahead of you is making you smile and get ready to jump out of bed. Well, if this is not what is happening it is time to read the book!

It is not designations, promotions, money, bonus that can make us happy. These are short term pleasures. There is much more that alone can assure happiness at work.
The book aims to convince you that:
• Each and every one of us can be happy at work.
• Being happy at work will not only make work more fun, it will also improve your quality of life outside of work and make you more successful.
• Happy businesses are much more efficient than unhappy ones—happiness makes great business sense.
• Happiness at work is not rocket science—it is simple to help yourself and your workplace to be happy.

This book explains the theory of happiness at work, based on real-life examples, which you can emulate and also provides you with exercises to undertake. To begin with, it is true that work itself can make you happy – if you have found a career which is a perfect fit.

However, happiness at work is not restricted to those who have found their calling in life. One of the chapters in this book deals with what actions you can take to be happy.

Six actions that make us happy at work

There are six simple, everyday actions that create a good mood and make us happy at work. To be happy at work we must:
• Be positive
• Learn
• Be open
• Participate
• Find meaning
• Love

People who do this at work are happy. A workplace where people can do each of these is a happy one. And it is all so simple to do.

If you want to spread positive vibes (and it all comes back to you), learn how to praise. Just walk across to your junior or even your boss and praise him/her for something you genuinely believe he/she deserves the praise for. Have a whiteboard on which people can scrawl praises of those in their department. Ensure that a stuffed toy /award is passed around to the most praiseworthy person in the office each month. No need to buy another toy – the same one can be passed around. All inexpensive gestures but they go a long way. Learning is also important, and by this I mean not learning tax or accounting standards but learning from each meeting. How could we do the next one better? Take stock and move on. Also try and learn new skills. Even if something as different as ceramic paining, believe me you, it will boost your creativity help you conceptualize tax structures more easily or your submission will flow more easily.

Be open and participate, is something which is easier said than done as it may also depend upon your organization’s framework. Yet, you can contribute to making your organization a more transparent and participative place.

Make a start, be open with your colleagues, your team members. Volunteer to set up groups such as study circles. New transfer pricing regulations? Why not set up a group which will study it and make a presentation for the benefit of all? Have a soft spot for stray dogs? Set up a box to collect money to contribute to the SPCA or any other animal welfare organization. What is stopping you? Sometimes the answer is just YOU!

Find meaning. Now this is a truly useful action point. Filing tax returns may not be the most appealing job on earth. Look at it this way. Your action, helps the client to meet his obligations, it helps the government to raise revenue – in the long run it helps keep the wheels of democracy churning. Yes, it began with the tax return that you helped your client fill in. Always find meaning it whatever you do. As Alexander Kjerulf says: “It’s much easier to be happy if your job has meaning to you, and you keep that meaning in mind. Knowing how your work contributes to the company’s success, to your local community, or even to making a better world makes you proud of what you do. Almost any job has meaning.”

In most workplace surveys, 10% say they hate their jobs and 10-20% love it. The rest, between 70 and 80% of employees, are somewhere in the middle. Various exercises provided in the book will help you ensure that you are a happier person at work. Happiness fortunately is contagious.

Alexander Kjerulf even touches upon the sensitive subject of quitting.
As he says: “Once you’ve decided to be happy at work, here’s the most basic choice you must make: Should you try to become happy in your current job, or is it better to switch to a new job? Can you make things better where you are? Have you tried? How did it go?

There are two possible options:
• Change is realistic. It may not be easy or fast, but things can get better at my current job.
• Change is not realistic. The culture is too fixed or change will simply be too hard.

There is no perfect job. There is no need to change the whole company. A change in your department may be all that you need. Try spreading happiness around. Could be creating a small group of “Happiness leaders” and conjuring up different ways to spread happiness, something as simple as passing around picture post cards saying: Thank you, you did a great job. This could foster team work. Or simple games post work, cutting across the hierarchy. As silly as joining hands and singing songs.
But if things cannot change, it is not worth being stuck in an unhappy situation. “Switching jobs can be a scary proposition, but for many people it’s the only way they will ever be happy at work. If you decide that there is only a small chance that your current job will ever make you happy, I urge you to move on as quickly as possible. This is a decision with serious consequences, including loss of identity, prestige and financial security. Again, only you can make that choice,” sums up Alexandra Kjerulf.

So go on, spread happiness at your workplace.

Photograph courtesy: Wikimedia

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Who Moved My Cheese?

Dear Readers,
There are a few books I love reading time and again. Who Moved My Cheese?, is one such book.
Here is my review.
Happy reading. Do pick up this book, in case you haven't read it.

Book Review:
Reviewed by: Lubna Kably, Chartered Accountant

Title: Who Moved My Cheese?
Author: Dr Spencer Johnson
Price: INR 100 to 150 (approximately)
Publication: Random House (Vermillion), UK
Official website:

So there I was standing on the edge, my toes involuntary curling inwards with fear, my stomach churning. What was I doing on the edge? And I mean the edge, in every physical sense of the word – the edge of a platform atop a tower fourteen stories high at Surfers’ Paradise, Brisbane. The wind whipped my pony tail in rebellion, as I stood there and shivered.

The jump master, after having harnessed me, stood there patiently. I wanted him to push me off the ledge so that I would not have to decide. This he would not do. It was entirely my call. My call for a shot of adrenalin – Bungee Jumping! I experienced this shot of adrenalin, years and years ago, but remember this incident as vividly as if it were just yesterday.

There are occasions in life, which call for a decision and for making that jump and yes, ones’ toes will curl inwards. But jump we must (or search in the maze), because the ‘Cheese’ is moving and we have no other choice but to move and to find new Cheese.

In these days of an economic slowdown, of quick and rapid changes in policies the world over that have an impact on business operations and on employment, of changing client needs, or for that matter employee needs, employer needs and our own needs, it is important to anticipate, recognise, and understand change.

Who Moved My Cheese? is one such book, which will help you to move with the Cheese and enjoy the new Cheese.

As its official website says: “It is the story of four characters living in a “Maze” who face unexpected change when they discover their “Cheese” has disappeared. Sniff and Scurry, who are mice, and Hem and Haw, little people the size of mice, each adapt to change in their “Maze” differently. In fact, Hem doesn't adapt at all...”
“This timeless allegory reveals profound truths to individuals and organisations dealing with change. We each live in a “Maze”, a metaphor for the companies or organisations we work with, the communities we live in, the families we love places where we look for the things we want in life – “Cheese”. It may be an enjoyable career, loving relationships, wealth, or spiritual peace of mind. With time and experience, one character eventually succeeds and even prospers from the change in his “Maze”.

In an effort to share what he has learned along the way, he records his personal discoveries on the maze walls, the “Handwriting on the Wall”. Likewise, when we begin to see the “writing on the wall”, we discover the simplicity and necessity of adapting to change." This book helps one to learn how to deal with inevitable change.

Let us now move on with the book review. The book begins by describing how a group of former classmates at a reunion enter into a conversation around how the world has changed since they were at school together. It is at this point that one of the group tells the story of “Who Moved My Cheese?”

The mice are named Sniff and Scurry. Sniff sniffs out changes early and Scurry scurries into action. The two little men are Hem and Haw. Sniff and Scurry soon notice changes in their environment. Hem and Haw, however, take the cheese for granted. Gradually the cheese begins to dwindle. Sniff and Scurry are not concerned. They see that the Cheese is not going to last forever so with their running shoes on, they get off to a flying start in search of new Cheese.

As Cheese stocks continue to dwindle, both Hem and Haw, one day find themselves with no Cheese, they are shocked and bewildered. Both throw a fit. However, Hem thinks Cheese is his birthright. He denies and resists change because he fears that something worse will happen if he steps out of the “Maze”, his very own comfort zone. He continues to hope that the Cheese will come back. Alas it will not.

Haw learns to adapt in time when he sees that change has to be dealt with and can lead to something better, if one makes such an attempt. As Haw, leaving his friend Hem behind goes in search of new Cheese, he learns new truths and leaves notes on the wall of the maze hoping that Haw will follow and find them.

The truth or “The handwriting on the wall” are:

* Change happens: They keep moving the Cheese
* Anticipate change: Get ready for the Cheese to move
* Monitor change: Smell the Cheese often so that you know when it is getting old
* Adapt to quickly: The quicker you let go of old Cheese, the sooner you can enjoy new Cheese
* Change: move with the Cheese
* Enjoy change: Enjoy the taste of new Cheese
* Be ready to change quickly and enjoy it again: As mentioned earlier, they keep moving the Cheese

The more important your Cheese is to you, the more you want to hold on to it. The point is that we can be lulled into thinking that there will be no change that our life is stable. We thus fail to notice that the world is changing around us.

Perhaps the time is right to draw up our own checklists:

1.Is our professional business on the right track? Which direction should we keep moving – say by offering new services to cater to the emerging needs of clients, or finding new clients, or spreading in new geographies?
2.Is our career on the right track? What value are we offering our employer? What do we need to do to move up the career path?
3.Is our personal life on track? How much time do we devote to the family or to our own needs? When was the last time you went to the dentist (Don’t laugh, I know for a fact that most of us keep postponing such things, blaming it on lack of time).

At the end of the book, the former classmates discuss the application of the story to their own lives and situations both on the career, business and personal front and how they must move with the Cheese.

It is a slim book, but one that packs a powerful punch. The truth may be difficult to digest – it simply means Change or else…So keep your running shoes, on – always.

Yes, this is again reviewed for The Bombay Chartered Accountants Societys' Journal.

Photographs sourced from : and the book photograph from Amazon.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Monk who sold his Ferrari

Dear Readers,
I found this review a bit tough. I am sending it off now to the BCAS for publication in their journal (PS: It got published in the June edition). Review is below.

Title: The Monk who sold his Ferrari
Author: Robin SharmaPrice: INR 185
Publication: Jaico Books

Much has been written about this book and I am not surprised. You can either like this book or hate it, but you cannot ignore it. Before I begin this review, I must honestly admit that I am skeptical of self-help books which harp about “Leaving things to the forces of the Universe”. Yet, if one reads such books with an open mind, there are lessons that one can adopt, even as one chooses to ignore certain things that don’t make practical sense. The Monk who sold his Ferrari is one such book. I can almost call it spiritual pop. But, yes, who says that you do not have the freedom to pick and choose and adopt those ideas that do make practical sense and can turn your life for the better?

This book begins with the story of Julian Mantle, a successful lawyer who quite simply suffers a burn-out. He survives a heart attack, drops out of the rat race, sells his possessions – including his Ferrari and sets off on a journey (albeit to India) to find out life’s true meaning. Years later when he returns and meets his former associate, another advocate, he is a changed man – both physically and mentally. He has learned some valuable lessons from mythical Himalayan sages which he shares with his former associate (and the readers).

Julian tells his former associate a parable. How can a garden, a lighthouse, a sumo wrestler, a pink wire cable, a shiny gold stopwatch, fresh yellow roses and a winding path of diamonds be interlinked? Well they are.

Much as I hated the naïve dialogue in this book between Julian and his former associate, the best part of this book are the action steps provided at the end of each chapter. Now let us turn to the mysterious objects and find out how they are linked and how they can make our life more meaningful.

The Garden: The garden, in this book is the symbol of the mind. The key lies to banish all negative thoughts, to concentrate on definite meaningful objectives and to remove inner turbulence. Like most other such books, this chapter adds, find your real purpose in life then act on it. It even suggests that you can take risks and give up your profession for something you truly love. I guess, this is not always possible, even as one can try and attain a work-life balance through some sacrifices on the work front and find time for their passions, be it music or painting or writing or family time.

The gems that one can take away from this chapter is to learn to focus on the present, to keep negative thoughts at bay, imagine yourself as you want to be and to run your own race.

Practical tips: “A worrisome thought is like an embryo. It starts off small but grows and grows. Soon it takes on a life of its own”, explains Julian. He wears a necklace around his neck. Whenever, he is unable to shake off a negative thought, he removes one bead and puts it away in a cup. This reminds me of the Worry dolls traditionally made in Guatemala. According to folklore, the doll is thought to worry in the person’s place, when placed under the pillow at night. This permits a person to sleep peacefully and wake up without their worries, which have been taken away by the dolls during the night. Yes, this habit of banishing negative thoughts is worth a try, because endless worrying saps energy, it prevents us from focusing on our dreams and attaining it.

The Lighthouse: “The purpose of life is a life of purpose” says Julian. Clearly defined priorities and goals in every aspect of your life will serve a role similar to that played by a lighthouse, offering you guidance and refuge when the seas become rough. You should clearly know what aims you wish to achieve over the course of your life, be they material, emotional physical or spiritual and you must then manifest this vision into reality by consistent action.

From a practical point of view, this begins with goal setting. Julian says that accomplishing little feats will prepare us for realising the big ones. There is nothing wrong with mapping out a full range of small goals in the process of planning your bigger roles. Above all, he says: Stay spirited, joyful and curious.

Practical tips: Julian explains the steps as below

Step 1: Have a clear vision of your outcome;
Step 2: Create positive pressure to keep you inspired (something as simple as telling your best friend that you want to lose 5 kgs by the end of the month so that he/she can encourage you towards this goal);
Step 3: Set precise doable timelines to your goals;
Step 4: Commit you goal to paper. Prepare a “Dream Book”. You can have different sections for different goals – viz: physical fitness, financial, personal empowerment, relationship/social, spiritual. Fill it with pictures of things you desire, of people whom you wish to emulate;
Step 5: Stay with your goal for the first twenty-one days and soon it will become a habit (for example: an early morning walk).

The Sumo Wrestler: The Sumo wrestler is a constant reminder of the power of kaizen, the Japanese word for self-expansion and progress. Here the key take away is that we must learn to live out of our comfort zone to realise our fullest potential. “The only limits on your life are those that you set for yourself. When you dare to get out of the circle of your comfort and explore the unknown you begin to liberate your true human potential” says Julian. This chapter then goes on to explain ten rituals of radiant living – from spending some time everyday in solitude, to vegetarianism, to getting up early, to reading.

Practical tips: I think the concept of stepping out of your comfort zone is an important point. It could be something as simple as conquering one’s fear of public speaking. It need not be something as drastic as giving up your career to pursue something else. Even as the author says, that if you truly believe that an alternate career will bring you joy, go for it. Thus identify your fears, chalk out how you can conquer them and work on them everyday. For example, if you are scared of public speaking, join a study circle which also includes several of your friends, participate actively in that, and then move on to a wider audience.

A pink wire cable: The sumo wrestler had donned a pink wire cable. It denotes the power of self control and discipline in building a richer, happier and more enlightened life. Alone, each strand of wire is very weak. But a cable which comprises of several strands of wires is tough and strong. To build up an iron will it is essential to routinely perform tiny acts and build up an abundance of inner strength. Inner strength enables you to tackle whatever life throws your way.

Practical tips: Start up doing the things that you know you must be doing, or which are good for you, but you find it difficult to do. Like waking up early and going for that morning walk. Small victories lead to larger victories. Once a bench mark has been attained, raise the benchmark higher. Soon you will be doing things you never knew you were capable of doing with an energy you never knew you possessed.

A shiny gold stop watch: This was a symbol of our most important commodity – time. Time mastery in short is life mastery. Julian reiterated the well known phrase that: 80 per cent of the results we achieve in life come from only 20 per cent of the activities that occupy our time. Julian called for a holistic system of time management that encompassed not only life at the work place, but life per se. He advised that we should keep away from time thieves who for flimsy reasons eat into our time. It is also essential to simplify our life and to savour each and every moment as if today will be our last day.

Practical tips: Time management may sometimes necessitate saying -No. When someone calls for an idle chat while you want to finish your report, learn to say No. When dragged in all directions, prioritise. Keep time for yourself, for your family. Build a time table which includes everything, not just the client appointment, but the trip to the doctor, or the parent-teachers meeting. What is high priority is something you alone can decide for yourself, use time judiciously; after all, no one has more than 24 hours a day.

Fresh yellow roses: A Chinese proverb says: A little bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gave you roses. When you practice random acts of kindness daily, you enrich yourself. Think less of yourself as an individual and more as a member of the universe to which you belong. Julian brought out the true meaning of belongingness or inclusiveness and friendship in this chapter.

Practical tips: Cultivate richer relationships. How about taking the new joinee to the lunch room? Or helping the technically challenged colleague to help fix the printer? Or volunteer at the local NGO during your spare time? In short, help others smile, and they shall smile back at you.

A winding path of diamonds: This signified ‘enlightened living’. Julian explained that: Happiness is a journey. We can either marvel at the diamonds along the way or can keep running all day chasing that elusive pot of god at the end of the rainbow that ultimately reveals itself to be empty. In other words, we need to live in the now!

Practical tips: Practice gratitude and live in the now. Perhaps you could keep a journal where you note down daily whatever you have been grateful for during the course of that day. The size of your car, or your house, or for that matter your bank balance cannot buy you happiness. The size of the gratitude that you experience everyday can.


Although I cannot give this book my highest rating, Julian in one of the chapters says: “You need not apply every strategy to make your life work. Try the techniques and use those that feel right to you”. This makes a lot of sense, even as not everything in this book does.

You may well ask, what was the reason for brining in the Sumo wrestler or the pink wire cable, or for that matter the lighthouse? Well, these were just mind clues. The more bizarre a clue, greater are you likely to remember it, and perhaps even practice it. So take those baby steps, towards a better YOU.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

On magazines

Dear Readers,

Yesterday, at the supermarket, I picked up a local women's magazine: Femina. If I am not mistaken, this is now a 50:50 joint venture between the BBC and India's Timesgroup which also publishes my favourite newspapers Times of India and The Economic Times. (Unfortunately its website does not seem to work).

Their "Letter to the editor page", does not contain any email/address to which letters can be sent. There is a tiny box on this page inviting an sms poll on the current editon - without the number to which the sms should be sent. AARGH....

While Reader's Digest has been a staple diet of the family and is still very much a part and parcel of our lives, my mother somehow outgrew Femina and stopped subscription perhaps when I was in high school. My first cheque of INR 10, was thanks to this magazine. I had won a Cadbury Gem's contest on - Find the missing number.

Since then, Femina has changed over the years. It is all about gloss and glamour. There are no kiddie's pages. There are no short stories. There are tons of advertisements on makeup and clothes. Somehow I felt lost between an advertisement and an actual article. I have picked up this magazine off and on, even in the past, but doubt that I will pick it up again. I am glad we no longer subscribe to it. It is just fine to pick it up once in a while, when all your brain wants to do is look at glitzy photographs.

True, Reader's Digest has also changed. There was an uproar when they decided to carry advertisements on the backcover. But the content has remained more or less the same. I still love it. Yes, articles are more contemprary but the usual stuff which I grew up on: Book section, Word Power, Laughter the best medicine, Humor in Uniform, All in a day's work remains. A few articles are more India centric which is a nice thing.

I now came across a news item that Forbes has launched Forbes Women (Forbes, itself is yet to hit the stands in India, hopefully it will sometime soon). I doubt that Forbes Women will be launched in India soon, but at least I can read the online version of it.

I loved reading: How a sweater changed my (business) life or vieweing the video by Beth Brooke, Global Vice-Chair of Ernst & Young on the global crisis impact on women. I could not agree with her more, diversity in the decision making process is the need of the hour. We need people who in a constructive way, challenge the existing norms of thinking and help us reach more meaningful, more beneficial decisions. Perhaps, women can contribute in a big way in such a decision making process.

Can we have a "magazine of substance for women in India", instead of just paying lip service to "women of substance" which is what I find is generally done.

For now, I am just so glad that the internet provides me with an opportunity to read up on diverse views and yes, Forbes Women has been bookmarked for future reading.

Have a nice Sunday.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Difficult conversations by Anne Dickson

Hi Readers,

While one of my favourite quotes by Dr Seuss is: "Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind," unfortunately in the real world we do need to be more careful about what we say. Conversations can sometimes be difficult, especially for people like me who want to be honest and can end up hurting the other person. This book "Difficult Conversations" by Anne Dickson was a godsend. I read it almost at one go and have sent a review for publication to the Journal of the Bombay Chartered Accountants' Society - hope they do publish it. (PS: Yay, this appeared in the April 2009 edition)
I so agree with what the author says: Open your heart, find your voice and tread lightly!
Here is the review.

Warm regards

Book Review: Difficult conversations
Reviewed by: Lubna Kably, Chartered Accountant
Title: Difficult conversations
Author: Anne Dickson
Price: INR 450
Publication: Piatkus

Picture this:

* An article clerk has been assigned to two different audits simultaneously and a tax advisory project. All three have tight deadline and seem to overlap. He does not know how to bring this up with the seniors in his firm. This is not a one-off incident. He feels bullied all the time. If he looks around him, other article clerks are given projects that are more manageable. Two or more seniors are not breathing down their neck all the time.
* A manager is trying to convince his team member that she needs to pull up her socks and ensure that repeated mistakes are not made. The team member is intelligent and technically good. Her biggest flaw – the ability to get bored with non-technical nitty-gritty. Thus, each slide on a recent power point presentation to be sent to a client carries the wrong date, yet again.

Yes, the success of the article clerk and the manager depends upon the ability to communicate correctly. So how should they deal with the above? Well, the article clerk definitely has to improve the reality of the situation he is caught in. The manager has to speak in a manner that he is able to get the message across without generating repercussions that he may regret later.

The summary on back of this book states: Anne Dickson tells you how. She describes a range of difficult conversations that frequently occur in intimate, social and work situations, and reveals simple but powerful techniques that will help you to transform the situation. You'll discover how to: communicate directly and honestly without damaging your relationships; keep to your point without backing down or getting into a fight; initiate a discussion without encountering resistance or attack; offer criticism without antagonising the other person; manage your anxiety and develop genuine confidence in your authority; and much more.

So, as this pleased reader and book reviewer says – Let’s talk.

This book underlines two concepts which are at the heart of effective communication. The first is seeing and respecting others as equals and the second is personal power. Personal power means interacting with others from a base of genuine confidence, which is grounded in self trust and honesty. According to the author, the challenge of this approach is making a genuine commitment to eschew the use of aggression.

Now let me dive straight into the above two examples. This book does not provide these very examples, but there are enough illustrations which relate to the above two situations.

What can the article clerk do? (Let us look at the example in the book of a junior chef in a busy kitchen). Well, the article clerk can keep wishing that he were a different sort of person, with a different sort of temperament, but in truth, he is shy and reserved and not naturally extrovert. He cannot change who he is, but he can choose to start setting limits once he sorts out what is happening.

Anne Dickson describes the situation:
* What are the others doing to him? They are not letting him finish one job before he has to start on another;
* How does he feel currently? Frustrated and furious;
* What does he want? To set limits.

Thus, the article clerk has to visualise himself and the seniors as an equal human being and with full confidence improve the reality of his situation. Thus, he can ask Senior 2 who has assigned him another audit of the actual deadline. If it clashes with the audit project he is already on, he can firmly state that perhaps someone else can be assigned as he will not be able to do justice to two audits at the same time. Or he can offer to start on this audit only after he has finished his first assignment. He can also point out to the office manual which shows he is already on one audit which requires him to be at a far off client location, almost daily. As regards Senior 3, who wants to involve him on a tax advisory project, he can repeat the same thing. He can perhaps add that he will go out of his way, to spend some time post audit doing the required tax research. He has to learn his own value and not get pushed around, but at the same time not compromise on what is required of him.

Let us now see what the manager should do. Anne Dickson advocates adopting a new approach. It means not resorting to aggression, but asking three questions:
*What is happening?;
*What does he feel about it?; and lastly
*What would he like to be different?

The book describes a scene between a department head and her secretary. However, the same is equally applicable for our case.

The manager will find the replies to the above three questions to be:
*What is happening: My team member is not as careful as she should be; Now the answer has to be fine tuned to specifics. Thus, it could well be - My team member doesn’t check everything thoroughly;
*What does he feel about it: If the manager wants to avoid the “confrontation”, his answer could well be – She is usually very competent, this is just a small lapse. On the other hand, if he feels superior, it could be – she should be much more conscientious. The author says, avoid coming from a moral high ground as it could be perceived by the other person to be an “attack”. We have been taught not to expose our feelings in the workplace. However, in this scenario it may be best for the manager to identify whether he is feeling angry, anxious or just sad. He must identify the predominant feeling. He may also like to put off speaking, till his emotions are in check and he can articulate the message better. This does not mean brushing the entire issue beneath the carpet. It may just mean speaking with his team member an hour later.

*What would he like to be different: This question, the author says, is the acid test. However, most answers are straightforward. In this case, it could be: I would like you to check everything before you give it to me for review. However, in getting the message across, the manager has to be assertive and respect the other individual rather than being plain aggressive.

“Most of us will respond positively to being asked to change something that is within our capability of changing. If the request is reasonable and clearly stated and is not an attack, most of us respond with co-operation” states the author.

In this case, the manager has legitimate power over the team-member. At the same time what he wishes to avoid is the feeling of ill-will that could develop between them, if the situation was not handled properly, which would in turn adversely impact their working relationship.

The manager needs to balance his authority with an equal regard for the team member being an individual entitled to her own rights and dignity. In this case, the manager could call the team member to his cubicle, so as to keep the boundary firmly around the actual conversation and state honestly that while she is very competent on the technical front repeated careless mistakes, such as use of wrong dates, are not acceptable. A question such as: Do you have any idea what went wrong?, could lead the team member to introspect and accept the fact that she was careless. The closure could be a simple, “I am glad we were able to talk about it”.

Handling difficult conversations is all about developing the habit of personal power. This entails:
*Acknowledging the truth;
*Facing and managing anxiety;
*Learning to express and communicate feelings;
*Learning to disagree without a fight;
*Challenging unfair criticism;
*Setting limits;
*Taking the initiative; and lastly
*Making the choice

The last paragraph in this book perhaps sums up the core of this book: Criticism handled properly, can be a real gift. It’s a gift because someone cares enough to actually say something to me. This means that our relationship matters enough. It means that working with this person matters enough for you to open up and speak up your mind. The enrichment that can come from a renewed understanding between people is surprising but inevitable. Open your heart, find your voice and tread lightly!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Winning: The Answers - Confronting 74 of the toughest questions in business today

Dear Readers,
Another book review, but one that is oriented towards CA professionals. Hopefully, it should be printed in the Journal of the Bombay Chatered Accountant's Society, sometime soon.
I am so glad that the BCAS has begun to publish non tax book reviews in its journal. A broader perspective is so relevant, in life.

Title: Winning: The Answers – Confronting 74 of the toughest questions in business today
Author: Jack and Suzy Welch
Price: Rs. 395
Publisher: Harper Collins
Official website:

The words, “Yes, we can”, seem to have become the new-age mantra not only for Americans but for the world. After all, in a flat world, economies are tied as never before. But, even before Obama made these words famous, perhaps Jack Welch was already practicing them.

In the book, “Winning: The Answers – Confronting 74 of the toughest questions in business today”, by Jack and Suzy Welch you will perhaps find answers to what you were searching for and in fact some questions that you ought to have asked yourself. Do read this book for some great practical suggestions.

Jack Welch retired in 2001, as chairman and CEO of General Electrical, and today continues to speak and answer zillions of questions that pour in, on wide ranging topics. In India, a financial daily does carry his column.

The book, “Winning” was published back in 2005 and this sparked off a deluge of questions from college students, professionals, entrepreneurs and people from all walks of life on subjects ranging from leadership and globalization, to tough bosses and teamwork. This book: “Winning: The Answers – Confronting 74 of the toughest questions in business today” contains some of the most relevant of questions asked. As Jack Welch on his website emphasizes: Winning is great!

The 74 questions and answers are contained in six sections. Section 1, deals with ‘Global competition’; section 2 with ‘Leadership’; section 3 with ‘Management Principles and Practices’; section 4 with ‘Careers’; section 5 is titled ‘Privately held” and deals with working for the family; lastly section 6 covers ‘Winning and Losing’.

For a sole practising CA or for a small or large CA firm, the lessons are sprinkled across the chapters.

Take for instance, one of the answers in section 1 of this book– Getting global before it gets you! While, we CAs are not perturbed by global outsourcing, indeed some of us may be benefitting from the same, such as by setting up back office services for US tax returns and the like, the answer here applies to us all. In a changing economy, it is best to be “Flat, fast and transparent. Informal, candid communication is a must. And so too a mind-set that has people constantly seeking best practises inside and outside the company.” Best practises can be ushered in, in all areas, right from maintaining proper audit working papers, to prompt responses to client queries, to in-house brainstorming and knowledge sharing. It is entirely up to you to define what best practises you or your firm needs to adopt. Ushering in best practises, will help us to service our clients better, to create a proper environment for our teams and to be reckoned as one among the best.

‘The courage to become a change agent’ was my favourite read, in section 2. This was in response to a question raised by a newly appointed head of a learning and development department and he had to make some tough choices to usher in change. Jack and Suzy Welch point out to the three critical organisational components: an inspirational mission; a clear set of values and rigorous appraisal system. If it applied to a department catering to learning and development, it applies equally well to a service industry – to us. However, a word of caution, as also provided by the authors – Make sure your reasons for the change initiative are transparent to everyone, be it something as simple as a new process for drafting audit working papers or client conference notes. And finally, don’t lose faith along the way. Some people will resist change. They always do. But as soon as results start rolling in, your new approach will make its own case, loud and clear.

Section 3, dealing with ‘Management Principles and Practices’ is a gold mine of useful tips. While the three indicators of a healthy company as given by Jack and Suzy Welch, viz: employee engagement, customer satisfaction and cash flow seem to typify a manufacturing company, think again. Yes, they equally apply to us. Today, getting the best employee and retaining him or her, is a challenge for any CA firm. Can anyone discount the importance of client satisfaction? Much as we may perhaps wish to relegate it to the background, the bottom line matters to all, even to us professionals.

For a good insight, into client satisfaction, the authors recommend being in touch and actually visiting customers. This advice is perhaps apt for partners of larger firms, who may no longer be in direct touch with all their clients. “And don’t just go chat with you ‘good’ customers… Make those visits about learning. Find a dozen ways to ask: What can we do better? And don’t leave without finding out if each customer would recommend your products or services. That’s the acid test of customer satisfaction” state Jack and Suzy Welch.

Coming to ‘Careers’, in section 4. For the young professional, the answer is: You need self confidence. Start with smaller goals, achieve them and celebrate. Next, stretch out of your comfort zone, set a higher goal and achieve it. I really love the last few sentences in their reply and I quote “The process won’t ever really end. As time goes on, your goals will just keep getting bigger and bigger. And failure, which will also occur on occasions, will come to feel less and less of a thing to fear.” In short, the authors say, even failure does teach you something you needed to know, so that you can stretch again, perhaps this time with greater experience backing you.

Section 5 covers family-owned enterprises. Fortunately, professional firms, be they CA firms or law firms, are weaning away from the family-owned structure. Yes, such structures had their own merits, but in today’s world they are increasingly become a thing of the past.

CA firms are merging to create new larger firms, smaller practises are joining hands with larger firms, the process of change is on. This means new processes, policies and procedures galore. Advice given by Jack and Suzie Welch: The past is over, embrace the new.

The last section – ‘Winning and Losing’ is perhaps a tad philosophical. The authors say: Winning and losing can’t be quantified. They are states of mind, and losing happens only when you give up. Seen that way, then, the world can be filled with winners, and there is room for them all.

It is entirely up to you, to define what winning means to you, as a chartered accountant, as an employee in a CA firm or industry or as a decision making partner. Remember winning alongside with your clients and teams is true victory. Help them grow and so shall you.

Photocredit: From Amazon and ClipArt respectively.

This review was published in the February, 2009, edition of the Journal of the Bombay Chartered Accountants' Society.