Work and life lessons for young professionals

S Giridhar | Updated on June 16, 2021

Long-term effect: Investing in the team’s learning is the lifeblood of an organisation   -  ISTOCK.COM

An abiding commitment to learning and a spirit of self-discovery turn young leaders into industry doyens

* Although my rookie days are set in 1978, I hope this story will have as much relevance for young professionals today as it had for me

* Chandra was not merely repairing an instrument; he was conducting a precious training session for his team of engineers who hovered around him

* Some of my customers became lifelong friends for good business values forge human bonds


I’m turning the spotlight to the impact that inspirational mentors can have on young people just entering professional life — on their work ethic and values, the humility to learn, to respect every role in an organisation and to understand how human values are integral to everything we do. Quite simply, it has the power to help set true north for them.

There is obviously an element of luck in landing such a leader and I was fortunate to enjoy the privilege of a ringside seat. Fresh from college, I joined an organisation that sold and serviced scientific equipment to Indian laboratories and was assigned responsibility for a new line of chemical analysis systems. My first boss V Chandrasekaran (Chandra to all) was 30 and our national service manager. Although my rookie days are set in 1978, I hope this story will have as much relevance for young professionals today as it had for me.

The office was on the second floor of a rickety old building in the Fort area of Bombay. Those were the days when every sophisticated equipment was imported, navigating through complicated regulations, licences and restrictions. But to maintain these equipment was a bigger challenge. Spare parts were more precious than gold and, if a system went down, it could be out of action for months. India’s researchers worked heroically under such constraints and engineers such as Chandra helped our scientists by keeping these instruments running under severely constraining circumstances.

Within a week at this office, I could see that the service workshop was the sanctum sanctorum. A large and ancient liquid scintillation counter sat in the middle of the room. It had given up its ghost after serving scientists for years at a CSIR institute but their work was now suffering. It would take two years to procure a replacement and, seeing their predicament, Chandra had made the impossible promise of resurrecting the instrument. So every evening, after his field visits, he would wrestle with this monster, manuals strewn, the innards of the system exposed; PC boards hanging out here, a smouldering soldering iron there and an oscilloscope blinking fluorescent green all the time.

But Chandra was not merely repairing an instrument. He was also conducting a precious training session for his team of engineers who hovered around him, on how to study and diagnose problems and to go beyond service manuals and circuit diagrams. ‘Intuition and imagination,’ he would chant like a mantra, teaching them what they could never have learnt in college.

The larger story for me was of a leader who was building an organisation culture that spoke the following: (a) our work should be seen as service to the nation; (b) commitment, focus and never-say-die is the honest way of doing our work; (c) investing in the team’s learning is the lifeblood of any organisation and (d) business is best won and sustained through customer’s respect for our application and service support.

I spoke of impact in the beginning of this essay and so consider the following: Very early, I learnt that for the equipment I sold, I should either do the installation or accompany the engineer. I understood the importance of personally demonstrating the working of a system to prospective customers and that when a customer complaint arose, sales and service people should co-own the problem. I imbibed for life, the inviolable principle of being completely honest and truthful with customers and colleagues. When I attended business school some years later, these classic principles of doing business connected very well with the classroom lectures and case studies. Some of my customers became lifelong friends for good business values forged human bonds.

In small organisations like ours, it was exciting, chaotic, seat-of-the-pants management that the then prevailing conditions demanded. But circumstances change quickly — advancement in technology, business environment and processes — and I observed how Chandra was alert and alive to absorb the latest processes and systems. Where earlier he had little time for balance sheets, financial statements and well-articulated business strategy plans, he learnt and mastered these essential aspects of business management, bringing to themthe same ferocious focus that he had for electronics.

For those who wonder how some people rise to top management, the answer lies, in large part, in their commitment to lifelong learning, growth and self-discovery; of putting themselves on a limb in pursuit of excellence and thus realising the depths of potential that they never suspected they had.

The service manager went on to become CEO of a large software company. Like a number of senior leaders riding India’s technology wave, he made a fortune, and also contributed a lot of what he made to social causes. That is not a throwaway line. It defines the true spirit of all those fine people who grew from being young inspirational leaders in the 1980s to industry doyens about whom books are written.

S Giridhar, the Chief Operating Officer of Azim Premji University, has co-authored books on cricket and written a book on India’s extraordinary teachers

Published on June 16, 2021

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