Sponge! That’s a strange title for Ambi Parameswaran’s latest book, one wonders.

Apart from the slab of sponge one can use, perhaps to wash your car, the only other connotation that springs to mind is of someone sponging off others: money, food and hospitality. Ambi has anticipated that, for in his introduction he says the definition of a sponge is often of people who borrow with alacrity or soak up money or efforts of others.

However, he urges, dismiss the negative associations and look at the positive connotations and look at a sponge as a person or thing that absorbs good things freely to make our work life better. The core idea of his book is to be a sponge and become better by listening, learning and adapting ideas, thoughts and actions from the wise and sage people one meets in the course of one’s working life. With that as his core principle, Ambi writes about his associations and learnings from his long career as an advertising professional — from clients, bosses, colleagues, top corporate leaders and even office assistants! Through several stories, peppered with delightful anecdotes, Ambi writes how being a ‘sponge’ one can learn important managerial lessons and human development skills by both listening to the words of customers and also ‘listening’ to what is left unsaid.

Tata encounter

Ambi writes about his encounter with Ratan Tata. FCB Ulka, the ad agency with which Ambi worked for a couple of decades, had Tata Motors as its biggest and prestigious accounts.

Ulka had done the advertising for the launch of the Indica and the Indigo. And, now readying for the launch of the station wagon Indigo Marina at the NCPA in Mumbai, Ambi was told to quickly get there as Tata himself was coming to check on the car and launch details for the evening. For the launch, the car had got a special, shiny electroplated look which Tata himself had seen at an international auto show and recommended that his engineers do a similar look for the launch.

While the engineers fussed over the shine of the car, Tata went around the car many times and spotted a small, yellow patch, which none of the engineers caught.

After being convinced that the small blemish would not be spotted by the audience, he wanted to know details of the unveiling from Ambi, where the car would be parked on stage, distance from the audience, if the shiny exterior would be appreciated in all the light and smoke.

No detail was too small for the Chairman.

Ambi narrates this story of the shiny car to relate how passionate Tata is about the business of cars and was constantly learning new things about the business and was ready to sit with his engineers to address a new problem and also follow through with them.

Attention to detail is important for business leaders; it’s not enough to make statements, he says, but also have it in your arsenal to carry it through and show the willingness to ensure it happens.

Ambi quotes from Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline on the five principles of building learning organisations: personal mastery; ‘mental modes’ or the ability to be amenable to suggestions; ‘shared vision’ with your team; ‘team learning’ and finally the ability to see the ‘organisation as a whole’. All qualities which Ratan Tata demonstrated in his action of visiting his engineers before a crucial launch of the Marina.

Sponge is an easy, breezy read. There are over 25 stories, each an encounter with someone Ambi has met during the course of his career — from Vinita Bali and Azim Premji to Chandrababu Naidu and Karsanbhai Patel, among the well-known ones.

But, he also recounts encounters with those down the pecking order, from brand managers to an office driver who doubles up in multifarious roles in the office and how by keeping an open mind there are lessons to be learnt from the high and the humble.

However, the book is not just a collection of feel-good stories. Ambi brings a managerial frame of reference to each chapter. He refers to books by managerial and behavioural science experts who have done work in the areas the chapter talks about.

For the interested, that’s a whole new list of books to read from to improve one’s understanding of the qualities that Ambi’s protagonists are engendered with.

Aga’s tale

In his chapter ‘Who reads body copy’, he writes about how Thermax’s Managing Director RD Aga himself re-wrote the body of a six-ad series done by the agency on the name change of the company from Wanson to Thermax.

“As I began the first ad copy written by Mr Aga, I realised that this was not just copy written by a copywriter but by someone who believed every single word he had written. The copy had the perfect cadence and the technical inset was not technical for the general reader. All six ads had been crafted to perfection by Mr Aga. I realised that Mr Aga, an Oxford English graduate and a Harvard Business School alumnus, had put his knowledge of both English and engineering to perfect use.”

Ambi goes on to say that Aga probably enjoyed writing and rewriting the copy, polishing it to perfection. As the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (and I loved Ambi’s pronunciation guide here: ‘Me High Chick Sent Me High’) writes in his book, Flow , ‘Flow is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake’.

So, if that’s not reading enough to add to your list, Ambi also quotes Jim Collins’ article ‘Level 5 Leadership’ from the HBR.

Collins writes that such leaders demonstrate the triumph of humility and fierce resolve. They are able to set aside their top hat and work with people way below their level on humble tasks as Aga demonstrates.

“There is nothing that is too small for a leader who is striving to achieve the best and raise his organisation to perform at a higher level,” says Ambi.

Follow-up fodder

While the anecdotes and the encounters make for a breezy read, the follow-ups in each article provide fodder for some serious thought and reflection on why leaders do what they do and, of course, how one can ‘sponge’ of these qualities to better oneself.

Ambi has developed his own framework of learning which is called, what else, but SPONGE. S for super active listening; P to probe and question; O for observe and note; N for new behaviour to emulate; G to getting to a goal and E to expand, enlarge and share. The framework may sound bit of a stretch as a sponge can be, but there you have it.

So, as Ambi says, get ready to sponge off his book and absorb some learnings.



Ambi Parameswaran is founder of brand-building.com. An ad industry veteran he worked with Rediffusion and FCB Ulka. He is now a guest faculty at IIM Ahmedabad and IIM Calcutta and also Adjunct Professor of Marketing at SPJIMR. He has recently joined the board of THG Publishing Pvt Ltd as an independent director