For management professor and consultant Nirmalya Kumar it was, he says, a “traumatic” but also fascinating experience. One moment, he was head of strategy at the Tata Group, part of the core executive council formed by Cyrus Mistry. Then suddenly, he found himself in the eye of a corporate storm and out of a job when Mistry was forced out of the group. Kumar, though, is first and foremost, a teacher and accepted his dismissal stoically. Says Kumar: “I didn’t beat up on myself. Instead, I said, ‘This is a great experience. What can other people learn from it?’”
Kumar also says, “I always knew in the back of my mind I was going to land on my feet” which he did in short order, landing job offers from business schools around the world. But he had several months to kill before the next academic year and the result has been Thinking Smart, How to Master Work, Life and Everything in-Between . It's not a conventional management tome. Kumar says cheerfully: “It's the first book I've written that I can hand to my mother and say, ‘There’s something in this for you too.’ While the book is still aimed primarily at executives and MBA students “there's something in it for everybody,” he says.
Inevitably, some chapters in the book turns the lens on his time at the Tatas — or rather the closing weeks. Chapter 3 is called I Just Got Fired! and is based on a blog post that he wrote soon after the event. That's followed by Finding Resilience After Being Fired . For a man who defines himself essentially as a management professor, seeing the potential upside wasn't that difficult: “It was natural, as an academic, to write my own story and convert the experience into a positive.”
Thinking Smart also is written, Kumar says, to fit our modern age in which information is served up in byte-sized pieces. Many of the chapters started out as 1,500-word blog posts. Some revolve around newsy topics like Should Data on Salaries Be Transparent in which he decides he belongs to an older school of thought on this subject. “Revealing an organisation's compensation data would be acceptable only if people had a realistic assessment of their own self-worth and accurate perceptions of the value they bring to the organisation,” he says.
As the book’s name suggests, it also attempts to go beyond pure management. So there's a section called Managing Life which has chapters like Are You Getting Enough Sleep and Does Parenting Matter ? Crucially, each chapter — there are 52 — is short and aimed at audiences with limited attention spans. “All my other eight books, you have to start from page one,” he says. But “I looked at young people. They don't consume media the same way we do. It's a book you can start at any chapter, go in any sequence and stop reading when you’ve had enough. It's like watching YouTube videos.”
Fortunately for Kumar, he is, as he often notes, an incurable optimist. He finally accepted a post as the Lee Kong Chian professor of marketing at Singapore Management University and he’s also a distinguished fellow at Insead Emerging Markets Institute. He chose Singapore for several reasons, including the fact it's easy to commute to India where he’s doing a large amount of work. He maintains apartments in Singapore, India and London. He spends at least one week a month in India and a week every two months in London. He says: “I'm at a place from where I just finish my teaching or my day in Singapore and I can hop onto a flight and come to India.”
He adds exuberantly: “I've had such a wonderful life, so many amazing experiences. I've been a consultant to more than 50 Fortune 500 companies in more than 60 countries.”
Art and life
Kumar was also lucky in that he was clear about his vocation relatively early in life. He studied in Calcutta (he confesses in the book he got into the city's best school with a bit of string-pulling) and stumbled on his future profession when he was 15 and his father was studying for an executive MBA programme. “His books were lying at home so even though I was in high school, I started reading Phil Kotler's Marketing Management, 2nd edition. From that moment, I knew I would be in management. I wasn't sure if it would be finance or economics or marketing till my MBA.” Later, when he was studying for his PhD, he got to help Kotler who was doing his 6th or 7th edition of the marketing bible.
And how has the world of marketing and selling changed with artificial intelligence and the other huge technological strides of recent years? Kumar insists the fundamentals remain the same. He says: “The principles of marketing haven’t changed at all. What’s changed is how you reach customers -- both from a communication perspective and from a distribution channel perspective.” And, as always, the goal is to “maximise consumption."
Art is Kumar’s other great love -- another of his book’s chapters is titled, Is Art a Good Investment? (He says it is). He’s accumulated a collection of 150 works of which some 130 are from the Bengal School. In 2015, a Swiss museum put 70 of his Jamini Roy paintings on show. Besides those works, he has one rare painting by the British Impressionist JMW Turner. It’s one of four Indian scenes of the battle of Seringapatnam Turner painted from looking at a sketch. Turner created the paintings for a patron who put them in a castle room along with a hookah that once belonged to Tipu Sultan. London's Tate Gallery will be borrowing Kumar’s painting for a Turner show in 2020 where it will hang with another Turner painting of Seringapatnam belonging to the Tate. “It’ll be the first time in almost 200 years the two paintings will be seen side by side,” notes Kumar with some satisfaction.
Still, Kumar says he’s pretty well had to stop buying now because he’s, quite simply, run out of space even with three apartments. “It's very hard for me to buy stuff because the walls are full, the cupboards are full, under the bed is full,” he says resignedly.
One thing he says though he will never give up is learning. No one can, he says. While once “you went to school and it was enough learning for you for the rest of your life,” now, “we must be lifelong learners.” And it’s the same thing for companies, he says. “Because the transmission of knowledge and the diffusion of innovation is so much faster it means the speed at which we continuously innovate and improve and learn has to become much faster.”