Who made a difference in my life?

Another piece from my old contribution to Manthan (ITC-ABD’s Intranet) in June 2009 (written on the occasion of launching “Let’s Teach Ourselves” initiative in ITC-ABD)

Who made a difference in my life? Oh, so many! A very large number of people, indeed. Real people that I interacted with in blood and flesh, as well as virtual people that I only read about. I learnt some very big ticket life skills, many ideas that inspired my work professionally, and several ‘how to do better’ type every day things. I wouldn’t be what I am, but for these teachers and role models…

I can write a whole book on what others taught me, but here are a few for the moment…

Siddi Mallaiah, a stranger to start with: That was 1981. As part of IRMA’s rural immersion fieldwork programme, I had to live in a village for a month. Siddi Mallaiah, Secretary of the milk society in the village Cholleru (some 100 km from Hyderabad) was my host. After I landed in the village, I realized that he was also the local post master, and an agent of LIC too. He was an RMP as well, dispensing both allopathic and homeopathic medicines! His daily routine included tuitions for local school children in the evenings, and adult literacy sessions in the night. Of course he was a farmer, on top of all this. He had a two acre farm. While the day to day farming was looked after by his brother, all commercial decisions (like crops to plant & timing to sell etc) were made by Siddi Mallaiah. Whenever he traveled to the nearby town, he always went with a list of things he had to buy on behalf of others from the village and carry them back. His resourcefulness, his multi tasking capacity, and his smart time management skills were a source of inspiration for me when we designed the role of “Choupal Sanchalak” eighteen years later. Not to forget the way he facilitated my interaction with everyone that I wanted to meet – across castes & classes – in an effortless manner, given his relationship with literally everyone in his village. After all those mind boggling roles he was performing, he wasn’t rich. Facing all the usual challenges of rural India, he had to burn all his entrepreneurial energies in simply staying where he was. This experience has also reinforced the goal of my professional life i.e. innovate institutional mechanisms to make markets work for the poor.

Matthieu Delorme, my counterpart from a Partner Company: Flash forward nine years to 1990. I was then an Export Manager-cum-Trader in the erstwhile ITC-ABD. All I knew about trading till then was buying & selling after a high-level supply-demand analysis. Matthieu was a Senior Trader in Continental Grain Co in Hongkong (where I was posted for a few months in 1990, as part of a multi-business collaboration possibilities we were exploring with them) who taught me the intricacies of technical analysis, besides helping with my skills in fundamental analysis. More importantly, I internalized several trading execution skills like massaging a position, managing parallel positions and so on during that stint. The formats of Daily P&Ls, Weekly Market Analysis Reports we use today, and actually much of our current Risk Management Policy have been built with the foundation laid by Matthieu.

YC Deveshwar, the Big Boss at ITC: A few more years later, along 1998 & 1999, I had the opportunity to interact closely with YCD, while negotiating the alliance between ITC and ConAgra on commodity trading business. Till then, my ‘only principle’ in a negotiation is the much clichéd ‘work towards a win-win’. During this interaction, I learnt a better approach. First, with the help of some lever, try and move to a position of strength in any negotiation. Squeeze out a good deal from the other side with the help of this lever, then offer a ‘win more – win more’ solution to the counterparty from that position of strength. The continuous improvisation you can do in this process is amazing. You are always in a position to make offers that others can’t refuse. The Don Corleone way! Building those first levers proactively is an instinct I developed since then.

My father: Lot of colleagues experienced me for my approach of, “Don’t get stressed”. “If you can do something about it, do it! Why worry?” “If you can’t do anything about it, just relax! Why worry?” This is a trait I learnt from my father, essentially between 1976 and 1983 when I had to take crucial decisions early on in my studies and career. Like, giving up my Engineering Seat to study BSc (because I would be a graduate in three years, instead of five), and giving up IIMA seat to study at IRMA (because the fusion of rural and management had appealed more than the time tested business management) etc. Decisions that I need to take are different now, but the approach stayed with me.

Before closing, I thought I would share another secret. My approach to learning from these people and so many others follow a three step process: Step 1. Reflect what the “teacher” would’ve done in this situation. Step 2. Practice. More practice. Step 3. Teach someone else. This is when you become an expert!