The Twelve Habits of Smart Skill-Building

Read Time:16 Minute
Prof Bala Shankar, author and Management Consultant, in a freewheeling discussion with Mr N Ananthaseshan, Managing Director, Carborundum Universal Ltd and Mr V Ranganathan, Ex-E&Y Partner and Chartered Accountant.

Last evening, I had the privilege to meet a very successful tech entrepreneur from Chennai. He opened two successful software companies, sold them and then he was looking for a new direction in his life to do something else. There was an inner call for him to start a University and he had no idea how to get into education. The University is functioning in its second year. Along the way, he had a lot of difficulties and he had to unlearn a lot of things. He made mistakes and learned from those mistakes. He’s probably going to be equally successful in education. But what set him up as a successful entrepreneur in the beginning, wasn’t helping him in the second innings. He is Mr K V Ramani, Founder & Chancellor, of SAI University.


A famous Harvard professor of economics and business had another side to him, besides academics and his innovative management concepts. He was very much interested in life and in what life has to offer. He started that at the age of 22, when he was a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford, every day in the evening, instead of playing and chatting with his friends, he spent an hour reading and thinking in his room. He cultivated the habit of reflection, thinking, reading, understanding and analysing, all at the age of 22 and carried it all through his life. He is Prof Clayton Christenson.


Warren Buffett is a very successful investor and in the Top 5 list in terms of wealth. He is now 90 and is the chairman of the group that he has been running for about 50 years or more. He’s got his wealth not from inheritance, real estate or by selling products or services. It is just by investing. He said there’s one skill that has stood beside him all the while and that has made him successful. That is communication skill.


Our own Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, was famous for his poetry, literature, music, art, education and social work. He founded an outstanding institution, which still runs with a lot of success in West Bengal. At the age of 73, he started painting. He engaged a few supporting staff and artists and at 75, he ran an exhibition in Paris with his paintings.


A few years ago, our batch of management graduates had a reunion. Many of them had changed track substantially and it was intriguing. I tried to understand at what point of time they did this and how they re-pivoted themselves. For example, one of them is an engineer and an MBA. He ran a successful forging and casting company in Chennai. After 60, he handed it over to his son, took up a law degree and is now practising in the Madras High Court purely as a public interest litigant. He does it for free. He has won quite a few judgments.

I found out that most of them have a habit of skill-building. When we are out of college, more or less, our formal education stops. You have to find other ways to learn as an adult. Forming habits helps people to learn new skills on a continuous basis. It can be a range of different and unusual sets of skills as well. I could come up with 12 habits that different people employed. It can be a combination of all this. Maybe not all of them are needed but a few of them, at least.

The problem with our learning skills is that though we want to learn something, we can’t take action. The successful people have and they get down to action. The other thing is they are not afraid to start from the beginning to acquire a new skill. Viswanathan Anand was a master of the manual, strategic chess. When computers started playing chess, he was losing to them. He grew up with the theory that you win chess, not only because of your skill in the game but also because you have the tenacity and sharpness to see the moves ahead. Computer has none of these things and decides what to do next using an algorithm that goes behind it. So Anand started afresh and mastered computer chess as well. How did he achieve it? Because he was humble enough to say, “I don’t know this skill. I know something similar, but I need to be a student, at the bottom of the ladder and start from scratch.” He put himself down to it.

Disrupt yourself

Another habit they all have is disruption. If you have to succeed in corporations now, they say, ‘disrupt yourself.’ The only way we can move from the skills we have to getting another set of skills is by disrupting ourselves. One of the top aristocrats in Chennai went and worked in a Jharkhand village for three years. The President of the United States did it in 1920. His name is Theodore Roosevelt. He had a six-story mansion in Manhattan. He left everything, went and stayed with the villagers and hunted on horses. He completely disrupted himself because he wanted to have the flavour of that life.

People have used networking as a habit, in order to learn new skills. When you network, you find new friends. Successful people are also totally agnostic to what they do. Skill A and skill B need not be connected. They think they can be totally different and run them in parallel. Actor Omar Sharif is a Hollywood actor of Arab descent. He came from Egypt and became a very famous actor in Hollywood. He’s famous for another thing. He was the captain of the Egyptian Bridge team in three Olympics. We may think that he is crazy to be spending time in Bridge instead of signing movies. But he wanted to challenge himself. He also became a bridge tutor. He has produced videos for teaching youngsters who play the game. One skill doesn’t have to have a linear relationship with another skill that you know.

Insights from panel discussion:

Prof Bala Shankar (To Mr Ranganathan, CA): What have been the two or three skills that you learned along the way in these years, which have had a transformative effect on your career or your life?

Mr V Ranganathan: I was a chartered accounting apprentice to start with. I disrupted myself by quitting the CA course even before completing it and took up a job in the public sector because of family circumstances. Then when I was very comfortably placed in the public sector as an officer and drawing a princely sum in 1980, my colleagues told me that I would lose interest after a few years and nudged me to pursue my CA. The time that I spent in the public sector was extremely educational to me. I was in Bombay and it gave me a chance to learn a new language and be in a new place. I quit my job, completed my CA and took up a job in Murugappa group. I was there for some period of time. I reached a level, which I realised was the ceiling for me. Then I disrupted myself, moved out of the comfort of the corporate to consultancy.

Consultancy is not a place where you can go and grow at a later point in time; you have to plant the seed very early. I did my balance stint in consultancy, which had its own set of challenges. Over a period of time, I developed a skill: it is the ability not to do work and instead, let others do the work without interfering in their work. I used to tell people that I am finally responsible if something goes wrong. When you start your career, you should be very focused on details. But as you move up, both in age and in position, you should stay away from small things. Even if somebody has committed a mistake, don’t be particular to point it out every time.

Prof Bala Shankar: What are some of the skills that you look for now when you’re hiring for different levels, apart from technical skills?

Mr Ananthaseshan: At a senior level, we look at how a person has handled failure and grown in adversity. The ability to connect the dots is also an important factor. But one thing which, at least the last couple of years has taught many of us, irrespective of levels, is the skill to develop empathy. In a sense, it is a dichotomy. On the one hand, you have to manage numbers and facts. On the other hand, you have to deal with people, emotions and trauma. Have patience and keep that balance.

Another skill that we look for from the pandemic experience is managing ambiguity. During the lockdown, we moved progressively from a complete unknown to known unknowns. The ability to handle a certain amount of fuzziness, look at the business and prepare scenario planning is a skill that is definitely important. Everything can’t be put down in paper and the JV does not tell what exactly we look for in a person.

Prof Bala Shankar: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is an engineer from Manipal and later he did his MBA and so on. A tech person is good in maths and science but the other faculties are developed much later. He had a child who had some growing difficulties and had to be attended to. He said that the only language the whole community of people who had special children spoke was empathy. In the end, he lost his child and it was a tragedy. According to him, the fact that he picked up empathy now helps him to be the CEO of a company which employs 400,000 people and not his tech skills.

Q: When you have passion, you develop a skill. Also a hobby will become your skill and it’s a determination of the mind to learn certain things. Generally speaking, people are not going to learn anything unless they are forced or the circumstances force them. What’s your opinion on this?

Mr V Ranganathan: To some extent. I would agree. Typically, human nature is to shirk work. Mankind would have comfortably rested on some tree if only they had been fed continuously by some agency, but then they had to find their food. So they started hunting and to hunt, they needed tools. They started developing stones into tools. That is how the whole process of evolution happened and evolution, for some reason, cannot be stopped. AI and ML was avoidable but that could not be stopped. We all have that impulse to move forward. Thus the process of skill-building happens in a natural, evolutionary way and it also happens under compulsion or coercion.

Q: When you disrupt your career and switch to new skills, don’t you think that you also require flexibility of thinking?

Prof Bala Shankar: The ability to embrace disruption is not only a brain’s thinking activity. That’s also your aptitude. Are you risk averse or are you a risk-taker? Can you cope with a little bit of uncertainty? Can you cope with some new learning and restart in a new environment?

Sometimes too much thinking may not be not good. Imagine the diver who goes up on the platform to dive into the pool. He has less than a second to think before he jumps. Also, while you are at a younger age, it is easier to do this and it is less catastrophic for our careers or family or finances, than at a later stage in life, when a lot more thinking and calculations have to be done. You probably may not need very deep thinking skills. You just need the ability to bite the bullet, which also comes from a little bit of experience. First, do small disruptions. I know a good friend of mine whose family has stayed in Mylapore for about 60 years. Every few years, they move about ten or twelve streets within Mylapore.

Q: Over the years, a lot of importance is given to acquiring sufficient breath of exposure and knowledge across domains. Which is good–breadth of exposure or depth of exposure?

Mr Ananthaseshan: It depends on who you want to be. One of the things I have learnt now is skilling yourself on the go. As a material science guy working in R&D in a company, I had to go into depth and build a career. But when you look around, you come across opportunities to learn new things. I got an opportunity to learn computers when there were no computers around. The fact that I wanted to put my experimental findings and tabulation into an Excel or a Lotus 1-2-3 those days and create a graph, got me into learning more about computers. Then, I got into project management and financial modelling. Later on, I was given an opportunity to completely disrupt myself from being an engineer researching materials to heading the purchase department. My skills in computing and my knowledge on materials helped me create a big difference in the way we were buying and using things. The fundamentals are still there. The breadth of experience comes as we pick up skills along the way. When I was given the responsibility of running the business division, moving from having managed five people to managing 500 people overnight, I was a little overawed. My boss told me that I don’t have to know everything about it. All I need to know is to be aware of who has got the skills to solve different problems.

Mr V Ranganathan: This is a conundrum in global consultancy firms too. They believe in hyper-specialisation. That is, you should know more and more of less and less and they believe that clients value that kind of a specialisation. I hate this concept of being narrowed down to a smaller spectrum and would like to be around, all over the place. So breadth or depth—which model is better? There is no perfect answer to it.

Q: Should disruption happen after mastering something? Or can it happen along, during the travel path? You should not become a jack of all and master of none.

Prof Bala Shankar: How early should you disrupt? You can take Mr Ranganathan as an example. How late can you disrupt? You can take Rabindranath Tagore’s example. It is better if you achieve a certain level of mastery in one before you disrupt yourself and go to the other. Again, there are examples of both kinds. At some point in time, you will have enough balls to juggle with and one of them, you will catch. You don’t have to necessarily go out of where you are. You can do a lot of things in parallel. It’s just finding the right motivation to get started on it. Find buddies to help you get started.

Q: Who should be ideally responsible for skilling in an organisation—the CEO; the HR head; the employee themselves; academicians; the public or the government?

Prof Bala Shankar: There is a difference between an organisation doing it for us and the individual himself or herself, taking responsibility for a task. We all pick up degrees. We don’t pick up skills from colleges. Planning, coordination, communication, ambiguity management, conflict resolution or avoidance or any of these things are not taught in any bachelor’s or master’s program. You can only win there, when you’re skillful enough to cope with these situations. So the onus is on us as individuals to put an agenda in front of us and achieve some level of accomplishment in those skills. Definitely organisations do support and they are also involved in it. They encourage people to reskill.

Mr Ananthaseshan: Skilling opportunities are aplenty in every organisation. But the individuals are responsible to capture and leverage those skills.

Q: Often, people get complacent in their job which they think is secure. How can they get the warning alarm?

Mr V Ranganathan: This was how life was in the past. You get into a bank or a government job or a company and take it as a lifetime occupation. But now things have changed phenomenally, even in government. They’re looking to recruit people on a short-term assignment basis up to the joint-secretary level. There is nothing permanent about it. The onus is now on the individual to be productive and useful at all points in time.

Prof Bala Shankar: The warning comes automatically nowadays. I was talking to a software person and he said, “They send people on overseas assignments only if they have a minimum of five sub skills. You can’t be just a SAP specialist. You may have to know cyber security and so on. You must be multi-skilled within the tech industry to be able to be staffed into other projects. So the warning is already there.

Mr Ananthaseshan: The rate of disruption is huge. The last big disruption we saw was at the turn of the 20th century when we moved from the carriages to automobiles and that carried on for almost 100 years. The rate of change we see from the IC engines to the EVs is huge and we need different technical skill sets. A lady sitting on the pavement now knows how to use a QR code. That happened overnight just because of the demonetization. We have to be aware of the trends and changes that we have to make to ourselves and to our organisations.

Q: Many women have become unemployable, according to one of the recent reports, because they do not have an opportunity to update the skill; and all the routine jobs are taken over by AI/ML. If they’re not employable, it has a serious impact on society. How can we keep our women empowered and upgraded with the latest skills, so that they are not left behind?

Prof Bala Shankar: I’m not in the government, but coming to the government’s role, I can tell you examples of other countries. Women employment in places like Singapore and Hong Kong is probably 80 to 90 percent and they acquire skills related to whatever area they want to be in. In some countries, they are almost equal in terms of skill level. A paradigm shift has to happen both in the eyes of governments who run programs and the society. Society has to become warmer to the idea that jobs can be done by more women participating in employment. It’s coming in some fields, probably banking. The employers must hire more and more women.

Mr Ananthaseshan: I have worked in Kerala which is one of the most progressive states and where many women are employed. We have a factory in Russia where 45 percent are women. In Kerala, we engaged a woman to drive our truck and she is the first woman truck driver. The common thing between Russia and Kerala is perhaps they are communist states. In Russia, women took up jobs in factories because many of the men fighting in WWII did not come back. So the environment and culture also play a role.

Prof Bala Shankar: One skill that I have now picked up is accepting criticism for my works and feedback. Taking honest and genuine feedback and working on it is going to help me move forward.  The four examples that I narrated at the beginning tells us that at any age, you can start a new habit. When you start early, you can sustain it for a very long period of time. These new skills need not be career-oriented or for gainful activities. Compared to the past, we live twenty to thirty years more. We have to spend those years purposefully, constructively and energetically enough. Acquiring new skills is thus a post-retirement compulsion too.