Book readingsTalks

Afterness –From Home and Away

Read Time:10 Minute

MMA-KAS presented an online fireside chat on the theme of the book, “Afterness –From Home and Away” authored by Dr Ashok Ganguly, Former Chairman, Hindustan Unilever. Mr R Gopalakrishnan, Former Executive Director, TATA Sons Ltd., led the chat. Mr V Balaraman, Past President, MMA and Former MD, Pond’s India Ltd chaired the session.

Mr V Balaraman: Dr Ashok Ganguly was not only my superior but also a guru in many ways. He was born in the year 1935. He got his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, worked for about 35 years with Hindustan Lever and for ten of them between 1980 and 1990, as the chairman of the company. After that for seven years, he was on the board of Unilever. Dr Ganguly has been non-executive chairman of ICI, First Solutions, Anand Bazar Patrika and an independent director of ICICI Bank, Mahindra and Mahindra and Dr Reddy’s Laboratory. He also served as an external director of RBI. He has been very widely recognized. He is a Padma Vibhushan and has been on the Prime Minister’s Technology Advisory Committee for several times.

Mr R Gopalakrishnan: Dr Ganguly was initially a senior officer in the company. Then he became my boss and then my mentor. Naturally, for the past ten years, he is my friend. As I read his book, the principle of obliquity struck me. In life, things come to you when you don’t aim for it. The happiest people are not chasing happiness. The most profitable companies are not chasing profit. The most successful tennis players are not chasing victory. They want to win, of course, but their focus is not just on playing well but enjoying themselves.

Dr Ganguly is a walking exemplar of obliquity, because he never thought he would go to the US and get a PhD. He came back because he wanted to look after his parents in Bombay. He never intended to join a multinational company. He joined the MNC and became its chairman. He was invited to join the cabinet by Rajiv Gandhi, formally or informally but he turned it down saying, “I’m not good at politics.” He never intended to write this book but he has written the book. So my first question to Dr Ganguly: Is your life a series of apparent accidents or coincidences?

Dr Ganguly: If you’re anxious about things in life, there’s a statistical probability of those things not happening exactly as you wanted them to happen. Looking back on my life, when I ask, “Is it what I wanted to do?” there is no answer to that question. But I am pleased with the way it all went. I was not a very popular public speaker. I did not have a formula or a map to succeed in life. I tried to tell people, “Don’t plan your success. Develop the people and the talents, who are your colleagues and working with you. Devote yourselves to their future, rather than be preoccupied with your own future.”

Mr Gopalakrishnan: Our own scriptures say that you do your duty and let the results come. Many people think of Dr Ganguly, the chairman as a toughie who was driving for goals. He was fair to everybody by the way but very demanding. After 25-30 years, you seem like a mellowed human being. Is it true that you have changed?

Dr Ganguly: I got a job to do. I had very brilliant and outstanding predecessors.  I did not want to copy any of them. My job, as head of the company, demanded of me to be a tough person. I did not play act my role. I did not go out of my way to invite people to see the inner Ganguly. I was quite happy to be perceived as I was.

Mr Gopalakrishnan:  How does Hindustan Lever manage to produce such an inventory of good people managers, who then go to other companies and lead them very successfully? What is the secret sauce?  

Dr Ganguly:   It is their uncompromising commitment to meritocracy. Nothing else counted.  I don’t think there was anything exceptional in me. I’m also modest enough to say that there might must have been a pool of people from whom they selected me.  

Mr Gopalakrishnan: Are you saying that in Hindustan Lever, the people are not individually extraordinary. They are ordinary people but together they bring extraordinary results. Is that a fair summary?

Dr Ganguly: Yes. That’s a great summary.

Mr Gopalakrishnan: Whatcauses the feeling in business leaders that they are indispensable? Is it self-obsession or something else?

Dr Ganguly: I guess there is a combination between immortality and indispensability. You can you can start believing in the swan songs of your colleagues who say, “What can we do without you?” I would guide them immediately to the backyard of the church where many gentlemen are resting in peace. People who think that he or she is indispensable has a deep insecurity within themselves.

Mr Gopalakrishnan: I met a naval officer once who described to me the wake of a ship and said, “If you really want to understand if the ship has good stability in flowing through the waters, you don’t look at the front of the ship or the master of the ship. Look at how it leaves ripples of water on the sea, after the ship has gone. If it is symmetric and harmonic (wake in naval terminology), then it’s a good ship.” He went on to add that in the world of management, it is not what a particular CEO achieves but what people say about him after he has gone.  

Dr Ganguly: True. Well, the captain of the ship can make mistakes. One has to modestly accept that there is no such thing as a perfect leader and an immaculate succession planning. We are human beings.  If we said that we did not make mistakes, either in the choice of people or strategy, it would only give a wrong impression.

Mr Gopalakrishnan: You were a member of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Scientific Advisory Council (CSIR) along with CN Rao and others. What can we learn from the behaviour of Rajiv Gandhi, a non-scientist, as Chairman of that scientific forum?

Dr Ganguly: Rajiv Gandhi had come with one of the largest majorities in parliament in the history of India. The greatest quality he had was that he never pretended to be what he was not. He had great patience and commitment to listen and hear to everyone. He had developed a vision on what we should be and how we shouldn’t be, although he was led down quite badly by the officials at that time.  In our meetings, if he did not understand, he would raise his hand and say, “I don’t understand this. Please explain it to me.”

Mr Gopalakrishnan: What about the role played in your life by family and your gracious wife?

Dr Ganguly: My marriage was an arranged marriage in the Indian sense. It turned out to be a life of love and affection. My family deserves 80% credit for whatever I achieved. The importance of family in making you what you are, has not been discussed much in the public domain as much as it should be. It’s enormous. In many homes, the pressure is on children to achieve more than the parents. I was a complete failure in school. My father was a man of gravitas and great capability. But not for one moment, through all my years in school, did he ever display, directly or even remotely, any sense of disappointment. So life started with happy-go-lucky childhood, being into a family that was full of great love and affection. There was a comfort factor, which was responsible for what I became.  


Q: Do you regret not joining the cabinet of the Rajiv Gandhi government? 

Dr Ganguly: No. I knew my strengths and weaknesses. I would have been a complete failure in politics.  

Q:  How can young managers plan their strategy for success in the corporate world based on your experience in the corporate world?

Mr Gopalakrishnan: During the first 10 or 15 years of our career, we set targets—just like we do for production or sales or costs. But after that phase, we realize that management career—in fact, life itself—is not like a law of physics that focusses on the cause and effect. It follows the lawlessness of biology, if I may venture to put it that way. The lawlessness of biology is that biology evolves. Various factors come into play. Sitting and doing physics planning can become a bit of a waste of time. So be aware that at some phase, there’s a transition that happens, from physics to biology.

Q: We live in unusual times with founders removing the CEO and sometimes, CEOs removing the founders. How can corporate leaders navigate this complex world, keeping in mind what’s happening around you? 

Dr Ganguly: To get talent, you have to be patient with talent and go with the talent. Business owners have the privilege of hiring and firing. Professional companies and business owners always want something more. There’s impatience. If the shareholders are not happy, they have a right to hire and fire. Depending on what line you choose, you also become a part of that culture.

Mr V Balaraman: If the question is referring to the billionaire businessman (Elon Musk) and the recent controversies, then globally speaking, he is destroying value. If you cannot appreciate value, you will destroy value. He’s got so much money and he can afford to do all that. You must be a great human being like Dr Ganguly. What I have learned, after many years in both personal and business life is that one has to be human.

Don’t just estimate a person based on what he or she has done in the past. There is a giant inside every human being. What brings the giant out is great leadership, someone who values and expects the world out of the individual. I have known very good leaders, who by sheer expectations, have brought out the very best in people. If people know that they are trusted and backed, the best in that person comes out. That is leadership.  

Q: What are your views on current trends like mass resignation and moonlighting? 

Dr Ganguly: I’m very old fashioned. You cannot have moonlighting. It is letting down a company like letting down your family.

Q: Companies are focusing more on the bottom line and ignore the consumer needs. Do you think that the bottom line is more important than the consumer needs?  

Dr Ganguly: Consumer needs always come first. Meet that and you can even forget about the bottom line.  

Q: Why should the corporate world encourage innovation and a sort of start-up culture in their own organisations?

Dr Ganguly: Either innovation and change is in your gene or it is not. If you’re not continuously changing and innovating, you’re really cutting down longevity. Even in trade, you need innovation. I do not have any activity where I don’t have to innovate in order to survive and thrive. It’s as simple as that.

Q: What are your views on work-life balance?

Dr Ganguly: I think it’s a corporate’s responsibility to provide you with health support. In our days, we had very modest salaries. So the health support to aging parents was a great burden on our mind. Emotional balance is mostly derived out of your family—to the extent of 80%. I didn’t realize when I was working, that my family was providing me the emotional quotient, which made me behave as a person I did.  

Q: What should young leaders focus on?

 Dr Ganguly: Focus on your work. Be outstanding. Excel in it. Don’t be overly anxious, drawing the graphs of who is getting what. Remember somebody else is taking care of you on the job. Bring out the best in you, rather than worrying where you will be in 3 years’ time and ten years’ time. Plunge yourself in your work and give your best.