The Alladi Diary

Read Time:19 Minute

MMA presented a talk on the theme of the book, “The Alladi Diary: Unveiling Memoirs of Alladi Ramakrishnan,” by eminent Mathematician and author Prof Krishnaswami Alladi,onAugust 16, 2023 at the MMA Management Center.  Mr.Lakshminarayanan Duraiswamy, the Honorary Treasurer of MMA and the Managing Director of Sundaram Home Finance Ltd presided over the session as the Chairperson. 

At the outset, let me clarify that this is not my book. This is my father’s book, his autobiography. I’ll explain how I got involved in the book. In 1978, which was the year I got married, my father decided to write his memoirs. Initially, it was informal. He had it published and printed locally, and he would circulate it among friends and relatives, mainly to gather feedback. He talked about his early life in school, college, how the institute came into being, discussions about my illustrious grandfather Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, the Indian constitution, and so on. He gathered feedback from various people and also included some essays about my grandfather written by various other leading lawyers and judges.

East West Books approached my father and expressed interest in publishing his memoirs. He took the original manuscript, which I believe was about 700 pages long. He divided it into two parts and added important letters related to the creation of the Maths Science Institute, along with photographs and more. It was published in two volumes by East West Press. The first volume was released in 1999, and the second volume followed in 2002. Thus, it became a two-volume book titled “The Alladi Diary.”

After my father’s passing away in 2008, my cousin, the renowned neuroscientist VS Ramachandran, who is a couple of years older than me and based at the University of California, San Diego, contacted me. He praised my father’s autobiography published by East West Press, highlighting its excellent writing and its significance, particularly within the scientific community. He suggested that considering my experience in publishing, I should seek an international publisher for this book.

Interestingly, World Scientific, a Singapore-based publisher with a main office in London, came into the picture. Their North American editor came to my office and she expressed interest in publishing my work. I shared copies of the “Alladi Diary” published by East West Press with her. Two days later, she came back and said, ‘This is very interesting. We would like to publish it.” Thus, this publication by World Scientific came about.

We needed to cut down the two volumes into one volume of about 640 pages. Yet, I made sure to retain all the essential letters and content, but I wrote notes for each chapter. What do I mean by notes? For instance, if my father mentioned a scientist like Richard Feynman, the notes section of that chapter would include details about Richard Feynman, his accomplishments, and his connection to my father, in a brief paragraph. This would be useful for people in India who are not in academia or associated with Physics or Maths, and who might not directly relate to these personalities.

By the same token, my father also refers to various aspects of Indian culture and tradition. For instance, he describes the Navaratri celebrations and delves into stories involving my grandmother. In such instances, I’ve included relevant notes that provide context about Indian customs and personalities. If he mentions Rajaji, I’ve added a short para on Rajagopalachari, introducing who he was and his contributions. This would be useful to the western audience. My main contribution has been cutting down the narrative due to the need to merge the two volumes into one, while also augmenting it with notes to cater to both the Indian and international audience. I want to make it clear that my association with the book is not as an author but as an editor.

Three Themes

The book revolves around three main themes. The first theme portrays my father’s childhood days in Madras. He vividly describes the time of my grandfather, Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, who was one of India’s greatest lawyers. He was not only invited to the constituent assembly but also served on the drafting committee of the Indian constitution. He had unrivalled knowledge of the American, British, French, and Australian constitutions, and so he was invited to be on the drafting committee as the legal mind.

He talks about his days with my grandfather and the prominent figures who frequented our home. Rajagopalachari would visit during his time as the Chief Minister of Madras on a daily basis and would engage in late-night discussions on various legal matters and points. He also talks about his observations on the Constituent Assembly in Delhi. This is one aspect of the book.

The second theme highlights his own career and the obstacles he encountered. He adeptly overcame these obstacles to establish the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, initially known as Math Science. Now it is referred to as IMSc. It is a multi-crore project, based out of Taramani. The next part of the book shifts focus to his extensive international travels. He traversed more than 200 institutions globally, delivering lectures and engaging in diverse programs. He also talks about how he facilitated the visits of foreign scholars and experts to the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Madras. The book was officially launched in Madras in May 2019 at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation. This year marks my father’s 100th birthday—a centenary year.  

Charmed by Bhabha’s Persona

My father holds a law degree. He was a student at the Presidency College in Madras, where he pursued his BSc Honours in Physics there. An interesting highlight of his student days at the Madras Presidency College was the visit of a young British trained Indian scientist, Homi Bhabha, who had just finished his PhD. In 1943, he delivered a talk at the Madras Presidency College. He was already a Fellow of the Royal Society by then.

Homi Bhabha’s lecture deeply inspired him. He was not only charmed by the physics presented by Bhabha but also by his charismatic personality. The thought of collaborating with such a remarkable figure excited him. After completing his BSc Honours in physics, due to my grandfather’s influence, he took to law and joined a law school. My grandfather’s practice was thriving, and he felt it was time for the younger generation to step up. My father’s elder brother, the late Chief Justice of the Andhra High Court, Justice Alladi Kuppuswamy, had already enrolled in law. My grandfather had similar aspirations for my father.

Driven by his great respect for my grandfather, my father ventured into the field of law. He did quite well. He earned the gold medal for Hindu law and established a law practice. However, the truth remains that his heart was set on science, not law. While my grandfather was busy with his responsibilities on the drafting committee, my father frequently accompanied him to Delhi in the mid-1940s. This was a period before India’s independence, a time when the British had decided to grant India independence. A Constituent Assembly was formed, and my father would go to Delhi frequently, accompanying my grandfather.

A Proxy and a Twist

During one such visit, my grandfather was extended an invitation to a dinner honouring Homi Bhabha. This invitation came from P.L.Bhatnagar, a renowned scientist. My grandfather, however, confessed to my father that he felt ill-equipped to converse with Homi Bhabha about physics and said, “You have a profound interest in physics. Why don’t you attend the dinner in my place?” So my father attended the dinner.

At the dinner, my father found himself seated in the chair reserved for my grandfather. This placed him right next to Homi Bhabha. A conversation flowed, and Homi Bhabha inquired about my father’s pursuits. My father shared that he had completed his BSc Honours in physics but had since embarked on a journey through law. When Homi Bhabha asked about his future plans, my father frankly expressed his desire to do physics and become Homi Bhabha’s student. He recalled being deeply influenced by Homi Bhabha’s lecture during his days at the Presidency College in Madras.

Grandma Shapes the Future

Homi Bhabha’s response was encouraging. He revealed that he had initiated a cosmic ray unit at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and said, “Why don’t you join me at the cosmic ray unit in Bangalore?” My father immediately said ‘yes,’ but he had to get permission from my grandfather. To handle this delicate situation, he opted to have a conversation with his mother and shared his genuine passion for physics and his reluctance to pursue law, hoping his mother would understand and advocate for his preferred path.

So, my grandmother talked to my grandfather and said, “You’ve succeeded in law, and you have accumulated wealth. Let our son pursue his interest in physics and enjoy his life. Why insist on law?” Her words led my grandfather to relent. The dedication of this book to his mother, even though the story talks about his father’s role prominently is a testament to how his mother’s support paved the way for him to become a physicist.

Solving a Cosmic Problem

Now, comes an interesting story. My father worked with Homi Bhabha at the cosmic ray unit in Bangalore. The term “cosmic rays” pertains to meteoric showers and electron showers that permeate the atmosphere, bifurcating upon entry. Understanding this bifurcation process, its effects, and the broader terrestrial impact formed the crux of the study. Probability theory played a significant role in unravelling these phenomena, as it required assessing the likelihood of specific particle distributions within sections of interest.

Working alongside Homi Bhabha, my father embraced the challenge. Shortly thereafter, Homi Bhabha relocated to Bombay. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research was first housed at Kenilworth, in the residence of Homi Bhabha’s aunt. While the structure might appear more modest in comparison to its contemporary appearance, its colonial architecture was similar to my own home. My father accompanied Homi Bhabha to Bombay, and together, they continued their research. A few months later, my father solved the problem by an elegant solution, which he called the “method of product densities.”

He documented his results and without putting his name, gave it to Bhabha. Homi Bhabha said that he had to get the opinion of a mathematician to check the correctness of the derivation. He gave it to Mr. DD Kosambi, a mathematician. Kosambi responded saying that the solution was elegant but there were gaps in the derivation that needed addressing. There the matter ended.

In the meanwhile, my father and Bhabha’s personal assistant Mr. N R Puthran, a south Indian, had become close friends. An unexpected twist emerged a couple of weeks later. One day, Mr. Puthran told my father, “Alladi. You must be very happy to know that Bhabha has given a nice reference to you in a paper he’s written.” My father was surprised and asked if he could see the paper. Mr. Puthran handed over the manuscript that was to be given to the typist. As my father reviewed the paper, he discovered something astounding. The same problem he had tackled was now presented in a much longer form, authored by Homi Bhabha, and employing the basic concepts my father had introduced.

This put my father in an embarrassing situation. Homi Bhabha, was the Head of India’s Atomic Energy Commission and a leader in Indian physics, except perhaps for Sir CV Raman. The question of challenging such an authority was daunting. In the United States, you can fight the establishment. But in India, confronting the establishment is next to impossible. So he could do nothing and tendered his resignation, citing the unsuitability of Bombay’s climate and environment. He boarded a plane and returned to Madras.

An Invite to the UK

Now, he was faced with the task of speaking to my grandfather. This predicament was complicated by my grandfather’s initial desire for my father to pursue law. The next step my father did was to reach out to Professor M S Bartlett of the University of Manchester, a researcher who had worked on similar problems. Within a month, a reply arrived from Bartlett, expressing keen interest in my father’s work. He suggested, “Why not come to the University of Manchester for a PhD?”

With this invitation in hand, my father left on a journey to England, with my mother. During the sea voyage, he substantially expanded upon his method. When he arrived in England, he presented this improved version to Professor Bartlett. Bartlett suggested, “Let me consult a colleague, Professor DG Kendall at Oxford University. His endorsement will seal the deal.” After a week or two, the verdict came: Kendall validated the work’s correctness.  Bartlett declared, “This is your Ph.D. thesis. But you’ll need to be here for two years to meet the residency requirements for a PhD. In the meantime, you can explore other problems.” With this, the path forward became clear.

One Theme, Two Papers

The next step was the publication of the thesis. Bartlett communicated the paper to the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. Now what happened to Homi Bhabha’s paper? As a fellow of the Royal Society, Homi Bhabha enjoyed a privilege: direct communication to the Proceedings of the Royal Society. However, it turned out that there were some mistakes in the long paper—not serious though—that needed to be corrected. By the time Bhabha corrected these, several months had lapsed.

Consequently, both papers emerged independently, nearly simultaneously. My father’s work appeared in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, while Homi Bhabha’s findings were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. The set of equations they jointly derived is now known as the “Bhabha Ramakrishnan equations.” The method, named the “method of product densities,” remains attributed to my father. Luckily, my father’s paper didn’t trail behind Homi Bhabha’s paper. So, all is well that ends well.

The Madras University Stint

My father returned to Madras, joining the newly established Theoretical Physics department at Madras University. The university was overseen by Vice Chancellor Sir Arcot Lakshmana Swamy Mudaliyar, who managed the institution for 27 years with an iron hand.

My father became the first to develop the theory of probability in Madras. His intellectual aspirations continued, and he nurtured his ties with the international physics community, keen on expanding the frontiers of knowledge. He went to the United States in 1956, as part of an international conference at the University of Rochester. Renowned physicist Robert Marshak organized the event, where my father, despite his focus on probability and stochastic processes, was allowed to take part in the realm of theoretical and high-energy physics.

Meeting Nobel Laureate Chandrasekhar

On the way, he met the eminent astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Chandrasekhar’s ground-breaking work centered on the timing of a star’s collapse once it has depleted its hydrogen reserves or rather when a star reaches its end in an expanded state. According to Chandrasekhar’s findings, a star exceeding 1.4 times the mass of the Sun will inevitably contract until the electron-proton combination ushers in an era of pure neutrons—giving birth to a neutron star, a heavy entity.

However, Chandrasekhar’s early theory, which decades later won him the Nobel Prize, when first proposed in England, was met with scepticism. Sir Arthur Eddington remarked, “Chandra, any star that behaves the way you predict must be crazy.” Thus, the theory did not find immediate recognition in England. So, Chandrasekhar relocated to the United States, where the University of Chicago recognized him and he became a Distinguished Service Professor.

My father’s time in England was spent publishing papers applying probability to astrophysics. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar communicated eight of these papers to the Astrophysical Journal, of which he was the editor. So Chandrasekhar had already known about my father’s works.

Oppenheimer Springs a Surprise

Returning to the conference he attended, one can imagine the feeling of awe that a young researcher, not yet an expert in the field, might experience in the presence of renowned scholars. One day, during lunchtime, my father was seated alone in a corner, holding his tray. The great Robert Oppenheimer, Director of the Institute for Advanced Study, who was at the conference, approached him with his own tray and asked my father, “May I join you?”

My father was flabbergasted. Here was a director of extraordinary stature, interacting with a relatively unknown person from the University of Madras. The conversation began, and my father explained his work in astrophysics. Oppenheimer was impressed and inquired about his future aspirations. My father expressed a desire to visit the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, a place where Oppenheimer was the Director. With a small notebook in hand, Oppenheimer requested my father’s name and contact information, promising to be in touch. The year was the summer of 1956. By the close of that year, my father received an invitation from Robert Oppenheimer himself to visit the Institute for Advanced Study. This was an unbelievable event. My father went to the Princeton Institute in 1957-58, accompanied by my mother.

I was two years old at that time. As the Princeton winter was too harsh, they left me with my uncle, Justice Alladi Kuppuswamy in Hyderabad, and my parents went to Princeton. My uncle, of course, took very good care of me. Now, in Princeton, my father listened to more than 100 seminars. The way he writes his English is absolutely top class.

Twin Passions

About Oppenheimer, he writes thus: “My first visit with Oppenheimer fulfilled my expectations about this legendary figure who dominated not only American science but influenced the destiny of the world as the architect of the atom bomb. Lean and of medium height, he had an oval head with prominent cheekbones, and piercing eyes. He could pick his men while lighting his pipe, each for the appointed task, according to his talent and inclination, from a Nobel Prize man to a truck driver. He was magnanimous in providing opportunities for young scientists and enjoyed discussions at every seminar where his very presence stimulated creative thought and invited impartial criticism. The Oppenheimer legend is just a record of incredible facts. Born to prosperity in 1904, he was educated at Harvard under Whitehead and Bridgman and took his PhD at 23 in Göttingen, after a preliminary stay at the Cavendish in England. His intellectual interests range from theoretical physics to Hindu philosophy… He understood the whole structure of physics with absolute clarity that one wonders why his creative work was not at the same seminal quality as Paul Dirac or Werner Heisenberg, both Nobel laureates. It is said that he had two passions, physics and the desert. And he got one in the other when he was to undertake at Los Alamos, a task unprecedented in its subject, undefined in scope, unpredictable in its consequences, namely, the creation of the atom bomb.”

An Unwelcome Suggestion

My father came back to Madras, went and told both Mr. Mudaliar as well as the registrar and others, “This syllabus in physics is outdated. We should at least change the syllabus, introduce high energy and modern physics to the M.Sc class.” The resistance to the suggestion was so high that my father was transferred to the then upcoming Madurai University, to start the physics department there instead of being in Madras. He rued that rather than appreciating the knowledge that he brought back from Princeton after listening to 100 seminars, the gift that he got was that he was banished to Madurai University to work there in isolation.

He came back and in the upstairs of our house where there was a big hall, he conducted a theoretical physics seminar. He gave lectures on modern physics to students in that seminar. Many eager students gathered at the seminar. He also invited eminent physicists to his seminar. One such physicist is Professor Abdul Salam of Imperial College, who subsequently won the Nobel Prize.

Niels Bohr’s Legendary Visit  

The next big visitor was Professor Niels Bohr, the father of the theory of the Bohr atom. The whole theory of the atom is based upon Niels Bohr’s structure of the atom. He was a Nobel Laureate. He was visiting India as the guest of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. My father invited Niels Bohr and he agreed. Niels Bohr came to Madras in January 1960. My dad was so proud of his Indian upbringing, that even when he had foreign visitors, he would receive them in a dhoti.

Niels Bohr was a guest of Prime Minister Nehru and was accompanied by a representative of the government. He spent so much time of his talking to my father and his students, much to the discomfort of his accompanying government representative. He finished his tour of India and went back to Delhi to take leave of the Prime Minister.

A Press Conference leads to the PM

At that time, there was a press conference. When asked what impressed him the most about his visit to India, Niels Bohr said, “Two things. The massive setup of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay and a small band of students trained by Aladdi Ramakrishnan in Madras.” That was splashed in the newspapers. So a call came from PM Nehru’s secretary to enquire about what my father was doing. The then education minister Mr C Subramanyam was close to Nehru and he acted as a catalyst and arranged a meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru, when Nehru visited Chennai. 

Nehru met the students of the theoretical physics seminar and a memorable dinner took place. Nehru turned towards my father and asked, “What is it that you really need?” My father said, “I would like to have a new institute in Madras, modelled along the lines of the Institute for Advanced Study for Science.” Nehru asked my dad to send a detailed proposal, which my father had already kept ready. He handed it to Mr C Subramaniam (CS), who passed it on to Nehru.” 

Birth of a Centre of Excellence

Nehru said that he had to consult the leading person on the Indian scientific scene—Homi Bhabha! He referred the matter to Homi Bhabha, and Bhabha’s response was, “Yes, it’s an interesting proposal, but the limited funds of India must not be diluted. Right now we have a Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and we should focus on it.”

So the proposal was doomed. But C Subramaniam fought for it, argued with Nehru and also spoke to Bhabha inviting him to serve on the Board of Governors of the institute. Within two months, the proposal was approved and on 3 January 1962, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences was inaugurated in Madras, at The Presidency College. It was just a miracle that so many things happened. My father gave a famous speech during the inauguration.  

Now, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences is a multi crore project. It is recognized as one of the Homi Bhabha centers. The story of the creation of a leading center of scientific research in India, due to the persistence and pure determination of someone who was proud of his Indian upbringing and of Madras, is a great one, indeed.

Read & Grow: The Power of Questions

Read Time:14 Minute

As part of the ‘Read & Grow’ series, MMA hosted a panel discussion centered around the theme of the book “The Book of Beautiful Questions” authored by Warren Berger. Guiding the conversation was Mr. Sreenivasan Ramprasad, the Director of CADD Centre Training Services. He engaged in dialogue with Dr. Suresh Ramanathan, Dean & Principal of the Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai, and Mr. Kishalaya Das, the Executive Vice President & Head of Sales for MEA, India, and ASEAN at Intellect Design Arena Ltd.

Mr. Sreenivasan Ramprasad:

“The Book of Beautiful Questions” covers four areas: creativity, leadership, decision-making, and interpersonal skills. There are close to 400 questions in the book. Being an effective leader is not so much about having all the answers as asking the right questions. Questioning is critical to success. It can help you become a better thinker, a better partner, a problem solver, and a great leader. According to the author, a beautiful question is one that causes people to shift their thinking, and it is intended to bring about a change.

Many of us hesitate to ask questions for four reasons. The first is the fear that if I ask a question, people may think that I don’t know anything. The second is the thinking that I already know. The third is my own biases. And finally, I don’t have time to ask questions. These are the four enemies of asking questions. If you want to ask questions, ask the questions to yourself first. For example: Am I comfortable raising questions with no immediate answers? Am I willing to move away from what I know? Am I open to admitting I might be wrong?

The typical traps of questioning are the fear of the unknown, the tendency to focus on the wrong information, confidence in our own forecasts, and the inclination to favour information that confirms our pre-existing notions. The author compares a soldier and a scout. A soldier has a mindset of defence while a scout always seeks out to explore and discover.

Myths on Creativity

The notion that creativity must come from completely original ideas or sources is a myth, says the author. As a prime example, in 2000, Steve Jobs combined the elements of a cell phone, BlackBerry, camera, and iPod into a highly original combo package and came out with the iPhone. That’s creativity. To have good relationships with people, instead of asking people, ‘How are you?’ we can ask questions like, “What’s the best thing that happened to you today? What are you excited about in your life right now? What are you most passionate about? What problem do you wish you could solve? What did you want to be when you were growing up? What would constitute a perfect day for you?”

Listening Skills

A great questioner must have great listening skills. If you’re just hearing and not listening, the relationship doesn’t move forward. We are also quick to criticize people. Before you criticize someone, ask yourself these questions: “What’s motivating this critical urge? How am I guilty of the thing I’m criticizing? How would I react if someone said something similar to me? What positive result do I hope will come from saying this? Am I deriving pleasure from criticizing?”

A leader must ask questions like, “What do I want to lead? Why do I want to lead this? What do I want to achieve from it? Why would others want me to lead them? Am I willing to step back in order to help others move forward, or am I just looking at myself? Do I have the confidence to be humble? Can I learn to keep learning? Do I seek to create an organization in my own image?”

Finally, the author says that questioning plus action can lead to change (Q+A=C), and questioning minus action equals philosophy (Q-A=P).

Questions Changed Him

I’d like to narrate a personal story that happened in my career. It was probably in the early 2000s. We had recruited a salesperson and posted him in Bombay. Three months down the line, we couldn’t see any results from him. We were in a dilemma whether to continue with the person or let him go. But we wanted to give him a chance. So I took him and went around meeting clients.

During the meeting, I asked a lot of questions to my potential buyers. At the end of the tour, he asked me, “Are we allowed to ask questions to buyers?” I said, “Why not? What’s wrong in asking questions? If you ask questions, you can understand somebody better.” That changed him, and he said, “Please give me a month’s time.” He changed the methodology and started producing results. He’s now one of the regional directors in one of the leading companies in Bombay today. Questions can change your career.

Dr. Suresh Ramanathan: As an academic, I always ask questions. All the research that I do is based on the questions that we ask. But sometimes, we tend to have certain preconceived notions about a problem or a phenomenon that is happening in life. We may suffer from confirmation bias. But being aware that we have those biases certainly helps to reimagine the things that we do and the frameworks that we apply.

Having said that, I feel that the author also has a bias when he says that decision-making with a gut feeling is not right. We have what is called system one and system two thinking. System two thinking is the more conscious, careful, logical mind system. System one is the quick, intuitive gut feel kind of mind.

Mr. Kishalaya Das: There are four things which I took away from the book. The first is asking questions. As I am in sales, it comes naturally to me. The second thing is the importance of asking the right questions. The right questions must yield a desired response, which will help you to either sharpen your knowledge or your team’s knowledge. The most difficult part in our knowledge-based industry is the knowledge or expert mindset. I work for a FinTech company where technology is changing by the day. I’m only as good as my knowledge today. If I don’t upgrade tomorrow, I’m useless.

The third, when you ask questions in a public forum, be it a meeting or a gathering, you get visibility. Visibility is not just about written communication. It’s also about establishing yourself as a person who has an independent thinking process. Fourth, for us, designing is very important. We need to have the concept of design thinking. When we design anything, a lot of planning goes into it.  We learn from the mistakes or good things that people have done. Spotting patterns and anti-patterns is a vital part of design. We cannot do that until we ask questions. We have to ask questions to practitioners and academicians.

Mr Ramprasad: Which section of the book resonated more with you?

Mr Kishalaya Das: The questions about sparking creativity struck me. I’m an engineer and I think straight, like most engineers who can’t observe different patterns. I always believed that creativity is a difficult concept for me. Now I understand that creativity is not about thinking of different things but about being able to crystallize simple things and making them better. Creativity can be in any field. Even when you’re cooking, you can have creativity and come out with new cuisines.

In our industry, creativity is nothing but innovation. If we don’t innovate, we are out of the business. The Nokia moment can happen to us. Nokia was the world leader in communication, making phones as well as mobile communication towers. They were so happy with what they were doing and kept launching the same kinds of products with minor changes. When the iPhone came, half of the Nokia factories were shut.

The important part of creativity is that you have to nail the idea down and then execute it. When you do that, you achieve success. In the corporate world, there is no philosophy. It’s all about turning ideas into actions and results.

Dr. Suresh: What appealed to me is the question, “What is your tennis ball?” which is finding your passion. It took me a long time to discover that my tennis ball is research and academics. That’s what really excites me. I worked in the industry for 10 years in sales and advertising. We launched MTV in India. But at the end of it all, my passion or my tennis ball is research. It is digging deep into problems, asking questions, and sometimes finding counterintuitive answers, which lead you to question the assumptions that you made.

We talked about the iPhone and Nokia examples. I’m reminded of another example which is the story of Motorola. Back in 1998, there was an executive who was on a cruise ship somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico and was not able to reach his office. He came up with the idea of sending a bunch of satellites into space, from where you could get a signal and you can receive it on a satellite phone. They thought it was a big idea and invested something like $4 billion into this venture. To break even, they needed to sell half a million handsets. The phone cost $3,000 and the cost per call was $8 a minute. Guess what? They sold in the first year, barely 10,000. They had creativity but perhaps didn’t ask the right question, which was, “Will people have a use for this product?”

Mr Ramprasad: Asking questions is an integral part of building relationships. If you need to understand your clients, the only way to go about it is not assuming what they want but validating your assumption by asking meaningful and insightful questions. During my sales programs, I focus on questioning skills, which is one of the key skills of a salesperson. Now, how easy or difficult do you think it is to ask questions?

Dr. Suresh: I can go to a classroom and talk for three hours without having any problem based on what I already know, but what really excites me is when one person in the classroom asks me a question that forces me to think and come out of my comfort zone.

Mr Kishalaya Das: I recommend a 5C Question framework to my sales team. The first is curious questions. The second is comforting questions. The third is challenging questions. The fourth is confronting questions, and the last is collaborating questions.

We are in B2B sales. We sell to banks. We will largely be selling to the business owners in the bank. To first understand what they’re looking for, you should start with curious questions. I never go and start with a pitch. Based on the response, you can formulate a strategy in your mind and pose some comforting questions. Then you change your track to ask some challenging questions, like, “You’re making 100 bucks today? What do you need to do to make 200 bucks?”

These challenging questions will get the person to think about what he wants to get out of his own role. Then you ask confronting questions, and that is when you get the elephant out of the door. These are questions like, “What are the problems that you are grappling with?” It’s healthy to have disagreements, because the moment you have disagreements, the other person will start respecting you. If you nod ‘yes’ to everything, you will lose respect. Once you gain respect, you’re proposing to a partner. It is then that you ask collaborative questions like, “Can we work on it together?”

Mr Ramprasad: What is your view on the current generation with respect to asking questions?

Dr. Suresh: The current generation is certainly very curious. They have a natural, innate curiosity. It needs to be channelled because it can go in many directions. They are willing to question the status quo and the assumptions. I remember growing up, I had only two choices: getting into either engineering or medicine. Today, there are far more options. It is important for this generation to constantly seek and be a scout. I often tell my students that they are a potato in a sack full of potatoes and they should strive to be different. Our educational system unfortunately breeds mediocrity. We have exams that basically test the same things over and over. The current generation must explore a lot, and those in the present generation must encourage that. There is so much potential with the youngsters and they can go places that we could never have dreamt up.

Mr Kishalaya Das: I started my career in the mid ’90s, working for a firm in Bangalore. We were like a regiment of soldiers, listening only to what the team leader said. The first thing the present generation asks is, “Why do I need to do this? What is the advantage of doing it?” That’s the good thing about them. Our education system is also changing. But the important thing is to assimilate the knowledge gained through questions and utilize it to make it better for themselves, for the people around them, and for their companies.

Mr Ramprasad: When you ask questions to them, how do they respond?

Dr. Suresh: Before asking questions, I must create a collaborative atmosphere that doesn’t intimidate people, particularly when you have a power relationship. I tell my students not to be afraid to even say what I’m saying is rubbish.

Q&A Session

Q: How can we improve listening skills?

Dr. Suresh: When you have conversations, you must strike the right cadence and take turns to listen and speak. If one person dominates, the other person becomes edgy and that becomes a problem. But the bigger question is, can you develop empathy while listening? Empathy is a deep-rooted feeling that people have deep inside the brain which occurs as a result of the mirror neurons that get activated. When we see someone smiling, that smile rubs off on us automatically. It’s called emotional contagion and it happens because of the mirror neurons.

Q: What are the strategies we can follow for making group decisions effectively and collaboratively?

Mr Kishalaya Das: When you start discussing in a group, look for patterns and anti-patterns. First, the problem statement must be clearly put up. Sometimes we try to solve problems without having an end goal in mind. Create a culture of openness to have a collaborative environment across the organization. Finally, the leader has to stand up and sign on the strategy.

Q: What role does curiosity play in leadership development and decision-making?

Mr Kishalaya Das: Decision-making will become easy if we are clear about the outcome that we want to achieve and for which, we need curiosity. Leadership is a management style. Not all leaders are the same. There are people who are very brash and don’t listen to anybody else. But, for the end goal to be achieved, you must follow a transparent and open process.

Dr. Suresh: Curiosity may or may not lead you to solutions but will leave you with many options that you might otherwise not have considered. From a decision-making standpoint, that leads to more complications because you have more options. But the fact that you have many options on your plate can ensure that you have better chances of getting the right answers or solutions.

Q: How can we overcome analysis paralysis?

Mr Kishalaya Das: Asking lots of questions and taking no action can become a waste of time. As a leader, you need to find out the right context and the right evidence to take a decision.

Q: How can questioning the assumptions lead to more innovative and original ideas?

Dr. Suresh: Let me give an example from my own life. I was a professor in Texas. I had a secure job and could have been there for the rest of my life. The assumption I was making at that time was that I don’t need to do anything and my life is well established. Then one fine day, I questioned that assumption. I gave up my tenure and came back to India to take up a job at Great Lakes. Here everything was completely different but I found my passion. When you question the assumptions that you’re making, something else can magically open up for you.

Q: Are there any cultural or social barriers to asking questions that we should be aware of?

Mr Kishalaya Das: Yes. India is multicultural. North India and South India are culturally quite different. Today, there is a sense of openness, but it’s important to know cultural nuances. For example, in Japan, you can ask tough questions, but you have to be extremely polite in asking them. In the US, you can be straight to the point. In Europe, courteousness would help, but you can be direct. We do a lot of cultural training if somebody goes on-site, so that there is cultural alignment. People should be aware of the do’s and don’ts in their geographic and cultural domain.

The Almanack of Naval Ravikant: A Guide to Wealth and Happiness by Eric Jorgenson

Read Time:13 Minute

Getting rich is not just about luck; happiness is not just a trait we are born with. These aspirations may seem out of reach, but building wealth and being happy are skills we can learn. Mr Babu Krishnamoorthy, Chief Sherpa, Finsherpa Investments Pvt Ltd led the conversation with Mr Chandrashekar Kupperi, Founder – ANOVA Corporate Services Pvt Ltd and Mr Rajesh Devaraj, Co-Founder, Uniform Craft Pvt Ltd.

Babu Krishnamoorthy: Naval Ravikant is an Indian born American, who has made it big in the US Silicon Valley. He is very much a part of the success of Silicon Valley over the last two decades and has made some priced bets on companies like Uber and hundred other companies. Man’s quest in life is to find money, because money provides the security that we all need. The other quest is to find happiness. If somebody has money and happiness, he or she doesn’t need to look for anything else. The book is a distilled wisdom from Naval Ravikant’s tweets, compiled and elaborated by the author. The book is divided into two parts: the pursuit of money and the pursuit of happiness. While we believe that money begets happiness, the author says that both are entirely different. We see a lot of very rich, yet miserable people.    

I defined retirement as a period of financial freedom in some form. But the author defines it into three distinct categories and says that you achieve retirement when either of three conditions is achieved. First, you are able to generate a set of passive income without having to go to work. Second, you reduce your needs to a point where you lead a monk like existence and whatever you have is enough for that need.  Third, you enjoy the work so much that money becomes very incidental.  The pdf version of the book is available as a free download.    

Chandrashekar Kupperi:  There are three big things in life—wealth, health and happiness. We pursue them in this order. But Naval Ravikant says that the importance is in the reverse order and the most important trick to be happy is to realize that happiness is a choice that we make and a skill that we develop. It means everything comes from us. When we develop skill, we can make it a habit. To my knowledge, when we take an action, there are only three results. The first result is, it can exceed the expectations, which is super exciting. Second, it can just meet the expectations. Third, it can fall short of expectations.

The book says give your maximum attention to the first choice, accept the second and leave the third. Simply put, change the changeable, accept the unchangeable and exit the unacceptable areas which may not be your cup of tea. He also talks about happiness as an emergent property of peace.   All of us go through certain helpless situations in our life. We need to learn to be peaceful.  I want to quickly share an incident.

Arrange the Mind

I went to Hyderabad to meet my cousin and we had to meet a common friend. On the way, my cousin wanted to drop an uncle, who was just moving into a senior living home. This elderly person got into the car. He was a 70 year old gentleman with tremendous corporate experience and amazing fluency in English. He was sharing his experiences and also spoke about the generation gap. I realized he was so happy. When we went into that senior living home, a lady came and asked him, “Sir, can I show you the room?” The elderly man said, “No, I’m going to simply occupy the room. Just give me the key.”

My cousin hesitated and said, “Uncle. Can we look at the room to see how the furniture is arranged.” But uncle just looked at my cousin and said, “My happiness does not depend on how the furniture is arranged. It depends on how I arrange my mind.” He thanked us and said, “Happiness is not something that I postpone for the future. It is something I design for the present. Happiness is something I decide even before the event happens.” This was so touching and revealing.

Rajesh Devaraj: I have always been fascinated by the interplay of skill and luck. You can take a good decision and have a bad outcome if you were unlucky or you could take a bad decision and still get a good outcome if you are lucky. We must figure out and learn from mistakes and go forward. The book talks about getting rich without getting lucky.  It also says that you must start with specific knowledge and be accountable. 

Caught in the middle

In 2001, I was part of a delegation which went to Germany for a trade fair. There, all the large stalls of 3000 to 4000 square feet were occupied by companies making premium products and just showcasing one particular product category. They were specialists, so to speak. The smallest stores had ten different categories that were packed into a small area located in alleys. Seeing that, it was very clear to me that I must be a specialist and not a jack of all trades.

When I came back to India, I set up a company called Fineyarns. It was a trading company. I wanted to be part of the supply chain that supplies to specialists in Europe, because I knew they were sourcing from India. We positioned us in a niche area. It was a good starting point. I researched to see who the manufacturers were, find our own talents and buy fine contents. The business took off but in 2007, there was a global event and the dollar crashed substantially against the rupee.

I was in the middle of a trade where I was both a buyer and a seller. As a seller, if I honoured the contract, I would lose 11 lakh rupees. The big buyers generally had more clout in the market and they started to renegotiate the contract. My seller said that that he would stick to the contract terms and I had no choice but to buy.

As an agent, I am morally responsible for the contract, but not financially. But I took the call and bridged that gap. I passed on 5.5 lakhs to my buyer, which was a very big decision at that time. This made me an outlier agent. I gained a lot of trust, both as a seller and a buyer. I became the go-to agent for both of them.  My business doubled since then and grew steeply over the next five years.

When the author talks about specific knowledge, he means that you must leverage your strengths in such a way that you can position yourself in the market and differentiate from mass competition. If you stay the course long enough, if you’re patient and build a trusted marketplace, you will get rewarded. The compounding comes at the very end.

For me, for the first five years, it was a very gradual, linear growth. But one event there changed the course of my business. It resulted in my business growing by three times over the next five years. There was no luck factor.

Babu:  Easy choices bring a hard life and hard choices bring about an easy life. I am reminded of the marshmallow experiment that Stanford University did way back in the 70s. In that experiment, five or six year old children were left inside a room and a marshmallow, which is a sweet dish, was placed in front of each child. The children were told that the facilitator would step out of the room for a few minutes and they were free to eat the sweet. But when the facilitator returned and the children held up the temptation to eat, they would be given one more sweet.

50% of the kids succumbed to the temptation, the moment the facilitator walked out. In a later study by Stanford tracking the same children, they found out that those who were able to resist the temptation when they were five or six years old, were far more successful in life, than those who had succumbed to the temptation. Naval also says that if you take the tougher choices to start with, then life progressively gets easier. At some point, you will have to suffer. We can either choose the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. Going to a gym or dieting is painful. But it is less painful than the pain of regret. You may regret having a health problem when you could have solved it by being healthier. These are choices that are available.  

Chandrashekar: Naval says, ‘Be impatient with actions but patient with the results.’ Unfortunately in today’s world, instant gratification is what our youth prefer. I was with Exxon Mobil, moved to KPMG and then joined a midsize business. In the midsize businesses, the shareholders were putting equity into businesses. I never realized there are two beautiful gains from equities. One is a capital gain that happens when you sell it at an opportune time. Second, you receive dividends from standard companies, which do well.

Naval says seek wealth, not money or status. He defines wealth as having assets that earn while you sleep and if you want to create wealth, you need to own equity. Five years back, I became an angel investor and started investing in various startups. Fortunately, I made some profitable exits.  That gave me the confidence that I should start my own fund called the Angel Venture Capital Fund. 

Naval’s philosophy is that you must earn with your mind, not with your time. Specific knowledge is all about understanding the technical aspects and being creative. It is something that cannot be outsourced or automated. Specific knowledge is found when you pursue your genuine curiosity and passion.  Steve Jobs said, ‘Do what you love.’ Also, when we love what we do, it becomes a play.  We should be better than what we are good at and become the best in the world at what we do.   

Rajesh:  While I was into trading, my wife was manufacturing uniforms for the hospital industry and doing customized uniforms for the large hospitals. Over a period of time, we picked up a lot of mid and small sized accounts. Serving them through a customized format was very efficient. That’s the default format in which the market works. At some point, we decided that if we were to mass produce through an assembly line setup and do a stock-and -sell kind of format, we’d probably be a runaway success. We acted on it and rolled it out but to our surprise, there were very few takers.

The small clinics found it easier to ask a tailor to come and provide them with customize uniforms and service, whenever they needed. But during Covid, our business model got validated and our ecommerce became much bigger than the B2B business that we were doing. As Naval says, if you’re in a space long enough, you will find associations with whom you can build trust and you can leverage on that trust.  

On the happiness side, I recall reading a book by a psychologist from Harvard, called Susan David. She says that between stimulus and response, there is a space and in that space, you have a choice. In that choice, lies your freedom and growth. For me, the quality of relationships makes a big difference to your baseline happiness index. 

Chandrasekhar: Naval focusses on health and says that peace of body will lead to peace of mind. He advises against consuming food which is cooked for a longer time. I believe that when we nourish our health, we flourish. Specific knowledge can’t be acquired in schools or colleges. You can get it through internship and apprenticeship. According to Naval, every desire is a chosen unhappiness. You must focus on the most relevant happiness for you. It’s okay to suffer to achieve that.

Bhagavad Gita says that detachment is not that you own nothing but nothing owns you. The greatest detachment is being closer to everything and not letting anything consume or own you.  While we all want money, we should never have lust for money. According to Naval, inspiration is perishable. So once we get the inspiration, we should work on it and get it done.  


Q: At what age, should we start financial literacy? 

Chandrasekhar: Whenever you’re ready. There is no age to get into financial literacy. Put yourself into continuous education.  

Babu: It’s important to know about investment concepts, even while you’re at school. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that education when we were in school but the new national education policy talks about financial literacy at a school level.  

Q: How can we overcome societal pressures and expectations regarding wealth accumulation?  

Chandrasekhar: Acquiring wealth is a skill and an art. Luck is labour under correct knowledge. To overcome societal pressures, you must acquire wealth ethically and the author says that ethical wealth is possible.   

Q: How can we create a sense of purpose and fulfillment beyond financial success?  

Babu: Sense of purpose can be interpreted as passion. If you love what you’re doing, then the earning becomes a bonus.  

Q: How do wealth and happiness relate to each other?  

Chandrasekhar: They are an unbeatable combination. Money in the hands of good people can create a lot more goodness in the society.  Unfortunately, the wealth sometimes goes in the hands of wrong people. Therefore, to me, wealth and happiness is one great bundle.

Babu: For our basic needs, we need wealth but happiness is a basic necessity. If you’re happy following the passion in your heart, then wealth will automatically follow at some level. A certain amount of money is important. But happiness is even more important.   

Q: As a youngster, we fall into a loop of negative spiral. How can we come out of that spiral?  

Chandrasekhar:  One of the best ways is to choose and have certain mentors for yourself. Mentors do not necessarily have grey hair. They are somebody who you will look up to. A mentor could be even your classmate who gives you certain pearls of wisdom.  

Q: My friend said that richness is not earning more, not spending more, not saving more. One should say, ‘I need no more,’ and that’s what richness is.’ What is your viewpoint?  

Chandrasekhar: We live in a practical world. It’s nice to say that you can be beyond all this but if you need to do better things to the outside world, you need money in your hands. Good people need to have the amazing ability of making wealth, because more goodness can happen through them.  

Q: You spoke about specific knowledge. But today with the rapidly changing technology, innovation and generative AI, acquiring specific knowledge is a big task. How can we manage this? 

Chandrasekhar: Naval recommends perpetual learning. When he speaks about specific knowledge, he uses two words. It has to be technical and it has to be creative. It has to be so creative that it can’t be automated or outsourced. That’s why we must become the best in our field.

The Golden Ladder – Rise to be Unstoppable

Read Time:9 Minute

There is a commonality that runs across all great organisations. They have a structured set of systems and processes that they have institutionalised as a template—a magical stairway—the Golden Ladder.

Mr Vijay Parthasarathy

Brand Specialist, Mind Coach and Motivational Speaker 

A few weeks ago, you might have seen in the media a story about a young man, 27-years-old, who went to retrieve a ring his sister had dropped on the tin roof. Unfortunately, while trying to retrieve the ring, he got electrocuted and had to have all four limbs amputated. Fast forward a year. He did not lie down in bed but cleared the toughest exam, the CAT, and was on his way to IIM, Ahmedabad. This incident made me realize that we may not have control over what happens to us, but we have 100% control over how we respond to it.

In 2020, thousands of companies collapsed due to Covid-19, and major disruptions occurred. However, there were a select few who weathered the storm of not just one but multiple crises like the Spanish flu, the bubonic plague, and the Great Depression. They keep growing. What is it that they do so different to stand apart from the rest? Having been privileged to be a part of them like Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Colgate Palmolive, The TATA group, Unilever, I recognised that there is a commonality that runs across all of them. They have a structured set of systems and processes that they have institutionalised as a template. I refer to this commonality as the Golden Ladder, a path that leads to being unstoppable.

The Golden Ladder is a magical stairway, ascending which allows organisations to overcome any adversity and calamity.  It has two legs. The left leg, which the majority of the world focuses on, includes education, technology, experience, expertise, products, benefits, features, and money. It’s like chasing a magical rainbow, heading towards the end of the horizon that may or may not exist. Interestingly, most of the world operates on flawed business models without realizing it. They operate on the left leg.

On the other hand, legends of the world embrace a different business model. That’s the first thing they do differently. While the majority of the world remains unaware of the relevance and importance of the other leg, the right leg, it is actually the most powerful instrument we possess without an instruction manual. It is the mind. This mind can propel us to the heights of success or the depths of despair depending on how we use it. The legends recognize the power of energizing, powering, and anchoring these two legs together in a symbiotic manner. This is what makes them ascend the Golden Ladder.

Golden Ladder is a Process

Every single legend that I have talked about in ‘The Golden Ladder’ has been on this planet longer than the combined longevity of the four organisations—Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft. That is the power they bring. Every individual in the world deserves an opportunity to be at a place where he/she can be unstoppable. My objective is that we must try and provide this opportunity. The golden ladder is just a process towards the final destination which is to be unstoppable. 

We would have come across phrases like “the power of visualization” or “the power of the subconscious mind” but it is of no use if we don’t know the exact process to follow in order to achieve them. I have attempted to provide a detailed five-step visualization process that allows you to manifest every desire you have. It’s important to note that I didn’t stumble upon these concepts overnight; rather, I learned from the true masters in every field over the course of several years. I witnessed their achievements and experienced the results in my own life.

I had a first-hand perspective when a company’s market share plummeted from 37% to 7% in just three weeks, only to rise back to 35% within a year. I also witnessed a successful corporate CEO, aged 45, succumb to anxiety disorders and depression, but then bounce back stronger than ever in less than three years.  

There is a commonly held belief that what we experience between the ages of zero to seven defines us. I invite you to challenge that notion. There is a possibility that there could be a secret code capable of reprogramming the subconscious mind, enabling you to achieve the impossible.  I genuinely believe that we owe it to ourselves to constantly strive to become the best version of ourselves and pass that legacy to future generations. By making incremental changes, we can make a significant difference in the world.


 Mr Muktesh “Micky” Pant

Former CEO, Yum China, Washington DC

Many Indian executives have succeeded in America, the most recent example being Ajay Banga. It’s a pleasure to watch the largest technology companies in the world by far—Microsoft, Google and IBM—all being run by Indians. I believe that Indians are good, have been trained in the art of handling paradoxes—apparent contradictions where something is true but the opposite is also true. In many cultures around the world, you’re taught to choose between contradictions. Whereas in India, we live with them. I think it’s a product of our rich history, culture, diversity and everything else.

Vijay talks about three qualities that can give the shield of protective armour and has given examples of Phil Knight, Steve Jobs and Viktor Frankl. The three qualities are resilience; mentorship and coaching; and humility. Resilience is the ability to plough through difficulties. It’s very tempting to give up at some stage. But success comes to those who plough through things.  

I remember when I was thrown into the world of management, we were getting two distinct streams of advice. One stream of advice said that you must listen to everybody, learn from everyone, ask a lot of questions, see what others are doing and copy the best behaviours. Equally, in the discipline of marketing, we were told that we must have a point of view, know what we’re doing and be firm. These are apparent contradictions. In Western and other cultures, people will often choose one or the other style. In fact, they are not contradictory. At the highest level, they’re complementary. You develop resilience if you have both a good point of view and the ability to listen to other people.  

Work on the Strengths

Humility is recognizing that we are not perfect, that we don’t know everything and that we should not be afraid to change our minds. But we do need a strong working hypothesis of what we’re going to do.  From my personal experience, when it comes to running a company or a brand or dealing with people, there are broadly two approaches in any situation. The first approach is to take the strengths that are working and to build on those. The other approach is to identify the problems and fix those problems. In my experience, the first works and the second fails.

Strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same coin. I’ve had many executives who are for example, creative and they’re not analytical. You can say they’re not analytical and it’s a weakness. They can never make a CFO but they can make a very good marketing manager because they are creative. If you take that person and send them to courses to understand analytics and to teach them how to be more organized, it often fails. If you have a rabbit, don’t try to teach it to swim. Find somebody else to do the swimming.

I found that in life and also in brands, particularly when I was running KFC. Everybody used to criticise me—from my family to my friends—as to how I can sell fried chicken that is supposedly bad for the heart. I told them that Colonel Sanders who invented KFC at the age of 66, lived to be 90 and he used to eat it every day. He had heart trouble and it was 60 years ago when heart medicines were not that advanced. The fried chicken’s strength is the great taste and the weaknesses is the health implication. If you remove the strength, you lose the weakness also. So I realized that instead of focusing on the weaknesses, I must focus on my strengths. We must have an idea of what we want to do, but we must be open to other’s coaching and mentorship.  

Mr Supratim Bose

Global MedTech Leader & Management Consultant, Former Company Group Chairman Johnson & Johnson, MedTech Asia Pacific, Singapore

When Ted Lovett wrote the seminal essay on marketing myopia, many people, for the first time, were prompted to ask the question, “What business are you really in?” I have come from a company that was well diversified like Johnson & Johnson. Today, I am the CEO of a robotics company. When I look at the robot, the first thing that comes to mind is, “What business am I in?” The robot looks exactly like what you see in Star Wars movies. It has forearms and assists surgeons in performing surgeries.

Coming from the medtech industry, initially, we focused on the technical aspects of the product, trying to understand its features and how it would outperform others. However, as we delved deeper into understanding our purpose in this business, we started asking, “How does the patient benefit, and what do patients say when using medtech products?” We were accustomed to speaking with the surgeons who used our products and hospitals where our products were implemented. At J&J, they say, “We are in the business of saving human lives and restoring the joy of life.”

Now, think about it. When you perform surgery on a patient or implant a device, you are essentially working to restore the patient’s joy in life. This is closely tied to emotions. When you visit a hospital and see a child about to undergo surgery, simply holding the child’s hand and providing reassurance that everything will be alright—that is the business we are in. This mindset should be applied to every child seen in a hospital, transforming the way we perceive our own businesses.

For many of us coming from scientific and technological backgrounds, the IQ aspect is well understood. We can utilize various formats and graphs to explain things. However, it is crucial that we train our people to understand the human aspect. By doing so, we will quickly identify the true nature of our business. Surprisingly, the product features and benefits should only constitute about 5% of what we do. The first step is to create awareness and convey that the person is in the best and most capable hands because we are in the business of saving lives.

It is the responsibility of medtech companies to train physicians, and robotic surgery training is one of the most critical aspects that must be undertaken before anyone can perform robotic surgery on a patient. The next step is to explore how we can extend these benefits to more people. We must adapt to healthcare systems worldwide. In the US, healthcare expenditure accounts for almost 18% of the GDP, while in India, it is around 3%. However, we must remember that we continue to do this work because we want to create better outcomes for patients. Affordability becomes a factor to consider. In short, for each one of us building a business, if we answer this question of ‘why we are in the business?’ correctly, we will ensure the long-lasting success of our endeavours.

What the CEO Wants You to Know

Read Time:13 Minute

Mr Ram Charan, author, in discussion with Ms Sangeeta Shankaran Sumesh, Business & Leadership Coach; Mr Mukund Kasthuri, Regional Director-Asia, Flexco; and Mr Senthilkumar Sivaswamy, MD, Benteler Automotive.

Ms Sangeeta Shankaran Sumesh: The crux of the book is about three things: Understanding the building blocks of money-making; where should one focus for business growth; and how can one contribute to the business growth, irrespective of the department or function that one is in? According to the author, the most successful business leaders never lose sight of the basics. The ability to apply the universal laws of business is business acumen.  

Money making has three parts: Cash Generation, return on assets (ROA) and growth. ROA is the combination of velocity and margin. To these three, add the customers and that becomes the core of any business. Velocity describes the speed, the turnover or the movement. When a company can’t generate enough cash, it tends to borrow, but if they borrow heavily and do not correct the problem, they have trouble in repaying the loans and can become bankrupt.   Companies must focus more on productivity. CEOs with good business acumen have a close connection with their customers.  

Customer vs. Consumer

There is a difference between consumer and customer. The CEO must try to understand the needs and the wants of the consumer because they are the ones who consume the product or service. Many of the processes like logistics, discounts, merchandising, shelving are geared towards customers, who are the intermediaries. When you don’t get the margins that you want, talk to your customers and understand what is missing and work on it.

Growth of a company has to be profitable and sustainable. A company may be growing in sales, which is great but if the margins are dipping, then it is not good. So, leaders need to be focused on consistent, predictable and profitable growth. Companies must also focus on adjacencies. Nike sell shoes, which is what they’re known for. They also sell athletic apparel. This is an example for adjacencies. It’s important for a CEO to understand the company’s total business and get a holistic picture of the company. A smart CEO always has three to five top business priorities, which helps in money making.  

More than money making, the leader must look at the P/E ratio (price earnings ratio). It is the ratio of the share price of the company to company’s earnings per share. Higher the ratio, the more wealth you can create for your shareholders. By creating wealth, it’s not just the shareholders but also the employees get benefited.

A leader must harness the efforts of the people, expands their personal capacity and synchronise them, so the business gets the desired results. It’s important to have the right people in the right job. When there are differences of opinion, go ahead and confront people. People who do well in a job also need attention. We think that the people who are star performers don’t need coaching. But it is the other way around.

By coaching your team members, you help them to identify their blind spots and do things better. Feedback needs to be honest and direct. Coach people on the behavioral skills and also about the business aspect. To give the example of Walmart, Sam Walton, the founder, introduced a social operating mechanism (SOM). They would meet regularly and discuss, compare with competitors their pricing strategy, merchandising, consumer behavior and trends and talk about the best practices. If CEOs have to deliver, they have to master both the business side and managing the people.  

Mr Mukund Kasthuri: Fifty percent of my time goes in talent management. It starts with having the right people on the bus. Then we need to ensure they have the behavioral capabilities related to that job and the right attitude. They must have initiative, hunger and passion for growth.  Passion, focus and clear communication are the three aspects which will help one grow in an organization and not politics. Understanding the expectations of the job, clarifying beforehand, then going after those things and getting feedback at a regular frequency will help them to develop management or business acumen. 

The customer is the one around which everything is centered. You have to create value for the customer. I can relate velocity to inventory turnover ratio in our business. We must have a ratio of 3 to 3.5, so we don’t have non-moving stock. What stock to keep is the biggest challenge most of the CEOs face. The business model has changed slightly from B2B to B2C. The CEOs need to be abreast with technology. They have to make the right investments to make sure that the return comes faster.  

Mr Senthilkumar Sivaswamy: In our automotive industry also, velocity is the inventory turnover. We need working capital to run our business. For each product, parts or the models that we are manufacturing worldwide, we need working capital. Before starting the project, we have to look at our suppliers and their payment term. We need to decide the inventory and come up with the budget for the working capital. We need to optimize the inventory turnover, for the for the whole lifetime of the product. Last week, I was in our Jeep plant in Portugal where we use Just In Time (JIT) concept. Normally, our product involves 10 parts.  But in the jeep plant, we’re doing the complete model and it involves nearly 200 to 300 parts. Some parts we do and some parts we buy. We have to optimize the flow of the material, so that we keep the inventory low, so our gross margin will increase. The gross margin is very important in keeping the profitability or the earnings of the company.  

Ms Sangeetha: In a company that’s not asset heavy, how will you work on Return on Assets?  

Mr Mukund: We set up a company in Dubai. We did not want to make heavy investments. So, we went with the lease model. We went for third party logistics, rented office space and wanted to keep everything on a very low variable rather than have a fixed cost model. We invested on people. People are also an asset and an investment. Coaching helps people to increase their capability. We must try to work on the strengths of the people, rather than trying to change them.  In all the IT companies, people are the assets.  To retain people, we must provide a very good workplace culture, give them the freedom to operate and remuneration, which is in line with market trends.

What are your thoughts on managing the working capital?

The best is to have negative working capital. We followed that model in India when we started the company. We get maximum credit from our suppliers and take advance from our customers. This is the best mechanism to operate on negative working capital, because cash is king.   

What are some of the good initiatives for maximizing the shareholders’ value?

Mr Senthil: We manufacture automotive parts which are relevant for both IC engines as well as e-mobility.  We see a jump in the sales of electric vehicles compared to last year in India. By 2030, there is a prediction that 80% of two wheelers and 30% of cars will be e-vehicles. In Europe also, it’s growing faster. In India, we need to develop the infrastructure. We now have a gap from our products. So, we need to find alternative products.  We need to move from the IC engine parts to e-mobility.  For example, we are now offering rotor shaft and the cooling plate for the battery. Since 2017, we are into e-mobility in a big way.  

We have also formed a separate company where we develop the autonomous vehicle. Benteler will release soon the autonomous vehicle called ‘People Mover.’ We have got the order and we are working with more than 100 suppliers. We will be releasing the prototype in the US. We’ll be releasing it in the market in 2025. I mean to say that if there is a gap in our earnings, we need to stay relevant in the market and be customer centric. If there are no customers, we don’t get any revenue. We have to see the trend in the market. Everyone wants to join a company or be in a company which is growing. That gives them energy and it’s also a psychological thing. That is how we can really increase the shareholder value.  

A smart CEO is always in touch with the customer. How different is it for a B2B business and a B2C business, being in touch with the customer, knowing their behavior, patterns and the trends?

Mr Mukund: We are in B2B segment. Our customers are our dealers and distributors. Our consumers are steel plants, power plants, cement plants or whoever is using the product. The CEO will not be successful, if he (she) sits in a boardroom. He must lead from the front and must have a plan to visit the actual users and find out what exactly they are looking for. If he understands that, he can go back to his engineering, tweak the product or go for new product development to retain the existing customers, before going after new customers. It’s far easier and cheaper to retain existing customers than to acquire new customers. Being in touch with the customer is basically the same, whether it is B2B or B2C.

How should a CEO educate his team on the importance of price earnings ratio?

Mr Senthil: Everyone in the company should know about their price earnings ratio. The team has to understand that the PE ratio is a combination of the profit margin that they are getting on the investment and the velocity. They must know how to increase the velocity, the gross margin and the return on investment. Otherwise, PE ratio will come down and eradicate the shareholder value.  

What are some effective ways to design the priorities for the business?

Mr Mukund: The first thing we look at is profitable sales growth. It has to be sustainable and consistent. This is a must, whether you operate in an existing market or go into a new market. The next priority is to reduce expenses, so that the margins and operating income increase. The priority of the business is to retain customers who are giving a higher value. Ensure that you have the right people who can delegate and execute, depending on which position they are in, to drive the business. Inventory turns ratio is an enabler for increasing the margin. Each CEO has to break down a problem into smaller bits and then attack those smaller bits, rather than looking at the whole problem as a big one and getting overwhelmed. A CEO cannot do everything on his own. He needs the right team. Collaboration among people is a basis of business.


How can organisations match the skills with the roles and how can they improve that?  

Ms Sangeetha: It’s important to leverage on the strengths of the people. You don’t expect a fish to fly. We must find out whatever each person is capable of, their natural talent and the skill. It’s important to make use of that. The person is also happy and passionate doing it and you get the most out of your people. It creates a win-win. Even the best people need to be coached. When somebody is doing well, we don’t pay much attention to them. Coaching is not just performance review, but helping them people to scale up to the next level, identify their blind spots, encouraging them to deliver their best and maximise their potential.

In maximization of profit, in a scenario where there is one customer who is willing to pay 100 and a repeat customer who’s willing to pay only 80, what will be the recommended option?

Mr Mukund: It’s cheaper to retain an existing customer than to acquire a new one. I would go with the repeat customer. Of course, I would love to have a combination of 100 from a new customer and 80 from a repeat customer. The overall mix has to be profitable. If not, you need to learn how to exit.

What should the CEO focus on: Profit, process, people or product?

Mr Senthil: It should be all. First of all, it is profit. To increase that, he must increase the velocity and gross margin using the people. The CEO should be the leader of business and also the leader of people.  

In spite of ensuring all the KPIs, employees face increasing demands from CEOs. How can the employee meet these expectations?

Mr Mukund: The biggest problem, I believe, is matching KRA (Key Result Areas) and KPI (Key Performance Indicator). It is in the job description where most companies go wrong. When employees don’t get recognised when they meet the KPIs, they get upset. It’s a question of balancing aspiration and reality. I think, the right feedback is not being given throughout the year for the employee to change. If he/she can course-correct, it should not happen just at the end of the year appraisal. Feedback is supposed to be a continuous process. The employee must touch base with the manager at least three, four times in a year, so that he has enough time to course correct.  

Who is important- the customer or the consumer?  

Ms Sangeetha: The CEO or the business has to cater to the needs of both. The consumers tell you what they want. You can know their behaviours and the trends in your business through the customers. So, both are important.  

Mr Mukund: In America, the distribution is the key. So, the customer is more important there. In every other country, I would go with the consumer, because I can create the customer who is the middleman who takes it to the consumer. It depends on where you’re operating.

What makes a salesman to achieve the targets on a regular basis?  

Ms Sangeetha: Whatever your customer needs, you must address that in your selling process. Then you can become a winning salesman. 

Mr Senthil: The CEO must give incentives to the salesman who aligns with the priority of the company. If the salesperson is selling with a low margin and if it is not aligning with the priority of the company, it’s not good. If we increase the top line, the revenue is increasing. But we should see the bottom line as well. Sometimes if we increase the top line, then we tend to reward the sales team. If the sales is not generating cash, it’s not good for the company.

Mr Mukund: A successful salesperson must have focus and passion and must connect with the customer. If you want to be continuously successful, you have to go in front of the customers, engage with them and understand them. You’re the only person standing in front of the customers who shoot bullets at you. You must know how to protect yourself and convince them that you have the best product.  

Which is the best approach for a CEO to choose a successor- from within the organization or from outside?

Ms Sangeetha: Ssuccession planning is very important and essential. There is no hard and fast rule. It can be internal or external, but the most important thing is having the right person in the right job with the right capabilities and business acumen. He must know the business priorities and have the right skills. That’s what matters.

Will there be a difference in the expectation from a CEO depending upon whether it’s a pyramid or flat organization?

Mr Mukund: I don’t think so. The business priorities and the requirements of the owners and the stakeholders are the same, irrespective of whether there is a pyramid structure or a flat structure.

Leadership and the Process Approach

Read Time:11 Minute

Mr Vasu Krishnan, author, in discussion with Dr K C John, Director, Faculty of Management, Sri Ramachandra Institute of Higher Education & Research; Mr George Suresh Managing Partner, Vasanth Products; Cmdr M D Menon (Retd), Indian Navy; and Dr N Ravichandran, Distinguished Professor of Management (Part-time), IIT Mandi, Himachal Pradesh.

Mr Vasu Krishnan: Most organizations have a process approach but it’s a question of how effective they are in identifying the measures of process performance. 30 years ago, there used to be a concept of sales returns and it would be roughly 1.5%. That works out to 10,000 to 15,000 PPM defective products. If a tier one or tier two supplier does that, he will be out of business, as it’s not acceptable. 

In this entire business of organisational growth, unfortunately, financial performance is considered as the gold standard. They think that if the performance with respect to other critical process parameters such as quality or delivery is lacking, as long as one could get away with it, so much the better.

A very clear understanding of the customer requirements, not only stated but unstated too, is needed to prevent potential failures. In the process of organizational growth, we must retain the lessons learned to ensure that they are not forgotten when individuals leave. Clause 7.1.4 of ISO 9001: 2015 refers to organizational knowledge and the necessity for retaining it in the organisation. If there’s something in the process that is not delivering, change the process and make sure it delivers on measures of performance, pertaining to quality and delivery.  

When Competitors Collaborated

In 1994, the Automotive Industry Action Group comprising representatives of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler Corporation decided to collaborate, even though they were competitors, to come up with common customer requirements, because their common suppliers informed them that it was too difficult to deal with three people having three different requirements. So, they came up with their own publications or reference manuals covering advanced product quality planning and control plan, FMEA (Failure mode effects analysis), Production Part Approval Process, Fundamental SPC and measurement system analysis. These have been revised over a period of time and are being followed for more than 25 years by Tier 1 and Tier 2 automotive suppliers and serve as a gold standard on this subject.   

The Process Approach

There is a fundamental assumption that organizations like individuals would like to present the best version of themselves. A process is a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve an end. The PDCA cycle is a Plan, Do, Check and Act. More often than not, the ‘C’ is neglected. A process is a set of interconnected activities, having an impact on corresponding measures of performance. 

When we talk of measures of performance, we don’t rule out other things like business process reengineering to cut out the non-value-added activities or benchmarking.  According to automotive standard, special characteristics are those characteristics, attributes or variables of products and processes affecting fit, form, function, statutory and regulatory requirements. Corresponding organizations could either be design responsible or not. 

Struggling with a Sachet

Forget about engineering products, where there are so many requirements affecting performance. Take a simple thing like a sachet of pickle served in trains. How many of us can open the sachet with our fingers? We have to use our teeth or look for a pair of scissors. Opening the sachet with our fingers is a special characteristic. If you apply this concept to your own product, you will find there are a lot of failure modes, which could be improved upon. The product and its packaging itself can lead to so many problems.  

The PDCA cycle can be applied in process and discrete manufacturing organizations such as engineering, consumer durables, construction, automotive, aviation and pharma. Leadership styles can impact process measures of performance. This is really important. In one of the few organizations I had worked, people worked exactly eight hours. They didn’t spend an hour of overtime work and they were very relaxed, because the bosses were relaxed. The ability to communicate a certain degree of confidence to the people that report to you, in turn drives their performance.  

Need for Review

When we discuss continuous and continual improvement, educational institutions must also be included. A lot of things are still lacking there including fundamental understanding of certain words like review, verification and validation. An example of review is the computer-generated document. It says that it does not require any signature. If a document has been generated, someone must take responsibility for it. If there is an error in it, change the document and accept responsibility.  

A trading organization is the subject of service quality. Service quality is not something related only to banks, logistic organizations and other organizations supplying services. In the business of offering services, it also includes things like warranty and warranty service. Any organization which is involved in the process of improvement and organizational transformation can apply the process approach. It is just a question of asking some very simple questions, bordering on 5Ws and 1H.  

Structured Growth

When we want structured growth, we must consider the context of the organization and the relevant needs and expectations of stakeholders, not limited to financial stakeholders. The context of the organization is the industry. It includes the needs and expectations of interested parties- what and how and therefore, what will be their strategy in meeting those needs. Leadership and leadership styles impact organizational effectiveness. In the ‘mirasdar’ leadership style, the person is not bothered about delegation. He thinks he is the big man and nobody should ask him questions, Here the leader cannot be bothered with the details of process effectiveness and it is a sure recipe for ultimate failure. Implementation of a structured approach is paramount. Recognition and certification are natural corollaries.

Process measures of performance consider measures of effective performance, considering quality and delivery, instead of only financial result. There must be a clear emphasis on knowledge as an enabler and the award process as differentiator in the organisations’ business and competitive strategy.

Quality Hierarchy

There are six categories in the quality hierarchy and they are:

  • Uncommitted
  • Drifters
  • Tool pushers
  • Improvers
  • Award winners
  • World Class

Uncommitted organizations are the dinosaurs and will not last long. Going up the hierarchy, we have drifters, who are the organizations who drift from one concept to another. Today, it’s ISO 9001. Tomorrow, it may be something else. Tool pushers are committed to the task and will complete them. Improvers are the ones who are one step ahead, like the organizations which are on the transformation route. Award winners focus on TPM, Deming and other awards. The best are world class organisations who can bag the Japan Quality Award.  

The basic assumption of FMEA (Failure Mode Effects Analysis) is  Murphy’s Law, which is a reality. Anything that can go wrong, can go wrong, irrespective of all the people who believe in positive thinking. Life on Earth is part of it. FMEA comprises DFMEA and PFMEA, addressing failure modes in design and process.

The 7 Step Process

In 2019, AIAG collaborated with VDA to bring out the combined AIAG-VDA FMEA Handbook First Edition, the main feature of which is the 7-step process of FMEA, as follows:

  1. Planning & preparation / Project identification
  2. Structure analysis / Visualisation of the scope of analysis
  3. Function analysis / Visualisation of functions
  4. Failure analysis / establishment of the failure chain of events (covering DFMEA, FMEA and Monitoring System Response (MSR)
  5. Risk analysis /alignment of controls and rating of failures
  6. Optimisation / identification of brisk reduction actions
  7. Results documentation

Automotive organisations (Tier 1 and 2) transiting from AIAG’s 4th edition of FMEA must ensure their cross functional teams are trained to understand the above requirements as part of their new product development process. Normally, a period of three years is given for organizations who are Tier 1 or 2 to migrate to the next standard. 

Mr George Suresh

We started off with the manufacturing components for the Ministry of Defence, where the volumes are low and repeatability was a challenge. We moved to the auto sector, adding technology and with the expertise gained from the defence supplies. But the challenge came in following a process approach. We were asked to get 100 PPM certification from Hyundai if we were to continue production and supply to their Tier-1 vendors. Mr Vasu Krishnan chipped in and we brought in a very effective FIFO for the raw material and single line flow for our product. We were making five varieties of flanges.  The first off, middle off and last off inspections were taken care of and made very stringent.

Initially, the products were measured and checked using verniers and micrometers, wherein a lot of components would end up with the customer with quality issues. Then we went for fixtures and gauges for all the end products and we were able to give the customer perfect confidence.  We were awarded the 100 PPM certification. This 100 PPM again has helped us a lot in supplying to Tier 1 and OEMs.  We also went into automation like turning centers and CNC milling centers. We are now robotizing the machining centers too. Technology has helped us achieve the qualities required in today’s competitive world.  

Commodore Menon

Deming propounded the PDCA Cycle. He also said, “Never blame the worker; People should not feel threatened at their workplace. They should not have fear in their minds.” If people are afraid, they tend to be tensed up. At the same time, it doesn’t mean they should be casual about work. Nobody comes to office with an idea of making mistakes. Everyone wants to come to work and do a good job but mistakes do occur. The good thing about system-based- approach is to learn from the mistakes and ensure that they do not recur.  

 Efficiency is doing things right and effectiveness is doing the right things.  To be effective, you must have written down system procedures, work instructions, etc. The people should know their job and they should be skilled at it. They should be trained. They should be very clear of their role in a particular process. Next is the commitment of the person involved in the job. Culture is brought in by the top management.   

When mistakes happen, we can repair or rework. When we rework, we can get back to the original quality. When we repair, the product can be put for alternate uses. It can be downgraded and sold.  With PDCA, the whole idea is to prevent recurrence of defects. Corrective action is taken once a mistake has occurred. Preventive action leads to preventing recurrence of defects. If the same defects recur, then there is something fundamentally wrong. We also must have an eye for details. This doesn’t mean we should be nitpicking and going around over-supervising or micromanaging.

The Defence and the Corporate World

In defence forces also, like the corporate world, the systems are not static. They change and we have to follow the procedure and process very meticulously. Otherwise, it can lead to fatal results. In the corporate sector, if you want to survive the competitive business environment, you should not produce a single bad item. If you produce a bad item, it means you’re running an underground factory producing bad items and an overground factory, which is reflected in your books of accounts.  The entire aim of a good organization is to shut down the underground factory which runs parallel without anybody’s knowledge, creating problems and losses to the company. Just imagine if there is a bad product or there’s an accident. You may lose 10 customers and to win one lost customer, you have to spend four times the money, 10 times a month. With the current level of communication, the risk is very high.

In the defence forces, we don’t have runners up. In the industry perhaps, we can say the top player, the second-best player and so on. In the Armed Forces, it’s a do or die. In the business process, you may be able to survive when the market is large, with a dominant player and couple of not-so-dominant players but everyone has to run. Lots of lessons have been learned from the defence services and used in the corporate world. For example, the quality management system itself has come from a NATO document. The term logistics comes from the armed forces. 

Prof Ravichandran

According to the author, an organisation can attain leadership position by using the manufacturing systems and processes. It can add value to the consumers by an appropriate product design and execution of the value chain, so that the cost of the product is lower and it can be sold at a competitive price. This is what is meant by leadership through a process-oriented approach.

Lean management, Manufacturing strategy, Project management in the context of manufacturing organisations. critical chain which is the cousin of the theory of constraints, TPM, PPC, Business Process Reengineering, Quality systems and standards, how one designs manufacturing systems, design responsibility and design capability and future of manufacturing, covered by the author, are very relevant to today’s manufacturing context.

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