Savoring every bite of the last term

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Capturing the last moments

To begin, the term break was disastrously unproductive. I did not move beyond a page in the writing and editing work I had scheduled. Rather did I read much. But there were more revelations. I found that I’ve lost the ability to be sane in solitude. I’ve temporarily lost the ability to enjoy being. All along, I looked for distractions through videos, social media, or people. With too many things to do, there was a dread of not doing anything at all and being without hope in general. And then, when I come across people on social media or books, who are like what I dream to be, a moment of poignancy sets in.

On the brighter side, I got a couple of days of good work and caring for team members, a couple of memorable outings with my close friends, and some warm moments of companionship with my flatmates. The holiday also helped me understand, I believe, what I should prioritize in life. 

.  .  .

As I step into the final term of b-school, it is a moment to stop and gather my thoughts.  What do I look forward to in this final term at b-school? As I picked my courses for the term, I decided to focus on the wider and higher aspects of career and life. Thus, my choices of courses in Leadership Development, Management Lessons from Bhagvat Gita, Entrepreneurship. My other three courses were also explorative – ‘Customer Relationship Management’, ‘Behavioral Finance’, and ‘IT & Business Innovation.’ In addition, I’m also hoping to gatecrash a course on Corporate Governance.

My focus is to learn as much as possible from the coursework. I wish that I develop a life-long muse for a couple of the above subjects. In the same measure, I also want to do worthy projects in a couple of the above subjects.

It is also a moment of emotions and nostalgia for me. The ritual of cracking open a new case every day, be imported to a new place and new role, and be caught in a decision dilemma, will soon come to an end. The cold calls, the case discussions, the ‘aha’ moments in class, and the team presentations too. Now that I realize that only a little of this experience left, I want to savor it with more attention as one would relish the last few bites of one’s favorite meal. 

I must confess that a certain amount of fatigue had set in the previous term. On more occasions than I’d like, I was not enthusiastic about what I was learning. There could be multiple reasons – the kind of subjects, professors, other pressures, etc., But in this last term, I hope to recover that curiosity and the delight in learning.

On a more crucial note, I also understand that I must use this time to develop greater self-belief, and also believe in the hopes I have for myself and the world around me.  

These final moments are important. My experience of these last couple of months will shape my memory of my twenty months at b-school. I want to chew and savor every bite of this last term.  

Day 106: Test run wisdom, meaningful motivation, and my first systems simulation

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A nice little town

“If you were to test a product that is to be launched in the metro cities, where would you test the product?” Our marketing strategy professor threw this question at us.

“In a similar metro city. It will have similar characteristics to that of the launch market.”

“In a city with a diverse set of population. The capital city of New Delhi would be a good fit as it has a wide range of demography.”

“In a tier-II city. No one might notice my product in a metro city.”

After three or four responses from the class, the alternatives saturated. The professor explained his logic. It would be wise to test the product in a tier-I or a tier-II city for two reasons. First, it ensures that there is not much hullabaloo and the competitors do not notice the product. Second, in the event of a failure, the brand is less affected as there is less visibility in these cities.

.  .  .

The more we are in real situations of leadership the more we understand that building and caring for our teams are immensely critical than any strategic operational plan we may come up with. Just a couple of days ago my colleague in the student-run committee brought up the issue of too much work, no fun, and the junior members feeling unappreciated for their effort. I felt exposed. Getting great output from the team is not enough, it is important to keep them motivated. These skills are called upon in various situations – in student-run organizations, in one’s learning team, or in competition teams.

As I wondered about this, the power of analytics seems to have figured what I needed. This HBR article on motivation showed up on my LinkedIn feed: What Not to Do When You’re Trying to Motivate Your Team

The author begins with a startling question: “How many of you have ever received a compliment from your boss that actually offended you?”

I ran my memory to recall the kind of compliments I had paid my team members. Could I have offended someone?

The author then lists the kind of motivation techniques that could have a negative effect – high praise, insincere compliments, effusive expressions of public appreciation as compensation. Then, in a helpful manner, suggests a few ideas that model meaningful expressions of recognition – asking for the story behind their work, let them know how the person’s work has contributed to the larger goal, acknowledge their personal costs behind their accomplishments.

I have unknowingly used these better ideas of meaningful motivation at times, but it was not conscious. Now that I understand it better, I’m determined to be more meticulous about the recognition I give to those working with me.

.  .  .

In the Business Dynamics class today, we built our first simulation model using Vensim. We modeled the beer game. The system behaved the same way as the graphs we plotted after our game. This is extremely cool. But I need to spend time with the reading material and examples to get a good hold of it.

Day 100: Goal attainment anxiety, listening to Salisbury Cathedral, and the beauty of the starry sky

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The anxiety of goal attainment

Right, it’s day 100. It is ironic that when a goal is in reaching distance, instead of the joy and excitement of reaching a goal there is a lot of anxiety. It is the question of ‘what next’ that has haunted me over the last few days. Can these 100 days be turned into a book? This anxiety has sapped any excitement of reaching the 100 days. I think this is something that is probably experienced by a lot of people as they reach the end of a treasured project and something that is worth taking more about.

Befitting Day 100, the case we dealt with today in the Digital Transformation class was about something that is dear to me. It was the digital transformation of the Tate Museum, London. I’m a champion of the old world public spaces like libraries and museums (the new world public spaces are restaurants, malls, and movie theatres). I’ve had some of my best moments in these spaces. Not that I have any hatred for the new world spaces, I perfectly enjoy them too, but just that the old world public spaces seem to be dwindling and there is an urgent need to stand by them so that we may not lose perspective of the unique and critical benefits they offer to our civilization.

What Tate Museum had done was something phenomenal. A look at their website is could pull a person unbothered about museums or art to give it a chance. That, I think, will be the greatest achievement of the digital medium. If museums and libraries have to flourish it is not enough they retain their existing patrons but take an evangelical approach to gain more patrons.

The digital content does exactly this: enables us to have a deeper experience

Of course, the digital medium also enables a following from around the world. At my table, thousands of miles away from the Tate Museum, I can experience the Salisbury Cathedral.

You too can experience it: Listen to the Salisbury Cathedral

I couldn’t help but compare the website of the Tate to the website of the topmost museum in India. The National Museum at New Delhi contains a treasure of artifacts beginning from the Indus Valley Civilization, over four thousand years ago. I’ve been there multiple times and have been overwhelmed being surrounded by history.

But the museum awaits its Tate moment.

I will also soon start reading about the Tate-like examples for public libraries.

I gained some lessons in negotiation today, but I shall wait another day to talk about it.

Four of us friends took a walk around the campus a little past midnight. Far away from the beauty-robbing effects of light pollution, the night sky was as beautiful as I’ve ever seen. As we walked, I couldn’t help but keep crooning my head to catch one more glimpse at the star-dotted night sky.

Day 97: Measuring success, an exciting project, and fixing new priorities

achievement activity adolescent arms
How do we measure success?

How often do we judge a candidate’s success by the high-paying job right out of b-school? Is a high-paying job right out of b-school the ultimate sign of success? Is this what the objective of the candidates should be?

I’ve thought about this before. We’ve always seen comparisons between b-schools on the basis of the median salary out of b-school. This is myopic. If there is to be a better parameter – it must be in the kind of progress the alumni are making five years down the line.

Today, I came across an article about HBS Dean Nitin Nohria’s thoughts on this.

What we want is to have students, 10 years later, be at an arc in their lives where they really feel that they’re gaining increasing responsibility.

Ten years out is when you start to see the breadth of leadership that the class represents. So that’s exciting.

Read the article here: The dean of Harvard Business School isn’t impressed by flashy, high-paying first jobs after graduation – to see who’s successful, he looks at another measure entirely

.  .  .

I spent the evening doing some research on the ready to eat category.  I did not make any progress. I checked my Instagram and WhatsApp tens of times during that couple of hours. It’s a chicken and egg problem. Is my lack of progress leading to a state of distraction and restlessness or is it the other way around?

82% of menstruating Indian women have to use unhygienic alternatives such an old cloth, rag, hay or even sand.

There is another interesting project lined up. This one is close to my heart. The Niine Movement aims to tackle the taboos of menstruation and raise menstrual hygiene awareness; they make sanitary pads. Our team will be working on consumer insights and building a penetrative distribution channel in our experiment zone. If this succeeds, the model will be scaled up the national level. In the last third of the b-school education, this is an opportunity to test and build my skills to make a real-world impact.

When one important thing is done, new priorities are to be set up. I have to quickly narrow down my new priorities and start working on them. I fear that my next five months will just trickle away in restless exploration.

Day 96: Public sector excellence and the importance of team disharmony

architecture booth buildings bus
The public sector presence

As b-schoolers, we are exposed to lots of corporate leaders from the private sector. Today, we met the more than ten leaders from public sector firms in India. Public sector units began with India’s socialist beginnings. While accounting for 2% of the firms listed on the stock market, the public sector units account for more than 15% of the total market capitalization while also contributing 20% of India’s GDP.

Such big drivers of the Indian economy, these public sector units seldom are in media’s limelight except when government talks of disinvestment. They are the silent workers of the economy. Despite the common characterization of the public sector as being inefficient all over the world, some of the most spectacular organizations in the world belong to the public sector.

While the salaries at the entry levels are relatively higher in the public sector, the wage gap between the public and the private sector increases as we move up the ladder. The government, as a model employer strives to maintain a reasonable ratio between the bottom-most and the top-most role. Despite the phenomenally low pay compared to similar roles in the private sector, especially at the top, some of the most impactful leaders in our society have come from the public sector.

.  .  .

One of the speakers brought out an interesting point during the discussion. It is about how disharmony in teams enhance performance and the creativity of the team. This is something I’ve experienced over the last year and a half of working in different teams, but I had never thought about this in concrete terms.

The performance benefits of controlled disharmony are witnessed in the performance jazz bands, between Lennon and McCartney, between Wozniak and Jobs. What matters in the team is the psychological safety.

Read more here:

  1. Disharmony in your team? Encourage it!
  2. Can harmony hurt team performance?

.  .  .

A little past midnight, seated by the steps beside the grass, in the blissful cold-breeze of pre-winter nights, over some tea and ready-to-eat noodles, my team and I pondered over our approach to a corporate competition. We had to give a solution to HUL’s bid to launch a ready-to-eat product in a particular city. First meetings are awkward and filled with pockets of silences. This was the same too. After a couple of hours, we had taken a one step ahead. Enough for the day. But for the first time in many months, I spent casual time with a bunch of people under the night sky.

Day 95: Angel Tampopo, wonders of a smile, and The Guardian

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It was all because of Tampopo!

Random things happen. They could turn out to be the help you needed. My search for a post-b-school role has ended just as it began. I now know where I will join as I complete my b-school the coming spring (about 6 months from now). I believe I got the best that was there. I’m really happy about it. This success has a taken quite a while to come.

What are the odds that your interviewer has watched the off-beat Japanese film that you’ve written an article on? As I gave my introduction, I mentioned towards the end that I write articles connecting films and management. The interviewer asked me to give a glimpse of one of my articles.

I never expect people to have watched the films I’ve watched. So when I asked to explain I assume complete ignorance from the listener. But at my mention of the word ‘Tampopo,’ the big guy’s eyes lit up and a smile sprang. I asked him if he has watched the film. If only someone has captured the joy on my face when he had said yes! I then started to set the context of the film for the other interviewer. The big guy intervened and wanted to know what management connection I had drawn. I explained. He was joyed.

It is trivial unnecessary to talk about the rest of the interview.

A smile can work wonders.

But there is another lesson from films that I consciously practiced that day. The film is Monsieur Ibrahim and the lesson is to ‘smile.’

Who knew of all that I’ve done in b-school, my interviewers would value my film articles! The lesson for me and everyone is to find something and do it well. It will work one day, if not immediately.

.  .  .

I’m having a great time in our Digital Transformation course. Today, we discussed a case on The Guardian, which I had been anticipating even before the beginning of the term. The case is about The Guardian’s Transition to the online world. I have a fondness for newspapers, news stories, long forms, and journalism in general. A couple of years ago I even hatched a plan to read at least one newspaper (online) from a country. I did not go beyond ten countries.

guradian

While The Guardian is something I have been reading on and off, what stands out is the message at the end of every article requests a donation from the reader to help it sustain its objective.

Takeaways from the case/class:

  1. The fall in circulation of newspapers started in the 1960s, much before the digital era. Among the prime reasons could be television. But why didn’t managers take the fall in circulation as a problem then? Because of the boom in population, the absolute numbers of the newspapers sold were always increasing (US Newspaper Industry). The professor teased us on the numbers before she gave out the answer.
  2. Digital exacerbated the fall of newspapers. The ads moved online. The newspaper business model was unbundled. In addition, the ads in newspapers now moved to specialized placed online – niche websites for real estate, employment.
  3. One of the important insights as newspapers moved online was to not replicate the print version online. Different medium demand different content.
  4. Post the advent of the digital medium, the forces in the newspaper industry have moved in the unfavorable direction.
  5. The suppliers in today’s online newspapers are not just journalists but graphic artists, tech people, citizen journalists
  6. Guardian followed an ambidextrous strategy of exploiting the print business and exploring the digital business. It undertook strategic renewal when it figured out that its print business is going down.

Guardian’s success is also attributed to Guardian’s ownership structure. It is not owned by a corporate group but by The Scott Trust. This is to aid financial and editorial independence, which unfortunately ails much of the media today. This ownership structure ensures that the financial gains are invested back into journalism rather having to pay shareholders.

Read this overview of The Guardian’s Ownership Structure: The Scott Trust: why the Guardian is unique

When I raised a question about supplier’s power going down as evident in the fall in the salaries of journalists, our professor played this: John Oliver on Journalism

Yet, newspapers are dying. Does anyone care? Newspaper Death Watch records the demise of newspapers in North America.

Day 82: Chai, end of holidays, and severe anxiety

automatic city control crossing
Moving on

I met a friend of mine today. Career goals, the automobile industry moving towards mobility solutions, pressures of global integration and local responsiveness, taking up GMAT within the end of 2018, good managers and bad managers – these flowed into the conversation. We had tea from ‘Chai Kings,’ a new startup that hopes to serve up to the demand of the tea loving people of Chennai. While I had Sulaimani, a a black tea with herbs and spices, that originated Kerala, my friend a masala chai, a tea with milk and spices.

Here’s an article on Chai Kings: For the Love of Chai

On Sulaimani Tea: History and a Cup of Sulaimani

Taking about Tea, there is a book Chai, Chai by Biswanath Ghosh, a Journalist and an author. He goes on a Chai expedition across the railway stations in India.

.  .  .

My last day at home. The term break comes to an end. At dawn tomorrow, I take my flight back to my school. From Monday, it will be back to the grinding routine.

I had hoped that the term break would be a period of reflection and path-setting. I’d imagined that I’d have time to sit and think through things which was impossible during the term. But it didn’t turn out so. My days were spent restless and confused trying to do many things and leaving so many undone.

And finally, this evening I realized that I hadn’t done much in the last week to advance my long term goals. It has been a perfect case of not-prioritizing and goal displacement. It made me severely anxious.

It terrifies me. When am I going to live the way I want to?

But one things has always been constant. There is a lot of sanity that returns and priorities shine brightly when one significant period ends and another begins. That’s what happened today: sanity returned.

I will not be fluttered. This is all human. My learning from the books I’ve read gives me the faith to see through these troubles. I will keep faith in me. I will find strength in the better angels of my nature. And move on and move forward.

Good bye. See you back in school.

Day 79: Life of a sex worker and coxing my cousins to watch good films

black and white fence crime forbidden
Twisted metal wires

Nalini Jameela’s The Autobiography of a Sex Worker called out to me in the evening. It had been on my kindle for a good three months now, today was its day. I’ll summarize my reading into the following points:

  1. The power of organizations. Jameela’s joins a social self-help group that works for the rights of the sex workers. Sex workers are constantly criminalized and their work put them under gravest dangers, yet they have none to hold them support. An effective self-help group that they can rely upon offers physical, legal, and social security.
  2. One never knows what strengths people have unless an opportunity brings it out. Until now a poor, homeless person, and always perceived as such, as soon as she joins the organization, her leadership skills come out. She criticizes the group to be a talk-shop and lacking solution-orientedness. She then goes on to give useful suggestions. From then on, she goes on to present papers at national symposiums forwarding the cause of the sex workers. I’m sure that even she wouldn’t have realized her strengths earlier.
  3. The indomitable spirit of the people who indefatigably keep rebuilding their lives. Sex workers are other marginal groups live in precarious conditions that always puts them in danger. Food, space to live, physical security – all these are snatched away at the slightest incident. Yet, they continue to rebuild, to go on living. I find it spectacular.
  4. What has created this unsafe and unruly world? As one reads about the world described in the book – the lives of the sex workers and the ecosystem they live in – the question pops up as to how have we ended up creating this nasty world where crime is accepted and basic human dignity is not granted. It is a reflection of our larger society. And it is time we reflected and acted on it.

.  .  .

In my bid to be a little academically productive for a part of my holiday days, I set my mind to do my second article on the airline industry. The Q1 results had come out a couple of weeks ago, the rising crude oil prices and the unhelpful foreign exchange rates hit hard the margins of the players. Indigo, the market leader, saw a steep fall in its profits; SpiceJet entered the marginal loss territory. I intended to do a comparative analysis of their performance, look for signs if SpiceJet is catching up with Indigo, and deliberate what the next quarter could hold for them. While doing this, I realized earnings call transcripts give deep insights into the company’s operations that I’d never be able to figure out on my own.

.  .  .

I spent the afternoon trying to convince my little cousins to watch a couple of films I thought were important for their intellectual growth (!). First, I took up Persepolis, an animated film based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same name. I follow Iran, and I had read the book too. It traces the period prior to the Iranian revolution through the eyes of a little girl.

There were no takers for this film in my family.

Next, I took up Walkabout, a film set in the Australian outbacks. The film sets up a counterpoint between civilization and the other. A little boy and her big sister are forced by circumstance to spend days with an aboriginal teenager, depending on him for their survival.

While my cousins watched this film for a while, they soon lost interest. I failed.

Day 76: On the importance of resilience, Sunday library, and my blogging inspirations

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A good half of the art of living is resilience – Alain de Botton

My first day back home. But the semester hadn’t ceased yet. We had one submission lined up at the end of the day. We had to prepare a shareholder report for the company we ran in the business simulation during the course of the term. While we had a fair idea about dealing with the mechanical content like the management discussion and the financial performance, it was novel for us to attempt to write a shareholder letter.

One has to note that the share price had gone down by 50% in the period we ran the company. While we still a strong player in the market, in terms of shareholder value we didn’t have much to show for. Now how do we communicate it?

I read a few shareholder letters from the annual reports I had. But most of these had performed decently, if not very well. I googled some tips on writing shareholder letters. While some said that a shareholder report was to exhibit the bright aspects of the company’s performance, others said that the report must help the potential investor understand the company’s position and prospects in the market.

Narratives are powerful. I started to look for a story that played during the course we ran the company. Was there any admirable quality to this company? One narrative revealed itself. For the first three rounds we faced consecutive losses, we were mounted with debts. Our share price has tanked. But we turned around the company then on to even becoming the market leaders in a couple of rounds. This company was resilient. This was the one message we wanted to deliver to the shareholders. Whatever the external conditions, this company can bounce back from distress.

We understand the importance of resilience as a quality in humans. Check out this School of Life video on Resilience: Resilience

Now, it was important for organizations as well. We found ‘resilience’ to be an important quality for a company in the fast-changing and uncertain 21st century. When we googled, quite a few articles came up. Here is an HBR article on Building a Resilient Organizational Culture. There are consulting firms that provide resilience-building services to firms!

I’d end with this quote from Charles Darwin, which is how we began our shareholder letter.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

– Origin of Species, Charles Darwin

.  .  .

We have a brilliant public library in my home city of Chennai. It is the largest in South Asia. It is sort of a spiritual home for me. Today being a Sunday, I pushed myself to visit it despite the lazy me wanting to stay home and spend more time on our submission. Most times, I keep my library visits exploratory. Last week, I had read a book with the Persian poet, mathematician, and philosopher Omar Khayyam as a central character. His book of quatrains, The Rubaiyat, is praised for its insights and free-spiritedness. I wanted to check out The Rubaiyat. I was not surprised when I didn’t make much of it. This has happened before with other classics as well. I was not ready for it.

I picked out two other books: The Bluebird Cafe by Rebecca Smith and The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey. Set in Southampton, young college graduates plan to start the Bluebird Cafe just opposite the newsagent owned by an Indian, which they frequent. I found the second book more absorbing and evocative of a place. Set in Trinidad, I was soon engulfed in its island climate and the characters whom I wanted to know more about. It was history, travel writing, fiction rolled into one. My kind of a book, I’d say.

And then some more working on our submission, more line charts and bar graphs. By 10:30 PM, I was done with it. But I had one more task to be completed. I had to write my blog for the day. I did that; I was quite surprised by the flow. It was just past midnight. I curled up on my bed with Daphne Kapsali’s One Hundred Days of Solitude. This work was my major inspiration to start writing here every day.

There are a couple of other inspirations too. The first is the ‘a learning a day‘ blog by Rohan Rajiv, an alumnus of Kellog’s Business School and my school senior. The other one is Sadie, a US Foreign Service Officer, about whom I blogged about yesterday. You could find her personal travel blog here: Sadie Abroad.

Day 68: Denying a challenge and celebrating end of term

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Are you ready to take up the challenge?

If you were offered the role of President at the American Bank Note Holographics (ABNH), would you accept it?

The professor directed this question to me towards the end of our discussion. We were working on a earnings manipulation case at the ABNH, a security hologram provider to credit card companies, most important Master Card, and others like IDs and stamp documents. Ken Traub, on his first day as the CFO of ABNH, along with the audit team from Deloitte and Touche finds irregularities in the reported financial statements for the last years. He swiftly tenders his resignation to the CEO and the board. However, he is asked to stay on as a consultant and help them to clean up the mess.

ANBH, an erstwhile private company has just gone through its IPO. The pressure to get a good price in the market and stay up probably prompted the top management to overstate their revenues. When this was all out in the media, every stakeholder relationship was affected – suppliers, customers, creditors, employees. Being in the business of ensuring security, ANBH could not afford to be fraudulent. Despite being the leading security hologram provider to the credit card companies, these companies would not hesitate to move away.

It was in this context, that I framed a sincere, if not a courageous, reply to the question that my professor had put to me. I said, “I will not take up the position. Every significant relationship is spoilt. It would be difficult to gain their trust back again. I don’t see how they will get back up.

You will not take it because it is too much of a challenge, right? That’s alright,” the professor responded to my answer. Then he put the same question to other people and to the class in general. No one took up the offer. He said that someone in this world has to take up this job and run the company.

As he said this, I realized that a firm is about its people and the well-being of a large number of people who are associated with it – the employees and their family, the customers, the shareholders. This was a real case. Ken Traub did take up the challenge, accepted the role of the president.

.  .  .

The whole afternoon was spent on the two-page analyst reports we were working on. I’m pretty pleased about how it came out. I’m reminded of the second daughter in Ang Lee’s film Eat Drink Man Woman, who works for an airline and is shown working on a spreadsheet and also identifying new destinations for the expansion of operations.

.  .  .

Today, our fourth-trimester came to an end. This was my most eventful one yet. Lots of learning, visiting professors, new interests, new teammates, new responsibilities, simulations. I also started writing here for every day of this trimester.

This I met at least three good professors. Great teachers invariably leave a big impact on me, I keep carrying them with me. One can be no more fortunate than having great teachers in their life.

Three highs:

  1. Completing some projects that were worthwhile – Amazon Ace, valuation of an airline, analyst report.
  2. Developing a keep interest in the airline industry.
  3. Writing every day through 65 days

I brought a close to my day and the term with a pre-packed strawberry swiss roll, some coffee, and the Season 4 Episode 4 (Shutdown) of Madam Secretary.