The right advice at the right time can help spark something special, as these leaders will surely attest to
Words by Karan Karayi
In boardrooms up and down the country, and indeed the world, strategies are woven and ambitions soar as surely as hope springs eternal. Bathed in the glow of success, the CEOs is painted as a modern-day sage, their insight manna from the corridors of corporate heaven, their stream of thought akin to golden threads in the fabric of success.
Like alchemists of the modern era, these leaders distill experience into potions of guidance, crafting elixirs to transform setbacks into stepping stones. Because make no mistake about it, there have been missteps along the way for all of them. They are, after all, only human, even if the narrative portrays them as infallible superheroes with nary a chink in their armour.
From Wall Street to Dalal Street, the learnings from these titans of industry offers a veritable treasure trove of wisdom to dive into. Here, we distil the best advice received by 6 CEOs, and offer them up to you with a reminder that hidden deep in every challenge is an opportunity, and with every decision, the invisible ability to make or break a future unknown as yet to us.
Here are the revealing tales of resilience, adaptability, and the audacity to dream, from those who have been there, and done that.
Macro-trends driving business transformation, ranked by likelihood of driving change
Nadella, who was born in southern India, steadily worked his way up the ladder at Microsoft after walking through the doors of its Washington offices in 1992. He is on the record as telling himself on that fateful day, “This is the greatest job on earth. I don’t need anything more.” Truer words were rarely spoken; more than two decades later, he is still around, firmly part of the Redmond landscape, and now CEO of the company.
Having worked his way up the ladder, he has seen it all. Right from managing the development of Microsoft Windows NT, to becoming senior Vice President in Research and Development, to taking on the role of President of a division churning out $19 billion in revenue – the server and tools business. Through it all, a key piece of advice sticks to his mind.
“Don’t wait for your next job to do your best work. I sometimes think we define our jobs narrowly. One of the managers I worked for said: ‘Hey, what if you did a thought experiment and thought of your job not as your job but as my job, and what would you do?’” That one piece of advice caused Nadella to expand his role and take on more responsibilities without waiting to formally be promoted, and it perhaps greatly impacted his professional trajectory. Food for thought for all of us
The mid-1990s was an incredible time, where an explosion of interest in and the means of information technology and telecommunications opened up a world of possibilities. People took to personal computers and the worldwide web (or just the internet, if you will) with rarely before seen zeal, and online businesses mushroomed, many of them flush with funding from investors and venture capitalists.
The markets lapped up a cavalcade of IPOs, all without ever considering the viability of their business models. Slowly yet surely, the bubble built, one fated to burst, for many of these startups failed to generate any meaningful revenue or profit despite tremendous valuations.
In 2000, when the bubble well and truly burst, Navin Agarwal too was swept away in the carnage, with his equity portfolio savaged by the turn of events. That’s when he turned to Raamdeo Agrawal (Chairman and Co-Founder of Motilal Oswal Financial Services), who had just returned from Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha.
There could not have been a more apt teacher at the point, given the uncertainty roiling the markets, and Raamdeo Agrawal underlined the importance of business quality and return on equity as a key lens to view companies from. But remarkably, Raamdeo was not perturbed by this turn of events and offered Namit Agarwal one simple piece of advice, which might have come from the Oracle himself: “Buy right. Sit tight.”
Agarwal embraced it when it came to managing his own or public money, and never looked back. That pig-headed sense of belief, where we take time to form our convictions and then cling on to it with bleeding fingernails, is something we can all learn from.
Born in the Sadulpur district of Rajasthan, Mittal’s family moved to Calcutta at an early age as his family opened a steel mill in the city. His journey took him to Indonesia and the Caribbean, where he opened a steel mill of his own at the former and subsequently took ownership of Trinidad and Tobago’s loss-making state-owned steel mills.
This was to be a pattern of Mittal’s, where he purchased loss-making state-run outlets and reinvigorated the business. This model would serve him well when he went global, where his focus on consolidation set him apart in an otherwise fragmented industry.
Many years later, when reflecting on his journey, Mittal said, “One of the best pieces of advice I received was to reach for the stars, but always keep one foot on the ground. I have always tried to follow this, and I believe it stands you in good stead. It creates a good balance between being ambitious and challenging yourself, whilst retaining a sense of integrity and remembering where you started from. I think this also helps you deal with things when they don’t go your way. Success is not a reason to lose sight of reality.”
After completing his MBA from Harvard in 1981, Anand Mahindra joined Mahindra Ugine Steel as an assistant to the Finance Director, and so began his journey with the Group. Today, the Group has interests in multiple businesses such as aerospace, real estate, defence, energy, IT, leisure and hospitality, automotives, and much more, with a market capitalisation of $23.62 Billion.
But all of this immense success almost never came to pass. 3 years into his stint at Mahindra Ugine Steel, he worked tirelessly on a particular deal, which he lost in a questionable manner. Disappointed, he vented his feelings to his father-in-law, Premnath Khandelwal. In Mahindra’s own words, “I told him that I was contemplating returning to the US, since we at the Mahindra Group seemed to be playing according to the conventional rules of the game while success in India seemed to require following a completely different set of rules.”
After lending a patient hearing to the his rumblings, Khandelwal then simply told Mahindra, “Anand, you would be making a big mistake if you quit now. Let me tell you that your family tradition is worth upholding first because it’s the right thing to do; but also because in the long run, you will enjoy a lower cost of doing business in every sense of the word.”
Those words resonated with a young Anand Mahindra, and he stuck to his guns ever since, doing business in a way most true and authentic to him. Clearly, it’s a formula that has worked wonders.
Given that both his parents were trained classical singers, Prasoon Joshi’s immersion in the arts from a young age was inevitable.
Joshi always had an affinity for the written word, and even as he went on to pursue an MBA from IMT Ghaziabad, his love for culture and arts remained undiminished, and he decided to pursue a career in advertising, beginning with the famed advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather in Delhi. Growing from strength to strength, he became the executive vice president and national creative director of McCann-Erickson in 2002, and came up with award-winning advertisements, besides later going on to write dialogues, scripts, and lyrics for Bollywood films.
But while it all seemed to come naturally to him, Joshi says it was anything but. “One of the best pieces of advice that I have ever got was from my father when I was just 10 years old. He read out a verse from the Kathopnishad, which talks of ‘Shreya Marg and Preya Marg’. He said: ‘There is a path which is beautiful and there is a path which is difficult. But you must always take the path that is difficult because the difficult path leads you to your destination and the beautiful path is a destination in itself.”
After majoring in urban studies and anthropology at Wellesley, Harshbeena Zaveri had no intention of embarking on a career at NRB Bearings, a company founded by her father that serves some of the automotive industry’s biggest hitters, such as Volvo, Honda, and Audi, to name a few. But on her family’s request, she joined NRB in 1987 as a management trainee, working as a factory shop-floor apprentice to fully understand the manufacturing process of the products.
However, her most transformative decision was yet to come. She wanted the company to set up its own R&D centre in order to reduce reliance on external partners. NRB Bearings, which had a sub-₹50 crore market cap, did not have the means needed to do so.
Zaveri, unmoved by the board’s reluctance, decided to renegotiate NRB’s royalty agreement with her partners and use the money saved to set up the R&D centre. The rest is history; the centre began to develop next-generation gear boxes and transmissions, and soon counted Daimler and Renault among its customers.
Speaking on an important lesson in her growth journey, and nurturing inclusive growth, Harshbeena Zaveri is on the record as saying, “I learned very early on that women can head organisations and be at the very top of the field that they choose to enter. I believe that women leaders must give time, not just money, towards nurturing other women and mentoring young people and those who are from underserved communities.”