Spreading a little hope … accidentally

An annual tradition to manufacture hope, when it isn’t easy to find

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10 years ago, I started sending new year messages to people I didn’t know.

That first year, I wasn’t in the best place, and I was worried that I would carry my unhappiness and frustration into the new year. I was out of ideas, and inspiration. After a few days of moping, I figured there might be others in the same boat as me. So I forced myself to sit at the computer, and manufacture hope. It was difficult, it seemed like everything I wrote in the new year message had a dark side or a sting in the tail. I was not going to do half hearted artificial hope, so I scratched it, and started again…and again. I finished it, and realized with surprise, that it gave me a jolt of hope. I sent it out, with great trepidation, to my connections, people I didn’t know in real life, but who were on my LinkedIn network.

The first message I got back was a grumpy one from a gentleman, asking why I would send such an over the top message when I didn’t know him. I was mortified! And then, positive messages started rolling in, and it really seemed to have resonated with people. They would write back, sometimes with a simple thanks, to sometimes more elaborate notes on why it resonated.

It gave me so much joy, and so much positive energy going into the new year, that I decided I would do it again. And it has become an annual tradition for me, a way to remind people in my network, that I am thinking of them and wishing them and their loved ones well, and that no matter how challenging the year was, here was a little helping of hope to accompany them on their journey.

10 years, 10 new year messages, lot of connections, shared moments of vulnerability and reflection later, it has become a perfect way to channel positive energy and good vibes for the new year.

I never thought that a little thing like a new year message, something that is usually impersonal and repetitive, could be personal and reflect our feeling towards the year gone by, and could create its own place in my life, and mean so much.

As you are trying to find the right words, to express your sentiment and message for the new year, I hope this helps you.

What are the small rituals, traditions in your life that mean a lot to you?

Here are my New Year messages over the years

New Year message for 2021

2020 Goodbye. And thank you.

2020 has challenged us in many ways. But we are still here. We are truly capable of more than we know.

May 2021 be the year that moves us forward, towards our personal purpose and life goals, and may we find strength in our vulnerability, common ground in our differences, and resolve in our sorrow. May we hold onto the embers of hope when it feels impossible to go on, may we see opportunity in inevitable change, may we discover our leadership in giving up control, may we find empathy for others in our own struggle, and may we be inspired by the service of our everyday heroes.

Wish you and yours a new year of healing, recovery, love, laughter and magic.

New Year message for 2020

Wish you and your loved ones a very happy and prosperous new year! May the 2020s be a decade of discovery of what we are truly capable of…when inspired, woven together with infinite opportunities, resilient optimism, and the ability to unlock potential all around us, along with the capacity to reflect, be mindful, and find and spread happiness to everyone we touch.

New Year Message for 2019

Wish you and your loved ones a very happy and prosperous new year! May 2019 be the best year yet, with unbridled optimism, infinite opportunities, the courage to translate hope into action, focusing on what matters most, brimming with more of everyone and everything you love.

New Year Message for 2018

Wish you and your loved ones a very happy and prosperous new year! May the year 2018 be a year of possibilities, with infinite hope and optimism, with courage and openness to discover the everyday hero within, and may the universe conspire to help you achieve your dreams, and be sprinkled with a large helping of love, laughter and magic!

New Year Message for 2017

Wish you and your loved ones a very happy and prosperous new year! May the year 2017 be the best one yet, with purpose that ignites your soul, bringing hope and passion to make the world a little better than we found it, creating space for meaningful constructive conversations that bring us together, cherishing diversity and pursuing inclusiveness, peppered with moments that touch your heart, laughter and treasured moments with loved ones, and may each day lead you closer to your life goals.

New Year Message for 2016

Theme- diversity, expanding horizons, genius in others

Wish you and your family a very happy and prosperous new year! May the year 2016 be the best one yet, powered by passion and purpose, bringing hope of unprecedented progress and fulfillment from making a meaningful difference, expanding our horizons experiencing different cultures and diversity, being inspired, and inspiring and bringing out the genius in others, rejoicing in experiences from the simple to the sublime, and moments of laughter and treasured moments with loved ones, and may each day lead you closer to your life goals.

New Year message for 2015

Wish you and your family a very happy and prosperous new year! May the new year be the best one yet, bringing hope for a brighter tomorrow, unstoppable momentum through marrying passion and purpose, the space for learning, experimenting, reflecting, trying and creating the new and different and contributing meaningfully to work and life, generosity of spirit and rejoicing in the ‘different’, and moments of laughter and treasured moments with loved ones, and may each day lead you closer to your life goals.

New Year Message for 2014

Wish you and your family a very happy and prosperous new year! May the year 2014 be the best one yet, and bring good fortune and fortitude to stay ahead of and benefit from the multitude of changes around us, the strength of character and resilience in challenging times, the space for learning, experimenting, reflecting, trying and creating the new and different, moments of sheer genius and innovation and moments that take your breath away at work and life, moments of laughter and treasured moments with loved ones, and may each day lead you closer to your life goals.

New Year message for 2013

Wish you and your family a very happy and prosperous new year! May the new year be the best one yet, peppered with moments of inspiration, clarity of purpose, ideas and insights, seeing the simplicity in the complex and the complexity in the simple, making a difference and contributing meaningfully to work and life, moments of laughter and treasured moments with loved ones, and may each day lead you closer to your life goals.

New Year message for 2012

Wish you and your family a very happy and prosperous new year! May this year be one of new beginnings, exciting ventures, meaningful work, the ability to make a difference, new and diverse ideas, perspectives, and insights, treasured moments with loved ones and may each day lead you closer to your life goals.

New Year message for 2011

Wish you and your families a very happy and prosperous new year ahead! May this year bring exciting times, tremendous achievements, immense resilience, and hope for a better world.

p.s. As we reflect on what 2020 taught us, here are 2 articles I wrote recently, that you might like.

Who am I in a crisis?

20 reflections on 2020


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In the post COVID future, will we see a new kind of leader emerge?

Leaders came under the burning glare of a million spotlights, in an instant, as our world changed.

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Leaders came under the burning glare of a million spotlights, in an instant, as our world changed. We saw exceptional leaders step up, be vulnerable, be authentic, be transparent, be accountable and be driven by care and concern for their employees and customers. Whether it is CEOs taking pay cuts before impacting their people, CIOs and teams standing up complex infrastructure overnight, CHROs and teams creating policies and support systems real-time, or the unique collaborations between government, academia and companies to develop vaccines and treatment, or restaurateurs serving communities and providing jobs even with declining business, or incredible hospital leadership; they are all leading from the front. 

The 3 differentiating qualities of inspiring leaders at this time are


They are redefining what strength looks like in the new world. And it is all about vulnerability, courage, and resilience. 


They are living their Purpose and it is evident and transparent that they are using Purpose and values as the cornerstone of their decisions


They are Empowering their people, and inspiring innovation and new ways of solving problems, enabling and helping people deal with change 

What do you think?


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Diversity wins

The only common thread between the stories of heartbreak and hope, those who caught the virus, and those who fought it bravely, is their diversity.

It is heartbreaking to see the devastation caused by Covid19. It is also immensely inspiring to see how communities have pulled together, and how everyday heroes have stepped up to lead the battle. There is one common thread between the stories of heartbreak and hope. Those who caught the virus, and those who fought it bravely, were uniform only in their diversity. No matter which country the virus traveled to, it had impact beyond her shores, spreading to other countries and continents, without regard to nationality, race or religion. As people got sicker, those who stepped up to help ; from doctors, nurses, hospital staff, to postal and delivery workers, shop keepers and retail staff, scientists, lab techs, factory workers, they are all diverse, and come from all walks in life. So while anyone may have been impacted by the virus, no one would have survived without the support of others. 

The pandemic has taught us how intermingled, intertwined and international our lives have become even when we don’t step outside.

To all those hemming and hawing, passively resisting true diversity and inclusion, it is important to understand that there is never going to be a homogeneous society ever again. Our only option is to figure out how to synergize our diversity to create value for the world -our survival depends on it. 

Thank you to our healthcare workers and frontline heroes, who have been a ray of hope, in these times, and are truly the best of us.


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A quest to find inspiration at work

A google search for ‘Stressed’ generates 4.1Bn results! Given we spend most of our lives at work, that is an awful lot of time to spend being uninspired! Here are some ideas to help you find inspiration at work.

Finally, I can exhale after a marathon workshop with senior business leaders! I am a planner. I like having a clear idea of the framework, content, process, flow, and desired outcome, well before I lead a workshop. However, this was a peculiar one – we had an incredibly complex code to crack, 3 days to do it in, and no idea of where to start… With great trepidation, a loose structure in my head, no slides, only a compelling mission, we dove in. What unfolded was the unshackled and boundary-less thinking we rarely see in our daily lives. I saw this group of diverse talented leaders jump in to co-create, co-lead, and co-follow real time, and I was part of and witness to the magic of a team playing off and building on each other. Interestingly, I don’t think we would’ve got to the outcome, if we had a structured approach. We went where the energy of the group was, and this enabled us to come up with some seriously unconventional solutions.

At the end of the day, exhausted but energized (as weird as that sounds), I am reflecting on the daily inspiration at work that comes our way, that moves us, captures our imagination, makes our heart sing, connects with our passion & purpose and drives us to do the impossible. 

If that doesn’t really sound like a typical day at work, you are not alone. These moments of flow*, are inherently different from our daily work.

A google search for ‘Stressed’ generates 4Bn results (yes, you read that right!), ‘occupational stress’ generates 104 million and just to top it off, ‘soul crushed @ work’ generates 17.4 million hits. Phew! Given that we spend most of our lives at work, that is an awful lot of time to spend being uninspired!

Why are we lifted to deliver more than we thought we were capable of in some situations, and yet hold ourselves back in so many others? I start to wonder how everyday can we find inspiration at work than the last, and make us leap out of bed in the morning, excited to see what the day has in store for us. 

The dilemma for leaders and the organization is ; how do we create more moments of flow* for our teams?

Here’s my pick for top 14 sources of inspiration at work:

Purpose 

A company that has and lives by its uplifting purpose, is an infinite source of energy, that lifts us out of the ordinary.  

Meaningful work 

Knowing that our work is making a difference to patients, consumers, the organization and society, is an extremely powerful driver. We want to matter, to lead a life of significance and leave the world better than we found it. That, connected to our personal purpose and values creates compelling momentum for action. 

A ‘build’ conversation

An energizing conversation, when we get through to someone and someone gets through to us. Think of the days when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Brainstorms are a great example of a ‘build’ conversation. Do you have someone at work you bounce off ideas with, and they tell you like it is? These colleagues are a much needed lifeline for inspiration. 

Feedback 

Feedback that opens your eyes, and changes the trajectory of learning, is truly inspiring. Many years ago, In my 360 assessment, a peer urged me to strive to “bring out the genius in others”. The deliberate choice of words, and the high bar it set, stuck with me, and shaped my leadership journey. Imagine the care and concern of the colleague who gave me this feedback. What a gift! 

Challenge 

The roller coaster of fun, frustration, excitement, struggle, hope, joy, impact, sense of achievement, pride and delivering against all odds, is an irresistible recipe for inspiration, and drives us to move mountains. 

Greater good

When our eyes are firmly planted on the greater good, and there is no space for hidden agendas, and politics, there can only be true collaboration and team spirit.

Audacious expectations

When leaders unshackle their teams, encourage audacious goals, push boundary-less thinking, set high expectations and paint a compelling vision of the future, and more importantly push, prod and provoke us to go beyond our limits, it is undeniably inspiring.

Connect meaningfully and build trust

Stories are powerful. They help us understand what makes a person tick, their drivers, their trials and tribulations. Do we know our colleagues’ stories? A few years ago, one of my teams was going through significant interpersonal issues. In a particularly challenging team lab session, we tried to find common ground. As my team worked through challenging exercises, delving deeper than they ever thought they would, I stood in awe of their willingness to be authentic, vulnerable and work through gut wrenching conversations constructively. I saw the weight being lifted off their shoulders and the first rays of sunshine, and smiles as they got to a breakthrough, inspiring each other, and me, in the process. 

Resolving conflict through constructive conversations

Conflicts are difficult for a number of reasons, from being just unpleasant, to impacting relationships. Being vulnerable and honest, having self awareness, and putting in the hard work to have a constructive conversation creates an inspiring environment for healing and finding common ground. 

Inclusion and Finding common ground amidst diverse views

This is the greatest challenge in teams today, as world views get increasingly polarized, and we consume information in increasingly myopic ways. Recently, a talented, diverse group of senior business leaders worked with me to deliver on a very complex initiative. Despite a million (no kidding!) different views, numerous ways to approach it, and multiple possible solutions, we were able to figure it out, because of 3 qualities primarily, a) openness, b) listening, and c) selflessness. This is as much a recipe for trust, respect and team effectiveness, as it is for finding common ground, and consequently inspiration.

Power of team

One of my biggest source of inspiration, over the years, has been my team. A few months ago, we embarked on a highly complex and challenging goal. Every member of the team, though oceans apart, never having met each other, they were all in. Their passion, desire to make a difference, constantly going above and beyond their roles to help each other across the finish line, their sacrifices and their resilience was just astounding. Getting a glimpse of what they are capable of, was not only inspiring but also raised the bar for me as a leader. 

Leader who can unlock potential, through incisive questions

Early in my career I worked with a business leader, who always had 20 questions that were completely off-the-wall, whenever you presented to him. Jokingly, we used to call it ‘management by googly**’! His ability to elicit novel ideas, had a direct correlation with his questions.

Rewards & Recognition

The list is perhaps incomplete without this. The value of rewards and recognition to help us understand that we are on the right track, and are making an impact, is immense. 

Trying something new

The power of ideas is infinite. Widening our horizon through learning new subjects, languages, traveling off the beaten path, immersing ourselves in different cultures, new adventures, international assignments, diverse roles, different business contexts from start-ups to turn-arounds, expansive networks straddling business, academia, government across countries,… are all an inspiration to explore the infinite power of ideas. 

Do these sources of inspiration at work resonate with you? When you are looking for inspiration at work, what is your go-to? 

As I sign off, am thinking of a quote that really resonates with me.

* The concept of Flow refers to a highly focused mental state or being in the zone, and came out of the work by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 

** Googly is a term in cricket that refers to a deceptive delivery by the bowler, and is meant to confound the batsman, in the hopes of getting them out (dismissed). Similar to ‘curve ball’. 


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What is real leadership?

Why we are more obsessed with leaders, than leadership? Why do we focus more on the individual, than on the impact they have?

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Imagine a large auditorium, packed to capacity, eager and anxious faces everywhere, waiting for their leader to emerge. As he steps up, standing tall at 6’4″, eyes twinkling with good humor, a commanding presence on the stage, 3000 eyes riveted on him, he delivers his vision for the organization, with the practiced ease of a great orator, with a healthy dose of ambition and paranoia. As he completes his speech, the room erupts in applause. 

Now imagine a slightly different scene… An organization in a turnaround, the leader has put the team in an uncomfortable situation where they need to work across traditionally opposed ideas to find common ground. And then, he leaves. The team looks at each other and dives right in, the debate heats up, one person stands up and takes over writing on the board, another walks over and asks the team a tough question, gets a raw answer, the debate rages, they keep at it, till they believe they have an unconventional approach that solves the problem. They hi-five each as they leave the room. 

Most of us have experienced both these situations; the awe and inspiration from being in the presence of a captivating leader, and the exhilaration that comes from being part of a team that worked through challenging issues to achieve something important to them and their organization. 

So, which one is leadership? Some of us may think the first is, while some, may say both. Many others may think it may even be the same person. 

Well, in these two specific scenarios, the first one was a leader who led by fear, charismatic, but flawed… and the second was an introverted leader, you might not be able to pick out of a crowd… The first caused lasting damage to the organization, while the second created an organization that continued its positive momentum, even after the leader moved on. (Quiet by Susan Cain is an amazing read and provides a great perspective on the power on introverts)

We talk about leadership a lot! A google search on ‘leadership’ found over a billion results! That is the power of the concept of leadership. However, think back to conversations about leaders, whether in business, or politics. Most conversations are about the leader himself, herself – their leadership qualities or traits, motivators, styles, personality, competencies etc etc. 

Why we are more obsessed with leaders, than leadership? Why do we focus more on the individual, than the impact they have?

I have always wondered why we are more obsessed with leaders, than leadership. Why do we focus more on the individual, than on the impact they have? Leaders are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. We need leaders to have a vision and inspire, and energize their teams to deliver a better future. However, when we obsess over leaders alone, we end up with three unintended consequences:

  1. We create narcissistic leaders– We have perhaps wasted far too much time hung up on individuals without holding them accountable for teams, culture and positive impact to our world. Has that led to too much focus on self interest rather than organization and team? Think of the conversations we have everyday as we obsess over leaders, label them superstars, feed their egos by fawning on them and being transfixed by whatever they say, and then, inevitably label them narcissistic… We seem to love the drama of their ascent against all odds-our hero, and their inevitable fall from grace.
  2. We miss opportunities to acknowledge real leadership – When you see an environment where high performing effective teams come together to do more than they individually ever could, that is real leadership at work. Positive team dynamics are the mirror that reflect real leadership. These can easily fly under the radar, if we aren’t actively looking for it.
  3. We don’t leverage the power of diversity – Our vocabulary is overwhelmed with terms such as leading from the front, leading the charge, rallying the troops, scaling the mountain, conquering the summit, hitting it out of the park, destroy competition, win at all costs, etc. It almost seems as though a majority of our vocabulary on leadership was born either on the battlefield or at the ball park. Do these terms sound gender neutral? Do these terms sound race / nationality neutral? Do they sound introversion/ extroversion neutral? Our unconscious biases lead us to pick more leaders in the image of those already in power. 

When we define leadership based on outcome – that is gender neutral , race neutral, national origin neutral, we understand that it comes in all shapes and sizes, it is eccentric and idiosyncratic, we discover real leadership. Leadership does not look like a person. Leadership is reflected when the two primary goals of leaders are fulfilled ; a) creating a clear vision and b) creating the ecosystem to make it happen (clarity in connecting vision to goals and goals to actions, and clearing the path). 

Here are 3 ways to recognize real leadership: 

1. Look at the team – are they going above and beyond, because they really want to?

2. Look at the outcome – is the team delivering more together than they individually ever could, in a myriad of different ways?

3. Look at their future trajectory – is the team future focused and clear about their part in getting there?

The next time you are in a conversation about leadership, and someone goes on and on about the leader and their traits – just say, So? What is the impact? And you might’ve opened yet another mind…

Are you in?


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Taking the first step

Remember the last time you tried something for the first time? Yep, I am talking, sweaty palms, knot in the stomach, fear of failure, fear of success, anxiety, worry and so on …

I have wanted to write, ever since I knew how. I am inspired by the quiet blank space, the reflection, the learning, the struggle and the joy that comes from finding words that can capture a thought, and the possibility of connecting with people. 

I didn’t do anything about it though, for a long time. So much so, that one of my business leaders made it a point to ask me, how far I had gotten with the writing thing, every time he met me, even years after we had moved to different roles and organizations. 

Reluctantly, with a herculean dose of self-motivation, I started a blog, more for myself, than to speak to anyone. This was in the hey days of blogs. I suppose it was a first toe in the right direction. That was a decade ago though…, and even though I continued to write over the years, I stopped posting. Work and life got in the way, I thought. However, looking back now, I realize that they were just excuses. 

Putting yourself out there, in a position to be judged by friends, colleagues and acquaintances alike, is a tough spot to be. Doing something that you are not terribly good at yet, and being in that spot, is an even more difficult proposition. 

Remember the last time you tried something for the first time? Yep, I am talking, sweaty palms, knot in the stomach, fear of failure, fear of success, anxiety, worry and so on…

So, deep breath, tentatively I wrote my first post on LinkedIn. Surprisingly, the sun continued to shine and the world didn’t collapse on itself, nor did my friends and colleagues disown me! At first, a few read it and some of my friends and peers were nice enough to provide encouragement (and likes! Thank you!) – and then, in a few days 1360 people had read it. While that may not seem like much – it was immensely heartening to me. In the world today, having a voice and being heard is difficult enough, and even if one person found it useful – it is well worth it. 

There are 2 things I learnt from this experience:

  • It is never too late to start. 
  • Reasons (read; excuses) that hold you back, and seem very real in the moment, may not always be, real.

Oh, and I stumbled on the power of LinkedIn – truly a reach beyond imaginable.

So first step done. Was it successful? The jury is still out, but am learning that I am OK with that. 

So if you have something that has been on the back burner for a while, and you just can’t shake it off, no matter what you do – it might be time to take that first step. Go for it! I will be rooting for you.

Would love to hear your stories around taking the first step and what inspired you. 


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An international assignment is a must have, and here’s why

An international assignment is a career, learning & leadership accelerator. It step changes your understanding of how to be effective across cultures.

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A little over a decade ago, I made a decision that would change my life and those of my family. I decided to take on an international assignment. Once the initial adrenalin of making the decision subsided, I was plagued with doubt, second guessed my decision, made a million lists of pros and cons, researched like a crazed woman, and triple planned everything. The move itself … well, things didn’t go quite as planned. So, was it worth it? Absolutely!  

As I reflect on the years abroad and the amazingly brilliant, talented and diverse teams and leaders I had the opportunity to work with, I can say with absolute certainty, that I have grown because of it. 

I am, therefore, a big advocate of international assignments as developmental experiences, especially for those aspiring to be in global roles. We live in a paradoxical world of endless possibilities for learning, and equally narrow ways in which we consume it. Today, where the world conspires so that you hear what you want to hear, and learn only what you think you need to, and experience things in your comfort zone, it helps to seek out ‘accelerators’ – concentrated immersive experiences that step change your learning. 

Based on my experiences, here are some unique perspectives that an international assignment offers. It helps us understand and explore:

How others see us 

Every country in the world has a very strong narrative about what it means to be American, British, Chinese, Indian, etc. However, the world, perceives us differently. You understand for the first time what stereotypes exist about you. Understanding the battle you are in, and taking steps to change the narrative is a huge win. 

How we see others and the world 

People and cultures are complex. Learning that there is a unique ecosystem that enables success in different countries, is critical to understanding what works and why – for e.g. History of how a country was shaped, how an economy works and what are the key drivers, political landscape and the reasons for it, and critically, what is important to people and why. It shines a light on our own unconscious biases, and helps us see people as individuals, rather than just demographics. 

Get stuff done 

Every country has a different approach to work, what constitutes meaningful work, working in a matrix, work life balance, as well as, what fuels ambition, energizes the team, and their expectations of themselves on making a true difference. Delivering results is all about being adaptable and agile while finding ways to bring people along.

Lead effectively in different complex cultural contexts 

Understanding people’s expectations from us as leaders in terms of coaching, problem solving, work allocation, team work, etc is a first step to figuring out how to adapt our style. The greatest obstacle to adapting leadership style is stereotypes. There is greater recognition today around the ridiculous stereotypes we used to be inundated with, however, we still have to find ways to discover and deal with our unconscious biases. 

Cultivate a diverse network of connections 

If we took a look at our LinkedIn connections or Facebook friends right now, how many countries, industries, organizations, functions, roles, religions, political opinions, genders, races, socio economic classes would they represent? An international assignment is a great opportunity to build a diverse network, and brings richness and depth to our thought process. 

Tap talent from across the globe 

We have a more realistic assessment of talent across different markets and how they stack up in relation to roles. Tapping into an exponentially larger talent pool and serving as a talent magnet for our organization across multiple markets provides a competitive edge. 

Strengthen our intuition 

This is perhaps the most controversial and intangible one to articulate. Living and working in diverse contexts helps to build our sixth sense about what works and what doesn’t, what makes sense in a particular market and what doesn’t and why. Many innovative, unique, and effective solutions are born through this struggle. 

I would love to hear your experiences and insights on what you have gained from living and working internationally.


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Playback theatre – a tool for trainers

In the world today, it is increasingly difficult to find new and meaningful ways to relate to others and build meaningful relationships. Playback theatre, form of psychodrama, is a unique tool to achieve that.

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Imagine this:

The venue – Acclaimed painter, MF Husain’s, bungalow in Bangalore, India. A beautiful large space with an inbuilt stage and surrounded by works of art that transform the space from the ordinary to the magical.

The actors – The Tangents: the only all-women Playback theatre group in India

The audience – 40 women from different walks of life: professionals toiling in the corporate world, doctors, engineers, race car drivers, artists, home makers, mothers and mothers-to-be, wives, sisters, teachers, friends…

The subject of the play – Audience life stories: celebrating women

The performance – The performance takes place in 3 segments. Fluids, stories and conflicts.

Fluids are basically a dynamic tableau of audience responses enacted by the actors. Let me give you an example: The conductor (who is effectively a ‘sutradhar’) leads the audience to the theme of say – being a woman in the corporate environment and what the frustrations they feel at times. Women in the audience responded with various emotions such as being left out at times from the boy’s network, some responded that they felt more cared for, some felt that they had to work harder to get the same credit, some felt that their male subordinates found it difficult to cope while some others felt that being a woman manager gave them an edge vis-à-vis relating to their team. The 5 actors, with the help of props and music represent each of these audience responses in interesting and unique ways.

Stories are basically audience life stories that they feel like sharing with the group. In this particular performance, there was a lady who wanted to share the story of how she met her husband. It was obviously something that was important to her and top-of-mind for her when triggered by comments made by the conductor. It was a happy memory that she wanted others to be part of and she wanted to relive the moment. The actors enacted the same in a refreshingly humourous and high energy manner reflecting her happiness and energy rather than just the story itself. This brought about an amazing reinforcing realisation for her as to how happy and positive she really was!

Conflicts are basically choices that people face in everyday life – to exercise in the morning or sleep a little longer, to join Job A or B, tiff with the boss – to tell him or not to tell him what the impact has been…. We are faced with innumerable choices every moment of our lives… some simple ones, some tough ones with very high cost to ourselves…. This is a way of sometimes getting an external perspective on our conflicts and at times creative solutions!

I am sure this seems quite unconventional and bizarre. But to me, as one of the actors, it was the most beautiful experience of sharing experiences and lives with a few amazing other people, whom I would never have met in the normal course of life.

In today’s world it is increasingly difficult to relate to others. The constant challenge is to find new and meaningful means of relating to others and playback theatre provides a unique way to achieve that.

The birth of this form of theatre is said to have been through a need to connect with the audience, to make a play interactive and about ‘real’ people and ‘real’ situations.

What is playback theatre?

Playback Theatre (PT) is an instinctive form of theatre that uses audience real life stories to be enacted on the spot without prior preparation. PT was developed by an American couple Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas in 1975 in New York. PT is about enacting real life stories of individuals who comprise an audience. These stories may be sad, funny, heroic, tragic or inspirational. By enacting the story impromptu before an audience, actors get an opportunity to experience the story for themselves. A lot of times the person who has narrated the story, is able to objectively watch his experience for the first time. This is a cathartic process both for the narrator as well as the Playback actor.

How do 5 actors with no theatre experience produce extraordinary impromptu performances?

The answer lies in the workshop that actors undergo as part of their training. I have personally found the workshop experience to be a very eye-opening one. A typical workshop is spread over 12-16 sessions with each session lasting 2 hours. Through theatre exercises, participants learn to work in a group, empathise with others, enhance their creativity and build on their confidence.

Playback theatre as a training tool

In my opinion, for whatever its worth, playback theatre is a phenomenal tool for trainers and teachers alike. Its power to influence and transform people is beyond description. Here are some positives for playback as a training tool:

It helps you understand what it is to be part of a team – To me the biggest revelation of playback is in terms of understanding your role in a team. The most successful actor in playback is not the one who has produced the most laughs or stood out from the rest by his over-the-top acting, but the one who has represented the narrator’s story as best as he possibly could and has given the audience a little something to think about that they will take home with them after the performance. The only thing on every actor’s mind is how to make the overall performance better. This is true teaming.

The Bonding as a team – The challenge of performing a cohesive and comprehensive story without being able to discuss or plan or script it is phenomenal. The exercises that the team goes through together in the workshops brings them closer together and more tuned to each others’ frequencies in a mysterious way, so much so, that in a performance they are able to demand as well as respond to each others’ leads in paying back the story.

Builds Confidence – It takes guts to be on stage in front of people. I have seen people totally transform from shy wallflowers to confident individuals staking a claim to their space on the stage and in a story. I see PT as something that makes you think on your feet, and gives you a certain assertiveness to claim your space and hence a must for every school, educational institution as well as corporate.

Sensitivity training + listening skills – Playback is all about enacting real life stories. The essence is to capture the soul of the stories narrated…There isn’t much else that can compare to relating to people and being sensitive to them in this manner.

It helps you enhance your understanding of yourself – The foundation of all relationships comes from knowing yourself. If u really evaluate it, the Johari window, the outbound exercises and PAPI dominate our lives by making us think more about what we are, what triggers our behaviour and what people around us percieve. That is exactly what Playback Theatre does.

Enhances creativity – It is also related to competencies like innovation because it encourages spontaneity, voicing of thoughts, expressing your opinions without fear and last but not the least creativity since Playback is all about creating an experience, about performing without any prior preparation whatsoever. It also creates a “Ridicule-free zone!!!” which is essential for trust building and co-operation among team members.


I have moved away from the group and am settled in a different place, but, am addicted for life … that’s what playback does to you!


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The Power of Ambition

This is a story of how ambition transformed an underperforming business unit, stuck in a rut of its own limitations into a powerhouse of achievement.

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My brush with ‘the power of ambition’ – a personal experience

This is a story of how ‘ambition’ transformed an ordinary business unit, stuck in the rut of its own limitations and its industry’s limitations into a powerhouse of achievement.

Well.. let me start at the beginning. This particular business unit is the parent division of a large Technology company, but it operates in the Consumer Products space. The Consumer Products market, especially personal care products, has been increasingly tough in the last few years. This unit was facing considerable de-growth and coping with low morale of its employees. Historically, things, for some reason tend to get worse, before they start to get better… and this division was probably at one of the lowest points in its existence. 

A leadership change brought in a fresh perspective, new dreams, and a big dose of ambition. Ambition and passion go hand-in-hand and are both equally contagious. The leadership team became the real pillars of change. I remember meeting this team whist trying to make up my mind whether to join them or not… and I was struck by the largesse of the dream and the sheer resolve manifested. There was no way in the world that I was going to miss out on that kind of action!

The sheer volume of changes during that period is staggering – sales and distribution got revamped, SAP implemented, procurement and commercial were strengthened, huge investments on manufacturing were made in anticipation of future demand, ad-spends increased manifold, training for employees was a priority and significant investments were made in training and development, policies became more employee friendly, leadership development became a priority, heightened focus on growth and revenues, 4 powered growth engine driven by growth in existing products in existing and new markets, acquisitions and launch of new products ….. There was such a ‘buzz’ going around. Employees and customers, alike, saw the sudden vitality… Obviously there were sceptics, but, sceptics will always be sceptics… and their tribe was facing a serious threat of extinction because it was difficult to not get swept up in the frenetic pace of change in the organisation.

The one striking thing, if you ask me, was that the turnaround was brought about with much the same people as earlier. And I find that to be a critical learning – that everyone has ambition, everyone wants to be better than they were yesterday, everyone wants to expect more from life and everyone has the power to realize their ambition… people just need a little reminding at times, of this power, for them to transform themselves, and through them, the larger organisation. 

As for results, the division doubled its revenue in 3 years in a tough market, reported enviable operating margins, integrated 3 sizeable acquisitions and made huge bets on the future, took home the kudos for being one of the fastest growing Consumer Products organizations in India. It’s a recognisable name in the industry. But, far more important than these ‘numbers’, is the fact that the process of transformation that happened, touched people’s lives, changed perceptions and set in motion a philosophy of success and achievement that was bigger than all of us and that will exist beyond us.

I look back and I am amazed at what ambition can do. This experience has affected me for good. And I am a better professional for having been through it.

What the experts have to say:

I started reading this brilliantly written book called ‘The Arc of Ambition’ recently, hoping to understand the anatomy of ambition. Ambition is a truly fascinating concept. It is the driving force behind the world becoming a better place each day because individuals take it upon themselves to bring about change. I was hoping to find out the ‘why’ of ambition. Why are some people obsessively driven towards goals and others not? This book unfortunately does not answer that question… but it tries to trace the journey of ambition in an individual, i.e., the path of ambition becoming productive. It is an interesting concept and interesting journey peppered with some very interesting examples. I recommend the book. It is truly insightful. Here are some excerpts and a summary of the book.

The Arc of Ambition*

The book traces the Arc of ambition from rise to fall in a series of stages

Seeing what no one else can see:

Talent hits a target no one else can hit;
Genius hits a target no one else can see

– Arthur Schopenhauer (German philosopher) 

It all starts with having a worthwhile dream. These dreams are usually “beyond the conventions of the day”, whether it is the Wright brothers’ belief that they could fly or Gandhi’s belief in freedom for his people. The conventions of the day exist because of limitations that exist in the world today. Seeing beyond the conventions is about seeing the world “unhindered by the obstacles” of today. “Beyond the ability to dream, though, we need the courage to ignore the odds against us and absorb the inevitable hardships and frustrations. Only a few get this far. Most dreams are stillborn, dissolving in the first encounter with the real world”, say Champy and Nohria. The one important common theme seems to be that ‘to achieve the impossible, you must first begin with the possible.” It is all about taking the first concrete step and yielding tangible results. Unless the dream is deconstructed into steps, it will always seem unachievable. Last, but not the least, a dream doesn’t go very far without courage and perseverance.

It takes a strong character and a lot of willpower to hold unto dreams under adverse circumstances”:

Nineteenth century French writer Gustave Flaubert took 20 years to write his first novel, Madame Bovary, which today, is a world classic. It has taken Edison, Mandela, Gandhi, Jane Austen, Picasso, Mozart and anyone else one can think of, more than a few attempts to achieve their dreams. Persistence is really the key.
What puzzles me though is what distinguishes the dreams of the Wright brothers to fly, from the Alchemists who spent lifetimes trying to turn baser metals into gold. What is it that made Galileo’s perception of astronomy right and made many others’ lifetime pursuits foolhardy. This is a difficult one… because there was no lack of persistence for sure. Probably what was lacking was the link to reality and the quick conversion of the first concrete and tangible steps.
Another interesting inextricable link seems to be that of perseverance and optimism. When they go hand in hand, dream-conversion becomes almost inevitable.
The other marriage seems to be between perseverance and learning. A process of continuous learning – from the environment, from the world in general, from setbacks and other life experiences, from experts … seems to enable ‘a move forward’ in the pursuit of dreams.

Seize the moment:

‘Carpe-diem’ gives an impression of swashbuckling heroes sizing up and seizing opportunities impulsively and ‘just knowing’ that they made the right decision. The fact is quite contrary though. As someone once said, ‘have you noticed how the more you prepare, the luckier you get?’, and that really is the crux of the issue. Intuition is not ‘just about the gut’; it is about the higher preparedness to receive incoming positive opportunity signals. Often these opportunities are in the form of crucibles – adverse times that require extraordinary skills and gumption to survive, and those who face their crucibles, emerge as transformational leaders.

Think of the leaders you know about – Nelson Mandella’s 27 years in prison and his victory over apartheid, Mahatma Gandhi’s unceremonious removal from a train in Pretoria and the Indian freedom struggle, Buddha’s encounter with a leper that propelled him towards enlightenment, Einstein, Mother Theresa, the Mumbai spirit… the examples are endless and all of them tell a story of triumphing over the odds and surviving and growing. Each of these people faced a choice of either being paralysed by fear or of facing the adversity head on. They chose the latter.

Seizing the moment is thus, about the state of preparedness, having the proper knowledge and skills, sensitivity to the environment in terms of being able to pick up opportunities that ‘knock softly’, mastering the crucibles, and reacting timely.

Temper Ambition:

Is there any such thing as too much ambition? Think Napoleon, think Alexander, and the answer seems to be ‘yes’. Unbridled ambition is a victim of egotism, greed, lack of pragmatism, growing disconnect with reality with growing success and blind spot to risk. And that … is THE END.

Greatness must be driven by a purpose beyond money:

Money is a man-made concept and has limited motivational value. Researches have shown that rewards in the form of money usually have the least positive impact over a period of time. What kind of purpose then is worth pursuing? The most satisfying purpose empowers its pursuer to enlist others in a quest for some higher good. Think of the 2 greatest instances of mobilising people across the ages – war and struggle for independence / revolution. Both derive its motivational power from a cause that is far bigger than you and me. The world wars, the French revolution, the American civil rights movement, the Indian freedom struggle, the end of apartheid… were all a fight to preserve our way of life, a fight for our identity and hence they rallied the masses. Every single person on the picket line could identify with the dream.
Organisations today, however, seem to be losing out on the power of purpose at times in their effort to please or appease the stock market.

Man’s greatest fear is to die in insignificance, and his greatest desire – to leave a legacy behind…

Never violate Values:

Integrity is too precious to squander away on short-term gains. Values are what you stand for, they are the touchstone of your existence. Having worked in a value-driven organisation all these years, I can honestly say that the feeling of not once ever having to do something that is against your value system at a personal level is quite indescribable. And that is possible because the organisation is clear about its value system and it is practiced by all, and led by example by the chairman Mr Premji. Nohria quotes Mr Premji as saying “Never let money muddy your concern for your company’s integrity. Once you start calculating the numbers, it is almost a foregone conclusion that you will end up compromising your values.”

Keep control by giving it up:

A person can’t succeed alone. It is the shared vision, the shared control and partnership which is greater than the sum of its parts.

Change or die

Change is the way of the universe. There is a constant paradigm shift with the old being replaced with the new – manual watches by Quartz, snail mail by e-mail, analog by digital… the list is never ending. The challenge for an organisation is to discover the new sigmoid curve and avoid plateuing. The change is often driven by innovation and thus, ambition, success and innovation are inextricably linked. 

Leave gracefully:

Every leader has his or her time, when they are best suited for the job, but times change and so must the organisation, to survive. Think Narayan Murthy of Infosys, think Anita Roddick of Body shop, Bill Gates of Microsoft, all of who handed over the reigns gracefully to their successors in a bid to give their organisations a life beyond their own.

All logic and rationale apart, there is a certain magic about ambition, about inspiration that is indescribable. It is more than visible behaviour and much more than stated intent. It defies all explanation and will continue to fascinate us for times to come.

References :*The Arc of Ambition (1999) – James Champy, Nitin Nohria, Perseus books Cambridge. A brilliantly written book and a must read for those interested in ‘achievement orientation’


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Fear of Failure – An Existential Crisis

Have you ever wondered why there are so many unfulfilled dreams in the world? Why do some people chase their dreams and others not?

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I have been wanting to write a book for a decade now. I had no idea what it was going to be about, but I knew I was going to do it… And then a year passed, and then 2 and soon a decade had gone by, and I hadn’t even started…

Have you ever wondered why there are so many unfulfilled dreams in the world? Is it because we are afraid of what will happen if they actually come true? We dream… it is the child in us who has stars in his eyes… and suddenly we grow up and realism in its worst form takes over. ‘What if’ becomes our driving force? We become experts at giving ourselves reason as to why the dreams cannot be achieved, the fear of failure a constant companion in our minds.

Why do some people chase their dreams and others not? Whether it is the Wright brothers and their dream of flying even though they were bicycle mechanics, or Gandhi’s dream of independence for India, or Mandela’s dream of the end of apartheid, or King’s dream of progressive civil rights, or Wilma Rudolph who won 3 Olympic Gold medals inspite of being born with paralysis, Victor Frankl – the psychologist surviving Auschwitz because he had a goal, Steven Spielberg, Lincoln… the stories are endless.

My sardonically lazy perception of my dreams is bolted out of its stupor by these stories of courage. Every time one of these stories does the e-mail round robin, you will see a sudden surge of energy, coupled with the realization of dreams in cold storage.

The million dollar question really is that why do we respond differently?

Psychology textbooks in their ever-knowledgeable way, quote David McClleland’s – N ach or Need for achievement as being one of the major factors relating to fear of failure. People with a low need for achievement (whether due to nature or nurture) usually suffer from a fear of failure. They set targets that are either too high or too low.. inevitably setting themselves to either play safe or setting themselves up for failure. Ok, that’s the theory. But, am not sure I can identify with that much. I look around me and see successful professionals, doing extremely well at work, on the fast-track to CEO-dom or whatever else it is that they seek…but still having unfulfilled existential dreams.

Yes, following your dreams is about risk taking ability, individual gumption, competence…. But it is also about a whole lot more…

It is about having a worthwhile dream…

When you are working, there are daily challenges, these dream issues are the ones that get pushed to be thought about later. How many times have you heard the phrase – ‘I’ve got to do some thinking’? You know, I have been on a sabbatical for more than 7 months now… and you can see the day go by in much more detail than when you are working and you become all the more aware that you are just floating along in a life that you didn’t really dream about. Tell me, how many of us really dream that we will working at a job for 14-16 hours, come home and maybe exchange a few pleasantries with loved ones, watch tv and go to sleep. Our dreams were made of bigger stuff…

I was being educated just fine, till school and college ruined it!
Its funny you know, I don’t remember a single assignment, term paper, essay, project or even class discussion, in my 17 years of education, that asked me about my dreams or who I wanted to be.

I have been a Human Resource Professional for almost 10 years and I am tired of the interview questions about ‘where do you want to be 5 years from now’. In so many discussions with so many professionals I have yet to see answers other than a particular position or role. It has nothing to do with the person answering, it has to do with the question! Its easy to lose count of the number of times one hears the words ‘I want to do something else, I just don’t know what’ over the coffee vending machine or the cafeteria or in the smoke corner or the office lawns.

Should we not as HR professionals understand how the job fits into a person’s overall dream for himself? Should we not try to align these as much as possible? Should we not have services available for a person to figure out what he or she wants to really do in life? What is our responsibility to our employees? Are we really all that far away from Taylor?…

Is it a wonder then, that so many of us are struggling to identify that one consuming dream which will make our lives worthwhile. It is said that the greatest fear we have, is to die in insignificance, to die having left nothing behind…

A case:
There was this one particular manager who did something extraordinary with his team. His team was facing abnormally high attrition, making normal software attrition look almost too good to be true. He decided to try a different approach. He started doing ‘passion at the workplace’ sessions for his team and helped them see what it is that they wanted from life and how the choices they had made were fitting in. As more and more people got involved and understood the approach, a transformation… a miracle was taking place right before our eyes. Needless to say attrition reduced.


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