Do we ever want to go back to our life before the pandemic?

“Do we ever want to go back to our life before the pandemic?”

We ask ourselves on an especially snowy evening. It was a question that would not leave us alone and came up increasingly more often with a greater sense of urgency every time. Fast forward a year later – we have left our jobs, moved across the country to a tiny town on the ocean, with a population smaller than our office building, and are taking a year off. This is our story. 

As we were embarked on this journey and talked to colleagues and friends, we realize that we are not alone in this soul search. Many are realizing the dysfunction of our daily lives that we never thought about or questioned before. So this is not just our story, but in so many ways, it is your story too.

I lost my father early in life. My enduring memory of him is how hard he worked. He was gone before we woke, and back after we went to bed, putting in 16-18 hours everyday. After he died, they had to hire 4 people for the job he was doing single handed. As a low income family, both my parents sacrificed so much to give us a better life. He had no choice. 

The pandemic helped us realize how privileged we are to be able to do our jobs from home. It also made us realize that we act as though we have no choice, but we do have a choice.

We hit 40 at breakneck speed, a blur of education, roles, countries, continents and companies. As we chose increasingly all consuming roles of ever greater complexity, it got harder to pause and reflect, and easier to ignore the questions; what is our purpose? is this all there is to life? what does a life well lived mean? what brings us joy and how can we do more of it? what is meaningful work? is there a way to have greater impact, to help those in need, who could use our skills? 

We have a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. Our hope is to take time to reflect, invest in ourselves, help others, be curious, be inspired, be uncomfortable and have fun.

We walked a long way just to be able to stand still.

Is this your story too?

This is what our friends and colleagues told us…

There is one clear theme that emerged, from the many conversations, over the last few months and that is; the search for meaning and purpose. It was so hopeful, and inspiring to see that so many are asking the same questions on impact and what matters most; and yet so heartbreaking that those are the questions that we often put on the back burner. 

There are 3 other interrelated questions that are critical.
  • How does work fit into your life?
  • What does meaningful work mean? More importantly, what is not meaningful and yet, we spend valuable time on it?
  • Are you happy?

How does work fit into your life? 

Working from home for a year, led to reflection and soul searching for many of us. It is the first time we realized the full extent of what we were missing and what we were giving up in life, to serve our organizations. Sitting in traffic for hours, traveling incessantly, living away from family and friends, compromising on health and quality of life…to what end?

Perhaps starting with the industrial revolution (in the 1750s), the philosophy of work-centered human life crept into our world and became ubiquitous over time. At its core, it suggests that our lives are less important than the work we do, and consequently we spend the most hours, and certainly the most valuable hours, at work. 

The pandemic stopped us in our tracks, and forced us to reflect. The world won’t ever be the same again. We want different things now that we have experienced it. We want a lot more of who and what we love, and what we love to do in our lives. Because life is short.

What implication does this have for the future of work?

We have heard so many inspiring stories during the pandemic of people striving for a more balanced life, doing the work they love, from a place they love. 

Unfortunately, companies are increasingly disconnected from what people actually want more of, in their lives. Most companies haven’t figured out how to create the space for an individual to truly LIVE their lives while working in a company. 

We need to see people as people, as complete human beings, at work. People are capable of incredible things. Companies who are able to build a talent ecosystem* through human centered design, that unlocks human potential, by creating a diverse suite of offerings and customizing them for their employees, are the ones who will thrive.

What does meaningful work mean? More importantly, what is not meaningful and yet, we spend valuable time on it?

A very talented colleague asked me; “What if our patient was in this room, what would they think of us?”. She was sharing a story of an unproductive meeting, replete with politics, siloed thinking, finger pointing and navel gazing. 

She is not alone in her frustration. Large companies often struggle to make their effort : impact ratio work. 

Effort : impact ratio is how much effort you need to put in, in order to achieve the desired outcome, and feel a sense of fulfillment or achievement. Simply put, how hard is it to get things done in your organization?

Large companies make it very difficult to be productive. It can feel like you are running a marathon in quicksand! The politics, crippling bureaucracy, illogical matrices, fragmentation of work, lack of alignment of decisions to purpose and values, resistance to change, often gets in the way of any real sense of achievement or fulfillment for an employee. Many choose to work with start ups, or become entrepreneurs in the hope of connecting to their purpose and getting better value for their time.

What implication does this have for the future of work?

People will decide what level of effort they are willing to put in, and what is the impact they want to see. Work is more than a livelihood, and people want to see the tangible difference they are making (not just to the bottomline).

Organizations will have to prioritize meaningful work, especially the effort : impact ratio, if they want to keep their people engaged. 

Are you happy?

We thought we were happy. And then, in the weeks before we quit, and ever since then; first our family, then our friends and colleagues, started telling us that we looked different, we looked happy, and had a “lighter spirit”. It was so weird, and yet so true!

Do you have a ‘I’ll be happy when ___’ list or a ‘Someday…’ list?

Do you glance at it wistfully every so often, usually with a sigh, and wonder ‘what if’ or ‘if only’?

We certainly did. Relegated to the corner, they gathered dust. 

It made us wonder, why do we pin all our hopes of happiness on tangible external things? Why do we chase after things we don’t really want? Why do we think of happiness as a destination and not a journey?

When people are asked if they have regrets, they are quick to reply ‘no regrets’ as if on autopilot, taught by millions of movies that that is the thing to say. Is it though? Do we not need to take stock of our lives and reflect on whether we are on the right track? 

Many were initially surprised at our decision to take a year off. They were shocked that people with our “talent and ambition” at the stage of career where we are up for the ‘largest roles’ are wanting time away.  

Isn’t that the exact problem? The world expects high potential, ambitious, driven, people to be uni-dimensional. And we spend our whole lives denying other aspects of ourselves, trying to fit in to the uni-dimensional mold. 

What implication does this have for the future of work?

As one of our colleagues says; “In the past, companies told employees what work to do and where. In future, our people will tell us what work they want to do and where they will do it out of. Companies who can adapt to this new reality will thrive, and those who can’t will perish” 

As we dust the cobwebs off our ‘someday list’, all we can say is:

Hello Life!

Let me leave you with a question a friend asked me:

What would you do if you weren’t afraid? 

Want to know if we wake up in the middle of the night in panic, wondering if we have lost our minds (more than likely!)? Come, follow our journey.

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In the post COVID future, will we finally prioritize outcome over activity?

Has COVID forced us to reevaluate what is on our plate, ruthlessly prioritize outcome, and focus on what is most important.

Think of your pre-Covid typical work day.

Think about how busy you were, connecting with your passion, and doing what you love…, whilst navigating through a maze of processes, activities, approvals, complex matrix organizations, metrics and meetings that aren’t the most value added. 

As the pandemic spread,

We had to review what is on our plate, ruthlessly prioritize, and focus on what is most important.

We are collaborating and connecting in novel ways to make millions of decisions that move our organization forward, while doing our best for our families.

It is fascinating to see the clarity and perspective we gain, when we have no time, and an endless to- do list to get to.

Clear priorities, and limited time to accomplish them in, enable us to focus on outcome, rather than activity, or hours worked. 

As we return to the workplace, will we prioritize better, eliminate the non value added, and prioritize more on outcome, than activity? 

What do you think? 

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5 tips to lead a high performing team remotely

We are well into the largest experiment of remote working in human history. How we show up as leaders is more important than ever. Here are 5 tips to lead remotely.

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COVID-19 has forced us into the largest experiment of remote working in human history. It has surfaced unique challenges we couldn’t have dreamt about. This is a difficult time for us; from businesses closing and impacting employees, to employees stranded outside their country of residence, to stranded split families, the loneliness and isolation, the vast emotional toll and guilt of not being there for extended families or elderly parents, the hesitation of visiting high risk elderly parents, the sheer helplessness of not being able to get a loved one tested or cured, and the fear and anxiety of not knowing when things will get better. 

As leaders, we are having to learn how to navigate these challenges ourselves, as we lead our teams through it (remotely). If there was ever a time to step up – this is it.

Here are 5 simple tips to help you lead a high performing team remotely, during this time:

Be yourself, be human

Vulnerability is a strength. The key to building and retaining trust is to let people get to know us, our intentions and motivations, and see us in our element, without our defenses.

As a leader, it is more important than ever to:

Define your mindset and approach – We can approach this challenge as an impediment or an opportunity. Defining it as an obstacle to business as usual, will limit us. Defining it as an opportunity to try different ways of working, agile teams, innovative solutions could unlock hidden potential. This soul search lays the foundation for how we show up, and how we lead.

Be transparent – Be transparent about what you know, and what you don’t. Communicate. Sometimes during crises we tend to become overly cautious in what we say. We have to be transparent about facts and let people make their own decisions. 

Show up in your element – I have learnt more about my colleagues in one day, than in months! It is so heartwarming to see my colleague’s adorable toddler and how they interact, their kids running around on a break from school work, their dog’s personalities, their cats walking over the keyboard, their home ‘offices’, the hum of their homes, their spouses buzzing through, and I love it! Don’t blank-wash your video background, please! Your quirks are endearing, not horrifying.

Share what is on your mind – As critical as it is for us not to panic, and cascade panic to our teams, it is equally critical to be honest about our concerns. Preparing our teams for the future, for better or for worse, is our responsibility.

Ask for help – Our teams understand how difficult these times are and they want to help. The more we reach out, and engage our teams as part of the solution, the better the outcome. 

Empathy, Empathy, Empathy

People first. Period. Human life is far more important than economics. People are facing unprecedented hardships. They need us to show up as leaders, have their backs, listen, accommodate and adjust, so they can be effective. 

Working parents / Care givers – Asking what support they need, providing flexible hours, streamlining the work / responsibilities and leveraging the team for help, goes a long way.

Isolation of those living alone or away from family – A Gallup survey last year showed that 21% people feel lonely when working remotely, in normal times. Those feelings are likely exacerbated in our current context. Being purposeful about regular connections is critical. There is no substitute for regular 1x1s.

Mental health and elevated stress levels – These tend to fall to the bottom of our crammed to do lists. It is one of the greatest risks for the wellbeing of our teams. Champion mental health support that is available through your organization, and create psychological safety. And Just Listen. Please …just listen. 

Hours worked – With work and home getting closer, many are working longer hours than ever before. As a leader, it is critical to have visibility to, and check in with your team on their workload and the struggle to maintain the business whilst dealing with a crisis. There is a risk of burn out, and we need to ensure that we identify the early warning signals and provide the right support.

Inspire Hope

As a leader, the greatest service we can do for our people is to connect them to a clear sense of purpose, build hope, optimism and a vision for a brighter future, empower them, and create broad guardrails that foster innovation. 

In crises, empowerment can be the first casualty, as some leaders grapple with the lack of control they feel in the throes of a crisis, like this one. Unfortunately, there are still myths about lower productivity when working from home. At the core, these misguided leaders are focused on the wrong problem. As leaders we have to build the bridge to inspiration. Once we have made that connection, our teams rarely need scrutiny, they need support.

Help the team focus on what matters most

A crisis is very distracting. It is easy to get swept up in a wave of crisis management meetings, endless calls, ever increasing list of priorities, struggling to meet previously committed deadlines, pressure from stakeholders to meet milestones as planned, and the overall pressure of carrying on ‘business as usual’. To add to this, we are stretched thin on the family front, and battling a deluge of information, fears, worries. It is almost impossible to prioritize and focus on the right things. Just trying to sort through the multiple competing priorities can be an ordeal for our teams. 

We can help our people by proactive conversations on what matters most and why, and what is the criteria we want to use consistently to identify the priorities with the greatest impact. This will help drive critical business, while ensuring that our team feels a sense of accomplishment, while helping them make peace with the few things that we might drop. 

Build a sense of community & work in agile ways

Feeling part of a community and knowing that we are not alone, is truly important at this time. Bringing the team together across locations and time zones, focusing on what unites us, what inspires us, what our priorities are, how we are going after it, how we will work together in this new environment (including setting up agile workgroups), what are our expectations of them, and how we will support them, is critical. We need to foster a sense of community so the team members can reach out to each other, share experiences, seek feedback and advice, bounce off ideas, learn from insights, and support each other on this journey. 

As we shelter in place over the next few weeks, or potentially a month, it is important to remember…this too shall pass. 

Never before have we ever had such a real time window into our colleagues lives, their challenges and joys. Strange as it sounds, this remote working thing is bringing us closer. Who we are, at home and at work, have never been more intertwined, than they are today.

My hope is for us to find a way to remember these lessons to lead teams remotely when we go back to business as usual. 

We are all in this together.

How are you coping with the current challenges? Share your learnings, tips, hacks and struggles to lead teams remotely by commenting on this article. If you found this useful, pls ‘like’ and share this with your network. 

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What is the role of Human Resources (HR) in an increasingly polarized world?

Our world is getting increasingly complex, insular and polarized. Companies can no longer sit on the sidelines. What role can companies and HR play to build bridges to a more open world.

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Why on earth am I writing this post? I stayed awake last night worrying about my very diverse HR team, but also my client groups and our organization, and the environment we now live in. How do we as leaders ensure the well being of our teams, keep them secure, focused and engaged, and foster a culture where diversity produces the innovation that businesses desperately need, not just to thrive, but just to survive?

This has been a bizarre week in the US. A Google employee posts a misogynistic memo, Google CEO, Pichai, fires him, range of reactions from calls for Pichai to resign, to concern over employment laws, to white nationalist marches, to the tragedy at Charlottesville. It has been an emotional roller coaster for all.

So what does this have to do with HR?

The world is getting unimaginably complicated. Talented people go to work everyday, including the day after a Muslim ban comes into effect, or the day after an unarmed African American loses his life to senseless violence, or the day after racist marches, … and we pretend that everything is fine and that we are fine. But are we?

The greatest issue is that the behaviors that this environment fosters (both purposefully and inadvertently), are the exact opposite of what is required for the world to move forward and for businesses to grow. So the voice and role of HR, is more important than ever.

The first step is to identify and acknowledge the impact of a polarized world:

Constant distraction – as a consequence of purposeful punches and counter punches and destructive actions from varied groups

Fears over safety and security

Adverse impact on diversity, inclusion and culture

Adverse impact on innovation – we need greater innovation now, more than ever, for businesses to grow. The challenge is that an increasingly polarized world does the reverse. Innovation exists at the periphery of disciplines, schools of thought and is accelerated by diversity.

Topics such as race, religion, politics, ideology, are taboo at work. People master pretending that it is business as usual, … when it is not…

People dig in their heels into their positions, stop listening to each other and lose their desire to understand.

People use completely disparate sources of information and learning, and consume media to reinforce their beliefs.

People struggle to get to common ground and find a way to move forward.

Here’s how HR can make a difference and the role that we can play to move the dialogue forward:

Create a safe place for employees to raise issues – Ask questions, no matter how different or controversial. Make expectations on code of conduct very clear and state explicitly what is acceptable and what is not. Ambiguity can lead to disastrous consequences.

Provide talent increased exposure through encouraging them to explore non-linear career paths that gives them diverse experiences and helps them understand and explore different perspectives. Provide opportunities for cross-mentoring where diverse talent can pair up to learn and explore each other’s reality.

Drive focus on meritocracy – we need to spend more time helping employees understand how meritocracy and affirmative action work together and the synergy we derive. We might think it is obvious to all, but there are constant reminders, that it is not.

Help employees develop critical life Skills – communication, listening, openness, analytical skills, unconscious bias questioning, conflict resolution and finding common ground, etc. These skills are not just critical in an organization but to function in the world. 

Facilitate conversation – I did a workshop this year, with my immensely courageous team. Some skepticism, and anxiety later, we were talking – no, I mean truly talking. Despite our diversity, we had much more in common than we could’ve imagined. The value of a heartfelt conversation is underrated. We obsess over differences without realizing that we have many more similarities. 

Coach leaders – Leaders across levels are the ones taking a call everyday on how to deal with an employee – to let something go, or to coach or discipline. When we equip leaders, especially our front line leaders to have these crucial conversations, and provide them with a support framework, they can be truly effective in driving the right culture.

Drive diversity beyond numbers – Over the last decade, we have seen an obsession with diversity targets, which unfortunately, haven’t truly accelerated the cause. We seem to believe that the business case for diversity is obvious, and again, it is not. We have to find ways of letting employees experience for themselves the benefits of diversity – for e.g. driving diversity at team levels, or showcasing the brilliant work of diverse project teams, etc. This is a fight that has to be fought in the trenches. 

Drive inclusion inclusively – Every voice has a contribution to make to the dialogue. It is difficult to drive inclusion, or find common ground, if employees of a certain race or faith feel attacked.

Keep humor and fun alive – Office banter and humor can be an early unwitting casualty of the ‘living on knife’s edge’ atmosphere. We have to find ways of encouraging and enabling employees to discover joy, fun, and humor at work. It helps to view things, more in amusement than in annoyance.

Provide resources for mental health so that employees can reach out and have a conversation, without judgement, and have access to tools to help them process their emotions- anger, sorrow, grief, fear, helplessness, etc.

Take swift action where someone does not fit into the organization culture or values.

And maybe, just maybe, the ideas we explore in the corporate world spills over into society and creates positive momentum.

Any conversation about what we can do to move the world forward, would be incomplete if we don’t mention the courage of our leaders in these tough and unyielding times. They created positive momentum despite contrarian forces – it was heartening to see > 250 CEOs and senior HR and other executives of the largest US companies pledge their commitment to diversity goals, including Accenture, J&J, P&G, PepsiCo, IBM, Walmart, CBS.

These leaders are doing their very best to protect their team, stay true to their values and are standing up for what they believe in, and pushing with their utmost might to move the world forward.

If there are any leaders who have made a difference to you in these times, give them a shout out here. I’d like to invite you to share your stories and your organization’s on what you are doing to stay positive and hopeful and deal with the current environment.

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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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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?

Photo by Oliver Sjöström on

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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