A Right, A Wrong, & Satya Nadella

Commoditized in exclusivity…

Sept 29, 3:00 pm.  It was an unusual time to be driving to Mumbai.  Monday cruising on the expressway is not exactly my definition of productivity.  But I had no choice.  Not unless I wanted to give my 6 pm rendezvous at the Nariman Point Trident a miss.   It’s not every day that one gets invited to an India Today sponsored CEO-exclusive dinner.  But exclusivity was not the enticing part.  Peer-networking doesn’t do much for me.  So much so, that I must admit (rather embarrassingly) that I have never attended a Nasscom conference.  The Internet has all that I need to appreciate the wisdom of our industry’s thought leaders.  But today was an exception.  The evening’s chief panelist was Satya Nadella.  The topic was – The Leadership Challenge: Innovating to Deliver on India’s PromiseThe stage was bound to be crammed with iconic figures.  They would be addressing massive leadership challenges of national significance.  The proceedings were to be splashed all over the media, but watching it in person would be captivating.  And today, I needed to be captivated.  I was confident that Mr. Nadella and his team would paint such a gripping “big picture” that I would forget about my own trivial leadership mess from earlier in the day…   

8:00 am.  “Take Lester to the vet”. It was a statement, not a request.   I hate missing my morning workouts.  Sure, bringing baby-Lester home had been my decision.  But the subsequent mothering had been Ritu’s privilege. Unfortunately, negotiation was not on the cards.  So off we ran—our dog, driver, and I.  Well, not ran in the literal sense.  Lester was in abysmal shape. One of his hind legs kept buckling as he struggled to limp.  We lifted and placed him in the backseat of the car.  Lifting him is no big deal, he weighs about twenty kilograms less than in his glory days.   The vet’s clinic is a forty-five minute drive from our house in rush hour. When it was our turn, the vet injected him with some antibiotics, and then he was put on an electrolyte drip.  I kept patting him reassuringly whilst making small tender sounds to pacify the nervous Lester.  By the time we returned home, a precious three hours of my day had been lost. It had been a morning of poor productivity. The driver accompanied by a maid could have delivered similar quality, at a lower price point.

11:00 am.  I was half-heartedly waiting in my office.  My first official agenda of the day was to fire someone.  I had to tell him that it was nothing personal, things just hadn’t worked out.  That a senior professional like him should have seen it coming.   That he was a good professional, but a misfit for us.  That my good wishes were with him, and I hoped our paths would cross again.  It was a guilt-laden task, especially considering it had originated from my own faux paus to begin with.  I was a member of the interview panel that had flashed a green signal to bring him onboard about three years ago.   However, he was not directly reporting to me.  So, ideally, his immediate boss should have been doing the axing as the two shared a closer rapport.   But the respective Vice President was finding it difficult to go through the trial and had requested me to step in.

Back to 3:00 pm cruise.  The twin chores had left a bitter taste.  There were too many things on my plate.  I couldn’t afford to get dragged and defocused by these unpleasant affairs.  I was irritated with the two individuals who had conveniently outsourced their trouble to me.  Management books seldom delve on the concept of ‘reverse’ delegation, but somehow my life seemed to have it in abundance.  Maybe, I mused, this learning needed to slip into one of my blogs?  But such musing failed to elevate my spirits.   The ground reality was damp.  On one side there was a loved one who was so ready to call it a day but I was not ready to let go.   On the other side, there was a person who was not willing to go, but I had to force him to quit!  A disturbing contrast.   A dumb creature being nurtured with warmth; an intelligent human being pushed out in the cold.  Maybe this contrast itself justifies the actions?  A helpless creature needs a guardian, while an intelligent being is capable of fending for oneself. The argument is logical. Unfortunately, the tussle was one of the heart.  When the heart rollercoasters from warmth to coldness in a matter of a few hours, it is not easy for logic to stay reined in.  The mind was operating just fine; it was the heart that needed ignition.  I was hoping that Mr. Nadella’s session would provide me a diversion.

6:00 pm.   I made it to Trident in good time. I even managed to grab a cappuccino before show-time.  There were several black suits and ties lurking around.   Most appeared regulars; they seemed to know each other.  They even looked identical every time I removed my geeky spectacles.   My chair was right next to the exit on the last table in the banquet hall.  I had been commoditized to the corners of exclusivity.   Satya Nadella was visible on the raised dais.  He was not wearing a tie.  The strictly-formal stimulation in the invite didn’t apply to him.  He had a flawless American accent.  Quite impressive for a guy raised in India.  He didn’t feel the need to invoke the same adaptive talent to switch back for his desi audience.   The discussion was profound.  I learned a lot about what our country needed.  But I stayed clueless on what I needed.  The diversion had a dead end.

8:00 pm.   I walked over to Satya after the session.  He was flocked by media, bureaucrats and small business partners of Microsoft.   The flockers seemed well-trained on this sort of inching forward.   The enthusiastic ones were even flashing business cards as they elbowed towards the towering figure.  My probability of reaching him appeared slim, but the line of sight was uninterrupted.  Twice I felt his gaze.  So I hung around sheepishly—I doubted that anyone would notice my awkward existence.  Then suddenly I had an opening as two suits ahead of me abruptly moved away.  But before I could scramble forward, somebody standing behind Satya gave his shoulder a friendly tap.  He appeared someone powerful, someone Satya knew.  Satya half-turned, so did I resignedly.  ‘Wait a minute’, Satya told his friend, then turned right back and extended his hand.  I shook it.  I asked him a strategic business question.  He answered.  He was in no hurry to rush.   It was an answer I already knew.  Then he asked if I would like a picture of us together.  I didn’t stay back for dinner.  I was no longer clueless.

satya nadella

Why did Satya reach out to me?  Because he noticed my anguish, he realized that I was being commoditized.  He knew that he was the sole reason I was there that evening.  He was not doing me a favor.  He owed me.  Not too different than my onus towards the ailing Lester and the axed professional.  I was directly responsible for their coming onboard; therefore, it was my dharma to be around when they were going off-board.  Whether my heart needed ignition or not was irrelevant.  For the simple reasonthis was not about me, it was about them.  They both deserved their dignity as they walked away.  Management gurus often talk about patting someone who has done well, and propping up someone who has not.  They are silent about those whose role in the story is all over.  Every walk-away deserves the comfort of the knowledge that he was not just a commodity in your story…



Dharma, Leader, Original, Style

13 Comments

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  1. Your current blog post reminded me of a movie called “About Time”. The movie as such was barely mediocre, but I loved what it managed to eventually convey.
    The story in a gist is that the protagonist can travel back in time. He uses this ability to manipulate several situations into his favour, but with not necessarily the desired outcome each time. Anyway, eventually he realised that he didn’t need to keep doing this to make his life better; that his life was, indeed, something he should cherish. The last scene of the movie shows him going through each of his days twice. He didn’t exactly make any changes, but this time around, he noticed the little things he would otherwise have missed. These little things made an ordinary day extraordinary.
    This, I believe, is an essential lesson for us. To realise that the only moment we are relevant in, is the present. And thus, it’s very crucial to make the most of it.
    I am not sure how relevant this comment is to your post, but I believe this is what I am taking back from your experience this time.

    A beautiful poem by John Keats very accurately narrates what keeps us alive and going, despite the hardships we face.

    A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
    Its loveliness increases; it will never
    Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
    A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
    Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
    Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
    A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
    Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
    Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
    Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
    Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
    Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
    From our dark spirits.

    Happy Diwali 🙂

  2. Bruce Greenwald, the Columbia Business School professor said. ‘In the long run,everything is a toaster.’ In other words, all great innovations eventually become commodities, bought on the basis of price and nothing else. …
    But then, I would say “In the long run we are all dead…”
    Commodity is a misleading guide to current innovation. In the long run, everything is not a toaster. Not even toasters.

  3. Well written sir, loved the inference you derived from the day. A lesson that everyone would want to take to themselves as they end their day, to have a good night sleep. 🙂

  4. very nicely written. I enjoy the flow.

  5. Really interesting post and with a human touch. Certainly a value of human emotion can be seen in this blog along with a management lesson.

    My takeaways are as follows –
    a. What comes to you has to go away someday and its always better to be prepared rather than cry over it.
    b. Self evalation is more important than anything in life.

    Questions I have are possibly an extension to this blog from a professional stand point –
    1. When does a professional know that the efforts, talent have reached cross roads and no longer creating a break even for the employer?
    2. How does one identify the concept of a misfit in time?

    Looking forward for the answers in future blogs which can guide so many professionals which will be a valuable lesson for life ahead.

  6. I never used to read blogs or even you can say stories, however title was so impressive that I have to go through the blog written by Arun …..

  7. Arun, I wanted to say this is undoubtedly your best blog post ever, but then I realized it could just be an illusion as I have felt exactly that way for many of your posts before! Well, I have read this one numerous times (won’t tell how many lest you think I have too much ample time ;-). My key takeaway – and it may not be a takeaway you intended – is that if one can truly connect with oneself like you are able to do, then connecting with the outer world must become effortless. Hopefully that makes some sense.

  8. It’s very rare to find individuals like Mr. Nadella who can look beyond the front line of over enthusiastic self-marketers and rescue the humbler ones from the feeling of being commoditized in exclusivity. Not everyone who finds themselves in that situation is fortunate enough to be pulled out of it.

    Having said that, my perception of your tale is slightly different. In my opinion, the reason Mr. Nadella reached out to you was not because he knew you were being commoditized in exclusivity, it was because he understood you were exclusive commodity. It takes a whole new level of greatness for a corporate magnate like you to even consider yourself a commodity, but it takes an even higher level of greatness to identify one from such a rare breed of personalities as an exclusive commodity!

  9. Mr. Nadella has reached to the CEO position by passing through all the levels of the Organization. He was also a nobody when he started his carrier.
    Hence, as a true leader, he is aware of the ground reality. That’s why he wanted to talk to each and every (most of the) person in the seminar (team).
    Hope this meeting proves out to be very much useful to us.
    Wishing all of us a very Happy Diwali!!!

  10. I been wrong, in contemplating your recent blogs. so here is what I took from this one.

    The family pet responsibility is a shared task, so you got that on your plate.

    The firing of an executive was, to take one for the team. so you did that too.

    in both the cases you fulfilled the task of being the “Cover for me guy”. while in case of meeting Mr. Nadella, where you were at the receiving end, and was not too certain of the approach. He stepped up and reached up to you.
    because, in my opinion “A silent follower is the best leader” . that’s one of my own, so don’t know if make much of a sense.

    but I guess, to Mr. Nadella you appeared to be the silent follower , who has a great potential to be a great leader.

  11. Very nicely written. Thanks for sharing this experience.

  12. A great picture having great leaders!!!

    Having iconic figures like Adi Godrej, Chanda Kochhar and the chief panelist being none other that Mr. Nadella himself; indeed it would have been a grand occasion fuelled with great discussion!

    Why did Satya reach out to you…..bcoz he himself had a journey from a commodity to being an exclusive, so he knew the ground reality and being humble and modest are the silent qualities which a great leader possess.

    We cannot keep looking in the past and be upset about it rather we can take the positives out of it (loved one getting medical help inorder to get better and a good professional who was a misfit might find himself a role where he fits and could eventually shine) and live in the present.

    Wishing your family and you a very HAPPY DIWALI and a PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR.

    PS: Thank you for the great House Dinner.
    Had great stimulating conversations and you and Ritu ma’am played great host. Once again thank you for adding a memorable event in my life.

  13. The blog really makes me think and learn how beautifully a person handles different attitude at playing different responsibilities.Thanks for writing it.
    “The greatest day in your life and mine is when we take total responsibility for our attitudes. That’s the day we truly grow up.
    -John C. Maxwell

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