Over the last 3 days, 3 interesting things happened to me. On Sunday I met a colleague who used to work with TWB about 8yrs back who has come back to work with me. A talented programmer, he lost pretty much everything other than the shirt on his back and he is consumed by the question – why did it happen to him? Then on Monday I was giving a motivational talk at a company when I talk about my own life experiences and “How to be an Entrepreneur on a Salary”. Many people cringed because it is difficult for them to fathom what I went through, and most importantly why? Then yesterday I was with a person who is a spiritual guide to scores of people. He spent a great deal of time telling me that most of the great upsets of my life had a reason and that it shows me I should not focus on dogs, only focus on myself and look for a lower ambition and quality of life.
All these made me cringe in turn. And I ended up asking myself why am I upset about someone finding a reason in their misfortune, or in mine? Isn’t this what pretty much everyone does — looks for a reason for any tragedy that befalls and then make this ‘learning’ into new normal? People who lose a fortune learn to live at a smaller scale, people who have lost in love vow never to love again, people who have lost a dog will never keep a dog again — even though in the scheme of life these are not even real tragedies but mere blips.
The reason for your misfortune
It is an evolutionary trait that people look for patterns in their lives and that includes in their own behavior and that of others. A lot of our responses, fears, motivations come from there. When you’re walking on a lonely stretch hearing footsteps but not being able to see it makes you wary of danger. On the other hand footsteps in the kitchen mean your spouse or kid is back home. By extension, we are trained to look for cause and consequence. What could the cause be of this extraordinary misfortune that has come upon me — this heartache that doesn’t go, this failure at work, this loss of business, this debilitating illness? The reality is that I have suffered not one but all these setbacks and it is not that I have not asked myself these questions. I have lost the person I relied on and loved the most, I lost a successful company and went from being wealthy to bankrupt, I’ve suffered the public humiliation of an arrest covered in newspapers for days and I live with not with one but at least 4 life-threatening conditions. Surely there was a reason each of these things had happened? Surely I could have avoided each of these and maybe I should be wary of trust and looking for contentment over ambition, peace over passion.
The problem looking for reasons
Since all these misfortunes did not come at the same time I have had a lifetime to think through some of this. I realized that there was actually no cause and effect, no reason for any of these things had happened. Most of these are purely random events. Life, for the most part, will not follow the script you wrote. Like someone said life is already happening to you when you are looking for it.
To begin with, we look for reasons for great misfortune in the wrong places — we reason it must be some greater purpose, or some omnipotent force of the universe or some preordained script of our lives. Loss of love and trust of the woman you loved must then mean that in the future you will not find that true love or all women are untrustworthy. The truth is entirely the opposite. The loss of love is a chance occurrence, there is no pattern and it does not point to anything for the future. Asking yourself the reason, therefore, is asking the wrong question.
The other danger in looking for reasons makes you keep revisiting the past to look and obsess with ‘why’ or ‘why me’. It makes you lazy in thinking if this would have not happened I could have been, say, as successful as someone else. It makes you accept reality as you see at the present. It saps energy and vitality from you. It was this what was making me upset – because I was being told there was a reason, there is a pattern and that pattern holds into the future. And I would not allow my future to be held hostage by anything.
I am not alone feeling that. I find that the people I admire most have 2 things in common (1) they have overcome tragedy and pain that would immobilize most people & (2) they rejected the notion of there being a reason for every loss and failure. They rejected it because it makes them avoid the responsibility of making hard choices, and they know that you have to take responsibility to create future success which must now be built on greater odds.
Looking for meaning
Not looking for a reason, but looking for meaning is the real question to ask. Now that this has happened what meaning does it have for me and what meaning does my life have? Irrespective of the reasons for your catastrophic failure, you do not control the past. But you do control the future. You can determine the trajectory of your life and give it purpose. If you look at the most successful people those who have invented things or discovered new worlds or created opportunities for others — they have all found meaning in great odds. The world is better because of people who have lost a child and created schools for orphans, or lost a loved one to disease and started a hospital to cure others of that disease. For the most part, the people who do these extraordinary things are not people with extraordinary means, but they have become people with extraordinary resolve. The resolve comes because suddenly that overwhelming tragedy has given them meaning.
I have found for myself that the reason bad things happened isn’t that it was some pattern in my life. They happened for reasons I don’t understand, or even accept. That also does not mean I am helpless because I have found meaning. Finding meaning is not like a light goes on in your head, it is not easy because it requires you to resolve many unanswered questions, it requires you to plan and act from a place of great adversity. Most of all it requires continuous and lifelong action.
It is hard to look for meaning when you are in shock or grieving but it is creating meaning that has guided me through failure and loss. Each time I’ve suffered a life-threatening condition I have trained myself not ask why or how long do I have to live, but what to do with the years I may have. Indeed from all my own catastrophic failures in loss or money or trust or love, I’ve had to create meaning. It has meant the difference between being a victim of my circumstances or creating my own future, the difference between despair and hope, of living with failure or creating success.
Looking for meaning in great tragedy has taught me not to look at how unfair life has been but to look at it with gratitude. Not to look at betrayal but at trust. Not to look at the loss of love but at love. Not be a victim of the past but value opportunities it has created. Looking for meaning I realized life is not meant to be fair, it just is. And it is beautiful if you find meaning in it.
Clinical Depression is not something people talk about in first person. It is treatable & preventable but the stigma associated with it that keeps people from getting the best treatment and advice
My experience with disease
I have had a long association with disease, and indeed I have worn my ability to survive, take punishment and endure pain as a medal on my chest. By the time I was 7 I had survived severe rheumatic heart disease. By 30 I had survived 2 heart attacks and a broken back and had demyelination of the brain. By 40 I both my carotids had 50% blockages which makes a stroke imminent. And last year my kidneys started failing — maybe on account of the amount of medication since childhood. Right now I am recuperating from surviving electrocution on an 11,000 volt line 3 months ago and the resulting necrosis it caused in my foot. But I’ve fought it all and I just keep on going. I have no doubt that in 2 months I will reach peak fitness again – I can do 500 pushups, 150 pull ups, 250 burpees and run a 1km flat in 1 go. But all my bravado would not prepare me for something that happened 3 yrs ago — and the disease nobody wants to talk about in first person – depression.
I write about here in detail from my experience. And because it is my nature to understand the world around me. I have not taken one pill or had a test I do not first fully understand. I am no ‘blind’ patient to any doctor. I share my experience so maybe some of you can identify if you need help and seek it. And to debunk the notion that depression is somehow related to ‘will’ and you can ‘will’ yourself out of it. Or that that real ‘men’ can’t or rather shouldn’t have it. It is simply a disease and like all diseases, I’ve had. It happens to men and to women. And it needs a 3 pronged approach to be managed – prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
Interestingly the social stigma associated with depression is not new. Analysis of letters, journals and statements show that Abraham Lincoln had depression, so did Sir Winston Churchill, who repeatedly referred to it as ‘the black dog’. They’re the best examples of people with great character, imagination and ‘will’ who have suffered at its hands.
What caused depression
As we will see in a while depression can have many causes. For me, the sequence of events started in 2013 when a whole bunch of ‘dog activists’ and people they hired started a campaign of arson, poisoning, and intimidation against – VOSD the trust that I run to rescue dogs. Jealousy, profiteering, and extortions had been the motives. At first, it was physical assaults against my people, destruction of vehicles and poisoning of dogs. By the beginning of 2014 I was the subject of attack and it took shape of criminal complaints filed against me in different police stations in Bangalore. I was finally arrested in Sept 2014 and it was front page paid news – for 2 days. What happened then is the subject of a TEDx talk you can watch here.
Their idea was to attack my company TWB_ and defund VOSD (which is today the world’s largest no-kill dog rescue & sanctuary). It looked like it would work. For nearly a year I was running around outside the office. My sales and marketing and delivery were not delivering anything as I battled on many fronts. Our revenue fell by 90% in 1 year.
While we made nothing it was hard for me to let go of the company I had built from scratch on my own. Since we were without revenue, I started taking loans to keep running TWB_. The whole of 2014 the offices were still running the staff still paid as I hoped that in the next quarter I will turn it around. But when in Nov 2014 I discovered that instead of collecting $150K in payments from a single customer that was showing in receivables for 6 months we had not even delivered worth a cent to them I knew the game was over. By the 31 Dec 2014, I was the only employee left in the company.
What happened after that was a bloodbath. I weathered it the best I could and kept fighting on all fronts. Some of the best work that VOSD did was in that time – we created fantastic new revenue streams and brands and slowly as work dried up in Bangalore I immersed myself into creating a much better infrastructure at the VOSD Sanctuary. But by the beginning of 2016, I was tired – and disinterested in pretty much everything around me.
How did I find out I was depressed?
By the mid of 2016, 1.5 yrs into the fightback I was a person I was not. I felt terribly lonely. I felt like I was alone and the world was against me. It felt that this is a never-ending fight one I can’t win. It was a tremendously stressful time. I was living day to day. I did not know where the money for the day would come from. The dogs’ expenses were $500 a day. In addition, there was monthly debt that initially was $50,000 a month!
I kept trying to keep the damage to myself — away from my customers — the few I still had. I was hiding the severity of the situation because I knew even they would leave. At home I’d try to act as normal as possible, I had always protected Helen, my wife, who had never bargained for a life of an entrepreneur, from everything that was unpleasant. After our IOUs at less than $100 a month. For years no clothes or gifts were bought even at festive times.
Slowly I got tired of not just any social engagements I started shunning even business meetings and contact. When I had work I found it very difficult to start because of fatigue and a certain state of mind that said ‘you know what it would not make a difference’. I would not sleep well and yet I would be curled up in a ball a lot of the time during the day.
All that pressure has to go somewhere. If the day passed without any major incident or crisis it was a major relief. If it did not, I still had my drink to drink. I was now drinking because it dulled the world around me, kept me sane. I could not sleep unless I drank a lot. But strangely while alcohol knocks you to sleep when it metabolizes you get up so you actually sleep poorly.
I was always fond of drinking but the cheapest thing I drank for many years was still pretty good scotch. I used to joke that my only expense on myself was alcohol and before the crisis I easily drank a thousand dollars of it (in retail prices) a month. Now as my financial condition deteriorated I could not afford to buy a fraction of it. Helen would keep enough for me for the day to buy a quart of the cheapest local rum and I would buy only for the day because that’s all the money there was.
Music has always been a major part of my life. I’d had to sell everything I could — the houses the cars to repay but I still had this kick-ass music rig which is the price of a luxury car sitting in my living room. But I had completely stopped listening to music – I had given up my biggest pleasure.
My dogs were my only bright spot. But with the pressure, I thought of every illness every death as something I was responsible for and I was inconsolable. I felt so much guilt it became difficult for me to face my own babies. Each weekend, while I sat jobless, I would invent a reason not to go to the farm. Michelle Stewart, who used to volunteer with me at the time, would drive 150 km all by herself for me some Sundays.
I had terrible mood swings. I would plan my comeback in my head and think of how I am going to hurt everyone who has hurt me – and there was relief in thinking of retribution. Anyone I spoke to at the time heard me rant and rave about just how much pain I will give back. But that mania would be followed by utter helplessness. Sometimes when was alone in the house I would sink to the bathroom floor crying — this pitiful cry of a wounded animal.
One day Helen had gone to her parents and I called after her. I started telling her I was sorry for what I had done to her and let her down. I said sorry so many times she froze because she thought I was going to kill myself. I had thought at one time it was perhaps the only option. I went to my balcony but I realized I can’t there was no-one to take care of my dogs and I said I will give myself 1 more day to think. That night I dreamt of my baby Cleopatra at the farm. I got up thinking I am never going to go back to wanting to abandon her. A day later I saw an interview of Boman Irani (who is on my friends’ list since the time his dog was ill and unfortunately passed away). He talked about getting a break when he was in his 50s. It occurred to me to win first you need to stay in the game. I wrote to him a long message about what it meant to me to hear him.
I decided I am not going to be in this place. But what was this place and why was I here?
My 1st breakthrough: Knowing I was depressed
I had stopped watching TV but Helen was watching and I overheard and they were talking about depression. It sounded a lot like what I felt! Did I suffer from it? The first person I asked was Helen and I asked point blank ‘do you think I am depressed’. She said she did not know. I then turned to my only other friend and colleague at the time Sangeeta Velegar. I called her and asked the same question ‘do you think I am depressed’. She replied point blank ‘yes you are’. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I asked. She said ‘I didn’t know how would you take it’. “I’m going to fix it” I remember saying, ”will start with a counselor”.
The counselor was this beautiful old frail bird-like woman with platinum white hair. She came to fetch me at the reception area and she was surprised to see me by myself. She said the stigma was such it is routine for people to sometimes be persuaded for years by the family to see a counselor. She was surprised I had called and made the appointment for myself.
I told her I know I can’t just ‘will’ my way of getting back any more than I can will a fracture to heal. If diabetes can be controlled by lifestyle changes you do that if it requires medication you do that. I’m no professional and can’t diagnose myself but I am not going to prolong my misery.
She asked me what was it that I wanted and I said I wanted to just be back to the man I was – I go after things and get them done and now I’m like this cow tied at the end of a stake waiting my time. I’ve never been the one to be persuaded to talk openly and truthfully to doctors or lawyers. I began this twice a week session with her. It was mid 2016, it had been at it a few months and I was getting impatient. The fog in my head was not lifting. I told her I was frustrated and I did not think it was going anywhere.
So she asked me “what causes you pain?” I’d not thought of it because it was this constant feeling I had never broken it down much. It came from betrayal, from bankruptcy, from lack of control, from many places. She persisted. I had to think long and hard before I said “I am a self-made very proud man. I am now accused of attempting to rape a woman I have never met – I feel humiliated by the police, by the accusation, standing in court. I never took money from anyone and made a multimillion dollar company and now I feel humiliated by ex-employees and banks and other creditors”.
My 2nd breakthrough: I found what was keeping me down
She said “Rakesh you have misplaced emotions. Humiliation was the right emotion if you had misbehaved with her and were defending yourself. Or if you had used the money for personal gain. The right emotion is anger. Find a rage against the situation and do something about it”. It was a like a light went on in my head. I let it sink in.
I asked her to recommend me to a psychiatrist because just knowing the problem would not make it go away. I had been reading about depression in the last few months as well. I called and made an appointment with the doctor she recommended for the same day. They had spoken at length before I met but he too surprised seeing me just walk in. The months of going to the counselor I had started working out and drinking less and I was much fitter but I had was a physical pain that made me run and lift less – an unbearable pain in my legs and it never went away. I could not sleep because of it. I told him about it.
My 3rd breakthrough: Medication
He gave me his prognosis – I have acute clinical depression. He explained what it was, what can cause it to happen and explained briefly the role hormones and neurotransmitters. He explained how the pain was not psychosomatic as I had thought but rather caused because of lack of the feedback loop from the legs with the depletion of the neurotransmitters. He asked me reluctantly if I will agree to be on medication and I almost grabbed the prescription. I was desperate to fix myself.
A few days into the medication I felt different. I was sleeping well, my mood had improved tremendously and the pain in my legs had disappeared. I started putting longer hours, I started working out harder. Over an year I felt I did not need the medication it is somehow slowing me, made the world too rosy. I believe stress is a constant and it is a great motivator, though distress is not. I was weaned of the medication. I went back to became the same edgy type A personality I started with before the crisis. I was fitter and fighting back.
What I learned about clinical depression from fighting it
It is a given that most people will feel low at some point in their lives. Feeling low is not depression. But if you feel low for weeks you need help. Depression is categorized as mild – with temporary episodes of sadness, to severe – persistent depression. Clinical depression is the most-severe form of depression, also known as major depression or major depressive disorder. Clinical depression is evident in a loss of interest in normal activities and relationships.
Symptoms of clinical depression may include:
- Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness – symptoms that were very pronounced for me
- Anger, irritability & frustration, even over small matters – symptoms that were very pronounced for me
- Loss of interest or pleasure, in social contact, sex drive & hobbies – symptoms that were very pronounced for me
- Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much – symptoms that were very pronounced for me
- Tiredness & lack of energy – symptoms that were very pronounced for me
- Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased cravings – symptoms that were very pronounced for me
- Anxiety, agitation or restlessness – symptoms that were very pronounced for me
- Slow thinking or body movements – symptoms that were very pronounced for me
- Feelings of worthlessness & guilt, fixating on past failures or self-blame – symptoms that were very pronounced for me
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things – symptoms that were very pronounced for me
- Frequent or recurrent suicidal thoughts – symptoms that were pronounced for me
- Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches – symptoms that were very pronounced for me
Clinical depression can affect people of any age and symptoms are usually severe enough to cause noticeable problems in relationships with others or in day-to-day activities such as work or social activities – symptoms that were very pronounced for me. Symptoms typically improve with psychological counseling, antidepressant medications or a combination of the two, as they did for me.
Triggers for depression
It is often said that depression results from a chemical imbalance in the brain, but that doesn’t capture how complex the disease is. There are millions of chemical reactions that are responsible for mood, perceptions, and how we experience life. There are many possible causes of depression, including faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, stressful life events, medications, and medical problems. We examine them breifly,
Everyone encounters stressful life events: the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, illness or violence, or abuse. While not everyone who faces these stresses develops a mood disorder stress plays an important role in depression. If the stress is short-lived, the body usually returns to normal. But when stress is chronic changes in the body and brain can be long-lasting causing depression. This is what happened to me
It is well known that depression and bipolar disorders run in families. Studies of identical twins show that if one twin has bipolar disorder, the other has a 60% to 80% chance of developing it, too. These numbers don’t apply to fraternal twins. Genetic makeup influences how sensitive you are to stressful life events. Researchers have identified genes that make individuals more vulnerable to low moods and influence how an individual responds to drug therapy.
Early losses and trauma
Research also shows that early childhood losses and trauma such as the death of a parent, or sexual abuse may resonate throughout life, eventually expressing themselves as depression. It is believed that early trauma causes subtle changes in brain function including changes in the concentration of neurotransmitters and/ or damage to nerve cells.
Some medical problems are linked to lasting, significant mood disturbances. Medical illnesses or medications may be at the root of up to 10% to 15% of all depressions. For instance, an excess of thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) can trigger manic symptoms. Conversely, hypothyroidism often leads to exhaustion and depression.
Heart disease has also been linked to depression, with up to half of heart attack survivors reporting feeling low and many having significant depression.
Degenerative neurological conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and Huntington’s disease, strokes, some nutritional deficiencies such as B12, certain immune system diseases such as lupus, some viruses and other infections such as hepatitis, and HIV, cancer and erectile dysfunction in men may cause depression. If depression or mania springs from an underlying medical problem, the mood changes will disappear after the medical condition is treated.
This is the depression experienced by some women after giving birth. Postpartum depression has an incidence rate of 10–15% among new mothers and lasts for upto 3 months.
There is no laboratory test that can be used to diagnose major depression. However, the doctor may run blood tests to help detect any other medical problems that have symptoms similar to those of depression. Diagnosis is based on a psychiatrist performing a thorough medical evaluation.
Depending on the severity of symptoms, the psychiatrist may prescribe antidepressant medication and/ or psychotherapy. There is no one drug or dose and so it may be necessary for the psychiatrist to try different drugs at different doses to determine which medicine works best for you.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the primary medications prescribed, owing to their relatively mild side-effects, and because they are less toxic in overdose than other antidepressants. Response rates to the first antidepressant administered range from 50–75%, and it can take at least six to eight weeks from the start of medication to remission. Antidepressant medication treatment is usually continued for 16 to 20 weeks after remission, to minimize the chance of recurrence, and even up to one year of continuation is recommended. People with chronic depression may need to take medication indefinitely to avoid relapse.
Biochemistry of Depression: Hormones & Neurotransmitters
When we are under stress the hypothalamus secretes a hormone called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH follows a pathway to the pituitary gland, where it stimulates the secretion of another hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). When ACTH reaches the adrenal glands, it prompts the release of cortisol (the stress hormone). Cortisol readies the body to fight or flee and the heart beats faster, blood pressure rises & breath quickens. Normally, a feedback loop allows the body to turn off the “fight-or-flight” defenses when the threat passes. In some cases, though the floodgates never close properly, and cortisol levels simply stay high. This can contribute to problems such as high blood pressure, immune suppression, asthma, and depression.
CRH influences the concentration of neurotransmitters throughout the brain. Disturbances in hormonal systems, therefore affect neurotransmitters and vice versa. Neurotransmitters such as Acetylcholine, Serotonin, Norepinephrine, Dopamine, Glutamate & Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) relay messages from neuron to neuron. The release of a neurotransmitter from one neuron can activate or inhibit a second neuron. The neurotransmitter also affects the neuron that released it. Once the first neuron has released a certain amount of the chemical, a feedback mechanism (controlled by that neuron’s receptors) instructs the neuron to stop pumping out the neurotransmitter and start bringing it back into the cell. This is called reabsorption or reuptake.
The brain usually produces adequate levels of neurotransmitters but during depression, receptors may be oversensitive or insensitive to a specific neurotransmitter. Or the originating cell pumps out too little of a neurotransmitter or if overly efficient reuptake mops up too much before the molecules have the chance to bind to the receptors on other neurons. Any of these system faults could significantly affect mood. An antidepressant medication tends to increase the concentration of these substances in the spaces between neurons (the synapses).
Physical Exercise and Depression
Neurobiological effects of physical exercise and major depressive disorder are well established. Research has shown that exercise is as effective a treatment for depression as antidepressant medication or psychotherapy. Earlier it was thought that several weeks of working out was necessary to see the effects on depression, but new research shows that just a single 40-minute period of exercise can have an immediate effect on mood. I know from experience there is simply no drug like exercise.
What made me a little different from a lot of other folks I know is that I could identify something had changed in my mental state and recognized I needed professional help. I felt no shame in accepting it. I actively pursued medication instead of shying away from it and I put myself on a strict exercise program because I learned hard exercise had a lasting effect in improving how I felt and keeping me there. I know that once you have had an episode of clinical depression, you are at high risk and I constantly self check how I feel and change in responses and behavior. I know it is a disease just like the many others I have and I can keep it in check, as I do with the others. I hope you do too.
What I learned from catastrophic failure and why was it the best thing that happened to me
I could say I have had an eventful life. I’ve had no problems sleeping on railway platforms or railway coach floors when growing up, and once I had the ‘education’ (read doing that MBA BTech thing) I was driven to create ‘success’ till one day everything changed to the point we didn’t have food to eat. Everything that I write derives from my personal experiences and my own dissection. You can see a little of the background in this TEDx talk and these conversations on handling stress, failure and on happiness.
Being that low is not a pleasant place that is for sure. Everything that defines you as you — status, name, people are all stripped away. Rebuilding a life — on the back of daily responsibility of 800+ dogs and 20 staff that I need has not been easy. I didn’t just need cash to service debt which was at one stage about $100,000 per month but I needed steady cash flow for my babies. That left me very limited room to maneuver. It’s like being alone with your hands tied behind your back and you can only wiggle your fingers.
Now however when I look back at it other than the loss of some of those I love the most, my dogs, I see it as a necessary experience. It changed me – for the better. In a recent talk that I gave the host mentioned after my talk that ‘being absolutely bankrupt should be a necessary experience for everyone’. I can’t not agree!
What do I think failure is?
I personally do not use the word ‘failure’ because it kind of means you got knocked over, and could not get up. I prefer to mostly call it a ‘setback’ or say ‘I fell’. However in this conversation I write it in the sense of ‘catastrophic failure’ — to describe a situation such as the one with me (above) and to differentiate it from commonly personal and business contexts which refer to failure as loss of a client, failure of a project, or loss of a loved one. I’m talking about the kind of failures that completely alter the landscape of your relationships, finances, and mental wellbeing. Catastrophic failure is when your physical and mental survival is now uncertain.
As I began to emerge from catastrophic failure I realized something — nobody wants to talk about falling down everyone wants to talk about going up. We celebrate success rather than trials, tribulations, upsets, setbacks, and failures even though taking risks and falling down make us into who we call successful.
The other thing I realized is that I’d never really cared to define the essentials metrics of life but was upset on losing what I had not defined clearly (something I reflect in the talk here). When you’re flying forward it feels great and it’s heady.
Falling down caused tremendous pressures and fractures for me. Financial. Social. Psychological. For the first one year I kept fighting but with it was a war of attrition and I was not winning. At one time I pretty amazed that I was able to stand up at all as I did ran the steeplechase on empty. Falling down that hard stripped away every single thing that I thought defined me. But when I emerged it had given me a brand new mindset. An open-mindedness that balances my aggressiveness. Here are some other things I found that make me think of it is as the most valuable time of my life:
The Perspective I developed on Failure
After when I fell I was so blinded by anger, grief, self-pity, and denial that I forgot that this is not something that was happening just to me. It has happened to the best of us. What we do after we fall is what defines us. And in the immediate — to help us cope. It took some focusing to see that I needed to keep it in perspective.
It has to be looked at in the eye
My catastrophic failure was the result of a complex set of events that occurred in-step. Understanding what happened provides you the insight to who you are and prepares you for the journey ahead. For most situations — acceptance that you are in it and realizing the contours of the problems you face, is the single most important step in getting out of them. Our failure avoidance is so high we do not even want to think about it let alone accept it or examine it deeply. I learn how emotionally unpleasant it is and seemingly lowers self-esteem. On the other hand, analyzing failure required insight & openness with myself.
It is not uncommon
Just as failure avoidance is built into us so is individual infallibility. We believe bad things happen to others and somehow we are immune to them. That is in direct contrast to the inherent uncertainty in our lives with respect to our professional environment, macroeconomic factors, relationships & biological health. I learned that it is not all that you have contributed to – just has success has timeliness as a factor, so does failure. I learned that my own shortcomings were just one part of it and I do not need to blame myself and that because a particular combination of these circumstances occurred that had never occurred before, and might not again. But the one time it did was catastrophic (for me).
It is the best teacher I ever had
Of course, my education and the decades of working gave me great professional experience but in terms of sheer learning, enduring and ingenuity this experience was far ahead. You can read case studies all night but until you have had to terminate hundreds of employees whose families depended on you, who still believed your leadership you realize you haven’t really learned what business, people and money are all about. I learned more about business, people and relationships falling down than I had learned all the years climbing up.
Catastrophic failure is life’s great teacher and it is better at stripping down ego than a decade being a monk. It is also perhaps the only time in your life you will stop and reflect and take your life into perspective and develop meaning from painful situations. Failing cuts sharp like a razor and deep like a sword and it is precisely the reason it is a powerful experience. I learned that failure brought with it important firsthand knowledge which I can use in the future to overcome that very failure that inflicted so much pain in the first place.
It gave me a clean slate
The catastrophic failure took away those things that were the most important for me at the time, but it also took away the greatest millstones around my neck. Working many years and scoring wins TWB_ had become an inefficient company — in quality of delivery to customers, the quality of leadership we had and bloated processes. Most of all we were not fast enough. We were not reinventing we were not paranoid. As much as I was trying to change it was not enough primarily because of my relationships with the people who came into the company when it was young. Catastrophic failure brought about a great discontinuity but it also brought the opportunity of TWB_ being built smarter and better without the cobwebs. I learned that failure isn’t the end of the road as long as you don’t give up. If you still believe in your goals, you can use the failure as leverage to push past the limitations of your past.
It reshaped my priorities and values
When you fail it reorder things that matter to you. Through this time I realized I had to re-envision my goals, not revise them. I needed to see them clearer in my mind. I got an even better perspective than when I started.
It also forced me to look inwards and forced me to make in an inventory of my hopes and dreams. I even put that in a graph which I call the ‘Map of Life’ and that lead me to realize the things that mattered to me most. I also realized that this redefinition of priorities was not just a crucial step of overcoming failure — it a crucial step in building future success.
What I learned about myself
Catastrophic failure did not just give me an opportunity to see failure in perspective, it for the 1st time gave me an opportunity to meet myself. Some of the things I learned were,
About how far was I willing to go to succeed
We all know that to get anything significant you need to endure. The question is how much and how long? If the goal is more important than whatever circumstance you will dust yourself and get back to it. My catastrophic failure really showed me if I had the strength and resolve to pursue my dream.
About Grit, Resilience & Courage
Grit, Resilience & Courage are qualities that I have always respected in others but there is no way of knowing what you think of yourself is what you really are. I always thought I had the ability to keep getting and keep fighting on but only when I tested with catastrophic failure I could learn if you have true grit and if I have real courage. I learned that the process of getting up and putting up a fight is a quality in itself and I had it in spades.
I went from driving about a dozen cars to not being able to take autos because I had sold all of them and my homes to settle debts. I had to really dive into my pockets to take an auto for Rs 75/ $1 for an auto from where I stay to MG Road Bangalore. After 2015-16 I was taking buses to get to customers and would have to walk sometimes 2-3km from the bus stop outside the tech parks where most of my customers were to the buildings they were in. Once I walked into a meeting and realized the sole of my shoe had fallen off. I didn’t want to leave it their reception so I picked it up, took off the other shoe as well and walked out barefoot. From being top of the food chain I have to sit in numerous police stations for days, as I did with tax offices. One day the bank closed my personal and companies account as well. I went from very well off to not knowing where the next meal was going to come from. In that time I learned extremely valuable lessons on humility.
About Friends & Family
I learned that failure acts as a “friend filter,” and catastrophic failure made me learn very quickly who my true friends were. When you’re succeeding, everyone wants to be around you but, when you fail, most of those so-called friends disappear. People who knew me well, and knew what happened and knew what a proud man I was, simply stopped talking to me or taking my calls because I might bring up that I needed help. There were very close personal and professional friendships but at the first sign of trouble they bailed out. It felt very painful at the time as I battled not only a financial disaster but loneliness and hostile debtors and ex-employees. It felt like everyone betrayed me.
At the same time, there were several people I had never met approached me – to help. I was consistently dismissive of them — I had fallen far too hard and lost far too much trust to believe. But they stayed around — and helped with their time and expertise. The survival and now the resurgence of TWB_ is a narrative of this help. From the disaster, I learned the value of true friendship.
How it made me better
It allowed me to define ‘success’
When I fell it was a hard fall and while in the short term I had to confront the immediate fallout of money and the lives of my dogs and just surviving — it took the most important part of me away — I thought myself as successful. And now I was not. The conventional definition is that the opposite of success is failure — but if I saw myself as a failure I would never get up. So I started a long process of thinking through was success meant.
I realized that money, and what it buys is not success. Success is being in a place when your values are aligned with your goals. The way I personally define success for myself is that it is a state that allows me to get up in the morning and do the things I love to do. Even through my worst time – I was fighting not just for myself I was fighting for the survival of an idea – an idea bigger than myself. And while I was broke and millions of dollars in debt, with 650 dogs to feed and take care of every day — in my I was still successful. I realized that when we’re focused on taking something from the world failure is only a moment away. But when we focus on contributing to the world, giving more than we receive, it changes everything.
Do not get me wrong wealth is still a priority for me but I’m not married to money. It’s important because it is a byproduct of business efficiency. And it is important because of what it allows me to create. But I am successful without it nevertheless
It made me look to the future
I know from long years of experience that guilt, shame, regret, and embarrassment are powerful forces. It is like getting branded. But I needed to live not in the emotion of the events but focus on outcomes. Catastrophic failure can either make you or break you. And I had a choice to want to not just survive, but survive in the best way possible, so I had the energy and strength to create future success.
In a strange way, I am back to being a bootstrapped entrepreneur on the wrong side of the 40s, starting off with a huge debt. But I saw that as a problem to solve. Come to think of I have more professional and life experience than most people I know, and I still have a solid 30+ years to create the kind of organizations I started to build. After all, in one’s life, 4yrs is just a blip.
It made me better at handling emotions
That slide wreaked havoc with my emotional state — it was very hard to stay focused and committed when I felt so much pain and betrayal. Many time it was so painful I felt like I couldn’t bear it. But I came away being able to see my own emotions clearly. I no longer define something as a muddy cloud of pain but can see it for its individual elements of where it stems from — and that allows me to resolve it. I’ve learned to focus out what I learn from the experience rather than focus on the emotion.
It made me have more empathy
For the kind of work I do with dogs and children, I would think I have always had empathy. But I realize that most of it came from my ego. It was in some way a continuation of the same theme — of collecting cars or bikes or watches. But with the catastrophic failure, my ego shattered. It was not a priority for me to be concerned with how much money I had or how large was my office building. I became more focused on the cause. I have a deeper sense of empathy because I understand better the helplessness that comes from having no money to eat or for shelter, or for health. The helplessness that comes from not being able to care of the people and things you care for because you can barely focus on your own survival. As with the other problems to solve — I see these as problems to solve with the wealth that I will create.
It changed the value of money for me
I was never very careful about money. I was fonder of spending it rather than making it. I always believed that as long as I did good work it will keep coming and I never cared much how carefully I tracked it. That lack of discipline reflected in the people I surrounded myself with — I mean the beancounters were not careful or loyal. They were the ones leading the charge on the gravy train. The core set of people I have today are careful about money and have proven their loyalty without reproach.
Catastrophic failure led me to re-look at my relationship with money. While I focus on making it, I have evolved into a very different person in tracking and spending it. There is a shift in my mind about where money needs to be spend — for instance in no instances where it is not employed. I’ve learned to respect it and treat with care, rather than spending it with disregard. That I see as a stronger platform on which to create eventual success and wealth in my second innings as an entrepreneur.
It changed the value of time
Some years ago — deep in the 4 year period, I realized that I was running out of time. I did not have enough number of years in my life to do all the things that I wanted to, I did not have enough hours in a day to manage my situation and that ‘time’ is the only real resource I had. That realization alone set me on the path that I became conscious of what I spend time on — and I am much more careful about it than even spending money. I give my time to situations and people that better be worth it because it is only real thing I have to give.
No matter what advantages or disadvantages one has had in life ‘time’ is the great equalizer. No one person has more of it or less than the other. I realize that it was all about what I chose to do with that time that mattered, not how much I thought I had. Having learned the lesson I know I am in a great place to create that success with wealth. My ‘map of life’ also allows me to categorize situations & people that are urgent or important and allocate time accordingly.
The greatest challenge was fighting boredom
Catastrophic failure reset everything in my life. So there are many things I am doing — but for a second time but there is a problem? When goals are new, they’re exciting. Once the newness wears off, the grind is far more real and it that I have to fight — because it is boring and with boredom comes complacency and I am more likely to revert to my old ways.
Life goes on only in 1 direction – forward
Once you’ve suffered a catastrophic event like being absolutely broke it feels like everything you hoped for is now completely out of reach. It breaks you emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. But, what I came to realize was that failure wasn’t the end of the road. Although it hurt more than I care to describe, failure served me more than it hindered me. It helped build me into who I am today.
The perspective I gained from this catastrophic failure I never would have without it. Nothing of importance can be had easy. It was a way for me to learn the lesson to be a fighter, not a quitter. And for me to discover courage & strength.
The thing about failure is you never actually want to think about and, you don’t want to talk about it but it is one of the possible futures. But it is how we face it that defines us. Michael Jordan once said, “26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Companies across India are looking at how to have Diversity at the Leadership level – and mostly they refer to lack of women in management. But diversity is not only about female and male, gay or straight, Hindu, Muslim, or Christian, young or old. It is about the diversity of individuals, ideators and executors, great communicators and less so, introverts and extroverts, controlling type and people type as well.
Diversity and Inclusion are nearly not the same things. Diversity by itself does not make people feel they belong — inclusion does. Diversity by itself does not accommodate differences of opinions — inclusion does. Diversity helps build inclusion by bringing in diverse viewpoints and creating an atmosphere in which people feel valued and have the same opportunities as others. Being an inclusive organization — where people focus on building common ground incorporating a range of views — rather than focus on differences can be a very powerful growth strategy.
Diversity is not a set of affirmative actions imposed on the organization — it is an output of the culture of the organization. Without adequate diversity being a lone female employee in a consistently all-male leadership team or being part of a minority where the leadership team converses in a regional language is common across the Indian tech industry. For an individual caught in that situation, it is difficult to feel motivated.
This McKinsey study shows a significant relationship between a diverse leadership team and better financial performance. The top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to outperform the industry average compared to companies in the bottom quartile. For ethnic diversity, that number jumps to 35%.
If the data proving that diverse organizations are more productive is not enough the cautionary tales from movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp should provide the impetus for tech companies to address diversity in their organizations.
What does diversity do?
Diversity at the leadership level is a consequence of hiring people who bring new perspectives to management meetings. Diversity is good because,
- It gives you a larger pool of ideas: Diverse leadership teams have a larger pool of experience and points of view to draw from, which can help with finding solutions to problems and generating new ideas.
- It increases staff retention and motivation: Seeing people ‘like them’ in positions of power is very inspiring for employees to stay longer in the organization and strive for promotions themselves
- It gives you a larger talent pool to choose from: Diverse organizations find it easier to attract great and have a larger talent pool to choose from.
- Makes for better business linkages: People from different groups and backgrounds often bring unique connections with them, which can lead to more networking opportunities for your company.
- Makes for better Communication: Diverse companies are less likely to create tone-deaf and sometimes offensive communication than if they had a more varied group of decision-makers.
Lack of diversity stems from bias
People are hired on the premise that they can perform on the job and technical evaluations are pretty accurate. However, most organizational problems stem from a different place — that people don’t get along with other people. Biases in hiring and working together are the greatest bottlenecks. Families, friends, peers, education, religion, ambition etc influences how we see the world, and ourselves. These biases also shape our perceptions of what people are capable of.
A lecture on diversity will not erase these biases. Diversity is deeply related to culture and culture is difficult to change. If it must then it must first change at the top. Developing diversity involves a cultural change and requires workshops, identifying and creating role models but most of all it involves a commitment by the organization’s leadership.
The first step towards building diversity is actively seeking diverse people and seeking information from this diverse group. People from diverse backgrounds need to be seen as key variables in the process of problem-solving and decision making. Building diversity across an organization can only happen if there is an atmosphere where they can express their views without fear of repercussion. They can approach colleagues and manager for help and will not be viewed as weak if they do.
The Diversity Checklist
- Leadership commitment: The first step is having leaders within the organization become visibly involved in programs affecting organizational culture change and articulating policies that govern diversity. To do so, you must display leadership that eradicates oppression of all forms.
- Having a Diversity and Inclusion strategy is not enough: Having a strategy has no meaning if it is not reflected in who the company hires and promotes. It only when the CEO downwards the organization realizes that to be the best they need to embrace diversity there is has a higher probability of being really inclusive, including right at the top.
- Hiring from a range of backgrounds: Hire people who can bring new perspectives to your management meetings and relate personally with a wide range of your employees. But making culture more inclusive the first stop is the leadership team. Employees will always notice who you promote into positions of power.
- ‘Diversity quotas’ are a double-edged sword: When you set ‘diversity quotas’ for your organizational and leadership teams, ensure that you are not dismissing good people for the sake of diversity. You don’t need a checklist of genders, ethnicity, religions, abilities and sexual orientations to promote talent you need caliber.
- Building high-performance teams: Moving your workforce from larger organizations to teams that use the full potential of every individual is a great idea. Teams focused on objectives are forced to accept others for what they are.
Diversity is not just diversity in race, religion, sex, age but it is what makes an organization succeed — and typically that requires men & women, introverts & extroverts, controllers & thinkers, dreamers & doers, organizers & team members to reach the organizational goals.
This is my third entrepreneurial innings. With the first, I managed to create a bootstrapped world leader called TWB or The Writers Block that serviced the largest Fortune 500 B2B tech leaders in the world. TWB made money from the 1st month and grew on its own cash flow. The next 2 startups, which I did not choose, are called TWB_ (called TWBShift, essentially TWB2.0) and VOSD.
After 10 yrs of creating a world-class company TWB_’s fall was terrifying and total. In less than 6 months I was the only employee left in the company, from a few hundred earlier. And I had lost all offices, bank accounts, phone numbers even web servers as every rupee was employed to repay. As lenders moved in, employees and customers left. Some of that fightback is the subject of the TEDx talk here. The choices I had to make, the pain and the resurgence while interesting and with a hundred priceless lessons is not the subject of the talk today though.
What IIM Bangalore grads wanted was a view on how to help create this large enterprise to help dogs. The case study is not your average startup situation though. You don’t make a business plan, find friends and family, then angel investors then try to get yourself funded on a blue ocean dream. This is a knife fight and you’ve your hands tied.
Soon after TWB_ went down both my company and personal bank accounts were closed – and no the banks don’t ask you. There was no way for me to find any money. I’ve seen a time when I could only find private loans at 25% pa for a year — where you pay the interest upfront! And then when things sank further I had to find still more — which I got at 1% per day! For ₹ 1 Cr that is ₹ 1 lac a day. These are the kind of guys you watch the movies about – they don’t ask you to sign anything to give me money but you can’t not pay nor delay. If anyone’s has watched “The Girl In Yellow Boots” the local Kannada hudga at Kalki Koechlin’s doorstep is a pretty accurate picture of what I refer to. If you thought VCs are ruthless people you should meet one of these. They don’t threaten you with a term sheet and diluting your equity to put it mildly.
The problem definition
Could you turn around and start delivering on a $100 Million business plan from there with a revenue run-rate of ₹ 4 crores in Y1?
THE LIABILITY SIDE
- You’re the only person in your company. You’ve liquidated all assets. You’ve no address, your emails don’t work your website doesn’t either.
- You’ve got debt that runs into millions of US$. Banks agree to reschedule over a 3-4yr term but sundry creditors they want it all now — at one time together it peaked at ₹ 35-40 lacs a month.
- No matter what you pay back each month you got to find ₹ 10-15 lacs each month for your dogs – that is non-negotiable. They got to eat and they got to have medical care.
THE ASSET SIDE
- You still have a brand (TWB) that means something to customers – you can only deliver on what is not capital intensive and really high margin. TWB_ today focuses on the highest margin business.
- You have terrific goodwill with VOSD (the world’s largest no-kill dog sanctuary & rescue) – you could leverage that to create revenue streams provided you did not have to invest at all!
- You have an individual with exceptional branding talent — for a period of the first 2 yrs. She could allow you to rebrand and make a fresh new identity that still builds on what worked in the past.
- You have an individual with terrific marketing and technical/program management capability — for the next 2 yrs. You can rebuild your go to market assets. But you can’t do both.
- Phase 1 (first 2 yrs) of our execution was branding and short-term revenue. Phase 2 (next 2 yrs) was rebuilding the infrastructure and basic teams and assets to launch.
- TWB is already finding the run rate we had the 1st time and I expect Y2 to be the same top-line where we left off 4 yrs ago. In other words, we will do in 2 yrs what we took 10yrs the 1st time!
- VOSD has created a portfolio of multiple sub-brands some driving engagement some driving revenue but all focussed on dogs. This includes VOSD DOG CARE a complete dog care brand available nationally. BARKING MAD – India’s largest for charity standup property. MONSTER BAKE – India’s largest for charity bake sales. ART FOR DOGS that brings together India’s top artists. STARS FOR DOGS – that brings together India’s biggest celebrities for a cause.
So how do you start creating a $100 Million business on a negative $5million base with 0 people? Answer: With ingenuity & gumption. When you can’t employ money and timing in business you apply ingenuity and fortitude and we’ve done that in spades. I’m still bootstrapped other and than those 4yrs I’ve always been cashflow positive – from Month 1. How’s that for a fightback?
Dreading work is common. That’s why weekends were invented. Ah, it’s the weekend! Oh, it’s Monday!! Or you have a new assignment or a new boss or a restructuring is going on or maybe you’re simply bored in your role. And you ask yourself the question: Why am I doing this? Does my work have any meaning?
The quest for “meaning at work” impacts every job productivity and retention metric. Consider this:
- A survey of 12,000 employees across companies and industries found 50% lacked meaning and significance at work (see The Energy Project).
- Employees who derive meaning from their work are 3 times as likely to stay with their organizations, have 1.7 times higher job satisfaction and 1.4 times more engagement with the company.
- “Meaning at Work” impacts longevity and productivity positively more than other ‘job satisfiers’ including:
- Learning and growth
- Connection to a company’s mission, and
- Work-life balance!
So what can companies do to make their employees feel that their work has meaning? The short-term answer seems to be — making employees feel happy. Terms of employment, lavish cafeterias are all answers to that question — make employees happy. However, this ‘happiness’ is temporary. The other is to make jobs more creative, less monotonous and facilitate a sense of meaning with a career path. But they are still answers to different questions. A more significant one is to give the job meaning and purpose. So what then in meaningful work?
What is the meaning of “meaning”?
Happiness isn’t the only ingredient to a life well-lived. Sometimes it’s not even a criteria. On the other hand ‘meaning’ is what causes people to go into unknown territories, motivates to do things out of the ordinary and causes personal growth and long-term satisfaction.
The trick is there is no one meaning of “meaning”. While it is important for each of us, it is also different for each of us. In the corporate context, one way to define meaning is through its negation: while companies are rarely good at finding “meaning” poor leadership is connected to a loss of meaning very quickly! There is a lot of research which shows meaning at work can be enhanced if employees have an opportunity to realistically reflect on their work & their contribution in the company and their respective lives. A few steps that are known to enhance this are (a) a culture of ethics (b) keeping high moral standards (c) executing on social responsibility that employees can support.
What can management do to give meaning to work?
The following steps allow management to engage with employees in a way that they find work life more meaningful:
- Discuss the meaning of the organization & their contribution to it: When employees understand the purpose of the organization and the positive impact it has on business and communities it allows them to be a part of something meaningful. This works best when employees have a clear view of the company’s goals, values and vision and plans for the future. Management should explain how every role impacts the greater organization. When employees see how their work contributes to that big picture it enhances their sense of meaning and purpose.
- Culture and community: Management should help their employees feel connected to communities or other employees that are impacted by the company’s products or services, so they understand clearly who it is that they are helping.
- Create a purpose: What is the difference between these 2 mission statements (a)“To be the most successful computer company in the world” and (b) “To be the most successful computer company for the world”? They point to a major meaning trap. When you say ‘for’, meaning comes from the impact of our work on others. People aren’t inspired by what they do, they are when they know they matter to others.
As an employee what can you do to give your work meaning?
The first thing to remember is that purpose is built, not found. Working with a sense of purpose requires thoughtfulness and practice. Here are some things you can do to find meaning at work:
- Become conscious that other people matter: If you have meaningful relationships at work you will find more meaning at work. A Gallup study found that the most engaged workers report having a best friend at work. Those reporting higher meaning are not necessarily those who are doing more, but those who have more meaningful relationships.
- Build social experiences: Purpose can be found in the simple things that connect colleagues. Sincerely asking a colleague how they are because you are genuinely interested not because it is small talk, will give meaning to both of you!
- Find what fuels you: ‘Meaning’ is not a vague idea it is tangible and you must look for it for yourself. If you value contribution find out how you can contribute to a group, or a customer or a community. If you value humour do you make colleagues, and customers smile?
- Don’t invest everything at work: Work gives meaning your life but it is only 1 of 4 parts that do — faith, family, and community are the others. Life’s’ portfolio is a balance between these 4 things — faith in something bigger than each of us, your family that you nurture, your community that you impact, and success through meaningful work that creates value. Learn to focus on each in turn.
- Write a personal statement: One way to create more meaning is to define your purpose by making a personal declaration of purpose. It is a simple, succinct, jargon-free, and expressive. A statement about how you decide to live each and every day. For instance “I’ll always give my children the best opportunities they need”. Just stating it gives your life purpose even though nothing else in your job has changed. Now you know it has mean because it drives a purpose.
Purpose isn’t magic. It is something we must create. The fact is most of us don’t work for fun. For the most part, we work to earn money and to pay bills. Work in itself is a meaningful act of service — parents often work hard for their children, some work to support ageing parents. Focussing on what brings meaning to them will create meaning in your own life. With the right approach all jobs are meaningful.
Technical Managers moving into Management roles is a script that plays out every day in large tech companies. Managers with the best technical expertise and ability to reach performance goals consistently are the first consideration for senior management roles. It is clearly an expectation from managers that they are promoted to management, the management thinks it is great because it represents continuity and that deep understanding of technologies, products and systems. Until it hits everyone.
The new management candidate gets increasingly frustrated because they spend little time using their technical skills and instead on “people problems,” navigating office politics, and coordinating. Such a transition hits hard because there is a no clear fit of existing skills to new professional demands and there is no quick way to acquire them. In this article, we’ll explore how the HR/ Management of the company, the Tech-manager can make the transition. This transition can occur from early to mid-career roles, and again from mid-career to management. Here’s what each of the participants in this situation should need to consider to get Technical Managers to move into Management roles:
The HR/ Management checklist to promoting Technical/ Functional Managers
Making this transition to Mangement roles gets harder as the candidate gains years and experience — so the first thing to consider is transitions that come earlier in career say in the middle management level. To begin with, how do you determine that functional/technical manager is a good candidate for a management role? To begin with they should have demonstrated these skills:
- Great Communication & People skills: (S)He has strong great writing, oratorial and presentation skills as well as people skills.
- Willingness to suspend ego gratification: to concentrate on helping others succeed: Management is about ensuring success at an organisational level and is not about pursuing personal success or fulfilment as much as it is one’s colleagues and co-workers.
- Strong ‘hard skills’: They need to not only have great organizational, project management, and budgeting skills management requires being able to task-switch among them. It also requires overall inputs into detailed deliverables, and to manage — people, time, technology and money — in getting things done.
- Strong strategic thinking bias: They need to have a deep understanding of how the technology works to help businesses and organizations meet their goals and objectives. This requires an understanding of the risks and rewards that technology presents, and how to produce the best returns on customers’ investments and activities.
- Ability to manage communications in both directions: Success depends on understanding the needs of those above and below them in the organizational chart. Stakeholders are on both sides with management the incumbent has to communicate to both sets carrying expectations, instructions but most of corporate goals and actions to produce the most positive outcomes possible.
The Technical/ Functional Managers checklist to Management position
If you are a technical or functional manager moving into a management position you need to prepare yourself these 2 fundamental shifts:
- The first is your mindset has to change — Your technical knowledge is only limited help in your new management role as you now have to focus on the skills and successes that involves multiple functions and teams.
- The second is that your identity in the company will change –Being a superstar in your functional role will not save you from starting at the beginning again, and you need to be prepared for this “identity demotion.”
Here are some steps you can take to make your transition into a management role smooth
- Solving Strategic Problems: You need to translate problem-solving into a management context. Problems will require multiple functions within the company and other industry players etc to solve. Reading on cutting-edge business thinking can allow you to think & engage on a broader front.
- Build a cross-functional understanding: Technical Managers frequently have a narrow worldview. Unless you understand and leverage the marketers, sales, operations and and others, you will struggle to move beyond your role as a technical manager.
- Find a mentor — Look for someone in your organization who has succeeded in a management role coming from a functional role. A mentor can help you avoid some of the mistakes that they made and help get across to the right people within the organization critical for your success.
- Stay away from technical work– Resist the temptation to get involved with technical projects that aren’t your responsibility.
- Meet with your reports and their teams — Meeting them allows you to find out what interests and motivates them, and they have the professional environment necessary to be successful in their role. It also allows you to find out what your team expects from you.
- Be a good communicator — You need to learn how to write, learning how to speak and learn how to behave as ‘management’. Emails need to be crafted with care and sensitivity. Communication needs to demonstrate your intelligence, knowledge and thoughtfulness.
- Dress up: Your colleagues, the industry and ecosystem you inhabit expects it. Always dress the part for the position.
Technical & functional managers from IT, finance, sales, or marketing are promoted to management because they know their job well. The problem is that they have little management experience and most organizations offer very little management assistance. In a management role instead of focussing on macro influences, strategic issues, and “people aspect” of their new role, they continue to stay in their comfort zone — their own projects and technical skills. It is important for the organization to focus on how to make the transition smooth so the organization benefits from the deep functional understanding that the incumbent brings as well as fresh ideas and thinking.
How many of your management team are true leaders — those who can inspire the organization, set a vision, teach important lessons, define culture and explain what the organization. Of those who are, how many are great communicators? Turns out some of the leadership and all of the communication are learnt skills. The easiest and the most powerful communication skill is telling great stories or ‘storytelling’.
Storytelling is critical for management and leadership because very often nothing else works. Graphs will leave listeners untouched. Conversation and dialogue can be too didactic. But the same listener can be moved with a great story. Storytelling in the business context translates abstract numbers into compelling statements of a leader’s goals — by drawing the listener(s) into the story. Though business cases are made of hard numbers, stories make them spring to life because storytelling can show causal relationships. The question, therefore, is not about telling or not but rather to tell them unwittingly and clumsily or intelligently and skillfully. Storytelling can be learned by anyone who wants to be a leader — CXOs, Senior and Middle management.
Why is storytelling important?
In a meeting or a talk in a short time-span, a leader can communicate maybe only 1 or 2 powerful ideas. Storytelling, however, allows for multi-layered complex ideas to be told since they are not sequential but interwoven. It is this association that and sharing of complex ideas that can allow leaders to – spark change, transmitting values, share knowledge and lead people into the future.
Leaders establish credibility through telling stories. The audience can feel and respond immediately and deeply. Stories can communicate complex ideas, break status quo, generate interaction & transformation. Rather than merely advocating and counter-advocating positions through constructed and business focussed meetings, talks, emails and other such communication a story, especially a personal one, breaks through the acceptance barrier. Communication becomes empowering – even as the leader comes across as more vulnerable – yet someone who is still a leader because (s)he has persevered.
Why is storytelling so powerful?
Storytelling draws in the listener and draws on the active, participation of individuals as against conventional management focuses on lifeless elements – mission statements, strategies, processes, budgets and assets. Stories make people discover a degree of coherence that is otherwise very difficult to achieve — something that has been an underlying principle of psychotherapy.
When a listener hears a story that touches him or her they feel their lives have a meaning. This feeling eventually vaporises and the listener inevitably falls back into an everyday pattern — but with the difference that a radical shift in their lives have taken place and their motivation and behavior are primed for change.
What makes a good story and a good story-teller?
First and foremost the story needs to be personal and it needs to imply values. People make deep associations with leaders that have the courage to tell a strong personal story, and where the story implies certain values. The second is that the audience associates with people with a ‘consistent’ self‐image. For a leader, it is important to have a clear view of a personal life‐story that is aligned that is the thrust what you want the audience to see.
The leader tells a story to show people who they are. Their identity as an individual doesn’t lie in their roles, it is in the one‐of‐a‐kind person they have become as a result of the experiences they’ve had. The leader must tell stories interactively and model it on a conversation — that creates a relationship between the leader and the listener that is symmetrical — such that the listener could speak next. It is this feeling with the listener of being in an open conversation that the leader is vulnerable that the listener is drawn ‘into’ the story.
Types of storytelling
- Style: The leader should tell the story as if it were being told to a single individual. The story should be kept simple, focused and clear with no alternate points of view.
- Don’t argue the truth: The leader should offer listeners an unobstructed view of the truth and listeners will see it and recognize it for what it is — that any reasonable person would have to agree.
- Practice ease: Only 7% of the meaning of a communication came from the content of the words spoken 93% comes from nonverbal communication. The leader should seem spontaneous. They should choose the shape of the story and stick to it. Practice ease.
Points of action
The story needs to have an end in mind — what do you want the listener to do when the story is over? These could include:
- Sparking action: The story describes how a successful change was implemented in the past, but allows listeners to imagine how it might work in their situation. Communicating who they are – provides audience‐engaging drama and reveals some strength and vulnerability from the leaders past.
- Transmitting values: The leader uses believable characters and situations and ensures the story is consistent about values and actions. This feels familiar to the audience and will prompt discussion about why they can’t follow the same values/ action too!
- Sharing knowledge: Leaders focus on problems and shows, in some detail, how they were corrected and why the solution worked and solicits alternative – and possibly better – solutions.
- Leading people into the future: The leader evokes the future they want to create without providing excessive detail that will prove to be wrong.
No matter how compelling the numbers of sheets, charts or infographics if they require people to act in unfamiliar ways that is unlikely to happen. But effective storytelling often does. Storytelling can inspire people to act in unfamiliar ways. And remember storytelling not only gets the message across effectively, its incremental cost is zero.
Someone working a 12-hour workday 7 days a week but finds a way to relax likely has no problems with burnout. They’re working hard and that’s the state you should be in.
- The Compulsion to Prove Oneself: demonstrating worth obsessively
- Working Harder: an inability to switch off.
- Neglecting Needs: erratic sleeping, eating disrupted, lack of social interaction.
- Displacement of Conflicts: problems are dismissed; we may feel threatened, panicky, and jittery.
- Revision of Values: Values are skewed, friends and family dismissed, hobbies seen as irrelevant. Work is the only focus.
- Denial of Emerging Problems: intolerance; perceiving collaborators as stupid, lazy, demanding, or undisciplined; social contacts harder; cynicism, aggression; problems are viewed as caused by time pressure and work, not because of life changes.
- Withdrawal: social life small or nonexistent, need to feel relief from stress, alcohol/drugs.
- Odd Behavioral Changes: changes in behaviour obvious; friends and family concerned.
- Depersonalization: seeing neither self nor others as valuable, and no longer perceive own needs.
- Inner Emptiness: feeling empty inside and to overcome this, look for activity such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs; activities are often exaggerated.
- Depression: feeling lost and unsure, exhausted, future feels bleak and dark.
- Burnout Syndrome: can include total mental and physical collapse; time for full medical attention.
To my mind, ‘depersonalization’ is the red-line. Beyond that lies substance abuse and the classic symptoms of someone struggling with debilitating stress (read here on how to identify and address it). Having lived on that 1 to 12 continuum for the better part of 3-4 yrs I can tell you 4 things that you can do to help yourself immediately.
- Discipline: Seems like the advice from a generation ago, but it is the simplest way of snapping out of that state. The discipline of getting up and doing what must be done makes for half the sense of purpose and well-being. Start with getting up early, to begin with.
- Breaking down tasks: Looking at the problem in its entirely keeps making it appear large and you keep alternate between throwing more time at it and freezing in front of it. Break it down and attack a smaller chunk. It causes you to feel better and focus on the next chunk.
- Taking time off social media: (A) It sucks away your productive time into what looks like work but is not (B) Subliminally you focus what is the ‘reality’ you are being shown — fabulous vacations, great social lives and perfect families. The truth is almost certainly most aspect of their lives suck. Now get back to yours.
- Excercise: Its the one thing that will change everything in terms of your mental well-being. Walking around for an hour is not exercise. Sweating it out for just 10 minutes so you can’t stand is. Focus on pushing yourself for a shorter time. Everyday.
I will share later here on how to put it to practice, and in my talks, if I do one near you.