Xavier Institute of Management and Entrepreneurship, Kochi
Honorable Chairman of the Institute, Dr J Alexander; Honorable President of the XIME Society, Mr P C Cyriac; Honorable Principal and Founder of XIME and Chairman of XIME Bangalore Prof J Philip; Dr Manoj Varghese, Dean Tom Francy, my friend Jose Dominic, Members of the Board of Governors, distinguished faculty, students and friends,
I must start by remarking that I am in awe of what Professor Philip has built here, as a true labor of love.
To the graduating class of 2018, parents and family members, and the faculty – my heartiest congratulations! This is a very proud moment for all of you. A moment, you, the students have worked hard for.
It is a real privilege to be speaking to you today, on a day which marks a point of inflection, as you go out into the world to build your careers.
It is a day when you must feel many emotions. Of pride, in what you have accomplished, of anxiety with regard to the future, and enthusiasm to grapple with the next phase of your life.
I thought it would be fitting, today, to share with you some of my learnings as a recipient of an MBA myself albeit forty years ago. What have I found to be most important for a successful career?
There are three topics I would like to highlight: Expertise, Trust and Relationships.
As you begin your careers, my first advice is that you should seek to gain depth of experience and knowledge in a chosen area.
A professional has to provide expertise that will add value to the organization. The expertise can be functional – sales, marketing, operations, finance, or technological, block chain, AI or whatever.
The days of the generalist are pretty much over.
Today, it is important to become an expert. You need to, at all times, pick an area or two where your depth of knowledge or breadth of experience will mark you out as an expert. And you must pick an area that has relevance to the career you seek.
In my own case, right out of undergraduate college in Kerala, I got selected into the Tata Administrative Service (TAS) program of the Tata Group. The Tata Group was then the largest industrial group in India, today it is one of the largest in the world. I spent about five years with the Tata Group, most of the time as a special assistant to one of their up and coming CEOs, Mr Ratan Tata who became the iconic Chairman of the Group.
That experience was like business school on steroids. I learned a lot and my job was filled with variety. But I felt I was not gaining depth, I was becoming a good generalist but was not an expert. A pretty good Jack of all trades but a master of none. I felt I needed to have an area where I could be an expert.
So I applied to business school in the US to do an MBA at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The School had excellent faculty in Marketing and in Finance. I felt I should pick one area to be my core discipline, my area of specialization. I picked Finance. Over my subsequent career, I have used Finance in different ways and having a specialization has enhanced my value. The key concept I want you to remember here is: become an expert.
In today’s world, to be successful, it really helps to be very deep and very expert in some area. This ensures that you will be sought out, that more opportunities will come your way.
This depth must be complemented by breadth of knowledge and communication skills. Your expertise should look like a T, very deep in one area and quite broad.
So, especially in the first ten or twenty years of your career, you need to pick an area and deepen your expertise in that area. After that, the varied experiences of a progressing career will add tremendous breadth.
Your standing and recognition as an expert rises if you are known in your company and your field. You get invited to interesting opportunities if you are known. You need to be visible.
I recall my own first job in Silicon Valley. I was the controller of a supercomputer startup. I took every effort to connect with the engineers in the company, often explaining to them areas of finance they were unfamiliar with. I could have stayed holed up in the Finance department but instead I stepped out. As a result, I connected with a computer scientist who had ground-breaking ideas to launch a new company. I became his trusted advisor and business partner. We joined forces to co-found a new company. This would not have happened if I were not visible in the company.
People need to know you, and know you are special in some respect. In Marketing terms, you need to be differentiated.
There are a number of ways to enhance personal visibility. The most straightforward way is to be known as an expert in some area. How does one make that leap – from being an expert to being known as an expert? Many of the ways are simple. In your company, take opportunities to speak about or make presentations on the area you work in. Ask to go to conferences where you can present on behalf of your company or department. Be responsive to questions that people ask and word will get around about you. More people will turn to you and talk about you and the effect is viral. Most companies have events when groups of employees are brought together, for company meetings or in training situations. Use these events to share your knowledge in a constructive way. If you take the effort to share, to give, you will get the benefit of being visible and will be seen as a go-to person.
A productive way to enhance personal visibility is by volunteering for an organization that you find valuable.
The second, critical, topic is trust.
Trust has to be earned.
You may be known as an expert, but your organization and the world has many experts. How do you become the trusted one?
You have to start by demonstrating that you are reliable and others can count on you. And you must invest your time and resources to help your team and your organization succeed. To earn trust, you must keep the success of the team and your firm above your own personal needs. Look for ways to make your team successful.
Most importantly, look out for the other person, your colleague or your client, not for yourself. If you are looking out only for yourself, people are not going to trust you.
I will give you an example. One of my best ongoing client relationships and friendships came from a CFO where I refused a substantial piece of work. The Director of IT had wanted me to take on an engagement, a pretty large one, in order to meet his annual MBO goal. When I looked at the project, it seemed to be wholly unnecessary. He was not happy when I said he should not do that project. I told the CFO that it would be a waste of their money to have us or anyone do that project. This had been a rare occurrence, for the CFO to be told by a consultant that he would forego a substantial project. After that, that CFO engaged me in two subsequent companies where he was CFO and then CEO.
The big picture is also that you have to have the commitment, integrity and courage to do what is right for your client or colleague, even if it is at your own cost.
The moral of the story is, looking out for the other person will result in that person looking out for you.
With a foundation of expertise and the earning of trust, you can move to the next level – that of a meaningful relationship.
A relationship is built when you give of yourself, when you share, when you invest in another person.
There is a saying that no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. Relationships come from people knowing that you care. They are built when you share without the expectation of immediate reward, when you “pay it forward:”
The key to developing relationships is to show that you care, to help. Help is most valuable when someone needs it. It is important that our immediate pressures – and there will always be the pressure of current priorities – not stand in the way of our helping when help is needed. The help may mean a lot more to those who ask for it than what it takes for us to give it.
A lot of the help you can provide is very simple. For instance, introducing someone to an opportunity. Or connecting people who you think will benefit from knowing each other. Often such introductions or connections lead to value for the people involved. Such help is so simple and easy that you will not remember it later. But the beneficiaries generally will.
Relationships must be maintained. One must keep in touch. This takes some time and effort but it is rewarding and a lot of fun. Relationships somehow deepen with time and if they are active they become even more meaningful.
Remember, in a career, relationships are a prime source of opportunities for advancement. Every career opportunity that has come my way can be traced to some relationship. Your boss, your peers, your subordinate, your client, these are all important relationships. Your teachers and your classmates should become lifelong relationships.
Relationships provide emotional benefits. Research has shown that people who have friends at work are more engaged in their work. And so many studies have shown that relationships are good for health, for happiness and for longevity.
To sum up, as you look towards your future, do start by building depth and expertise, recognize the importance of earning trust and the role relationships will play in your professional progress and in enriching your life.
I wish you learning, adventure and success.