A Discussion on the Book- Catalyst: The ultimate strategies on how to win at work and life

A Discussion on the Book- Catalyst: The ultimate strategies on how to win at work and life

Instead of a format involving long speeches, NHRD Bangalore Chapter went in for a conversational method to introduce the author and the gist of the book to the audience. The conversation was between the author Mr chandramouli Venkatesan, presently CEO, Pidilite industries and Mr Anand Kripalu, MD & CEO Diageo. Both of them have rich experience with other companies and have worked together in Cadbury. It was agreed that Chandramouli would introduce a concept that he has included in the book and Anand would share his experience of actual application of it on the ground.

‘Catalyst’ in chemistry is “a substance that causes or accelerates a chemical reaction without itself being affected.” Here, for our purpose, it may simply be referred to a thing/situation/ initiative or environment that precipitates an event/ change for success in an organization. I have written this blog in the same conversational style adopted for the evening. It may please be noted that the words used are not an exact verbatim of what was spoken but contains the main gist of the conversation. For our convenience, we will refer to Chandramouli Venkatesan as CV and Anand Kripalu as AK.

CV: I would like to start this discussion by underscoring the basic ethos of this book “Catalyst”, which is to help people succeed. Although most of my career was in marketing, I have served for three years in HR as well. I therefore have an affinity for HR and can relate to the role. As all of you are HR leaders, I would request you to wear your HR hat also, whole through this discussion and approach the content with the thought ” How can I help the people in my company succeed?”

A person will get what he deserves. Therefore, focus on equipping yourself for deserving more and you will end up getting more. Merely wishing for more without taking action to deserve more will not lead to success.

AK: When I look at my life and career, I see that events simply followed one another and before I realized it, time was almost up and I had reached the final stages of my career. There was no time spent on asking questions like “Why I became who I am?” or on pursuing the answers to such questions. ‘Catalyst’ provides insights in this direction. If I had Mouli’s book to guide me from the early years of my career, I believe I would have done even better. I would have been able to look at various aspects of work and life as ‘the glass being half full rather than half empty’.
Growing Yourself
CV: ‘Growing yourself’ happens when the time you spend at a job is converted into experience. The time that is spend on a job does not mean that the employee has profitably gained exactly the same amount of experience. If two people have worked for two years in the company, one of them may have gained an actual experience of five years while in respect of the other, it may be only six months.

When an interviewer is selecting a candidate, he is not doing so based on what the person has done in the previous company but on what the person will do in the new company based on, what he has done earlier.

AK: This aspect of a gap between time and experience was very clearly visible to us during the takeover of UB group by Diageo. Many executives who had been working in UB for years and had grown from the level of managers to senior positions including to that of VP, believed themselves to be competent and successful. However when their competence /experience was tabulated against the Diageo evaluation, a good number were found to be much lower than the assessment standards.
Personal Productivity
CV: Personal productivity is to be assessed on the impact of the activity- What an employee has done and what could have been done better. An executive needs to grow and raise his productivity to the levels of the higher positions aspired for.

AK: When I joined Cadbury, the company was doing too many things- focusing on too many activities and innovations. Too many brands were being handled without prioritizing them. As a result, the business impact from any one brand was negligible. I took a decision to kill five brands. Such decisions are painful, as a lot of efforts have gone into building them. Yet it had to be done in the larger interests of the company, which resulted in better focus on the remaining portfolio leading to increased growth.

Management time and attention is very limited and hence it needs to be focused. Be exceptionally deliberate where you spend your time. I found personally that “doing less is more” as we shift focus to doing better, less number of things. I devised a calendar at the beginning of the month that highlights the top 10 things to focus on during the month. Anything other than the top 10 were passed on to others to address. As a result, delegation also improved in the organization.
Career Management
CV: We have been told since ages the story of the “Hare and the tortoise” with a moral at the end which states “Slow and steady wins the race”. Today, everyone wants to be the tortoise and win fast. While I also do not advocate being slow like a tortoise, it is necessary to manage one’s career sensibly.

If we were to divide one’s career into two halves, a first half and second half parts, what is most important is succeeding in the second half. The success in the second half will depend on the amount of foundation work you have put, in the first half.

AK: During our time, the batch mentality was a big issue. Some of the guys in our batch who went ahead in the first 15 years (first half of career) were subsequently nowhere in the horizon. In my own case, I was saddled with the ‘nonsexy’ jobs, read ‘outside the comfort zone’ jobs, which I disliked at that time and thought that they were leading me to a dead end.

Looking back however, these assignments gave me the best learning and helped me in the second half of my career. They provided the momentum to develop skills such as ‘ability to deal with cultural differences’ that bore fruit in the second half. As in the case of a one-day or 20:20 cricket match, there is no point in merely succeeding in the first half of an innings. Winning in the last four overs is what really matters!
Quality of Bosses and Mentors in your Career
CV: During the first 20 years of a person’s career, the quality of the bosses and mentors he/ she has had matters a lot. If people do well in the second half of their career, a lot of the credit should go to the leaders in the first part of their career. Therefore, it is important to increase the probability of getting good bosses.

What is it that one can do to get quality bosses/mentors? One way is to be a good subordinate so that the quality bosses would love to have you in their team. Another way is to look out for companies that have a higher percentage of good bosses and work in one of them.

AK: Yes, good bosses play the role of investing in you and nurturing you so that you blossom in to an effective employee. When I first joined Ponds, I was one of the 35 mangers in the company. With its merger with Unilever, it was like getting lost/merged in an ocean and there was this need for guidance and a mentor.

Here, I met a very tough boss who set the bar very high. At that point of time I really hated working for him. However, it was from him that I picked up traits of rigour, analysis and proposal making that stood me in good stead whole through my career. Although very tough, at the end of the year, he took care of his subordinates and watched over their growth.
There are other good bosses as well who have supported me in tough times.
Being a Good Boss
CV: A ‘good’ boss is not necessarily equivalent to a ‘nice’ boss although a good boss can also be nice. The main job of a good boss is algorithm building or changing the algorithm of people in line with the requirements of the organization.
(Note: The actual words used by CV is ‘algorithm building’. In our context, it could be interpreted to mean enhancing step-by-step ability of team members to solve the problems in one’s area of work and the problems of the organization).
Quitting and Joining Decisions
CV : Quitting or joining an organization is to be seen as separate decisions with one not influencing the other. Don’t quit because you got an opportunity in another organization. Quit only if you have reasons to quit which should be because there are no more learning opportunities or you find that there is no longer a cultural fit with the organization.
AK: I quit Cadbury within a period of three years after a hostile take over by Kraft. The reason was a slip in the culture of the organization. It felt like we were losing the ethos of our company and all it stood for, consequent to the take over..
CV: Before quitting. it would be worthwhile to ask yourself these questions:-
“What is good and bad with my current company?” and
“What is good or bad with the company I propose to join?”

Most of the times people do not look at all the four quadrants before coming to a decision.
Work and Life
CV: The impact of work on life is less than the impact of life on work. The focus should be on having a good life so that work is also favourably impacted. As for example, Albert Einstein has acknowledged that his success as a scientist is because of the fact that he is a good violinist. As the musicians playing in an orchestra, employees should be great team players in order to be successful

In this connection, the impact of playing team games in the corporate scenario could be observed and studied. Ensure that the traffic is flowing from life to work and not vice versa. The hobbies that we have and the value systems that we bring to work are all relevant.

AK: Talking about values, I would like to add that leadership is about followership. People look up to the real leaders who are fair, vulnerable and humble. We should remember that the leaders are always on stage and keenly observed. Leaders should have the humility to say, “I need help, I don’t know the answer.” However, it is difficult for most people to say so. Not only should we be fair, it is essential to ensure that our actions are seemingly fair as well.

CV: Humility and similar positive qualities should become a part of the personality of the leader. “How do we nurture the person we are?” is an important question to ask ourselves. Growing your values, although a challenging task is the single most vital catalyst for change and success.

HR generally has two roles to play: working for (1) what is good for the business and (2) what is right for the employee. As one’s career success is dependent on the former, there is a tendency for HR professionals to become unidimensional and focus only on the first, even while the heart keeps reminding that the latter role is equally important. One should have the courage to say ” I will do what is right.” Always remember that we are engaged in a noble profession.
Some points that came up during the Q&A
In the era of startups, when very limited time is available to succeed, we should utilise the concept of converting time to experience (Growing yourself) effectively and ensure that learning and improvement happens every day.
VUCA (Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world is not to be dealt with by jumping from one organization to another but by staying in the organization and facing the situation.
A very important leadership role that is lacking these days is advising your juniors on “How to manage their careers”. In the absence of guidance and information from the right source, they look to their friends and peers and ape them for dealing with career management issues.
Effective leadership communication, training and teaching should happen during peace times and not when there is a crisis.
The communication to employees should include the growth opportunities available for them in the company. This was highlighted by the author as he wound up the discussion for the evening. Chandramouli related an incident in his company where employees justify for better opportunities. Actually, the company had developed a detailed plan (in a stage of giving the final touches) for these employees but had not communicated it to them in time, before they took the decision to leave. It is important to communicate the plan as soon as it is developed. In the instant case, communication of the development plan could have been done to 90% of the employees in respect of whom the plans had been finalized.

As one who was witness to a very interesting and enlightening discussion, I can safely conclude that “Catalyst” is a valuable book that prescribes effective winning strategies for work and life.

Link to amazon for those wishing to buy book online: Buy now

Name: Rajeev Moothedath   
Present Designation: Director
Company: Niche Learning Services Pvt Ltd

Venue: The Chancery Pavilion Bangalore
Date: 26th April 2018
Occasion: NHRD monthly meeting- Discussion on some of the strategies outlined in the book ” Catalyst” followed by book signing.

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