"Rules of the game was a tongue in cheek title": Dr Sumit Chowdhury

Dr Sumit Chowdhury, president of Reliance Jio Infocom Ltd, has worked in diverse roles in Reliance Industries, IBM, Reliance ADAG, BearingPoint and KPMG in the US, Australia and India. An avid marathon runner and a cyclist who has several runs and long distance cycling trips to his credit, a musician and an artist, is author of Rules of the Game. In this interview with Swetha Amit he talks on how to overcome the plateau in one's life, refrain from developing a herd mentality, and his upcoming book.

Dr Sumit ChowdhuryNot many comply with the rules. Yet you chose to write an interesting book titled Rules of the Game. What was the inspiration behind this?
Rules of the game is essentially a tongue in cheek title, which says that there are some rules which apply to everybody. However there aren't any. What I talk about inside is that each person should have their own rules and they have to create those rules for themselves.

So the first proposition I have is to start treating your career as a game. This will propel you to get out of the 'job mode' and look at career in a long term. Eventually you will start enjoying it and will begin telling yourself that you are going to do your best and play a good game every day. You will also adopt the attitude 'you win some and lose some'.

When you become an expert, you will discover and invent your own rules. The message of the book is to find out what the rules of your game are and how do you find these rules. That's why I titled it Rules of the game.

One often finds a gap between formal education and what one faces in the real world. How does one deal with such a situation and fill these gaps?
There is a definitely gap in our education system, which is not teaching students things required in the real world.  What I understand is that in this period of time during their early 20s when they are just joining work, they are left in a situation where they don't know how to learn.

Having had a very structured environment of teachers, assistants, exams, feedback, they had everything going their way. Suddenly when they join work, they are exposed to an environment where there are no exams or teachers; there is conflicting advice and no right or wrong answers. And they are not prepared for this unstructured environment.

So what happens is that they end up spending 7-8 years learning to survive in such an environment. When they are doing so, they tend to learn very slowly and only by experience like their contemporaries. And they end up remaining in the rat race instead of going a notch above. In my opinion, they should learn to speed up this portion of their lives so that they remain ahead of everyone else. Once they are ahead of their peers in their 20s they then have an edge throughout their lives.

I also feel that there is a huge difference in the way we teach our students and how international students are taught. Their education is very open and students are encouraged to speak up and think for themselves. Whereas in ours, we are just told to listen and are dissuaded from such free flowing communication. As a result of which our students do not learn to develop thoughts and ideas into coherent language or have an independent opinion about something.  Hence most people remain mediocre due to this aspect. 

One more thing that can be done to improve our education is to move it very close to how the medical education is conducted. Students in this stream are learning from people who are also doctors. The people who teach are also people who practice. Whereas in other fields both in technical and management schools, people who teach, are not from the real world and have, very often, never been in the real world.

So how do you create an environment of a corporate or industrial university, where students are learning something from people who are working? We should create such programs, like the one at Crisil, which offers a 2 year MBA program in which one gets to work for four days and study for two days. They are working and at the same time learning from people who are in the business. They are going out for client meetings from day 1. Today we only go for internship programs, which in my opinion, are not of any use as we don't really end up learning anything. I would rather keep studying and working for six years then go for a 6-week internship. 

After a point, people tends to reach a plateau in their career. How should one deal with the inevitable frustration that is bound to crop up, especially when they look at peers from similar backgrounds moving up the career graph at a faster pace?
The way I look at career planning at any point in time is like this: when you have reached a plateau that means you have climbed the mountain in the first place. When you are going uphill, you reach a tableland which is the plateau. Now you can either choose to climb higher or remain on the plateau. What happens is that sometimes when we are climbing and reach the top of something, we tend to rest longer than required.  These periods of rest are what we need to reduce.  We then lose the ability to do the next big thing in our life and end up starting from scratch.  

For example, if you are running and you are at your peak and then say, you want to start cycling. Since you are already at your peak you will tend to cycle longer distances with ease. However if you are not at your peak, then you will have to start all over again.

So the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we are getting ready for the next big thing while performing well at what we are doing at present. If we are not, we will reach that plateau and end up being frustrated and bored. So it's always best to be prepared for the next mountain before we have finished climbing the present one.

In other words, you need to be thinking about what you are going to do when you turn 60, from what you are doing, while you are in your 40s itself.  Most people only have one-dimensional thinking and they are left with nothing else to do. It's useful to always have multiple goals in different dimensions in life. It ensures that you will always have something to achieve, which will keep the spells of boredom and frustration at bay.

Every stage in life tends to change one's personality, which includes interests, aptitude and passion. How does one deal with such changing aspects and find ones true calling in life?
These various aspects are a part of you and hence you have to accept your personality as a combination of all these aspects. For example, I would say that I am a musician but play an instrument only five times in a year. But I keep on doing it nevertheless. Or if I say I am a painter, I may not paint for months together, but then all on a sudden I will end up doing two paintings. 

However if I take up an assignment, say for instance this book, then I put other things in the backfoot and focus all my energy on this one. I ensure that this assignment is finished and only then I go back to my other pursuits.  The totality with which you can address multiple things in your life is what will determine whether you will remain happily engaged in doing something or the other. As for the "true calling", if someone asks me what my true calling in life is; I will say it is to achieve my goals and that could be in any area.  

You have stressed about the 'ART' (action, thoughts, reaction) cycle in your book. How effective is this principle, when one has to work with people they don't get as along with in an organisation?

This ART cycle mentioned is actually inspired from the Gita which says that you build your personality by controlling your thoughts and actions. That in turn builds your belief system and perception about life. Perception and the belief system are deeply ingrained inside you and therefore you cannot control them. What you can actually control is your action, reaction and thoughts.

When you work with people you don't like, you need to first understand what you don't like about the person. It could be their communication style or some habit of theirs. But you needn't hate anyone; as by doing so, you end up giving them more importance than what is required. I have a philosophy of not to like or dislike anything.  If I have to remember all the things I dislike, then I need to store it somewhere in my brain and it becomes a burden.   Therefore its best to keep my brain completely flushed out of the aspect of liking or disliking. This helps me maintain a neutral and fresh perspective about people.

Also after a point, you end up disliking so many people that you don't know who to talk to. You may come across many people you dislike and may end up having ego clashes with them. But you have to figure out a way to work with such people. In such a scenario, its best to get rid of your ego as it's the only thing you can control. You cannot control anybody else.

You have mentioned that in order to grow, one must possess the curiosity to learn. However many people tend to lose the inclination to learn beyond a point and gradually develop a herd mentality. Why do you think this happens and what should be done in order to ignite their minds?
Rules of the GameWhen one joins work right after college, the first thing that crosses their mind is that their learning is over. They start to differentiate between learning and working or they learn only something pertaining to their work. For instance if someone is required to learn C++ then they strictly restrict themselves to learning only that. They fail to invest in anything that is required for them in life. The reason for this is that the human brain wires itself three times in life, with the third time being in the 20s. Somehow in the 20s, one forgets how to learn. Our brain is like the computer with a chip and memory. And the clock speed in the chip is not geared to learn.  When we stop learning we tend to become boring afterwards and do not have things to do when we retire.

With regards to the herd mentality, it is present especially amongst the youth. For instance a person will want to pursue an MBA only because others are doing so or that it's seen as a trend. They don't make an attempt to understand their personality and later suffer the consequences of following others blindly. It results in developing a complex later, thinking they are not as good as others when in reality, they don't actually realise their true potential.

What they should do is to focus on who they are and what they really want to be. If they are happy with their own personalities, they will not do anything else. If they are not happy then they can create a learning process.

I would say that the ART cycle is a micro learning cycle where one is constantly aware of ones action, reaction and thoughts. And one should start becoming consciously aware of their action which in turns gives them a sense of direction. For example, if I am conscious that I am not getting through to you then I will do something about it. But if I am not at all conscious that I am not getting through to you, then I will not end up doing anything about it.

You have drawn parallels about achieving a long term goal to running a marathon, where you break the goal into smaller contingencies to reach the ultimate gateway. How practical is it to follow this procedure in the corporate world?
I would say it is practical to do so all the time. If you take a look at any big project; say for instance if Mukesh Ambani wants to build huge 4G network across the country, he cannot do it at one shot. He has to divide the country (which is the goal in this case) into smaller parts, analyse the problems in each state and then build a network. 

So every time there is a huge goal, break it into smaller parts, analyse each part and then see what the challenges are.  If you look at the big problem as a whole, the challenges might seem insurmountable. But if you break it down into smaller parts, it may appear as though 90  per cent of the problem can be done. Then you focus your attention only on the remaining 10 per cent. The analogy I would give is; if you are running a marathon, then you should break your marathon into four 10 km runs.  At every point that way you are looking at a 10 km run not a 42 km.  That way, your mind gets fooled into doing four 10 km runs and you will eventually achieve your goal.

You have referred to the point of learning to unlearn a few things in order to grow in one's career. How challenging is it to do so especially for a person who tends to possess a rigid thought process?
It is definitely difficult. If somebody has a rigid thought process that means he / she is only looking at his / her way of thinking in life. Such people don't look at multiple ways of approaching the problem. So the trick is to keep giving them alternatives and give them the option of choosing the alternative. It's best not to force anything upon them and to let them make the choice. After a point they will soon realize that there are other ways to approach a problem.

When we come across a person who is very rigid, we tend give up on that person. Sometimes you don't need to alter their thought process as long as there's some commonality to the interim goal. We sometimes try to change somebody's goal without realising that the goals are actually the same for a certain period relevant to both of us.

In such a situation, all one needs to do is to try and get the job done instead of trying to align goals. You can't change everybody and get them to align with your thinking as that is impossible.  You can only take them along in a journey where we are concerned for a certain period of time.

With regards to feedback from others there is a chance that perceptions of superiors, subordinates and peers will be different from one another, which can be very frustrating. What do you suggest in such a situation?
Feedback is in reference to who we are. If we don't know who we are then we will always be driven by confusing feedback. So the best way to deal with this is to invest time in understanding who we are.

For instance, if I know I like wearing red clothes, it doesn't matter to me if somebody thinks I am flashy. So I won't get swayed by somebody who says that I look gaudy. However on the other hand, if wearing red clothes is in contradiction to my company's culture, then I am fine to give that up.  The reason is that I know it's because of this company that I can't wear such clothes and not due to the fear of being labelled by a third person. The goal of aligning with the organisation's culture is more important to me. Therefore, you need to constantly prioritise your goals. You have to learn how to prioritise things in life all the time. So, I would say that it's always best to know yourself better before you receive feedback.

Many people especially youngsters today, tend to change jobs frequently considering the various choices available to them. This tends to result in a deviation from one's career path and ultimately leads to a loss of purpose in their lives. How should one make a choice that ensures a progression in their career graph?
Many youngsters don't understand what a career is and they end up going from job to job with short-term goals. So I have tried to project that career is not just one job. It is a series of jobs which one can do within a company or outside the company.  A career is that body of work which has a coherent story and one can have multiple coherent stories.

Now if one company allows you to have that body of work, then it's a good thing. Otherwise you may have to work with multiple companies to get that. People can change jobs but they should basically be able to get a pattern between the job they have quit and the job they are going to take up next. They should be able to talk in a confident manner as to what they have done and why they have done. In short they need to have conviction about the coherent story of their life. .

Lastly, what are your future plans? What can we expect next from you?
I will write another book on leadership. It will be based on certain principles from the Gita and will largely talk about how companies achieve Nirvana? I have worked in three companies that are now 100 years old. So I was contemplating on what makes the company become 100 years old. Some aspects will be borrowed from our holy book and it will talk about managing companies. In fact the rules and principles with which you manage a company are no different from the rules with which you manage yourself to attain nirvana.
The CEO is like the brain of the company along with the leadership team. How should they be managing themselves so that the organization-a combination of people and machine can achieve nirvana is what the book will talk about.

An excerpt from Rules of the Game

While at work, the annual performance appraisal is a process, which is set up by organizations to give you formal feedback. In my career, I have had only two or three direct bosses, who have taken annual review seriously and given feedback, which has helped me grow. Others have gone through the process but in vain. They have not given due importance to it. Apathy towards giving feedback has been verified by many of my interviewees. The reality is that when you are in a job, you have to find your own way to receive feedback. If you wait for the annual feedback to get yourself to contemplate a change; you are surely heading towards a slowdown. The biggest mistake you will make is by assuming, that organizations have a rational methodology and your success will be rewarded in direct proportion to your performance, etiquette or appearance. These are essential but not the only determining factors. You have to anticipate what the organization needs and prepare for that. Begin exhibiting the skills that may be required for the next job or the next level. Your feedback mechanism should be aimed for the higher rung of the corporate ladder.

You ought to be receptive to seek feedback all year long. Your aim should not be singular; that of receiving feedback only from your boss. Every conversation should be treated as a feedback mechanism. To let go of opportunities; whereby you can receive feedback, is not prudent. I have benefitted significantly, by taking feedback from the youngest to the eldest member of the team; from the smartest to the seemingly dumbest person also. Everyone possesses a unique perspective and you never know who comes up with the brightest idea. Receiving feedback is synonymous to succeeding; both, personally and professionally. It is the only way, by which we can determine our improvement.