Running on Empty

imageLast night one felt some satisfaction, but more than that one felt happy.

Back some thirty plus years ago, I used to handle Unilever’s treasury. It was one of my first assignments in that huge machine, which excelled at absorbing us humans into its folds. I used to regularly deal with a banker, who stood out as a human being. He was in senior career (having the Unilever account, must have been a status definer) and so could have acted the part. However, so transpired that he acted very normal, laughed, joked and guided me in my early days of learning banking stuff. I found that status and professional success had not defined him. He was himself, no frills.

I note this, because it has been my observation, that status and symbolism gets into our heads very easily. At a fairly young stage, our executives tend to play a certain role. Perhaps they do it because they are ‘expected to’, but more likely it is because they feel they have gained consequence. This cocoon which acquires us, begins to define us and tell tale signs become visible quickly. Having watched it for more than three decades, I can tell you, it owns the vast majority of us.

It begins with the feeling that ‘I am right’. Such a simple statement, but such disastrous results. Then it graduates into a more self propagating mode of ‘I know better’. Subsequently, it shuts down our listening skills. By the time a person has reached mid career (mid 30s), these habits are already ingrained in us. Once you are not listening, you quickly start talking more. This then gives you more consequence. You feel you know, because so few are telling you their version. It becomes a vicious circle and self fulfilling and makes you more diseased at each iteration. Soon the dinosaur is devouring many and hurting plenty. Till disaster strikes one day for whatever reason and the edifice you stand on collapses. And just for the people who do not realize it, the end happens in all cases. Our lives always descend into nothingness. You then realise you have been running on empty.

So to get back to my source of happiness, after a long digression. Some 30 years on, I met the same banker last night. Much aged, comparatively, but he still looked well. The same smile, same physical posture but more importantly, same demeanour. This was the same heart I once knew and appreciated. He even treated me the same. Oh, he knew, had followed my history and the various worldly successes. But, I tell you he treated me exactly as he treated that young manager decades ago. Still more typical of this person. His words. “I have been retired a long time now. Really enjoyed it. So much to do in life. No reason to miss work. I am busy with stuff all the time.”

Allah bless him. It re-invigorated my faith in humanity. Some can still be good and real. They do not have to impress anyone, are happy in themselves, and everything has its place and right value. Nothing really is above goodness and happiness. Some of us go to ‘art of happiness classes’. I learnt it in a few minutes conversing with a genuine human.

To all the young people out there. Enjoy your work and its benefits, but please do not let it own you. Be yourself, the genuine you, do not inflate yourself into a hot air balloon. Do not run after goal posts you will never catch. You will be much the better at the end, by just living. Enjoy it!

* picture is from Wylio.com

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Nothing stands still, Innovate!

imageWe are at an exceptional time in history. My generation saw camel carts on the roads, the telegraph, accounting tabulators and manual ledgers. We were served by kiryana stores only and the rupee went a long way in fulfilling our needs. We heard BBC news on crackling Grundig radios and were lucky to see a movie rarely. If the newspaper did not arrive at our doorstep in the morning, then the biggest disaster would not touch us. This went on for years, with little or insignificant change.

Then one day in 1983 I remember sitting down to work on an Apple IIe. It was Unilever Pakistan’s first desk top computer – yes I have this honour, of being the first in thousands in the last 32 years. I did not realise it then; the world changed from that day. Several changes happened to the philosophy of life. Speed, choice, awareness, expectations and fulfilment all arrived home. It is now a fast world, where there are no absolutes; anything can happen.

Change is a given today. When change is a given, then the human will be innovative to get ahead of that change. Therefore, innovation is todays mantra. Forget about getting ahead, we have to live by it to survive, Blackberry (Rem) and Nokia totally understand this statement, after the beating they took recently.

Innovation might be a mantra, but look around the world and many just cannot make that change. Hence, they pay the ultimate price of annihilation or becoming marginalised as a has-been. This was discussed endlessly in the MAP (Management Association Of Pakistan) Convention on Innovation recently. It was a pleasant surprise, that so many of the contributors understood innovation and swore by it. I went into the discussions with a certain thought process, which was affirmed by others and therefore it gives me confidence to write about it here.

Innovation needs to be broken down into four areas. And now I will use corporates as the base example.

The first two areas are a given. Both (A) and (B) have to be in existence for Innovation to germinate. They are also the simpler and easier part of the whole. There are thousands of systems and organisations from which to copy and poach.

A/ Process should be appropriate, efficient and meaningful. It’s the implementation side of things. We need to follow a funnel system. Many ideas go in at one end, fit a concept, are evaluated, tested, and at the other end comes out one well thought-out Innovation, which can be implemented with confidence and hope.

B/ Human Resource aspects are fundamental. We have to have right people in the right place. The innovation people will have the capability to manage (A). Generally, they are flexible people, with quick grasp and ability to connect to people and situations. They hop, skip and jump to manage the innovation roller-coaster.

Now come the much higher view areas, which are far more important to be able to innovate.

C/ Culture is a farm for innovation. If it is fertile, innovation will happen. If it is infertile, then the best in (A) and (B) will fail. It fails because the rest of the organisation has to take part sometime in the innovation game. If the organisation is not conducive, then I can promise you it will kill the innovation. Humans as individuals dislike change. So right from the CEO down to the foot soldier, people have to be ready to embrace innovation. You walk the corridors of an innovating company and you can feel the bubbly-ness which symbolises the culture of change and innovation.

D/ Innovators need protection. The history of ideas says that almost all will fail. The ten per cent which get through more than pay for the failures. They change the world, as has occurred in the last few decades. Risks can be taken; thinking can be out of the box only when the innovators know that failure will not mean punishment. Punishment is not just a loss of a job, or monetary reductions, but also the emotional status. There cannot be ostracising or humiliation for failure. If that happens, innovation will die its death even before its started. It will become lip service and no action.

Organisations thrive on the above elements. Put them into place and the output will be worth its weight in success. You will hit the proverbial pot of gold, at the end of the innovation rainbow.

  • picture is from Dreamstime a free picture site.

My very own Engro Foods

imageI feel humbled. I don’t think I can put it better. Fifteen months after totally unexpected events, I write about thoughts, which I wanted to express all along. To explain further one has to tell a bit of history.

Engro Foods started out as a personal dive into Pakistaniat – being a Pakistani myself. For years either abroad or working with MNCs, I had lost that connection…not in the heart, but in the daily rigour of existence. But I wanted it back so badly. This cannot be explained better than by an expatriate, who has been working away from home and has suffered from homesick blues. EFL was a gift which finally arrived in 2006. It changed my life and alongwith a bunch of disparate individuals, we carved out a vision, built a team and created corporate history. Along the way, we won two of the biggest world class level awards, which no other Pakistani corporate has ever done. Not one persons effort, but a team to die for.

Then in 2011, as it is my wont to do, I felt my time was up. The company set, the goals achieved, the awards taken, it was time to move onto new things. A dive into my own world of self actualisation. Frontiers in education to be conquered and my payback to this land of mine. Twenty months of education projects, mentoring so many young people, and blogging about thoughts which I could never express before. My time my own, for the first time in 28 years. However, it was arrogant to think that I control my destiny. I don’t! Allah does. So eventually a return to a commercial calling due to unforeseen events.

It was strange to say the least. What I had done and gained expertise in during my whole life seemed difficult. My apprehension was alive. Do I really have it in me? Can I take this particular stress? Does my mind work anywhere near what it used to. Will I have the drive? I genuinely thought..I was not up to it. But the need was imperative and really I had no choice but to return to a room I had left with some relief a while back.

Enter the office, I felt like I was going to school on my very first morning, or my commencement day when I entered the Unilever offices 30 years ago as a Management Trainee. Days bygone and old apprehensions! But it was strange at this age and time of life, when life’s experiences have given one confidence. How will I be received by old colleagues or the new ones? What will I say to them? How do I justify this U turn? Will the old trust be there? Will the old hand in glove fit be there?

I need not have worried. The capacity of humanity to surprise one is a constant in life. The smiles, the connections and in cases the hugs were all there. These were people after my own heart. They were warm and wanted to show that warmth and affection. I had been humbled. Right from the tea boys, to the drivers, to the secretaries, the younger managers, the older ones and then my senior colleagues (more controlled). This was still home, maybe altered and different in form, but the substance still remained. I still belonged here. And by showing what my colleagues did show, they once more sucked me back into that emotional churn, which was EFL. It compels me today, to write about it. To acknowledge it.

So to the taking up of this challenge. This was a place which was built to be a home, for togetherness and not just about individuals, but an institution. In the decades ahead, Inshallah, EFL teams shall go out and together sustain that very belonging and shall build a dream on top of it.

The Laws of Perversity (Never say Never)

imageIts my hypothesis, that there is a trap set at every step during our lives. Its been pre programmed. You just need to find it. And its not that difficult. Just the right mind set and you are in there.

As a kid, I remember my father thinking of buying a Volkswagen Beetle, as a family car. Nothing unusual about that. One in every four cars on the road was a Beetle in those days. This is before the Government of Pakistan decided in its infinite wisdom, that they should tax higher literage cars more than others. So before the Japanese cars took over in Pakistan (and really the world), you could see the Beetles every where. So we all went and checked out the Beetle at the showroom and my mother categorically stated that it was a horrible, ugly looking thing, and she would not sit in it. So, alas no Beetle!

Cut forward 14 years and I was back in Pakistan, having completed my studies and recently joined Unilever, on whose princely salary, all I could afford was an old second hand car, Alhamdulillah. Guess what I ended up buying ? A dilapidated 14 year old Beetle! ( this car had a mind of its own. It would forever stop on Clifton Road at the most inopportune times and caused me constant heartburn). And of course my mother sat often in the same ugly car, for the next 3 years. A soft trap, but nevertheless, one which repeats itself all the time.

Never say Never!

Just go ahead and state your intentions of not doing something in a categorical fashion, and more than likely, the exact thing you denied, you will end up doing. Now, somewhere there is a Murphy’s Law, which states that anything which could possibly go wrong, well it will go wrong. Similarly, I think there should be a Perversity Law. If you say something will “Never” happen, well sadly it will happen.

In my own personal experience, it has occurred exactly like that. I stated I would not study abroad; I did. Never do Chartered Accountancy; I did. Will not join a commercial organisation; I did. Do not want to be heading an operation; I did. Once I leave the commercial world, will never come back; I did. Will never smoke; I did. Will always exercise and definitely have no weight problems; well in the last ten years done little exercise and had the mother of fights to keep the weight in check.

I wonder where this stops and how many others suffer from similar results. Friends I have enquired from, all have a similar story to tell. So is this a worldwide phenomenon? Then the thought occurs, if it is so common, why don’t we humans, stop stating things in a categorical fashion? Or better still, only say “Never” to things you actually want to happen, thus engineering a perverse reaction all to your benefit. That should lead to the perverse happening., which is what you wanted in the first place… right? If you see what I mean.

So then, my fresh, new Laws of Perversity.

A) if you are sure in your mind you will “Never” do something and you state it out loud for general consumption, you will end up doing it.

B) if you are sure in your mind something will “Never” happen and you state it out loud for general consumption, it will happen.

C) if you are blessed with a high IQ and a devious mind, and believe (A) or (B) are true, and then you state the opposite deliberately, thinking its going to assist you to achieve the same, you are wrong! It will catch you out and it will not happen. It simply reads your intention.

D) Law A and B are therefore the only true laws, based on the confidence of your statement.

Therefore, my conclusion, after a lifetime of experience … Never say Never!

*the picture has been taken from Wylio.com a free picture site.

Tea, best drink of the day

tea-plantation1Happenstance, it is a relief that I was not around Glasgow in Scotland, earlier. Had I been, I may have punched some jaw and landed up for assault. That I was 6000 miles away from Glasgow, sitting in steaming humid Karachi, partaking of cups of tea, did not reduce my irritation. Because that very cup of tea (my last surviving vice) had been declared void and out of bounds. And no, I am not talking about some office economy drive to cut costs, by banning tea at the workplace. The lords of scientific research had declared tea as carcinogenic for the male species of the human race. All hell must have broken loose in Darjeeling and Sri Lanka!

My relationship with tea goes back to my earliest memories. I remember, sitting on what is called a moundha – a small stool – with a buaa and having tea in the kitchen. Distinctly remember it being out of a Pyala. Yes sir! A good old Pyala. And I insist on calling it that, as a bowl takes all the charm and nostalgia out of the occasion. How do you describe a Pyala? Well its deep, its big, made from china, very colorful on the outside and ugly as hell. What a self respecting 3 year old was doing, partaking of sweet tea in a hot kitchen, I have no idea. Suffice it to say I survived, and now these so called researchers from Glasgow say I was wrong and that I should not have?

Anyway the story of tea begins in British times and really earlier in China. But the influence on us came through the British. The first known reference to tea in Britain is by Samuel Pepys, in the 17th century.  Pepys must have been a popular author, because soon it was one of the biggest trades of the East India Company. Along the way sugar and milk were added to tea and nonsensical mythology prevails on how this happened. By 19th century the higher social echelons were so enamored that they named the afternoon light meal after the drink, courtesy the Duchess of Bedford. This society icons indulgence was eventually also incorporated into the game of cricket. So you had these Lords and Ladies partaking tea, while playing cricket on the village green. Utter bliss!

Quite incredible that tea is also credited with two wars. By 1773 American colonists were heartily sick of the beloved King and his taxes. As part of their rebellion, one night some enterprising men emptied lots of crates of tea into Boston Harbor, as a protest against these taxes. Sounds familiar! It became known as the Boston Tea Party and was the first step towards the American Revolution. Today the rather conservative mutant, the modern Tea Party derives its name, if not its philosophy, from these legends.

The second war is what led tea to India and so to my Pyala. The British importing tea from China would pay for it by exporting opium to the country. When this was declared illegal, it led to the Opium Wars. Eventually they introduced tea plantations into India as an alternative and so for over a century India became the highest seller of tea in the world. Thus was born the local usage of tea, with many rituals added to it today.

Returning to my own story of tea; I was a chai khor. No other word for it. A delight for corporates like Lipton and Brooke Bond. Nevertheless, when I landed up in the UK, it was fascinating that they drank even more tea, but yet found the need to campaign on TV. The advertisement tagline “Tea, Best Drink of the Day” meant even more cups consumed.

Returning to Pakistan, fate took me to another tea company Unilever, with Lipton tea in tow. “Chai chaheyay; kaun see janaab” was of course their famous advertisement. One learnt of how Lipton samplers would take a ‘gadha gari of chai‘ and go from Karachi to Peshawar making tea, village to village and creating the tea habit. Trust corporates to fan bad and expensive habits. So no wonder, my attachment to tea seems to be written in stone.

Then occurred the last fateful encounter with tea. Sonay par sohaga! When Engro Foods commenced its business, over time we learnt that segmentation of dairy usage had occurred. A high incidence of milk usage was in tea. Pakistanis love to breakfast on chai and paratha/roti. We launched Tarang and it became the leading dairy industry brand in Pakistan. “Chai ka sahi jor” is probably the most famous tagline used in Pakistan. Coupled with filmi images of Saima, Sana and Moammar Rana, we have ended up annoying a lot of conservative people, in the name of commercialism.

Now I sit and wonder whether to drink this beverage. All this history of association with tea and enjoyable cups – especially the post meal ones – and then to have the carpet suddenly pulled from under ones feet, by a couple of research nerds, who remain faceless, is the outside of enough. For me tea is an association with a past trundling through childhood, to England, endless cricket on Sunday afternoons and then a commercial career, which relied heavily on Tea being the Best drink of the day. Is nothing sacrosanct in this new world of ours? Next they will take away nihari and pa-aye.

Karim Bhai

Karim Bhai

Sometime in October 1983, I happened to be driving past the Hanging Gardens Apartments on the way to a friend’s place to play cards. That area of Karachi was still being developed and the famous Boating Basin was yet to be commissioned.

1983 was a year when we old class fellows had returned from our studies abroad. Karachi was home and had been our shelter for the first 18 years of our lives. It was a joyous homecoming. Life was still young and hopeful. Early career and a slog at work, was compensated by a lot of eating out and then playing cards all night. Come early morning we would go home, have a short nap, shower and be off to office. The invincibles! As friends we were doing a lot of catching up for the 6 years we had been abroad. It was a carefree time and life looked rosy.

So on this particular day, driving to my friend Adil’s house, I saw a rather bare looking pan store in the newly constructed Hashoo Terrace. This was manna to me, as at the time that whole area was bereft of shops. Turned out that I was the first customer – it was a Saturday morning. A couple of paan and cigarettes were supplemented by a chat with the new proprietor. Karim and later additionally ‘bhai’, as it turned out was a smiling individual, who loved to be happy and talk. Cricket was his forte, but he would also listen to us about girls, work and travel experiences.

Karim Bhai became a regular supplier for all of us and we would also indulge in deep conversations with him. I was at that time working for Unilever on a princely sum of Rs 6500 a month – don’t laugh, it was a top salary in those days when the Rupee went far.  At the end of the first month of operations, I asked Karim Bhai how much profit he had made. His reply, Rs 7500, left me flabbergasted and he went into peals of laughter. Later I said to a couple of friends that I might as well have stayed back and started a paan shop, rather than go to the UK for CA.

The years moved on and we did not remain young and carefree – yes marriage and promotions, real spoilers of freedom. Some of us left smoking and we stopped playing cards regularly.  But my attachment to Karim Bhai still remained. I would stop for a paan and now started developing the relationship by experimenting with the types of paan. He was still jolly, though now I had outpaced his earnings, but we raved and ranted about Pakistan cricket together.

Unfortunately work took me abroad and in the 90′s, few and far between, I would come to Karachi and a visit to Karim Bhai was obligatory. His hair was turning grey and weight had gone up. Apparently constant standing to deliver paan to customers had taken a toll, and he suffered from sciatica. On a couple of visits he would not be there, because of the pain. I wish I had asked for his address and gone to see him wherever he lived. Finally, in 2005 I returned to Karachi permanently.

One evening I took a drive to the paan shop and he was not there. I asked after Karim Bhai and some new assistant said ‘but he died’. The assistant showed me the sign on the shop, which had now changed to some other name, as the ownership had passed on.

How does one evaluate such a loss? For me a part of my life had gone. The pain was all the more, because of the regret of neglect which swept over me. I had allowed trivial matters to control my life and overlooked an essential. No amount of regret or sorrow will change that feeling of inadequacy.

Today, when I look back and analyse my life, it’s full of so-called successes. Strangely though, compare the memories about friends, family and small things versus the memory of lives successes, there is just no comparison. I cannot picture my CA results, or being made CEO, or driving a posh company maintained car, or receiving various awards along the way. But I do remember friends and family vividly. I do remember a paan wala’s laughter as he told me he had trumped me on my salary.

That is the very essence of life, but we learn it back-ended, having traversed through it.  We all must look after our friends and family, because they will not be with us always and then we don’t want to face the regret of lack of fulfillment.

You all will have your Karim Bhais. Nurture them while you can …

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