As I was engrossed in going through the books, I suddenly realized that someone had just entered the conference room: it was none other than AHP who must have seen me through the glass partition. Until then, I had met AHP only once when I was introduced to him briefly at our annual HR Conference at Coonoor a few weeks ago. I was surprised that he recalled who I was (I was then a pretty junior bloke) and I must confess, my heart skipped a beat on realizing that I was about to interact with the Chairman of the company. After learning from me that I was about to leave for the Product launch, he told me that he too was going to the same event and invited me to join him in his car. It was a short car ride during which he asked me if I had been inducted effectively and whether I was feeling comfortable in my first few weeks at Wipro; I do not remember what my response was, for I was in complete awe of travelling with the Chairman of the company (even if it was just about a 7 minute ride). When I went back home that night, I excitedly told my parents what had happened, and the incident was deeply etched in my memory of my first one on one interaction with AHP.
Lesson 1 for me: When you are a head of the organization, every interaction with a relatively junior employee is an opportunity to express concern, care and respect through a genuine and authentic interaction.
If the 7-minute car ride interaction with AHP had energized me, I was in for a surprise at what was to come next. A few months into my new role, I got a call one morning from AHP’s secretary, informing me that he wanted to do a ‘Plan Communication’ exercise with the Pune Office employees. This was a practice AHP used to follow to personally communicate the organization plan, vision and values to all employees at major locations. Such communication was followed by an open house for employees. His secretary dropped a bombshell on me by informing that AHP wanted me to travel with him to Pune. I was asked to stand outside Sion Station at 6.15 am, where he would pick me up in his car. I am sure my heart had stopped when I heard this. As I kept the phone down, I was not sure whether I should be happy or worried. After speaking to my boss and a few other office colleagues about what was coming my way, I was forewarned that I could expect lots of questions from AHP, and they all wished me luck. I used the days available to completely prepare myself on all the data and information I would need to respond to any question that AHP might ask me.
On the appointed day at 6.15 am sharp, a car pulled up in front of me (It was a Tata SUV if I am not mistaken). AHP was seated in the front seat beside his driver; I quickly jumped in and got myself settled in the seat behind the driver. The journey commenced, along with AHP’s interaction with me. His questions ranged from employee attrition challenges, training initiatives planned, what was competition doing better to attract good talent, how I was finding the work culture at Wipro, and so on. I was happy that I had prepared myself well, and at least I thought I gave him some pretty sound responses. By now it was about 8 am and my stomach was growling with hunger. We were on the Bombay – Poona highway (the expressway was not ready then) and we would soon be approaching Khopoli which had a couple of decent restaurants, where I thought we would stop for breakfast. We passed Khopoli without stopping, and my hopes of a decent breakfast dimmed away. I now had to concentrate on responding to Mr. Premji’s questions while containing my hunger and telling my stomach to hold on till we reached Pune.
As we climbed through the “ghats”, around Khandala or Lonavala AHP turned around and asked me to give him a small plastic bag which was on the seat next to me. I picked up the bag and handed it over to him, not knowing what the bag contained. AHP told me that he had brought an egg sandwich for me for breakfast, asking whether I was fine with it. I was so hungry that I would have been fine eating anything, but I politely replied that an egg sandwich would do just fine. It was a simple sandwich, and he also had some fruits with him. My hunger satiated, I was able to concentrate much better on my conversations with Mr. Premji, until we reached our Pune office after a four- and half-hour journey.
Lesson 2 for me: Senior leaders can create better understanding among people when they ask meaningful questions than issuing directions. Preparing myself for the journey with details also developed in me, a better understanding of the work of the organization, making me look at my role in better depth and width. The conversation with him during that journey turned out to be one of the best coaching conversations I have ever had in my career.
Lesson 3 for me: Senior Leaders also have to be human at heart and demonstrate caring in the simplest of ways. By asking someone at his home to prepare the extra sandwich for a junior colleague who was going to travel with him, AHP had subtly shown a basic human caring and concern for others, which deepened my respect and conviction for him and for Wipro.
In 1997, I was transferred to Bangalore in a Divisional HR Manager role at Wipro Acer reporting to Suresh Vaswani, Chief Executive Wipro Acer who treated HR as strategic business partner. In one of his business review meetings with AHP, Suresh invited our Finance head and me to participate. Many senior colleagues such as Ashok Soota, Suresh Senapaty, Dileep Ranjekar were present in the room along with AHP. I was clearly the junior-most and the youngest person in the room. The topic turned to HR and to one of the questions of AHP, I quickly rattled out some numbers and gave my views on the topic. AHP patiently listened to me. After I finished, he turned around and picked up a box file which was kept on the cabinet behind where he was seated. He pulled out a sheet of paper and read out the numbers, which clearly indicated that I had quoted incorrect information and opinions. I realized my folly and acknowledged what Mr. Premji was saying.
Lesson 4 for me: Even when you know your junior colleague has incorrect data, you patiently listen to him and avoid interrupting him. You make the person realize the mistake by providing the correct data instead of resorting to admonition and humiliation. In this manner, you don’t destroy the self-confidence of the colleague but enable him to develop.
In 1999 as a part of my career management, it was agreed that from April 2000 I would move to a new role: heading the Employee Development Group (EDG) for Wipro Infotech. In end 1999, we were having an evening office get-together, AHP too was a part of that get-together. It was my usual style to distance myself from very senior colleagues at social gatherings. Partly due to fear of making mistakes while interacting and partly due to the rebel against authority that I was (and possibly continue to be). I suddenly found myself in front of AHP. He recognized me and immediately started mentioning that the new role of EDG which I would be getting into from April 2000 (which was still about 4 months away) was a critical role, and that I must pay extra attention to the development of our technical engineers in our Customer Support division. Honestly, that conversation with AHP blew my mind. How did AHP, the Chairman of the company know and remember what my next role would be? Even if he had heard about me at some internal talent review meeting, how did he remember all the details when he met me at a social event? As much as Mr. Premji knew his business numbers, he also knew the people in his business.
Lesson 5 for me: It is important for a Senior Leader to focus on the talent pool & the horizon talent in the organization, beyond his direct team. A Senior Leader must look for opportunities to provide in advance, critical inputs to make the leader effective in his future role.
As my career grew in Wipro, I was promoted to General Manager & Head of HR for Wipro Infotech, the IT arm for Wipro for India, Middle East and Asia Pacific. I was pretty upbeat about being the youngest HR Head of Wipro Infotech; in hindsight, I had developed a bit of a chip on the shoulder, which was about to be demolished soon. It was my first quarter review in my new role, and I was beaming with positive energy. Towards the end of the day, after all the businesses and functions were reviewed, AHP began the review of the HR function and his questions to me were on the quantitative aspects of the HR function – employee costs & employee productivity. In the exuberance of my promotion, I had not prepared adequately and was clearly out of depth while responding to the questions by AHP. However, AHP was calm & composed as he grilled me on some very relevant issues, for which I was under-prepared. Those 45 minutes were the most disappointing 45 minutes of my entire professional