Against What Odds?

This may be the one major flaw in the way companies hire senior talent. But behind the flaw lies a deeper malady; it is the way we think, our values, and our core ethics. In this article, I’m deliberately bold, perhaps brash, provocative – but possibly right.

The measure of a man’s success is not simply about where he has reached.

It is more about what odds he had to overcome – to get there.

But that’s not how the world thinks. If it thinks at all.

And the truth is, most people do not think much. Mostly, people simply react or do what feels right or easy. Not too many spend too much time agonizing about the rightness of their decisions – no, that takes too much trouble! It is easier to be arbitrary and ad hoc and then justify later.

It is true there isn’t much justice in this world. Why should there be? Justice requires courage. It requires fierce love and loyalty towards the truth; it demands sacrifice.

The absence of justice doesn’t hurt us.

Until it does.

It hurts us when we are the ones who need justice and she goes awol.

But there is nobody to help us then because we were not there to help others when they needed it.

Imagine this –

What if a highly educated person who had lived a cosy life till now, was suddenly thrown into the streets, and without any money or connections was asked to fend for himself?

Would that person prosper?

Would he become a millionaire someday?

Or would the hard life on the streets totally ravage him and destroy him?

To answer this with any hope of being right, a person should have himself spent a few nights out on the streets; without food, friends, clean bathrooms and without money.

Imagine another scenario: an uneducated person, but one who has lived his life on the streets is made the head of a huge corporation or country. What would happen?

Would that company or country prosper? Or would it fail?

If you think it would fail, well, India has had PMs who were not well-educated. And we are still here, right?

But let me say this – if that educated man succeeds even reasonably in life, his success will be greater than the success of the man who was made CEO or PM.

Because of the odds, he would have to overcome to succeed.

Before you adulate a person for the position she/he occupies, check that person’s journey. Before you hire a person, check his journey.

Nowadays there is a lot of talk about why failure is so important. It is a trendy thing to say but when it comes to actual recruitment the thinking continues to remain stuck in the old rut.

They still go for the celeb stars, the ones who have been at all the marquee companies. Doesn’t matter whether they actually have the requisite calibre.

It’s like if you’re a frog, you MUST be a prince! (I know – not the aptest analogy!)

Not everyone who goes to Harvard is a genius, you know? Many children of politicians have gotten into Harvard or Stanford. Do you think they all got admission purely on merit?

How hard was it for him or her to get there?

It was a great thing for Dhirubhai Ambani to become what he became; but is it equally great of Mukesh Ambani to be what he is today, considering the start he had?

Of course, he will be adulated for his wealth which is huge; Wealth that was accumulated by capitalising on the natural resources of the country, such as oil, gas and spectrum.

They say that fund managers are paid huge salaries. Yet I am told that a portfolio created based on the random choices of a chimpanzee performed equally as well as that made and managed by the best fund managers!

Would you hire a chimpanzee to manage a fund?

No, you would still think you were being wise and prudent by hiring a fund manager with impeccable credentials, someone from an Ivy League business school, etc.

Someone once asked me;

Q. Why are you a consultant? Why not take up a job? Wouldn’t it pay much more considering your huge experience and skillsets?

I didn’t tell him why I was a consultant. I didn’t tell him that there was a point when I had to choose.

This was in 2008-2009.

On the one hand, was the Directorship of a company with a package of INR 56 Lac.

On the other hand was the fact that I was a single dad with a sweet little girl who waited for me every day and then slept without seeing me. Then she would leave in the morning at 6:45 while I was still rubbing the sleep from my eyes. We hardly got any time to spend together. And time flies by too fast.

Just the other day she was just four years old. And now she was already in her teens!

I chose my daughter.

I started my own firm. Had some successes and a couple of major disasters when clients who owed me big, reneged on their commitments and found legal loopholes to avoid paying my dues. I suffered great financial loss.

And since I was someone who had come up from the bottom, this was money that I had earned and saved during all those years. When that was lost, the impact was huge.

And so I ended up being a consultant.

But the answer I gave was something like this –

Ans. Well, there isn’t a job out there where I could utilize all my expertise that is spread across so many different sectors, so it doesn’t attract me that much. Finally, I offer my services to so many more companies as a consultant, charge them much less and still earn well, so why become an employee again? And the best part of all this is the varied challenges and problems because every client has a different situation.

But the fact is I think I could be a great CEO.

A CEO should have a great vision but he should also be detail-oriented. He must be a leader but he must also know how to manage people. He must know how to bring out the best performance from his people. He must be able to spot and exploit opportunities. He must be the face of the company and create goodwill for it externally.

But how do companies actually go about hiring people in the CXO suite?

Do they look for these qualities? NO.

When someone like me says this, I sound brash. But listen to this man (Simon Sinek) he says the same thing and everybody loves to listen to him.

No, I’m not jealous.

I’m actually making a point.

If we valued what is being said, we wouldn’t pay much attention to WHO is saying it. But so long as we give greater importance to WHO is speaking we actually demean what they’re saying.

It shows we don’t give importance to the content. So if a ‘great leader’ speaks lies people will ignore the lies, simply because they are listening to ‘the great leader’.

But if an insignificant person tells you something that can save your life, you would most likely ignore him, and perish!

Why? Because you have developed an ethos that does not value truth.

I may appear to be making disconnected statements or sudden leaps. But they’re not unrelated. I am doing this on purpose.

The ‘great leader’ could be a celebrated CEO. You don’t assess him because of his past glory without checking to see if he really has what it takes to lead your company.

So is it really a smart thing to screen people based on their CV’s? Does the CV really show you what is important?

Most HR people screen CV’s not people.

Many of them wouldn’t recognize a great performer or talent even if he came right in front of them.

The man behind the CV is whom you want to know, not the achievements listed on the CV. Do you want to know him?

The real question is, do you really care?

Do you really want to hire great talent? Are you willing to change your thinking?

My CV simply cannot show what I really am now; it only shows what I achieved given the opportunities that I had; it does not show what I know, how much I have learned nor how innovative, positive and enterprising I am or am not.

When you see a successful performance on my CV what you cannot see is under what circumstances, facing what personal challenges and adversities those results were produced.

Do you know whether the great order I won or the high turnover I achieved was because of my efforts or luck or someone else did the actual work?

One of my greatest achievements came when I had been suffering from a debilitating sickness that threatened to take my life.

I told nobody about it. I was present every day at work. And I overcame.

But it’s not on my CV.

Another great achievement was when I was undergoing a divorce.

Some people go through a divorce like it was a lark but for me, it was a rending agony.

I was at work every day. Didn’t take any leaves. Achieved great sales.

That’s not on my CV.

But I was dying inside.

If someone else achieved the same sales but without facing any personal battles or adversities, would you say we were equally good performers?

Both sailed from one shore to another.

But one did it in a tempest, the other in calm seas.

After another of my achievements in one company, I had qualified for an incentive of about Rs. 12 lac which was more than my full year’s salary. But my boss took it all and gave me only Rs.42000/-. He actually had the gall to hold a felicitation function in honour of himself!

All my colleagues were angry and were urging me to do something. But I smiled and let it go. I knew that I was the one who had actually achieved that record and that was enough.

I still remained a cheerful, cooperative and obedient subordinate until I quit a few months later for a job where my pay was higher than that boss in my former company.

For me, remaining calm and cooperative was a great victory, more than the great business volume I generated – but you won’t find it in my CV.

I displayed great foresight in one organization when I pointed out structural flaws in the organizational structure that had the potential to lend themselves to malpractices later. Last week, the MD of that company was arrested for malpractices involving the same aspects of the business I had pointed out years ago.

But you won’t find it on my CV.

There are so many things like that which I think are invaluable but you cannot put them on a CV.

I cannot imagine how many great candidates are overlooked in this way because of what is not there in their CVs.

You would hope that you were interviewed or screened by someone who had the discernment to perceive such things, but usually, that is not the case.

Companies and HR departments need to find out ways to uncover such traits and actions of the people they interview to spot the real talent or danger that may lie under the surface of what appears to be a fairly ordinary applicant or one who seems spectacular, respectively.

And before that, they must ensure that their recruiters have the ability and skill to understand and correctly interpret subtle signals in the candidates’ stories.

Empathy is key to all of the above. But empathy is only spoken about and not actually valued in practice.

What are the odds this post will make a difference to someone, somewhere?


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