(via Times of Mind) The Making Of A Strategist
Vijay Govindarajan, best-selling international author of management books, celebrated professor at the Tuck Business School and confidant of Fortune 500 CEOs, has humble beginnings. Born to a professor of physics and a mother with no formal education, he grew up 150 miles south of Chennai and studied in a Tamil medium school. Vijay’s grandparents lived with them and by his own admission, he was a “project for my grandfather’’. The old man had retired as an advisor to the maharaja of Mysore. Everyday, he would wait for Vijay to barely dump his schoolbag to get on with discourses on Shakespeare, world history and everything else. But there was a larger lesson Vijay learnt.
On weekends, his grandfather would go off to the centre of the town early morning where a group of untouchable children would wait for him. There he would teach until 1 pm. It was a nuisance to everyone at home as the tradition-bound South Indian brahmin family had to wait for him before food could be eaten. It was only when Vijay grew up that he understood the impact; hordes of people came to pay their respects to the man who had taught in the city square. They turned out to be chief justices and police officers and senior administrators. That was strategy lesson number 1. Vijay says: “If you can lift people’s aspirations, they end up achieving the unimaginable. Bold ambition produces imaginative response.’’
Vijay is a trained chartered accountant. He joined the DCM Group as a senior management trainee in 1974. The short-lived corporate experience proved to be stifling for him. “I had so much to contribute, but I was suffocated’’, he reminiscences. He decided to pursue an MBA programme, thanks to a Ford Foundation scholarship he won. This was an inflection point for his career.
The Ford Foundation scholarship required him to return to India, which he did and joined the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. The economy was protected, the educational system did not care much about research and his US education did not have relevance to Indian industries. At that stage, he got an offer from the Harvard Business School to teach. The offer was valid if he joined before a particular date. That date was a week short of the mandatory two years that the Ford Foundation scholarship condition required him to spend in India. So what did he do? He requested Harvard to push out the joining date by that one week. Harvard declined. So he went to Ford Foundation, explained his situation and submitted that in spirit, he was meeting the requirement. What difference did a week make to the contracted terms? The Ford Foundation said, no. If he was to go back a week earlier, he had to pay back $50,000.
Vijay Govindarajan quit his IIM job and headed west. His annual salary was $22,000 at Harvard, not the kind with which he could pay off the Ford Foundation. So, he went to his Dean and told him that while he was fortunate to be welcomed at Harvard, he carried on his head, a debt of $50,000 and in India, debt was a sin. The Dean figured out, the way Vijay could earn that extra bit to pay off his debt was to take up the occasional consulting assignment that came to the school.
That is how Vijay Govindarajan, the consultant extraordinare was born. He was grateful for the assignments because he did not see them as distractions, he saw them as avenues to make his questions more robust. He also figured out quickly that CEOs are attention deficient people. Except on issues of strategy. In addition, they usually did not feel secure to discuss strategy with most people around themselves. That is why corporate kitchen cabinets begin to form. It is for this reason, they found Vijay a great source of strength. In him, they found someone who could advise on strategy and at the same time, remain an outsider who they could completely trust on matters of personal issues to investment decisions.
Vijay’s is a fascinating story. It reinforces my belief in the power of early-life mentoring. What subtle transference took place when the advisor to the king of Mysore was mentoring a little boy who was to advise the kings of the corporate world?
It also reinforces my conviction that there is no strategy without personal character and there are no strategic choices that do not involve a personal price. What would have happened, if the middleclass son of a physics teacher, overwhelmed with the yoke of debt, traded a week of servitude for a life time of middle-class security?