5 Leadership Lessons from Teaching

classroom

Photo:asterixtom

“Help!”

Well, my email subject line actually read “Looking for advice/help.”

I’d just found out that I’ll be teaching a course on International Marketing (yay!) this coming semester. Once my initial euphoria died, I realized teaching a semester-long (14 weeks) course to a class of 21-year-olds was not something to be taken lightly. Hence the call for help to buddies of mine, who’s been molding young minds for more than two decades. The advice I got ranged from, “Oh, you’ll do great!” (fat lot of good that did) to a 90-minute primer on what teaching a course meant. As always I took profuse notes as my friends waxed.

When I went through my notes, one thing struck me – how much teaching a class well, required some of the same skills that any good leader (or startup founder) would need. So if I replaced the words “teaching” with “leadership” the advice was just as useful.

Here’s a quick summary of them.

Discover your leadership philosophy It’s important to understand and more importantly articulate both to yourself and your teams, what your leadership philosophy is. This isn’t as much what is right – Servant leadership or Leadership secrets of Attila the Hun – as much as knowing what works for you best and sharing it. If nothing else, answer for yourself, why are you a leader and how you plan to go about accomplishing this?

Understand your personal style Even leaders who share a common philosophy of leadership can have widely varying personal styles. My own personal style, regardless of the role I play in a team, is one of action – despite my oft-stated intent otherwise. I have seen folks who have a directive even aggressive style be just as successful as those who tend to ask questions and nudge. Recognizing your personal style and how it fits in with your leadership philosophy is important to help your team and yourself succeed.

State your expectations It’s important to articulate what you as a leader expect from your team. Whether what needs to get done, or how it needs to get done, stating this will save everyone a lot of grief. The more explicit and specific you are in articulating your expectations, the more likely they will be met. This is especially important when you take over as the leader of a new project, team or company.

Build on your strengths & share your experience As Peter Drucker put it “Make strength productive.” Building on your own strengths and sharing your past experience would help you be more successful and will give your team a sense of where you’ve been and lend credibility to your inputs. You need to balance sharing your experience against a tiresome telling of war stories.

Recognize people are different A team, whether it’s one you inherit or build, will likely consist of people who are widely different, in aspirations, attitudes, capabilities and working styles. If you have a large enough team, you’ll see something that approaches a Gaussian distribution – even in small teams, especially ones that you inherit, you will see a spectrum of personalities. Recognize this and keep the old adage Different Strokes for Different Folks in mind. You are less likely stumble and get frustrated.

I’d love to hear what your own experience has been both as a teacher and a leader.

7 Steps to Being a Better Conversationalist

storytelling“I’m terrible at making small talk! I have no problem talking to people one-on-one but put me in a roomful of people, I just freeze and don’t know what to say!” A fellow member of our ToastMaster club shared this tale of how his father was great at making small talk but the skill seemed to have somehow eluded him. He finally decided that not only would he learn how to be a better conversationalist, one capable of making small talk but would actually deliver a speech to our club. And so he did. As the assigned evaluator that evening, I took rapid notes as he spoke and as I glanced through the notes later that evening I realized these were indeed very good advice for all of us – whether we were looking to be better conversationalists or just better listeners. So here are his insights

Observe Look at the most effective person in a room – the one who’s surrounded by others and is most engaging. Walk up to them and observe, how they initiative conversation, and how they sustain it. What works for them may not work for you – and even if it did, adapt it to your style.

Be a good listener This seems counterintuitive, at least initially. To be a good conversationalist you need to be a good – active – listener. One way to do that is to ask questions – questions that acknowledge what they said, or clarify – open-ended questions so that they can drive the conversation. Observe how they respond. Rinse and repeat.

Reverse Questions Often people may start conversations by asking you questions. All of us have met folks who’ve walked up to us and asked questions such as “What is it you do?” or “How do you know the Samuels?” One technique my friend shared was to respond in kind – “That’s an interesting question. I was, in fact, going to ask you the same. What is it that you do?” Of course done right, this will not seem so much a deflection, but an expression of interest.

Body Language Conversation isn’t just verbal. When I first came to the US as a grad student, I was lucky enough to have a good friend Marcel (from the Netherlands) who pointed out to me that I tended to not only invade folks private space, but also reach out and touch them, literally. “Not a good idea,” as he put it. Observe people’s body language – of both speakers and listeners, when it’s done right and others respond positively and when it isn’t.

Listening while speaking Even when you are the designated speaker, when the floor has been ceded to you, confine your speaking to a finite amount (my friend recommended 30% – not sure there’s a magic number) and get your audience to engage by getting them to speak, whether through questions, responses or other forms of participation. In other words, even when you are “speaking” you are getting others to speak and you get to listen.

Prepare Nothing makes you a good conversationalist (or even a listener) as being prepared. Preparation here is not so much a speech you give – as much as having trivia or fun facts handy – be it about the weather (always safe), a sports team, food, pets or current events. I’d hazard into politics or the election only if you know the folks and even then if you want to be invited back I’d stick with safer topics.

Be Authentic Nothing kills a conversation faster than being a phony. Evince keen interest in what the other person is saying – this is part of being a good listener but stay authentic. If you are being bored, don’t try to hang in there bravely – your body will announce your disinterest louder than your words. Even if you disagree, you don’t have to argue nor do you have to silently agree. In short be authentic.

Now get out there and work the room!

 

250 stress-filled days with near-perfect health

Almost three years ago, I shared how I’d lost nearly 35lbs (16kgs) over the previous six months. Whilst that particular piece of good news on the health front, was a result of a diabetes scare, little did I realize what lay ahead. Six months later, I took a sabbatical, started a gaming studio and moved, rather unplanned, half-way across the world. It was the last part that was stressful – of course doing a gaming startup was no walk in the park either.

My normal coping mechanism for handling stress is snacking – maybe even binge-snacking at times. So having worked so hard to lose all that weight, I wasn’t going to let two adolescents, a major move that might put the kibosh on my startup and all the uncertainty that came with it, undo it all.  While losing the weight proved I had some measure of discipline and self-control, this did not extend very far.

So when I got on a plane in Bangalore 250 days ago, I wasn’t exactly confident how I’d do. Today I’m happy to report, for the first time in my adult life, I’ve gone through 250 days – the better part of a year – without as much as a sniffle or a sneeze (both common in Bangalore’s allergy-prone environs) nor an upset stomach, cold, cough or the flu. And at a particularly stress-filled time of my life with a great deal of uncertainty and free time to ponder on it. Here’s how I did it.

Daily walks – for 40 minutes – is what I started with, so as to not lose the health gains I’d made. Most days – the wife and I managed to sneak in an additional 30 minutes in the evenings. When I walked by myself I did a sub-15 minute mile, however, the wife and I together did a far more leisurely 18-20 minute mile.

I was lucky enough to read my former colleague and friend Troy Erstling‘s humbly-titled post My Epic Daily Routine – which acted as a great inspiration – I adopted several elements and adapted others to fit my own idiosyncracies. So here’s my own daily routine that’s led to my 250-day streak.

The Short Version

  • regular water drinking, starting first thing in the morning
  • daily exercise (walking) and sun salutations
  • eating whole foods, cut and prepared lovingly each day
  • portion control, and 5-6 small meals with mostly vegetables and fruits

The Gory Details

Two or more glasses of water – soon as I wake up. I go to bed with my 700-ml water bottle next to me and take a swig the moment I wake up. Have also taken to lugging around the water bottle all day and consume 1.5L of water on a typical day.

Morning ablutions – use the bathroom usually right after I get out of bed – occasionally in this season of Trump, have fallen into the bad habit of reading election news on my phone while in the bathroom. This is a new source of stress, so trying to lose it.

Mindfulness practice aka vegetable-cutting  Starting with slicing (yep, slicing) ginger for our morning tea, I spend between 10-20 minute cutting (slicing, dicing, at times pounding) vegetables and fruits for both our morning smoothie and later meals – this is the best stress-buster, a truly meditative and mindfulness exercise I’ve found. Shades of OCD in how small (and near-perfect cubes or parallelepiped shapes that I cut and the color combinations I strive for. But both my wife and I are happy that I do it.

sunsalutationfinal

Pic Credit: Hope’s Yoga

Sun Salutations Troy’s link  to this chart, helped me get off my duff to do daily sun salutations, which makes sure that I stretch myself and get a bit limber. The first one is always a little stiff, but after four or five months getting a whole lot better. Anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

Morning tea – I’ve always nursed my tea (with crushed cardamom and sliced ginger). Use this time to plan my day – at least the burning things that I can no longer avoid.

Morning walk – Barring a few days in a month, every day we’ve walked in the woods for not less than 30 minutes but most days 40 mins and cover between 2-2.5 miles in that time. Most importantly for the first time in the 25 years of being married, my wife and I walk together – so it’s done wonders for our communication, creativity, and our waistlines.

Eating Right As adherents of Dr. Ronesh Sinha and Rujuta Diwekar dietary principles, we’ve been enormously disciplined in terms of what we eat, which I believe is the primary cause of our present good health. We’ve gone to a very low-grain diet, with quinoa being our primary grain – with vegetables being the largest share of our diet, be it in smoothies (veggies + fruits), soups, chutneys, or sauteed dishes. We’ve been consciously consuming more nuts, fruits (low-glycemic) and snacking healthy with practically no commercially prepared foods. We do consume milk, yoghurt and soy-milk mostly with our tea and smoothies. A lot of grandma’s recipes have been resuscitated with coconut and ghee having returned to our diet, in finite quantities. Our diet (and recipes) deserve their own posts. The only other thing to note here is that we’ve stuck with 5-to-6 small meals in a day – breakfast, morning snack, lunch, evening snack and dinner (usually before 7pm).

Sleeping (early) For most of my adult life I was up till midnight before I got to bed. Been consciously working that towards 10pm – not there yet. But trying to put an end to electronic stuff by 930-10pm and read – usually a book before knocking off by 11pm. Again Mr. Trump really tested this routine, as I began watching the TV news – if we can call it that – somewhat obsessively around the debates or when I wanted to avoid doing taxes. Anyway, this is an ongoing effort, but am sleeping early and surprise, surprise, getting up earlier, despite Fall being here and the days getting colder.

What’s ahead (or things that have not worked)

  • meditation (10-30 minutes)
  • regular writing (3/days a week) – work on my book
  • pull ups (haven’t been able to do 1 yet, though gotten pushups to 30-40)
  • strength training to build some muscle

What Do You Really Know? This Amazing Book Challenges You

Yesterday I met the wonderful Artie Isaac, whom I discovered via his blog Net Cotton Content. As with any conversation between men in their fifties, our own turned to the topic of our children, whose stories weren’t ours to narrate we agreed. When it was time to bid adieu, Artie asked me, if he could give me a book – one that might enrich my discussions with my daughters around diversity. Being the shameless book collector that I’m I eagerly accepted his gift of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me.

Later in the day, I found myself nearly 15 minutes early for my next meeting (a very unusual occurrence for me, as most folks who know me can vouch.) I cracked open the book and began reading. Right from page 1, the book written as a letter to his 15-year-old son grabbed me by the throat and sucked me right into it. All evening I struggled as to how best to describe the impact the book had on me. Then it occurred to me that others had been here before – and it was John Keats who so eloquently described his experience of discovering Homer’s work through Chapman’s translation. I reproduce his poem in whole below.

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Much like stout Cortez in Keats’ poem or Keats himself reading Chapman’s translation, I too was transported to a whole another realm, held enthralled not just by the word picture that Coates painted but by the raw emotion, the immense clarity and urgent insight that he brought to me to understand what it was for a black man to grow up in Baltimore or the South-side of Chicago. In many ways, it brought back memories of seeing Boyz N The Hood back in 1992!

As leaders or even just as humans, all too often we lose sight of what’s important. Worse yet, we think we understand things – this book and Coates’ writing style brought me back to the simple insight, that there’s much we don’t know or even if we did, we don’t revisit it often enough to question our assumptions. Knowing oneself, the world around us and the others is an ongoing journey of discovery. Run out there and get this book. And thanks Artie for this wonderful gift!

Forgiveness – a virtue in founders

7-flipside-turtleneck“I want to take them to Chennai. And Goa!”

My daughter was all excited, in that way that only teens could be. She was making plans to bring her friends to Bangalore – next summer. And even before that she was keen to take them to not just Chennai and Goa but Benaras – as she calls it – and “Oh. But how can we not take them to Kerala.” If there’s one lesson that I’ve learned from my daughter, it’s to let her speak uninterrupted. At least till she pauses to catch her breath. Or if I can do it, wait till she asks, “Well. What do you think?”

The amazing and scary thing for me with this entire episode was how much of a chip off the old block my daughter is. I was exactly like she is today. Keen, maybe even overanxious, that my friends experience the things about India or my family that I had and that they ENJOY them. It’s surprising that I had any friends left. The truly scary part is why it was not evident sooner.

In many ways doing a startup is a journey of self-discovery.

As a founder, you are going to learn a whole lot about yourself that may not just surprise you but make you doubt yourself. All that stuff you’ve read about Steve Jobs or other self-confident (err arrogant) founders may make it sound successful founders make decisions and move on without much self-doubt. Reality is that any founder, worth their salt and with a pulse, will discover each day – many times a moment too late – that there are things that they could do way better. A lot of this is programming that’s happened before we became even remotely self-aware – our desire to please, or unwillingness to confront, avoidance or procrastination.

In many ways doing a startup is a journey of self-discovery. How costly or expensive this is depends on how fast you learn about yourself and most how soon you accept and forgive yourself.

In my own case, having a great team of folks around me helped me gain the self-awareness. But as they say, you can only bring the horse to the water. So it’s not enough to make or drink the kool-aid. As a founder you’ve got to be prepared to stare at the image that’s reflected in it!

One of the advantages of growing older (and startups can sometimes help you do that fast!) a certain degree of self-awareness grows (or is foisted on you by your team). So rather than berate myself I’ve learned to recognize that is who I am and to recognize the need, in most cases, to change.

My daughters don’t hesitate to tell me if it’s not for the better.

3 Steps to Becoming a Better Communicator

“What is this person trying to tell me?”

Haven’t you found yourself wondering this in more than one situation?  In my experience, the single most critical skill that leaders in general and startup founders in particular need is that of being a good communicator. While most of us find it easy to talk  and some of us may actually listen, it doesn’t make us a good communicator.

How many of the meetings you attend seem not only interminable but often indecipherable? If this were a problem with just meetings, you could excuse yourself and read the meeting minutes. But alas meeting minutes, like many emails or other forms of written communication seem to only add to the confusion.

“What is this person trying to tell me?”

All of us are just as guilty as we dash off memos, texts, and presentations, sowing confusion at best and mayhem at worst. Here are three steps to help us communicate better. Try them and let me know how they work for you.

Single central message Whether a 3-line email or a 6-page white paper, your communication should have a SINGLE central message – what our English composition teachers tried to tell us – the theme sentence! This answers the question “What is this person trying to tell me?” So whether it’s the personal — “You need to spend less money on eating out” (that’s to my daughter), “We need to re-do the In-app Purchase (IAP) in this game (the professional)” or “We need to ensure ________ is not elected this year” (the national) or “We need a new nuclear disarmament treaty (the global) we need to communicate a single central message and no more in each of our communications.

Short as possible but long as needed This is one I’m yet to master and often undermines my own communication effectiveness. Even when I have a single central message if I wrap it with too many words, my message is lost. This could be emotional content (especially with my daughters), or excess justification (social or business context) or plain verbosity. Yet, in a corporate context, major changes require context setting, such as environmental factors at play, why this course of action and options considered – alternates considered and discarded and potential outcomes of actions taken or not. So the 3-sentence email one of my friends insists on writing may not always do the job, but ask yourself, does your presentation require 48 pages or can you say it any shorter?

Choose your medium carefully Sure writing email is easy – heck texting someone is even easier. But just as most folks agree, breaking up with your girlfriend (or significant other) over text is not cool, there is such a thing as an appropriate medium for any given communication. I’d say easier a missive is to send, the more likely it’s to sow confusion. Sure there are exceptions, but in general, it’s a good idea, to take a moment, before you send that text or email, to ask yourself, is this the best medium to communicate this message. I find often after having written a draft email, that picking up the phone or walking down the corridor to talk to the person a much more effective way to communicate. Similarly, even when presenting to a group of folks, few words on a slide or a graph to accompany your verbal communication or a handout might be more effective.

In summary, these 3 steps will help us take the first steps to being better communicators

  • What is my single central message?
  • Am I saying it as concisely as possible with adequate context?
  • What is the best medium to communicate this in?

An earlier draft of this article appeared in LinkedIn

4 Selling Lessons That Weight Loss Taught Me

weight_scaleAfter years of planning to lose weight and get in shape (sound familiar?), in 2014 I finally got my act together. Sure, a mild diabetes scare and being termed obese in that clinical way only doctors can helped me finally get off my duff.

Over a six month period, I dropped about 20 kg (nearly 44 lbs) and over the next six 24 months have managed to keep those pounds off – in the bargain, my resting heart rate went down to mid-to-low 50s from the mid-80s and I feel great. I’ve written about how I lost those pounds elsewhere, but I realised that some of the very same lessons I learned while losing weight, were equally applicable to being a good sales person. So here are the four lessons.

Every day counts Weight loss involves only two things – eating right (usually less) and exercising well (usually more). The critical thing is it has to be done every single day, certainly the eating right part. Exercising has to be done at least every other day. Some folks recommend taking Sunday off or even rewarding yourself on Sundays with a treat. Most sales folks get Saturday and Sunday off. Which means the other five days count even more. So make the calls you need, regardless of whether you feel up to doing them, do the research, meet the customers – relentless and daily discipline is critical for steady progress. And you know what? Once it is a habit, it doesn’t feel anywhere as oppressive as it might sound at first. Make every day count.

Plan and start your day early Overcoming 20 years of bad eating habits required me to start my day early and make at least two healthy meals (usually salads) before 7AM, so that when the munchies hit me at 11AM and 4PM I had healthy snacks ready with me and avoided the temptation of empty calories. Of course, it also gave me feel a great sense of accomplishment each morning (even righteous at times) and set the tone for the day. Creating a daily selling plan, before even getting into work and often getting in the first few calls or follow ups before 8AM will give your day a great start. A side benefit I stumbled upon was that many hard-to-connect people were much easier to reach at the start of the day. Planning and starting early meant I could balance some low-hanging fruit with a feel good factor and get chunks of time to handle that hard-to-crack accounts.

Measure but in moderation The first thing I did, once it was clear that I was going to have to lose weight was to get a weighing scale and the doctor did set me a target. I started with measuring everything – how long and how intensely I exercised and how many miles I covered in a given time. Similarly with my selling, I found initially measuring and staying on course with activities – did I make n calls a day, did I send the info to m people, helped me do the right things – so regardless of how I felt on a given day, I was moving things forward, however, incremental at times. Initially, when the needle began moving it was very motivating but excessive measurement (such as weighing myself daily) can be both obsessive and at time depressing, for as I discovered our bodies have an ebb and flow of their own – not unlike relationships in a major account or most other things in life.

Teams make it fun Selling, much like weight loss can feel like a lonely pursuit – worse yet a competitive one with the other members of your own sales team and competitors. Rather than envying the guy who’s running faster than you, on the treadmill next to you, working on a buddy system or with a team of running companions made it not only fun but a learning and fulfilling experience. Similarly sharing leads or even scuttlebutt about buyers or opportunities with team members whether in sales, marketing or technology and occasionally with the guy from the other company, always pays off in spades, not just karmically but often in new business and leads of your own.

Enjoy the journey – if it’s a chore, whether exercise, eating healthy or selling, if you don’t enjoy the journey it’s not worth doing!

An earlier version of this article appeared on LinkedIn.

Measure first and other lessons from a friend

“Why don’t you tell me what you know about placement in EDA?”

The questions started easily enough. My interviewer, Brent Gregory was this lanky gentleman with a very easy air about him. His soft voice and pleasant manner belied the incisiveness with which the questions came. Within five minutes, maybe sooner, he’d established the limits of my knowledge on the subject of electronic design automation. More importantly, he’d made me truly aware of what things I had clarity on and what I merely knew of.

The next fifty-five minutes were spent in educating me, on what it is his team was attempting to build and answering questions that I had. Here I was, having worked for over twelve years at that time in two countries – in a billion-dollar tech firm and in two startups  – selling to other tech businesses across Europe, Israel, Japan and the US. Yet Brent Gregory in under five minutes had established the limits of what I knew – certainly as it pertained to his company’s business and focused on getting me to understand the problem they were trying to solve and why their approach was likely the better one.

Measure first before you cut This old tailor’s maxim can’t be stated too often. Brent Gregory taught me this lesson that first day I met him. He seemed to come into the interview with few assumptions – took the time to get to know what I did know (about EDA that day) rather than spending a lot of time asking me either needless form questions or trying to show me how much smarter he was than me (he still is!) As entrepreneurs we like to think we are action-oriented but how often do we plan (measure) before we act (cut)? By no means have I mastered this lesson, but I’m getting better at it.

Value your team Brent was unique as a leader – while he led a research group – practically every member of the group or so it seemed, was in a different country. He did have a couple of other folks in the same building, but he had an engineer in Goa, India – one in Spain (or maybe the south of France). While distributed teams were not unheard of, a single team with its members scattered around the globe had its share of challenges. However, Brent always made sure that the appropriate member of his team got the credit and recognition they deserved and held himself accountable even while protecting his team’s freedom to work from wherever they were. This in a company that would have preferred everyone being in the same building. Unlike many other scientists and researchers, Brent was also immensely appreciative of the marketing team and the value they brought and always prepared to listen and learn why we proposed some of what we did – even while his boss, our CTO, many times voiced his opinion that “our innovative products would sell themselves.”

Simplify The sign of good engineer for me is one who can explain what he does in simple words that mere mortals can understand. Brent in that regard has few peers to take a complex matter – such as our placement algorithm – and explain not just what it did, but why it did it that way and how it was not just different but better than other methods. This allowed not only the applications engineering team but the marketing team to better communicate, position and support customers with conviction. Simplifying without trivializing – is not an easy thing to do – as folks trying to explain the reasons to stay within the EU (against the Brexit) have recently discovered.

Seventeen years after I first met Brent Gregory, I continue to admire him for his understated and measured manner of working. Thank you, Brent, for teaching me a whole lot and being such a good listener.


A variety of people — colleagues, friends, managers and mentors have taught me many lessons that have helped me grow. This article is one in a series sharing what I’ve learned and my gratitude for the lessons they’ve taught me. You can jump to any of the specific posts in my gratitude series below.

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 |

4 Things That Families Can Do to Help Entrepreneurs

“Yellow car!” Usually, this declaration is accompanied by a playful swat from my daughter. Once we got playing this game, of who can spot a yellow car first, I began noticing a lot more yellow cars out there. I’m sure they were there all along but just that I never paid attention. Much like that – once I met Richa Singh – founder of yourdost.com, a company that helps young people such as students find the help they need, typically counseling or other support for their mental well-being, I’ve been more aware of issues surrounding mental health.

A little while ago, I’d written about Brad Feld, well-known venture capitalist, and blogger who’s brought the discussion around mental health and entrepreneurs center stage. As I continued to explore some of the resources Brad spoke about, I ran across this fascinating video by Dr. Lloyd Sederer, Medical Director of the New York State Office of Mental Health. What struck me about this particular video, was how the four things he recommends for a family on how to deal with mental health is directly applicable to entrepreneurship itself.  Here are the four key points that he makes.

  • Don’t go it alone “Why me or why us?” Is a question that both entrepreneurs and families raise. Worse yet if there’s fear, shame or stigma – we try to handle it alone. Don’t. Whether doctors or counselors for mental health or mentors and other entrepreneurs for startups – seek help, talk to them and don’t go it alone. It will make the journey a lot easier.
  • Don’t get into fights “Don’t be like your brother. Get a good job” – this is an actual quote an entrepreneur reported his family telling his sister. This is just as true within companies and partners as it with families. Little good is likely to come out of it. As Dr. Sederer puts it, listening and leverage are alternatives to fighting
  • Learn the rules & bend them While this is particularly relevant to dealing with the US medical – mental health – system, it’s true to any bureaucracy that you deal with – as people and as entrepreneurs. Getting frustrated or being ignorant is only likely cause further unhappiness & stress.
  • Prepare for a marathon, not a sprint While most entrepreneurs tend to be optimists, often youth or inexperience leaves them unprepared for the length of the journey. Not only do most firms struggle or outright fail, even success takes time. The average software product company takes 7-8 years to get to $50M in revenue – so prepare psychologically and emotionally for the long haul.

Check out the video and share. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Be Empathetic – Lessons from my dad

My father was a great teller of tales. However, neither he nor I realized this for much of his life.  If I had asked my father tell me a story which I’ve don’t recall ever doing he’d have likely said, “I don’t tell stories.” However, he did. And darn good ones at that. Only they were narrated while we waited at railway stations or airports or while he was dressing up for work or waiting for dinner to be served. Many of them were just vignettes – episodes from his own life, that it took me many years to figure were stories – darn good ones – well worth repeating. And today as I share them with my daughters or at times with unsuspecting colleagues, I understand how they’ve shaped me.

My favorite story was my dad’s recounting of how as a young man he’d attended a village play  and particularly his re-telling of a specific scene from the play. My dad as with many Indians’ of the pre-WWII generation grew up in a small village. Entertainment meant the occasional village fair, a rare trip to town and most often a religious celebration which would include makeshift theater featuring song and dance. Plays, much like Indian movies of the early forties, were largely based on religious themes – often stories from one of the two great Indian epics Ramayana or Mahabharata. 

For those not familiar with the Indian epics, the Ramayana is the tale of the hero-king Rama, who is banished to 14 years of forest exile, on the eve of his coronation. His life in exile, including the search for his kidnapped wife Sita culminating in the epic good vs evil battle with the demon Ravana and his triumphant return to the throne, forms the arc of the story line. Rama’s father, the old king Dasaratha is forced to exile Rama, due to an IOU – a promise he made to his youngest wife Kaikeyi (he had three) who sought the throne for her own son.

Vanavas

Photo: Margarent Freeman

Village theater, even today in India, is often a makeshift stage, with a curtain or cloth draped to separate the backstage from the action up front. The actors heavily made up, rely on their costumes and loud voices to make up for the lack of scenery or other props. With stories such as the Ramayana, the audience which knows every scene needs little else.

As the curtain pulls back, the old king Dasaratha is reclining on the royal couch. My father’s voice chokes up as he narrates the scene. When I was much younger, I could never understand why dad choked up thus. We knew how the story ended! My dad’s eyes fill up and he’s not able to speak any further. With some nudging and prodding, he starts again. “Rama, Rama, Rama” the King calls out – loudly first, his voice filled with anguish and then softly. He gets off the couch and staggers forward as if wanting to go after his son. He continues, calling out “Rama, Rama, Rama” in a voice that breaks and gets weaker by the moment. And then he collapses and dies right there.

By this time, my father’s eyes, still wet, begin to twinkle – as though he’s thought of something naughty. “Then the crowd goes wild – they clap, cheer, hoot, jump up to their feet. “Encore, encore” a lone voice is heard. Then the crowd picks it up and shouts itself hoarse.” My dad is back in the crowd himself. Then the actor, playing the dead King, rises – steps back and begins again “Rama, Rama, Rama” and goes through the whole scene, crying, staggering, calling out and dropping dead. The crowd can’t have enough. By now my dad and I are both laughing out loud. I never tired of hearing this story and would ask my dad often to narrate it.

Yesterday when my younger daughter asked me, for a school project, to tell her what was happening in Palestine, I started to recount the tale of Israel. But in a moment, my own eyes were filled with tears – hot tears of anger and frustration at the real and perceived injustices. The same tears flow just as easily when I narrate the tale of Abhimanyu the young prince from the Mahabharata, cut down in his prime by eight great warriors, who trapped and ambushed him. While “sad songs say so much” as Elton John put it, it’s not just sad news or unfairness that brings me tears to my eyes. I could just as easily be watching Martin Luther King Jr. assert “I have a dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or listening to Eminem crooning “Mockingbird” to his daughter Haley. Like my father crying and laughing at the same time while recounting the encore rendition of the death of Dasaratha, I too find myself emoting easily.

Be empathetic” is the lesson my dad taught me that day and as my kids wipe my tears and try to coax me to continue, I realize how that one death scene has shaped me!


Five years ago today, my father passed away. The good news was that I got to spend a lot more time with my father, the last five years of his life – even as he and my mother struggled with his Parkinson’s Disease. The bad news is that no amount of time would have been enough. An earlier draft of this article appeared on Medium.