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Thin LInes

This article was published in Economic Times Corporate Dossier on 12 Sep 2014.

RV Raman, former head of KPMG’s Consulting Practice, tells five stories from his formative years.


1. Grab your chances.

The battery of tests and campus interviews had finally ended, and I had my first job offer from Tata Motors, a coveted prize for mechanical engineers in the early 80s. Just as I rose and shook hands with the panel, they popped me a question. Did I want to be a mainstream shop floor Graduate Engineer Trainees like many before me, or did I want to join the new Management Services Division (MSD)? The folks at MSD, they said, did computer programming; a new area where the waters were yet untested.

It was in an era when ‘computer science’ and ‘information technology’ hadn’t entered the Indian lexicon. I had a snap decision to make. I could take the tried and tested route to the shop floor, and take the well-treaded path up the organisational ladder. Or, I could risk striking into a new territory.

The thrill of telling a machine what to do was irresistible. I chose MSD. It was a decision I never regretted; a choice that took me into software, and then into management consulting.

Unexpected chances were thrown my way twice more in my career. I grabbed them. I’m happy I did.

2. Never stop adding skills. Reinvent yourself.

“Don’t rest on your laurels,” we were told at Tata Motors. “Opportunities will be endless if you continuously add skills.”

It was advice I took literally. Only, I didn’t limit it to software. Two years later, I realised that learning more software languages was incremental and insufficient. I got myself an MBA from IIM Bangalore and entered management consulting, where we advised clients on IT choices they needed to make. Software was a tool that made operations efficient, but to do that you had to understand all manner of processes – a whole new set of skills for me to acquire.

Gradually, I figured that process improvement was not an end in itself. Clients wanted to maximise shareholder wealth. For that, IT and processes had to blend with people, strategy and M&A. To my technical skills, I now had to add an array of soft skills. It was not easy, but the rewards were disproportionate to the effort.

In search of that elusive meaningfulness in life, I am now reinventing myself as a part-time writer and a teacher. Only time will tell how rewarding this iteration will be.

3. Culture is set at the top

When we merged Arthur Andersen’s consulting practice with KPMG’s, we figured that organisational culture was the key to our continued success. Meritocracy was one of the cornerstones. People had to be rewarded for their contribution, and not for their proximity to leaders, or to the optics of working late hours. But no amount of saying so had the required impact.

We therefore introduced a mechanism for promotions that is now an industry standard. Every six months, Partners and Managers (i.e. the people running the practice) locked ourselves away for two days, where the performance of every consultant was discussed threadbare before promotions and ratings were decided.

There were two instances where my view of a consultant’s performance was diametrically opposite to the view of their managers. Despite several iterations, the gaps couldn’t be narrowed. I was faced with a choice. I could overrule the group’s decision as Partners often do, or I could let the process I had created determine the outcome.

I chose the latter. The consultants in question – both brilliant guys – were not promoted, and left the firm. But the culture of meritocracy was firmly established.

4. The importance of humility

“The day you lose your humility, you lose your soul,” my father had said early in my life. It was philosophical advice that meant little to a young boy then, but it was to come back strongly in later years.

It is easy to let success go to the head when bright young consultants begin addressing CEOs and Boards before they hit thirty years of age. It becomes even easier at 35, when you call industry captains by their first name. It’s a heady cocktail that makes you think that you know all there is to know. You have arrived!

Nothing could be further from the truth. Once hubris sets in, you stop seeing and listening. Your glasses become coloured, and your ability to understand your client’s problems gets impaired. You can no longer advise dispassionately, and you fail as an advisor. Humility is your insurance.

Once every year, I stand in a corner at Mumbai airport’s arrival area and watch the young and the middle-aged hurrying about, wrapped in their self-importance. It helps me keep my feet on the ground.

5. There is a thin line between ambition and greed

Consulting attracts not only some of the brightest people, but some of the most ambitious ones too. Sometimes, ambition can turn into something ugly. Not very long back, a successful and respected consulting Partner crossed the line. It began with a small confidential document being shared with an outsider. One thing led to another, and soon, the Partner’s name was on the slippery slope.

While the breach was not illegal, it was unethical nevertheless. What was shocking is how the Partner, with so many years behind him, convinced himself that he was doing nothing wrong. He wanted to add a zero or two to his wealth.

This was shockingly similar to the Galleon Hedge Fund case, where highly respected executives couldn’t resist temptation. They deluded themselves into doing things that interns in their office would have no trouble seeing as illegal. They have paid a steep price.


The original article (pdf) from Economic Times

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