A Career of Learning

A Career of Learning: It was Perelman who said “Learning is what most adults do for a living in the 21st century”. And Bishop Greighton made this observation ‘The one real object of education is to have a man in the condition of continually asking questions’. And I cannot agree more…

Does learning have to end with an MBA?

When I started my career in advertising over 26 years ago, my colleague and the legendary art director Arun Kale asked me this question “What do you fellows learn at IIMs? Why should you get paid so much?” I did not dare answer that question but bought him a copy of the book ‘Practice of Management’ by Peter Drucker – and told him this is all that we learnt at IIM. It shut him up for a long time and later he did tell me that now he knows there is something useful called an MBA!

So is continued learning a necessity after a glorious MBA? Why is learning and developing new and enhanced skills all the more important today?

Our parents possibly did not go through any thing other than their formal education. Why is it therefore critical today to renew, refresh our knowledge base? And why is this going to become all the more important as we go along?

Let me try and put down what I think would be six or seven key trends for the next 15 years in our career span.

The first trend  is undoubtedly the increasing pace of change. When I started my career in the late 70’s early 80’s, to today in the 21st century, I have witnessed the increasing pace of change, not just in our work environment but all around what we see. To look back, the 80’s were characterized by a sluggish economy and slow pace of work. The biggest brand launches of that decade were Nirma and later Hero Honda. The Japanese brands tasted some success with two wheelers but where laid low by the Tatas in their attempt to open up the light commercial vehicles market. The other big change of the 80’s was the sudden growth of television. From just a handful of  cities, with Asiad, TV was getting beamed into hundreds of cities and villages. Those were heady days for FMCG brands. While working on brands like Strepsils, Burnol and Coldarin, I could first hand feel the tremendous impact of television in stirring up demand across the country. The growth of FMCG products, durables like TV and two wheelers in that decade has a big share of their success to the growing influence of television.

The next decade, the 90’s saw India making some tentative moves to open up under the then Finance Minster Manmohan Singh and Commerce Minister P. Chidambaran. The decade saw the birth of Zee and the cable TV revolution. We also saw Coke and Pepsi enter India with a vengeance. Interestingly even after more than 10 years I am told they are yet to turn a profit. The Koreans, LG and Samsung too started looking at India more seriously. India was becoming a more interesting country but it was not yet warm, let alone hot.

This decade, the 21st century, has seen India emerge from the shadows. The IT revolution and the growing global presence of TCS, Infosys and Wipro; the service industry outsourcing boom have made India the toast of the world. The BRIC report from Goldman Sachs and The World is Flat from Thomas Freidman have both helped India get on to centre stage. Indian economy is showing growth in excess of 6.5% for four years running. And we are seeing change all around us. This decade has had two key drivers. The automobile revolution driven by Tata’s Indica and brands like Santro and the mobile revolution. With mobile connections expecting to cross 100 million before the end of the year 2006, we will have mobile phones in more homes than any other product including possibly television. And mobile is no longer a snob value product, it is a livelihood. My wife recently had a painter telling her “My address in Mumbai is constantly changing madam, but you can always catch me on my mobile. Even if I go to UP and come back, my number will be the same!” Add to the mobile revolution the growth in multiplexes and malls. We are seeing a new trend that will gather steam in the next decade.

So if I am to give the trends for the coming 15 years what would I name:  I think rural transformation would be tops – aided by government programmes and initiatives like micro credit from banks like ICICI, vehicles like ACE from Tata, eChaubol from ITC, new cold chain and supply chain logistics from companies like Bharti and Reliance; we will see rural India changing very fast.

The second big trend will be the change in retail landscape, not in the top metros, but in the 100+ class I towns. This influx of malls, supermarkets and multiplexes will pose very many challenges while opening up great opportunities.

The other key changes we will witness will be in growing importance of knowledge industries, research and development and technical/medical based service. Teaching and training will again be on centre stage as was the case several centuries ago in India.

So all these major changes are going to impact our lives in many ways.

The second challenge facing mid level managers will be the necessity to develop a global perspective. India will get more and more affected by global trends, whether it is oil prices or glut of tea in Mexico – all these will start affecting operations of Indian companies. How focused are we on tracking the global trends, global competition and global tax norms. For instance Suzuki Swift was launched in India full six months after it was launched in Europe. So Indian car marketers had six months to plan on how to take on Swift, with their own offerings. Or take the CDMA vs. GSM battle. GSM operators knew that CDMA was a tried and tested technology that could help operators using that technology to utilise the telecom spectrum more efficiently to deliver a better service. So even if our market is India, to be successful we need to have a global perspective, so that we are not taken unawares. As they say in the US, we need to know whether there can be a ball coming from the left field. And it doesn’t take much to have a global perspective of your business today, what with the internet and all other forms of information services available at the push of a button.

The third challenge is for managers to develop a global  work culture and skill sets. Are your skills relevant only in India, or are you valuable even in UK, US or Asia? The more universal your skill sets are, the better chance you have of facing continued success in your career. The old days of growing up from sales executive to becoming Brand Manager in one town is gone forever. And many of you would be aware of careers that got ruined because of obstinacy of managers to hang on to their olive trees as Thomas Freidman would put it.

I think one of the most serious problem we Indians have is our total disregard for time. As a copywriter told me, “I love deadlines. I especially love to hear them swooshing by”. To be global we need to start respecting time, and often also  be aware of the time difference, when we deal with colleagues or clients from overseas. I have noticed how some of us become very time conscious when we are abroad, only to revert to our age old habits as soon as the flight lands! But why?

Written and oral communication is an area I have noticed as a significant weakness in many of our new recruits. Not all management schools spend time teaching written and oral communication. If then do, the emphasis is more on presentation skills. We are living in an English dominated world, and here we have a huge advantage. If only we make sure we have Oxford and Wren & Martin for company.

Email has come as a saviour to many of us who want to get things done fast. But here lies the other problem. Email is deceptively disarming. And if we don’t watch out, the innocuous mail may just end up going to  the wrong person. How often have you got a mail from someone saying that he got a mail from you, and he was not supposed to be in the list. It is always good to remember Murphy’s Law as applied to emails: your email will reach just the person who you would not want to read it!

And last issue on getting a global work culture is with respect to clothing. Not many companies spend time training their new recruits on the importance of dress code. What does ‘Formals’ really mean? And what is ‘Business Casual’? Indian companies marketing formal and business casual wear can exploit this opportunity to offer free advice, either through workshops, or through the internet.

The fourth challenge all of us will have to face will be the growing complexities of corporate world. The ERP revolution swept through many companies, so did reengineering, six sigma and Kaizen. I recently came across yet another Japanese term, Kaikaku. While Kaizen stands for slow almost unperceptible transformation, Kaikaku, is complete transformation. The like of which was adopted by Intel when it moved out of memory chips and bet all it had on microprocessors.

The current topic with US MNCs is the  Sarbanes–Oxley Act, fondly referred to as SOX. How are these trends going to affect your life? The growing importance of Good Corporate Governance, the need for external directors and more are all going to bring  new challenges into our work lives. It is not unusual to find operational managers making quarterly business review presentations not to their bosses, but to external directors, may be a professor or a veteran bureaucrat.

The fifth challenge will be the changing Indian consumer. How are we going to track their changes and fulfill their needs? Whichever department you may be in, as Peter Drucker said “The only purpose of the corporation is to create and retain a customer”. How can we continue to keep track of our consumer and how can we continue to be relevant to their changing needs.

From business to consumer, B2C, we are now seeing C2C, in the form of auction sites. And many companies are inducting articulate consumers into their own think tank, to create a C2B flow of ideas. We discussed the rural transformation at the beginning of this article. A lot has been written about marketing to the bottom of the pyramid. But in the next twenty years the consumer pyramid may become a consumer diamond, with a distinct bulge in the middle. We are already seeing some signs of this, with SEC E class not growing at the same pace as say SEC C, in urban India. When the diamond happens, we will see consumers wanting to upgrade to better products and services. Look at the way mobiles have transformed the small business community. And you will see more of this with air travel becoming affordable to the small businessman. So not only will air travel be just a holiday luxury, but it will become the preferred means of transport for the small businessman.

The sixth challenge is the war on talent. With Indian economy booming, India getting on to the world stage, the hunt for talent will become even more fierce. At one time our agency used to recruit from IIMA, IIMB and IIMC. Not anymore. Even reputed FMCG giants are facing a huge challenge of fast turnover of top class MBA recruits.  So we have to figure out ways of attracting the right talent, not just based on badges, training them and retaining them. The challenge will get more intense over the next ten years as new sectors like retail, financial services, telecom and may be infrastructure start sucking out mid level talent from established service industries and FMCG. The flip side to this is that a young manager will be in great demand. Any manager with 5 to 10 years experience with a right set of educational qualification and work experience will be in demand not only in India but all over Asia; and may be the rest of the world as well.

So how can we prepare ourselves for the challenges of the future?

Let me try and draw an analogy by using a brand building model that I have presented in my latest book Building Brand Value. The book was released in end-2005, and it presents a rationale for a model that is needed for building brands, from bottom-up in a developing country like India. At the core of the model are elements of the marketing mix, but more importantly the model has five stages enunciated for building brand value. You are a brand and how can you build value by using the five stages of brand building pentagon. The five stages are Brand Appraisal, Brand Definition, Brand Articulation, Brand Measurement and Brand Expansion.

Start with Brand Appraisal. This stage is about evaluating if there is an opportunity to create a brand. Do people need a Rs. 1 lakh car? Do people need a more affordable shampoo? In your case what do you see yourself as? What role can you play going forward for your organisation?

The next step in Brand Definition. This step calls for marketing to define the brand – what is it about? What will be its positioning? Its point of difference? In your case look at what can you add to the corporation? What are your unique skills? Mathematical? Behavioural? Technical? Financial? What is that one thing that you can do, that no one else in your company can do better?

The next step in Brand Articulation. Having decided what the brand will stand for, you will have to give it a name, an identity, a communication campaign. In your case, you know what you want to stand for, what you can do better than anyone else. How do you articulate this to your boss, your colleagues, your team? Will you offer to conduct training programmes? Will you articulate your skills a little more loudly?

The next, and vital step in Building Brand Value is Brand Measurement. Once you have created a new brand and launched it into the market, you need to set up measurement parameters to track its success or failure.  These measurement metrics may be monthly, quarterly and annual. In the case of your career, you need to put in place measurement devices to tell you where you are succeeding and where you are falling short. The companies you work for may have performance appraisal systems – do not see them as just tools to get a good increment. They are a lot more than that. Understand the process and see how you can use the feedback to improve your performance. If you can get 360 degree feedback all the better. But make sure you get the feedback.

The fifth stage of Building Brand Value is Brand Expansion. Once the brand has been launched and has achieved a level of success, the quest is on to see what more can be done with the brand. New variants. New flavours. New sub brands. Or totally new categories to get into. Nirma went from washing powder to beauty soaps. Hero went from cycles to mopeds to mobikes. So in your case what can you become next? A lot of us have our own comfort zone. We like the same office, the same table and the same chair. Some things in life need to be stable but in the work environment you need to see what can you take on next as a challenge. A posting in a new area? A new additional responsibility? A new task to be done? Lookout to expand your horizons and that’s the only way you can grow.

So the Brand Building Pentagon can also help you build a successful career..

And for some final tips to help you stay on course for a learning career.

Let me call this 7-7-7 rule.

Try and spend atleast 7 days a year on training and learning. Enroll into useful programmes. Do not wait for your company to sponsor you. It is your career and your job and your life. Some companies have a training norm. And it takes effort to get people to enroll. You be the first. You may be aware that medical professionals in most parts of the world have to re-qualify every two years. And to take the test they have to show that in the 2 years they have accumulated 30 or so credits by attending programmes, in hospitals and outside. Accumulate your 30 credits every two years!

Now to the next tip. And let me tell you about an amusing exchange I read in Drayton Bird’s book Common Sense Direct Marketing. Drayton Bird was interviewing a candidate for a job in his London DM agency. And this young man who claims to have five years experience, when asked what book on DM have you read said “I don’t believe in book knowledge. I’ve learnt everything by observing”. Drayton Bird in his book points out, will you consult a doctor if you hear this response from him. So the next little tip – read 7 business books a year. These need not necessarily be the latest best sellers. You could start with The Practice of Management by Drucker, or Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins  or and this is my commercial message, books written by India authors on Indian brands.

The next 7 rule is about movies, books and music. I believe people in marketing, definitely have to have a wide enough ‘taste spectrum’. You need to see 7 movies, hits, offbeat, Mexican, but see at least 7 different movies a year. Similarly read atleast 7 different fiction books a year. And 7 different music albums a year. All these will help you take time to smell the flowers and in the process will give you a more global outlook.

A colleague of mine had this interesting observation to be good in your job it is at times useful to have 1 other passion. Not 2, not 3 but just 1. like photography, or teaching or trekking or movies. Cultivate a passion other than work.

You need to have one person who can be your mentor. Figure out who it is and let him be as frank as he can. As Peter Drucker said, “The question is not, do you make mistakes. It is, do you learn from them”.

Keep that in mind as you build your “learning career”.

We are indeed living in exciting times. And those of you in your mid 30’s and late 20’s have a very exciting career ahead. You have made the right beginning, and as they say a task well begun is half well done.

The challenge facing you is to keep up the learning momentum because the reward is going to be rich.