Nobody needs my advice, says CEO coach Ram Charan
Suveen Sinha January 13, 2015
Long after the interview with Ram Charan has ended, the abiding feeling is one of regret. For, three questions remain unasked: What does he do with his money, does he have any friends not related to his work, and does he ever laugh?
Why, you might wonder, we would want to pose such personal questions to the world's best-known CEO coach. The reasons are simple. One, far more eloquent articles than this have already been written on Ram Charan, the professional; two, he did not give even a hint of a smile during a long session at BT MindRush, nor at this interview that followed; and third, Ram Charan the person, at 75, is no less intriguing than his professional version. Find out for yourself in this edited excerpt of the interview.
HOW WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO ADDRESS YOU, MR, PROFESSOR?
No, just Ram.
ALL RIGHT, RAM. ACCORDING TO A PROFILE OF YOURS THAT APPEARED IN 2007, YOUR STATUS WAS SINGLE AND WITHOUT A FAMILY.
Still is (looks grumpy).
AROUND THAT TIME YOU HAD BOUGHT AN APARTMENT IN TEXAS, YOUR FIRST HOUSE.
For tax reasons. I have never been in it, I don't know where it is.
YOU NEVER MOVED IN?
I don't even know where it is.
HOW DID YOU HANDLE THE PROCESS OF BUYING?
I sent my Harvard roommate to buy it, gave him a cheque.
WHO IS THIS ROOMMATE?
Whoever it is?(pauses, looks grumpier) he is a real estate guy.
ENTIRELY FOR TAX PURPOSES?
Yes, it is legal.
OF COURSE! AND THE OFFICE YOU HAVE IN DALLAS?
I have never been in it. You don't serve customers by staying in the office. And there is a new theory: people don't need supervision.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT?
People don't need supervision. You need coaching, not supervision.
ONCE PEOPLE HAVE BEEN TOLD WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
You follow through, you don't supervise.
HOW DO YOU MAKE A DISTINCTION BETWEEN THE TWO?
You get information back monthly, weekly. But you don't have to sit there and supervise.
SO NOT MICROMANAGE?
No supervision. We have an Indian movie, in which Bachchan's son played. What's his name?
Yes, Abhishek, it is about textile workers.
THE MOVIE IS GURU; HIS CHARACTER WAS MODELLED ON DHIRUBHAI.
Whatever it was. He is sitting and watching these workers. Those days are over.
DO YOU GET TO WATCH HINDI MOVIES?
I can see Pakeezah any day.
HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU SEEN IT?
Twice.AND YOU CONTINUE TO SPEND EVERY NIGHT IN A HOTEL? YOUR CLOTHES AND OTHER THINGS ARE COURIERED TO YOU?
DOES IT HELP IN YOUR LINE OF WORK TO LIVE LIKE THIS?
You see, I am a lucky man. I am allowed to do what I love to do. Rest is support.
APART FROM THOSE WHO MANAGE YOUR OFFICE AND CLOTHES, DO YOU HAVE ANY TEAM WORKING WITH YOU?
No, in my work almost all is confidential. If you have partners, what happens?
YOU BEGIN TO SHARE THINGS?
That's why. I may be helping CEOs' teams that may include Chinese, Brazilians, Indians. It's not my own team. Confidentiality is their problem.
HOW DO OTHER CONSULTANTS MANAGE TO KEEP THINGS CONFIDENTIAL, THOSE WHO WORK WITH TEAMS?
I don't know. That's their problem.
HOW MUCH SLEEP DO YOU GET?
I make up on a weekly basis. Forty-eight hours.
MOST OF IT DURING FLIGHTS?
Or, like tonight. My flight tomorrow is at one in the afternoon. And I have a CEO to see tomorrow at 11. I have a CEO coming for dinner tonight. We will finish about 10. After that there may be some calls.
YOU KEEP A CRAZY SCHEDULE. THIS TIME IN INDIA, WHAT IS YOUR SCHEDULE LIKE?
It is not a big deal.
IT IS TO A LOT OF PEOPLE.
It is not, you serve your customers.
WHAT REALLY MAKES YOU THE RAM CHARAN?
I never planned to be this.
YOU FAMOUSLY NEVER SET GOALS.
I never have and I never will. I truly believe in the Indian culture of dedication. It has served me well. Do the best you can and learn to be the best. Focus. It will take you there.
DEDICATION TO THE JOB AT HAND?
Job. You don't do that minute by minute. It is outcome based. If I am working for you, I want to show you benefit. I am focused that you benefit. And If I can't help you, I should tell you. I have worked with companies for 30 years, 40 years, 45 years.
GE HAS BEEN THE LONGEST, HASN'T IT?
Still is, 45th year. I have been allowed to work with leaders who were at the bottom of the game, and taken them up. Or I have worked with people - and I do not consider myself as a guru or a coach - and I have picked them when they were 28 years of age and worked with them till they became CEOs of $160-billion companies, taken them through.
My work is how do I help this person do whatever is needed. There are times when I am not helpful. I have a situation right now in the US where the board and CEO have called me. I have had three sessions, and I have come to the conclusion that I cannot help him. And I have to find a person who can help him. I'm not going to leave him in the lurch. It is a very complex company. My responsibility is to get him the right person. I'm ok if he says no to that person.
WHO IS THIS PERSON WHO IS MORE SUITABLE THAN YOU?
I can't tell you. That is confidential. This is where consultants fail. Never breach confidentiality - never, even in disguise.
IF WE WERE TO TRY AND DEMYSTIFY WHAT YOU DO, WHAT REALLY IS YOUR METHOD?
I have no idea. Mine is very simple: how can I help you. I have to figure out whether I can help you or not. The good news is that I am a single person, I don't need the money. The more honest I am, the better I sleep. If you have a consulting firm, you need a budget. I don't need one.
WHAT DRIVES YOU?
Learning. I have asked people to look back at my early days. I went to the people [who were with me] at my first job in Jay Engineering, Calcutta (now Kolkata). They said they had never seen a person who was so driven for learning. They never had a trainee who did two shifts a day. I did two shifts a day for an unpaid five-month training. At the end of it the General Manager said he wanted to offer me a job. And I was in tears. It was difficult to get a job. But then I went to Australia.
IT IS SAID YOU KNOW CORPORATE AMERICA BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE. YOU KNOW CORPORATE INDIA FAIRLY WELL. HOW DO THE TWO COMPARE?
My argument is that there is no need to compare. Keep your eye on the big prize and what it takes to get there. In outsourcing we lead. I believe we can lead in generics. Why are we comparing? The conditions are different.
TALKING ABOUT THIS BIG PRIZE, YOU OFTEN MENTION SUNIL MITTAL...
He knew he had to be number one. He had his eye on the big prize.
BUT TO BE NUMBER ONE CANNOT BE THE BIG PRIZE FOR A LOT OF OTHER PEOPLE. WHAT SHOULD IT BE FOR THEM?
First look at where change is possible... I am a great fan of Mr. Premji.
WHAT DO YOU ADMIRE ABOUT HIM?
He is simple, very humble, he built something - not in the same line he inherited.
VERY DIFFERENT, JUST LIKE SUNIL MITTAL.
Absolutely, and he has no pretensions of being rich. Ordinary clothes, ordinary ways. He is not going to have his own plane, I guarantee you that, no way. He went in coach class, middle seat to America. I travelled with him.
YOU, TOO, WENT COACH CLASS?
(Clears his throat) I travelled once.
WHO IS THE ONE CEO IN INDIA WHO DOES NOT NEED RAM CHARAN?
All of them. They don't need me.
HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?
They may need me for this little thing, that little thing. They don't need me continuously; hell, no.
YOU KILLED MY NEXT QUESTION. I WAS GOING TO ASK WHO NEEDS YOU BADLY.
Nobody. It should not become a fashion. You have to search what you need, and when you need it.
IS IT YOUR USUAL WAY TO ASK A LOT OF QUESTIONS WHEN TRYING TO HELP PEOPLE?
I have a reasonably wide knowledge of what happens. I am able to predict ahead of time. So with Google, I can tell them what is coming.
WHAT IS COMING?
Can't tell you. He (Google) can say fly your own kite, I am ok with that. [Glenmark Pharmaceuticals CEO] Glenn Saldanha is going to get a call from somebody. I am going to arrange it. He does not know it. But I see a fit in a research area. I can bet you five bucks Glenn has not thought of it, but it will be to his benefit.
WHAT IS IN IT FOR YOU?
Zero. I don't know Glenn. But it will be good for him, good for the company, good for India. The other day I called a CEO I have known for a long time and told him he had to go and see a so and so. Nothing in it for me, I don't need it.
YOUR FAMILY HAD THIS SHOE SHOP IN HAPUR, UTTAR PRADESH, THAT WAS SET UP AFTER THE CLOTH SHOP BURNED DOWN IN 1947. DID YOU SPEND TIME THERE AS A CHILD?
Every single minute after the school, so to speak.
YOUR INSISTENCE ON THE IMPORTANCE OF CASH IN A COMPANY, CAN WE TRACE IT TO THE LEARNING IN THIS SHOE SHOP?
You must, that is the foundation. To this day I recall the first day sales; I did the tallying.
HOW MUCH WAS IT?
Thirty-five rupees and forty-seven paise.
WHY IS CASH SO IMPORTANT FOR A COMPANY?
Cash is the lifeblood of a company. You have to have cash.
HOW ABOUT THE ONE-PAGE SUMMARIES YOU GIVE CEOS, CAN THAT ALSO BE TRACED TO YOUR EARLY DAYS?
Yes, many times I could not afford books. So I sat at the back of the class and took verbatim notes. Then I came to the shoe shop and did the sums on the boxes and then wrote the summary of each lecture on one page. Now I look back and say I didn't have to prepare for the exams.
THE KIND OF COMPLEX CASES YOU DEAL WITH, DO YOU STILL FIND IT POSSIBLE TO REDUCE YOUR PRESCRIPTION TO A ONE-PAGE SUMMARY?
That's what I do with CEOs. And it's not the summary, it's the entire thing. (Narrates an incident of doing it with one of the best known Indian CEOs but tells us not to print it.)
WHAT WILL BE YOUR ADVICE TO INDIA'S CEO, MR. NARENDRA MODI?
No country, to the best of my knowledge, had ever written priorities. He has got it. He has got 10 priorities. Let him do it. Democracy permits people to talk, let them talk.
WHAT ABOUT THE FOLLOW-UP ACTION AFTER THE PRIORITIES HAVE BEEN ANNOUNCED?
Give him some time. Let him do the 10 priorities. Why get people excited? The first priority is to fix the plumbing. Get the backlog of decisions out of the way.
WOULD YOU COUNT MR. MODI AMONG THE PEOPLE WHO DO NOT NEED YOUR ADVICE?
Why does he? Nobody needs me. Why do you keep worrying about me?
YOU GRADUATED THIRD IN YOUR ENGINEERING CLASS AT THE BHU.
WOULD YOU REMEMBER WHERE THE FIRST THREE ARE?
No, I don't even know who they were.
YOU WERE IN THE SAME CLASS.
When the results were published, we had left. They did not publish the names. It is in my grade sheet, number four.
YOU WORK WITH BIG, CELEBRITY CEOS. INDIA IS GOING THROUGH A START-UP REVOLUTION. WHAT WOULD BE YOUR ADVICE TO THEM?
I have them (start-ups as clients) in America. I would ask them the same question: what is their need? The greatest mistake people like me make is to say: 'I have the solution, what is your problem?' I have to learn the problem and see if I can find a solution.
WHAT SHOULD BE THE BIG PRIZE START-UPS CAN EYE?
They have to focus: do they have a customer, and does it work.