Lateral career transition

December 29, 2009

This article was published in Management Compass in the month of February, 2009

Lateral moves

Talent could be tapped from a most unrelated field

A recent issue of Aspire, published by the India today group, carried a feature on unconventional careers. In it, the CEO of Shaadionline, Jai Raj Gupta stated that some of his best wedding planners had come not from event management schools but from other professions. Though Gupta asserted that event management is best learnt on the job, that is true to a lesser or greater degree in other fields as well, which paves the way for natural talent to come out. Sometimes the best talent is misplaced in other fields. According to former HRD consultants Morgan and Banks, the famous general electric CEO Jack Welch, on recognising the business abilities of three lawyers that he hired was able to place them accordingly and all three of them were successful and became the heads of GE’s aviation finance operation, GE’s business development and GE Japan respectively. Similarly Darwin Smith is a lawyer who is supposed to have turned around the American company Kimberly Clark, a paper company.

Though natural talent is defined as a kind of intuitive sense or ability, one can explain it perhaps in terms of declarative and procedural knowledge. Declarative knowledge is knowledge about something. Procedural knowledge is knowledge of how to do something. For example, declarative knowledge is what you have when you read and understand the instructions for programming the DVD player. Procedural knowledge is what you demonstrate when you programme the DVD player. Knowing need not follow doing in sports, vocation or certain occupations. I have experienced repeatedly that people who have a natural ability or “How to” of something are able to do so well without any or much formal instruction and some may not be able to do it or demonstrate it despite having good declarative knowledge. It reminds of a quote by BF Skinner: “Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” What has survived was probably already there and therefore never went, which to my mind is innate procedural knowledge. With the coming of the internet, anybody can have declarative knowledge if he knows the basic terminologies.

Whether or not they come from other industries, people doing very well without any formal qualifications have always been a fascination with me. In his book New Age Philosophy from Ancient Wisdom, which is based on inspirations drawn from the Tamil Veda, The Thirukural, author V Srinivasan says, “There is an abundance of information available that lots of people with no formal qualification in management — or, at times, no formal education at all — have been successful at managing their departments or enterprises. There are also several examples of literally uneducated businesspersons who have run their businesses often fairly large ones very successfully. “ In his book, Know-How, management consultant Ram Charan, while explaining the underlying reasons why leaders succeed and fail says, “Education didn’t seem to matter. One leader at this company had little formal education yet was succeeding while another, a Baker Scholar from Harvard Business School, was failing. The so-called born leaders tended to make colossal mistakes while seemingly unremarkable leaders knew what they were doing.” Only practical activity can separate the wheat from the chaff. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is proving to be a superb leader in all forms of cricket, though he had not led any team in domestic cricket before being asked to lead India.

A recent business example is Gautam Adnani. A recent India Today issue gave details of how Adnani’s phenomenal rags to riches story could be a case study at Harvard Business School. Adnani is a matriculate from a Gujarati medium school and has still to master spoken English. In 1980, Adnani was an ordinary worker in a Mumbai diamond processing unit earning a salary of Rs 1000/- a month. Today he straddles over a vast empire with a turnover of Rs 23,000 crore. This year he was named as the 10th richest man in India by Forbes. One executive who left the Ambanis to join him states, “Having no formal management education allows him to think tangentially out of the box and achieve stupendous results.” Some have even started comparing him to Dhirubhai Ambani, who was himself a school dropout, an exceptionally good tangential thinker and someone who believed in looking at individual initiative and potential rather than paper qualifications in management roles.

One other case worth mentioning is Rajinder Gupta, CEO and managing director of Trident group, who dropped out of school in the IXth grade but now has a turnover of 2,100 crore. Other well-known cases are commerce graduates steel baron Laxmi Mittal, Bharti Telecom chairman Sunil Mittal and Jet Airways chairman Naresh Goyal, who have done very well for themselves considering their modest academic credentials. There are many here who might say that they are running empires with the help of MBAs. That may be true but one has to be sufficiently successful and reasonably big to be able to attract good talent and to do that without formal qualifications is quite a feat.

It is interesting how people from other areas do well in certain other disciplines. The patriarchs of the two main Bollywood families, Prithviraj Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan came from law and the corporate world respectively. Both our world cup winning captains, Kapil Dev and Mahendra Singh Dhoni came from football. Even in politics, all the great leaders who struggled for Independence — Nehru, Gandhi and Patel — were lawyers initially. It is a well-known fact that Jawaharlal Nehru’s father, Motilal Nehru was a very rich and successful lawyer. According to the book Nehru, the Invention of India by Shashi Tharoor, Jawaharlal Nehru was no great shakes as a lawyer but threw himself wholeheartedly into the freedom struggle with zest and determination that he even spent over 10 years in British Jails. Gandhi himself is known more for his integrity as a lawyer than being a legal luminary but made a great saint politician.
In the context of qualifications and natural talent, Nehru’s case is particularly interesting. The above mentioned book states, “Had Nehru been good at taking exams, he might have followed his father’s wishes and joined the ICS but his modest level of academic achievement made it clear that he stood no chance of succeeding in the demanding ICS examination. Officials did not become statesmen. It is one of the ironies of history that had Jawaharlal Nehru been a higher achiever in his youth, he might never have attained the political heights he did in adulthood.” Sometimes when one looks at the success of naturally gifted people, it does seem an irony of education that formal education maybe a hindrance in their way because there have been instances of Nobel prize winners saying that lack of structured education enabled them to think creatively. Elsewhere in the above book, it is mentioned that Nehru was an intellectual dreamer who gave expression to ideas but not to their implementation. It could be expressed as good declarative knowledge but poor procedural knowledge.

In an advertisement that appeared for a unique business school in Delhi, this is what was mentioned “This B-school does not look at a very big batch-size so that proper attention is given to students individually, and believes in imparting education more through kineasthetic techniques rather than through theory classes. The punchline for this B-school is ‘A different experience in learning’. The institute offers guidance and hand-holding in theory and plenty of exposure to experiential learning. The faculty team comprises of highly motivated individuals who have carefully designed their course content to ensure that an individual not only picks up the basic principles of theory, but also learns how to react in real time situations.” These days there is a lot of emphasis on applied management. It seems that the conventional MBA education is proving inadequate. Many engineers are given employability training where apart from learning colloquial English, they are trained to think on their feet in maths to acquire good commercial sense. It seems that the conventional education took these simple skills for granted. Similarly, it seems that they have also taken operative business skills for granted just by imparting declarative knowledge which is why the emphasis on applied management now.

Marcus Buckingham, who is one of the 50 top management thinkers and has done a lot of work in talent management, also says that according to his research, only 20 per cent of the people utilise their strength at work. This could be because people with the procedural knowledge of one industry may have ended up with the declarative knowledge of another industry and confusing that knowledge for real intelligence or talent. Normally the promotions are done linearly but lateral entry maybe allowed for whatever reasons. Two books — Achieving a Dream career by Morgan and Banks and What should I do With My Life by Po Bronson — give a detailed list of career switches, some of which are listed here:

l From actor to recruitment specialist
l From doctor to sportswriter
l From teacher to sports administrator
l From secretary to business owner
l From lawyer to executive recruiter
l From lawyer to celebrity manager and promoter
l From biology to advertising
l From accountant to fashion designer
l From PR to gardening
l From geologist to inspector
l From CPA to website programmer
l From poet to chef

What is intriguing is why so many people want to switch careers? According to Australian consultant, Kelly services, “There are basically three types of employees- engaged, disengaged, and actively disengaged. Engaged employees love their jobs and believe in their employer, the company’s goals, and the manner in which they conduct business. Disengaged employees (also called “not-engaged”) look at their jobs as trading time for money. They show up for work at the proper time, leave the workplace at the agreed upon time, and do little in between beyond the minimum effort required to complete their job. Actively disengaged employees are the true problem area of staff chemistry and company performance. Not only unhappy at work, they typically demonstrate, in word and deed, their dislike of their jobs and/or employer. The Gallup Organization conducted a study over a five-year period regarding employee beliefs and actions. During the survey period, the cost to companies of keeping actively disengaged employees was tracked and monitored. Gallup estimates that the decreased productivity and performance fostered by actively disengaged employees’ costs US businesses around $300 bn annually.”

Marcus Buckingham has defined strengths and weaknesses precisely; he says that any activity that invigorates you is your strength and vice-versa for weaknesses. The issue is how does a disengaged employee try the activities of a different industry or career because that is the only way to find out for sure whether or not one is suited for that. A managing director of a public limited company once told me that if you have been taken for finance and exhibit a flair and interest for marketing, that can always be arranged but if in your interview you want to be taken for marketing without the relevant experience, nobody is going to take you for presumed talent.

Supposing there is a qualification for cricket — bachelor of cricket and master of cricket. After all the knowledge of cricket is thrust in, if the person goes out to play and discovers that he does not like or is not good at the activities — bowling, batting or fielding, what does he do? The training he has received is to think like a strategist or perhaps a captain but he has to be a good player first. A lot of conventional management education is like that. It trains the person to be a good analyst but reveals nothing about performing skills, leading to so many workshops on them. The system of chartered accountancy is a little strange in the sense that only a certain percentage of the result is preordained. It is not uncommon to come across chartered accountants who say that luck is as important as intelligence and hard work in passing such an exam. A practicing chartered accountant in Mumbai told me that an acquaintance, though equally or even more intelligent in certain areas, has not been able to clear the formal exams despite more than 25 attempts. What colossal effort and patience! He does all the practical work very well but cannot sign the balance sheet as he is not well qualified. Maybe a proactive talent management system which can actually test practical working ability could be better in such cases. On the other extreme, a qualification is a piece of paper if non-talented people are not able to live up to it.

Sometimes over obsession with qualifications can lead to tragic consequences. Unless one is being tested for analytical or research oriented jobs, an activity based assessment system is bound to be more accurate. That apart, it is not always easy for practicing managers to be abreast of knowledge. Estimates indicate that it took approximately 1750 years for the first doubling of knowledge, 150 years for the second doubling, 50 years for the third and only 10 years for the fourth. The fifth doubling may take five years and thereafter less than one year. With the kind of tumultuous changes expected in the 21st century, keeping abreast for practicing managers is indeed a tall order. That is perhaps the reason why designations like chief learning officers or learning and development officers are in vogue. It reminds of one of the opt-repeated quotes of George Bernard Shaw, “Those, who can do, do. Else they teach.” This is a clear distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge. Perhaps the organisations of the future will all be like this where people who lack functional talent will teach, since a lot of money is spent on training despite formal management education anyway.

Recently, after the Mumbai attack, The Times of India on one of the suggestions as to what the new home minister should do stated, “Make the agencies that tackle terrorism professional and allow lateral entry of best talent” The word lateral entry implies that the best talent could be elsewhere and need not follow the conventional, hierarchical, vertical movement. One does not have to wait for severe adversity for detecting talent diversity. If only it could be detected proactively at a university.


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