reBasing the Basics – Sridhary Iyengar

Sridhar Iyengar is former chairman and CEO of KPMG India. He has been with KPMG for 34 years as a partner in the UK, US and India.  Currently, Sridhar is an independent mentor capitalist to early-stage companies. He sits on the boards of American India Foundation, Infosys, ICICI Bank, Rediff, OnMobile, among others. He has also served as president of TIE and a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.

Intearacting with Students at IWSB
Intearacting with Students at IWSB
Sridhar Iyengar is also on the board of governors of Indus World School of Business (IWSB), that promotes entrepreneurial leadership among youth through hands-on learning experiences integral to the business programmes. Last week, Sridhar was on the campus to interact with the faculty and students. The interactions were amazing and threw a lot of questions that Sridhar went on to address. At the end of the visit, Sridhar spoke about how we need to reassess all our Basics. Later I got a mail from him where Sridhar elaborates on his thoughts. Though Sridhar will put this on his blog, I felt I should post his note here too. Thanks Sridhar for sharing your invaluable thoughts.

reBasing the Basics

Over the years my uncle-Sarathy,now nearly 90 years old- has given me plenty of food for thought and some gem one-liners which have guided my internal decision making process ever since I became an adult. I recall when  leaving for the UK in 1968 to start my career ,he pulled me to one side and said-“Sridar,in life you cannot always do what you like but you must always like what you do”. That one statement has  allowed  me to choose what on and who with I wish to work and when to quit once it becomes a job with a total absence of fun- the element I inferred my uncle was stating in his reference to “like”. So if it is not fun I do not do it,period.
So I was not surprised when the other day during a discussion on the advantages of taking pro- active steps to avoid mishaps, he floored me with another one of his one liners. He said ” Sridar,we can only make things happen. We cannot prevent anything from happening”. I asked him whether this was a sense of fatalism on his part, thought to be so characteristic of all Indians. He avowed it was not but that he was  stating it as a fact.
Since this profound revelation I have been in quite a few   Board meetings doing my thing as an Independent director-bringing my perspectives and experience to bear on management’s assessment of opportunities and risks. I listened to presentations on strategy,on new models to cope with the volatile financial markets, on keeping talent motivated and engaged etc etc.  I just could not however stop thinking about what my uncle had said. Was I asking all the right questions in a world where one cannot prevent anything from happening or was I rightly focusing on the things which I could help happen. Should I not worry about, to quote Donald Rumsfeld,ex US Defence Secretary, the unknown unknowns but take decisions accepting that there are known unknowns. In my heart I know that as the Americans put it bluntly- s__t happens-  and that we should  continue to work on the things under our control. But my uncle had brought a sense of humility and in fact spirituality to my thinking about the power of my decisions and actions.
My uncle’s words only added to the process of introspection I had started  since the economic crisis began :an introspection   which is still not complete and  which continues to pose  more questions than answers.
This work in progress thinking  on my part about the current state of affairs,whether it is the economic meltdown , the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks , corporate governance post Satyam etc , leads me to believe that all of us -individuals,corporations,educational institutions ,other entities-  should reBase our  thinking about anything and everything. For me this reBase requires not a  mere “back to basics” which is what I am hearing being articulated as a solution, but a deep questioning of what really are the basics. I think the basics on which our institutions , processes  and beliefs were grounded may have contributed to where we are and therefore should not necessarily be the ones on which we build the new ones. This requires a  fundamental relook at the why,what,how,where and when of everything . I think in the affairs of wo(man) ……… there comes a time when we need to question all our actions, decisions and our outlook on self and society to see whether they are still valid and consistent with the assumptions and values under which they were conceived and executed. In doing this I believe that we have to abandon our long held belief that  yesterday is  indicative and even  predictive of tomorrow. More importantly we should consider whether the group think and conformity we encourage and teach in our homes, educational institutions and workplace and  the impulse to adopt best practices(usually someone else’s’) stifles a questioning mind,  institutionalises mediocrity and  sets the scene for the next crisis.
Talking about the economy a good VC friend analogised the situation as follows: According to him 9/11 represented some aircraft hitting the World Trade Center and reducing them to rubble. Following that the American people and the rest of the world had to go through the fears of travel and to put up with long lines at security, body searches,taking their shoes off,using see through bags for medications etc, Initially this was very disconcerting but we all  got used to this and world travel is back to pre 9/11 levels . Even the original site of the attack will one day  have another building. To my friend the current  crisis was caused by Air Paulson(the ex US Treasury Secretary) hitting the economy and particularly the financial markets. This will equally cause a disruption and the economic equivalent of ‘shoes off’ and after some time we will get used to it and build back up  on the new realities.  I agree with him to a certain extent but where 9/11 reduced the Twin Towers to solid ground ,I think Air Paulson(although Air Greed or Air Instant Gratification -AIG!!!!-is a more apt description) showed us that the entire financial markets,the foundation of all economies, was actually built on marshlands if not quicksand. As a result,under my need to reBase theory, it will take new technologies,new building materials and most important new rules and new people to build the future financial markets and economy. As an optimist I remain confident that things will get done but a key requirement,in keeping with my premise for this article, is that as we do not have enough new people, the old ones will have to reBase their thinking. In a positive version of the Orwellian or Cultural Revolution indoctrination,the same people with the same educational backgrounds(more about MBAs in a future article) which got us here have to   hit the erase button to unlearn the perceived wisdom or was it foolishness of the past and invent new ways to address the issues.
As for me I have started my own personal journey of questioning everything and everyone I hear.see, read or meet.  I do this not from a sense of distrust or skepticism but from a desire to revalidate for myself ,the basics on which I have to build my future decisions. So when someone says data ,I ask what does it mean? Is it the right one? Is there a right one? Who produced it? If it was  based on a survey who asked the questions?What were they? How much human intervention with all its biases was involved? If an independent party provided them, have they reBased their own  processes or are they using the same methods ? I could go on and on about all the things we accept as truths in our personal and business lives which are in fact far from it and actually someone else’s version of it which we have readily accepted for ever. Can we afford to continue doing  that whether in our personal life, or in business and career as CEOs, independent directors, teachers,learners etc whatever. To paraphrase Obama ,we surely cannot expect to do the same thing over and over again and expect to get a different result. Its time to change.  In a way everything we know and done up to now has been shaped by building on foundations and assumptions which clearly have not worked. Some of them may still be valid but the way to establish which ones,might require us to question all of them in a ‘guilty unless proven innocent” concept. So that is what I intend to do. Perhaps in the course of doing that ,the something my uncle says cannot be prevented from happening will happen when I am more prepared to accept it.

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