Few leaders have created a deep impact on our country, inspired a nation to dream big and put India on the global map like Mr Tata. He is India’s best brand ambassador and an institution who embodies many simple but great qualities that often tend to be ignored by leaders on the race to the top.
When I invited Mr. Tata for a fireside chat at Kstart Summit “Billion Aspirations”, I was unsure if he would accept the Feb 7th invitation amongst all of his other priorities. He not only accepted but reassured me that his greatest enjoyment comes from his time spent with entrepreneurs. Classic to his style, Mr. Tata and his team arrived 15 minutes before the committed time.
Day after day, year after year his commitment to his word and respect for time ranging from small things to large contracts is legendary, making him a genuine leader. His ability to bring that commitment and energy to every interaction is a lesson in leadership that I have taken away each time.
Ratan Tata surfaced as beacon of support in the startup ecosystem post retirement. Until 2012, we only knew him as India’s best brand ambassador and an effective business leader. Since 2013, his personal investments into young companies and entrepreneurs has been driven by two principles (my personal observation) — picking investment themes that have potential to create large impact and investing in people he felt needed his support. Ratan Tata has invested in more than 30 startups and emerged as one of the most active angel investors in India.
Despite the enigma and all the fame, the Ratan Tata I discovered was not only approachable, but genuinely interested in being engaged. When I observe his preparedness to meetings, his curiosity, insightful questions and empathetic approach to feedback and his great sense of humour — it has given me a lot to self-introspect. At the Summit, we asked a few entrepreneurs to share their thoughts on Mr. Tata based on their interactions with him. Reacting to the resulting expressions he said “Thank you but you embarrass me”.
At #BillionAspirations Summit, Ratan Tata announced his return to support the startup ecosystem starting the 23rd of February.
“When I retired at the end of 2012, and looked at a new life, I hit upon investing and interacting with startup community as a new page in my life. I left a big business, crores of rupees and large competitive challenges behind. I became so excited by what I saw and what I experienced in the startup community — innovation, great passion for what is hopefully being nurtured as the new unicorns of the indian startup community. I gave much more of my attention and much more of my time because it stimulated me. The last five months have put me back forcibly into the older mould. I really long to be back in the startup community with a vigour, the innovation and the challenges. And as of the 23rd of February I am back. Look forward to that day.”
I was glad to hear this at the very beginning of his talk, making it the best opening for the day.
During our chat, we spoke about Mr. Tata’s aspirations for India and the startup ecosystem, advice to young leaders and facing crisis.
What can the combined aspirations of a billion people mean for our future?
Ratan Tata’s aspirations for India and the startup ecosystem are Think Big and Lead from the front, in doing so Be Humble and nurture other younger entrepreneurs in their journey. We will all face our share of success, failures and crisis, the Ability to Deal with Crisis will determine whether we are True Leaders.
Other excerpts from my chat with Mr. Tata:
The importance of leading and not following. Dreaming big…
In my years in business, I felt that the India which had come through years of license raj and joint ventures, had been timid in terms of how it addressed the opportunities that existed. By contrast, the startup community with young people who were willing to take greater risks driven by the passion of what they thought the economy needed or the environment needed were willing to stake their immediate future and give all of themselves to that task. Any industry big or small, a startup or a traditional business has to think big. India is a large market of growing capability and consumption, if you think small, you are over-extended, over-indulged before you know it. If you are willing to take the risks and are willing to face the challenges — India presents a great opportunity.
In many ways the startup activity in the country has been an igniter of that passion of thinking big, leading and not following and not being afraid to venture into areas that were considered only available to the big boys. It is also symbolic that India has been recognised for its startups by the international finance community and investors who have put large amounts of money behind young people with good ideas. We as investors and supporters of this new community must accept that there will be failures and some areas where you will have to stake your faith in what is being done and stay with it.
This is the new India of tomorrow—an India that stands on its own, an India that is willing to take risks and is willing to look beyond the shores of India for growth.
Advice to leaders and celebrity CEOs—be humble, open and foster the entrepreneurial community
When you give advice, you need to have humility and not patronise the person or the institute in forcing your views on them. For several years, there has been one issue which has traveled with me — it happened at Harvard Business School. I came away from school with confusion in my mind in terms of what I had learnt and one issue that stayed with me is a professor’s statement —
“In whatever you do, put yourself in the other person’s shoes first.”
So giving advice involves you transporting yourself mentally into the person’s shoes who seeks the advice. It gives you a different perspective. It is always easy to give advice sitting in an armchair but very difficult to make a difference to the person who is facing the challenges.
Young CEOs who had the passion and risk taking ability to start something and passed the test of having been successful should be humble. Thinking that you know everything might be the kiss of death. Instead, be open, helpful, cooperative to others, supporting them with their success would be a great way to go forward and would transform a young entrepreneur into a statesman.
All of us should want to make a difference, we should be happy to support another potential success. One way is for successful entrepreneurs to foster new entrepreneurs and to grow this community and not let it wither away. India was called the country of shopkeepers and now has the opportunity to be turned into an efficient business environment with innovation and risk taking ability and a huge market that hasn’t been explored fully.
Let’s not lose the momentum that we have, let it not die. Let’s build on what we have created for ourselves.
Facing Crisis and doing the right thing
“The greatest textbook for leadership is facing crisis.”
You often wonder where does leadership comes from? How do you foresee or deal with a terrorist attack on Bombay? How do you deal with the heroes that emerge from that crisis? People who are considered to be mild, timid and nervous become leaders during a crisis. This applies in business also, each time we have a crisis be it financial, be it failure of the marketplace — how you deal with that crisis is important. The most telling thing is there are leaders who deal with the crisis and there are others who cover up the crisis. If you have a crisis, you should deal with it in the correct way so that you can hold your head high and say you made a difference. Not that you swept it under the carpet and lived with it knowing that it is either dying or decaying.
Every CEO faces an issue of doing what is right, it might be the most difficult thing he or she has to face. Many of us are tempted to take the easy route of doing whatever is most acceptable. Deep down inside most of us feel that route is not the right thing to do.
A real leader is willing to face the consequences to do whatever is right.
To go home at night and say “I didn’t succumb, I made a difference”. That is the mark of a true leader. That’s the kind of spirit that will lead the country into the future and it’s not the easiest thing to do.
Reflecting back on my conversation with Ratan Tata, I cannot help but emphasise that everything Mr. Tata said really belongs in the textbook of leadership. His aspirations, his optimism and his conviction for a better India gives me hope and inspires me. I hope it does the same for you.
I have said this many times before, Mr. Tata is an institution to me. There are only few people in a century who became an institution. While we all wonder how this happens, how a person becomes such an icon? I have come to realise, it is actually the small things — how they pay attention to detail, how they make no compromises in conduct and how they have an open approach to learning from everyone.
Getting the small things right every time, being consistent, staying curious and staying connected with reality — are my personal learnings from interactions with Mr. Tata.