Thursday, July 18, 2019

Meeting Subir Chowdhury – Adding Conviction, Curiosity, Communication and a Caring Mindset to Life

It was the World Cup semi-final. India was to play New Zealand, big game and I had decided that I will put everything aside, settle down and watch the game. At 10 am Suresh called me and said ‘My friend Subir is in town and I think you will enjoy meeting him. Could you do a fireside chat with him at the TiE speaker series?’ Suresh, (Chairman and CEO of Brightcom Group and President, TiE Hyderabad), never calls without a good reason and I normally say Yes with no hesitation. But on this day I told Suresh that I would get back – Subir Chowdhury is a bestselling author (a real one, unlike me – and I haven’t read any of his books), a management consultant who consults with Fortune 100 companies and a speaker. All that I attempt to do, he does them 100 x better! How could I do a fireside chat with him without enough preparation?

Suresh told me to take my time and sent me the link to Subir’s website. I read a few pages of Subir’s website and I knew this was going to be better than the semi-final. I messaged Suresh that I would do it, and immersed myself into understanding Subir. So many things he said resonated with me and I really wanted to meet him and get his perspectives.

Subir and Suresh had been at IIT, Kharagpur together, as students, back in the late 80s. Subir has since moved to the USA and is now a bestselling author with 15 books (business - mostly themes around quality and productivity), is a sought after speaker and thought leader (is in the top 50 most influential thinkers list). He is a leading management consultant and one of the last words in quality. He is also the Chairman of ASI Consulting Group based in the USA, which deals with Strategic Initiatives, Quality Counseling, and Training.

Subir also does a lot of philanthropic work –the Subir Chowdhury School of Quality and Reliability at IIT, Kharagpur, the Subir Chowdhury Fellowship on Quality and Economics at the London School of Economics, the Subir Chowdhury Fellowship on Quality and Economics at Harvard University, the Subir and Malini Chowdhury for Bangladesh Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, Global Quality Awareness, a non-profit initiative of the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Foundation (to improve the lives of individuals and communities) and the Frances Hesselbein Medal for Excellence in Leadership and Service by the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Foundation are some such initiatives. Among the many awards and recognitions he has received are the Outstanding American by Choice Award by the US Government and the Thinkers 50 nomination (many more awards, too many to list). Subir is also a heritage collector of rare Indian artworks by eminent Indian artists like Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy, Abanindranath Tagore as well as western artists like Monet, Rodin, Renoir.

Glancing through Subir’s list of books I realised how much he believes in greater efficiencies and in all the factors that go into individual and organisational productivity. His books include ‘Robust Engineering’, ‘Design for 6 Sigma’, ‘Management 21 C’, ‘Organisation 21 C’, ‘Power of Six Sigma’, ‘Taguchi’s Quality Engineering’, ‘New Generation Business’, ‘Talent Era’, ‘Ice Cream Maker’, ‘Power of LEO’, ‘Robust Optimisation’ and his latest bestseller ‘The Difference’. The Difference caught my mind with its promise of showing how to achieve 50 x through a caring mindset (he says ‘Good Enough isn’t enough’). I made a list of possible questions to ask and included one of my own – how does one write a bestseller? I drove down to Suresh’s house to meet him, Subir and another classmate of theirs - Subrato.
Suresh handing me a memento on behalf of TiE, Hyderabad
Having met Subir, I ran the questions with him. Instinctively I could sense his comfort with people – he did not tell me how to go about it, did not ask me to change what I wrote, smiled a lot, told me we would have fun, put me at ease and took the pressure off. As I read out a question to him he would launch into the subject with the same passion as he would later do on stage. I wondered how he would have any energy left to speak there at the chat, but that’s one thing I learned about Subir – he had the same energy level all through the evening. He was so passionate about what he wanted to share.

How to Write a Bestseller (or do anything well) – Have Conviction
While heading to the venue, I asked Subir how he wrote bestsellers. Subir was kind enough to share his insight. He said we need conviction behind our own product to make it successful. Why didn’t I devote enough time to promote my book on cricketing lessons ’50 Not out’ in all cricket playing nations he said? Why didn’t I get testimonials from all the top cricketers and reviewers? He said that’s what he did. He knocked on doors starting with the best in the business and kept at it until they agreed and made sure his baby did not suffer because of lack of effort. He said that was what conviction was and told me bluntly – maybe you are low on confidence or self-esteem I don’t know but why didn’t you do that? I felt like I was in school, caught having not done my homework. This was great advice and I was grateful that he cared enough to help me along by pointing out my grey area. He clarified the concept to me – conviction is doing things as if today was the last day. Start at the top, put energy in your work, tick all boxes and persist. I am completely sold on the idea.

The Magic Keys 3 Cs – Conviction, Curiosity, Communication

At the venue Suresh introduced us to the 100-strong audience and we started off. I asked Subir what was the one thing that connected all the thoughts he wrote about – quality, leadership, organizational efficiency, individual efficiency. Subir said that the 3Cs are the magic keys to succeed - Conviction, Curiosity and Communication.

Conviction, he said, was the key to take your idea to its full potential. He cited my case as an example and told the audience how I could have pushed my cricket book which did fairly well, to become a best seller. Conviction means you handle your priorities with the greatest urgency - it has to be done today. Prioritise, focus, and add urgency and energy into it.

Curiosity is our ability to say ‘I don’t know’. He said he always likes to think he is the dumbest guy in the room. By saying ‘I don’t know’ we learn so much more. He gave the example of his grandfather who taught him many things – one story about what is greater the number 9 or 0. (Another wonderful story of how his grandfather told him that we can meet anyone who is breathing. Young Subir had asked him if he could meet the President of the USA and his grandfather had said yes. Subir has dined with three US Presidents so far.)

Communication was the third C. Communication means that one should be equally comfortable talking to a rickshaw puller and to the head of a Fortune 100 company. One needs to hone that art every day. It is clearly about how adaptable one can be. If one learns ‘communication’ as defined by him, one would learn to operate from below, without ego, with humility, with a learning mindset, with caring, and do what we do with complete conviction. It was a layered thought, simply expressed.

The Caring Mindset – Way to 50x Results
My second question was about the fourth C he talks about – a ‘caring mindset’ which he says is the difference between organizations that operate at x and those that operate at 50x. Subir reaffirmed that a caring mindset is all that one needs to achieve 50x results. He said a caring mindset was represented by a STAR culture – Straightforward, Thoughtful, Accountable and Resolve (resolute). It needs courage and honesty (and even an amount of love) to be straightforward, it needs one to care to be thoughtful, it needs a culture of ownership to be accountable and it needs an inherent resolve to be at it relentlessly until one achieves it. I completely agree - the world could do with a caring mindset, with more honesty, thoughtfulness, resolve.

I asked him what the difference was between him and the rest of us, and he spoke about how he felt he was just another ordinary guy. All he did was knock on doors, followed the process, believed in himself and his product. I also asked him if people could have a caring mindset (the soft side) and make money (seemingly the hard side). Was it possible to be good and still make money? He said yes, that’s the only way. Create, innovate and the money will follow. He shared several stories to drive home his points well and held the audience's attention throughout.

Q and A
We threw the floor open for questions. Several questions were asked about how to develop the STAR culture, one that leads to 50x results. He said that to create a culture the leader has to change first and not merely talk about change. The leader has to show the STAR qualities through his actions, his persona. In fact, this is one thing that he kept saying all through, that it was about leaders and what they show and are deep inside. He suggested to Maruti, leader of a startup, to read a book of fiction and share it with his team to change the culture – I didn’t fully get the significance of it - perhaps to make the leader more human and vulnerable I guess.

The TiE Board
Do You Care for People Who Matter the Most to you?
One thing he stressed on was whether we really care about their people – not just organizationally – but people who matter. Like our spouses! When was the last time you hugged them or said you loved them? Lots of silence! He advised everyone to spend time with their spouses, to be nice to them, tell them you love them. In a gentle yet practical manner he drew attention to what our real priorities are, what caring really means and that if we cannot care for our families, we cannot care for anyone else. (Which means that we cannot be 50x what we are – I am sure many people went home to their spouses with a little more caring that evening!).

There was a line he used in some other context – ‘if we cannot embrace our weaknesses how can we convert them into our strengths?’. Loved that.

Subir retained the same energy the entire evening. He said - if you don’t have the conviction don’t do it – whatever you do, do it full-heartedly. It showed in this talk – this was a talk he did for free – but he did it with all the passion as if it was a million-dollar assignment. Every question, every person who wanted to meet him, he dealt with the same energy and humour. The sense of wonder was always evident and continued all through the evening.

The talk went beyond the stipulated 730 pm and ended at 830 pm. Summing up, there were four things that I took away as things to practice. To practice conviction – bring energy to priorities and go at them as if they had to be completed today itself. It’s now or never. To practice Curiosity – carry the 'I don’t know' attitude and be ok with being the dumbest guy in the room. That’s a sure way to grow faster and faster. To practice Communication – be adaptable and connect with both the rickshaw driver and the fortune 100 boss. It needs non-judgment, curiosity, real interest in other people, in life. To practice a caring mindset –summed up in one line in the book ‘The Difference’ – be the one who picks up the toothpick on the floor in your organization. Pick it up and do not wait for someone else to do it. Be the one who really cares starting with the most important people – your spouses to start with - that’s the caring mindset.

Meeting Subir was worth missing the semi-final (which in the end turned out that I had not, it got washed off and I could see the second half next day.) He was just one of the guys in the room and not for a moment could you sense an ounce of arrogance or 'I know better' or 'I am better than you guys' about him. There is always this wanting to help, to share about his grandfather's stories, his clients – one client who was down with cancer and wanted to know how to earn forgiveness, another who had no time for his family and was all business and who thanked him for giving his daughters back to him, the top leaders of Indian manufacturing who were asked about when they had hugged their wives last, the floor workers at Toyota who connected so easily with him leading to a solution, the way he had saved billions of dollars for a Fortune 100 company, the reason why he works only with the top man and no one else to build cultures in companies that are all about ‘Quality is everyone’s business.’ He spoke of People and Process – and of how Quality is a balance of people power and process power. People power is about instilling the Quality mindset in people – an uncompromising, honest and empathetic attitude to do the best while Process is about a solution-oriented mindset and perfecting ideas and solutions.

There is a talk by Subir on YouTube, a commencement speech at Central Michigan University (550K views when I saw last). It is a lovely speech about the choices one makes, some lovely stories and very good advice (be the dumbest guy in the room, be a zero, the people who support you are the numbers in front of the zero, aim to touch the sky not the ceiling, between the pen and the coin – choose the pen – it helps you create, innovate, knock on doors till a door a opens, the coins will follow). You can watch it here at

It was wonderful meeting Subir and I am certainly better for it just as I am sure so many more in the audience were that day. Thanks Suresh for the lovely evening and for the opportunity to pick Subir’s mind and Subir, many thanks for your wonderful insights and your time.

No comments: