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Great lessons from Dhirubhai Ambani
August 11, 2006
On Dhirubhai H Ambani again, unabashedly so, and for a very good reason.
I guess it must have struck many readers by now that I idolised Dhirubhai. They are right. I do. Every column I write on Dhirubhaism invites an outpouring of mail, some even requesting me to mail them the previous column on Dhirubhaism.
And I am glad that I have an opportunity to share what I've learned from Dhirubhai with you.
He was a one-in-a-million human being, and I was blessed to have had him as my boss. He taught me many things that have transformed an ordinary executive that I was, to be the founder chairman of an agency that grew from nothing to one of India's largest.
I would have never achieved that without him. It would be a shame if I then let his extraordinary teachings gather dust. And judging by the response I receive, it looks like there are some really eager learners out there. So here goes.
Dhirubhaism: Leave the professional alone!
Much as people would like to believe, most owners (even managers and clients), though eager to hire the best professionals in the field, do so and then use them as extensions of their own personality. Every time I come across this, which is much too often, I am reminded of how Dhirubhai's management techniques used to be (and still remain) so refreshingly different.
For instance, way back in the late 1970s when we decided to open an agency of our own, he asked me to name it. I carried a short list of three names, two Westernised and one Indian. It was a very different world back then. Everything Anglicised was considered "upmarket."
There were hardly any agencies with Indian names barring my own ex-agency Shilpi and a few others like Ulka and Sistas. He looked at the list and asked me what my choice was. I said "Mudra": it was the only name that suited my personality. And the spirit of the agency that I was to head.
I was very Indian and an Anglicised name on my visiting card would seem pretentious and contrived. No further questions were asked. No suggestions offered, just a plain and simple "Go ahead and do it." That was just the beginning.
He continued to give me total freedom -- no supervision, no policing -- in all my decisions thereafter. In fact, the only direction that he gave me, just once, was this: "Produce your best."
His utter trust in me was what pushed me to never, ever let him down. I guess the simplest strategies are often the hardest to adopt. That was the secret of the Dhirubhai legend. It was not out of a book. It was a skillful blend of head and heart.
Dhirubhaism: Change your orbit, constantly!
To understand this statement, let me explain Dhirubhai's "orbit theory."
He would often explain that we are all born into an orbit. It is up to us to progress to the next. We could choose to live and die in the orbit that we are born in. But that would be a criminal waste of potential. When we push ourselves into the next orbit, we benefit not only ourselves but everyone connected with us.
Take India's push for development. There was once a time our country's growth rate was just 4 per cent, sarcastically referred to as the "Hindu growth rate." Look at us today, galloping along at a healthy 7-8 per cent.
This is no miracle. It is the product of a handful of determined orbit changers like Dhirubhai, all of whose efforts have benefited a larger sphere in their respective fields.
In a small way, I too have experienced the thrill of changing orbits with Mudra. In the 1980s, we leapt from the orbit of a small Ahmedabad ad agency to become the country's third largest ad agency -- in just under a decade.
However, when you change orbits, you will create friction. The good news is that your enemies from your previous orbit will never be able to reach you in your new one. By the time resentment builds up in your new orbit, you should move to the next level. And so on.
Changing orbits is the key to our progress as a nation.
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