Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A literary power-point presentation

At a time when the global economy has pancaked, did Umesh Ramakrishnan get it wrong by releasing his book, There’s No Elevator to the Top, where CEOs talk about survival techniques at the top? Umesh bristled at this question: “You can’t talk about corporate governance through a narrow prism of an 18-month recession. This is just a cycle.” One has to take his word, considering that in his capacity as vice-chairman of global executive search firm CTPartners, Umesh recruits CEOs, CFOs, COOs for Global 2000 companies. Asked what spurred him to write the book, he says the book is 20 years of experience of these successful people and will help people who want to gain entry into, in Umesh’s words, ‘C-Suite’, save time.

Umesh traversed North America, Latin America, Asia and Europe to talk to CEOs from various sectors. His globe­trotting seems to have served its purpose since their quotes are worth a read even though they sound like borderline evangelists at some time or the other. “Make sure you concentrate on doing the job at hand, building upon the skills and opportunities you have now. You’ll be noticed and promoted.” Chetan Bhagat has been known to provide better insight. This common wisdom notwithstanding, some of the analogies made by the author’s sources do pack a wallop. Be it the one on rock-climbing or the usage proportion of ears and mouth or making use of all six guns on the battlefield.

In the last 18 months, bank CEOs were arguably the most-reviled species across the globe for their apparently irrational decisions to offer NINJA loans and then pack them as obscure objects called credit-default swaps (CDS). A beast whose nature was never known until the economy started to get bruised. Umesh is vindicated in that he didn’t approach any banker. An innocuous why was enough for him to embark on a diatribe.

“I think that there is more to learn from the CEOs outside the banking industry than from the inside. I have always felt that, and the publishing date on the book is good enough proof that I did not include the (banking) industry due to the downturn.”

Such fastidiousness, sad to say, does not get translated into the book. The net result is the silliness that the reader has to grapple with. The sub-chapter headlines are a good enough indication of the potential landmines that dot the book’s landscape — “Never Stop Learning”, “Health and Your Personal Life Matter”, “Be Good at What You Do — and the Rewards Will Come”, to name a few. What’s more, you have the author telling that he was “comfortably seated” on the sofa of Nilekani’s office and each of the ten chapters culminates with pyrotechnics titled “executive summary.” It must be the literary equivalent of the Powerpoint presentation, which is part and parcel of Umesh’s job.

His honesty is, however, unflinching. His favourite CEOs are not media-driven. “The people I admire are the ones who go below and unscrew the bolts.” Thus, his choice of CEOs, apart from Nandan Nilekani and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, are the ones who never dominate public consciousness but are institutions in themselves. Umesh’s favourite writer happens to be the best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell because he is the kind of reader who is happy if he gets two nuggets from a book, and Gladwell does that consistently.

One may paint the book with the same broad stroke. For a book where the author professes, to quote the jacket, “a leading headhunter shares the advancement strategies of the world‘s most successful strategies,” only Jim Donald’s Big Fish theory, Bob Reynolds’ make mistake and fix theory, the A, B, C players analogy stand out among what is otherwise as old as hills content. That means the book is recommended for two kinds of readers — the ones like the author himself and those who may be interviewed by a panel consisting of the author. For serious readers, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments is suggested.

My Dorothy Parker moment:
Well, as part of our city supplement my editor asked me to imagine a character "who would read Shakespeare for a screw". I took it up reluctantly, and grudgingly, and the first piece got printed today. I cannot upload that content because though the instances are made up, they are clearly inspired from mine and lives of others close to me. Wish me luck on that. By the way, my character is called "The Byronic Hero". Don Juan ! Rings a bell?