Guest AuthorPavan Soni

The five teachers of my life

By | Dr Pavan Soni | IIM-B Innovation Evangelist 

While we are products of our societies, teachers are the catalysts in the process. Teachers play a very profound role, often unknowingly, in shaping the way we perceive the world, and the way we chose to shape it. This is a bond as pious as the one we are born with, as it’s often selfless and richly valuable to the society. At this Teacher’s Day, I take this opportunity to pay my profound gratitude to five of my teachers who have had the greatest influence on my thinking, doing, and living. But before that, I must thank my parents, for without their carving me, I might not have deserved these teachers. To my dad for always treating me as a friend, and to my mom for loving me so much. 
The five teachers I am talking about aren’t metaphorical or elemental, but are as real as any other person, yet special for me. You are most welcome to meet them, and get your share of inspiration. And remember, names aren’t as important as traits. So here I share a bit about my teachers, going in a chronological manner. Frankly, I have opened my heart out here. 
  • B. V. Nagaraj: Currently the General Manager and Head of Design and InnovEdge at Titan Industries Limited. When I first met him some eight years back, he used to head Design and Development for the watches division at Titan, and I was then a project trainee there. We were working towards conceptualizing the Product Innovation Centre for Titan, which later became InnovEdge, and we had about 3 months to do the same. BVN, as he is fondly known, had the sketch of what the centre would look like since late 80s, but he waited for almost 15 years for the dream to be realized. So the first lesson I draw is that of virtue of patience and self- belief, and knowing that one must persist against all odds. We finally came up with a model, which is something one could spot even today in Titan’s innovation deck. It was 22 June 2005 when the presentation was to be made to the leadership team, including the CEO- Bhaskar Bhat. The stakes were very high, as this was the time BVN waited for almost 15 years. Guess who made the  presentation? It was me! On one of the most important days of his career (as BVN later shares with me), he offered me to make the presentation, when I was just a management trainee and had almost nothing to loose. This brings me to second lesson I draw from that association, and that is of showing trust in your team. I made the presentation, with BVN occasionally chipping in, and just within 10 minutes of that 45 minutes presentation, BVN was made the head of Innovation Group! I can’t forget the tight hug BVN gave me that day, and since then he has been like a silent mentor to me. It’s not that we talk every week or even every month. We rarely talk, but both of us know the place we have in each others’ heart. If there is one person who must take the credit of introducing me to the world of innovation- it has to be B. V. Nagaraj. Call it a stroke of fate or planning, I owe him a lot. Next comes my mentor at Wipro. 
  • G. S. Nathan: My second mentor is a person in his late 40s, and by far the most humble gentleman I have ever met. It was in 2006 when I met him at Wipro while working with Sangita Singh on Knowledge Management and Marketing activities. Naathan (notice the extra ‘a’), as I fondly call him, was the perfect mentor I could have got while starting my career in a large organization. He taught me planning, discipline, and above all, the value of incremental progress. I distinctly remember that one evening when we were strolling in the parking lot of Wipro’s Sarjapur office when he told me ‘at the beginning of your career, you must be a foot- soldier‘! That phrase is stuck to me even till this date. Being a foot- soldier is the only way one could learn at the trenches, earn credibility and expect to rise in the ranks. Though rising through the ranks was never my dream, the virtue of meticulously working towards a goal is what I learnt from Nathan. Together we worked towards reviving the KM system at Sangita’s unit, and even wrote a paper that was presented at IEEE Conference in Bangkok. The inflection point came in when Vikesh (my next teacher) proposed me to be a part of Wipro’s Innovation Group and Nathan has to release me. It was most natural for Nathan to hold me back, as we had unfinished work at our hands, and I might not have even refused to that, but against all odds he let me go. Knowing my interest in innovation and the able mentorship of Vikesh, he made this sacrifice, even at the cost of upsetting Sangita. I can never ever thank him enough for that act of his. The lesson I draw from here is that of being foresighted and looking at the bigger picture. The clock turned a full circle in 2011 when once again he was my mentor in Innovation Group (CTO Office) and had to let me go to pursue my studies at IIMB. This time I carry his wishes along. He is a great human being. 
  • Vikesh Mehta: There are few people I know of who are more cheerful and complete than Vikesh. And I wonder if anyone who has ever met him would disagree on this. Nathan’s bet on leaving me under the guidance of Vikesh couldn’t have gone wrong. What I am today in terms of my exposure, experience, and knowledge is much in deed to the confidence Vikesh exhibited in me. He would set me free to freak out (literally) across places, institutions, project teams, initiatives, and people. He best understood how to tame me. On the hindsight, I believe that the biggest role Vikesh played was to shield me from organizational toxic. In fact, the title I carry even today ‘Innovation Evangelist’ is what Vikesh offered me. Think of a role of Innovation Evangelism in a firm which is 1000,000 people strong and older than twice my current age! Must have taken some spirit and courage for Vikesh to have defended my work, as seldom the results were immediate and not always that Wipro would appropriate the returns on my efforts. Visiting institutions adn Wipro’s offices in conducting WiCampInnovation BazaarLet Spark Fly sessions, and internal creativity workshops weren’t possible but for Vikesh’s mentorship. I remember him saying that, often no- management is the best management. And that suited the call of the hour. I learnt from Vikesh the meaning of patience and being cheerful even in the face of gravest situations. He taught me that mentors aren’t there always to direct, but often are to make the path visible, and to set you free on that. Vikesh is a perfect role model for an innovation champion. He has right mix of Vision, Intelligence, Knowledge, Enthusiasm, Sensitivity, and Humor (VIKESH) .
  • L. R. Natarajan:  Titan has an enduring and deep relation with me. Sometime in 2009, I got introduced to LRN. Then the head of Supply Chain Management at Tanishq, LRN shared an instant chemistry with me. On one of the meetings I briefly mentioned to him about the Innovation Bazaars I conducted at Wipro, and the next think was a grand Titan Innovation Bazaar he hosted within months. The event was more grand and inclusive than I ever saw anywhere. This was just a hint of the ability LRN has in turning ideas into reality. He didn’t stop there. He hosted a series of expert talks on innovation, an Innovation School along with Erehwon Consulting, and a series of initiatives to encourage innovations at the grassroots level. Today he heads the Innovation Group at Titan Industries, and is busy crafting the next billion dollar business for Titan. What I learnt from this immensely talented, humble person is the knack of spotting weak signals and turning them into grand messages. He never minces to talk about innovation, given an opportunity, and in fact never even fails to leave you with ideas worth exploring. I admire his openness to trying out new things in newer ways, and knack of taking people along. One needs to visit the Tanishq factory at Hosur to learn about the respect he commands among the employees across levels. LRN is the quintessential umbilical chord that connects my world of academics to the world of practice. I love meeting him and bouncing off ideas, and am very well aware of how much he likes to sound his ideas with me.
  • R. T. Krishanan: It’s not now that I know Prof. RTK or that I am at IIM, I am influenced by him. In fact it’s been for over past 3 years that I have been secretly admiring him. The numerous conversations we have had after I joined the fellowship program last year have fostered my beliefs in qualities of a researcher. The foremost thing I admire about RTK is his patience in listening to often bizarre ideas of mine and not dismissing even a single thought. It’s very easy and often likely for a teacher to not entertain thoughts contrary to the strongly held wisdom, but I didn’t find that in RTK. Sometime in the middle of my first year, I had this thought of spending my summers in a US university, and went to RTK in seeking his view. He didn’t refuse, but said, “what is it that you can’t learn at IIMB. The point is not in going to US and doing research there. But the challenge is in staying in India and beating the guys in their own game (of publication)“. That’s a thought that got stuck to my mind ever since. Every time I have visited him, our conversation typically last for 30 min, of which I speak for 25! He listens to me intently, and gives sharp suggestions and ideas that consume me for another 20 days to come. I cherish working with him and learning on how to think critically, yet not being critical of people’s ideas. He has a unique way of shaping my mindset, without thrusting his ideas or dousing mine. That’s an art I could only learn by observing him more often.
So here is my list of five teachers and what I learnt from them. These are some of the accounts that my teachers may not even recollect, but I treasure, for such accounts are significant inflection points in a life of a lesser mortal, which is me. I thank all my mentors for catalyzing me into what I am today, and wish they don’t leaving my hand anytime soon. 
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