Why I take a month-long break every year, while the rest of the company works

Taking a break to contemplate life and your place in it, along with your work can greatly benefit you and your company (photocredit: http://marketingdeviant.com/)

The more recent pause in posts has been because I took a four-week break from work and headed home to the US where I am from. I hadn’t seen my family in a year and missed them horribly. This “long break” was a clause that I had negotiated with the owners when they brought me on board (they offered me a low salary, so I needed other perks to make up for it): I needed a month off every year (unpaid), even while the company worked. Some people would say that it is both selfish and stupid, but for the company and myself (both as a leader and as a person), it has been invaluable.

Here’s how both I and the company have benefitted on the personal side:

  • It rewards and refreshes the mind, body and soul in a VERY necessary way: Good leadership is ultimately backbreaking servitude. My hours are long and, often, thankless, and leadership is extraordinarily lonely. This is not by choice. It just comes with the job (not asking for pity…I signed up knowingly). As you go up the chain-of-command in a company, you have fewer and fewer peers whom you can talk to and confide in. Many things are confidential, and you deal with much more “heavy” material – cases that no one else wants to touch, things that no one wants to (or can) take responsibility for, and in many cases, jobs that require a skillset that only you might have. This eats into your energy and time in a way I can’t express. Without a family or support system at home (or in the office) to balance things out, it slowly eats away at your system. This is why most CEOs are compensated so highly (sometimes I think its a bit much and unnecessary). I think its so that they can have the other perks to balance out the heat of the job. In my case, I get none of those perks, including pay. And I have no family and few friends (partially because the hours are so long and partially because I don’t really fit in here). My burnout rate is consequently, very high. These breaks keep me healthy, and consequently the company healthy and on the right path.
  • Mental and Emotional Rejuvenation Fuel Necessary Depth of Thought: The reason I need such a long break is because I need to be charged up physically, mentally, and emotionally. It usually takes a week for me to get physically recharged (mostly with good food and sleep); but it takes longer to get mentally and emotionally recharged. When the brain tires, creativity declines, and my greatest asset in my current position is to be creative when everyone else is not; and in a capacity that other people cannot be. As CEO, I am responsible for strategic planning and execution, overall problem analysis, goal orientation and direction. I have to both think out the goals at a company, department and individual level, and then figure out a way to get there, and then motivate my team to move in that direction. If they don’t see it, its my fault. If the company or department or individual is stuck, its ultimately my job to find a solution (either through or outside my team) and then move towards executing it. This is not physical strength, but mental and emotional strength, and this is what fuels creativity and depth of thought.

The break, for example, is what fueled the space to collect and write down my thoughts, and start blogging again. Similar to a cow chewing the cud, the break allowed for a lot of things that I had mentally filed away when I was triaging a specific case to come back and sift through. I am able to see things much clearer as a result…things that were done right or wrong, things that needed to be fixed or done better, holes that are still left and leaking within the company. It all comes back in moments of quiet, and it allows tremendous depth of thought and much more efficient action. I grow a lot in those moments, as does my skillset, and this makes the whole company grow as a result. My brain floods with ideas; problems I have long been contemplating suddenly have solutions. Its really exciting, and counterintuitive, but I often find I do my greatest work when I am on “holiday.” And its because I’m allowed the space to think deeply.

Here’s why on the company side:

  • It builds resilience in the firm: As the ultimate servant, people can get a little too dependent on you to do things that they can probably do themselves. So when I’m gone and my contact with them is curbed, it forces them to grow and step up in ways they haven’t before. I often come back to see depth of thought on the part of many members of my team, lots more questions and answers, eagerness to learn and grow, and greater levels of confidence. Its a beautiful thing to see.
  • Performance is glaringly obvious: Conversely, I’m also able to see the “holes” in my team, company strategy or structure, communication, etc. Based on this, I know how well we have been performing, how much more I can push my team and the company. At an individual level, I can see who all have grown as individuals or team players, and who haven’t…who fit in the company and who don’t. Everything becomes much more obvious.

This time, for example, I knew that we were doing good as a team, and company when I got back, and it was incredibly affirming.

Last year (eight months after I took over as CEO) when I got back from my break, I had a long line of people (juniors, seniors, and upper management, including the owners) waiting with a list of complaints of things to fix. I could see that while we had made a lot of progress in the first eight months, there were still LOTS of things to do. Had it not been for the break, I probably would have been overwhelmed and unable to sieve through the chaos. But it was soon glaringly obvious to me that there were still LOTS of HR issues. Communication and team-building, as well as the need for mature design leadership emerged as the key problems that I needed to solve. These became my priorities, and I only realized the results when I came back this time.

In contrast to last year, when I got back this year, the line of people to see me were mostly seniors (not the juniors or upper management as last year) and their lists were mostly happy/proud updating, and any key resources or things they needed from me in order to move forward. I could see that they had thought deeper about things, stepped up better, and that the team was MUCH stronger. Confidence levels were higher. Work was moving forward at a rapid pace. Most people were communicating and resolving differences between themselves. It was quite affirming…I knew we had done good over the past year, and it was time to move forward with the next phase of growth…time for me to step up yet again.

For those who ask how things had changed in the first eight months, and how I gauged progress there, here’s something for you. When I first got there at Month #1, only the owners showed up with a long list of complaints of things to fix. No one else wanted to talk to me or have anything to do with me. It took me several months to gain everyone’s trust and get them highlighting their biggest issues. The issues were at a fundamental, extremely critical level…there was a lack of vision, mission, core values, goals, and a complete lack of accountability; which I immediately set about fixing and implementing before I went on break. So the fact that everyone showed up to complain to me with a long list, was in and of itself a big achievement and showcased trust. Their complaints had also shifted from fundamental issues with the company to team-related issues they had with each other –  a HUGE shift (you want complaints to move from being heavily substantive to more trivial issues). Hence I knew we had progressed, but there was still great chaos in other respects.

In conclusion, I think these breaks are invaluable in multiple ways, and hopefully you might take this to heart in terms of your own productivity and that of the company’s.

And this is why I will hopefully continue to take long breaks while my company works.

Ten Books that Made an Impression

There is a chain going around Facebook (FB) that I’ve been tagged in a few times already. It asks the question about the top books that you dote on. Rather than answer it there, I’m answering it once here and then getting the link out. It just seemed more efficient.

This is a HARD HARD question to answer because I’ve gone through different phases in my life when different books became more important. For example, as a child, I loved anything that Enid Blyton wrote. I grew up on her. As a teenager, I became obsessed with the Scarlet Pimpernel (I still think they’ve not made a good enough movie to reflect the story). And in adulthood, I went through a phase when I read/watched anything I could about Lincoln, and similarly later with stalwarts like Ernest Shackleton, Darwin, and Gandhi, to more recent entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, and Steve Jobs. I also get obsessed with specific management principles or thinking and read everything I can about them. So perhaps I’ll tweak it to just answer ten books that come to mind that left a big impression on me, in no order:

Tuesdays with Morrie (image courtesy: wikimedia.org)

Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom: Honestly, one of the simplest and most important guides on how to live life. This was the first book that made me bawl my eyes out and stayed with me in a deep, deep way. It has become a bible of sorts for me (Similar titles: The Little Prince, The Last Lecture, The Alchemist).

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (image courtesy: icollector.com)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl: As a child, I felt this book (along with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) spoke to me in a way that no other book could. I had a wild imagination that no one seemed to understand or truly appreciate until I read this book and felt tremendous validation. It felt like someone finally saw into the deepest recesses of my imagination and made it ok. (Similar titles: Charlotte’s Web, and anything Enid Blyton wrote).

The Harry Potter Septology (courtesy: Harleysville Books.com)

The Harry Potter Series (if pushed, I would say Books 3, 6, and 7), by JK Rowling: Like all adults, I lost touch with my imagination until this series came along, and gripped me in its world. It taught me about the loneliness and price of fame, the burden of leadership, and validated the importance of family and true friends. I still read it often because of its deep wisdom in a magical world.

Good to Great (image courtesy: Wikimedia)

Good to Great, by Jim Collins: One of my bibles in the field of management, and one that I have referred to constantly when I am doing strategic thinking in the workplace. Exhaustively researched, this book presents five principles gleaned from hard data and factual evidence for turning ordinary organizations into extraordinary organizations. (Similar titles: other Jim Collins books, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Anything by Peter Drucker and Malcolm Gladwell).

A Sense of the World (Image courtesy: Harper Collins)

A Sense of the World by Jason Roberts: Honestly one of the most extraordinary biographies I have read. This is the true story of a blind man who lived an extraordinary life…”known simply as the Blind Traveler — a solitary, sightless adventurer who [came from obscurity and poverty to serve in the Royal Navy and be Knighted], fought the slave trade in Africa, survived frozen captivity in Siberia, hunted rogue elephants in Ceylon, and helped chart the Australian outback.” A minor celebrity in his time, he also possessed an extraordinary sense of humor and was an inspiration to Charles Darwin. I was really inspired by James Holman’s story, and it showed me that you didn’t have to be famous or wealthy to lead an interesting life, and that nothing was beyond your reach if you wanted something. Really left an impact on me because of how unexpected, amazing and inspiring a story it was.

Autobiography of Yogi (courtesy: Amazon.com)

Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahamsa Yogananda: Always interested in the lives of monks, and religious philosophy (regardless of denomination), I was moved and enchanted by the stories and experiences of a young man as he traveled throughout India in his search for The Truth, and becoming a monk. There is deep wisdom in this book. (similar titles: too many to name, anything by Yogananda, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rumi, etc)

The Scarlet Pimpernel (image courtesy: manofthehourmag.com)

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy : As a teenager, this story had a big impact on me. It was my first textbook on strategy, and taught me about the importance of being self-confident and knowing your worth, and the strength that lay in being underestimated. (Similar titles: The Count of Monte Cristo)

McMafia (image courtesy: amazon.com)

McMafia by Misha Glenny: This is a random book to throw in the middle of this pile, but it stayed with me because it opened my eyes to a whole new (under)world that I didn’t even know existed; and educated me on its intricacies…how powerful it was and how it interconnected with so many other things. Its what got me very interested in informal economies, and it all proved to be particularly useful in terms of background information when I started to work in slum and rural areas in emerging markets later. FASCINATING and highly educational.

The Places in Between (image courtesy: thecaptivereader.com)

The Places in Between by Rory Stewart: This travelogue captures Rory Stewart’s walk across Afghanistan, shortly after 9/11 and the American occupation, following in the footsteps of Babur the great Uzbek Prince who would forge a path into India and establish the Mughal Empire. Not only was I impressed by young Rory’s courage and fortitude, I was also intrigued by the juxtapose of ancient and modern history at such a tumultuous time. It further fueled my desire to attempt atleast one long distance hike or trail in my lifetime. Besides being educational and eye-opening, it changed how I saw long-distance travel in its simplicity and accessibility.

This is stupid, but I’d like to keep #10 open and dedicated to several books that should be on the list and didn’t make it….either because I couldn’t remember them, or I haven’t read them yet.

Two of the Most Important and Undervalued Skills for Success in the Workplace

Reading Constantly and Writing Well are by far the most important skills in the workplace for success.

A few days ago, I was giving my team a much-needed lecture on the importance of constantly reading and staying abreast of trends, as well as improving upon their writing skills. In Asia, where a liberal arts education is virtually unknown, few people have proper reading or writing skills. One might easily fault the language issue…and to be honest, I can be very forgiving of people from countries who were never exposed to English. Still, I don’t think that’s an excuse for NOT reading and keeping up with the latest trends, even in your own language, improving your writing and diction in your own language. That said, even of the Asian countries with easily available English educations, and former British (or American) colonies , I find the South Asian countries (India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) churn out people FAR better at speaking, reading, and writing in whatever language, including English (of course, English is the only language I can really judge in, but I can extrapolate that to a general interest in writing as well). I’m honestly not sure why that is, but that’s a different story!

Why is reading and writing so important?? Well, they are the basis for communication, and communication is the basis for ALL business and work, generally. If you aren’t keeping up with the latest trends and reading constantly, you will soon become irrelevant; and, if you can’t write, you can forget getting very far in any aspect of your professional development.

Read constantly. Keep up with the trends in your industry. It is the only thing that will keep you sharp and growing at a rapid rate. This is a necessary key to success in the workplace, because to mentor and grow, you need to stay ahead of the people who surround you. Don’t believe me? Read this article about Warren Buffett’s success formula, and this one from HBR.

Write well – clearly and concisely. Today I was reading this post about Jeff Bezos’ leadership style. A trained engineer (like me), I was impressed by his emphasis on writing. To be honest, I find writing to be an extraordinarily important skill. It is the fundamental for all success in the workplace…documentation, letters, communication all involve writing, and without it, you can forget getting very far. How you write is how people will connect with you; how they will perceive you; its where all your speech starts, and your thought ends. And I find that clarity of writing correlates heavily with clarity of thought. If you write clearly, it means you are thinking clearly. And how do you write well? Start with reading…the more you read, the better you will write…

Innovation in Sanitation: The Man Who Wore A Sanitary Napkin

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Arunachalam Muruganatham at his desk working away on his award-winning sanitary napkin machine.

Lack of toilets and water during a menstrual cycle can mean huge drawbacks for women and girls. They can’t travel or get their work done on a regular basis; families that rely on a woman’s income will often starve during those days when she probably needs it most. Young girls often drop out of school because they can’t use the bathroom when they need, and this has lasting repercussions. Sanitary Napkins have traditionally been out of reach and too expensive for the poor.

Bring in Arunachalam Muruganantham, a poor handyman from a village in India and a high school dropout who was brave enough to take on the project to address the issues his wife was dealing with. It nearly cost him his marriage and made him the laughing stock of his community, but he stuck to his principles. Today, he has pioneered cheap and effective sanitary napkins for the poor in India and potentially the world. Watch his amazing story in his own words here:

Rounding up the week on Education: Sweden’s Newest School with Classroom

 

Who wouldn’t want to go to a school like this??

No doubt you’ve heard about this already, if you have been trawling the internet. If not, read on…

 

From Architizer:

The young—and the young at heart—have a seemingly infinite capacity to project fantasies unto ordinary spaces. It is this kernel of wide-eyed creativity that carries on into adulthood, fighting to stay alive and to push us to keep imagining new and better worlds. Swedish educators seem to have had this in mind when they commissioned the architects at Rosan Bosch to build a wholly original kind of schoolhouse. The Swedish Free School Organization Vittra has been pioneering a new kind of pedagogical space, specifically one without walls. Gone are the classrooms and their rigid alignment of desks, and in their place emerges a colorful, seamless landscape of abstractly themed learning environments.

Also read about the following alternative schools:

John Hardy’s Green School

African Leadership Academy

 

 

Struggling to Startup Your Own Social Enterprise?? Here’s a great resource…

Need a blueprint for starting a social enterprise?? Look no further!

Starting a social enterprise is not easy; some might argue that because the field is so “new”, fewer resources mean that its harder than a regular startup.

So if you are wondering how to do it and are struggling, there is a resource that might be perfect for you…

Echoing Green Alumnus, TED Senior Fellow, MIT graduate, inventor, tinkerer, and founder of Social Tech Enterprise AIDG, Peter Haas is putting together a great webinar on “How to Set Up your Own Social Enterprise“. The workshop is aimed at teaching novices tools to be successful in the field of social enterprise.

“Are you frustrated trying to start your social enterprise. Struggling with sustainability, financial planning, impact reporting? This webinar is an overview of running a social enterprise. It takes from the experiences of some of the lead social entrepreneurs of our day to give you guidance on lessons learned and practical tools to help you overcome your obstacles. It will save you hours of work and research. Don’t reinvent the wheel, leverage some of the best practices of some of the best social entrepreneurs in the world today.”

 

To register, go here.

 

AWESOME FREE class from STAR Development Economists: 14.73x The Challenges of Global Poverty

Star Development Economists Banerjee and Duflo to jointly teach a free class on Global Poverty

MIT’s EdX is offering an awesome MUST-register class by JPAL geniuses, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo to teach an intro class on Global Poverty.

Duflo and Banerjee are the founders of the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (JPAL), behind the most interesting and fascinating new research on poverty issues in the Developing World, and are having a significant impact on international aid and development interventions.

Their courses are generally hard to get into (I can personally attest to this), and expensive. But now you can get it for free. Definitely check it out!

Further reading: Tworque/JPAL

Free Online Education is Leveling the Playing Field for Economically Challenged Communities

 

What if these women were watching a lecture by a professor from MIT or Harvard?? Its now a reality…

Now that opensource thinking has proliferated the technology space, a whole slew of products have emerged. Now all you need is an internet connection of some sort, a pair headphones and a phone with video capability and suddenly a person from Somalia or an innercity kid from Nairobi or South Central Los Angeles can be educated  in the same class by a professor from Harvard.

Several years ago, MIT had decided to put all their courses up for free on something called OpenCourseware (OCW). I didn’t particularly enjoy the material on there, but I soon realized I was in the minority. During my travels, I came across several people from around the world, particularly parts where a lack of financial resources and good universities abounds, who had successfully used the material and even learned it better than me.

Since then, several others have emerged that can run the gamut of education from grade school (the Khan Academy, TED-Ed) to university education (EdX, the new MIT-Harvard initiative to replace OCW,  Coursera from Stanford, Udacity), and beyond (Udemy).

I’m slowly wading my way through all the different programs, and trying to figure out what works for me. But its super cool that finally the developing world has almost equal access to anyone else anywhere else. Hurrah to the future of education. Now if we can just get more women access to this, and we will see the world change for the better.

Xylem’s Innovative Water Convention

The Xylem World Water Show’s entrance page…look at the virtual classroom that you can “walk” into on the right.

The connective power of the internet and more powerful tools like smartphones and computers are both increasing innovation in otherwise stale areas, as well as decreasing barriers to entry for players who previously couldn’t come to the playing field for a variety of reasons.

Xylem, Inc is a company I had scarcely heard about until recently when I came across their World-Wide Water Show, a virtual trade show and convention that you could attend from the comfort of your living room.  Access to an internet browser and a dial-up connection gave you access to a whole world of international technology, and speakers. Suddenly, third-world citizens have the same access to opportunity as those from the first-world.

The one-day show on Nov 29, 2012, meant that you could attend at ANY point in the world’s 24-hour cycle. Like any convention, there was a calendar and agenda for when things were being showcased at what times. You could “wander” into a conference room that had a live speaker who was being simulcast; there were moderated forums for chat during the speech and a space to ask questions. Or you could go to the trade floor and “meet” virtually with experts from sponsor companies who “displayed” their wares and answered any questions. Forums or “live chats” took the place of face-to-face interactions.

Xylem also worked hard to incorporate features that made you feel like you were in a conference room or trade floor, by looking at the screen and letting you play like you were in a “Second Life” style setting.

If you are interested, the content and features are still up for another 85 days. Highly recommend it!! Go hereregister and click on the “on demand” button.

I’ll be honest… even as a water engineer, it is a little boring, so I didn’t stay too long. But its still worth visiting to check out the idea in action, the platform and the overall design/user experience…it was extremely innovative and brilliantly done at a fraction of the cost of a real convention. Granted there was no face-to-face interaction…but this could easily lead to that through.