Friday, August 1, 2014

Why I Failed: Lessons from Leaders by Shweta Punj

WHY I FAILED: Lessons from Leaders by Shweta Punj (2013), Random House India, p 184

We have grown with the story of Thomas Alva Edison on the learning from failures.  Few months back I came across a statement by former Indian President Abdul Kalam that it is more important to read failure stories than success stories as they teach you better insights into the reasons of failure and help avoid them in order to achieve greater heights. Kalam says FAIL means First Attempt In Learning.  Though I had read about many failure stories of great people through their autobiographies or other articles published in periodicals and other publications, however when I came across the title of this book WHY I FAILED, I just ordered the title and got it shelved in my collection.  Around a week back I picked it up from the shelf and started reading through.  I have no hesitation in saying that the book kept me on till I turned its last page.

The book narrates the journey and experiences of sixteen successful personalities from varied fields and focuses on their respective failures.  There are hardcore entrepreneurs in the real sense of the term whether they belong to fashion world or sports, movie making or pure business, they followed their passion, they have gone beyond rules and made their own rules, they are all first movers and have taken risk beyond and capitalized on the opportunity available in the market.

How Thermax was revived against odds by Anu Aga and how she recognized her weaknesses and overcame them is a well briefed story of her entire experience. The journey charted out and the road followed by Kiran Mazumdar Shaw (of Biocon), Dr Pratap C Reddy (of Apollo Hospitals) and Narayana Murthy (of Infosys) and the resistance and red-tape they faced during their effortful and challenging trail is an excellent account on the background of taking up initiative and holding on to that till it gets through. 

In the Indian corporate circles sacking of a CEO is something quite unheard of. The plight of Sunil Alagh after being shown the gate by Wadias of Brittania is quite known by the followers of Indian business stories. The contribution that Sunil made in developing Brittania as a prominent brand is not unknown to many and it is believed that it was during his tenure that Brittania gained the competitive advantage that it still capitalizes on.  Sunil’s dealing with this setback and coming out of it successfully is discussed in the book nicely.

The man behind the Lavasa township project Ajit Gulabchand’s (of Hindustan Construction Corporation) constant belief in the project and how his perseverance paid him in dealing with the bureaucratic and political pressures successfully has been narrated by Shweta very lucidly in the book.  He learnt that at times speed, overconfidence and preposterous actions may bring down even one of the most strong leaders and his decision so one has to be over cautious at times while taking strategic decisions.

The lady behind the success of Jindal’s SAW plant, Sminu Jindal has been able to control the affairs and followed some of her original practices overcoming her personal physical weakness. She has shown immense courage and perspiration in managing her plant and office successfully. The popularity of the brand called Fabindia is the result of hard work, personal belief and commitment of William Bissell who have dealt with many challenges and developed an unique company based on community entrepreneurship. The growth of the company in last ten years is the fruit of involvement of the communities at different locations in feeding Fabindia stores through their collective craft culture. I am sure this needs replication by other entrepreneurs in different other segments of the market and it shall certainly help build self-sustaining India and connect the market with the back-end suppliers and craftsmen. Fabindia stores are an excellent modern day version of khadi ashrams, which are spread across India. I am sure these stores shall be able to provide the texture of khadi with experience of Indian culture and craft and expand its reach to the modern day urban youth.

Goenkas of Kolkata have a rich history of entrepreneurship and enterprise when we look at the business history of India in last two hundred years.  They have been operating in different businesses and have provided job opportunities for sizeable population. The story of Sanjiv Goenka in taking up Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation (CESC) is well told in the book as in case of Sabyasachi Mukherjee in going against the decision of their respective patriarchs.  A strong resistance from the employees and workers initially did not deter Sanjiv from his belief that he can reconstruct CESC and make it a viable and profitable venture. His approach showed the strong spirit of ekla chalo, though later people involved in the process understood the conviction reposed by Sanjiv and his honest intention of rebuilding CESC and cooperated with him.  The fate of Shankar Sharma and his wife is well explained in the book and their admission of a mistake about their investment in media firm tehelka makes their story conciliate and convincing.

Gold medalist Olympian, Abhinav Bindra’s reasoning of the loss in the subsequent olympics provides an excellent insight and psychological defense for the loss.  I have reasons to believe that there must be theories around this phenomenon defending that the efforts and rigor are determined by the force to prove.  Passion driven Sabyasachi Mukherjee who defied his father’s decision and went ahead with pursuing his career in fashion designing is an inspiring tale between traditional and modern choices of career and the believe in oneself to pursue one’s dream.  The journey of Madhur Bhandarkar and Subhash Ghai (both from movie world) traversing through disturbed past in problems of poverty in one case and of poor upbringing in another case reassures a belief that suppression both material as well as emotional drives one to prove a point and put forth all of the energies into that direction.  The story of these duo reminds of the past of many great people in different fields.

Many times in our lives we tend to take decisions based on our gut or based on hearsay or fall victim to herd behavior. Many times we get carried away with our previous achievements. Many times we do not plan things in right earnest and it all results in failures, though with some few exceptions.  At the time of the event, decision or action we do not realize the shortcomings and mistakes but at a longer span of time we tend to relate things and actions, we then compare and realize the mistakes that we have committed.  The realization of accepting the reason for failure is the first step to correct the future course of action. This book tends to help the reader to reason out the failures or mistakes and provides a boost through going through these stories that if one is determined one can learn from mistakes and act cautiously towards achieving higher goals. I remember a quote by Ratan Tata - Ups and downs of life are very important to keep us going, because a straight line even in an ECG means we are not alive.

The chapters are well planned and leave the reader with the nuggets on why they failed and an advice to avoid failure. Shweta Punj has written this book conspirito and her approach has been very candid. The basis of selection of these personalities is not mentioned anywhere however the common thread that I could find is that all of them have been first in marching out of the way and established themselves in their respective domain. I missed the presence of Kishore Biyani, Subhash Chandra, and Vikram Akola in this volume. But I can understand the limitations of the author and it is extremely difficult to have many or to come upto the expectations of every reader.  She has really toiled hard to document these stories and for that she deserves appreciation.  May be we can expect some similar stories in the times to come profiling other achievers. 

Failure and success are two sides of the same coin.  They move together.  This is where this book helps one understand the importance of failures in driving one towards success.The future of failure is success and the future of success is achievement.  I recommend this book to every individual who believes in failure and success as two different islands.  I am sure their belief shall get transformed as they turn the pages of this book.