Giving is in Seva
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By Rajesh Kamath *


sevaRecently, at an MTHR Global event in Chennai, participants were treated to some engaging sessions from exciting speakers, who belonged to various walks of life, with many interesting stories to narrate. This is neither surprising nor unusual because MTHRG events often feature a good mix of personalities. But not many were expecting an auto rickshaw driver to be part of an event themed around “Wellness’. What does Wellness have to do with an auto driver? An auto rickshaw ride in any city of India does not exactly bring an image of comfort and health to mind, does it? But this ride was so enjoyable, that no one seemed in a rush to get off. The auto rickshaw driver, named Annadorai, (after an erstwhile political Leader from Tamilnadu) declared his motto, which we have heard hundreds of famous speakers rattle off – “The Customer is God”. There was one difference though. Annadorai Rickshawwalla (as he is called) actually lives this motto every minute…every day…of his life.

Having been moved by the difficulties of a passenger, with a relative admitted in hospital, ten years ago, he decided to take matters in his own hands to provide every kind of amenity that can possibly be provided – from 8 newspapers to 30 magazines, to wifi of every Telecom service provider, to a tablet, to a laptop, to freezer stocked with bottled water and juices, to card swiping machine, to an LCD screen playing songs in 9 languages (of customer’s choice) – he does not charge an extra paisa for any of the services mentioned, beyond plying them to their destination. Crazy customer service? You have not yet heard enough. Quoting Bill Gates on Customer loyalty, he told us that he not only keeps present customers happy, he also strives to get their references. So he has customer loyalty schemes, wherein he actually gives cash back to customers once a certain number of rides get logged. He holds various contests for customers where they get rewarded. Every kind of day celebrated by his customers is also celebrated by him – Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ Day, Woman’s Day and so on. He also declared how he gives free rides to employees of companies on the birthdays of their CEOs. How would he know the birthdays? He recounted the names and birthdates of these CEOs from Jeff Bezos of Amazon to C P Gurnani of Tech Mahindra, from memory….he wowed the audience and left them wanting more.

That he is called on to share these mind-boggling concepts at large Corporate gatherings so far in over 50 companies to date across the country (he is also a Tedx Speaker) in order to inspire their participants, is merely a testimony to both his popularity and his capabilities. Capabilities? What capabilities do you ask? The capability to offer unlimited “Seva” – how is that different from Customer service?

Let’s take a slight diversion – While all business organizations allude to their Senior most leader or leaders as “Management” and follow some methods of planning and executing called “managing”, that does not automatically result in good Leadership, higher productivity and greater profits. Often, these are owner-led organizations, that are transitioning from tightly controlled to professional ways of dealing with the workforce. These micro and small-sized outfits could constitute over 60 percent of the total number of registered companies in India. There are other organizations which change their management practices per the latest trends, which they pick up from larger corporations – more the trends, faster the number of changes in their methods and processes. These companies too are evolving from a small to a medium sized organization. And there are still other organizations; large ones, that are regularly overhauling their strategies and corresponding organizational structures in sync with “market forces”, sometimes bringing in a spate of Leadership changes and even exits, in its wake. There are employees who are always in unhappy anticipation of the next big thing in some of these companies. Is there any way to bring about stability in this Leadership milieu? This is exactly where the age old Indian approach, comes handy…

I say, Indian approach, and yet the surprising thing is that the way business is conducted across the vast range of corporations is in the modern mould, which is founded on the principles of Management established by experts such as Fayol and Taylor in the early 1900s. These methods of management became popular across the US and Europe and from there, to other parts of the world, including India. The education system, a legacy of British colonialism, seems to the primary reason for this influence. So what’s the Indian approach anyway?

The Indian approach is the approach from Aryavart (a place where noble reside), from Bharatvarsh. This approach is not at all complex and it is part of our DNA – it is a matter of simply revisiting the values which our family instilled in us, at a young age. The word most aptly used to describe this approach is Sanatan viz eternal. Eternal means – that without starting point and without end. Eternal automatically implies long lasting, forever. So what makes it sustainable?

Enlisted are the key differences and the main features which lend it, the edge of timelessness:

1. Process v/s Principles: While the modern approach is process-driven, which essentially eliminates the dependence on a person; the eternal approach is focused on the ‘whole’ person. The whole person takes into the account, not just the limbs and mind, but also the heart and spirit of the person. This ‘whole’ person empowers oneself to contribute better and automatically move up the value chain. The whole person manifests the principle of “Aham Brahmasmi” – I am divine viz complete. This whole person can determine which processes need to stay, which need to get redefined and which new processes should be designed. The modern approach developed with an aim to increase productivity and efficiency – to get more out of less. This is a scientific approach, borne out of the shop floor. The eternal system, no less scientific, evolved out of nature – through studying the daily phenomena occurring in the factory of the universe. This magic is unfailing and relentless – this is made up of a countless number of major and minor mechanisations. When used as a teacher, Nature becomes a supporting force viz. when we simply replicate the actions of Nature, we are assured of least resistance – after all Nature’s principles are unchanging and permanently “fruitful”, whether rotations and revolutions of celestial bodies or gravitational forces of these bodies, lifecycles of homosapiens and other species, and so on. These principles have been carefully mapped by our ancient scientists, named Rishis and adapted to management.

2. Profit vs. Highest Good: The motive of modern business – the vast majority of them, is singular – to make a profit. It may be described in different ways, sometimes couched in beautiful words – ‘to create wealth for our stakeholders’, but the goal is nearly always financial. The Triple Bottom line of People, Planet and Profits has attempted to widen this scope. The Balanced Scorecard approach has definitely attempted to build the necessary foundation of customer, innovation and people practices to achieve that goal. The Indian approach, however, is all-encompassing – Samast Jankalyane Nirantaram – the highest good of the maximum people for the longest period (with minimum resources). The maximum people encompasses all stakeholders, including society and environment and “kalyan” is sustained well-being, which is economic, social, spiritual and beyond. Can any business go wrong with such a lofty vision – one which is clearly inspiring and yet steers every action?

3. Left Brain vs. Whole Brain: Modern businesses strive to get the best minds from the top-ranked institutions on the basis of the highest scores – there is virtually a war to be the first to be seen on these educational campuses. The highest scores are indicators of intelligence – itself a measure of the proficiency of the left brain – the logical and analytical brain. Yet, there is enough research to show that as one goes higher up the Corporate Ladder, emotional intelligence – a right brain component, is far more vital to success. Harvard Gardner showed how multiple intelligences, not IQ, count for success. The eternal approach urged the Leader to have a whole brain orientation – Aum Namoh Shukra Brihaspati abhyam – a call to compliment Brihaspati (IQ) with Shukra (EQ) – intelligence with empathy, analytical skills with creativity, rationale with compassion. Thus all faculties of the human brain were employed.

4. Individual vs. Collective: Modern methods of management have an inherent conflict – while all businesses want “team” effort in all actions, yet they demand and reward individual performance – good performers are differentiated-fast trackers are identified, segregated and groomed, stars are recognized and celebrated. This, however, is the Vyashti approach – centred around individuals, the particular, one which stands separate. The eternal Indian approach, on the other hand, is Samashti oriented, which believes in the wisdom and power of the collective, the performance of the collaborative. This because, none stands alone, each one is connected to every other and all are part of one large system. Hence one may observe that communities were so ubiquitous in India throughout the passage of history, up to recently. This also has a parallel in the Zulu belief “I am because we are.”

5. Inclusion vs. Family: In corporations, we hear Diversity and Inclusion as important factors for determining manpower composition, team formation, workforce policies, promotions and so on. This often entails diversity targets – what percent of a certain gender, generation, region, ethnicity, specially abled, etc. should form a part for Boards, levels and projects. This is definitely of value in many circumstances as opportunities are given to those, hitherto not under consideration and enhances the talent pool. The moot question, however, is why to overlook any talent in the first place and remember them later? Vasudhaiv Kutumabakam, say the Upanishads, implying that the world is a family – each member of this universe is important and connected to the other, so there is no question of even distinguishing between one and the other – there is equal opportunity for each. The potential in each being is endless.

This brings us to the core values of leadership in eternal Indian wisdom – let’s examine each closely:

Leadership vs. Service: None in modern organizations can ignore the overwhelming focus on Leadership charisma, suggesting that Leadership is the exercising of the phenomenal qualities of the one person who calls the shots. There are a plethora of rankings of CEOs and Business Leaders and glut of Leadership Development programmes. While there is no lesser emphasis on the abilities of the Leader/s in this method, eternal wisdom suggests that Leadership is not about the Leader, but about the one she serves. Praja Sukhe Sukham Ragyaha prajanam ch hitey hitam proclaims that the Leader exists for the service and welfare of the people alone. Thus, all Leadership is about others and superlative Leadership is about one who serves best. This principle has also reflected in Robert Greenleaf’s work on Servant Leadership just a couple of decades back. Annadorai learned to ride the rickshaw from his father and brother, but to rise above the basic expectations of trust and respect from his customers, is his own calling. He nurtures this calling all his waking hours.

CSR vs. Giving: Corporate Social Responsibility is invaluable in modern times and of course, the best organizations have always strived to give back to society in many ways, from where it derives resources, talent and of course customers. Often this can be seen as a post profit activity since Indian law mandates 2 percent of the company’s profits to be invested in activities benefiting society. Eternal wisdom has no mention of CSR because the business itself is rooted in giving; indeed all activities in every sphere of life include giving back. This is no surprise because this approach believes that whatever you do comes back to you – thus all giving returns to you, likely in kind. So to make profits, giving first is recommended. The giving itself is not polluted with motives of acquisition but from a sense of doing what’s needed. Annadorai is often asked by his audience how much money he makes (he earns double of what the average Rickshaw driver earns) but his face glows and his eyes shine when he speaks about the joy of giving his customers, what they do not even ask. He cares far more for giving than getting. A compulsive Go-Giver, this man!

Role vs. Dharm: Performance in companies stems from clarity in roles and the goals set for the role – this is the start line for Corporate target achievement. Without this, no individual, team or organization can progress. However, does this make excellence possible, especially on a sustained basis? The ‘why’ seems to be clear but the ‘how’ is not obvious. Here is where Indian wisdom brings in a holistic approach – Sustenance of performance depends on Dharm – the performance of one’s assigned responsibilities in a legitimate, ethical, and morally appropriate manner. Responsibility is not the same as duty – while duty is imposed, responsibility is innate, hence sustained. The second angle is Karm – Karm (action and consequence) makes it even deeper because it suggests that you will sow as you reap – this is nature’s law – as is the seed, so is the fruit. As is the action, so is the result. The combination of dharm and karm – responsible, well thought out action is powerful, and long-lasting. Anna is guided internally by his dharm of being the best rickshaw driver for his customers. With this dharm being his compass, what karm (action) could go wrong?

Customer service vs. Seva: This clearly is the ultimate differentiator for India. There are huge strides in the domain of Customer Service – while we have had increasing levels of expectation from customers – our vocabulary embellishes them by way of the terms customer satisfaction, customer delight and even customer obsession. The latest of course, is to build memorable customer experiences. However, the objective in each of these is rather transactional – what should I give so that I can get more from the customer – reputation, goodwill, and profits. The eternal Indian approach is “Seva”, which has no equivalent English word. But it can be captured closely by way of the words “Customer Devotion” – where individuals, and teams, must be devoted to providing service in the quest of….nothing! Seva has no expectations but takes trust to the highest level – to make the customer feel so elevated that she would want to build a life-long bond with your organization for herself and her ecosystem. When Anna says “How can my customer be wrong, he is my God!”, it is simply the ultimate living ideal for him. The term Bhakti is not new to millions of Indians, but Bhakti is not for those Gods up in heaven, but for the living God in the autorickshaw, says Anna.

Annadorai may not know (or does he?) Dr Tarun Khanna, a strategy and international-business professor at Harvard Business School who has come to a conclusion that trying to apply management practices uniformly across geographies is a fool’s errand. Best practices simply don’t travel well across borders. That’s because conditions not just of economic development but of institutional maturity, educational norms, language, and culture vary enormously from place to place. Students of managerial practice once thought that their technical knowledge of best manufacturing practices (to take one example) was sufficiently developed so that processes simply needed to be tweaked to fit local conditions. There’s nothing wrong with the tools we have at our disposal, but their application requires contextual intelligence: the ability to understand the limits of our knowledge and to adapt that knowledge to a context different from the one in which it was acquired.

However, it is important to realize that there is an even better option to contextual intelligence – eternal wisdom. It is that which is without an expiry date and without boundaries – because this wisdom has been conceptualized, tried, tested, applied, fine tuned, crystallized and perfected for several thousand years, all in alignment with Nature itself. We are blessed to have Annadorai Rickshawwalla in modern India whose vision is – not have a fleet of auto rickshaws to become the richest one (he is already the most famous) – but to extend his beliefs and service to his brethren,the other rickshaw drivers in Chennai, so that their livelihoods and lives may be raised to his own. Such is the Seva of this inspiring role model! The MTHRG event may have ended, but Anna showed us how Wellness stems from Seva and that we can begin from wherever and whoever we are (eternally)!


* Rajesh Kamath, Consulting editor, People & Management

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