When steel is heated in a forge and beaten into shape, it becomes stronger. When faced with setbacks, if you draw the right lessons and move forward, you are bound to achieve success. Radhika Gupta, the current MD & CEO of Edelweiss AMC, had more than her share of drawbacks in life, but bounce back she did and she happily shares her experiences, mostly professional and a few personal, through her newly released book Limitless.
Born in Pakistan when her father, a career diplomat, was posted there, Gupta grew up in a variety of countries, ranging from Nigeria to Italy, until she went to college at hyper-competitive Upenn. In 2005, when she was just twenty, Gupta took to heart seven consecutive rejections from consulting firms during campus placements at UPenn and tried to commit suicide by jumping off from the 19th floor of a building. Luckily for us readers, she did not succeed though the reasons aren’t fully spelt out. She also drew the right lessons from her desperate action and went on to become a business leader and an inspiration for many across the world.
Accept difficult feedback gracefully, Gupta tells us, citing a number of examples of feedback that she did not initially accept or was happy with, but which added value to her professional life once she was able to gracefully accept them.
Take risks, but do so sensibly. Gupta refers to Dr Arokiaswamy Velumani’s example to buttress this point. Dr Velumani, the founder and MD of Thyrocare, one of India’s largest diagnostics companies, went from having just ₹500 in his pocket to seeing his idea develop into a public listed company with crore market cap in excess of a RS. 5,000. Dr Velumani was able to throw everything he had into his venture, comforted by the fact that his wife could get a reasonably well paying job easily, if his venture flopped.
It is important to get started. Take small steps if needed, but do get started. This one resonated with me.
What’s the best thing someone who is just graduating from college or is in the early years of their career, especially women, can do? They ought to ask for opportunities, a task which is not very easy to undertake when one suffers from lack of confidence However, if you don’t ask, you usually don’t get. What’s the worst that can happen if you ask for an opportunity? When Gupta started her corporate career, a family friend told her that those who speak up always get more than those who stay silent. There are no points for being shy. Those who ask end up getting the bigger promotions, the raises, the better projects, because they keep vocalizing their needs. Gupta tells us that this advice made sense only many years later, but she swears by it now.
Change is always constant. One has to accept it and take it in one’s stride. Gupta quotes lyricist Javed Akhtar who used the ‘my mother’s cooking is better than my wife’s’ dialogue at the Jashn-e-Rekhta Urdu festival in 2017, to explain this. ‘Why does every man, when he gets married, tell his wife, you make good dal, but not quite as good as what my mother made? Has the quality of dal in India just deteriorated over 1,000 years?’ It hasn’t! We need to accept today’s dal – one slightly different from the one we grew up with – as our reality and move forward.
Let go of the past. Gupta tells us that she always tells new employees at Edelweiss Mutual Fund that if they want to have a chance at succeeding in their new organisation, they have to embrace it and let go of where they came from. One is certain to face problems after a job change and it is so tempting to look back to one’s past organisation with nostalgia, but if the rose tinted glasses are taken off, chances are there was no shortage of problems at the previous organisation either. If one were to take an honest count, one will find that there is no shortage of problems anywhere. A guaranteed way to fail at a new organisation is to focus on the problems in the new environment and compare them to the positives of the past.
Be adaptable. Charles Darwin theorised that the most important factor for survival is neither size, nor intelligence, nor strength. It is adaptability. Gupta fully agrees with Darwin. Gupta uses the example of the Kakapo to buttress her point. Honestly, I hadn’t even heard of the Kakapo until I read Limitless. Gupta mentions Kunal Bahl, the co-founder of e-commerce giant Snapdeal, as an example of a person who built a successful business by adapting and pivoting, based on feedback.
Gupta firmly believes that the job market is fair and very little arbitrage exists in it in the long term. In today’s information-rich world, one gets paid what one deserves. If you feel you are getting a lot less than someone else doing the same job, the most likely conclusion is that that someone else has a lot more experience doing that job in a larger organisation with a much larger profit and loss statement. I was reminded of the stock market, though Gupta doesn’t use this comparison and I am not sure if this would be a good comparison, since the job market doesn’t have to content with insider trading, for starters.
Everyone has his or her imperfections and these imperfections that set you apart from your peers and make you what you are. Gupta repeats the story of the ugly duckling, based on the fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen, who, after being teased and taunted by fellow ducklings, decides to throw himself at a flock of swans, assuming he will be killed. He forgets that he has grown up and matured into a beautiful swan and is finally welcomed by his fellow swans. Gupta wishes for a new version of this story, one where the duckling owns his imperfections, where he understands that it’s his imperfections that set him apart from his peers and make him who he is, where his happiness does not depend on becoming a swan. Who defines what ‘ugly’ is anyway? Gupta wonders aloud and I found myself nodding my head. ‘Self-confidence comes from accepting yourself, rejections and imperfections included’ Gupta advises.
The ability to reach out for help and to confide one’s problems in others is an important life-saving skill, something Gupta did not always have, but had to develop over a period of time. Gupta divulges a very personal story, one very traumatic, that took place just after she started working at Edelweiss. Either on account of her insecurities or the fear of judgement, she felt trapped. Though she had an incredibly kind team and an incredibly kind boss, she was unable to be honest and reach out to them during one of the toughest moments of her life. I’d rather not divulge the actual event in this review. Do please read this excellent book to find out for yourself. Five years later, an internal restructuring impacted the financials of Gupta’s division and Gupta just couldn’t wrap her head around the situation. Finally, she forced herself to ask for help from three very senior members of her team in sales, strategy and marketing. The end result? Gupta found herself out of the morass pretty quickly.
I’m going to wrap up this review, lest this become a summary of the book. Gupta has a lot of advice on investing in education, relationships, finding a mentor(s), work-life balance etc., all of which made a lot of sense to me. Do please read and find out for yourself.
A google search tells me that Gupta has a permanent tilt to her neck due to certain birth complications, but she doesn’t discuss this disability in her book, except for occasional references to her “broken neck”. There is a brief mention of a personal tragedy (in the context of her inability to reach out to her colleagues for help), a short but sensitive description of the day she and her partners sold their start-up to Edelweiss, took the signage off the door of their Worli office and crossing the Bandra–Worli Sea Link as they drove to the Edelweiss office in Kalina. The personal references are just right, as a percentage of the whole book, and make Limitless more wholesome and readable, without making it an autobiography.
They say that corporate organisations are glass pyramids, designed to make people slip off the smooth sides, as they gain experience and grow older. Despite all the risks and challenges that lurk ahead, hundreds of thousands of men and women pursue an education, usually an MBA, that sets them on course for a corporate career and then jump into the corporate well quite happily. If anyone falls of the pyramid, it is usually on account of an inadvertent slip-up in tactics or a defect in long term strategy. Limitless is a treasure trove of advice for all career-minded and ambitious folks and will definitely help all readers who imbibe its wisdom to avoid many of the pitfalls that befall many as they progress in their careers. Gupta writes in simple English, that is classy, easy to read and doesn’t force the reader to ponder over the language at the cost of her narrative. I highly recommend this book.