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Tag: mentor

Leaders come in all shapes and other lessons from a mentor

It would be a lie if I said that I had a well-threshed out idea of who or what a good leader was, when I was 25. Sure, I’d already had nine years of college by then, lived in 5 cities across two countries. It wasn’t for lack of exposure. However, my idea of a leader, certainly till that time, had been all extroverted, Type A personalities, many larger than life. Starting with my father, maternal grandfather, role models in college and my graduate adviser, every one of them had fit this mold. And then I met Brad Bradford.

Eighteen months into my first job, I got promoted to be a section manager – fancy title for doing more of the same, but this time it was my rear that was on the line. Brad had been my manager’s manager and now here I was reporting into him. While I’m no physical giant, being much slimmer than me (not too hard, these days) Brad was small made. On top of it, he was quiet, understated and very measured when he spoke.

Brad made me completely reassess what a leader is and how a leader operates. Some of these lessons bear repeating as I keep falling into my old ways.

Bearing & carriage I recall my mom often urging me to stand straight and not slouch. Brad was living proof of what my poor mom had meant by bearing and carriage. The manner in which he stood, walked and carried himself communicated loudly even when he didn’t say a word. Once when the production line was down and we were furiously trying experiments, some of which were 12 hours long, to figure out what was broken. Brad would walk over to my cubicle and stand right there and look at me – not a word would be said to communicate that he was there to support us and to make sure we gave it our all. On that Monday day the factory was sold and we’d all been called to a meeting to tell us that we’d no longer have a job, Brad’s bearing and carriage said more about how we’d survive this and carry on than any words could have.

Action not words While I’ve always been voluble, some might say long-winded, Brad was – and I suspect still is –  a man of few words. This is not to say that he didn’t have a lot to say but he was the archetype of SHOW not tell. Whether pressing with upper management for more resources, negotiating with vendors or getting down to the factory floor to run or check on experiments, Brad was not big on “Let me tell you…” but got out there and did it. Never once in the two years I’d worked with him did I hear Brad raise his voice. All too often I had to strain to hear what he was saying!

Smile and humor For a man from Minnesota, working with a bunch of young, fresh graduates from India, Iran, Eastern Europe and laid back West Coast types, I’m surprised Brad didn’t throw things at us or at least yell even if he might have been tempted to take an axe (or the whatever weapon of choice Minnesotans had). As our factory was being, built once a week we’d have a crisis. The factory director, a storybook Texan with an enormous temper, would lead the raving and ranting that involved much frothing at the mouth. We young ‘uns would be easily offended and spoiling for a fight at being accused of doing a poor job. Brad on the other hand, unflappable as ever, would be an island of calm. He had a devastating smile and an understated sense of humor, that not only maintained his sanity but kept the rest of us cowboys in line.

Brad, thank you for showing me what leadership is and how you can lead effectively without being an Attila. I’m still learning to practice some of the lessons you’ve taught me.


You can read all the posts in my 30 days of gratitude series here.

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Be Bold and Reach for the Stars – lessons from a mentor

Do you think I could get a bottle of coke?

Gareth Thomas

Photo Credit: Photograph courtesy of the U. S. Department of Energy and the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Hardly words that change your life. But they did in my case. Gareth Thomas, then director of the National Center for Electron Microscopy at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL) and professor at the University of California at Berkeley was visiting our college at the Banaras Hindu University, when he asked for this bottle of coke. During the two days of his visit I had been unusually reticent as the rest of my classmates clamoured to get the “great man”‘s attention – I of course covered it by acting as though I was too cool to chase after him.

Long story short, I was tasked to get him that bottle of coke. I ended up jumping in his car en route to the airport. We made small talk as he asked me what I was interested in (damned if I knew). He suggested that I read his recent papers on ceramic composites and send him a note. Which for once I did – working like the devil – and in turn he offered me a research assistantship at Berkeley.

Gareth was a larger than life figure, whose impact on hundreds, yep hundreds, of graduate students has resulted in an entire generation of microscopists populating the best research schools across the US and UK. Working closely with him, taught me some critical life lessons.

Be bold Gareth grew up in Wales and as a Welshman in 1950’s Cambridge it was not easy to study and work in England . So like many before him he headed west to America and rapidly carved a niche for himself in metallurgy initially and electron microscopy eventually. He never let anything stand in the way of his vision of becoming the #1 in his chosen field, culminating in Berkeley and LBL becoming the go-to place for Electron Microscopy. The story of how the Center was built despite LBL sitting on the San Andreas fault and the slightest movement would make microscopy impossible is a whole another blog post by itself. So here was this fire plug of a man, who didn’t let a new country, new field, minor matter of earthquake country and money stop him from building a Centre that would add prestige to a University that boasted more Nobel Laureates than most other nations! Think big and go for it was a lesson Gareth lived.

Be imaginative By the time I showed up at Berkeley, we had probably the only one of two research groups that still worked on Iron and Steel (this was the early eighties, and classical metallurgy seemed passé!) We had graduate students doing some interesting work and our papers had to be peer-reviewed. Research was still competitive and so we were in a fix. Gareth located research groups in South Korea and India (the only places where iron and steel research was still happening) and reached out to them, so that a critical mass of researchers could be built up. Similarly when some of our early work in ceramics, aluminum nitride for instance was having trouble getting funding, he went across to Toshiba and other corporations in Japan to fund our work. To keep things on the up and up, he let his grad students do some of these as projects directly with the company as consulting gigs, so archaic University rules around corporate funding of research programs didn’t stop work.

Balance business and science Very early on Gareth recognized that doing good science or engineering required serious funding and that government alone would not be enough. Also while research is critical, its applicability in the real world was just as important. While other schools and sometimes other professors at Berkeley prided themselves on not working on anything applied, Gareth showed us that it as never OR – good science or good business but it is critical as engineers and scientists for us to solve real world problems or direct our research in a way that would have real world applicability. Of course the proof of the pudding lay in industry being willing to fund our research, hire his grad students or license the technology. The number of Gareth’s students who are today in critical research and decision-making roles in both government and industry is living proof of his success in balancing business and science.

Thank you Gareth for all that taught me, outside of microscopy and material science. I’m grateful to have met you and worked with you. I miss you.

Gareth passed away earlier this February.


This is the eighth entry in my 30 days of Gratitude series.
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Taking risks and other lessons from a mentor

I have a job offer from Infosys and an option to start my own business — what do you think I should do?

NS Raghavan

The question was posed by a young man who approached N.S. Raghavan (NSR), former joint managing director and one of the founders of Infosys. When Raghavan responded, “Take the job with Infosys,” the youngster was taken aback. In Raghavan’s words, “If you are an entrepreneur, starting a business is not an option that you consider alongside taking a job — you’d just do it!”

The story was narrated by Raghavan himself soon after he had invested in our first business Impulsesoft. The best way to describe my experience with Raghavan was that he was truly an “angel” – not just in that he invested but in how he gave us a long rope – always available for input and help but never looking over our shoulder, even as we stumbled from one crisis to another in those early years. In those five years that he was an investor, booster and mentor to us, we’d have had maybe two meetings a year – yet the insights he shared and the spirit he imbued in us were invaluable. Two critical lessons I learned from NSR were

Be willing to take risks We’d been in business of nearly five years, when we broke even and made a small profit. It was amply clear that we were not going to die, but the market was consolidating around us and we’d have to either integrate forward – enter the consumer market as a brand or backward into chip making. Neither was very easy  – the former needing large marketing investments and potentially a low margin, high volume business. The latter a prohibitive capital expenditure and changing who we were (primarily software). Having worked with the likes of Logitech and Sony (Ericsson), we were quite enamoured with the consumer retail business – possibly because we were not in it 😉 So in a board meeting we were presenting the pros and cons – and trying to hedge our bets, when Raghavan spoke up – You’ve got to take risks in business – if, staying in the same place is no longer an option, and your passion lies in trying to build a consumer brand, go for it. And we did – setting up Hippo Lifestyles in Singapore. And we struggled but the story had a good ending when our semiconductor customers and partners approached us seeking a merger. Our decision (and willingness) to go our own way and risk building a consumer brand, allowed us to negotiate more confidently resulting in a profitable acquisition. This is a lesson that’s stayed with me.

Being an angel means letting the entrepreneurs make the call Despite NSR’s investment in our business, we were quickly out of money and needed more. So we went back to borrow some money from him and did so twice. While we’d stayed focused on Bluetooth, we zigged and zagged years before the word pivoting was fashionable – going wide, going narrower (only stereo music), building proof of concept hardware systems, laying off our still-born chip design team, creating new standards (for bluetooth in a car), exiting the highly profitable Japanese service market, to focus on the laggard North American market, nearly merged with a North American design company (that was our customer). If you are still with me, you can tell it was a rocky ride with a lots of turns – Raghavan was supportive throughout all of this, not butting in till we sought his council and always nudging us to come up with the answers and not jumping right in with his solution. This is not an easy thing, even when you are not an investor. I’m yet to possess this degree of dispassion but NSR’s example continues to inspire me. So when I hear someone bad mouth an angel, I find myself jumping in citing his example.

Thank you NSR, for your incredible faith and all the support and inspiration you provided us through out the Impulsesoft journey. You continue to inspire me and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have worked with you.

 


This is the seventh entry in my 30 days of Gratitude series.
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