Article: A rare intellectual who had empathy


A rare intellectual who had empathy

In fond memory of HCL Technologies Co-founder, Subramanian Raman and his simple, yet effective, management style

Why do we have a need to intellectualize things? Why is it that the moment we see a solution that is simple, do we feel it is wrong, or won't work?


If we can combine intellect (knowledge) with empathy (walking a mile in someone else's shoes), what we get is effective communication


In fond memory of HCL Technologies Co-founder, Subramanian Raman and his simple, yet effective, management style

On a recent flight, I discovered that the person next to me was a business head of a midsized manufacturing organization. His eyes also lit up when he discovered that I am an HR professional. The gentleman, a senior profile in his fifties, decided to talk about competency management in an organization.

He asked me, `What is a competency ‘?

`Identifying those ingrained behaviors that bring success to a position or role’ was my reply. The gentleman looked miffed.

He said `that’s not it!’

`OK’, I said, sufficiently intimidated. `Could you please tell what it is?’

`A competency is an underlying characteristic of an individual that is causally related to criterion referenced effective and/or superior performance in a job or situation.’ He said, with full authority & then went on to explain, `Underlying characteristic means the competency is a fairly deep and enduring part of the person’s personality and can predict behavior in a variety of situations and job tasks.

Causally related means that the competency causes or predicts behavior and performance.

Criterion Referenced means that the competency actually predicts who does something well or poorly as measured on a specific criterion or standard.’

By now, I was both in awe and completely intimidated by the gentleman’s command over the subject. I thought that I had a grasp, but by now I was convinced that I was a total fool in this. So, I did what I do best in such situations; I kept my mouth shut.

The gentleman then asked me his next question, `Who do you think are best when it comes to implementing a competency management program?’

I gave the name of a consultancy I had been dealing with, back at Delhi. He dismissed them summarily, giving another high flying name. Now I had examined the process of both the firms and I was leaning towards the firm I had mentioned.
So, now the gentleman confronted me, `why do you choose that firm?’

`Because their method is simple.” was my answer.

I could see that the gentleman was now incensed. The word `simple’ somehow made him see red! His eyebrows knotted, his smile disappeared, and there was thunder on his forehead! Being already intimidated with his knowledge and intellect, I now shook like a leaf!

`Simple?’ He said, `Simple? Is that what it is about? Just being simple? What about the intellectual & conceptual requirements that this process needs to have?’

I murmured something about how right he is and tried to pretend to go off to sleep. The rest of the flight went off with him again questioning me about other HR matters and his opinions on them.

Now how many times has it happened to all of us? Someone outlines something very intellectual and all of a sudden, we are awed (or intimidated) into silence? What happens then? We retreat, a dialogue begins in our minds, when we feel like a fool and all of a sudden we feel powerless, insecurity begins to seep in and what we were supposed to begin the next day, starts getting stalled. Now that I think about it, my understanding of ‘competency’ was similar to this man’s, except for his complex intellectual play of words!

Why do we have a need to intellectualize things? Why is it that the moment we see a solution that is (sometimes, embarrassingly) simple, do we feel it is wrong, or won’t work?

Shouldn’t the opposite be true? If a solution to a problem or an intervention is simple and easy to understand, then it should get accepted easily. Why does the opposite happen most of the times? Well, if it is highly intellectual and complex, not many people will come out openly and admit to not understanding it, so the natural human response is to stall, ask for further (intellectual) clarifications, or oppose it (find fault) etc.

How many times have we seen bright consultants or managers come up with brilliant strategies or interventions, which are so incredibly complex that it would be a nightmare to implement? Yet we continue to place a premium on intellectual superiority.

Now don’t get me wrong, I admire intellect. I have had the opportunity to work with some of the brightest intellectual minds in the country. However, what I have seen in some of them is the ability to simplify everything that they think or do. Many of these people actually study the other person and speak to them in a language that is clear, precise and cuttingly simple! Working with them has never been intimidating, but actually a pleasure!

I have had the pleasure of knowing a man who fits perfectly in the above category. His name is Mr. Subramanian Raman. He is the man who co-founded HCL Technologies, the fifth largest IT services firm in the country and was the President of the company when he retired in 2005. I had the wonderful opportunity to work closely with him for four years and believe his intellect is perhaps, still unchallenged in the IT industry.

Along with Mr. Raman, I once interviewed a very senior German consultant who worked for one of the top 3 consulting firms in that country and headed the automotive consulting practice of that firm. We were setting up HCL’s automotive practice out of Munich at that time and were looking at him to head the same. Into the conversation, the gentleman mentioned that he had developed paint software for one the world’s most recognized car companies. This paint was such, that under different lights, the car could look either jet black or a very dark green. Mr. Raman then, casually began to question the gentleman about the process. Soon, the conversation began to go into the coding part. I listened in awe at the simple way Mr. Raman spoke so knowledgably about this subject.

Here was a man, who was simplicity personified and yet his knowledge about almost any subject was perhaps unparalleled. In his dealings, he often went out of his way to speak the language that the person opposite him spoke, breaking into Hindi, now and then to put the other person at ease. Not once, in my years of association with him, have I ever had trouble understanding him or felt that I was not respected! During reviews, his favorite sentence, `I am not clear on this matter, could you help me please?’

In an instant, the dreaded review became an exercise in making Mr. Raman clear! Everybody would join in and give him different aspects and within no time, Mr. Raman would claim to now being `clear’. The modus operandi was very simple; don’t make people feel judged, turn the review around to making it a sharing of data and perspectives and jump in where you feel that coaching was required. This did not mean that he was not performance oriented. There were no compromises with him when it came to execution and he expected nothing but the highest quality from people in this area. Yet, people that worked for him were ready to take a bullet for him, at any time!

Even now, five years after he gave up the reins of the company, he still keeps in touch with several of us, enquiring of our well-being.

On studying Mr. Raman and several other truly intellectual people, I think many of them recognize that possessing a high level of intellect can be a hurdle, in case arrogance creeps into their being. They also realize that intellect, by itself is not complete unless it is complemented with the ability to communicate in a simple and effective manner, using empathy as a foundation for all interactions. I also feel that these people have a true respect for individuals, where they are not really bothered in gauging or judging them for their intellect or lack of it.

My best friend from my university days who is an African American social worker, used to describe empathy as, `the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.’ If we can combine intellect (knowledge) with empathy (walking a mile in someone else’s shoes), what we get is `effective communication’. That, I am sure is about being simple! So, if the next time, we come across a solution or an intervention that’s embarrassingly simple, let’s not dismiss it; it’s probably a rare intellectual with empathy who has created it, that too for our benefit. Let’s embrace it.

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Topics: Watercooler, Leadership

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