Saturday, May 30, 2009

First, Break All the Rules - Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman

"The greatest managers in the world seem to have little in common. They differ in sex, age, and race. They employ vastly different styles and focus on different goals. Yet despite their differences, great managers share one common trait: They do not hesitate to break virtually every rule held sacred by conventional wisdom."

It had been a while since I read a business/management book. So, when my manager gave this book with an inscription saying "read this for a change" , I have decided to oblige and have a go at it.

I am weary of management and self help kind of books. This book too have started with similar settings. However great the company is, it is the managers who retain talents and who bleed talents from an organisation, managers are the key to the survival and success of the company , etc etc. However, as you started reading and passed few initial pages, this gets better. Instead of the usual, impractical, it-had-been-done-and-was-successful kind of writing, this was much clearer in approach and was pertaining to my daily life. Not that it had anything extra ordinary or a revelation to me, the subject was treated with appropriate details and few examples.

Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman , two consultants with Gallup Organization, get together to analyse the result of the 25 years 80000 managers survey on the elements of a great manager. Though we have been through many studies and analyses of what a great manager is, in this book the discussion is on what the great managers across the globe, over the years managed to do, making them different from the ordinary. According to the authors, they have debunked the myths and the old style of management by breaking the existing rules.

To summarise, there are four major elements to a great manager. ( Well, this book is on people management and not the general business management)
1. Select for talent
2. Define the right outcomes
3. Focus on strengths
4. Plan their progression or Find the Right Fit

There are detailed discussion on each of these key area of performance. There are discussion on Talent ( natural recurring patterns of thought within a person) , Skill and knowledge and their differences. There are practical suggestions on setting the parameters to get the right outcome. Each person has a unique set of talents making them unique. Great managers identify these unique talents and assign them works based on these talents. What is important is not to attemtp to fix the weaknesses of the individual, but to focus on his talent and strength.

The examples aren't strong or convincing. These are at random and appears fabricated to suit the situation. That makes it little awkward in the flow of reading. There aren't any case studies , very few references to the organisations ( few quotes on GE - favourite company for management book authors) , thus reducing the impact of the topic in discussion. Otherwise, it had been a relevant read with out the overdose of cliches and jargons we are used to seeing in such books.

First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently
Marcus Buckingham
& Curt Coffman
Simon & Schuster271 Pages
Rs 395
More Reads : Gallup Management Journal, , CEO Refresher

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Life & Times of Michael K - J.M.Coetzee

When his ailing mother wanted to spent the remaining of her time in her birth place near Prince Albert, away from the crowd and chaos of Cape Town, Michael K agreed and carried her in a wheel-cart to the distant town Price Albert, leaving his job as a gardener. The Civil war is at its peak and it is not easy to leave the town. You need permission to enter or leave a place. His initial attempt to sneak out failed and was forced to return. Determined, the second attempt to leave staying away from the highways and prominent places met with better result. However, the on going war and the disaster do not leave him. On the way, his mother was admitted in a hospital and was declared dead by one of the nurse. Not knowing what to do, he finally decides to continue the journey with the ashes of his mother to Price Albert where he will spread the ashes of his mother in the fields as per her wishes. However, the fate does not take him there , as he was caught and was sent to forced labour at the railways. He was released after the work and finally manages to reach the town. The only known name in the place ( as told by his mother) is no more and the farm has been abandoned. Michael starts living there, learning to live the available means. When one of the relatives of the owner returns, defecting from the Army and on the run, Michael leaves the place and hide in the mountains. The living has been tough and in one of his trip to the town, he was caught and sent to a labour camp again. Michael escapes the camp after one of the skirmishes there, and come back to live in the farm. Instead of living in the house, he build his own hut near the lake, and start living there cultivating and farming. The rebels and the military men visits the place in turn and he was again caught by the soldiers and was sent to the rehabilitation camp.
The life in camp was also not of his choice and he refuses to eat. The doctor who treats him gets interested him and tries to understand this man, while trying to cajol him into eating and living. Michael K escapes once again and returns back to Cape Town, where he meets a group of nomads, and get on with their style of living, before returning to the same apartment complex, where he lived with his mother before his departure.

Michael is some one who is a misfit in this society. He does not belong to the world we are living in. The life he carries is almost parallel to what the world. thus, the worldly matters does not affect him. Nor he can adjust with the people. Every attempt to bring him to this world, to the people was a failure as he always escapes to his freedom, to his own life, away from the main stream. While refusing to eat at the camp, he is not trying to commit suicide, but was trying to live in his own terms.

Michael is born with 'hare-lips', but was not interested in rectifying it. He is only 31, but looks much older. the only contact he has in this life, apart form the trees in the garden is his mother. The demise of his mother broke the last connect he had with the people. While there was an attempt to connect to people of his nature towards the end, he still recollect those days in Prince Albert where he was gardening.
"I was mute and stupid in the beginning, I will be mute and stupid at the end. There is nothing to be ashamed of in being simple."

The world around him was also trying to get him back to the ways of life. Robert at the workers Camp, the doctor at the rehabilitation camp and the nomads. But he can not be part of that world. He is living a life of his own at his own terms.
"I am more like an earth worm. Which is also kind of a gardener. Or a mole, that does not tell stories because it lives in silence. But a mole or an earthworm on a cement floor."'

Very interesting book, written by this Nobel Prize winner. It is daunting and disturbing. Michael K , I guess is created in similarity with the Joseph K of Kafka. Haven't seen many comparisons of this sort though.
Life & Times of Michael K
Vintage Books
184 Pages
Rs 335
More Reads : Complete Review , New York Times

Friday, May 22, 2009

Walking in Zen, Sitting in Zen - Osho

One thing about religious and spiritual texts are that you cant make a summary of them. All these contains age old wisdom, discussed and interpreted by masters in their own way to those who are recipient to them. Hence it would be foolish to quote from these texts, but to ask those interested to read them.

I was reading Osho this time. Walking in Zen , Sitting in Zen is is the collection of 8 discourses delivered by him in the 80s on the subject of Zen in particular and other associated topics in general. These are Osho's responses to various questions and doubts by his disciples and visitors.
I am not getting into the spiritual and philosophical side of the discussion. However, this book has given me some insight on the Zen way of thinking and responses. There aren't many new learning , or any new surprise thought in these pages, which are not known. But some of the interpretation and its explanations were truly revealing , especially on meditation and on God. The language is simple and with lesser of those cliched words typically used by people in this business.

On the curious side, the topic I would now be interested and keen to explore is the contributions of the 'chief follower' or the propagator of some of the masters. The relationship between Ramakrishna and Vivekananda ( where the former's thoughts and ideas were known to people through the lectures and teachings of Vivekananda) , Gurdjieff and Ouspensky , Socrates and Plato , Christ and his apostles. Most of the earlier philosophers or people of great wisdom, did need another person to communicate to the larger mass.

As the book is the collation of his speeches, it had all those silly answers, those jokes ( some great ones, and some pedestrian, but of great relevance to the subject), which makes this an interesting read.
Walking in Zen, Sitting in Zen
Full Circle Publishing Ltd
195 Pages

Monday, May 11, 2009

The World is what it is - Patrick French

Sir V.S.Naipaul... The name can trigger a flurry of reaction from people who have read him or heard of him. Me too, had already formed an opinion about the person behind this name from various articles, books and news reports , that is of an intelligent, provocative, arrogant, rude, womanizing, chain smoking, selfish writer of brilliant , unmatched quality of prose.

Having completed reading this mammoth book ( of 555 pages to be precise), none of them have changed. Patrick French's attempt to look into the person behind all those images through his outstanding book on the life of V.S.Naipaul was not to make any effort to change that perception. However, it is an attempt to look at those traits and the elements of place, people and environment in moulding up the character called V.S.Naipaul.
French has done a good job in starting the book with the early sets of people who sailed out of Calcutta port, hoping for better fortune and living from the poverty, caste injustice, and widespread famine , setting forth to the world of sugar cane. Many of them were tricked and forced into this groups and was sold to the land owners to work in the fields weathering harsh conditions. It is the future generations of these immigrants, getting out of the slavery, trying to build a new life in the land they are now belong. There are people of all sections of erstwhile Indian diaspora. Brahmins, the untouchables, people of various native languages. The Brahmin upper cast people, had to disengage from the rest and have to show their differentiation and superiority to the other common people. Some of the enterprising members of them have started their 'family occupation', of conducting poojas, running temples, and the fortune telling. It is from this ancestry ( still unconfirmed) Vidya was born. The 'I am better than the rest' was deep rooted to the culture and this Brahmin up-manship is what many people attribute to Naipaul.

His family also had to fight many extreme conditions. Living in poverty , managing many kids , living with the extended family where one has to suffer many instances of humiliation ( both physical and mental). The life outside home was also not any different. The Native black people were richer and stronger. It is among them one has to excel and make his way. Like many Vidya was also determined to win the government scholarship and travel abroad for study. The hate for Trinidad and its people grew in him gradually, and he believed that the only way of escape is to get away with the scholarship. His contempt towards the West Indies in general and Black people in particular was so strong for ages, was from these tough upbringing.

The study in Oxford was also not all that great. He was now under a bigger identity crisis. For the whites, he was Indian. For Indians he was an Islander. He was also been treated to racial discrimination and have suffered from depression. His attempts with writing bloomed with his stint at oxford. He was part of the BBC West Indies based programs. It is here that he made contacts with various writers and other intellects.
This book also looks at his life as a writer in detail. His inspiration from own father, the early struggles to establish himself as a writer, lack of money to keep the family running and the critical acclaim for his initial works. His ability with the language, the rare insight and intellect in writing non-fiction works are also been noted. It follows him on his journey to various parts of the world for collecting data and experience. His multiple sojourns in India, Africa, Latin America and other places and the reflections by those associated with him during these stays. There is a commonality in these reflections. Most of them recall him as a brilliant , intelligent human being, but one difficult to be friendly with. He is also known for his reluctant to spend money.

V.S.Naipual is not known to have any long lasting friends. As he himself admits "I have had admirers but not friends" ( about his school days), there aren't many friends in his life. He had been using his contacts to his personal and literary needs, but never beyond that. His relationship with his family was also quite fragile, to an extend where his mother made a statement as 'I have no such son'. He maintained a love-hate relation with his closed ones. He had been a difficult person to deal with, even to his own siblings.

The other interesting aspect of his life is his relationship with women. The strained relationship with his wife, who was in awe with his talent, and was a constant inspiration and the first reader of all his works. She was the one he ill-treated the maximum. Even though she is from a white family in England, to me she behaved more like an obedient Indian wife. His confessed visits to prostitute for pleasure, the long relationship with a married Anglo-Argentine lady from Buenos Aires, the second wife from Pakistan, whom he brought in to his house the next day of the cremation of his first wife.

On his side, Vidya did not heed to any of the comments. He was hard at everything he witnessed. His remarks were often harsh and insulting. He did not try pleasing people. He wrote what he saw, and what his intelligence guided him to. This did make him unpopular with vast segment of people. His multiple books on India, his take on Islam and his writing on Argentine where all controversial but was truthful account of the status. French, attributes his arrogance to his elite Brahmin background and his provocative views to the Trinidadian mischief (called picong).
"He was a spectator, free of the emancipatory fire, who had no wish to reform human race. He was the man without loyalties, whether to India, the West Indies or to anywhere else, who would write the truth as he saw it."

Overall, you will not close the book with a high personal opinion of the man in discussion. The author does not hide his admiration to the Nobel laureate's skills and talent as a writer. He does follow his course in the creation of most of his major works. His creative ability, his knack of gathering information and the ability to remember minute details, the meticulous preparation, his genius.

Very well written biography of one of the most controversial figures of twentieth century literature. This book was also selected as the best biographies of the year 2008 by book critics award. Very disturbing , while absorbing read.
The World is What it is - An authorized biography of V.S.Naipaul
Patrick French555 Pages
Further Read : NYTimes, NY Book Review , Literary review , Telegraph,

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Punya Himalayam - P.Chitran Namboodiripad

Travel writing is one genre, which has undergone multi fold changes in style and approach. Unlike the books in the beginning of the previous century, the current generation of readers does not look for descriptions of places, the way to reach there and the writer's personal achievements. Most of them are available at fingertips. The travel has become very simple and affordable. There are abundant of information in the internet and through the television. Hence , travelogues have to go beyond the usual style and should bring something which is fresh and different to the readers. 

I have just finished reading the book writtenby Sri P.Chitran Namboodiripad on various travels ( or should we call pilgrimage) he has undertaken over last 50 years to the unending charms of the himalayas. It has all the wrong things we discussed earlier. The details of train journey, the descriptions on iterenary, the minute details of places of interests and of  travel plans.  It also has the authors personal experiences. Numerous mentions of the arrangements and the various rituals.  This book will be of great help to a person intent to travel to the himalayan temples and places of worship. But for a general reader of travelogue this book does not offer anything substantial.

He is a scholar and his knowledge on our epics and the puranas, along with the other sanskrit writings are evident in his writing. He also has a clear and crisp style of writing.  There are enough quotes from the ancients texts, the local myths of the temples, the stories pertaining to the places and people enriching the wanna be traveller with information.

Having said that,  for the intended readers ( of interest in pilgrimage to Himalayan temples) , this book would be of great help.

Punya Himalayam

P.Chitran Namboodiripad

Current Books, Trissur

160 Pages