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What I learned from my first mentor

T N Hari
11th Sep 2017
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In 1988 I joined Tata Steel as a Management Trainee from IIM Calcutta. This cadre of management trainees was referred to as the Mody Administrative Services – adoringly by the Rusi Mody acolytes and pejoratively by his critics. Rusi Mody (RHM) was the Chairman and MD of Tata Steel and one of the most powerful satraps in the Tata Empire at the time. To help acculturate and assimilate the management trainees, each of them was assigned a mentor for a year. The mentor was either a senior executive or a mid-level executive on a fast track. Some intelligence was applied while making a match – similar education or interests were two criteria we were told but were never really sure of.

I was therefore surprised when I was told that Niroop, who was part of the innermost circle of RHM, would be my mentor. Niroop was a Stephanian (like most smart children from the state of Bihar, he too studied in one of Delhi’s elite schools). His wife Rupa was also with Tata Steel (as I discovered subsequently, several years my senior at IIM Calcutta) and they were the talk of the town for their exceedingly good looks, lifestyle and interests. Both were certified pilots and would once in a while fly the company aircraft when JRD or RHM had to visit the company’s iron ore or coal mines in the boondocks and beyond.

I was sceptical of such mentoring programs and more so because I thought we had very a different chemistry. I was a boringly intelligent and an incorrigible left brainer while both Niroop and Rupa came across as seductively enchanting and unabashedly high society. During the initial interactions, I was restrained but Niroop was at his charming best trying to make me comfortable. They had an adorable daughter, Kudy, who I began to like for her playful innocence. The ice was broken, but my guard wasn’t completely down.

Every year, March 3rd was celebrated in Jamshedpur with great pomp as the founder’s day – the pageantry and pomp was similar to the Republic day celebrations in New Delhi. On the evening of March 2nd 1989, we had just returned to Kolkata from a visit to the Tata Head Quarters in Mumbai and were lazily lying in bed at the company guest house on the morning of March 3rd when we were woken up by the staff and told that a massive fire had broken out in one of the stands. We soon got to know that it was the stand where the families of senior executives were seated and there were at least a100 individuals with serious burns and more than 50 of them were unlikely to survive. I hoped that Niroop and his family were safe.

It was not to be. Kudy was in the stands and sustained severe burn injuries. Within the next 4 days she passed away in the ICU. The death of an only child is the deepest sorrow that can strike a couple. Leave alone humans, many mammal species can’t handle this grief. I saw how Niroop and Rupa dealt with this from close quarters. They rarely displayed their emotions in public but were inconsolable in private. Just as they were picking up the pieces of their life without Kudy, there was a massive shakeup in the Tata group.

Ratan Tata had taken over the reins from JRD and slowly but steadily the old satraps were all eased out. Tata Steel had a new managing director and all those close to RHM were either sidelined or had to leave. Niroop and Rupa chose to stay and make it work. In the new dispensation they were marginalized. They lived and coped with a lot of humiliation. This was on top of having lost their only child. The company took a new direction.

In the rush of life and realignment of priorities and friendships, we drifted apart slowly. Niroop worked doggedly at rebuilding trust with JJ Irani who was the new MD, and eventually succeeded. Rupa chose to quit and built a successful management consulting practice. There isn’t a single Tata company that has not benefited from her guidance.

During these years Niroop continued to keep an eye on how I was progressing in my career though we never really spoke. He never nursed a grudge that I had drifted away when he was in a tough spot. When he was back in favour he still remembered me. When the global market for steel, after liberalization, became brutally competitive, Tata Steel decided to hire McKinsey to help with restructuring the company and dealing with the crisis.

One fine morning I got a call from Niroop, and he asked me warmly, if I would like to be part of a three member in-house team that would work with McKinsey to drive this strategic initiative. I didn’t know what to say! Working with McKinsey was a mixed experience. After a while, I had some serious differences on the approach and the path we were hurtling down without enough thought. At Tata Steel, for right or wrong reasons, McKinsey had the ear of top management and I found it difficult to express concerns without being seen as obstructionist. It bothered me a great deal. It was the biggest crisis in my career. Niroop talked to me very maturely and with a lot of empathy and love. It soothed me to an extent – but never completely.

This call from Niroop, and the assignment, changed the trajectory of my career. After this we built a deep bond based on mutual respect and affection that has sustained. Rupa had become a reiki grand master during this period and had a loyal fan following bordering on adulation. I continued to be the left brained individual I was, and didn’t really ever buy into any kind of healing process that was not clearly explained by western medical science.

She never asked me to try it out. She let me live with my view and quietly respected my position. And I too, more reluctantly than her, began to respect what she was doing. It was evident to me that she had found her calling, and the healing it had on her was obvious. She also continued to be on the board of a few companies, helping them with corporate governance issues.

Niroop and Rupa had created a Trust in memory of their daughter and put in most of their personal wealth into this Trust. They did great work in the tribal communities of the districts of south Bihar (now Jharkhand) and continue to make an impact. Rupa and I shared a lot of thoughts and ideas. We finally captured these in the form of a book that Sage published (Back to Basics in Management – A critique of the fabled management mantras). When my daughter travelled to Jamshedpur many years later, she discovered that there was a strange coincidence of birthdays – I was born on 20 June, Kudy on 21 June and Ashu (my daughter) on 22 June. The universe was at work!

At some point of time, I felt the need to move out of Tata Steel and try out my talents in a more agile, more empowered, and a less consultant driven environment. It was at this point of time that I met Sanjeev Aggarwal, who ran Daksh. I was convinced that Daksh had to be my next stop. I met Niroop and told him. He understood instantaneously and was actually expecting this. He encouraged me to move on. I shared my anxiety about shifting from a company that moved with the speed of an oil tanker to a start-up that had the speed and agility of a fighter jet. He told me he had no doubt that I would do well and thrive in that environment. He was so right. For the next 15 years of my life I continued to thrive in fast paced growth environments. I had found my calling!

My learning from Niroop and Rupa:

  • When tough times come, never give up and walk away. Tough times don’t outlast tough individuals.
  • Remember that someone you mentor could be very different from you. So, see things from that person’s perspectives
  • Sometimes the individual you are mentoring may no longer need your mentoring and may disappear. Don’t see this as an affront. Instead accept it and be happy.
  • As a mentor, always keep the needs of the individual you are mentoring uppermost in your mind.
  • As a leader you need to accept that with changing times, it is essential to rediscover yourself and find new interests to fill in the vacuum created by the disappearance of what kept you occupied earlier.
  • Courage, compassion, and an inherent zest for life are essential leadership traits that will help you navigate difficult situations in life.

Niroop and Rupa: This piece is dedicated to you – for being there for me always, and when I needed it most. And for making me believe in myself!

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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