Sunday, May 24, 2009

I don't know

My first job after passing out of B-School (difficult to believe, but true) was trying to sell high-carbon and alloy steel. I was based in Indore. One of our strong and a loyal customer located in Rajasthan did not favour us for a particular grade of steel in spite of repeated attempts to convince them. This was a very special grade of steel which tested our manufacturing and R&D capabilities to its limits. Getting an order from this customer would have been a big victory (and big monies).

I was asked to visit the customer and discuss the possibility of a small order (half-a-truck or roughly 4 tons) as test sample, for free. The interesting thing about this customer was that the company was founded by an Ex-Army Officer and so were the people in all the key posts - very pucca, ol’ chap and all that.

I met a key person in their R&D, a retired Brigadier. I had by that time learnt enough of metallurgy to have a decent conversation. Coupled with oven-fresh lessons from B-School, I was rearing to go. After introductions, I rattled off about all the things I knew. When I saw the customer listening attentively, I thought I had him eating out of my hand. I was on a high.

When I finished, the customer looked at me and said smilingly, “Young man, you have obviously read and studied a lot.....” (Pause)

I was beaming.

He continued“.......Now the time has come for you to actually learn.”

When he saw my stunned look he smiled and said, “Everything you said is by the book. But steel does not behave by the book even though it may be offered to us for free.”

He added, “Your starting point should be ‘I don’t know’. Don’t have any preconceived notion and do not be carried away by your knowledge. Spend time on our shopfloor - watch, listen and then draw your conclusions. You might want to share your conclusions with me before you leave. There is also a greater chance of success that way.”

I did just that. He agreed with my conclusions and wished me luck. He did not give us the order, though. He did give me a lesson that I cherish even today.

I am not sure whether the value of ‘I don’t know’ will be appreciated today. It would be seen as a sign of weakness. People seem to be in love with their own voice and when they have a captive (and pliable) audience, like an agency for example, the urge to expound only seems to increase. What they don’t realise is that in most cases they come across as jerks. Speaking of jerks, there is some sort of correlation between a booming economy like India and the corresponding increase in the number of jerks. I want to sound-off this new theory of mine with Freakonomics. There is something there and probably well worth an investigation :-)

However, the Brigadier was not wrong. Read this wonderful interview with Lee Clow wherein he urges creative people (it is applicable to everyone) to not try to prove how smart one is. Instead, talk less and listen more. No wonder he is a genius and a great leader - a trait common to lot of great people in various walks of life.

BTW, my wife just asked me how the two of us who have recently decided to embark on a self-employment route hope to make ends meet.

I looked at her and with a confidence borne out of experience said, “I don’t know.”

(Image courtesy: Mr.Kris)


  1. Subbu: A very interesting read. More on this soon. Cheers! Bhargava

  2. Thanks Bhargava

  3. Lovely piece and great Lee Clow interview as well. Thx Subbu. - DJ