The Story Rules Podcast E19: Toshan Tamhane – Lessons from Mckinsey, Meetings and Marathons! (Transcript)

toshan Tamhane
5. General

The Story Rules Podcast E19: Toshan Tamhane – Lessons from Mckinsey, Meetings and Marathons! (Transcript)

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Intro hook:

“Oftentimes people try to demonstrate how hard they have worked, so they try and show activity. You are expected to do that activity! If you didn’t do the hard work, don’t keep telling me “I met so many people” and so on. That’s at a very Senior level. Which is why, when you’re talking to people at a very senior level in Consulting like CEOs and others, their time is very precious. They don’t want to know all the activity you have done or if your numbers are right, because they have to be right; because you can’t make stupid mistakes. You will be fired if you make those errors. All of that is assumed. Tell me what YOU really think. Which is why even when it comes to investing, the great founders have great stories.”

Welcome to the Story Rules podcast with me, Ravishankar Iyer, where we learn from some of the best storytellers in the world, find their story and unearth the secrets of their craft.

Today we speak with Toshan Tamhane, currently Chief Strategy Officer at UPL and ex-Senior Partner at Mckinsey and Co.

In storytelling, clarity of communication is a key goal. And one firm which has exemplified that in business communication is Mckinsey. After all, this is the firm that gave birth to the Pyramid Principle (through Barbara Minto), which is something I teach regularly as a part of my courses. 

Now, I was always keen to speak to a senior leader from Mckinsey about how they view the art and craft of storytelling – and was I lucky to have the opportunity to interview Toshan Tamhane.

Toshan spent 18+ years at Mckinsey across 55+ countries advising leading companies and individuals. Currently, apart from his role as CSO at UPL Ltd, he is also an active angel investor and avid adventure enthusiast.

Across these years, Toshan has had a ringside view of several high-stakes communication events with senior stakeholders. Earlier it would have been as a presenter and now, increasingly as a reviewer. I thought it would be great to tap into his vast experience and get his insights on the best practices for storytelling at work.

In the conversation, we go through a wide range of topics – Toshan’s reflections from his IIM-Ahmedabad years, the lessons from Mckinsey, how he would solve business review meetings, his use of relatable analogies and his insane curiosity for deep conversations.

I should reveal here that Toshan happens to be a batchmate from my graduation college – the Podar College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai.

He was always a prodigious talent since early days – the rest of us at college would be in awe of his drive and clarity. It was great reconnecting with him after almost 2 decades…  and I learnt a lot from this conversation. I’m sure you will too.

Lets dive in.

Ravi (0:05)

Hi, Toshan. Welcome to the Story Rules podcast!

Toshan (0:09)
Hi, Ravi. Glad to be here.

Ravi (0:12)
Toshan, you’ve had a storied career. You’ve graduated from (one of) the finest colleges of commerce in Mumbai, then directly went through to IIMA and had a long, illustrious career with McKinsey. We’ll come to that part later.
I want to talk about IIMA. You are one of those who didn’t wait for work experience post-college to do it; you directly went for it. First of all, how did you take that decision? And secondly, when you reached IIMA…you might have had some preconception in your mind when you reached there in those two years. What were some things that surprised you the most about the place?

Toshan (1:01)
I think you’ve also gone to the same commerce college, and the same institute. So, in many ways, our experiences there will have an overlap. For me, the reason I decided to go without any work experience is that it was clear to me that I wanted to do an MBA. In that context, I thought, if I’m so clear in what I want to do – then why waste those additional years? Management institutes do take freshers. So, I was willing to take that chance, because freshers are taken. If I was not clear, (perhaps) if I wanted to take some other degree, (then I would not have gone ahead with this.)
By the way, I had done my Company Secretary and Cost Accounting exams; I had taken those. There was a backup plan in case this didn’t work out. It was the most efficient way, from a time standpoint. That’s why I went directly to IIMA.
The surprising thing was that IIMA is a phenomenal institution. I have had the chance to visit – as faculty or as a recruiter or for some events – Harvard; MIT; Saïd Business School at Oxford; LBS; INSEAD. Of course, every alum feels their institution is special. To me, the most surprising things were: A – in the initial three months, life is a leveller. You feel humbled. Everybody who comes there is an IIT Topper; (ranked) all India first in Chartered Accountancy; you may be a stud boy or a stud girl somewhere; (Won) a gold medal in Economics; represented India somewhere…you come in the first term and you’re like, “Oh shit. They are so much more intelligent; smarter.” The beauty is – everybody feels the same. The engineers have no clue what to do in accounting courses and the accountants are like, “What does operations management and stochastic calculus mean?!” and you don’t know that, because everybody naturally feels very proud and happy and then suddenly in the first month, you’re brought to Earth. The professors, rightfully, don’t care a shit about your track record. You’re here and you will go through the grind. Life is a leveller. Irrespective of your background, I haven’t met anyone who said, “My first term was a cakewalk.” It never happens.
The second thing was, after you’ve done your first year at IIMA – nothing seems impossible. I think it’s an important quality. You have to read 300 pages before tomorrow? Sure. That’s fine. You will read 300 pages. You have surprise quizzes; You didn’t even know what subject it was and you have to give an exam (for it)? You will do it. Of course, you will have nervous butterflies, but nothing shocks you anymore. And by the way – that’s life! You go into a meeting for something and it turns out to be something else; Suddenly, the CEO wants to meet you; Suddenly, a board member tells you “Hey! I’m in town, can we catch up?” and you’re like, “Shit. What does this board member want?” “What does this investor want?”. IIMA, in many ways, prepares you for the uncertainties and volatilities of what could happen in life. You learn to take it.
I still remember having two case contests, and then a party all night. You don’t worry about partying and being able to (make it for something) in the morning. That’s what happens in life – you’re out with your team, celebrating, and the next morning you have a big media interview to give. So, (that) nothing is impossible after term three is my second learning at IIMA.
The third learning is not what happened at IIMA, but several years later. The batch-mindset (has had an impact,) in a positive way; or the institutional camaraderie. You go to any place and see (an alum and go,) “Oh, you’re IIMA!” And that happens across IIMs also. “You’re IIMC? Which batch?” – and you connect, because I think nothing bonds you like suffering together.
Those would be my 3 surprising findings of IIMA.

Ravi (5:29)
I also heard about how you had almost chosen consulting as your career – you’d come across an article in India Today about a consultant at McKinsey who was doing well in life, and you wanted to emulate that, so you wanted to join McKinsey. That plan was clear, and I really admire the fact that you had clarity and you went ahead (and acted on it.)
McKinsey is, again, a storied institution. (It’s) much, much older – established 1926, right? The pioneer in the field of consulting, really. I want to apply the same question to McKinsey, that before going into it, you would’ve had some thoughts or expectations. What about that firm had surprised you, and what would be your three big lessons or takeaways from McKinsey?

Toshan (6:22)
McKinsey was – and even in today’s day and age – is a sought-after aspirational employer. There are many reasons for that. But the surprising thing was – people have this whole thing of ‘up, or out.’ It’s a very hard charging place; you have a bunch of alphas all out to elbow each other – but that is absolutely not true! McKinsey is one of the most caring places. The institution never tells you that you have to go up, or out. I think what happens is that people who join in are insecure over-achievers. They want to do their best and be seen doing the best. The issue is really that – if you see McKinsey’s intake process – they take only from certain institutions, which also take from certain other institutions, which also take (only) the best. It’s a weeding-out process (which) has been perfected; it’s like the Olympics, in many ways. Anybody competing there (is spectacular just by virtue of being there.) Somebody (who) comes 7th in the Olympics is still going to be a phenomenal sprinter in their continent or country. It’s just that not everybody can get the gold medal. The same goes for McKinsey.
McKinsey will be extremely caring. The amount of development opportunities (one has); the feedback that you will get in terms of improvement; the way you will be staffed on projects; the number of people who will give a helping hand to you, is phenomenal. What happens is that you start feeling, “You know what? Maybe this institution is not for me.” I was at McKinsey for 18 years. I may have seen maybe less than 3 cases where someone was formally told to leave. What happens is that either the person realizes – all of us are self-aware. We realize what it takes to get to the next level, or we realize something else is better. And it’s not about not liking or not succeeding – you just feel that you’ve learnt enough and the best way to maximize your potential now is to do something else. So, you will leave.
Before going in, I was so scared. I was like, “I have to dress my best. I have to talk my best. Everybody is going to be observing me.” There was a thing (where you felt like) you are constantly being watched. It’s like Big Boss to another level. That nervousness was there for the first couple of years. Till you really understand how the system works, (the feeling won’t go away.) I always thought that even in a party, I have to say the right things; I have to be doing the right thing. I didn’t think about what I liked; I was always thinking about what the institution or the person opposite to me wants. I was always second guessing, and it took me some time to realize that that second-guess is not required. Nobody wants me to fail; people want me to succeed. Hence, this up-or-out is a mental framework which I have created – which people create for themselves, till they understand the caring nature of the institution. That was the biggest myth, or surprising thing, for me.

Ravi (9:40)
Just to do a double click on the second guess thing – what you’re saying is that it’s better to be authentic; you don’t have to be fake or put-up a (façade).

Toshan (9:50)
And it’s difficult to put up a façade for a long time. You will be authentic and succeed – whether at McKinsey, or elsewhere, it’s authenticity that will drive you to be truly successful. That was my take on it.
The second part of your question – three key lessons from McKinsey…One of my mentors told me this and said to never forget it: (He said that) “Clarity of communication comes from clarity of thought.”
I asked him, “how are you so good when it comes to being suave and polished in board rooms, or an audience of people, or a conference of industry leaders?” and he said, “Look – communication comes afterwards. Are you clear in your thought process? A muddled thought process leads to muddled and confused communication. Forget communication; focus on whether you’re clear about the answer.” That was my first lesson.
My second lesson (which is useful) even today, almost two years since I left McKinsey, (was that) no problem is impossible to crack, if you follow the right process. You can put me in any industry, and if I know the right process and if I can structure a problem – I can get the right bunch of people (for it). I have access to the 5 best guys or girls in the industry who have looked at that problem. So, I need the right structure, I need access to the right people, and lastly, I need the curiosity and hustle (mindset) to really get to the answer. (If) I get these three things right, there’s no problem which is impossible. Ask me to crack how to send a rocket to Mars, or how to get Team X to win, the implementation is a different thing – but (finding a) solution is not impossible. McKinsey tells you not to worry about the complexity of the problem, but to get the process right. Do you have the right toolkit? Do you have the right people for it? I cannot sit in London and try to solve a problem of Paraguay. I need somebody who understands Paraguay, I need somebody who was ex-Paraguay; I need people from that industry, and people from other industries. I think that if I have the whole gamut of stakeholders and experts who can give me a 360-degree-view of the problem, and I have the process – no problem is impossible.
The last learning (seems very simple in comparison to the previous highfalutin ones,) but it’s to eat when you can, sleep when you can, shit when you can. You never know when the next opportunity arises. This learning has been so phenomenal. When you’re traveling around the world – when you’re on a flight, (and such) – sleep habits are important. You need to be able to sleep anywhere; you need to be able to be disciplined in the amount and quality of sleep. In those days, we never had sleep-trackers or watches, Oura rings and so on. Now, I have all kinds of devices. The whole (point) is that sleep is one important thing. The second is to eat when you can. When I used to go onto the field for surveys, or when you’re traveling somewhere, you need to have (something to eat). Even today, my bag always has protein bars, because I never know when I will need the calcium, or the sugar; the proteins; carbs. I need good sources. The worst thing you can do is doing meeting after meeting or you’re stuck somewhere, and you get hunger pangs; you get thirst pangs, (and not being prepared for it.) So – sleep when you can; eat when you can. The last one, crass as it may sound, is shit when you can. The last important thing is all your toilet habits. McKinsey (taught me this lesson), by virtue of me having to take so many flights and going across the globe, reach the airport with one and a half hours to go for a meeting. If I haven’t eaten, (I’m in trouble.) It becomes discipline. I realize the importance of all of that today, because I am never sleep deprived. I am never going to eat the wrong quality of food, because I have the right quality of food with me. I will always phone ahead and say, “Guys, I want this as food.” – It’s okay to do that. McKinsey ingrained that into me, because otherwise I’d have to eat chips (or some other kind of) inexpensive, but fatty food. In your twenties, you don’t realize (the importance of any of these) habits, because in your twenties your body is so strong that you can do anything you want. In your thirties, or now when I’m in my forties – I realize the importance of all of this. Exercise is optional, I would say. It’s good if you do it. But eating, sleeping, and your toilet habits? McKinsey just made sure I make no mistake (regarding these habits.) And now, I make no mistakes. My breakfast is sacrosanct. If I know I’m going to skip lunch, then I’ll have some sandwiches beforehand. Before a meeting, if someone asks if anyone wants to order something, I don’t hesitate to be the first one to raise my hand and say “Yeah, can we have sandwiches? Can we have a pasta?” and people are nervous – they worry about what people will think. If you order a health smoothie, that’s fine. Let somebody else say no. (Let them say), “We don’t have it.” Or “We only have masala chai,” or some sugary coffee. If you ask for it, people will create. That was the most important learning number 3. It’s not at the same level as communication or problem-solving and so on. It was more foundational; basic stuff, I’d say.

Ravi (15:36)
You know what, Toshan – I feel all of these are foundational. Let me tell you one misconception I had about MBA and consulting, which is that all of these guys talk in very highfalutin jargon; there’s a 7S model, there’s 2×2 charts – it’s almost like they’re talking in a different plane. But one of my first experiences of IIM-A completely broke that stereotype. There was a professor, I think Abraham Koshy, taking a demo class in pretty much the first week that we landed up there. There was a small marketing case and here were a few people trying to use some fancy marketing jargon, without having a clue of what they’re talking about. He tore them to shreds. “What are you talking about? Use simple words! Use plain English!” I think that was a big learning (experience) for me.
What you’re saying goes one level beyond that – simple thinking; simple communication, and eating, sleeping; all of that. It gets down to (things) as basic as that. You get the basics right, and the higher order takes care of itself. I thought that was very cool.
I want to try and apply this problem-solving methodology to a problem that my clients grapple with. You’ve had a literal ringside view to this problem. It’s what I call sub-optimal review meetings; that’s probably how I’d title it. Take any mid to large company – all of them have regular periodic review meetings where the company as a whole comes together and essentially looks at division by division; function by function; what are the numbers? What was the target? What went up and down; how much, when, where, why; you look at all of that and hopefully come up with some root causes and think of the next steps – how to mitigate. Of course, you would have attended many of these at McKinsey and later at Temasek, and now in your position as an angel investor and at UPL. One thing we can keep using is your experience…but I want us to try and look at the animal of (suboptimal) periodic review meetings as a whole, and try and see what some of the causes are. First of all, how do you even frame the problem of sub-optimal review meetings? Just to add some more detail to the problem, (suboptimal review meetings where you have) long-winded discussions, data-heavy slides without any clear narratives, an agenda that is driven by template – where you want to look at A, B, C, D together, (regardless of) whether or not A, B, C, D are equally important. In the end, there’s a lack of clarity. The audience is tired, the presenters are tired. I feel all of those are symptoms of the problem.
I wanted your inputs and thoughts on how you think we can frame the problem, and what is the way to solve it?

Toshan (19:01)
Ravi, you’re absolutely right. I always say, “The longer the meeting, the less is accomplished.”
If you don’t want to get anything done, call a meeting and form a committee at the end of it. These are amazing ways that people have mastered (to accomplish nothing). If you don’t want to do something, you call meetings and conferences, and meetings and more conferences, so on.
There are people who are also able to (hold) very effective meetings. In my personal experience, if you follow what is the English and what is the math? (What I mean by that is,) you’ll have people talking about lots and lots of things, but then I’ll (end up saying,) “Maths pe jaao na abhi!”(Move on to the math now!) Somebody who speaks the most amazing English and stories, tends to have numbers in deep shit. Many of the times, numbers speak for themselves. Somebody who has phenomenal numbers doesn’t even bother (with the English). He’s like, “I’ve delivered. Celebrate.” You need the right context behind it. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but I think there need to be a clear separation between what is a story (and what is the crux).
I think the other issue with meetings, and review meetings also, is that oftentimes because of templates and so on, people approach it as tick-the-box. Saying, “Yeah, it’s a monthly review meeting, let’s put up the numbers.” People aren’t even prepared; sometimes the pre-reads don’t even come on time. In a meeting of one hour, the first ten minutes are spent in getting people together. People try to figure out what we thought about last time; there is (no) disagreement among people, “Was this discussed? Was that discussed?” Then, the data-heavy slides – the templates are there, but they’re still so data-heavy that people are trying to figure out what’s happening. I’ve seen some of the stupidest things happen, like currencies not being the same. There’s Rupee-Dollar, Pound; Rupee will be converted at a different rate; the footnote will say something else…it’s messy. It is really, really, messy. By the time people make sense of the data –because they haven’t come with their homework done. One of my rules is that if the pre-read has not been read, let’s not do the meeting.

Ravi (21:40)
Really? You feel that that’s an important thing to insist on. Do you think a pre-read should be mandatory for a review meeting?

Toshan (21:52)
I think yes. The unfortunate thing that happens is that because there are so many meetings, and you also have your “normal job” – because people almost split, saying, “I’m working”, or “I’m in a meeting”. They don’t correlate that meetings are for work. You’re almost saying, “Yesterday, I was busy with meetings. I had no time to do real work.” But, that’s wrong.
I think pre-reads should be circulated for 80% of the stuff. There may be 20% where you need confidentiality; there are many reasons. Also, if a pre-read is circulated, there is an expectation that people should read it and come. Otherwise, it’s not fair to the people who are circulating them. Many of the CEOs and Chairmen just don’t have the time to have read the pre-read, because the pre-read is a 50-pager. That’s the challenge with pre-reads – they are so much (to take in)!
I remember a story where one of my investment banking friends said they were being raided by the SEC in the U.S. I was like, “So what are you doing?” and he said, “No, no. We are giving them everything. We have given them 40 truckloads of information.”
You are doing a data-dump, when you were asked for X. It’s a perfectly legitimate method where people say, “You cannot accuse me of hiding something from you. I’ve given you everything.” This is (like) the Hanuman (story), he was asked to bring one (herb) but he brought the whole mountain. “You find what you want; don’t blame me for not getting what you wanted.” It’s the same thing, people send you so much (information) in the pre-read.
If the pre-read is sharp, and only a 2-pager, people would read it. But you find it so difficult – how can I synthesize all my achievements into two pages? It’s the equivalent of resumes – people write a 4-pager! Steve Jobs had a 1-page resume. If you think you’ve done more than Steve Jobs, we have a different problem to start with.
But forget that. Coming back to this…when it comes to deciphering the data, people don’t call it out.
My last point is that it’s less about meetings, but that it’s a culture of accepting feedback and being open with the problems. We hope that you will not get to the problem – if nobody asks me a question pointedly about that issue, I will not ask for it. Otherwise, I am just justifying the problem. People are like “Okay, fine. We’ll move ahead.” I think you need to be open about it.
There is a company which I know, that has a 15-minute review meeting. It’s only 15 minutes; standard review meetings are 15 minutes, because we meet every month; everybody knows each other; everybody knows what the dashboards are; there is a real-time tool. What are you meeting for? Just to inform everybody about what’s happening. If you need to solve a problem, we will set up a separate discussion for it. This meeting is for keeping everybody informed, (held) every alternate fortnight. It’s very effective. If people start discussing deeper, the CEO says, “Hold on. It seems there is an important point. Usmei ghuste hai baadmei(We’ll go into that later). Mark it, we will come back to it.”
In meetings, management becomes important. Amazon does a terrific job. There is no PowerPoint; you write the word document, everybody has to have read it. If you don’t read, pass the meeting, take 10 minutes to read and then we will get back to it.
Board meetings – I feel the same thing. There are board members who are rushing from board meeting to board meeting, but you need time to actually digest (what’s happened.) A lot of what is being given to them is statutory; tons and tons of statutory things. That’s an information-compliance thing versus a decision-making thing. If you can separate the objective of the meeting, I think, the meetings could be a lot sharper. Half the time, the right people aren’t in the meeting. “Why didn’t we invite XYZ?” and people look around. Who was supposed to invite them? So, you try and call that person, and the person is not there because you haven’t blocked his calendar. Having the right people in the meeting; the right preparation; the right person driving the meeting – the right chairperson. (Having the best elements,) instead of maintaining the (typical) culture of the meeting, (can enable you to) do a damn good job of it.
I don’t dislike templates, by the way. But designing a good template which isn’t a tick-the-box is not easy. You want to discuss the concerned issues; you want to celebrate – because monthly review meetings are also for celebrating. What you don’t want is something I call ‘death by PowerPoint’; you will kill somebody. People are sleeping, and if you’ve not managed the meeting culture well then half of them are checking their mobiles, or if you’re allowing laptops to be open in any case…people have mentally switched off. It’s not helpful. Unless, in a devious way, you intend to have people not pay attention so you can slip in stuff. That happens, too.

Ravi (27:21)
This is so useful, Toshan! So many points; so many threads that you’ve talked about – do we have the right people? Is the objective of the meeting (clear)?
I think, at a very foundational level, is intent. I’m going to assume that it is clear – of course, there’s a whole different problem when there’s an intent issue; when people are trying to obfuscate…let’s keep that aside. Assuming that the intent is clear and good, and you want to solve (issues)…there, you made an interesting point which was that the response of the audience tends to be ‘shoot the messenger’ if there is bad news, or to ask very harsh, probing questions that make anybody nervous. The immediate tendency is to hide bad news. You want to have a culture which is curiosity-driven, like saying, “Hey, they didn’t do it? Why? Let’s dig deeper,” instead of (having a culture that’s) accusation-driven. Those are some fascinating points that need to be kept in mind.
Assuming the intent is good, (and the approach is) curiosity-driven, you’ve got the right people in the room…Of course, as you mentioned, Amazon is quite up there in terms of the way they run some of these meetings for new initiatives, etc. There is a 6-page narrative which is a famous 6-page Word document. As you were saying, they don’t really expect people to have read it beforehand. If they’ve read it, that’s good, but they actually give time. There is this phenomenon in this book called Working Backwards that they write, where in the first five minutes or so, all you hear is silent page-turning as people are reading through that (document) and making their points. If they have a question, it hopefully gets answered in page 3or 5. The basic questions are all answered; no stupid questions will come, hopefully. Then you’ve got a richer discussion.
I’ve talked about this to a few clients, but it is tough. It’s a huge culture change to get people to write. We complain about PowerPoint, but unfortunately, Word is even more difficult. We have to put down our ideas somewhere and PowerPoint is probably easier. Given this, the Amazon narrative might be too high a goal to aspire. If you had to suggest to a mid-to-large sized company to rewire their next quarterly business review, assuming that their intent is all fine…would you suggest saying, “Make sure you’ve got a one or two pager that people can read before (the meeting).” And how should they structure the rest of the meeting?

Toshan (30:03)
There’s three points. The first point is that the pre-read should just be about numbers, unless there is a very specific context given. Let people digest the numbers. Hopefully, the definitions are the same. It is too difficult to get into a meeting and just start correlating the numbers. And if you have some messages from the numbers, say those. Don’t leave it to the reader. If you want to let them know that sales increased at X, however profit fell – it’s a simple message; show sales increasing, show profit falling. You can also say, “By the way, our profit fell less than our competitors.” There may be different messages there, but just say them. In the meeting, you can talk about the reasons, the composition, so on. There (should be a) numbers-driven pre-read.
I always feel that in an actual meeting, if you need a decision on something, you should say up-front: “We will go through all of this, and at the end of it, we will decide about points A and B.” because when people go through the meeting, they know why they’re there. They’re there to decide at the end. You’re already tuning people up and building them up by saying, “Guys, listen to all of this information, because at the end of it we area going to make a decision.” Otherwise, people don’t know what they’re there for. Do I need to appear intelligent and ask questions? Equivalent to IIM Ahmedabad class participation points? Or, do I need to put the other person on the mat and say, “You didn’t do this. By the way, I have gone through these numbers and really, this is what’s happening. Maybe, it is true.”
But since, Ravi, you caveated by saying the intent is right – you want people to get as much information (as possible). As the leader of the meeting, or as the main person, you want to influence. Every speaker should absolutely want to influence a certain decision or certain outcome. You also want to make sure that people know that at the end of it they are going to invest X into something else, or they are going to stop something else; they are going to do a new thing; they are going to put more efforts into something. If I know that at the end of something, I am going to decide or going to be asked my view on something, I am already starting to listen and ask questions because I know I will eventually have an action to do. If I don’t have any action to do at the end of it, I’m very happy to twiddle my thumbs. It’s always better to outline up front – “We’re going through all of this. At the end of it, we’re going to do these 3 things, where I need your help.” That’s the second thing.
My last point about meetings is: follow up. Oftentimes, what happens is that the meetings are good. Many companies have got the culture right, but after that, there has to be somebody who follows up and says, “We agreed on this.” And who makes sure that the next time you meet, there is something like a scorecard that says, “we agreed to it in the last meeting, but still haven’t done it.” It’s not about what happens in the meeting – maybe somebody wasn’t convinced enough, or the presenter didn’t anticipate something outside (the expected concerns to have an impact.) But, there’s no point in doing more and more meetings if the follow up and execution is not happening after the meeting. It’s best if you link it back to say, “We agreed to this.” Some of the good companies come with minutes or an action-taken report, and those are important. Sometimes, it becomes bureaucratic, but I think it is required.
I know I said three, but my last point is less to do with meetings, but more to do with numbers, because I have also seen many cases where people don’t agree on the numbers. Your numbers versus mine; Sales says this but Finance says this; HR’s numbers are this. How do you get to the single source of truth? My suggestion is that before we get into a meeting, all those who say “Those are all my numbers”, I need to have agreed to it. Or the numbers should only be Finance – I cannot have Sales talk about numbers with Finance saying, “Hey, sorry, that was before adjustments and after adjustments (it changes)” because if you get into that, then the so-what of the numbers is not (accurate). If our base is not right, what’s the point in discussing the so-what? I genuinely feel that there should be as minimal massaging to the numbers as possible. One of my roles in what we’re trying to do at UPL is that numbers come from one database. If you have adjusted those, the adjustments are not taken into account. You work with the database owner to fix it. Maybe you’ll look bad in this meeting, and you may not agree with it. The only thing we allow for is timing, because what happens is the quarter ends on a certain date but Finance has not fully adjusted everything and FX adjustments haven’t happened…some bits of adjustments are okay. But beyond a point, there are no manual interventions or adjustments outside the system. No extra constitutional authorities. If the system says you have done 100, you may say, “No – I have done 150,” those 50 don’t exist. Unless you insist on it, people will never feel the need to align the systems. That’s the challenge with data. Everybody has data, it’s just that mine is different from yours. How can we have a conversation?
It’s like saying, “I’m going to London.” But around the world there are 5 Londons – there’s a London in Canada, there’s a London in the U.S., so unless we agree on which London, we may all say we are going to London, but end up in quite a few different places.

Ravi (35:57)
This is especially a big problem in multinational companies’ operations across multiple countries, because FX becomes a huge part of it. You’ll have one team which is the FP&A team; there’ll be the controller’s team; it’s a tricky one. It seems like a trivial problem, almost like saying, “Should we be playing the game or figuring out how many goals we have scored?” but that’s important to figure out the right numbers.

Toshan (36:23)
(One should also think about whether) you are leading or not, because the strategy will change. If I’m leading, then I may want to do it differently versus if I am not.

Ravi (36:31)
We talked about an important point, which is following up post the meeting, and also the organizing itself and running the meeting. In your experience of multiple companies, which ones do a smarter job of doing this? You mentioned the one which does 15-minute meetings. What are some hacks they use that others can learn from

Toshan (36:58)
I like some of the hacks…there is a start-up which does only stand-up meetings. You can’t stand for (a long time)

Ravi (37:08)
You cannot stand for two hours!

Toshan (37:11)
You can’t stand for two hours. You will get tired and exhausted, so you will finish it. It’s a good way to ensure you’re focused on the agenda, so nobody is under prepared. I remember, in McKinsey – I was a part of the global committee which elected McKinsey’s partners. The committee meetings were very precious, because you’ve flown in a lot of prestigious folks from around the world and you’re electing McKinsey partners, which is a very important thing. How do you prevent people from getting late? One of the things we used to do – sometimes, not always – you’d have a jar, and anybody who was late would have to put money in. Suddenly, you’d have nobody coming late!
Otherwise, it was always, “Oh, I had an important thing here.” Or “Some very important global Chairman of XYZ was personally calling me!”, all those excuses. We’d say, “Okay. But for every minute that you are late, you have to put 5$. Or 1$ for every minute.” You can agree on the stakes.

Ravi (38:17)
It has to be a suitable pinch; it shouldn’t be a very small amount.

Toshan (38:21)
And you’d take that money and give it to charity, or everybody would spend it.

Ravi (38:25)
But you’d be insistent that if they came in late, they have to put in the money. There’s no (workarounds)

Toshan (38:30)
You’d have to do it. It’s a very interesting thing because then you start respecting people’s time. Just a very small pinch – 1$, 5$, or 10$, no large sums; the objective is not the sum, it’s the signalling and symbolism of it which makes the difference.
There is a third company, and the hack they do is they say, “We will not use Excel or PowerPoint at all.” They have their own tool; it’s a visualization thing; there’s a Salesforce thing; there’s a BI thing which powers it; and we are going to use the numbers from whatever data flows through that. The first three or six months, they struggled like hell, because “Oh that system didn’t capture this,” “That data is not there”; but that was the only way to force people to really use the same data. Now, nobody has to work on Excel or PowerPoint because the visualization layer has been built so well. It’s not the lack of tools, it’s just that the first few meetings are going to be uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. Are you willing to do that?

Ravi (39:40)
You’re basically avoiding those layers of analysis on Excel and PowerPoint. If your source database can throw out (exactly) what you need, so much time is saved.

Toshan (39:52)
Correct – so much time is saved!
The visualization layer is also quite modular. You can always change it.
People’s time doesn’t need to go (by) in just massaging the data, or trying to do adjustments. It’s a lot of time if you think about the monthly review meetings, the board meetings, then the meetings before the board meetings; you will have meetings for budgets; for strategy sessions…look at the reviews from last year, last month, next year, next quarter…the amount of time you can start saving if you just cut out some of these things, I think, is immense. That time can be used to focus on important, meaningful conversations. You don’t focus that time on, “Oh, is this the number? I thought it was ‘x’! Let me call my guy and say…”
That is all a waste. Cut it out. Focus on saying, “guys, what can new really do? We know this is going really well. Can we make it 10x?”
Another thing which was really fascinating from a UPL standpoint, was – when UPL acquired Arista, there were tons of financial systems around the place because UPL and Arista were both present in many countries. In 6 months’ time, it was decided that everybody would use the same version of SAP. There was a hue and cry, blood and murder, but it was enforced, saying “It doesn’t matter. All your excuses are fine, but we are only going to use this. If you want your expense reimbursement, only this will be used.” And this requires somebody to be tough. If you are very nice and allow the highest performer to do what he or she wants, you won’t set a culture. The highest performer comes in late; the highest performer is able to break the rules – no. These are what form the culture of a company. Amazon – you have a famous thing of what Ray Dalio talks about from his investment fund and his experience. What he basically says is, if you are not going to ask provocative questions in a performance review, why are you there? We have a different meeting to celebrate, and a different session where we encourage – that’s what we call bonuses. We will give bonuses for encouragement. If I’m wasting my precious time by calling all of you here when all of you could have been trading – and I’m not calling you for this review meeting after work hours. Each one of you can do a hundred million dollars of trading, but I am calling you away from there. I’m not calling you to say “This guy has done an amazing job”, and so on; I am going to tell you what he did wrong. I want you to push him, so that he can do better next time. That’s the best use of time. That requires a culture of openness. Am I willing to ask my colleague that tough question? How will he feel about me if I ask him that tough question?
It takes time; these are not overnight things. But since you asked me for examples of what I have seen at McKinsey, UPL, Ray Dalio, and so on…By the way, there is another hack. It’s slightly more complex. What they do is, there is a performance review every month or quarter; but what this company does in every quarterly review, is they also call somebody external. Sometimes, it could be an investor. And they talk about some topic which is related to (their agenda.) It’s a very high message; it could be inspirational, or they’ll say, “Let us tell you – you think you’re doing cat’s whiskers, but those guys in the other industry are doing phenomenally well.” So, you are not using the performance review. You’re saying, “People have come together. What can I do around it?” It’s about maximising the use of that time. By definition, what I do is: when I’m crunching the review from 6 hours to 4 hours, because I see that an amazing guy is going to come and speak to us about what Amazon does; or how Disney looks at something; You are just inspiring people for those performance reviews and changing the narrative that it’s not just about the past; you look at more and more people and sometimes you get criticized, sometimes you get inspired and sometimes you get more ideas for something. Over time, your performance reviews start becoming very, very different.

Ravi (44:32)
Superb idea, Toshan. I think it’s a great collection of ideas when we actually go back and look at them. Different people can take different ideas for their organization.
One idea that I want to put on the table for you to talk about is the Pyramid Principle. Which, to me, was a revelation when I came across it – quite late in life. I did 7 years of consulting in a small, boutique firm; I didn’t come across it at that time, (back in) 2005-2011. 2015 was when I came across it from an ex-Accenture person and it blew my mind! I was like, “It’s fine. It just looks like a simple way of organizing ideas.” But the more I spent time with it, the more I realized how foundational it is to crisp and clear communication – you’re able to put down an entire book or report, or 3 months or 10 months of information into a one-line summary, or a three-line summary; as much as you want. It’s a very powerful tool.
A couple of questions about that – one, (based on) your own experience of how you discovered it and how you’ve used it. Why is it so less-known in the non-consulting world? Have you tried to get others to use it? How has your experience been in trying to get others to use it?

Toshan (45:57)
I learnt it; I didn’t discover it. In McKinsey, in your first training, called BCR – Basic Consulting Readiness – it is in the first communication module; you will go through it. Everybody will keep asking you the importance of top-down communication; giving the answers first; what are the supporting evidences? Tell me the answers first. You also have, related to it, the Elevator Test. It was created because the McKinsey office was on the 55th floor in New York. The Senior Partners were too busy to give you time regarding the problem-solving of your projects, so you only had time when they said, “I’m going down the elevator. By the time I reach the ground floor, tell me how the project is going, or, what is the answer the team has come back with?”
That was the Elevator Test and the only way you could clear it is if you could follow the Pyramid Principle extremely sharply.
Why is it not well known? – I think, if you look at different professions, this preciseness is sometimes not required or (may) even (be) dangerous. Lawyers will not say, “Let’s accuse of X.” If I need to litigate, no litigation lawyer will say, “I will throw only one charge at you.” He’ll say, “I will throw 50 charges at you, and something will stick.” If you look at indictments – he’ll say, “For charges 1,2,3 and 4, you are scot-free. 6, 7, 11, 14, you are going to be given a penalty and 11 is the real one,” so on. A legal profession does not, in my view, rely on someone saying “I will only do one thing,” or, “Here is why you are guilty.”
Take Accountants – is there an answer? It depends. There is a law; there is a caveat; lawyers; tax laws; there’s a precedent here, but I can do something else there. It is something very difficult and sometimes not even desirable to say, “Is this black or white?” Many professions exist because it’s in the grey area.
As a consultant, you are always told – “You’ve studied everything for 3 or 6 months. Don’t tell me X can happen, but then so can Y, and so on. I’m paying you top dollar to tell me your answer. It has to be the most distilled version of all your findings. You have spoken to 100 people; you have done interviews, analysed my data; at the end of it, you cannot tell me that I should do this subject to XYZ provided something else doesn’t happen. I want less caveats.”
If you look at doctors – they won’t tell you the answer until 100 tests are done. Now, there could be a medico negligence issue around it; could be (a matter of) pattern recognition – doctors have phenomenal pattern recognition. But they’re always saying “It could be X, but I need to rule out Y”, and so on.
This is the professional side of it. If you ask the corporate side of it, people have always been told, “You like Storytelling” – I’m not using storytelling in the way you do; it’s more about clarity in communication – if you ask me “how was your day?” Or “How is the plant going?”, I’ll say, “Oh, we had an amazing time. We called so many people, and then the machines were working. The labour inspector came and he had to do an inspection, but then we took him out for lunch.” And you feel that you’re talking to your boss and telling him everything. You build connections based on this; the more you tell stories, the more you talk, and so on. But as a Management Consultant, think about how you are paid. A doctor is not paid per unit of time. Consultants are per diem – you’re paid per unit of time, effectively! I cannot go on and ramble; I need to be precise to maximise per unit of time. A Banker is paid on the success of a transaction; A Trader is paid on the actual profit; A Lawyer is paid (based) on (whether he) wins or loses, or whether he’s been able to get something done or not.
A Consultant is paid per unit of time. The higher you charge, the more precise you want to be.
I know what I said about Lawyers, but if you consider some of the Counsels – who also charge on a per-hour basis – they are so clear! They will follow this, whether they may call it (a principle) or not.
It will be like, “Let me tell you – this is the answer. Here are the two supporting facts; here is something which will go against it. We need to position this case as ABC,” because counsels know that they can’t take up 6 hours of the client’s time. The best counsels are paid top-dollar. In the U.K. you have KCs and QCs (King’s Counsel and Queen’s Counsel); you have phenomenal Counsels in India…the clarity that they have (is great). They will follow the Pyramid Principle. If you ask them, “Can this be done?” they will say, “Yes, this can be done. You will need these three approvals; these two approvals are easy, the other one will not happen because ABCD.”
That’s the genesis of why it works for Consultants, and I think it has to be really important for anybody who considers time as a currency for the monetisation of his efforts. For others, it need not be that important.

Ravi (51:45)
To rephrase: even inside a company, if somebody is playing the role of a Consultant – who’s advising or giving an opinion basis some research or work they’ve done, it will be applicable there.

Toshan (51:58)
It will be very applicable there. It will also be applicable when you have to deliver and accomplish many things in a meeting or presentation with lots of people. I know that if I have to get a major decision through, the Board won’t wait for 30 minutes. Oftentimes people try to demonstrate how hard they have worked, so they try and show activity. You are expected to do that activity! If you didn’t do the hard work, don’t keep telling me “I met so many people” and so on. That’s at a very Senior level. Which is why, when you’re talking to people at a very senior level in Consulting like CEOs and others, their time is very precious. They don’t want to know all the activity you have done or if your numbers are right, because they have to be right; because you can’t make stupid mistakes. You will be fired if you make those errors. All of that is assumed. Tell me what YOU really think. Which is why even when it comes to investing, the great founders have great stories. You need not always be giving the Pyramid Principle, because sometimes I want to know about the founder more, or I want him to talk more, so I don’t necessarily want him to follow the Pyramid Principle. I want him to get into details and how he reacts to certain things, or if he gets provoked when I ask him certain things. He need not do that, because I want him to be good with business. I don’t necessarily want him to follow the Pyramid Principle.
When I am making my investment decision and communicating it, at that time, I will use (the principle). Or if I am meeting somebody and I have only 15 or 30 minutes to convince them, that’s when the principle is most important.

Ravi (53:45)
Time is a crucial part of it that you are saying has a pattern. That’s interesting.
In your experience outside of the consulting world, wherever you have worked, in situations where you feel it’s important…have you seen that it’s a reasonably learnable skill? Have you tried to imbibe it in others? How has that experience been?

Toshan (54:08)
Absolutely. It’s very simple once you explain to people what it is and push them to practice it, most people can do it. The challenge with the Pyramid Principle is that it (uses) inductive logic – you tell the answer first and then go on. But audiences don’t always like inductive logic; you sometimes need to get them to do deductive thinking.

Ravi (54:35)
(You mean) get them to arrive at the answer on their own, rather than putting it in their mind.

Toshan (54:40)
You’re basically saying, “This is fact 1. This is fact 2. Fact 3…What does it tell us? So – yes. Now let’s get there.”
If you look at certain professions or debates in Parliament and so on, you don’t want to tell the answer because the moment you do, people take fixated positions against you. You don’t want them to do that. The challenge with Pyramid Principle is that people aren’t going to immediately oppose it. The power of inductive thinking is huge, but it isn’t always true. There are flip sides to it, but it is easily learnable and helps when you want to give the message in the shortest possible time, so you can then focus on the real ‘so-what’ of it and how to implement it. That’s when the time has to be really spent.

Ravi (55:35)
Superb, Toshan. That’s very useful in terms of getting into the weeds and nuances of this principle.
To me, whether you are doing it answer-first – giving the main answer and then getting into the details – or whether you’re doing the fact one, “A, B, C, and therefore…”, you are still using the pyramid to structure your thinking. It’s just a communication technique that you use to do top-down or bottom-up. Both are super powerful and it’s very useful to know these.
Coming to a couple of other communication tools that I’ve seen you use…I want to talk in detail about one communication tool, which is analogies. I’ve seen you in your communication use a fair bunch of analogies, and I’ll (attempt to) trigger some memories and maybe you can share those and talk about them. You’ve mentioned the importance of knowing not just how to win, but where to play. You used this analogy of a Badminton player versus a Table Tennis player. Would you mind taking us through that analogy once, and then we’ll talk about a few more analogies and how it works?

Toshan (56:50)
People always relate to analogies and they make any point extremely memorable. The point there was (that) where to play in life is far more important than how to play. The best airline will be nowhere close to the bottom decile pharma companies. Where to play matters. Your income generation is a function of which profession you are in, and then how good you are in that profession. People intuitively get this, but (something is still lacking). I had first looked at this analogy when I’d said “How much does Roger Federer earn?” and in those days, he’d earn 50 million dollars as prize money and endorsement income. Then he said, “Why does Federer earn so much?” Of course, because he’s a great Tennis player!
That “great Tennis player” mixes up two very important things: A – he’s a Tennis player, and B – he’s great at Tennis. How do you decipher the split between the two? It is analytically possible. Let us take the average income of the top person in the next five racket sports. You don’t count golf as a racket sport, but consider Table Tennis, Badminton, Squash, Lacrosse, and you see how much those people earn. Let’s say it’s 900 thousand dollars to a million, in those days. They said, “What’s the gap between a million and 50 million?” – just for the ease of mathematics– “what is that gap explained by?” and you say, “but Federer is so well-known! That’s why he earns so much.” But you cannot explain this gap unless you introduce a third variable.
Let’s look at Juan del Potro, who was the number 10 ranked Tennis player at that time. You said, “How much did del Potro earn?” – del Potro earned 15 million dollars.
The fact that Federer is great at Tennis, he’s so phenomenal at Tennis, people from all around the world come to watch him play Tennis, is only 3.2 times valuable. Because that’s the difference between del Potro and Federer. 15 million versus 50 million. But, more than 15 times is explained between what the number one guy of the other sports (earns) and what Juan del Potro is earning. The number one Badminton player – does he or she practice less? Do they have less discipline and commitment? Are they taking less efforts to become the best at what they do? No. It’s just that they are playing Badminton. Not many people like to watch Badminton; it may not be so popular. There could be many reasons. But you see that the 15 times earning potential is not because Federer is a great player. It’s because he plays Tennis. Only 3 times is because he’s good at Tennis. That’s the analogy.
Golf makes it even starker. In Golf, you have a caddy. That’s the person who carries your equipment, looks at the wind direction, sometimes uses the grass and says, “the wind is blowing this way and this is the speed of the wind, blah blah blah…”, and he’s teaching or guiding the Golf professional. There is a protocol or norm that the caddy earns 10% of the earnings of the person he is supporting. Interestingly, if you look at the caddies of people like Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, they are earning between 1.5 to 2 million dollars.

Ravi (1:00:58)
More than the top Badminton guys!

Toshan (1:01:00)
Exactly the point!
Think about this. Yes, to be a caddy to a top guy involves two things: first, you have to be with that person for 20 years. You don’t just suddenly start earning that much. And B – you hope that the person you are with actually succeeds to that elite level. There are 2 components. There is longevity of time to it, but most of the caddies will be in their late 30s or early 40s because you have to have grown with that golfing professional – even early 50s!
If I take a simplistic view, if I am the caddy to the best guy, I don’t have to work as hard and so on. I just have to be the caddy to the right person. And by the way, they are earning more than some of the best investment banker and CEOs, and so on! And what do I do? I carry your equipment. That’s the power of where to play.
Once I have said it in this form, nobody is ever going to forget where to play. That’s the power of analogies. The power of making something memorable – I have given some numbers like 50 million or 40 million; given some people to whom they can relate, there is Federer or McIlroy. They are all idols in sports.
I can take (and apply) that analogy to anything. The power of analogies is always to make it memorable to make the points stick. Otherwise, we forget so much of what we hear. If I am talking and there is a really important point, how do I make sure somebody never forgets it?

Ravi (1:02:43)
That’s a great point you’ve made – analogies make it more memorable. A tactical question here – when do you come up with some of your best analogies? There’s this one, and you talk about chess marathons, etc. Is it when you’re doing some activity, or when you forcibly think about it, or when you’re doing something else?

Toshan (1:03:05)
Great question. Both times, I think. If I know I have to make a phenomenal point that I want to stick, I’m always thinking about the best way to make that point. Is it saying it? Or telling a story and then deriving from it? And I know that in any meeting or conversation, there will always be 2 or 3 points that you want people to remember. Sometimes, analogies may not work. Sometimes it’s a fact, or it may just need pure, brute-force emphasis. “We cannot let focus on cash dwindle. Remember: we cannot let focus on cash dwindle.” And you make an acronym or something out of it; that is one part.
Secondly, one of the things is that I’m always reading a lot of books like stories, biographies; Even now, I have 7 books in front of me and I’m sure that when I read them, I’ll keep assimilating (information). Like, “This makes sense. Let me try and link something to it,” which happens subconsciously. When I actually want to make a point, I will figure it out and say, “This is how I should be talking about it to make people remember it.”

Ravi (1:04:30)
Another tactical question on that: When you read something and it triggers a thought about something you’re working on, do you then stop reading and note it down somewhere? Or do you just store it mentally?

Toshan (1:04:45)
I just store it, or if I am reflecting on a point and something comes up…for example, I have this book right now called The Escape Manifesto. It has this phenomenal first paragraph, “All our life we jump through hoops. Often without asking why. It’s easy to feel stuck – a small cog in a big machine. It doesn’t have to be like this. Don’t waste your life living someone else’s.” it’s a very powerful thing. I will keep thinking about it; cog in a wheel…am I living someone else’s life? If it makes me pause, I will keep thinking about it for some more time. When I am running or doing something else it will be at the back of my mind, saying, “Am I living someone else’s life? Am I a cog?” I keep visualizing the cog, the wheels turning, then it will stick. Then, I will remember the book. I will remember the amazing things the book is telling me, and so on. It’s linking one thing to another, and it stays.

Ravi (1:05:56)
You made a great additional point there, Toshan, which is when you’re running. I also try and do this. When I am doing any physical activity, whether cycling, or walking, I try and think about a problem. When you run or do any other physical activity, do you consciously make an attempt to not listen to something, whether it’s a podcast or an audiobook, or are you okay with doing that sometimes?

Toshan (1:06:21)
No. If you know Iron Man, which is a triathlon where you swim, cycle, and the third one is running. One of their rules is that there are no hearing accessories. You cannot use them. Why do they say that? It’s very interesting. I’m using a story to answer your question.
Iron Man says that the true Iron Man does not need to be distracted from the pain – mental and physical – that is being felt. In a normal marathon, you can put on AirPods or all kinds of things. You can listen to music and all. (But) Iron Man says no. You can always argue, “Come on! I’m finishing the same distance, right? The pain will be the same. My legs are to ache after I do 42 or 192 kilometers of cycling. How does listening reduce that pain?”
But their philosophy is – no, the mind is distracted by whatever you are listening to. We want you to focus on the pain. To me, I don’t have a hard and fast rule about whether I listen or not. Sometimes I listen; most times, I don’t. I think of problems for a very different reason. Not because I think I can solve them, but because that’s the only way I divert my attention away from the pain. What I’m doing is…Iron Man has a rule that I cannot listen to any external thing, but I can still listen to my own problem and think, “let me try and solve that.” When I am solving my own problem, I don’t focus on “Oh, I still have 7 more kilometers to go. Oh shit, my pace is X.” there is that whole thing about being concerned (as I run). Either there is external scenery around me which I try to get in to, but if there isn’t, then just thinking about some of these problems, or what I’m going to do for my next meeting, makes me forget the pain of the physical activity.

Ravi (1:08:37)
Very cool.
You talked about analogies as one way to make appoint stick in the audience’s mind. Another one you’ve alluded to, which I see you’ve used quite a bit, is the labelling of insights – giving it some sort of a mnemonic. There are a few you’ve spoken about; you talk about Telescope Microscope Management; the triangle of Time, Money, Health; you talk about FOTI, not just ROTI; maybe you can talk a little about one or two of these concepts and what they mean, and how you generate those and why they are useful.

Toshan (1:09:11)
I think that giving a sort of packaging to something, again, makes it memorable. I call it my ‘Tripod of Life’. It’s a very simple thing, I say Time, Money, and Health is the tripod of life. Early in life, you didn’t have money but your health is phenomenal. You’re young, your body can do anything, and you have a lot of time available on your hands, but you don’t have money. Late in life, you have money – hopefully, unless you’ve done stupid things – and you have time also, but you don’t have health. It precludes you from doing certain things in life and enjoying it. In your middle-age, you have money, some health, but you don’t have time because you’re always focused on the next professional thing. The question is – are we living life being imbalanced on this tripod? How do you balance the tripod at every stage? Because at each stage, balancing the tripod takes time and effort. You mentioned the FOTI-ROTI thing. People speak about Return on Time Invested, but I spoke to a lot of people and was like, how do you measure return? Because time is the only depreciating asset. Whatever you do, you’ll have less of it tomorrow. Money can appreciate; wisdom and knowledge can appreciate; my physical appearance can possibly still appreciate. My network of people I know can appreciate. But whatever I do, time will not appreciate. Until we learn how to go back in time or how to do all of that which quantum mechanics may do at some stage but right now we cannot. So how do I think about that time? Most people think of it as Return on Time Invested, but you may have amazing financial returns on time but there’s also fun – if you look back and say, “Was that time well-spent?”, oftentimes you won’t think of time well-spent as just returned – by the way, there’s another concept, LOTI, which is Learning on Time Invested. Sometimes you may not have fun but you’re learning for the mastery of something. So, I’m saying ROTI-FOTI-LOTI. If I’m having none of it, then my life is miserable and I really need to change something. If I have all 3, I’m coasting. I’m having returns, fun, and I’m learning a lot. It’s delightful.
Some of these come through reflection. You keep trying to draw synthesis. I think Steve Jobs had said you cannot connect the dots forward, you connect them backwards. When you say, “Why was this a failure?” you can say, “My time here was a failure because I was not enjoying all of these interactions. I was not having fun.” Then you can create that concept, and sometimes you can borrow concepts and say, “This is how Google would have done this,” or somebody talks about MAFA – Mistaking Activity for Achievement. I always imagine there’s a lot of ants running about doing stuff, and you feel very happy because you’re exhausted at the end of it; You have a lot of frequent flyer miles; I see in consulting or in corporate, people always say, “I’m very busy.” “What did you do?” “I had this meeting, then I have to travel and go there –” “Yeah, but what was the impact?” “Oh, but I’ve got 3 more meetings as an impact.” “No, no.” That’s mistaking activity for achievement.
From a professional standpoint, I feel that when more and more people start relating to a terminology, it starts making changes to what they’re doing.
Consider investment funds – I also look at investing in funds for corporate or my personal side, you are like a one-trick pony. The last fund only got one investment right, that’s why there was a return, but everything else failed. Now you know that you also need a way to start evaluating an investment. Is it a one trick pony, or not?
That’s why I think that some of these acronyms are not just for the jazziness of it. That’s just one part of it. But if you have a deeper meaning and you connect well with it, it sticks with people. The Elevator Test – I am very happy when people say, “What’s the elevator test answer” “Wow, good; interesting.”
In interviews – we always say, “Would he pass my Airport Test?” everybody knows what I’m saying, as opposed to asking you 5 questions. With the airport test, if I am on the same flight as you and it gets delayed by 3 hours, will I say, “Wow! I have 3 more hours with Ravi”? or will I say, “Shucks. Let me look around for the next bookstore, or let me put on my AirPods and say “Hey Ravi, I’m just going to meditate, so that I don’t have to talk to you”?
More and more people use it, and I think that if they are using it in the right context, it makes them more effective.

Ravi (1:14:51)
That’s great shorthand. These are thoughts or experiences we all have, but you give it that word or a phrase (that describes it aptly) and it just makes it easy and shorter for people to talk about.
You mentioned one interesting thing, Toshan, that some of these come to you upon reflection…do you have a periodic reflection practice, such as monthly or 6-monthly, or is it more that you try and do that when you get the time?

Toshan (1:15:20)
I do it periodically, also. But that’s more like on the year-end, (every) 6-months, (on) birthdays or anniversaries, because those are natural triggers for relationship reflection. An anniversary is a good trigger for relationship reflection. Birthdays are a good trigger for reflection about life and (the way) forward. The year-end is a good trigger for seeing what’s happening professionally. So, there are natural reflection times.
Conversations with people are a great way to reflect. You talk to so many people and they push you and you think, “Wow! This guy is doing something so cool.” Yesterday I went to a place called the Altitude Center, because I’m training for the mountains. If you live at sea-level, the only way you can train is if you wear oxygen simulation masks. There’s a documentary, 14 Peaks, where Nims Purja – who did all the 14 peaks (above 8,000 meters)

Ravi (1:16:20)
(It’s a) phenomenal (story)

Toshan (1:16:22)
He also went to the same place. I’m not saying I’ll do all 14, but to make it memorable, I’ve just told you that I go to the same place that Nims went to. It tells you that what I’m doing is I’m using the altitude center because I know that’s the only way I can train myself at sea-level to see how I can acclimatize myself to 7,000 meters.

Ravi (1:16:46)
It’s simulating the oxygen level of the peak.

Toshan (1:16:49)
Correct. My blood cells can make energy with lesser oxygen. I need that, because that’s my best chance (to check) at sea-level to ensure I can do well there. Now, while there…I met a lawyer who used to be a Corporate Lawyer, but who now does bee-keeping; apiary. I thought, “Bees?! What kind of thing is that?!” and he told me, “Bees are the best thing now on the sustainability dimension. Honeybees are required because they pollinate farms; they are a great source of nutrition…”
He told me about 15 things on bees. And what was more important was that this guy belonged to a Magic Circle law firm, which is the elite of law firms in the U.K. He left that, and he’s doing law on a part time basis as an advisor. He says, “I love sustainability. I’m approaching sustainability from the dimension of apiary.” That makes you reflect! It made me reflect on sustainability, diversity, and how he still does law – not full time – but he’s added his passion (to his career). It gave me so many thoughts.
When I do collisions with people from different backgrounds, because I know if I meet people from similar backgrounds it won’t throw up that many reflection(-provoking thoughts) for me. All of us are in the same boat. Yeah, it will be a cathartic conversation, where I may learn how to solve some part of my problem from the hack he’s going to share; some common success stories, miseries, so on. But, I think, you are the average of the last ten conversation you’ve had in terms of ideas. If you don’t meet people, where are your ideas coming from? Books – yes; reflection – very few of us will take out time to do Vipasana(meditative retreat) or that sort of thing. The next best alternative is to just go and meet random people who are doing crazy stuff.
I met this phenomenal journalist, Bradley Hope. He wrote this book called Billion Dollar Whale, and Blood And Oil: The Rise Of Mohammed Bin Salman. He is a journalist; a Pulitzer finalist, and now runs his own journalism company. (I was interested in) some of the interesting insights that he had from the field of journalism. I thought, “I should have coffee with this guy. He approaches geopolitics and business from a very different standpoint than I do.” I could never have gotten those insights by meeting a fellow corporate strategy person, banker, or consultant. It makes me a lot richer in my role, because now I know when I’m analyzing certain things that this isn’t the only way; what I understood from another journalist is – when the Wall Street Journal wants to go after you, how will they go after you? If you saw the whole German fraud that happened on Wirecard. Two journalists started digging deeper and deeper. What are the techniques that they used? Those techniques can help me figure out Forensics in an investment (context). Is this smelling right? What techniques does a journalist use when they profile you on social media? What are the snowballing interview techniques they use? By the way, journalists have some very provocative ways of doing interviews. It’s a very nice, poisonous chalice which they give coated as ice cream. How do they do it? It’s very interesting. We’d never use that in McKinsey; corporate lawyers would never use it. But journalists have this gut and I want to learn that technique. The only way to do it is to talk to them and understand what they do. That’s how we get my reflections and how I trigger more and more avenues for thought.

Ravi (1:21:18)
Absolutely fascinating, Toshan.
There’s a reflection coming to mind, which is…for knowledge professionals like you and I, I call it the 5Cs approach to become better. What are the 5Cs for me? The first C is Consume; you have to consume good stuff whether through reading, podcasts, or videos. 2 is Cerebrate, which is a slightly tricky word, where you reflect and think about what you consume. The 3rd is what you were alluding to, which is Confer or Converse with other people about what you did. The 4th and 5th are about the output side, where you Create either for internal consumption or external consumption, like a blog, podcast, videos, or any other form; and you Coach, which is, you teach. Teaching is when you really (comprehend what you’ve learned). I’ve rarely come across someone who doubles down on the conversation part. I know you consume like crazy; as you’ve mentioned, you read a lot; you think a lot. The conversation part is fascinating and I think it’s a great learning how you actively seek out these conversations and try to learn the best from what each person has to offer. I remember reading on your LinkedIn introduction that you try to have 52 conversations – one a week! You actually manage it. How do you find the time to do this? That’s incredible.

Toshan (1:22:42)
I think the issue is not about the time. A meaningful conversation can happen with anyone. I’ll give you a couple of examples. I was at a French restaurant, and the guy served me a drink and he had a leaf on top. I asked him, “Why do you put this leaf on top? I’m going to take it out and keep it aside. I’m going to drink the drink. If it was lemon inside, I understand. If it was an apple inside a Sangria, I understand.” And then I went on to explain how the flavour and aesthetics work, and we went on to discuss the topic of molecular gastronomy. He said that food is not consumed only in one sense, which is taste. Your brain starts liking it (multidimensionally). Smell is one; sight; touch. He said French cuisine is not all about the taste. Taste is just one aspect of it. You need to make sure that the patron is involved in it. He went on to tell me how different items are done. I thought, wow. There is a presentation dimension; there is a story behind a dish, he was saying how this comes from here and that from there, so on. Is that a phenomenal conversation for me Absolutely. I remember the guy now. He remembers me, because I was the only one in the restaurant who asked him a very casual question – why is the leaf on top? Because I was going to take it out. To me, it was a waste. The glass was beautiful, the drink color was good. Why do I need a leaf on top? To me, it was redundant. He took that to a very different level.
Let me tell you another conversation. I was conversing with a lady, her name was Ira Guha. We got connected by somebody and were just chatted. She is 30 years old and runs a start-up which does menstrual cups. I thought, interesting. I don’t know anything about menstrual cups. I barely know tampons and pads. She said there is a dimension of feminine hygiene to it and told me a lot about how girls are willing to talk about those items on social media platforms. I thought these are very personal, private things, but she said, “No. you have no clue about the next generation and how they think, what they’re willing to talk about, who their role models are.” Then she went on to talk about how their product is designed in Taiwan, was created by a Harvard innovation lab, and is sold in schools in Karnataka. She told me about what the challenges are in Karnataka districts, and issues with the film Padman.

To me, that was a very different kind of conversation. The Padman created awareness for pads, but the whole thing is that in villages, a pad has to be dried; they don’t want to dry it out, so they have to hide it, but then it doesn’t dry. It’s not serving the purpose it was serving, so awareness was created but understanding about the product (was not). (She talked about) how she’s lived the whole life from a rural woman’s standpoint and developed deep insights into the product. (Through this conversation about) menstrual cups (with a person like) me, (it led to me) understanding it (better). I got to know about what’s happening in rural villages; it helps me on my job side, and to understand social media and what the next generation is willing to be very open about. It was a breakfast meeting meant for me to help her with something, but it ended with her educating me on so many aspects of social media, rural areas, Harvard innovation labs. Now, I know exactly what Harvard innovation lab does; how people get funded by it, how people don’t get funded by it; it’s a very interesting (process).
I once asked an Uber driver to tell me about his 5 most interesting rides. The guy told me about a drug bust. I couldn’t believe him. He told me about the area and how he took an undercover cop (As a client) – these are things you only see in movies! I thought, (he’s just an) Uber guy, (but he said), “there’s so many interesting things I can tell you about.”
Some of the most interesting conversations happen (when you talk to seemingly ordinary strangers.) I asked a liftman once, as to what goes on in the lift. He said, “You won’t believe the amount of things people talk about in the lift. They just assume the liftman is invisible.”
Of course, I make it a point to be at some of the most important events. I was at Davos COP26 last year; I attended some of the breakfast events in different foregrounds and so on. It gives me a chance to (access some great conversations.) There are formal events, where you obviously get to talk to people because there’s an automatic curation – the people who are invited will always be somebody who has done something in life that you can learn from. But the common people that you meet around (you can also be gateways to fascinating stories.)
Since we started with the topic of my son’s school, I had gone to his school and I said to his art teacher, “I don’t think my son draws properly. He just draws some sticks and will show superheroes and supervillains fighting,” he doesn’t have a sense of colors or motifs and patterns and so on. She said, “Art is used by different people to express different things.” I said, “What?!” she said, “Your son is using art to express continuity. Art can be used as therapy for kids who aren’t able to communicate. Neurologists are now using art for certain things. There’s a degree being given by some art schools in France. Don’t judge your son’s art by saying the color combination isn’t right, or whether he looks at the boundaries and so on.” Both of us agreed that my son is never going to be doing anything in art. She said to me, “Don’t stop him from expressing himself. Expression and what it does for kids is very powerful. In art, they are free and it’s helping him be more creative and he learns to put pieces of life together when he’s doing his collages and so on.” I thought it was interesting. I always looked at whether he’s (just) scribbling or not scribbling, because his sister does phenomenal paintings, he doesn’t.
Some of these conversations only happen if you take an interest in it. Half the time I’ll be busy talking about my work or thinking about something else; I’m not really paying attention. It’s when I’m really paying attention to something or someone that the conversational spark happens.

Ravi (1:31:18)
This is fascinating, Toshan. I think your curiosity is completely off the charts. The ability to find gold in places where you’d not really (expect to do so, is fascinating.) Talking to a waiter, or a liftperson? One would probably never imagine talking to a liftperson. You’re inside the lift, you’ll immediately fish out your phone and think what you can do to pass time. To stop in the moment, be present and have those conversations…to not even have (prejudices) like “I’m XYZ person, I will only have conversation with a person of a certain level”; to not have any of those filters is phenomenal. There’s amazing stuff that we can all learn from that.
I want to pivot to the people that you have learnt a lot from in this skill of Storytelling and communication. Who are some of the people you look up to a lot, or think are phenomenal at what they do? And maybe (you could talk about) a specific instance you can think of, where you were really impressed.

Toshan (1:32:20)
Rajiv Lochan, the CEO of Sundaram Finance. He used to be a partner at McKinsey, and was the CEO of one of the newspaper groups in Chennai. Rajiv is somebody who I really admire for his storytelling and conversation. His benchmark would always be “What would make this person remember this meeting or conversation, five years from now?”

Ravi (1:32:50)
That’s a high benchmark!

Toshan (1:32:53)
Exactly. In five minutes or five days, (most things would be) forgotten. It was not always about every conversation needing to be that way, but his point was progress reviews or critical meetings; just think about it. If there is a fact you want a person to remember, there is an emotion you want the person to feel afterwards. What is that emotion? You want the person to feel guilty about not doing something; you want the person to feel ambition…it was a lot about thinking about the impact and impression (one leaves). I heard one of your podcasts where you were talking about a movie. A good movie is not about a hero who was the strongest, who went there and killed everybody else and lived happily ever after. It’s not a straight line; the hero was strong but was attacked and lost his power; you go up and down…what is this up and down? You’re playing with the audience’s emotions. Sometimes you’re motivated, courageous; sometimes you’re scared – what will happen next? There’s suspense. Deep sadness. Sorrow is such a powerful emotion in movies. Then you’re elated, you’re confused, you’re using a lot of emotions. Rajiv’s point was always to know what our aspiration is: how should a person feel at the end of this? What should he take away? Because when you start with that, you’re able to really make the meetings or discussions extremely memorable.
I really liked that.
Another person would be…I mentioned Nims earlier. I don’t know him personally, but what I really like about what he does is that he’s a great storyteller, but he also does it. There are many people who, after doing one thing, will just then become a motivational speaker (and not engage in activities themselves). One of my friends, his name is Nupur, is an Iron Man athlete and he’s a social media influencer in sports. He wears a T-Shirt that says, “You finished a marathon? How cute.” That’s what Iron Man athletes wear, because in Iron Man a marathon is just the beginning. Nupur has a lot of these abilities that I relate with Nims, because he tells the story, personalizes it, and also does it. I call it the inspiration-perspiration combo. You are inspiring, but also doing your own hard work which makes it very credible for me, at least. I can relate to him. It’s not just one shot of doing something. You’ve sold a start-up X years ago and sine then you’ve done nothing? It’s okay, these are choices. But to me, great storytelling is all about making it personal. I am living that life, I am able to connect my difficulties – people really love connecting on difficulties, because you connect on difficulties and inspire for success. That’s the kind of balance which I think makes for great people and great storytelling.
Often, I think leaders and CEOs are not necessarily great storytellers. People who practice become great storytellers, because you are known for your performance. You can do tough conversations; you can make tough decisions. Holding an enthralled audience is not easy. People say to great leaders sometimes, “Hey, I had met you. You had said this to me,” or “you had said that in that discussion.” There’s a lady, Arunima Sinha – a lot of my idols are also mountaineers – she was pushed off a train and she lost the use of her legs, but within a year and half of that, she climbed the Everest. She’s a phenomenal person, herself. She always ends with this Hindi poem which has stuck with me. Whenever I think, “Oh, a lot has happened.” And then (I think about) the poem. I won’t be able to say the whole thing, but the essence is that “abhi toh parinde ki asli udaan baaki hai. Abhi toh naapa hai samundaro ko maine, lekin pura aasmaan baaki hai,” “Abhi toh poora imtihaan baaki hai.” (The true flight of the bird is yet to come. I have measured the seas, but the entire sky is yet to be done.” “The true test is yet to be taken.”)
That poem has stuck with me. People are always like, “You’ve done so much. You were almost on your death bed, but you went and climbed the Everest!” So, she talks about all of that and says abhi toh parinde ka asli imtihaan baaki hai. My real test is still to come! I don’t know what’s going to happen.
To me, the way she does it is phenomenal. It’s who she is. I think great stories are also about who they are and what they say. That’s what inspires me.

Ravi (1:38:14)
Incredible story.
You mentioned leaders and how a lot of them need to be good doers and to be inspiring, but they may not always be able to enthral an audience. What should be a bare minimum goal for leaders in terms of this skill of storytelling? And what is something they should aspire to?

Toshan (1:38:40)
The bare minimum is being able to be very comfortable talking about what you believe in, your vision, or certain things that you and your company stand for. As a leader, especially in public life, people expect that from you. They expect you to talk to them and so you need to be able to articulate and make it so personal that people relate you to that cause. That’s the bare minimum.
The aspiration should be to leave people saying, “Wow.” If somebody can remember what you said 12 months from now, that’s aspirational. People talk about what Steve Jobs used to do at the annual Apple conventions, they looked forward to it because they knew he would do something new; he’d tell some story. Similarly, for Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Conference. The content that would come…Buffet would spend so much time on that content and on every letter to his shareholders; his letters are now books. People have almost done PhDs on it, because he’s given deep thought (to them).
I go back to the aspiration…it should be to spend enough time on a thought that is so distilled, that is your own, which you can communicate and relate to them. You shouldn’t just be saying it; you have to have lived it. You are able to relate to it yourself, and so can others. Not many people are able to do this. It takes efforts. “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” – the famous Mark Twain thing. I didn’t have time, so I wrote a long thing because I couldn’t distill it. If I had time, I could have written a shorter one. That should be the aspirational benchmark, I would say. Some people are naturally good at it, while others work really hard at it because they are tested. If you have to appear before the U.S. Senate, the CEOs really rehearse because they know that everything is going to be recorded; people are going to find 25 meanings in it. So, you better be good at it. When you’re doing press conferences, investor meetings…over time, these events become a normal thing for a CEO. They are very good at it. But how do you move from being good to being great? People say they want to do it only for this not just because it’s an investor call. These are coachable skills, and some people naturally do it, while others work hard.

Ravi (1:41:33)
While we talk about this as an important one, when it comes to these publicly lauded examples, we keep going back to Steve Jobs; Warren Buffet; Jeff Bezos, to some extent. There aren’t too many contemporary leaders whose names come very quickly to our lips. Any names that come to your mind?

Toshan (1:41:57)
We have a challenge there. There are people who are amazing at these things, but what happens is that sometimes a person will have been amazing for a period of time and then some event has happened which has nothing to do with that person’s storytelling, but that company has gotten into some trouble or some issue has happened. Then, it becomes difficult to say that enduringly that person has been doing a phenomenal thing. If you say Arun Jaitley was a phenomenal speaker, you can talk about him safely because it’s done and it’s in the past. There’s no resurrection possibilities there. But some of the speakers I like, on the Marathi front…There’s Vinayak Savarkar – Veer Savarkar – but there’s enough controversy that if I start talking about him and his speeches, there will be backlash. You need to be careful in public forums and media that when you give an example, that example needs to have stood the test of time. Time is not like a two-year thing, because somebody is great (one moment) and suddenly (it all falls down.) For example, Byju’s – phenomenal performance, but there was an accounting issue. Something else happens.
It’s the Superman effect. I am a great accountant, and I’ve succeeded, that doesn’t make me a great communicator. It doesn’t make me great at everything. We have this tendency to think that a hallowed leader is good at everything. (Which is) absolutely not (the case). When we say somebody I good, we aren’t able to stop singing praises of that person in that dimension. And if he’s bad, everything is bad. With Hitler, everything is bad. But his speeches – his oration ability, those were phenomenal. But if you say that, (people accuse you,) “You’re a Nazi!” “You’re a fascist.”
Everybody has good qualities; everybody has negative qualities. That’s why when it comes to great communication or storytelling – there’s people whose profession is (intertwined with) that, (so) they better be damn good at it. For celebrities, (being faced with the) media and cameras, (having to be) very cautious about every word is a core tool they use. They have to be doing it. Now, in corporate life, there are people who are very good but who may not publicize themselves. Middle Managers, for example. They are very good, but you won’t know that person.
So think about it – I have to tell you about somebody whom you know, I know, everybody knows; that person has to be good at storytelling, and should not be controversial. And that person’s actual performance needs to have been good for a decade or so. That bar is very high.

Ravi (1:45:05)
That’s a tough, tough bar.

Toshan (1:45:08)
That’s why Steve Jobs is safe. Apple is great; he is dead. We aren’t discussing whether or not he was a good father or husband.

Ravi (1:45:25)
In the 1990s, or 2005 too, Jack Welch was God. You could not say anything wrong about him, and now he has a very, very tricky legacy.
We are almost at the end of our time. I have just a couple of last questions before we wrap up our conversation, in terms of your consumption – reading, listening, watching, etc., I want to talk about books. What would be the one book you have gifted the most to to other people, and why? And two – I know you must be reading a lot of non-fiction stuff, but tell me about your guilty pleasure, whether on YouTube or reading something fictional, etc.

Toshan (1:46:16)
The second one is easier to answer. My guilty pleasure is reading, and it’s all fiction and mystery. I’m a huge fan of the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child; I’ve read all the Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes (novels). I’m into mystery, suspense, thrillers.

Ravi (1:46:37)
And you still read them?

Toshan (1:46:38)
Oh absolutely! I’ll still read them all again and again, variations of them, so on. In terms of watching…I Watch anything with superheroes like Marvel. I watch shit. When it comes to watching, I watch the most random things possible, as long as it has either suspense or action. I am not watching to get educated. I am watching with family, or binge watching something, just as my guilty pleasure.
A book which I would have gifted…I haven’t gifted books to people. My philosophy is that anybody who comes to my home can take any book I have, and not ever return it. I am also a book thief. I will go to somebody’s house and take a book and say, “Don’t expect me to return it. If you insist one day, and can find that book back from me, you can take it.”
If somebody were to ask me what book I would gift if I had to, then depending on the person, I might suggest a Bill Bryson book. He combines humour and deep thoughts in the best possible manner. There is a Marathi author, P.L. Deshpande. You are based in Pune, Ravi, and that’s where a lot of P.L. Dehpande’s (pieces take place). Some of the best Marathi books which I grew up with are Deshpande’s. He is called P.L. or Pu La in colloquial Marathi; His books would be something I suggest. The third one might be sports biographies, because I really think they are amazing in terms of what they do. The two I really like are Lance Armstrong’s Every Second Counts – Lance Armstrong is an amazingly controversial figure…

Ravi (1:48:59)
Despite the legacy?

Toshan (1:49:01)
Oh, yeah. I just think that what he’s done and the why or how cannot be justified, but his commitment…it was not as if he was the only one taking it; there were so many people – an entire team taking it – and he’s been open about how what he did was wrong, but many others were doing it. But the commitment to excellence…(consider) the bike. It’s not just the weight of the bike, but also about the massage gel you apply to it. That’s the kind of dedication you need (for excellence). Every Second Counts is phenomenal. There is another book of his, called It’s Not About the Bike. I like both of them.
There is another one, which is all about Muhammad Ali. A lot of books are written about him; he’s participated actively in some of them; passively in some. I think in today’s day and age, if Ali were alive, he would have 1.4 billion followers on Instagram – I’m talking billions! In his day and age, there was nobody before him or after him that has commanded the same (fame). It’s not chance. Ali was never just about boxing. If you look at his upbringing, his struggle…he stood up for what he believed in during the Vietnam War. He came back the hard way to go for his titles, and the resilience that he showed. There are so many (great) qualities (in his story). There’s a famous thing he says, “When do you start counting your push-ups? I don’t start counting till it pains.” – that’s a phenomenal thing!
His work ethic…there’s so many things (to admire). It tells you about the struggles of the Afro-American race which he symbolizes. There are so many things that an Ali book can do.
The third set of books I like are all about the brain. Deepak Chopra writes part of it; Oliver Sacks is a phenomenal neurologist, one of the greatest in recent history. A lot of his books tell you how we keep using the brain to do and learn new things. Tomorrow is Mental Health Day, I think, so I was reading some of those books. You told me about learning and curiosity, and I keep thinking about how one can maximize what you have. I would, depending on the reader, gift the books accordingly. Some people are fans of stuff like Atomic Habits, or very fast self-help books, or Ankur Warikoo’s Do Epic Shit. Depending on generations and how much time you want to spend reading and reflecting versus skimming and scanning, I would modify the gift.

Ravi (1:52:44)
I love that. There are so many great recommendations. This has been incredibly fascinating.
I got into this conversation thinking about how we’ll talk about McKinsey, approaches to problem-solving, the Pyramid Principle…and it was great to get into some of those elements, but you’re such a diverse and fascinating personality with so many curiosities and interests that it’s been fascinating. Two more hours could be easily spent talking about more such experiences, but I think we’ll close it here. It’s been great fun, Toshan. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast!

Toshan (1:53:27)
I just wanted to thank you for what you’re doing, because the skillset of conversations and storytelling is so often missed out, and if you really reflect on what makes for a good evening…there are good drinks and company, but it’s really good conversation. What makes for a good meeting? We started and will end with meetings; you really want the content of the meeting to be engaging, similar to sports. You’re sparring in a boxing match and at the end of it, everybody comes out saying, “Wow. We achieved something.” I just think what you’re coaching people for is such an important aspect. Nobody teaches us conversations. Over time, what am I paid for? I’m paid to take tough decisions, and to have great and tough conversations alike. I’m paid for that, because as you become more senior in life, you aren’t doing the coding; you’re not doing the analytics. You aren’t running around doing interviews and hard work. You’re paid for having the most effective conversations. You can go alone to some place, or you can go with people but if you’re not able to relate or talk, how are you really going to make the most of it? If you look back, the people you want to be associated with are really good conversationalists. So, I really thank you for taking this whole thing. We talk from the time we are born, but good conversationalists are really rare. There was a quote I read somewhere, which said conversations are like black coffee. Deep, and then difficult to sleep after.
Deep black coffee, don’t mix it with anything else, and then you won’t be able to sleep after it That’s what great movies, great conversations, great discussions are about. If people can work towards it, not only will they be effective professionally, they will just be a lot happier and a lot more content. Thank you, Ravi for having me on the podcast. I really enjoyed it. I hope I answered the things you wanted me to focus on and (did) not (trail off). That’s the thing about conversations. You know the start and end point, but how you get there is going to be very different.

Ravi (1:56:03)
It’s been fascinating learning. Thank you, Toshan.

And that was Toshan Tamhane, a clear-thinking leader with insatiable curiosity and remarkable communication skills.

A few things which stood out for me in the conversation

  • Be clear in your communication and ruthless in meeting discipline
  • Use relatable analogies to explain complex ideas 
  • Be curious! Every interaction is an opportunity to know more about the world. Even from liftpersons and cab drivers

If you find this content valuable, please rate and review this podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to them. It’ll help others like you discover these insights!

This podcast was hosted by me, Ravishankar Iyer. Audio editing by Kartik Rajan. Transcript editing by Amisha Jha and all-round support by Sanket Aalegaonkar.

Until next time, may the force of good stories be with you

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