Saturday, February 25, 2006

We must create great teachers: Azim Premji

I am very happy to be here with you this evening. It is my privilege to be among so many eminent Academicians, Vice Chancellors, Deans and Professors. To me, Manipal symbolizes what the power of Vision and spirit of enterprise can achieve. When Dr. T.M.A Pai decided to build a Medical College in Manipal, it sounded like an impossible dream to many. At that time, there was nothing here except barren land. Dr. T.M.A Pai was able to inspire a team of committed people to work with him and persevere in the face of all uncertainty and doubts. In the space of fifty years, he transformed Manipal by building professional colleges in medicine, engineering, nursing, pharmacy, management apart from schools and other college. Today Manipal University is among the largest universities in India.

As we look ahead, I can see a similar dream taking shape. This dream beckons our entire nation. According to the Goldman Sachs report, India could well be the world's third largest economy after the US and China in less than 30 years from now. In fact,

India could grow the fastest among all countries at an average 6 per cent, going past Italy, Germany and France in the 2015-2025 time frame and past Japan in 2032. Even post-2050, India may continue to clock some of the highest growth rates in the world. But the report also points out many challenges, which must be overcome along the way.

We need leaders like those present here to nurture the talent required to meet these challenges. I would like to share my thoughts on what is required to prepare the talent for the future. I would like to speak more from a point of view of a businessman and a person who has benefited from the talent nurtured by you.

Let us first look at the sweeping changes taking place in front of our very eyes.

First, the business space is changing at an exponential increase in velocity, complexity, unpredictability and hyper competitiveness in the global arena.

Second, all business including domestic business, is moving to a Customer led business space. Customers want more for less. That is an absolute global reality.

Third, the life span of differentiators will become extremely short. Entry barriers will be eroded by competition sooner than later.

Fourth, the need for transparency and Corporate Governance will become only higher. The cost of scandals will become unaffordable.

Fifth, newer and more stringent standards in quality and processes will keep everyone on their toes. Quality will be a passport for entry but not a license for continuing business.

Sixth, the expectations of employees will be on the rise. Performance will become more critical. At the same time, for high performing employees there will be many more opportunities.

Seventh, global business requires a global workforce with mix from all geographies. People processes and practices must straddle cross-cultural gaps.

Finally, there are some who predict that the entire nature of the organization will change. Rigid structures will give way to velcro-like relationships. Roles will become fluid. Organizations will be built around virtual teams that disband after the task is achieved.

What will be the qualities needed to succeed in this new world? These are issues of importance for institutions of higher education. First and foremost, we need the entrepreneurial spirit. Manipal has a great legacy to borrow from. Outside India, this spirit has been very evident in the IT industry. 35% of the start-ups in Silicon Valley are by Indians. We need to have similar risk-taking ability within the country as well. Entrepreneurs need more than technical talent, more than business savvy. What they need is the indefatigable energy and incurable optimism that enables them to take the road less traveled and convert their dreams into reality. It is a force that beckons an individual to pursue countless opportunities. Entrepreneurs must learn how to overcome the risk of failure, or of vulnerability. The institutions can give them valuable insights and also support them in this.

Second, there is no substitute to working hard. At one time there was a debate whether one should work harder or smarter. This debate has now become irrelevant. One needs to work both smarter and harder. My own work day has been elongating every year.

Third, encourage people to question status quo and develop the ability in them to see newer, different dimensions of the issue. They must learn how to make new connections to existing patters. Also, they should know how to present a different viewpoint without creating resistance or defense. Communication is the key.

Fourth, students must develop resilience. Adversity is part of the game. It is more like the bend in the road than the end of the road. But they must learn how to survive the rough patch without getting unduly disheartened. Resilience is a learned ability but depends on basic courage. It is also a function of the faith people have in themselves. In many ways, adversity provides the acid test that separates the leaders from the others. Dealing with failure and criticism is an important part of education.

Fifth, develop the ability to deal with ambiguities. There may never be clear black and white answers to all situations. Neither will we always have at our command all the data we need to make a perfect decision.

If you wait for perfect data, you may be too late to act. In the name of reducing risk, procrastination may actually increase it. One has to learn how to make a judgment on available facts and move ahead. In fact, the essence of managing is managing ambiguities.

Sixth, we must teach our students to develop a collaborative mindset and become team players. The challenges ahead are so complex that it will be imperative to work as a team. Teaming with others is as important as individual strength. You cannot fire a missile from a canoe. Unless you build a strong network of people with complimentary skills, you will be restricted by your own limitations. Globalization has brought in people of different origin, different upbringing and different cultures together. Ability to become an integral part of a cross-cultural team will be a must for success.

Seventh, create life long learners. One could never afford to stop learning. Many technologies become obsolete even before the textbooks describing them get printed. Keeping up to date has never been so challenging. But apart from learning from books and articles one must also learn from experience. That means that we must constantly reflect on our experiences. We must learn not only how to keep looking at others through a window but also look at ourselves through a mirror.

Finally, we must create great teachers. To me, it is one of the noblest of all professions. The best thing about teaching is that it is the best way to learn. I remember this story of a CEO who did not think highly of the teaching profession. He kept on reminding other guests at the dinner that: "Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach."

To corroborate, he said to another guest: "You’re a teacher, Susan. Be honest. What do you make?" Susan, who had a reputation of honesty and frankness, replied: "You want to know what I make?"

"I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could. I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor and an A- feel like a slap in the face, if the student did not do his or her very best. I can make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall in absolute silence. I can make parents tremble in fear when I call home."

"You want to know what I make?"

"I make kids wonder. I make them question. I make them criticize. I make them apologize and mean it. I make them write. I make them read, read, read. I make them spell ‘definitely beautiful,’ ‘definitely beautiful,’ and ‘definitely beautiful’ over and over and over again, until they will never again misspell either one of those words. I make them show all their work in Math and hide it all on their final drafts in English.

"Elevate them to experience music and art and the joy in performance, so their lives are rich, full of kindness and culture, and they take pride in themselves and their accomplishments. I make them understand that if you have the brains, then follow your heart … and if someone ever tries to judge you by what you make, you pay them no attention."

"You want to know what I make? I make a difference."

Let me acknowledge the tremendous difference my teachers have made in my life. We are among the few to be fortunate to have received the educational opportunity we did. It is our turn now to repay the society at large. I firmly believe that those who are talented and have a talent for teaching must teach. Education is a magic wand that can transform the burden of a large population into unimaginable competitive strength. Education is the only guarantee we have as a nation for the future.

The above is an address by Azim Premji, Chairman, Wipro Corporation at the Leadership