The first meeting
I first met Subroto Bagchi while we were in Santa Clara on our Wipro Assignment at Intel in August 1990. I was a 28 year old computer engineer, immersed in the world of UNIX. It was our first experience in US, and Subroto had just been transferred from Wipro GE to take over as Wipro R&D’s Country Manager in the US. It was his first business visit, and during the dinner he hosted for us at some Indian restaurant in El Camino Real, we asked him for support on reimbursing training expenses for getting Driving Licence. He asked what is HCL’s policy on this. Immediately, an emotion surged up within me – why should we care what HCL does? And before it could find expression, Subroto continued, as if in anticipation: “I need to know that – it will help me convince others to do this.” Immediately made sense to me. His openness in explaining his purpose was probably the beginning of a lifelong journey of learning how he thinks.
The personal connect
Seven years later Subroto Bagchi was leading Wipro’s Six Sigma initiative spanning all businesses, and I was part of a privileged team listening to Motorola University’s “findings” on Wipro. Motorola University was hired as Wipro’s Six Sigma Coach and they did a survey of Wipro’s strengths and weaknesses, spending months interviewing and listening to Wipro personnel across businesses and locations. They presented nine strengths and 21 weaknesses. While the presentation was impressive, and I enjoyed the day, I chose to be critical when it came to filling up the feedback form. I wrote, “what have they revealed that we did not know ourselves?”
If leaders are open about their logic, they create not just harmonious teams but also faster learners.
Few days later, I got a call from the great man himself. He said, I have this feedback which seems like yours. Can you come and meet me? He sat at a different office, not too far – and I went over. He explained, “if I or anyone else present this, it will be difficult to convince. When Motorola University tells this, people will listen.” He revealed how his mind works and the design behind his methods just like the HCL query. Here was the do-er, yet so good a teacher that we often confuse him as a teacher.
Gandhi was a do-er, but not so successful a teacher, going by how quickly Independent India forgot his practices despite our overt obeisance to him. Tagore was a great teacher (and we are still inspired by him) but he was not a do-er.
Around 15 years later, Korn Ferry did an assessment of MindTree leaders and Subroto Bagchi himself was surprised when he was slotted as a Ninja. I guessed he expected to be a Coach – but even the greatest tools are tested with regular professionals who fit the slots. One of a kind leaders cannot be anticipated by the tool designers. The best leaders are experienced by those around them – and cannot be boxed into a category, which is what the best tools try to do.
Feeling and Empathy
Sometime in the middle of my career at Wipro, I was “Project Manager” responsible for working with Tandem, Austin on their Non Stop UNIX software. Tandem were world leaders in fault tolerance and Non Stop computing, and terms like 24by7 originated there. I was extremely dissatisfied with what was happening or not happening with my “Account” and I sent a long mail expressing my views. This led to a long and difficult meeting – and when I came out and reflected, it seemed to me I was complaining all along about Ashish Basu (my colleague in Austin, Texas) whenever Subrotoda asked me searching questions. I was extremely unhappy with my responses during the meeting as those was not my intent nor my plan. Along with an un-happening performance in business with Tandem, I did not want to spoil a good relationship with a colleague I considered a close friend.
I need not have worried.
I don’t know what Subroto Bagchi did after our meeting. But my professional dialogue with Ashish improved and matters at Tandem also moved faster and to our satisfaction. We became closer friends as well.
Ashish Basu was an admirer of Subrotoda. He once proposed a theory that Subroto Bagchi creates his own roles – and people who follow him find it difficult to replicate the magic. I started observing this hypothesis from this point onwards. He initiated Mission Quality and the Six Sigma Initiative in all of Wipro’s businesses, later he was Gardener at Mindtree, now he leads Skill Odisha. In all cases, you cannot separate the role and the man. And the act is difficult to replicate.
While at Univel (a joint venture of Novell and Unix System Labs), I was perturbed, rather hurt, by a customer comment. I called up Subroto Bagchi at Santa Clara (California) and expressed my feelings. He listened, did not tell much. I was lightened after sharing. The next morning, he calls me. He said “I could not sleep last night thinking about this”. I will talk to them. I said please don’t do that. By afternoon, the manager at Univel came over to me and apologised. It was a genuine apology. I was touched. And we became good friends after that.
One year later, I had returned to India for a vacation and then had an interview at the visa office. I did not like how they spoke, and gave my replies my way. When I don’t care for the outcome, I have the freedom to express!
I wrote down our conversation and presented it to Subroto Bagchi at Wipro’s Bangalore office. He said – we will take it up with them. Are you ok if you don’t go to US again?
I responded I have my belongings at the apartment at Austin. He said we will arrange, and I was fine.
Later, he gave up that idea – probably he decided that was not the practical course to take. I recall this story because I understood he had feelings like I do. And such understanding brings in a connect.
The beginning of a new chapter
One day in March, 1999, Subroto Bagchi gave me a call. He was then working in Lucent. Can I come over to his house in Diamond District? “Of course I can”.
That Sunday, he was ready with a 14-slide presentation. The content of that presentation is not important. What I gathered is he is starting a new company with a few others and can I join him? Of course!
He said I should take care of Knowledge Management. I did not know what was Knowledge Management and that did not matter. All that mattered was the opportunity to work with him. One more time.
Who else is with him? He said he will tell me later.
Did I have any more questions or concerns? I had. I have not been able to save any money so far, and I needed money every month. In a startup, one has to manage without a salary for a long time, as I understood. He assured me I will receive a salary every month. Whatever I am getting now, I will continue to receive.
That was it !
My Mindtree journey had begun.